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How 'Easy A' Bridges the Gap Between 19th-Century Morality and 21st-Century Teenage Reality

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

The Scarlet Letter is one of those books we are not supposed to study but are still expected to have read, like Lolita or even The Color Purple.

Although this book from 1850 was not deemed suitable for teenage readers, it was considered acceptable for a romantic comedy adaptation.

While Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel has inspired numerous adaptations and interpretations throughout the years, 2010 teen comedy-drama film, Easy A, cleverly reimagines Hawthorne’s tale within the context of contemporary high school life.

While Easy A maintains the core theme of community judgment and sexual morality, it also delves into the evolving role of young women in society and the use of cultural references, particularly cult movies, both to frame and convey its narrative, and to give the appearance of breaking the fourth wall.

This so-called “fourth wall” in film theory is the decide between audiences and characters. To break this, put simply, is when the character(s) addresses the audience directly, breaking that boundary.

Both the book and the movie tackle the complex and often contentious issue of female sensuality in the eyes of the world. It’s almost fascinating how a novel set in Puritanical Massachusetts in the 17th century and a 2010 witty rom-com set in a Californian high school might have anything in common.

In Hawthorne’s novel, the main character, Hester Prynne, is condemned for her extramarital affair and forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” – as in adultery – to mark her “shameful actions”. 

For more context, Hester becomes pregnent while her husband is considered to be lost at sea, and refuses to give out the father’s identity.

Similarly, Olive Penderghast, played by Emma Stone in Easy A, becomes embroiled in a web of rumors about her supposed promiscuity, and she voluntarily embraces the label by embroidering a red “A” on her clothing. 

The thing is – and the difference between the two protagonists – that Olive only pretends to have had sex and to be involved with numerous boys.

The two narratives explore the double standards and moral judgments that women face when it comes to their desires.

In the text, Hester is ostracized and condemned by her community, highlighting the rigid moral standards of Puritan society. 

Easy A transplants this concept into a modern high school setting, illustrating how gossip and perceptions can shape one’s reputation, mirroring the harsh judgments faced by women in both historical and contemporary contexts.

The film aims for the viewers to question these judgments and consider the consequences of expectations on women’s autonomy over their bodies and choice. 

This way, the movie delves into discussions about the lack of sex education (like dropping a bunch of condoms on a student), predatory relationships (between a student and a school counselor), STDs (caused by the same counselor that did the other two things) and even homosexuality still seen as a sin in the 21st century – I must admit, I still find the “Moby Dick” reference funny.

Easy A expands upon the theme of female agency introduced in The Scarlet Letter. 

Olive’s decision to embrace the rumors about her carnal exploits and her profanity is a bold assertion of autonomy over her narrative. In doing so, the film challenges traditional notions of women’s purity and virginity, empowering the protagonist to define her own identity in the face of societal scrutiny.

This modern reinterpretation reflects our world’s ongoing struggle with redefining and liberating women from historical constraints. Although the book was set four centuries ago, and the movie was released almost fiteen years back, these views still stand today.

Both Hester and Olive were more astroized for being sexualy active than for actual unfaithfulness.

A distinctive aspect of Easy A is its clever use of references to cult movies, a technique that enhances the film’s narrative and makes the audience understand more of Olive’s personality. 

She is a bit of a nerd, in the most wholesome way. Olive sees the world through the lens of old romance movies and classic books, and she teaches us how to do that as well. The director of the film, Will Gluck, made us feel like we were friends with Olive.

And here is where that fourth wall comes into place. From the start of the film, up until the last minutes, it feels like Olive is talking to us, the audience. She is both the subjective narrator and the protagonist, letting us to live the same experiences as she does. Only after, at the end, we find out that she was retailing the story to a web camera, for her peers to see.

The protagonist draws parallels between her situation and classic literary and cinematic works, using them as a lens through which to understand and navigate her own experiences. 

This meta-commentary not only adds depth to the storyline but also emphasizes the enduring relevance of cultural references in shaping our perspectives on issues like the already discussed sensuality.

Easy A successfully transforms Hawthorne’s 19th-century narrative into a modern exploration of women’s eroticism – especially the young ones – and the norm people are expected to see fit. By weaving in references to cult movies, the film engages audiences and highlights the timeless nature of the issues it addresses.

Through the lens of Olive Penderghast, Easy A invites viewers to reflect on the changing perceptions of women in society and the impact of cultural references on shaping contemporary narratives. 

In this way, the film serves as both a homage to The Scarlet Letter and a relevant commentary on the ongoing evolution of collective attitudes towards female sexuality.

While we may not learn The Scarlet Letter in school, we are taught to hate teenage girls for their sexuality.

Edited by Emily Duff

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