This article contains major spoilers.
A white suburban teen, urged on by friends, makes the decision to finally get laid, maybe by the end of summer. That’s the premise of Sixteen Candles, American Pie, Superbad, and now The To Do List. Comedy pin-up Aubrey Plaza gives a characteristically low-wattage performance as Brandy, a recent high-school grad who dedicates the Type-A skills that made her valedictorian to acing AP Handjobs before starting college in the fall. The film takes place in a pre-Internet 1993, just before the Purity Test standardized sexual repertoires, so Brandy’s task list is haphazardly made–the first version, for example, neglects cunnilingus, but includes motorboating (“Uncle Andy has a boat, so that should be easy”). In his review, Alan Scherstuhl called this female take on the boys’ genre “something we have to go through but will no doubt be improved upon later”–an exact description of both its placeholder status in the game of gender-equality catch-up and its middling value as actual comedy.
And yet, writer-director Maggie Carey’s debut is a surprisingly distinctive work, not least for its explicit feminism: Gloria Steinem is name-checked three times–when’s the last time that’s happened in a mainstream movie?–and Brandy’s idol is Hillary Clinton. If the film remains mired in genre trappings–its ultimate goal is to succeed as a teen sex comedy, after all–The To Do List distinguishes itself as a work that attempts a subtle engagement with pop feminism of the last 20 years. For those who can’t help rolling their eyes at The To Do List‘s seemingly complacent gags about awry bikini tops and not-so-elegant pearl necklaces, here’s a guide to connecting the dots, Da Vinci Code-style, to access the much more radically feminist film below the surface:
1. Nineties nostalgia. Trapper Keepers, fashion overalls, and Baywatch-inspired lifeguard hunks are some of the post-Reagan detritus that The To Do List plays for laughs. But Brandy’s worship of then-FLOTUS Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures toward the script’s much more serious longing for the past. From the very first month of the Clinton presidency, HRC became famous for trying to remake the office of the First Lady in her own image, less glorified hostess than ambitious adviser. Clinton’s obvious intelligence and grit made her a touchstone of ’90s pop feminism, a movement Brandy already intuits and participates in, which would soon blossom and cross-pollinate via Lilith Fair, Alanis Morissette, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vagina Monologues, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, hell, even the Spice Girls. The Clinton era represented a peak in sexual candor, righteous female anger, and femmepowerment in the mainstream culture, and it’s hard not to feel happy and nostalgic for all the riot-grrling Brandy has coming her way.
2. Connie Britton. A feminist symbol of a completely different sort is Connie Britton, who plays Brandy’s mom. Though Britton now stars in ABC’s Nashville, her greatest contribution to the culture is making sensible sexy as Friday Night Lights‘ Tami Taylor. As “Mrs. Coach,” Tami ended up mothering nearly the whole town of Dillon, Texas, but her brightest moment was with her own teenage daughter, to whom she gave a justly famous, lip-quiveringly sensitive speech when the latter decides to sleep with her boyfriend at the tender age of 15. Coincidentally or not, Britton’s List character did the same for Brandy’s sister, Amber (Rachel Bilson), at the same age, and she spends much of the movie trying to give Brandy “the talk.” Finally, she gets to the point: Her unofficial graduation gift to Brandy is a big, fat bottle of lube, accompanied by an empathetic “I wish my mother had given me this when I was your age” speech. It’s impossible not to hear the echoes of Tami Taylor in the role, and Britton’s inclusion in the cast feels like a nod to that groundbreaking moment in TV history.
3. The “losin’ it” scene. When Brandy finally rids herself of her virginity with bronzed boob Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), she has one request (other than a condom): to be on top, since it’ll raise her chances for an orgasm by 40 percent. It’s a mostly jokey line, another instance of Brandy’s methodical study of the naked pretzel. But like so much of the film, it also feels quietly radical–after all, it’s hard to imagine that there’ll be another mainstream movie this decade that acknowledges the orgasm gap between men and women. As writer-director Maggie Carey has pointed out in interviews, Brandy doesn’t come during her tryst–and that’s to be expected during a girl’s first time. But it’s encouraging that Brandy–who’d leaped into her sex project fingers-and-mouth-first by starting with handies and blowjobs, only to add cunnilingus and “bean-flicking” later–finally applies her know-it-all-ism to prioritizing her pleasure and making it count for her.
4. Undermining Gender Flips. It’s hard to imagine a gender flip of the “losin’ it” scenario, where the girl comes first and then suddenly becomes unable to satisfy her male partner. That’s just one of the several ways that The To Do List, despite its accessible, seemingly unambitious reversal of a traditionally male genre, demonstrates its skepticism toward the simple “gender flip” given certain undeniable differences between men and women, especially when it comes to sex. That Brandy isn’t just losing her virginity, but doing so as a young feminist trying to figure out how to apply the political to the personal (e.g., feminism through orgasms) is another example of how distinctive her sexual path is from, say, Jason Biggs’s. Compare Carey’s FUBU approach to a more female-centered but male-catered contrivance like Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft or Lord Zod’s right-hand woman in Man of Steel, where the construction of a token “strong woman” is to take a male template and stick a pair of boobs on it–no female POV necessary. Ultimately, then, the film serves as a commentary of how simple gender-flipping is a too-often inadequate way of telling women’s stories.
5. Its feminist utopia. Despite taking place in Boise, Idaho, The To Do List exists in as close to a feminist paradise as one might find on this planet outside of a lesbian commune. Things aren’t perfect: Brandy’s Limbaugh-reading dad (Clark Gregg) is a (hilarious) prude, and her pool-manager boss Willy (Bill Hader) delights in calling attention to her flat chest. But Willy’s teasing is much more big brother-y than grounds for sexual harassment, and the rest of the film’s characters seem to live in a universe where respect for a woman and her desires is de rigueur and slut-shaming an unknown practice. Brandy’s best friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele), her self-appointed Q and Moneypenny of Operation Anti-Purity, are equally supportive of their friend’s extracurricular activities. (Shawkat’s Fiona does call Brandy a “slut” midway through the film, but it’s clear from the context that she’s lobbing the first insult that comes to mind and doesn’t really mean it.) It’s not just Brandy, then, but all Boise citizens who create such a wholesomely sex-positive, Leave It to Brandy’s Beaver kind of backdrop for safe sexual experimentation. It doesn’t take a village to get a woman laid, but it certainly helps when they’re not throwing stones at her for it.