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« In Which We Encourage The Rehabilitation of Hester Prynne »

You Were Romeo, I Was A Scarlet Letter


The summer between sophomore and junior year of high school, I didn’t stay in good touch with my school friends – all we had was AIM, and it was kind of a hassle. You couldn’t have an away message up and talk to people. It all seems long ago.

A girl I had been very good friends with sophomore year came back on a mission: to be the kind of girl with whom I wouldn’t be very good friends. She begged the coach and summarily became the varsity basketball manager in the winter, and it leaked into public knowledge that she was having sex with various team members; I tended to find out a few days after the fact each time she met up with a guy off MySpace at some concert in Hartford, the nearest small city.

I lost track of her, which was hard to do in a class of one hundred. She hardly became infamous, or popular; besides her new black-tipped French manicure, nothing had changed. She had never been a part of the school’s mainstream to begin with. Her time had been spent with the school’s gay kid, watching The Real World/Road Rules Challenge; now it was spent in pursuit of a nebulous goal.

Either way, she was making a choice that seemed vaguely socially destructive but, finally, not worth remarking upon. For the kind of kids at my school who actually looked like Emma Stone and Penn Badgely, there were more pertinent dramas.

I thought of my old friend during Easy A, the new teen film loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, following in the footsteps of Clueless (Austen) and 10 Things I Hate About You (Shakespeare) and She’s the Man (ditto) and Mean Girls (ditto once more, in that moment when Lacey Chabert threatens to “totally kill Caesar!”).

Stone, who comes across like a less lip-bitey Lohan, plays Olive, who takes inspiration from the novel she’s reading in English class (guess which one!) and puts together a wardrobe of Frederick’s of Hollywood-y lingerie and a big red “A.” In some oblique way, the outfits are meant to simultaneously rebut and encourage the salacious rumors about Olive’s sex life.

Before getting into the intricacies of the plot, which is seriously twisty for a teen romp co-starring Amanda Bynes, let’s talk for a moment about Hester Prynne! The film recaps the plot of The Scarlet Letter, which helped me and surely helped the BBMing teen contingent sitting to my left, but it mentions only briefly the fact that Hester, Olive’s inspiration, gives birth to a child, Pearl.

Pearl is a major character – the major character, maybe! – in the novel not merely because she’s the only one who consistently speaks in a forthright and honest manner (the manner that passed down to Olive’s generation), but because she’s the physical symbol of Hester’s rebellion. Hester can withstand the “A” – it’s not exactly news to anyone – but Pearl is the true punishment.

Hester has dragged another person into her ostracism. Her actions changed her life irrevocably – the wardrobe change is as surface as it seems. Olive, on the other hand, suffers no such consequence, perhaps because she’s committed no crime besides being a teenager, and in a teen movie.

Easy A takes place in that weird Gossip Girl netherland where people hear a rumor, then immediately break into a dead sprint to tell the nearest interested party, which is to say, literally fucking anyone. (Was high school like this? I thought gossip happened more incidentally.)

As such, the rumors about her wild sex life spread throughout the school in about two minutes of screen time, and it’s not long before she’s decided to sew a scarlet letter on her clothes – a choice Hester had forced upon her. I guess there’s some point here about how what used to be private and embarrassing is now willfully public, but this is neither a review of Catfish nor The Social Network.

Easy A has the same relationship with The Scarlet Letter that a Silly Band shaped like a hot dog has with actual food. It’s all signifier and no signified. Its arguments about the ease with which rumors spread is well-taken, I guess – the movie pauses to allow Thomas Haden Church a soliloquy on how dumb Facebook status updates are, and the teenagers in the house all laughed, and I felt old because I’d had that conversation in like 2007 – but, if it’s like any text, it’s like the song “I Kissed a Girl."

Olive is allowed to seem like a bad girl because she’s insouciant and wry, but she never does the deed. She’s as much a slut at any point as Katy Perry was a lesbian in 2008. Further, the “A” represents, maybe, the grade she wants in English, because she’s scrupulously a “real” virgin and even the worst rumors about her don’t indicate adultery. It’s a merit badge, not an identity.

The actual adulteress in the movie, Lisa Kudrow’s guidance counselor, is allowed a few shrill and aimless words in defense of herself, before being told off by Olive and her husband, and exiting the frame. There is no room for Hesters here.

In that summer between sophomore and junior year, I learned to drive, I worked at a camp, and I did the AP English reading, which included Hawthorne. It never occurred to me to draw any parallels between his novel and what happened later on in the year, mainly because my friend’s rebellion didn’t seem like a big deal at the time – I’d changed schools more than once, and I knew friends drifted apart. I remember I wrote in my essay on the novel that one can choose “the town or the country” – the quest for acceptance or splendid isolation.

As Olive puts it to her own gay pal, "You either do everything you can to blend in, or decide not to care." I didn’t realize, then, and wouldn't until college, that there is a third category, of caring, so very hard, about not fitting in, that such hard work at spiky oddity is so often actually standing in for “deciding not to care.” It’s tiring work, this attempt to distinguish oneself. The film about Olive comes to an end when she turns off the webcam. The movie has taken the form of a live web feed of her bedroom, in 1996’s notion of 2010.

Her adventures after the film are the stuff of other tales: unlike Hester, whose very grave is marked with “A,” she’s able to reinvent herself with the push of a button. After high school graduation, my old friend transferred colleges a few times: Facebook tells me she’s in a relationship of long standing with a woman and has been working at Starbucks for more than a year. She got rid of the manicure; she has pictures with her cat. There’s nothing to judge, no gossip to be had, here: I’m happy for her.

Daniel D'Addario is a contributor to This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about his time working in England.

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