Summer Lovin’: Romantic and Sexual Liberation in Coming of Age Films

There’s plenty of teenage kicks in summer flicks, with the good ol’ wet hot summer having always been the backdrop for young love. Summer holidays are portrayed as a pivotal passage for development, with teenagers transitioning into young adults. One such trope of dawning adulthood is love and the loss of “innocence” (otherwise known as the V-card), with many stories utilising this period for romantic or sexual growth. There’s something about the warm sun and encroaching phases of university, travelling or adult jobs that really makes people want to get down with their summer crush.

Summer is a time for adventure, and what’s more adventurous than embarking on the emotionally treacherous journey of love? Moonrise Kingdom delves into the adventurous nature of first love, as well as the oncoming independence that becoming an adult brings, as our two young sweethearts flee from order and adult supervision to be with one another and start their lives together alone (albeit a little too early). Their teen-hood rebellion is framed by warm, welcoming sunlight, lapping waves and luscious greenery, all painting a picture of idyllic fantasy, which is exactly how naïve-filled first love feels.

The summer can also be a time for liberation, perhaps from your old self. In stories of queer love, summer holidays can be a time of re-invention or escape. In stories like Call Me by Your Name, Elio explores a newly discovered side of his sexuality with Oliver. In this transitional period of the year, characters are free from restrictions of reputation and pressures of family; they travel far from what is familiar and delve into a new world where they may discover new aspects of themselves, such as their sexuality.

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The genre is rich in tales of personal growth and stories that everyone in the young adult demographic can relate to on some level. However, there does seem to be a notable difference, in heterosexual storylines, in the marketing towards boys or girls. Exploring titles in this summer love genre, there tends to be an ongoing cliché that boys are just raging hormones looking for a hole and that girls are pure darlings looking for a whole lotta heart. Think of films like Superbad – on the brink of their summer holidays, the male leads are mostly obsessed with the idea of hooking up with girls at a party. Films marketed at young girls, however, tend to lean towards true summer love, such as in The Lizzie McGuire Movie, some storylines in the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and the opening of Grease. Boys want a summer fling, whereas girls want commitment. This archaic assumption in film is unfortunately fairly restrictive and boring. Why should boys have all the fun? Why are girls only allowed to desire if they also hold the respectable longing for commitment all year round?

A “cumming”-of-age film that came to knock these tired tropes out the water was The To Do List, starring Aubrey Plaza. In this film, Plaza plays a goody-two-shoes class valedictorian who comes to the realisation that, though she may be academically gifted, in the bedroom department she lacks knowledge. Doing what she does best, Plaza’s character does her homework and turns her summer into one big sexy research project; she compiles a list of all the sex acts she wants to practice before university, to ensure she’s not behind her fellow classmates. This film is a fantastic representation of female sexuality – she explores masturbation, female desire and the big O. Pure unadulterated, non-judgemental, completely consensual sex on screen, where the female character was not passive in her desire and the acts were not simply a by-product of love. She took charge, she knew what she wanted, and she got it.

Though these films may give us a little too high an expectation for our own summer holidays, they remain a staple in cinema. On screen, we live out our wildest fantasies and daydream away our actual holiday like the sad little loners we are. The ‘summer of love’ teaches many important life-lessons – desire, heartache, betrayal – proving that even when school’s out, it’s not too late to learn.