In a world where nostalgic ‘00’s obsessions dictate the trend cycle, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that we have also come full-circle on the raunchy sex comedy. From tattoos in unmentionable areas to naked fistfights, 2023 has given us much in the way of the smutty and outrageous onscreen so far. That the most notable of these films are female-led, though, is cause for some celebration.
No Hard Feelings, starring Jennifer Lawrence, is about a thirty-something woman hired by an awkward teen’s parents to get him laid. Joy Ride, about four raucous Chinese-American women and their sexual adventures across the homeland, features full-frontal male and female nudity. And Bottoms, a queer high school sex comedy lampooning every old trope of those films, is a cult classic in the making. All have landed at a time where laughing about sex can seem strange, but perhaps also necessary.
The sex comedy is a subgenre that saw its heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s, regularly bringing in millions at the box office with films from There’s Something About Mary and American Pie to the 40 Year Old Virgin. Their plots typically revolved around dudes trying, and often hilariously failing, to get laid. Suffice it to say that a lot has changed in the generation since, not least our attitudes toward gender, sex and sexuality. That’s not to say we don’t still laugh at them – if anything, some of these films, which would have been pilloried only a few years ago, seem to have been rediscovered, finding new appreciation in pockets of the internet. But for a long time, it seemed as though the genre had mostly been discarded by Hollywood as a cringe relic from the past.
For better or worse, I came of age at the same time that the sex comedy reigned supreme. Made pre-#MeToo, with the unmitigated goofy juvenilia of teenage boys, these films could be both funny and unsettling. At worst, there’s Shallow Hal (2001) and its rampant fatphobia. The movie’s creators, the Farrelly Brothers, were also behind hits like There’s Something About Mary and Me, Myself and Irene, and there have been many critiques of their treatment of disabled people onscreen. And let’s not forget American Pie’s secret webcam scenes, in which Shannon Elizabeth’s character Nadia is filmed in sexual situations without her consent. A loose trajectory of the sex comedy – at least in its modern iteration – might start us off at Porky’s (1981), in which a crew of boneheads go to a redneck strip club to try and lose their virginities. That film laid the groundwork for a dick-obsessed, voyeurism-laden view of sexuality, where women are objects to be conquered. Not exactly full of laughs for a modern audience.
As such, if filmmakers are putting the old sex comedy in a more progressive Gen Z blender, it’s certainly welcome. The recent death of the sub-genre is not surprising given the current cultural weirdness – and understandable caution – around depicting sex and sexuality onscreen. In a decade or so of precipitous change around trans rights, wider social acceptance of gender identity, #MeToo, sex positivity and the dreaded movie sex scene discourse, writers and filmmakers might struggle to find anything funny in the serious navigation of what’s right, wrong, sexy and comfortable for everyone.
A few exceptions – the genuinely funny Neighbors (2014), for example, or Blockers (2018), in which overprotective parents set out to keep their teen daughters from losing their virginity on prom night – play with the old tropes and modernise them in so doing. That also seems to be the project of the makers behind the films released this year: each gives a female-driven twist to the traditional story, allowing them to be as raucous and sexually ravenous as men, albeit with varying degrees of success. And, of the three sex comedies released this year, two were written and directed by women – Bottoms was helmed by queer filmmaker Emma Seligman while Joy Ride was directed by Adele Lim.
Seligman’s previous film Shiva Baby (2021) – a sort of social anxiety horror-comedy about a well-off young Jewish woman sugar baby-ing her way through school – had already distinguished her as a filmmaker with a clear interest in female protagonists that are neither straightforwardly likeable nor sexually shy. And that same spirit runs throughout Bottoms, which also stars Rachel Sennott.
“I really just wanted to see superficial, horny, messy teenage girls who happen to be queer,” Seligman told The Hollywood Reporter about Bottoms. It’s a film with as much violence as sex, focusing on two unpopular girls at school, PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri). Lesbians and virgins both, the girls decide to form an after-school fight club in an attempt to impress some hot cheerleaders and tempt them away from hierarchical, hetero, football-obsessed high school politics. In its heightened, no-adult-supervision world, they give the jocks a run for their money when it comes to scoring chicks. But does that make them any better than the guys in the end? As Seligman suggests, elaborate harebrained schemes to trick someone into sex are never really a great idea, no matter how often they’re the major premise of a sex comedy.
No Hard Feelings does its damndest to mine humour from a similar scheme, albeit one where the protagonist (a female loser, to rival all the men typically in these roles) has been hired by parents to do so. It acknowledges the absurdity of the age gap and the sexual power imbalance, but with a gooey heart at its centre, it comes off tonally strange and uneven. Although it’s a project with lots of verve and a brilliant Jennifer Lawrence, who is to be commended for her courageously physical performance, there are simply not enough laugh-out-loud jokes.
Joy Ride has its moments but also fares badly by comparison to the less PC but frankly funnier sex comedies. It attempts to take the gutter humour of a film like Girls Trip (2017) a step further into crudeness, joking about STIs and vagina tattoos, but its haranguing representation politics feel at odds with its overall goofiness. That women of all races and backgrounds should get an opportunity to be in horny dumbass movies is an inalienable right as far as I’m concerned, but it may be that both of these films have an earnest streak for over-correction that slightly spoils the air of goofy fun they should have. While the desire to level out the playing field is completely understandable, the first gen of female-led, sex-positive comedies run the risk of straining a bit too hard for raunchy yet empowered laughs.
But even if they don’t always land, the rise of the female-driven sex comedy is fascinating to observe. As the landscape around sex has changed so drastically in recent years, it only seems fitting that comedy as well as drama tackle it from new angles. If the sex comedy has always revealed a discomfort around gender relations, female bodies and consent, films like Bottoms blast through whatever macho existing tropes exist. And even lesser films like it are worthy forays into letting women onscreen be as dirty and as silly as they like.