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"Girl, You Better Go Get You a Condom": Popular Culture and Teen Sexuality As Resources for Critical Multicultural Curriculum

by Catherine Ashcraft - 2006

Teens encounter a barrage of messages about sexuality in popular culture—messages that shape their identities and schooling experiences in profound ways. Meanwhile, teen sexuality, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) increasingly arouse public panic. To date, however, schools do little to help teens make sense of their sexualities. In this article, I argue that schooling will grow increasingly irrelevant and ineffective if educators fail to address teen sexuality and popular culture. My argument is twofold. First, I suggest that sex education in particular must attend to popular culture. Second, I contend that we can no longer confine efforts to address teen sexuality and popular culture to sex education; rather, we must extend such efforts across a wide range of classroom and schooling contexts. Doing so is important for accomplishing three educational goals: (1) to make a wide range of curriculum (e.g., literacy, social studies, sex education) more relevant and culturally responsive to diverse youth; (2) to develop critical multicultural curriculum that interrogates social inequities, and (3) to indirectly create conditions that would reduce teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS. To make this argument, I draw from my 9-month ethnographic study of ESPERANZA, a progressive peer-driven sex education program. In contrast, I then analyze how two popular films deal with issues of sexuality in different ways. I conclude with a discussion of how the insights from these popular texts might inform research and practice in critical multicultural curriculum and in educational efforts to help youth address sexuality.

Sexuality saturates adolescent life. Although we adults often like to pretend otherwise, school life is no exception. Sexuality profoundly influences teens’ experiences with school, and schooling significantly shapes teen sexualities (Connell, 1989; Epstein & Johnson, 1998; Trudell, 1992). Although this has always been so, the urgent need to address adolescent sexuality skyrockets in an era in which teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and HIV/AIDS increasingly arouse public panic (Kirby, 1997; Trudell). Yet, to date, schools do little to help adolescents make sense of their developing sexual identities. The limited efforts that do exist are relegated to periph­eral, marginalized programs such as sex education (Connell; Fine, 1992; Trudell). These existing programs, however, have been widely criticized for (1) being irrelevant to teens’ experiences, interests, and needs (Kaiser Family Foundation 2000a, 2000b; Kirby, 1999, 1997) and (2) for an unre­lenting focus on the biological aspects of sexuality, excluding almost entirely the more relational, power-laden dynamics (Fine; Lamb, 1997; Trudell; Whatley, 1991). In addition to these limitations, existing educational efforts to talk with teens about sexuality almost completely ignore popular culture.

Popular culture, however, is an important site where teens construct their sexual identities and where hegemonic discourses are reinscribed or chal­lenged, often in ways that are more meaningful to youth (hooks, 1996; Willis, 1990). Indeed, many have criticized popular culture for the un­healthy or contradictory messages it sends teens about sexuality (Brown & Keller, 2000; Kaiser Family Foundation, 2001, 1999, 1996). And these con­cerns multiply as media conglomerates carefully target teens with an in­creasing barrage of popular culture messages. On one hand, then, educators need to pay careful attention to the ways these popular texts might pose threats to teens’ sexual knowledges, understandings, and iden­tities. On the other hand, popular culture also does a better job of at least attending to the aspects of sexuality that teens find most relevant—the same aspects that educational efforts have traditionally dismissed in their pursuit of the biological and clinical. As such, these popular texts potentially pro­vide important insights into how to tackle issues of sexuality in powerful ways that resonate with youth.

In this article, then, I explore how we might address these existing lim­itations in educational attempts to address teen sexuality. My argument here is twofold. First, I stress that these efforts must attend to the complex ways that popular culture shapes teen sexualities. Second, I argue that educators can no longer afford to confine such efforts to the realm of sex education; rather, we must extend these efforts to address sexuality across a wide range of classrooms and schooling contexts. If we fail to make these changes, schooling will grow increasingly irrelevant to teens’ needs and interests, and youth will continue to struggle all alone with complex ques­tions about sexuality.

In the remainder of this article, I unfold this argument in two stages. First, I suggest that existing sex education efforts have much to learn from popular culture. Sex education can no longer assume that privileging biological, clinical information is the best way to promote teen sexual health. This approach ignores important factors that influence teens’ sexual decision making far more significantly than most sex education programs acknowledge. Popular culture, on the other hand, celebrates what sex edu­cation ignores. Precisely because popular culture attends to the relational, power-laden aspects of sexuality that teens find relevant, it offers sex ed­ucation a powerful resource for sparking more effective and meaningful discussion of these relational aspects—aspects that often affect teens’ sexual decisions more than all the biological facts that sex education showers upon them. At the same time, carefully incorporating these popular texts could also foster the development of critical multicultural sex education that en­gages students in critique of dominant discourses and power relations around sexuality.1 Because these popular texts are a primary vehicle for reproducing or challenging dominant discourses of race, class, gender, and sexuality, these texts can also function as powerful resources for stimulating student critique of these discourses, how they perpetuate or challenge ex­isting social inequalities, and how students might invent more liberating alternatives—discussions that feminist, critical race, and poststructuralist scholars have long scolded sex education for stifling (Fine, 1992; Trudell, 1993; Weis, 2000; Whatley, 1991).

Second, I argue that we need to extend beyond sex education these discussions of popular culture and the power-laden dynamics of sexuality. A number of sites, including “mainstream” classrooms and curricula, already implicitly teach adolescents about sexuality (Connell, 1989; Francis, 2000; Foley, 1990; Skelton, 2001). As such, these sites need to help teens make sense of the dizzying array of information that they encounter. For example, many texts and topics traditionally studied in literacy and social studies classrooms already deal implicitly with themes of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality (Brunner, 1992; Connell, 1996; Epstein & Johnson, 1998; Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998). Discussing these themes through traditional texts and through popular culture could help engage teens in academic content that they otherwise find irrelevant to their own lives. Likewise, exploring sexuality through traditional and popular texts could also function as a way to engage students in critiquing dominant discourses of masculinity, fem­ininity, race, class, and sexual orientation, thereby fostering critical multi­cultural curriculum in these academic content areas as well. In addition, because these content areas—literacy and social studies in particular— already tap into broader, less “scientific” aspects of sexuality, they might, in some cases, be even better locations than sex education for discussing these relational, power-laden dynamics. In sum, then, I advocate extending ed­ucational efforts to address teen sexuality and popular culture beyond sex education in order to accomplish three important goals: (1) to make ac­ademic curriculum in these content areas more culturally relevant and re­sponsive to diverse youth; (2) to foster a critical multicultural curriculum (in these content areas) that engages students in social critique and reinvention; and (3) to indirectly accomplish even the more traditional goals of sex education—reducing teen pregnancy and the transmission of STDs and HIV/AIDS—because it is these same power-laden aspects of masculinity, femininity, race, class, and sexual orientation that so often prevent teens from making healthy decisions even when they have all the biological and clinical information that they need.

To illustrate how educators might begin to tackle this ambitious project, I draw from my 9-month ethnographic study of ESPERANZA (a pseudo­nym), a progressive peer-driven sex education program. I specifically ex­plore the successes and limitations of ESPERANZA’s existing efforts to challenge traditional ways of talking about sex with teens. In contrast, I then complement this section with a textual analysis of two popular films that the teens talked about during the course of this study. I explore how these two films, crazy/beautiful and Booty Call, deal with sexuality in different ways and how these texts might help address some of the limitations currently en­countered at ESPERANZA. I conclude with a discussion of how the insights from these popular texts might inform practice in sex education and in “mainstream” classrooms. Likewise, I discuss implications for research in cultural studies, critical multicultural curriculum, and critical/poststructuralist pedagogies. Before turning to this analysis, I turn to a brief look at previous research that critiques existing educational efforts to address teen sexuality and reconceptualizes the relationship between popular culture, schooling, and youth identity.


Currently, the most overt educational efforts to address adolescent sexuality occur in sex education classrooms. Sex education, however, has often been criticized by researchers and evaluators for its limited success in effecting behavior change among adolescents (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999, 2000a; Kirby, 1997; Kirby et al., 1994; Lindberg, Ku, & Sonenstein, 2000). In many of these critiques, the primary complaint is that these pro­grams are not effective in promoting safe sex or in reducing teen pregnancy and disease. Often, this ineffectiveness is attributed to the limited infor­mation about protection provided by these programs. Likewise, these programs rarely address the issues most important to teens (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1997, 2000a; Trudell, 1993; Ward & Taylor, 1992). To repair this state of affairs, a number of researchers have begun to stress the importance of providing more detailed information when it comes to safe sex. In addition, they have suggested making sex education relevant to teens’ lives by using youth as peer educators (Kirby, 2001; Stevens, 1997).

The critique of sex education takes an additional turn, however, as scholars in cultural studies, feminist theory, and critical/poststructuralist pedagogies condemn it for perpetuating dominant discourses of masculini­ties, femininities, and sexualities.2 These critics illustrate how sex education controls, regulates, and produces sexualities that perpetuate existing social inequalities and power imbalances (Fine, 1992; Lamb, 1997; Morris, 1997; Sapon-Shevin & Goodman, 1992; Sears, 1992; Whatley, 1991). As such, this critique contends that the problem with sex education is not so much that it is “ineffective,” but rather, that the very language of “effectiveness” cloaks important power dynamics and naturalizes certain strategies for approach­ing teen sexuality—strategies that often perpetuate unjust social conditions (Ashcraft, 2003a; Hayden, 2001).

For example, because of the emphasis placed on “effectiveness” in pro­moting safe sex and reducing disease, information is usually limited to biological or technical topics such as anatomy, reproduction, and contra­ception and is presented in language that is presumed to be neutral and scientific (Lamb, 1997; Sears, 1992). This leads educators to disseminate universal rules that students should apply in all situations—rules about how to say no, how to have safe sex, and when not to have sex (Fine, 1992; Morris, 1997; Sears, 1992). As Gaitskill (1994) notes, however, these sorts of rules have “clarity going for them but little else” (p. 44). They do not allow for multiple solutions or interpretations in experiences of sexuality, nor do they account for the ways that these experiences and interpretations are shaped by a subject’s location among competing discourses of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and youth (Sears, 1997; Ward & Taylor, 1992). Likewise, they obscure the role of sexuality in maintaining power imbal­ances. To adequately address these issues and student experiences, sex ed­ucation programs need to provide a wider range of representations and discourses that help teachers and students both address their emotional worlds and challenge unjust social circumstances (Morris, 1997).

One of the specific representations that is denied students in existing programs is in the area of female desire. In stressing the negative conse­quences of sex, these programs typically place greater responsibility for birth control on the female and caution against the aggressive, manipulative nature of male sexuality (Fine, 1992; Lamb, 1997; Sears, 1992). Girls are given instructions on how to recognize the wily attempts of boys to get them into bed and how to say no in the face of such pressure. The instruction is sparse or nonexistent when it comes to what to do if they feel like saying “yes” (Brunner, 1992; Fine; Weis, 2000). With little acknowledgment of the ways that they also may enjoy sex and sexuality, girls are left alone to make sense of these feelings, wondering if they are the only ones who have them.

Likewise, few representations of positive male sexuality emerge in current programs (Lamb, 1997; Trudell, 1993; Whatley, 1991). Boys are portrayed as sexually experienced, confident, and knowledgeable, often in contrast to girls, who are more innocent or naıve. Furthermore, male sex­uality is usually viewed as difficult to control and subject to “raging hor­mones” (Whatley). Boys are cast as manipulative or predatory beings who always crave sex. They are told to take no for an answer and not to pressure girls into sex, but the assumption is that they always want sex when they can get it (Lamb; Trudell, 1992). Little room exists for acknowledging that men may have a more complex relationship to sex—that it may have an emo­tional component for them as well and that they may not always be willing to say yes to anyone walking down the street. Furthermore, these repre­sentations position males and females as adversaries in a “sexual game” in which boys endlessly pursue “it” while girls fight to keep from giving “it” away (Harrison, 2000; Sapon-Shevin & Goodman, 1992).

Compounding these limitations is the “missionary” tone taken by many adults involved in current sex education programs. Teens are assumed to be immature, irresponsible, and in denial about the potentially harsh conse­quences of sex (Morris, 1997; Trudell, 1992). Educators complain that stu­dents often giggle, make jokes, or cannot handle information that is too detailed (Finders, 1999; Haignere, Culhane, Balsley, & Legos, 1996; Sapon-Shevin & Goodman, 1992; Trudell, 1992). These assumptions often lead teachers to shy away from open discussion or small-group activities because these do not provide as much “safety and control during those potentially uncomfortable and controversial moments” (Trudell, p. 215). As such, edu­cators and others establish a dichotomous relationship between mature, re­sponsible adults who apparently always regard the consequences of sex, and immature, irresponsible teens who think they are invulnerable. Rarely do they acknowledge that many adults often feel invulnerable and do not think “it will ever happen to them” either. By highlighting the differences between adults and youth, obscuring the similarities, and ultimately devaluing student voices, these programs deprive themselves of important ways that teen know­ledges and understandings might inform adult interpretations (Sears, 1997: Sugland, Wilder, & Chandra, 1997; Ward & Taylor, 1992).

Although these dominant discourses and ways of talking about sexuality with teens are prevalent in sex education, they are in no way limited to this arena. Indeed, many recent scholars have documented how an array of schooling and classroom practices draw upon and reproduce the afore­mentioned societal discourses of sexuality (Connell, 1996; Epstein, 1997; Francis, 2000). These studies examined how this occurs through gendered hierarchies of school personnel, the masculinizing or feminizing of certain curricular areas, sports rituals, discipline practices, and the dynamics of student interactions or peer cultures (e.g., Connell, 1989; Epstein; Epstein & Johnson, 1998; Foley, 1990; Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998; Mac an Ghaill, 1994; Messner, 1995; Thorne, 1995). Many of these studies specifically unveiled the role that these practices play in producing White hegemonic masculini­ties and femininities.

A number of additional studies, however, also investigated how schools contribute to the production and subjugation of marginalized masculinities and femininities, particularly in terms of race and class (Baca Zinn, 1995; hooks, 1996; Mac an Ghaill, 1994; Noguera, 1997, Sewell, 1998; Willis, 1977). For example, some researchers have identified masculinities devel­oped in resistance to authority, “protest masculinities,” and masculinities that devalue academic success and valorize manual labor (Connell, 1989, 1996; Willis). These varied studies clearly demonstrate how a range of schooling sites, classrooms, and practices—well beyond sex education and, perhaps, even more significantly than sex education—are implicated in transmitting messages about sexualities.

Of course, schooling is certainly not the only force in shaping sexualities, but clearly it does play an influential role, particularly in the lives of teens. As such, schooling and curriculum also possess powerful potential for in­tervening in the production of oppressive sexualities. As Connell (1996) observes, schools “have a considerable capacity to make and remake gen­der. . . . They are a key means of transmitting culture between generations . . . and can make a real contribution to a future of more civilized, and more just, gender relations” (pp. 229, 230). Currently, however, schools and ed­ucators see sexuality as a distraction to student learning, a distraction that is best ignored or stifled (Rolon-Dow, 2004; Trudell, 1993). In so doing, we leave teens all alone to make sense of the myriad messages that they en­counter in and out of school. In addition, because we frame teens’ interest in sexuality as a distraction to academic learning, we fail to recognize its potential as a vehicle for improving students’ academic performance—po­tential that I explore further in the final section of this article. To remedy this state of affairs, educators need to acknowledge the pervasive presence of sexuality in schooling and find ways to help teens make sense of this dizzying array of information. Of course, this task is complicated further by the barrage of dominant representations of sexuality that students encoun­ter in cultural sites outside schooling (Finders, 2000; Kenworthy, 1994).

And popular culture is certainly one such site. Increasingly, mass media and popular culture are important pedagogical locations where teens con­struct their identities (Giroux, 1992; hooks, 1994a; McRobbie, 1994, 1978; Willis, 1990). As hooks (1996) observes, “Whether we like it or not, cinema assumes a pedagogical role in the lives of many people,” and students learn a great deal about “race, sex, and class from the movies” (p. 2). As a result, educators need to take popular culture seriously, recognizing that education is not limited to the traditional spheres of schooling. In other words, educators need to redefine the sites in which they work (Giroux, 1995). Failing to do so will ensure that schooling and curriculum become almost completely irrelevant to the lives of young people (Willis, 1990). Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than in the arena of popular culture and sexuality.3

Indeed, teens learn a great deal about sex and sexuality from popular culture. Precisely because of this, popular culture can serve as a powerful catalyst for extraordinary conversations about sexuality and social relations (Epstein & Johnson, 1998; Finders, 2000; James, 1999; Weis & Fine, 2001). Indeed, popular texts “not only provide a narrative for specific discourses of race, sex, and class, they provide a shared experience, a common starting point from which diverse audiences can dialogue about these charged is­sues” (hooks, 1996, p. 2). To foster these kinds of conversations, educators and students might examine these popular texts for patriarchal, racist, or heterosexist discourses around sexuality. Providing opportunities for stu­dents to challenge these discourses might help dispel dominant mythologies—mythologies that suggest, for example, that teens are “controlled by raging hormones and powerful cars” (Whatley, 1991, p. 143). However, although these popular texts are likely to contain a number of represen­tations that reinscribe dominant discourses, they also can contain alternative representations that disrupt these discourses (Dow, 1997; Grossberg, 1994). Thus, educators and students should also mine these texts for transform­ative representations that might foster more liberating representations, narratives, and identities (Epstein & Johnson; Giroux, 1992, 1995; Gross­berg; hooks, 1994b; Kenway & Fitzclarence, 1997). With these ideas in mind, educators need to explore the ways that discourses of sexuality in popular culture impact schooling and youth, and how schooling, in turn, might intervene in the construction of young sexualities.

Of course, negotiating these discourses, representations, and identities does not occur in isolation of existing power relations; in fact, it is limited by these relations, the number of legitimate discourses or representations available, and a variety of other social and material conditions (Hall, 1996; Grossberg, 1994; Mouffe, 1995). In this case, an important material con­dition to consider is the recent political climate around sex education. The existing social panic around teen sexuality and the recent concentrated attacks on comprehensive sex education (e.g., the current funneling of all federal funding into abstinence-only programs) undoubtedly threaten ef­forts to critically discuss sexuality and popular culture in school.4 At the same time, this regressive climate also makes these discussions, and my arguments here, all the more urgent and timely. Perhaps now more than ever, educators, researchers, and parents need to steadily challenge the assumption that talking about sexuality will send “mixed messages” or somehow corrupt innocent minds. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that youth already learn a great deal about sexuality in informal contexts and that teen vulnerability in matters of sexuality “follows from . . . imper­fect knowledge, not from innocence” (Epstein & Johnson, 1998, p. 197). Likewise, the research on sex education clearly demonstrates that compre­hensive approaches are significantly more effective than abstinence-only approaches in terms of reducing teen pregnancy and a number of other important criteria (e.g. Boonstra, 2004; Dailard, 2003; Kaiser Family Foun­dation, 2000b; Kirby, 1999, 2001; Kirby et al., 1994). Similarly, these studies also provide conclusive evidence that comprehensive programs do not in­crease teen sexual activity. As such, the argument that discussing matters of sexuality sends mixed messages or corrupts the innocent simply cannot be sustained (Epstein & Johnson).

Furthermore, studies consistently demonstrate that 80%-90% of the U.S. public supports comprehensive sex education (e.g. Boonstra, 2004; Dailard, 2001; Haffner & Wagoner, 1999; Kaiser Family Foundation, 2000a). Al­though this most likely includes a range of opinions about the exact form that comprehensive sex education should take, an overwhelming majority clearly favor these programs over abstinence-only programs. With this in mind, we need to make abundantly clear the tragic consequences of re­gressive approaches that tell youth to “just say no.” The bottom line is that abstinence-only approaches deny youth access to important health infor­mation, and evidence suggests that students in these programs are more likely to engage in unsafe sex than students in comprehensive programs (Boonstra). As such, abstinence-only programs are not merely another way to approach sex education; they are a destructive way of doing so.

Certainly making this case at this point in time might be impossible in certain conservative locations or contexts. For teachers in these locations, I suggest that the second part of my argument—critically discussing broader aspects of masculinity, femininity, or sexuality in “mainstream” classrooms— is all the more important. Making healthy sexual decisions is not all about having the necessary scientific and technical information. Indeed, this article (as well as other research) will illustrate how broader issues of masculinity and femininity consistently and significantly interfere with teens’ ability to make healthy sexual decisions. As such, discussions about these broader relational dynamics are at least as important as talking about clinical infor­mation such as condoms or protection methods. In fact, we would do well to address teen sexuality by centering discussions of masculinity, femininity, “relationships, respect, and difference, taking up questions of reproduction along the way rather than privileging them from the start” (Epstein & Johnson, 1998, p. 190). Interestingly, it is precisely these broader discussions about relationships and respect that might be addressed more easily in conservative communities. Although such discussions might also cause some controversy, they are generally less controversial than overt discussions about condoms or safe sex. In addition, such discussions might be conducted in “mainstream classrooms” in ways that are less contentious and less direct than more overt discussions of “safe sex” in separate sex education courses. As such, conversations about these broader, more relational dynamics might be one way that educators working in these areas could indirectly address teen sexuality when direct conversations about safe sex or protection meth­ods are limited or prohibited. I will return to a fuller consideration of these constraints and possibilities in the final section of this article. Even if these conversations ultimately prove impossible in certain contexts, this does not justify leaving the rest of our youth all alone to struggle with complex questions of sexuality, wondering if they are the only ones who do so. In­stead, we must redouble our efforts to create, whenever and wherever we can, pedagogical spaces where teens can interrogate dominant representa­tions of sexuality and negotiate more liberating alternatives.

To illustrate how this might be done, I turn first to an analysis of how ESPERANZA engaged teens in discussions of sexuality. In many ways, ESP-ERANZA offered a particularly rich site for studying how we might work toward these possibilities. First, it actively attempted to address a number of the problems identified as making existing sex education programs irrel­evant to teens. Second, as a peer-education program, it also consciously attempted to employ youth and, to some extent, popular culture, in making its messages more relevant. Third, it targeted Latino youth and other youth of color and encouraged them in efforts to promote social justice. This made it a prime location for studying what happens when educators dare to take teens seriously and encourage them to engage in social critique and civic action. In the following analysis, then, I specifically consider the following questions: (1) What kinds of talk about sexuality do teens and adults engage in ESPERANZA both in formal and informal contexts? (2) How does this talk challenge dominant discourses of teen sexualities? (3) In what ways are these challenges limited? I follow this analysis with a look at how the films crazy/ beautiful and Booty Call address similar issues of sexuality, considering the following questions: (1) What discourses and representations of sexualities are operating in the films? (2) In what ways do these discourses of sexuality reinscribe or transform dominant representations or narratives? (3) How do these discourses intersect, contradict, reinforce, or differ from discourses that surface in ESPERANZA? In the conclusion, I bring these two arenas together to look at how my analysis might inform the development of sex education and more “mainstream” content area curriculum that fosters both academic learning and more liberating sexualities.


Located on the west side of a large western city, ESPERANZA employs teens who serve as peer educators (or PEs, as they are called in the program) who help inform other inner-city teens about STDs, HIV/AIDS, and teen pregnancy prevention. In local high schools and youth organizations, the peer educators deliver five key presentations: the Prevention Methods presentation, the STDs and HIV/AIDS presentation, the Sexual Decision-Making presentation, the Peer Pressure and Self-Esteem presentation, and the Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships presentation. In addition to these classroom presentations, ESPERANZA PEs also perform two plays, Living With AIDS and The First Years (pseudonyms). The first play follows five youth and their experiences living with HIV and AIDS. The second play focuses on a freshman girl who is involved in an abusive relationship with an older boy.

The ESPERANZA participants during the course of my study included two adult project specialists, an adult program director, and approximately 14 PEs between the ages of 16 and 21. The 14 PEs consisted of 2 African American females, 1 Anglo male, 1 Anglo female, 5 Latino males, and 5 Latina females. The teens came from a range of class backgrounds, a ma­jority of them from lower-income households. Two of the PEs identified as gay.

In addition to representing a range of racial, ethnic, and class back­grounds, the PEs also reflected a wide range of experiences with academic success and engagement. Approximately one third of the PEs reported receiving above average grades, with 2 enrolled in some honors classes. Another third either described themselves as being average or as having difficulties with school. The final third experienced one or more criteria that would place them in “at-risk” categories (e.g., significantly below grade level in literacy, dropped out of high school, arrested and/or spent time in detention centers, almost dropped out of high school, first person in family to finish high school). Of the two thirds who considered themselves average or above-average students, many had experienced a number of circum­stances that statistically complicated their chances for future academic or economic success. Several had become pregnant before joining ESP­ERANZA and either had an abortion (1 PE) or were currently raising their child (1 PE). At least one other PE had family members who had been teen mothers, a factor that has been identified as increasing girls’ chances for becoming teen mothers themselves (White, 1999). One reported having first sex at age 13, also a risk factor on a number of academic and health measurements. Nearly one third were the first of their families to go to college, and 2 had experienced significant difficulty in school because of their sexual orientation.

I collected the ethnographic data for this study over a 9-month period during which I spent 160 hours in observations and interviews at ESP­ERANZA. I observed formal presentations and performances, weekly PE meetings, trainings for new PEs, and less formal occasions such as rehears­als, script revisions, and social events. In addition, I interviewed adult facilitators and peer educators. Interviews were audiotaped and tran­scribed. My analysis of the data occurred in two recursive stages common to assertion analysis (Carspecken & Apple, 1992). First, I identified initial patterns and assertions using Nvivo, a qualitative data analysis software program, to organize the data in a process similar to the concept-indicator model suggested by Strauss (1987). This was followed by a period of collecting “contrast data” to test and refine my initial codes and assertions. I followed this process for all data sets. I then used a variety of componential analyses (Spradley, 1980) to juxtapose categories and concepts. For exam­ple, I explored which “representations of femininity” occurred in presen­tations on prevention, presentations on STDs, the performance of the plays, and so on.

In terms of the selection and analysis of the popular texts, I chose texts that emerged during fieldwork (see Appendix A for details on text selection criteria). For the most part, I conducted the textual analysis after analyzing the ESPERANZA data. This made it possible to analyze the popular texts in terms of the following potential points of intersection: (1) how the texts thwart challenges to dominant discourses of sexuality posed by ESP­ERANZA, (2) how the texts pose additional challenges to these discourses, (3) how the texts reproduce dominant discourses in ways similar to or different from ESPERANZA, and (4) how these texts speak to “missing issues” in ESPERANZA. In analyzing the data, I used close reading or textual analysis methods to examine the ways that specific representations, narratives, and discourses encourage or temporarily “fix” particular mean­ings and subject-positions, denying others (Nelson, 1999; Mechling & Mechling, 1999; see Appendix B for details on textual analysis criteria).

In offering my analysis, I am not suggesting that I am unveiling the true meaning of these films. Indeed, I recognize that multiple readings abound as youth take up these and other popular texts in messy, complex, and contradictory ways (Billig, 1997; Buckingham, 1993; Jensen & Pauly, 1997; Willis, 1990). On the other hand, it is also important to recognize the sig­nificance of “textual determinacy” in structuring meanings so that some readings are more likely than others (Condit, 1989; Morley, 1997). As such, it is still quite useful and possible to analyze a text for likely interpretations and readings. Although such analysis is certainly partial, it is also an im­portant way of understanding these texts, particularly for the purposes of this study. Although investigating how teens talk about or take up popular culture in informal contexts is important, such contexts tend to be more spontaneous and sporadic. Analyzing these films as a whole, however, pro­vides educators a more sustained and developed context for examining popular culture’s treatment of sexuality. This approach is particularly help­ful for more formal curriculum development because it helps illuminate similarities and differences in the ways that popular culture and sex education deal with issues of sexuality. As such, it helps educators better understand how popular culture might inform their efforts to discuss sexuality with youth in formal schooling contexts.

In addition, to further support my analysis, I do attempt to tentatively examine actual audience responses by including data on how teens occa­sionally talked about these texts in informal contexts in ESPERANZA and in focus groups and interviews with me. I would suggest that, in the future, more in-depth research into how actual teens take up popular culture, in informal contexts and in real classrooms, would enhance the analysis I offer here. To date, however, such conversations in classrooms are exceedingly rare. With these considerations in mind, then, I now turn to the first part of my study: an exploration of the successes and limitations of ESPERANZA’s current efforts to address teen sexuality.


“And now we are going to break out the toy box,” Karen, the adult facilitator, announces jovially to the class of 15 ninth graders in a local public high school health class. “Any volunteers?” Everyone chuckles, shifting in their seats, as they suspect but are not quite sure why she is asking them to volunteer. A couple of brave souls volunteer.

Thus begins ESPERANZA’s typical Prevention Methods presentation. This presentation is the one that ESPERANZA delivers most frequently, followed closely by the STD presentation. Of the five presentations the program offers, these presentations accounted for approximately 68% of the total presentations delivered during the months I observed. As such, the Pre­vention Methods presentation reflects many of the primary messages that ESPERANZA communicates to teens through its “official” curriculum. To capture the flavor of the typical Prevention Methods presentation, I continue with the above vignette:

Ian, a peer educator, calls on a female volunteer who comes to the front of the room. “Okay, let’s demonstrate how to put this on.” He holds out a condom and a banana. She throws her head back, laugh­ing. After a moment, she proceeds to open the package and unroll the condom onto the banana, laughing sheepishly as she does so. Students call out various forms of encouragement. One person cries in mock dismay, “Uh oh, you did it wrong!”

Ian prompts her, “Okay, you’re done; everything’s been done. Now you take it off.”

“Uh oh, I’m not sure I remember how to do this,” she chuckles as she attempts to unroll the condom. Eventually she pulls a little too hard and snaps it. “Oh good job!” Ian smiles as he teases, “Now there’s semen everywhere.” She and the other students laugh. “All right. Thanks very much. Good job. Everyone give her a hand.” Ian indi­cates she can sit down, and Jason, another PE, continues, “All right, so you hear about how condoms don’t always work because they break and stuff. Well, usually they break because they are not used properly. In fact, when used properly, they are approximately 99% effective. So let’s go through the steps again to see exactly how we do it properly.”

The condom demonstration is the centerpiece of the typical Prevention Methods presentation. As in the above vignette, the PEs and adult facilita­tors usually do a number of things to break the ice and relieve any initial discomfort. Karen employs an energetic but engaging speaking style, and her announcement that “we are going to break out the toy box” usually garners a few laughs, relaxing the audience and engaging their interest. Likewise, throughout the presentation, the PEs tease and joke with the students, remarking, “oh good job . . . now there’s semen everywhere,” “hey, it’s my banana!” and “you need to leave . . . a little house for the spermies.” Carefully covering every step in proper condom use becomes the primary focus of the remainder of this presentation. The PEs reinforce the importance of these steps by noting that failure to follow them accounts for almost all instances of condom ineffectiveness. Sometimes, at the end of a presentation, they review the steps again, distributing laminated cards with one step of the process on each card. They then ask students to line up, arranging themselves in the correct order of steps.

After the condom demonstration, the PEs usually demonstrate how to use the female, or interior, condom. During this demonstration, a PE or an adult facilitator often will mention that this condom “allows the woman—or receiving partner—to be in charge.” This demonstration is quickly followed with a briefer demonstration and discussion of a variety of other prevention methods, including the diaphragm, foam, birth control pill, and dental dams. The PEs show each product and pass them around to the students. When showing the dental dams, PEs often interject, “You know, like in Booty Call,” referring to a humorous scene involving dental dams (described later in the textual analysis). Throughout the presentation, the PEs make ref­erence to where you can obtain these products. They typically close the presentation by reminding the students that they can obtain male and fe­male/interior condoms and dental dams for free at the ESPERANZA office.

Through this presentation, the PEs and adult facilitators challenge a number of traditional ways of talking about sex with teens. First, here (and in the related STD presentation) they make visible important information about sex and protection methods by providing detailed and clear expla­nations. As noted earlier, existing sex education programs are frequently criticized for not providing teens access to specific, detailed information about prevention methods. In addition, incorrect condom use has often been identified as a major problem among those teens who actually are using protection (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2000b; Kirby, 1999). Similarly, recent studies have noted how, even when teens know about condoms, they sometimes have difficulty knowing where to obtain them, feel embarrassed obtaining them in regular stores, or cannot afford to purchase them (Kirby, 1999, 1997). For the most part, abstinence-only programs do not talk about this information at all, and even a majority of comprehensive programs only provide minimal information about condoms and sometimes other methods of protection (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2000a). ESPERANZA most cer­tainly breaks with this tradition and provides teens with the information about protection that they are so often denied. Furthermore, by engaging teens in detailed, and often humorous, discussions, these presentations also challenge prevailing assumptions that teens will be unable to handle these conversations in a mature manner. Rather than interpreting joking and laughter as immature reactions, ESPERANZA interprets these moments as an acceptable, even desirable, way of dealing with this subject matter.

In addition, ESPERANZA PEs provide rare challenges to the heteronormativity that pervades most sex education programs (Harrison, 2000; Sears, 1997; Trudell, 1992). For example, when talking about the female condom they stress that it is also called the “interior condom” and can be used by “the receiving partner in same-sex relationships.” Similarly, during the dental dam explanation, the PEs emphasize that these products can be used on the vagina and anus. Although the PEs frequently presume heterosexual relationships through much of the presentations, comments such as these do provide momentary disruptions by at least making homo­sexuality visible.

In these ways, then, ESPERANZA begins to challenge dominant dis­courses of sexuality and successfully addresses some of the critiques made of existing sex education. The continued focus on the technical and scientific, however, leaves many important power-laden aspects of sexuality invisible. One of the most notable things absent in these presentations is the discus­sion of (primarily male) resistance to condom use. This was particularly noteworthy given how often it came up informally among PEs. For exam­ple, during a rehearsal break, a few of the PEs were informally discussing dating and sex. A male PE casually mentioned “let’s be honest, it’s just not the same with a jimmy. It’s just not as satisfying.” Another PE responded, “Yeah, but it’s worth it. It’s more satisfying than herpes.” He laughed and the original PE agreed. They then discussed with two of the female PEs whether it is as satisfying for girls. Likewise, in an interview with me, one of the male PEs talked about how boys often say, “Oh, condoms suck and all that shit,” noting that “I was like that too.”

Similarly, PEs talk about the threat condoms or even talking about con­doms poses to masculinity. Such threats surfaced in another PE’s descrip­tion of her experience distributing condoms to male teens at the local pedestrian mall. “It’s funny . . . there’s two kinds of guys who refuse con­doms: the ones who are, like, ‘I don’t need those, my girlfriend carries them,’ or the ones who don’t need them because they don’t have sex. And my reaction to them is ‘why are you going to look like an idiot? Just take it.”‘ Here she vividly captures the complicated and tenuous relationship be­tween condoms and masculinity. On one hand, boys sometimes do not want to take the condom because “real men” do not worry about birth control. Also, simply possessing condoms might expose their lack of knowledge about actually using one—a revelation that flies in the face of societal ex­pectations for an experienced male sexuality. On the other hand, not taking the condoms can make them look like “idiots.” As such, condoms simul­taneously function as both a threat to and a status marker of masculinity.

These relational, status-laden complexities, though very real, are rarely addressed in any of the prevention method presentations. For the most part, the material is presented matter of factly, as a matter of technique. If mentioned at all, these complexities are mentioned only in passing. For instance, when discussing the female condom, the PEs sometimes mention that one of the benefits is “not having to talk your partner into using it.” The discussion, however, quickly moves on. In this way, the female condom itself succinctly symbolizes how efforts to “empower” women can simulta­neously ensure that they remain responsible for prevention.

Now, one might suspect that perhaps these silences around the relation­al, power-laden aspects of sexuality are unique to the Prevention Methods presentation because its primary goal is to deliver clear technical informa­tion. These silences, however, extend to the other ostensibly nontechnical or less scientific presentations, such as the Healthy and Unhealthy Rela­tionships presentation and the two theatrical performances, forums that seem ideal places for such discussion. In the Healthy Relationships pres­entation, PEs engage the student audience in constructing lists of charac­teristics that define “healthy” versus “unhealthy” relationships. Elsewhere, I explore in detail how these lists transport scientific, linear assumptions and ways of talking into these “less scientific” presentations (Ashcraft, 2003b). In so doing, they foster rather lifeless and “politically correct” an­swers; teens list off a barrage of characteristics they know that they are “supposed” to list. Stimulating complex discussion with these lists is diffi­cult, and PEs often resort to asking leading questions such as, “Is it a re­lationship with just sex?” or “Shouldn’t you respect someone you’re sleeping with?” Such questions make it fairly evident what the “correct” answer is and reinforce the sanitized nature of the discussion. Although these simplified lists are intended to make this information more digestible and applicable to real life, they actually ensure that it is almost completely irrelevant and inapplicable.

Likewise, the performances of the two plays hold powerful potential for addressing these complex relational issues, and in fact, they often do hint at these issues more than any of the presentations. Interestingly, many of these hints occur as the PEs incorporate aspects of youth and popular culture into the performances. In both plays, ESPERANZA PEs use youth language, clothing, and mannerisms to engage the audience’s interest. They set the tone with the opening barrage of baggy pants, long T-shirts, mannerisms associated with hip-hop culture, and colloquial comments that fill the stage—comments such as “this is such a sausage party,” “that shit’s gonna be so tight,” and “I don’t gotta use a jimmy.” Likewise, in an effort to increase the “realness,” the adult director encourages PEs to improvise with popular language that comes to them in the moment. For example, in Living With AIDS, one actor cast as “the player” spontaneously substituted “it’s a waste of a perfectly good boner” to describe why he did not like to use condoms. Similarly, the “player” character delivers another line in the following manner:

Anyhow, I’m what you would call a Casanova. I love women, but I hate jimmys! I had a girlfriend but it’s so hard to stay faithful with so many fine females out there [He describes a wild night he had at a party]. After that night I decided to go get myself tested.

Clearly, these comments tap into the complexities that surround condom use and its relationship to prevailing masculinities. As such, these characters could help teens envision and discuss the complex relational dynamics in­volved in sexual decision making. This potential is diminished, however, in the workshops that immediately follow the presentations. These workshops focus again almost exclusively on factual information about STDs, preven­tion, and other biological information. Any discussion about the characters or the complex emotional issues raised by the play is short and also takes a more technical form in the asking of testlike yes or no questions, as in the following excerpt from a workshop after Living With Aids:

James: Now let’s talk a little about the characters in the play. Do you remember the first character’s name?

[Audience members say “Angel”]

James: Do you think he has HIV?

Girl: Yeah, from Bubba

James: How about Rose?

Guy: Maybe. [They talk about whether she could have gotten it from her mother.]

James: Isaac?

[Several say, “Yeah, from the hoochies.”]

James: Des?

[Several say, “Yeah, from sharing needles.”]

In the performance workshops I observed, this was the full extent of the conversation about the characters. In this discussion, the focus is on de­termining who has AIDS or is more likely to have it. As such, it primarily serves as a way to teach or check for understanding of risk levels. Although this is important information, the complex issues raised by the performance remain unexplored. Likewise, after performances of the other play, The First Days of School, much of the discussion that I observed focused on catego­rizing the characters in terms of who has low or high self-esteem (Ashcraft, 2003b). As such, popular culture in the plays primarily functions as a hook for discussing the more scientific information rather than as a vehicle for stimulating discussion about more complex, relational issues. Instead, it serves simply as a more interesting way of talking with teens about STDs and prevention. Although this is certainly beneficial in and of itself, it seems that much is missed.


For a taste of what is missed, I turn to one conversation that arose quite haphazardly in a Prevention Methods presentation with a group of 14- and 15-year-old African American, Latino, and Anglo girls living in a juvenile detention home. This conversation hints at the potentially serious conse­quences of failing to consider the power-laden dynamics of sex and sex­uality. The conversation began when one of the girls offhandedly made the following remark as we were preparing to leave:

Kim: My boyfriend does not like me to carry a condom. He gets upset. He thinks I’m cheating on him.

Karen: (the Anglo adult facilitator) Are you using anything?

Kim: We’re not using anything now. I was on the birth control pill but I got tired of picking it up every 2 months at the clinic. The doctor said if he [her boyfriend] really cared about me, he’d use a condom. Whenever I have one, he’s just like, “Whatdya got these for?”

Up to this point, Kim had been actively participating in the presentation, even demonstrating some of the equipment. And, clearly, even before this presentation, she had information about condoms and birth control pills. That she was still not using them swiftly turns on its head the prevailing societal presumption that possessing this information is the most important ingredient for promoting healthy sexual behavior. Greatly to their credit, Karen and James (the Latino PE) stayed overtime to discuss this with the girls. After mentioning that she might want to talk to her boyfriend about “whether or not he is ready to become a parent,” the group engaged in the following conversation:

Karen: The reality is we are women. Our bodies are made to have babies. If we have unprotected sex for a year, 8 out of 10 us in this room will get pregnant. Unless you’re ready for us to be all walking around like [imitates pregnant woman]. I’m 26 and I’m not ready. I know it’s kind of a pain but it’s important.

Girl 4: It’s not that much of a pain. I’d rather do that than have AIDS.

Girl 3: Yeah, it’s stupid to not do it. . . . That’s just stupid when you could pop on a condom and everything be okay.

Kim: [who has just publicly admitted to not “popping on a condom”] I go every 3-4 months to get tested. I never know you know. He’s gorgeous. He could be a ho. I’ve been with him 3 years but . . .

Girl 6: How old are you?

Kim: 16

Girl 1: How old is he?

Kim: 17

Karen: What if you tell him no more sex without a condom?

Kim: I told him a long time ago I wasn’t going to have sex until I got married. He laughed.

Girl 4: Tell him you’re gonna get married.

Karen: Yeah, but are you ready for that even? Do you want that?

Girl 3: No man! I got many states to visit!

In Karen’s initial comments here, she tries to make sure that whatever else happens, these girls understand that they need to protect themselves. Do­ing so is important given the “reality” that, at this historical moment, the girls will most likely need these tools when faced with “guys who do not take care of their stuff.” At the same time, however, these comments also nat­uralize female responsibility for birth control, ignoring the sociohistorical factors that have produced this so-called reality. Likewise, her summary statement, “I know it’s a pain but it’s kind of important” tends to dismiss the “pain” at the same time that it acknowledges it. However, Karen and James’s decision to continue this conversation did allow the girls a chance to at least talk a bit more about this pain. Here the girls begin to compare their differing opinions and experiences, challenging each other as to whether they should start relationships that young, whether marriage is an accept­able answer, whether “popping on a condom” is worth it, and whether one should get married when they “got many states to visit.” And, indeed, the conversation about “the pain” continued as follows:

Girl 1: You can’t just ask guys to go to the West Side Clinic. Guys are guys. They don’t wanna talk about that stuff.

Karen: What do you think, James? We should check in with you for the guy’s perspective.

Girls: But he’s a good guy! [They had just insisted that there weren’t any.]

James: Yeah, you’re right, lots of guys are stupid. But you just can’t allow it. Don’t let ‘em run over you. [A few girls mutter, “That’s right!”] They may act bad, but they aren’t as tough as they act. Stand up to ‘em.

This initiates a conversation about different guys. The girls then start dis­cussing the dangers of becoming “all attached in a month” and how you “can’t be saying I love you like that.” They compare some of their different experiences. At one point, Kim quietly remarks, “I’m thinking of leaving; I’m tired of it!” Nobody else seems to hear her though. James reassures them, “Don’t lose your faith in guys, some will take care of their stuff. Don’t apply it to all guys.” This leads to more discussion about some guys who are “nice.” Karen notes that “boys are not totally different creatures,” and one girl gives a positive example of a boy she knows, as does Karen. This leads into a brief discussion about whether all boys are “scandalous” and whether girls can be scandalous as well.

In this conversation, James is trying nobly to help the girls by encour­aging them to “stand up to guys.” At the same time, however, his comments also continue to position the girls as solely responsible for birth control. The trouble that both Karen and James have in breaking out of this narrative highlights how difficult it is to talk about birth control in ways that empower girls without simultaneously holding them solely responsible. On the other hand, merely allowing the girls to compare and talk about their experiences may be a first step in finding such language. Likewise, James’s mere presence in this discussion prompted further discussion about different guys and allowed the girls to compare their experiences with boys. In addition, it provided opportunities for males and females to negotiate such matters together—another rare opportunity in existing programs that tend to position males and females as adversaries in a sexual game. Con­versing with James and hearing about some girls’ positive experiences challenged the girls’ initial assertions and perceptions that all guys are “scandalous” and that any relationship they have with a boy is destined to be negative. In fact, hearing about alternative relationships inspired Kim, at least for a moment, to consider leaving her boyfriend because she was “tired of it.”

This conversation, then, provides a poignant glimpse into what might happen if we were to engage teens in more of these kinds of discussions. Clearly, teens can have—and indeed are already having—discussions about more complex issues of sexuality and relationships (see Ashcraft, 2002, for more examples of these kinds of conversations in informal contexts in ESPERANZA). The above conversation also highlights the difficulties that educators and students have in escaping discourses that position girls as responsible for birth control and boys as “scandalous” or unwilling to “go to the West Side Clinic.” These dominant discourses bear greatly on teens’ sexual identities and on their abilities to make responsible decisions. Like­wise, they bear greatly on educators’ efforts to help them.

ESPERANZA expressly set out to challenge traditional ways of talking about sex with teens, and in many instances succeeded. That, despite its conscious intentions, it too failed to stimulate regular conversations about these kinds of real-life complexities is particularly telling. If educators are to truly help teens make healthy decisions and challenge these dominant dis­courses, we need to be able to stimulate more of these kinds of conversa­tions. As Karen herself passionately observed after the above incident at the detention center, “These are the kinds of discussions we need to be gen­erating on a daily basis!” To explore how we might begin to do so, I turn now to a look at how two popular texts, crazy/beautiful and Booty Call, deal with these same issues.


The movie crazy/beautiful, released in the summer of 2001, explores the budding relationship between Nicole, a reckless and somewhat self-destructive Anglo senior, and Carlos, a studious, responsible Latino senior she meets while she is doing community service for a DUI arrest. They attend the same magnet high school on the coast of Los Angeles. She lives in the nearby elite neighborhood; he leaves for school from his inner-city neighborhood at 5:43 a.m. and travels two hours by bus. The movie builds on familiar themes of star-crossed lovers, parental disapproval, and cultural clashes. It sometimes resorts to familiar cliché’s but, in many other instances, explores these themes in more sophisticated ways. For example, although Carlos’s family sometimes objects to Nicole because she is White, Nicole has both positive and negative interactions with his family, making the rela­tionship more nuanced and realistic.

In many ways, Carlos’s character simultaneously challenges dominant representations of Latino masculinities and of hegemonic male sexualities.5 Shortly after Carlos and Nicole meet, she and her best friend give him a ride home after a football game. Carlos sits in the back seat and amusedly watches the girls in front singing wildly and acting crazy. At one point, Nicole, who is presumably a bit drunk, climbs in the back seat and starts playing with Carlos’s necklace. Carlos jokes, “I didn’t say you could touch that,” to which she seductively responds, “Oh yeah, what can I touch?” He laughs evasively, a bit taken off guard. She climbs on top of his lap and whispers, “Oh come, on Carlos.” They start kissing, and she becomes a bit more aggressive. “Whoa, slow down,” he says softly, still kissing her a bit. “Chill, girl” he smiles, “I like it too but not right now.” He gently moves her off to the side and diverts the situation.

Later in the movie, when they attempt to have sex for the first time, Nicole takes Carlos to her disheveled bedroom and begins undressing. He looks at her confused and asks if she is “gonna lock the door.” She responds, “Naaah.” They begin kissing on the bed and after a short while, Carlos says between kisses, “ I don’t have any uh. . .” Before he can finish, Nicole interjects, “It’s okay.” They kiss a bit more until he pauses and says quietly, “No . . . it’s not okay.” They stop for a second. She gets up, says “don’t move,” and goes to find a condom. She comes back, condom in hand, and they begin kissing again. Her dad drives up, however, and Carlos sees him outside the bedroom window. “Oh shit!” he rolls off the bed. She assures him that it is all right. “It’s my dad. He doesn’t care. I’ve got a condom, he’d be so proud.” Carlos remains unconvinced, however. They get dressed and go to meet the parents.

In these scenes, a representation of male sexuality that takes responsibility for birth control and for regulating the sexual progression of the relation­ship begins to develop. In the car, Carlos good-naturedly tells her to “slow down” and “chill” and gently moves her off his lap. In the bedroom, he asks if she is going to lock the door, insists that they use a condom, and eventually calls an end to their first attempt. This alternative representation of male sexuality potentially helps male teens envision ways that they might slow things down or insist on protection without “looking like idiots”—the exact concerns that the ESPERANZA PEs talked about in informal contexts. In fact, my attention was first directed toward crazy/beautiful by one of the male PEs who mentioned the movie in an interview with me. He was talking about how boys sometimes find it difficult to bring up condoms or the possibility of slowing down. He then cited the scene with Carlos and Nicole in the car as a positive yet realistic example of a male taking responsibility for slowing down the relationship. In the interview, he described the scene as follows:

PE: There’s a point where she’s [Nicole] like kind of all over him and he does it in a way that he’s like ‘chill,’ like ‘what are you doing?’ [PE uses tentative, nonconfrontational, joking tone] instead of being like, “No! we can’t do this!” [PE switches to serious, bossy, more author­itative tone]

Me: So he does it in kind of a humorous way or something?

PE: He does it in a very real way, and he makes you like respect him like, kind of like, “What do you think this is, just stop for a minute, just stop.”

Carlos’s character, then, helps some teens envision how males might say “slow down” or negotiate birth control in ways that seem realistic or doable in real life, ways that they might carve out a masculinity that enables them to say no.

The alternative masculinity that Carlos displays throughout the movie, however, must also be considered within the context of discourses of ro­mance. Depictions of responsible caring, sensitive males are not new (al­though depictions of Latino ones are arguably rather few). In fact, these fictitious representations buttress dominant discourses of romance by in­vesting girls in the relentless pursuit of real-life models who will fulfill dreams of lifelong, true love (Christian-Smith, 1987; Holland & Eisenhart, 1990). Carlos’s character and the romance story in this film do not nec­essarily escape this problem. The active role he plays in negotiating pro­tection, however, is an unusual feature in this representation—so unusual, it is perhaps potentially unconvincing. I will return to this in a moment.

Likewise, Nicole’s character, in many ways, sketches an alternative rep­resentation of femininity, albeit far from an exclusively positive one. She is the initiator in almost every scene involving forms of sexual expression. She takes him out for a romantic date and makes her room “Carlos friendly,” the sort of romantic or “good treatment” that males typically enact so that their partners will feel comfortable having sex (Holland & Eisenhart, 1990). She is the one who scares him with her adventurous behavior and, in the end, she is the one who says “I wanna be good for you. I want to make things better for once, not worse. Because I really want to be with you.” This too is a conflicted representation. On one hand, it potentially inverts an old script where this time it is the love of a good man that settles her. On the other, it merely revises romance scripts in which what she is and decides to become is dependent on him. After all, the movie ends with him in the Navy and with her “going out to see him next week.” Who knows what she does when she is not visiting him in the Navy.

Now before I make connections to curriculum, I want to turn to consider Booty Call and a different take on the relationship between masculinities, femininities, and sex. Booty Call, released in early 1997, is an African Amer­ican slapstick comedy about safe sex and the myriad fiascos involved in attempting to enact it. It opens with a double date between Nikki and Rushon, who have been going out for 7 weeks, and their respective friends, Listi and Bunz, whom they have set up on a blind date. Through these early scenes, two complex and quite different representations of female sexuality emerge in Nikki’s and Listi’s characters. Nikki represents a more traditional female sexuality, while Listi flaunts female desire. The contrast intensifies when Rushon, frustrated that he has dated Nikki for almost 2 months without any “action,” turns to Listi and asks, “Have you ever made a brother wait 7 weeks to get up on that thang?” This elicits the following exchange between Nikki and Listi:

Nikki: Why ask her? She ain’t never made a man wait 30 minutes.

Bunz: [says curiously in singsong tone] Do I smell a whore?

Listi: [pointing] No, no, no, no! See, I have full confidence in my sexuality, and I don’t toil over it like some prudes I know.

Nikki: Prude! See, I am nobody’s prude. I just don’t wanna rush into having sex, and see that may be hard for you to understand.

Listi: Oh really, well you might be able to understand that if you cleared away some of those cobwebs from your coochie mommy.

Nikki: Coochie cobwebs!

This scene does not play as a stereotypical “catfight,” or petty fight between two women, although Bunz indicates that he’d like to see it devolve into one. Rather, it plays as good-natured sparring between the two friends. This helps maintain the validity of both their orientations; Listi does not actually think that Nikki is a prude, nor does Nikki think that Listi is a whore. The remainder of the movie focuses on the rest of this evening as it unfolds in a series of comedic, if not outrageous, mishaps that occur as the couples attempt to either purchase or use various protection methods.

One of the most interesting things about Booty Call, particularly for sex education, is how it manages to slip in a barrage of detailed infomercial-like lines for safe sex without spoiling all the raucous, slapstick shenanigans. Most of these infomercials come from Nikki, who is the most insistent of the four, yet remains a hilarious, well-liked character rather than becoming a shrill stereotype. As she and Rushon begin kissing on the couch, she stops and asks if he has a condom because “I want this; I just don’t want to die for it.” He goes to get his condom, but in his excitement to open it, he flips it across the room, where Nikki’s dog proceeds to shred it. He checks next door at Listi’s apartment, where Listi and Bunz are getting rather amorous, to see if they happen to have any spares. After finding out that not only do they not have any spares but they have no condoms at all, Nikki calls Listi on the phone and scolds her. “Girl, have you lost your mind. Unsafe sex can be deadly. You don’t know Bunz . . . you don’t know that boy from a can of paint. Girl, you better go get you a condom.” Listi reluctantly agrees to send Bunz out with Rushon in pursuit of protection. Sadly for them, how­ever, the boys come home with $38 lambskin condoms. Although these appear to be good enough for Listi and Bunz, Nikki blurts out, “Don’t you listen to the surgeon general? Lambskin condoms don’t protect you against the transmission of the HIV virus.” So again the boys are off to purchase latex. After another series of mishaps, we come to the scene that the ESPERANZA PEs so often refer to in the Prevention Methods presentation: the scene in which Nikki reminds Rushon that he needs a dental dam or, in this case, Saran Wrap to “protect against the exchange of bodily fluids.” Of course, Nikki seems to be out of Saran Wrap, so it is back to the store for the boys.

During these escapades, Bunz frequently chides Rushon for bringing him into this mess. He taunts Rushon for being “whipped” or for “slippin” and says “these women are running us, we’re not running them.” When Rushon finally decides he’s had enough of Nikki’s requests, Bunz seconds his decision, complaining, “They got you slippin’ and now you got me slippin.’ I’m outta here. You with me?” Their exit does not go exactly as planned, however, and the four of them wind up on the way to the hospital. Up to this point, Nikki has intermittently confronted Rushon on his change of behavior around Bunz. For example, early in the movie, she says to Rushon, “Do you know how sweet you are, how nice you are? Then your boys come around and it’s like [she makes her voice deep], ‘Waz up, Nigga?’ Now who you checkin’ for—me or Bunz?” This conflict resurfaces in the hospital when Nikki rescues Rushon from the surgery room where he has been mistakenly taken for removal of a testicle. He begs her not to tell Bunz about the incident. This is the last straw for Nikki:

Nikki: Here we go again. Worrying about what Bunz is gonna think. Lord forbid, you get embarrassed in front of Bunz. That’s what I’m talkin’ about?

Rushon: Hey, Nikki, you mean everything to me but come on, there’s a place where a brother got to draw the line now.

Nikki: And there comes a time when a woman has got to. [Bunz joins them and begins joking with Rushon.] Now that your boy is here I’m sure everything will be fine.

Rushon: Nikki, what do I have to do to prove that I don’t give a fuck what Bunz thinks?

Nikki: The proof is in the doing.

Rushon: [thinks for a moment] All right, fuck it! [He stands up from his wheelchair and lifts up his hospital gown, flashing Bunz presum­ably revealing where he was shaved for his close-call with testicle re­moval surgery.]

Nikki, Listi, and Bunz all drop their jaws. Once Bunz recovers, he starts hurling testicle-related wisecracks, to which Rushon casually responds, “Oh come on. Is that the best you can do?” Rushon then joins Nikki, and they begin to walk off. Listi silences Bunz, telling him, “you really need to quit, speedy,” referencing a sexual performance problem Bunz had encountered earlier with her. He sheepishly launches into a litany of excuses and says, “Let’s keep that one on the downlow.” Listi nods toward Rushon, as she and Bunz follow them out. “You could learn a lot from him,” she observes, and the movie ends.

These scenes highlight, albeit in a humorous, outrageous fashion, how males hold each other accountable to representations of masculinity as aggressive, powerful, and sexually experienced. That Rushon gives in to Nikki’s demands for protection and tries to please her equates to being “whipped” or “slippin.” This clearly illustrates the signifying chain between condoms, femininity, and the substantial threat that they both pose to frag­ile hegemonic masculinities. The above scene in which this ongoing conflict is finally resolved (when Rushon flashes Bunz) also draws upon the histor­ically significant link between the phallus and hegemonic masculinity (Bordo, 1999; Whatley, 1991). On one hand, that Rushon is willing to flash Bunz in order to leave with Nikki could certainly reinforce the idea that being with a woman requires or necessarily results in emasculation, and although he did not literally lose his testicle, perhaps he symbolically loses it when he reveals the embarrassingly close call. This is especially likely be­cause, for all his obnoxious rants, Bunz plays as a rather likeable character, and many males are likely to identify with him. On the other hand, Rushon does not seem embarrassed after he flashes Bunz. This potentially directs viewers toward a reading that this is no big deal after all. Likewise, Listi also calls attention to Bunz’s own phallic inadequacies but does not seem both­ered by them until he begins making endless excuses. At that point, she rolls her eyes and concludes the movie with her final line, “You could learn a lot from him [Rushon].” This potentially disrupts the link between the pow­erful phallus and hegemonic masculinity by pointing out both males’ in­adequacies in this area, constructing these inadequacies as unimportant to masculinity and locating the real problem in Bunz’s failure to recognize this. That this is the last thing the audience hears directs them toward this reading.


In many ways, these popular texts address the precise topics and complex­ities often missing from formal sex education. In so doing, they provide powerful resources for making sex education more relevant to youth. Likewise, they offer rich opportunities for challenging and rewriting dom­inant discourses of sexuality. As such, educators would do well to consider the implications of texts such as these in their efforts to address teen sex­uality. Efforts that instead continue to ignore these “youth sexual cultures and forms of popular culture representation” will continue to be “readily mocked” (Epstein & Johnson, 1998, p. 197). With this in mind, I now explore the implications of the above analysis for developing more relevant critical multicultural sex education. As the second part of my opening ar­gument suggests, however, sex education is not the only arena that needs to address teen sexuality. I will also explore, then, the implications of this analysis for mainstream classrooms.

Before elaborating on how we might use these texts, I wish to clarify my purpose. In many cases, I will contend that these films could serve as start­ing points for many important discussions with teens. My main point, how­ever, is not to advocate the use of these specific films. Although in some cases that would be appropriate and beneficial, I am more interested in offering them as examples of how popular texts in general might inform curricular and classroom practice. For example, educators could use similar popular texts that might be more appropriate in differing contexts, or they might use the representations and narratives in these popular texts to cre­ate their own skits, role-plays, or video segments that resonate with teens and engage them in meaningful conversation.

I also acknowledge that significant difficulties arise in attempting to ac­tually use these texts (or similar popular texts) in classrooms, especially in terms of time constraints, parental objections, teacher discomfort, and other such limitations. In many ways, this points to a larger need to question how we educate our children, a discussion well beyond the scope of this article. Much can be done, however, even within existing models of education. For example, although members of ESPERANZA often felt pressed for time in their Prevention Methods presentations, the performances and the less sci­entific presentations (e.g., on healthy and unhealthy relationships) might be even more conducive sites for incorporating popular texts and discussions around them. Interestingly, these are the same presentations in which ESPERANZA PEs felt that they did not have enough activities or sometimes had to stretch activities to fill the time. In addition, more recent program evaluations of sex education provide room for justifying popular culture even in terms of more traditional definitions of effectiveness (e.g., reducing teen pregnancy, STDs). These evaluations contend that, contrary to earlier speculation, broader youth development programs are effective in reducing actual rates of pregnancy (Kirby, 2001). These studies recommend taking a broader approach to sexuality education and helping students examine cultural norms and values around sexuality, addressing these issues in con­junction with other problems that teens face (Kirby, 2001, 1999). Popular culture is certainly one such place where these cultural norms and values surface. As such, we can justify incorporating popular culture into sex ed­ucation as an important strategy even in terms of more traditional, utili­tarian definitions of effectiveness.

Of course, parental or community objections pose additional constraints to consider, particularly in conservative local contexts. As I note above, one way of addressing parental objections is to design curriculum that does not require the use of specific popular texts, but rather uses the ideas from them in ways that are more appropriate for specific sociopolitical contexts. In addition, however, we sometimes overestimate or misunderstand pa­rental objection. An overwhelming majority of the U.S. population favors comprehensive sex education over abstinence-only sex education (Boonstra, 2004; Dailard, 2001; Haffner & Wagoner, 1999). Although a vocal mi­nority strongly opposes comprehensive sex education, we also sometimes misunderstand the perspective of more conservative parents. In an inter­esting study of a debate about a controversial literacy curriculum, Apple and Oliver (1996) explored how school personnel interpreted initial parental concerns as resistance. As such, they attempted to silence the par­ents rather then engage them in conversation or offer them an explanation of the school district’s rationale. Apple and Oliver documented how this pushed these parents to eventually join more conservative, religious efforts at blocking the proposed curriculum.

This has important implications for discussions of sexuality in sex edu­cation and in mainstream classrooms. Becoming defensive about parental concern sometimes encourages us to misconstrue these concerns and mal­treat those who have them. A variety of parents might have concerns for a number of different reasons about how popular texts would be used and how such discussions about sexuality would be conducted. At the same time, a majority of these parents, also are concerned, even alarmed, by the pop­ular texts that their children consume. In many cases, teachers might be able to justify classroom attention to popular culture by tapping into this existing parental concern. In other words, some of these parents might be reassured by explanations that teachers are helping youth critically examine the texts they already encounter every day, that multiple points of view are enter­tained, and that these classroom discussions might stimulate opportunities for parents to express their own views as they extend these discussions at home, discussions that are often difficult for many parents to initiate on their own. In a moment, I will also highlight how some of the suggestions I make below for more mainstream classrooms might be particularly useful for ed­ucators working in conservative areas. Of course, even with these argu­ments, a small minority of parents will probably remain unconvinced. We cannot, however, let this stifle our efforts to provide opportunities for youth and adults to critically examine sexuality whenever and wherever we can.

With these constraints in mind, then, I turn to the implications of the above analysis for sex education. First, these films hint at a number of possibilities for addressing the complex relationship between masculinity, condoms, and sex. As the earlier informal conversations in ESPERANZA suggest, adolescents need opportunities to explore how protection methods threaten traditional versions of masculinity and how they might envision alternative masculinities. Carlos in crazy/beautiful provides a powerful ex­ample of one such alternative version. Representations such as these could ignite discussion about whether this is a realistic expectation for male sex­uality and/or what a realistic expectation might look like. For example, in ESPERANZA’s extended conversation at the detention center (described earlier), the girls might discuss alternative representations such as Carlos, compare these representations to their own experiences, discuss whether such representations are realistic, and if so, explore why more boys do not behave this way or where to find boys who do.

Although alternative representations such as Carlos are important for helping teens envision new ways of being, such representations tend to be more idealistic and less conflicted. As such, they might appear unrealistic to some teens. Likewise, they may not sufficiently address the pressures that boys encounter as they navigate between hegemonic and alternative masculinities. For example, because Carlos does not struggle with his decision to insist on birth control or to slow down the relationship, he seems to have already overcome the sorts of dilemmas that real boys may face as they attempt to enact alternative masculinities. Providing a range of masculinities, however, tends to highlight these kinds of dilemmas. For example, Bunz’s and Rushon’s contrasting representations of masculinity, and the conflicts between them, offer powerful possibilities for more discussion of how boys hold each other accountable to hegemonic masculinities, why they sometimes participate in oppressive actions, and how they also invent strategies for resistance or at least for removing themselves from the scene. Such discussion would call direct attention to the accountability that boys feel to dominant masculinities, and the creative ways that they articulate alternatives. Furthermore, providing a range of competing representations such as these can also function as a key strategy for not simply reproducing dominant discourses or negative mes­sages that pervade popular culture texts. For example, although educators might be concerned about some of the messages that comedic characters like Bunz might send, contrasting Bunz’s behaviors with Rushon’s (and the wom­en’s reactions to each) provides a powerful way to critically engage potentially negative messages. Likewise, contrasting students’ competing interpretations of each character also might help mitigate the uncritical reproduction of dominant discourses and narratives (see Buckingham, 1998, and Bucking­ham & Sefton Green, 1994, for more information on navigating the negative messages of popular culture with students).

Sex educators also might do well to consider the potential benefits of examining competing masculinities through comedy. On one hand, the outrageous, comedic ways that texts like Booty Call address such threats to hegemonic masculinity might make serious discussion of these issues dif­ficult. On the other hand, teens might be able to laugh initially at the comedic aspects of such moments and subsequently talk about why males are held accountable to these scripts and their own experiences with these dilemmas. In fact, this kind of humor may be one of the only or most effective ways—at least at this point—to initiate discussion around this potentially uncomfortable topic (Whatley, 1991).6

Second, these films also provide cues for more complex representation and discussion of female sexualities and female desire. Nicole’s character in crazy/beautiful and Listi’s character in Booty Call highlight female desire, de­manding that we reckon with it rather than deny or dismiss it. Although both characters’ indifference to condom use might be considered a negative message in terms of safety, it also disrupts the common-sense notion that girls usually, if not always, want to say no. In so doing, these representations illustrate that relying solely on women to enforce birth control is not only unjust, but it is also ludicrous and unwise. Furthermore, even though Nikki’s character in Booty Call retains the primary responsibility for birth control, her “infomercials” employ amusing and inventive strategies that preserve her as a likeable character. As such, she potentially provides women (and perhaps men) with possible ways of negotiating safe sex without looking like a “prude.” Discussing characters such as these might help adults and teens carve out representations and language that do not position girls as solely responsible for birth control and boys as “scandal­ous”—the kinds of language that, despite their best intentions, Karen, James and the girls in the detention center lacked.

Third, providing this range of both femininities and masculinities po­tentially fosters more complex and realistic discussion of what consti­tutes “healthy” and equitable relationships. Earlier, I noted the unrealistic, “politically correct” nature of some of ESPERANZA’s existing discussions of healthy and unhealthy relationships. The more complex representations in these films, however, provide possibilities for more in-depth discussion of the real-life messy complexities involved in determining a “healthy” rela­tionship. For example, Booty Call’s two contrasting representations of female sexuality led to the “coochie cobweb” conversation referenced earlier. An exchange such as this could lead to a much more real conversation exam­ining different female orientations toward sexuality and what healthy and unhealthy relationships actually look like. Again, these representations might resonate with girls (and boys) engaged in conversations, such as the one that occurred in the detention center, in ways that the current sterile lists of healthy and unhealthy relationships do not. Teens who identify with one or more of the female characters in these movies, and girls who do not, could discuss these characters, critique them, and take from them elements that do resonate.

It is important to note that the range of representations in these films also capture culturally specific ways of talking about these kinds of issues. This is not to say that teens will relate to these representations in a sim­plistic, essential way in terms of race or gender. Although there are many cultural differences between the different characters, particularly in lan­guage, mannerisms, and style, there are also ways that characters across race are more similar than within race. For example, Listi and Nicole both embody more desiring and aggressive female sexualities in contrast to Nikki’s more traditional sexuality. As such, this range of representations also offers opportunities for noting both similarities and differences within and across race, an important conversation to have in order to avoid essentializing or reinforcing racist or sexist discourses.

Finally, the films provide possibilities for helping teens challenge dis­courses of romance. For example, the ending in crazy/beautiful potentially takes teen love a little too seriously and might contribute to unrealistic expectations, particularly for girls. On the other hand, taking such matters seriously is probably an important first step in critiquing them. As such, “happy endings” such as this might provide students with opportunities to discuss whether such endings are realistic, whether the characters involved are likely to stay together, and if they do not, whether this invalidates what they shared for a moment. Furthermore, representations such as Listi’s character in Booty Call do even more to challenge the idea of lifelong true love and could be compared with happy endings like crazy/beautiful. Doing so might also be another way to mitigate some of the more reproductive messages and to help teens envision more realistic and equitable ways of being together.

As I have noted, however, addressing these issues is not the job of sex education alone. In some instances, it may not even be the best site for addressing some of these issues. Clearly, discussions about topics like the threats condoms pose to masculinity would be easier to have in sex edu­cation. Although these more explicit conversations may be difficult to have in mainstream classrooms, safe sex is not all about condoms and prevention methods, as the spontaneous and informal conversations among teens in ESPERANZA illustrate. Broader issues of what it means to be male and female and how these expectations differ in terms of race and class also bear significantly on teens’ sexual decision making. And these broader issues of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality are precisely the kinds of issues that would be more conducive to discussing in mainstream curriculum and classrooms (e.g., literacy and social studies). Indeed, a wealth of recent research illustrates how teens implicitly learn messages about masculinity, femininity, and sexuality in this curriculum and in these classrooms’ prac­tices (Epstein, 1997; Moje & MuQaribou, 2003; Skelton, 2001). Regardless of whether educators acknowledge it, then, sexuality is already present in these contexts, making them a prime location for addressing such issues more explicitly. Doing so would also help create the kind of holistic ap­proach to sexuality that Epstein and Johnson (1998) advocate: sex educa­tion that begins with “relationships, respect, and difference, taking up questions of reproduction along the way, rather than privileging them from the start” (p. 190). For example, educators in literacy classrooms might have students critique scenes from popular texts similar to the ones discussed here for their broader representations of masculinity and femininity. Stu­dents could ask questions about how these dominant representations of masculinity and femininity vary in terms of race and class and how these dominant representations shape students’ decisions, behaviors, and rela­tionships with others. Likewise, teachers and students could explore how these broader, more relational issues of sexuality manifest in more tradi­tional “academic” literature. For example, students might engage in a the­matic unit that explores how representations of masculinity and femininity operate in more traditional literary texts in addition, or in contrast, to popular texts. Similarly, social studies classrooms could use popular culture and past popular culture to highlight issues of shifting masculinities and femininities in different eras. This could be a significant step in demon­strating the fluid and socially constructed nature of sexualities and in critiquing the “naturalness” of current conceptions.

In addition, these discussions in mainstream classrooms may be an easier way of addressing sexuality in locations where the political climate disallows more overt discussions of condoms or protection. Although discussions about broader issues of masculinities, femininities, relationships, and re­spect might also cause controversy, such discussions are potentially less controversial and more subtle than direct discussion about condoms or birth control. As such, incorporating conversations about these broader relational issues into mainstream classrooms might be one way that edu­cators working in these areas could indirectly address factors that are im­portant to teen sexual decision making even though direct conversations about “safe sex” in sex education might be prohibited.

Fostering healthier sexualities is not the only benefit of incorporating discussions of sexuality and popular culture into mainstream classrooms, however. This approach also holds powerful potential for increasing stu­dents’ academic achievement and success. Clearly, adolescents are keenly interested in sexuality and popular culture. Typically, however, schools and educators see these interests as distractions to student learning— distractions that are best ignored or stifled (Trudell, 1993). In so doing, we dismiss potentially powerful resources for engaging students in academic pursuits. I suggest, then, that more mainstream content-area educators would do well to frame teen interest in sexuality (and popular culture) as a vehicle for rather than a threat to academic success. In a related vein, a number of other recent researchers in culturally relevant pedagogy, critical multicultural curriculum, and critical media literacy have begun to inves­tigate how critical analysis of popular culture (e.g., rap music, movies) might be used to increase academic achievement and literacy among traditionally underserved populations (e.g. Luke, 1997; Mahiri & Sablo, 1996; Moje, 2000; Morrell, 2002). These researchers document the recent successes of such strategies and illustrated how incorporating critical analysis of popular culture makes schooling more relevant and increases the academic achieve­ment of diverse urban youth. Situating my analysis within this context, I argue that specifically interrogating matters of sexuality in popular culture is a particularly important and promising strategy for making such curric­ulum relevant and for increasing student engagement in academic content. Likewise, because sexuality in general is of interest and importance to teens, critical discussions of it beyond popular culture also hold potential for in­creasing student engagement and academic success (see Ashcraft, 2005, for more discussion of how ESPERANZA worked toward these possibilities).

These are just a few suggestions about how we might incorporate ed­ucational efforts into addressing teen sexuality into current mainstream classrooms and curricula. I invite more research and inquiry in this arena to extend and enhance these suggestions. Likewise, I urge researchers to in­vestigate what happens when teens in real classrooms engage in these kinds of conversations. Investigating teen understandings in such conversations might inform researchers of future efforts to retheorize more liberating masculinities, femininities, and sexualities. That we pursue these possibil­ities is vital for increasing academic achievement, fostering the development of healthier sexual identities, and developing more equitable social rela­tions. As such, we can no longer afford to stifle these kinds of conversations or relegate them to sex education.

Helping teens navigate this complex world of sexuality is what Lee and Berman (1992) call an ill-structured problem. It demands multiple messy solutions in myriad contexts. As a result, I argue that incorporating these ideas into both sex education and mainstream classrooms is important. Both contexts encounter similar constraints but to varying degrees. Like­wise, the exact mix of these constraints will vary when it comes to specific, localized contexts. What might not be possible in one context may be pos­sible in another context. This points to the importance of “stringing to­gether sets of disruptive practices and sites, rather than posing simply unilateral assault on what we still know to be deeply reproductive settings” (Weis & Fine, 2001, p. 521). If instead we continue to silence almost all discussion of teen sexuality or restrict such discussion to sex education, we will continue to perpetuate at least two tragedies. First, youth will remain all alone to fumble through the complexities of sexuality, wondering if they are the only ones who face this confusion. Second, in ignoring one of the most significant aspects of teens’ lives, we will continue to throw away one of the most powerful resources for developing effective critical multicultural cur­riculum. We cannot be content with this. We must attend to the complexity youth face if we want them to be able to make responsible decisions in the complicated real-life contexts in which these on-the-spot decisions most often occur. We must also attend to this complexity if we wish to engage youth in academic success and social critique. Certainly, these conversations with teens are messy, difficult, and uncomfortable. This, however, does not make them unnecessary.



The popular texts selected for analysis were not meant to be a represent­ative sample of popular culture but were based on a number of criteria, including the following: (1) texts that PEs talked about in casual conver­sation; (2) texts that PEs referred to in presentations; (3) texts that received critical acclaim or box office success as indicators of “cultural significance”; (4) texts that include a diverse cast; and (5) texts that address issues of teen sexuality, race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. The following table il­lustrates how each specific text was selected in terms of these criteria.

click to enlarge



In analyzing these films, I used close reading or textual analysis methods to examine the ways that specific representations, narratives, and discourses encourage or temporarily “fix” particular meanings and subject positions, denying others (Nelson, 1999). I employed the guidelines listed below to determine the important data in each text (Mechling & Mechling, 1999; Nelson).

• Specific instances in these texts that draw upon broader societal rep­resentations, narratives, or discourses (e.g., “common-sense” notions about femininity, masculinity)

• Language choices that invoke certain connotations and shape specific meanings and narratives within the texts themselves (e.g., “scoring” when talking about sleeping with a woman)

• The development of characters, and interactions and dynamics be­tween characters that construct particular subject positions (e.g., tradi­tional or alternative femininities and masculinities)

• Media logics, such as lighting, editing, and sequencing of scenes that construct messages and particular chains of meaning (e.g., how editing back and forth between alternating scenes of two couples affects the way we see their relationship; how the direction of a scene leads viewers to interpret a character’s action; how the repetition of a word or theme is used to link a number of scenes)

• Alternate ways that scenes or characters may have been portrayed or have been portrayed in the past (e.g., previous cinematic representations of masculinity and its connection to the phallus)

• What is unsaid or avoided in particular texts (e.g., the naturalization of Whiteness and the middle class in American Pie)

I then coded the above elements from the texts in terms of key recurring narratives, themes, and available subject positions. For example, in terms of narratives and themes, I noted how a number of the films dealt with dis­courses of romance, female desire, and male responsibility for birth control. In terms of subject positions, I looked at how various characters construct a variety of acceptable female subject positions, ranging from more tradi­tional to more alternative orientations toward romance and sexual desire. I compared and contrasted data from across texts to examine intersections and contradictions in these key narratives, themes, and available subject positions. I then used these data to assert, test, and support claims about the intended or potential readings offered by the text and the implications of these readings for reproducing, negotiating, or transforming existing social relations. For example, I illustrated how language choices or interactions between actors illustrate who does what, when they do it, and what char­acteristics they exhibit in order to support my claim that a character begins to sketch out an alternative femininity or masculinity.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 10, 2006, p. 2145-2186
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12725, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 4:22:00 AM

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About the Author
  • Catherine Ashcraft
    Western Washington University
    CATHERINE ASHCRAFT is assistant professor of multicultural education at Western Washington University. She is interested in how schooling, popular culture, and public rhetoric interact to shape student identities and educational experiences, particularly in terms of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. She is the author of “It’s Just Semantics?: Investigating a School District’s Decision to ‘Respect’ or ‘Value’ Diversity” in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and “The ‘Trouble’ With Boys: Confronting Competing Masculinities in Popular Culture and Schooling” in Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education.
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