"I'm Just Fresh...Virginal Like the Day I Was Born!"

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Yesterday I watched the most beautiful/heartbreaking/infuriating old movie called Splendor in the Grass. If you haven't seen it, I'm about to spoil it for you.

Basically, a teenage girl (Natalie Wood) and her boyfriend (Warren Beatty) are madly in love and in lust with each other. The guy wants to have sex with her; the girl wants to have sex with him too, but she won't because she's been raised to be a "good" girl. The guy realllly loves her, and wants to marry her, but his father is against it because he wants him to go to college first.

When he confesses to his father that he feels he is literally going nuts trying to make sense of his raging hormones and all the expectations on him, his dad tells him to find the kind of girl who will sleep with him until he reaches a time when he will be ready to marry his love.

Meanwhile, Natalie Wood's character confides in her mother as well that she doesn't know what to do about her feelings for her boyfriend. Her mother tells her nice girls don't like sex the way men do and even admits she only capitulated and agreed to sleep with her husband because she wanted children...

Caught between his libido and his father's bad advice, the boyfriend gives up and dumps the girl; and starts dating/sexing around. The girl, who was raised to believe her virtue would net her love loses it, literally. She chops off her hair, throws herself at her ex (who rejects her because she is a nice girl and doesn't want to be the one who spoils her), and eventually unravels, ultimately landing in an art therapy asylum.

While she spends the next two years recovering her mental health, he flunks out of Yale and meets the Italian daughter of a local pizzeria owner, marries her, has a baby, and becomes a rancher. She too meets a guy at the recovery center who proposes and she agrees, though, before she does, she needs to see her ex one last time.

She puts on a slamming white dress with hat to match, gets in a car with her friends and goes out to his ranch. (Her friends don't have the heart to tell her he's married.) Their last conversation with each other is as heavy as a water balloon, stretched with so many things they can't speak. She squares her shoulders, extends her hand and shakes the Italian wife's hand, scoops her ex's chubby lil baby boy in her arms, and then rides off, quoting William Wordsworth's poem "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" specifically this verse:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind

In other words: "It's killing me that I'm leaving this ranch where my ex has moved on, and that I'm about to marry someone I don't love near as much as I love him, but oh well... I have to keep it moving."

Aside from the general melancholy of the situation, what struck me about the movie most was this scene I embedded above. The girl is delirious with pain and disillusionment -- and her mother is focused on finding out whether she let her ex "spoil" her.

She goes off on her mother, screaming that she is still "fresh", "virginal", "a good girl". In that moment, I could feel her fury and frustration because she had done the right thing, (right?), and yet she had lost her true love. Her parents had done too good a job training her. She listened, and now she had nothing to show for it but her searing heart and ebbing mind.

I hadn't watched this film when I wrote my book Powder Necklace, but the mother in my book is also fixated on boys potentially spoiling her daughter. In fact, ma dukes' anxiety about it becomes the pretext under which she ships her daughter, the protagonist Lila, from London to boarding school in Ghana.

The concept of the "spoiled girl"/"nice girl"/"two kinds of girls" makes me crazy. It suggests that girls/women are one-dimensional creatures without the capacity to feel or express a multiplicity of emotions. It also perpetuates competition among girls and women.

When Warren Beatty's character's father tells him to find "the kind of girl" who will sleep with him until Natalie Wood's character is ready, he's telling him to create a separation in his mind between women who are good enough to be wives and those who are good for fulfilling his sexual needs. Likewise, when Natalie Wood's character's mother negates her daughter's erotic feelings by saying good girls don't have sexual feelings like men do, it perpetuates a sense of shame in connection with sexual desire.

What irks me even more is both parents perpetuate society's penchant to dump the responsibility of chastity on women. No one ever tells Warren Beatty's character to save himself until he is married. He is never advised to control his hormones. His doctor, in an uncomfortable scene, just says "no", when Warren Beatty repeats his father's advice, without explaining why.

The one woman in the movie that doesn't conform (Warren Beatty's character's sister) is a wild drunken chain smoking mess. She ends up getting gang-banged (I think) in this weird "she asked for it" scene, after which she disappears from the film only to be mentioned in passing as a fatality in a car crash.

What's also infuriating about the situation/the film is that Natalie Wood's character is punished for not succumbing to the pressure her boyfriend is putting on her. In early scenes, Warren Beatty's character goes through (lust-induced?) mood swings that cause him to demand she get on her knees and worship him. He acknowledges his crazy behavior and apologizes for it, but she is the one who is written as literally crazy...


I loved the movie for keeping it real in many ways, but I wish it had pushed even harder. I wish the parents grappled more deeply with what it is to fall in love when you're young. That one adult, just one adult, had had the courage to set aside their own shit and communicate with the youngsters like they were legitimate people. That someone had presented to both characters that healthy expression of sexuality is about love, responsibility, discipline, respect, and commitment to yourself and to your partner -- not pressure to satisfy someone's desire, or using someone to fulfill a need. That someone had explained it's rare to find that level of love, responsibility, discipline, respect, and commitment in a young person or outside of marriage; and when you do find it the couple is practically married anyway.

I wanted to share because 50 years after Splendor in the Grass came out, there is still so much myth and silence around sex. We're told not to have sex as young people, but there is no support at all for abstaining. There is so little healthy, open discussion about sexuality; yet when we get older, we're expected to have it all figured out. No wonder the parents in the film give such awful advice; they didn't have answers to give.

The question is when Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood's characters are on the receiving end of their children's questions, how will they answer? How will we?


Anonymous at: 18 April 2011 at 03:19 said...

Wonderful and thought provoking for such a time as this! Thank you Nana! :-)

Sunrise Moonshine at: 18 April 2011 at 07:48 said...

Brilliant post! It is a subject that is still as confusing now as it was 50 years ago and I think you have identified it well.

Anonymous at: 18 April 2011 at 11:32 said...

Great post, we have to tackle these issues so that we don't contribute to damaging young people by making Sex a taboo topic.People often make misguided decisions about sexual relations due to the fact there is no one to have a frank and responsible conversations with leading to detrimental emotional and sometimes physical consciences.Thank you.

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