American Pie 20 years

'American Pie' and the Future of Sex Comedies

As the seminal gross-out film hits its 20th anniversary, a key scene is no longer quite so funny


Though I had somehow avoided watching American Pie for the last 20 years, I could never escape its most famous catchphrase. The teen-sex comedy came out when I was 9, but by middle school, I hung out with plenty of band geeks excited for their extracurriculars to be immortalized in such a famous, if forbidden, film. By high school, enough of my friends had seen and referenced the movie that I was vaguely aware Jason Biggs has sex with a pie, but of few plot points beyond that. 

In honor of the movie's 20-year anniversary, I decided it's time to finally watch what is considered, if not exactly Citizen Kane, an essential piece of late 1990s culture, a kind of precursor to all the more nuanced—or at least more explicit—teen comedies that would come after. And for about half the film, it delivered exactly what I thought it would: gross gags that honestly seem more junior high than high school, teenage guys wearing oversized jeans and shirts so big I thought they might get lost in them and a more than decent selection of '90s alt songs. And then I hit the sex crime.
The sex crime, if you haven't watched the movie in a while, happens when high school senior Jim (Jason Biggs) invites his classmate, foreign-exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), over to study after her dance class and offers up his room for her to change. Encouraged by every one of his friends—without a single question about the legality or morality of videotaping someone underdressing without their consent—he sets up a webcam that then streams live to whom he thinks are just a few friends, but in one of several "funny mix-ups" folded into the sex crime, is actually emailed to the whole school.

It's possible to argue that, a few months before Law & Order: SVU premiered and when tech was so old-school that "double-clicking the mouse" was used as slang for masturbating, Jim and Co. would have had no way of understanding the full implications of streaming a naked woman without her consent. Perhaps he just perceives it as being a Peeping Tom in the late 20th century (although it's important to point out, being a Peeping Tom is illegal, too).

We should talk about the many different ways we can teach teens about consent, and the steps Hollywood has taken to make sure teen comedies are full of awkward, uncomfortable moments—not sex crimes.

The moment is brushed off in multiple ways—Nadia begins to masturbate, topless, to Jim's porn, suggesting she's the kind of sexually adventurous girl who wouldn't mind being filmed without her knowledge (this is not a thing). And Jim finishing too early to start, while still being taped, turns him into the humiliated party (his embarrassment does not erase what he did to Nadia). When he later mentions that Nadia left school, and the country, when she realized what had happened, it's framed as Jim's failure to get and keep a girl, rather than a girl fleeing the school where she had been the unwilling participant in streaming porn.

There's a College Humor video that compiles the "hilarious pranks" filling '80s movies that today's audience recognize as sexual assault. While those movies could seem far away enough to be condemned as sexist relics from a bygone era, the last movie from the American Pie saga came out seven years ago. This is a successful franchise that puts a bow on the "teen guy streams girl undressing without her consent" story line by having her video chat with him during the credits, with him doing an awkward striptease for her. Just the kind of playful, joking relationship you always maintain with the guy who essentially bugged your dressing room.
American Pie can seem at times cartoonish in its portrayal of horny teenage guys desperate to get laid. Some of that is its age, and some of it is its position as a kind of forefather of every teen comedy that has come since. Still, the film isn't without its pieces of charm. Natasha Lyonne, playing the role she continues to play today—straight-talking best friend who isn't ruffled by anything, but maybe there's a little pain just beneath the surface—is incredible, as always. It's easy to see how effective the expectation flip of the shy band geek being more comfortable with sex than the sex-obsessed guys would have been before that aforementioned catchphrase, "This one time, at band camp," was stamped on every other T-shirt. Plus, there's a completely unnecessary and unexplained pet monkey in a scene that seems like one of the quirks of late '90s cinema that should truly be appreciated.

But in the end, none of the details or performances or slang terms introduced by the film (you can thank American Pie for, at the very least, the popularity of "MILF") matter. The movie's legacy shouldn't be a vague sense of discomfort around Thanksgiving dessert or flutes. When we talk about American Pie, we shouldn't talk about band camp. We should talk about the many different ways we can teach teens about consent, and the steps Hollywood has taken, and hopefully will continue to take, to make sure teen comedies are full of awkward, uncomfortable moments—not sex crimes.


Molly Horan
Molly Horan
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