Teens Talk Gender and Sexuality and Hollywood Listens

A Hispanic high school senior struggles to reconcile his image as the big man on campus with his secret suspicion that he might be gay. A promising student–his class’s valedictorian–from Texas’s Rio Grande Valley has to decide between a scholarship to Stanford, pressure from his community to stay among them, and pressure from his mom to be the man of the house. A young African-American man whose father was abusive, withholding  and stern finds himself tortured by a masculine ideal of “hardness” to which he ultimately can’t live up.

These were the premises, loosely summarized, of three new films written by teenagers (all female, incidentally) in high schools from under-served pockets of our nation that premiered in New York last week. All three scripts were were penned in response to an open-ended question about gender identity: “What’s the real deal with masculinity?” The three young women submitted scripts to their teachers, won a major nationally-judged contest–and then had their scripts produced and directed by Hollywood regulars with all the attendant editing and professional finesse.

The entire process–school curriculum, contest, film-making process–is part of a program called “The Real Deal” from Scenarios USA. In a fascinating twist, the curriculum and contest was actually inspired by similar programs in France and West Africa, programs which utilized screenwriting contests to help students deal with HIV and AIDS and get them talking about prevention in realistic scenarios, as opposed to abstract ones. But of course, the American version of the program, which this year focused on schools in New York, Cleveland and the Rio Grande Valley, has the heft of Hollywood to give it an extra sparkle. Eventually, the winning films are screened on local TV station and networks like Showtime, as well as at the kind of glitzy premiere replete with open bar and red carpet I attended in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood last week.

The films I saw at the Scenarios USA New York premiere Tuesday night were raw and in one case, literally bloody, but lightened with endearing flecks of teenage humor and an overwhelming earnestness. A viewer sitting near me me told me he had to leave the room because (at least he intimated) that one of the films spoke so powerfully to him he needed some air. A feeling of dread hangs palpably over all three young male protagonists as they confront their ideas about manhood; one can literally feel their futures in the balance. That verisimilitude comes from the fact that the scenarios in the film mirror the lives of the young women who wrote it, and the men around them. When an audience member asked why these women felt privileged to comment on masculinity, one of them wisely responded that the media’s impossible-to-live-up-to image of masculinity is degrading to women. “It affects our lives,” she explained.

In the past, Scenarios USA participants have been given topics beyond masculinity, including HIV and AIDS, pregnancy prevention, body image, sexual identity and more. Instead of being squeamish or embarrassed as they might in a typical health education class, participants tackle the most complex, painful, shadowy corners of these issues.

Students have chosen to focus on abusive families, abortion, condom usage, bullying, eating disorders, and sexual pressure from partners. Watch a few films from past years here (of particular note to RH Reality Check is The Choices We Make, in which a young couple struggles over whether to have an abortion). Personally, I’ve found the films available online totally addictive. The scripts are written with broad strokes, and occasionally seem contrived or didactic, but so do most Hollywood scripts written by industry professionals. On the other hand, the Scenarios USA films are tantalizingly, brutally honest and they offer a genuine glimpse into the minds of the most thoughtful, imaginative teens who are actively thinking about all the nuances and issues that we in the reproductive health community talk through all the time. And one of the major insights we get from the films is teens’ thoughts on parenting–every kind of parent from abusive to absent to supportive to overbearing shows up in these films.

The program has great implications for sex education in our country. The contest itself is a self-perpetuating cycle of education. Teachers use previously-produced films to broach those previously-tacked topics with students, and Scenarios USA even provides lesson plans to accompany the films. Students then enter the new contests, using their own creative faculties to spin tales relating to the chosen issue.

It’s impossible to replicate Scenarios USA’s program in every single classroom in the country. And as a former teacher I believe that creative projects need to accompany serious analysis. But what’s most instructive about the model is that teaching students about sexuality and gender issues, even more than teaching them math or English, needs to focus on relevant, real-life scenarios generated by students themselves. And the final product of the films shows that when we ask teenagers to respond to difficult topics, they’ll step up to the plate.

Watch one of this year’s winners discuss her film at the NYC premiere below:

Writer Treviny Colon talks about the film MAN IN THE MIRROR from Camino PR on Vimeo.

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  • aligatorhardt

    It is good to see questions about gender identity. People are not well served by artificial confromity to unrealistic ideals. There is no “all men” or “all women”. There are only individuals with similarities and differences to one another. To try to live by some arbitrary standard of conduct is disingenuous. To  claim that women cannot write about men’s behaviors is nonsense. Sometimes it takes an outsider to clearly see without prejudice. The partnerships of men and women make mutual understanding necessary. The roles of the sexes are induced upon society, not naturally acquired. We can all benefit from honest discussion on these issues.

    PS: these spam shoe sellers in my opinion should not be published, the moderators should remove then because they in no way contribute to the discussion at hand.

  • kloo2yoo

    Come on, the judges could find no boys at all that represented masculinity?  Not one idea in their submissions worthy of pursuit?


    Like how men are most qualified to comment on feminism and femininity, right?

  • arekushieru

    Err, you didn’t understand the article, at all, did you?  The targets of oppression were being represented not the privileged.  SO sorry.

  • humana

    Can you explain who was privileged:  the Hispanic gay male or the African-American abused one?  I’m trying to remember the incarceration rates among the males and females of those populations and I’m still not clear who would be privileged.


    The question the original poster asked was valid.  While these three young women had important things to say, so do young men.  I would like to have seen at least one of the stories that must have been submitted from their point of view.


    They might even have something to say as very real targets of oppression in the justice system.

  • arekushieru

    If we were talking about purely racial contexts or racial contexts mixed in with gender and sexual constructs, then yes, their lack of representation would be disturbing.  However, masculinity is clearly a sexual and gender construct. 

    “That verisimilitude comes from the fact that the scenarios in the film mirror the lives of the young women who wrote it, and the men around them. When an audience member asked why these women felt privileged to comment on masculinity, one of them wisely responded that the media’s impossible-to-live-up-to image of masculinity is degrading to women. “It affects our lives,” she explained.”

     I believe that encapsulates everything I wanted to say.