10 Years Later, ‘Easy A’ (2010) Grapples With a Complex Legacy

“Though charming and effervescent, ‘Easy A’ is not the flawless feminist critique we remember it to be.”

Imagining a time before Emma Stone feels impossible. For thirteen years, audiences have been treated to her charisma, wit and impeccable comedic timing. A striking presence on screen, Stone is a scene stealer whether she’s allotted two hours of screen time or a mere twenty minutes. Thanks to her undeniable talent, she managed to jump from Hollywood unknown to Academy Award winner in under a decade. In fact, last month marks the tenth anniversary of the film that launched Stone’s career: Easy A (2010). Though Superbad (2007) retains credit for giving us our first glimpse at the star to come, it was her role as Olive Penderghast that really put her on the map. 

With a simple yet hilarious premise, Easy A’s 2010 premier promised viewers a good time at the movies—and easily delivered. Following Olive through the torture of the high school rumor mill, the movie shows the domino-effect of events that occur when people discover that Olive has lost her virginity. The twist? She hasn’t. Caught in a lie, Olive decides to lean into her fabled reputation as the “school slut.” She sews bright red A’s onto her new lingerie-based wardrobe and starts accepting cash from male classmates in return for saying she slept with them. 

The film is a tight 92 minutes, progressing quickly and earning laughs from sharply written one-liners and the many ridiculous situations characters find themselves in. That being said, Easy A is the kind of movie that lives or dies by its lead performance, relying wholly on our ability to empathize with and root for Olive as she stumbles through her complicated situation. The audience must cling to her through every high and low and, perhaps most importantly, laugh as they do. Luckily, Stone thrives in the role, a movie star in the making from the second Olive first opens her grandmother’s card and belts “Pocketful of Sunshine.”

Olive sings along ton 'Pocketful of Sunshine' while painting her toenails.
Emma Stone as Olive Penderghast. Image courtesy of Screen Gems.

This makes separating the legacy of Easy A from Stone’s career an impossibility: in a way, she is this film’s legacy. Putting her front and center means placing the movie in her very capable hands. The durability of her performance is indisputable—Olive is a star making role, and Stone thrives when given the license to be her full charismatic self. Instead, consider this: has Easy A itself stood the test of time? The answer is… complicated.

Beyond the charming lead performance, Easy A promises a fresh, modern take on the teen movie and many laughs along the way. With its premise, the film delves into the infuriating double standard women face when it comes to the question of virginity and furthers this with references to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. An adaptation of sorts, the movie combines the 1850’s novel with the classic tropes of 80’s high school films. On the surface, Easy A blends these two perfectly: offering all the joy and relatability of the teen movie, while exploring deeper themes and criticizing society’s obsessive “slut shaming.” But once the nostalgia fades and you squint past the bright star that is Emma Stone, it becomes clear that this message is pushed aside for the sake of humor and a lack of nuance.

For a movie that advocates empathy and condemns the double standard, Easy A has plenty to say about sexually active women—most of it negative. In the initial confrontation with her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka), Olive denies having had sex, stressing that she’s “not that kind of girl.” This thread continues to follow her throughout the film. Though Olive embraces her new reputation, donning the lingerie and brandishing her bright red A’s, she never actually has sex—and the movie never lets you forget it. Even her love interest,  “Woodchuck” Todd (Penn Badgley) plays a role in reminding the audience of her virginity. When pressed by Olive about his interest in her, given the rumors going around, he stresses that he knows they aren’t true. After all, Olive isn’t that kind of girl: why else would he like her?

Perhaps this wouldn’t be so damning if the only sexually active female characters weren’t demonized. Onscreen, Olive’s school counselor Mrs. Griffith (Lisa Kudrow) is the only major character having sex—a woman who, by the end of the film, Olive refers to as “pure evil.” Not only does she cheat on her husband with a student, but she’s willing to let a teenage girl publicly take the blame for giving him chlamydia. As for the origins of the STD itself, with no indication that Mr. Griffith has chlamydia, the audience is left to assume that this is not her first time cheating on her husband. Her only opportunity for empathy is the big, impassioned speech she makes about her affair being a terrible one time mistake… but this is undercut by the question of the STD’s origins. Is she lying? Has she been cheating on her husband all along? Did the film merely need to illustrate the danger of female sexuality? Ironically, Chlamydia seems to act as an unseen “scarlet letter,” branding Mrs. Griffith as tainted and impure.

Mrs. Griffith makes a phone call from her office.
Lisa Kudrow as Mrs. Griffith. Image courtesy of Screen Gems.

Besides the “evil” Mrs. Griffith, the only other character who references sex with multiple partners is Olive’s mother, Rosemary (Patricia Clarkson). Towards the end of the film, Olive comes clean about the rumors, seeking comfort and advice from her mother as they stare out at the California sunset. Her mother admits that she can relate, having faced similar rumors in high school. Except, in her case, they were true. Unfortunately, rather than assuring Olive that her flings were valid and perfectly healthy, Rosemary insists that she was just “a slut once” and boils it down to the ”low self esteem” she had before meeting her husband. Though the idea of Stanley Tucci boosting women’s self worth is incredibly compelling, this scene ultimately teaches us that women who have multiple sexual partners are either “evil” adulterers or need to overcome their “self esteem” issues and find the perfect man for them. 

Still, this movie does not completely miss its own point. It clearly recognizes the double standard and illustrates this beautifully following Olive’s fake sex scene with Brandon (Dan Byrd). After the pair loudly pretend to sleep together at a classmate’s party, Brandon exits to the cheers and high fives of his peers. In a matter of seconds, he is whisked into popularity, with a crowd of impressed teenage boys hyping him up. Conversely, Olive slinks out of the bedroom alone, greeted only by smirks and stares. The only friendly face she finds is Todd and even their banter can not distract her from the mocking gestures of her classmates. When it deigns to be, Easy A comes across as smartly written and extremely interested in the frustrating themes it addresses. And even though it misses the mark in many regards, quick wit and charm always manage to shine through. 

The legacy of Easy A is not straightforward. It’s a movie about slut-shaming whose heroine is a virgin: the concept is not inherently flawed, but it is fundamentally complex. Ultimately, the film is unable to live up to the standards it sets for itself, disinterested in the many shades of grey that the story contrives. Though it ends with the statement that one’s sex life is private and by no means defines them, this doesn’t seem to hold true for its female characters. Along the way, some stray one liners fail to hit the mark and even some recurring jokes cause viewers to wonder if the screenplay didn’t need one more pass through the editors (that Huckleberry Finn joke really has no place in a movie this funny). Nonetheless, Easy A manages to realize many of its goals: successfully updating a Nathaniel Hawthorne classic, providing a fresh take on the teen rom-com and simply delivering on the promise of 90 hilarious minutes. But by far, its biggest achievement is being a vehicle for Emma Stone’s striking sense of humor and captivating presence.