A Scarily Accurate Portrait of a Catholic Schoolgirl’s Sexual Awakening
Karen Maine’s new film explores the coming-of-age of a Catholic schoolgirl (“Stranger Things” star Natalia Dyer). And it’s pretty spot-on.
Growing up in Christian spaces, I heard all types of bad analogies and gender-essentialist arguments about human sexuality—but none like the one I heard at my Catholic high school. In an unofficial sex ed course, we received a lecture from a teacher on the sacredness of female virginity. He spoke about the confined nature of female genitalia, comparing a vagina to a cave and virginity to treasure. He said that the interiority of a woman’s genitalia compared to the exteriority of a man’s signified a special need for privacy and protection. Girls had to be careful about who they let inside their “caves”—ideally only their husbands—but boys, by nature, would end up sticking their penises wherever they wanted.
I was transported back to this particular moment watching an early scene in the new coming-of-age film Yes, God, Yes in which a priest uses a similarly ridiculous metaphor about kitchen appliances to differentiate between the ways boys and girls get aroused. “Guys are like microwave ovens,” he states matter-of-factly. “And ladies are like conventional ovens. Guys only need a few seconds, you know, like microwaves, to get switched on. Ladies—they typically need to preheat.”
Female sexual desire as an idle, passive experience is one of the religious notions Obvious Child co-writer Karen Maine debunks in her semi-autobiographical film about a Catholic, Midwestern teenager in the early 2000s. Alice, played by Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer, finds herself in a spiritual crisis when she discovers masturbation one evening on a dirty AIM chat with a stranger. Her increasing desire for self-pleasure is countered by judgmental remarks from her prudish best friend and messages from school faculty that pre-marital sex in any form leads to eternal damnation (not to mention the whole conventional oven thing). But when a male classmate spreads a rumor throughout the school that she “tossed his salad,” her need to become sanctified—or at least appear that way to her peers—becomes more urgent, leading her on a rather clumsy but heart-warming spiritual—and sexual—journey.
To save face (and possibly her soul), Alice attends a four-day retreat organized by her school called Kirkos. If you attended a Jesuit high school, you’ll immediately recognize Maine’s fictional version of the real-life Kairos retreat, built around the the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. From the gold-cross pendant that looks like a waffle to the Christian contemporary music playlists to the forced self-reflections that comprise most of the itinerary, Maine precisely captures the experience of the retreat in all of its sentimentalism and self-seriousness.
Admittedly, it’s not the most thrilling setting for a coming-of-age sex comedy since the retreat is so focused on inwardness and self-discipline. We don’t see a whole lot of teens-being-teens in this film. But there’s still so much fun to be had through Alice’s character as we watch her fall into her own series of shenanigans, like lusting after her senior crush (and his hairy forearms), discovering the vibration setting on her Nokia phone, and engaging in cybersex on a parish-owned computer.
Yes, God, Yes may remind viewers of the 2010 teen comedy Easy A, that sees Emma Stone play a virgin who allows her male classmates to claim they had sex with her for compensation. When her business makes her the despised school slut, she frantically turns to the Catholic faith for counsel and redemption. Unlike Easy A, which ignores the conservative ideas of sexuality it depicts in favor of a rather boring message about truth and misconceptions, Maine’s film castigates the ideological systems that punish young people, mainly girls and queer people, for enjoying their bodies and all of its natural abilities.
As I mentioned earlier, Yes, God, Yes astutely counters traditional beliefs that female sexuality is gentle and passive. It’s easy to imagine a film like this, particularly during the height of pop-feminist movies and television shows, settling for a one-dimensional portrait of female sexual desire as an innately benevolent thing. Instead, Maine depicts female sexual desire as an impulse that has to be grappled with and controlled in the same ways as men, especially when other people are involved. For example, there’s a scene when Alice crosses a boundary with her extremely devout senior crush and has to apologize later on in the film. It’s rare that we see unwanted sexual scenarios where the girl or woman is the aggressor, but Maine understands the capacity that all people have to mismanage their sexual urges.
The most compelling part of Yes, God, Yes is Dyer’s solo work—and I don’t mean that in a cheeky way. We see the breadth of Dyer’s capabilities as an actress in moments where she’s alone on screen conveying authentic expressions of curiosity, disgust, horror and excitement. It’s refreshing to see the wide-eyed, exuberant actress in a leading role written by a woman as opposed to the limiting, male-focused material she’s given as Nancy Wheeler on Stranger Things. I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie makes Dyer a go-to white actress, along with Saoirse Ronan, Beanie Feldstein and Florence Pugh, for emotional, character-driven stories about young women.