Debasing Amy: The Acceleration of the Sexual Revolution

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  • 03/02/2023

This month marks twenty-five years since the theatrical release of Chasing Amy, a romantic tragicomedy that marked the highest level of thematic and cinematic sophistication achieved by north-Jersey auteur Kevin Smith. Prior to Chasing Amy, Smith’s work played like a paean to Gen X suburban lore, peppered with dick jokes and allusions to popular culture. After Chasing Amy, Smith’s output gave diminishing returns, rehashing the same dick jokes with the same characters. But in the spring of 1997, he got (kind of) serious – if only for a moment – and produced a rumination on love, sex, and identity that would become an important period piece in documenting the rapid transformation of American youth culture that unfolded in the last decade of the twentieth-century. 

The cultural value of the film lies not in any realistic depiction of love and relationships, but in its accounting of the sexual norms of the era. In 1997, audiences certainly would have received the film as an affirmation of the secular-progressive view of sex that reigned triumphant after the dust settled from the sexual revolution. But reconsidered through the lens of the contemporary sexual ethic (insofar as an “ethic” exists in 2022), the themes of the film are decidedly retrograde – even “conservative.” 

The plot of Chasing Amy was not complex. Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and his lifelong best friend Banky (Jason Lee) work in the comic book business, independently publishing a monthly about a stoned superhero duo called Bluntman and Chronic. Through industry events, Holden and Banky meet Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), a petite, attractive blonde who is the creator of another comic entitled Idiosyncratic Routine. Alyssa also happens to be a lesbian.

Holden and Alyssa hit it off, and he pursues her aggressively. Alyssa initially resists because a relationship with a man would throw her social world into upheaval. Finally, though, she gives in. Banky is immensely jealous of Alyssa, who has newly monopolized the time and attention of his best friend. In an effort to dissolve the romance, he does some digging into Alyssa’s past, and learns that she was very sexually promiscuous in high school and college. That, in itself, isn’t a problem for Holden: he knows that casual sex (with women) is the norm for Alyssa. But she leads Holden to believe he is the first man she has slept with, when in truth, Alyssa’s past included frequent sexual relations with men (and on occasions, more than one man at a time). Holden rudely confronts her about these facts. 

Initially, he breaks the relationship off. But eventually, he comes up with a plan that he claims will heal all the conflicts in the film. The plan that Holden proposes is that he, Banky and Alyssa will all have sex together. The “logic” is as follows. Holden is intimidated by Alyssa’s sexual experience: by engaging in a menage a trois that includes a man, he will find peace because he would be able to claim a similar level of experience to Alyssa, through an experience enriched by the presence of the woman he loves and his best friend. Holden thinks that Alyssa – having engaged in similar affairs in the past – will likely enjoy the sex, and even if she doesn’t, he promises that by playing along she will regain the man she loves by putting to rest his anxieties about their relationship. Regarding Banky, Holden (and apparently everyone else in the film, without any real justification) believes that he is a closeted gay man who is in love with his best friend. Thus, in Holden’s eyes, the threesome will initiate Banky into the world of gay sex, fulfill his supposed fantasy of being intimate with Holden, and reaffirm their friendship by showing that Holden is willing to share everything with him – even his soulmate.

Sounds ridiculous? Of course, it is. While Banky initially agrees to the arrangement, Alyssa nixes the idea. And in the film’s denouement, we learn that the mere proposal ruined both Holden’s relationship with Alyssa and his friendship with Banky. What was once an upbeat, edgy story about young adults’ sex in the city would now (on a woke reading) be an outrage – a vile outburst of toxic masculinity, queer conversion fantasies, and oppressive heteronormativity.  For normal people, though, watching Chasing Amy in 2022 feels more like witnessing a cautionary tale on the disastrous consequences of taking the political promise of sexual liberation at face value. That this transformation occurred in only a little over two decades highlights the breakneck speed at which our culture descended into a bacchanalian free-for-all.

Minutes after the film opens, the viewer is introduced to Hooper X. This character alone would be enough to give today’s puritanical leftists the vapors. “Hoop” (as he is called by the other characters) is an effeminate, gay, black man who inhabits the masculinist sphere of comics. In order to make it in that world, he consciously (and hilariously) plays a much different character: a black nationalist who pens a comic book called White-Hatin’ Coon. Holden and Banky (two white guys) collaborate with Hoop in promoting his book at conventions, race-baiting him so that he can explode in public outbursts of feigned violence, to the glee of his fans. 

At one speaking event, Hooper X (wearing a pin that says “The Black Man is God”) rants to his audience about the white supremacy embodied in the fact that Darth Vader (who wears all black and speaks in the voice of James Earl Jones) is revealed to be a “crusty old white man” instead of the “Nubian” he seemed to be. When Banky asks “What’s a Nubian?”, Hoop pulls a gun, firing blanks into the crowd while screaming “Black Rage!!!” This scene – where a gay, black character parodies the plight of blacks in America with the help of two smart-assed white guys for profit – would be an unforgivable artistic sin in our day.

The movie only gets more scandalous from there. The dialogue is peppered with uses of faggot, dyke, and other epithets spoken by characters who certainly aren’t authorized to utter them. It is important to remember though, that while these terms were not used in polite company in 1997, it wasn’t uncommon for young people like Banky and Holden to speak in this way – especially among their peers. Still, some scenes show that the absolute prohibition on this language was rapidly coming into being even then. In the midst of an argument over his mockery of Alyssa as a lesbian, an exasperated Banky asks Holden “What does it matter […] if I call the [NHL team Hartford] Whalers a ‘bunch of faggots’?” Holden responds, “You should just find some other way to express your anger.” 

Today’s LGBT advocates would suggest that such exchanges indicate that just a few short decades ago, urban American culture was utterly saturated with homophobia. But the movie makes multiple efforts to suggest that was not the case. In a private conversation, for example, Hooper X expresses resentment for the fashionably favorable view of lesbians among the public, noting that “the whole society is fawning over girls on girls.” 

As the story unfolds, it gets closer and closer to touching the third rail of LGBT issues. Most notably, the film reflects a deep ambivalence about whether being gay is a legitimate identity category. Put different, the characters are non-committal on the question of whether “gay” refers to a set of behaviors (forms of sexual activity one does with same-sex partners) or a state of being that defines the essence of one’s personal identity (a spiritual, existential, a priori of some people who are gay). 

As Holden’s relationship with Alyssa becomes more intimate, she talks more openly about her sexual appetites. She says that “historically” she has been attracted to women, but also suggests that her involvement with women didn’t stem from an inherent, exclusive attraction to females, but rather a rational consideration of her romantic prospects. In the search for her soulmate, she argues, it didn’t make sense to eliminate “immediately half your options by eliminating the possibility of finding that one person within your own gender.” Perhaps more problematic from the woke perspective is that Alyssa partly attributes her involvement with women to the fact that “There was no example set for [her] in the world of male/female relationships.” 

This is not to say that there are no moments that align with today’s existential notion of gay identity. When Holden finally confesses his love for Alyssa, she responds as though she has been attacked: “That was so unfair! You know how unfair that was! […] Do you remember for one fucking second who I am?” (emphasis added). After he acknowledges that it would take some time for her peers to come to grips with her dating a man, she yells “There is no ‘period of adjustment,’ Holden. I am fucking gay! That’s who I am! And you assume that I can turn all that around because you’ve got a fucking crush?!” (emphasis added). 

Nevertheless, Alyssa does turn “all that” around, abandoning her gay identity to be with Holden. And until he discovers her past promiscuity with men, Alyssa seems entirely fulfilled and happy to have done so: every indication suggests she thinks she made the right decision. This has been the cause of the most aggressive criticism of the film in recent years because it implies that being gay is a choice (at least to some degree). The plot seems to affirm the masculinist stereotype that inside every lesbian is a heterosexual woman waiting to be satisfied. Thus, insofar as Chasing Amy embodies a “gay conversion story,” it follows that the movie is anathema to today’s dogmatism when it comes to the polite understanding of LGBT issues.

There is a litany of other ways that the film affirms forms of sexual modesty and restraint that are nearly obsolete in 2022. The simple fact that both Holden and Alyssa are searching for their soulmate smacks of romantic nostalgia. At the current juncture in American culture, most young people seem to believe that the very idea of a soulmate is a “social construct” used to shackle couples together for long after their romantic connection has ceased to satisfy. Today, then, the dominant conception of a relationship is an at-will contract requiring the unambiguous affirmation of both (all?) parties: romantic unions are formed with the understanding that love may fade, and that when it does, each individual will go their own way. This isn’t viewed as a “failed” relationship, but rather as a mundane fact of life. After all, “people change.”

The movie also affirms antiquated ideas about the relevance of a partner’s sexual past to the future prospects of a love relationship. In the age of hook-up apps which facilitate frequent, anonymous sexual encounters with multiple people, it is often thought to be a breach of decorum to ask about a potential partner’s history. But in the predigital world – especially prior to effective treatments for AIDS – this was critical information. People wanted to assess the risk of disease, but reputation also mattered. Men, especially, might be reluctant to marry women who had numbers of sexual partners that would have rivaled prostitutes of previous ages (and the reputation that necessarily goes along with such promiscuity). Chasing Amy dramatizes these realities. 

Alyssa grew up in northern New Jersey, two suburban towns over from Holden. Moving to Manhattan may have allowed Alyssa some reprieve from being the “queen of urban legend” (as she puts it). But her reputation lives on among the townies, and it ends up being the endurance of friend-of-a-friend rumor-mongering that poisons her relationship with Holden. Today, the idea that one’s past could follow one indefinitely would be seen as a deep injustice because it places limitations on personal autonomy. Freedom from the past and its consequences is now thought to be a key precondition for the exercise of modern liberty. What happens to Alyssa would now be decried as “slut-shaming,” and although the film encourages the audience to read her sympathetically, the irreparable damage done to her relationship with Holden stands as an implicit condemnation of her promiscuity.

But the most significant affirmation of sexual restraint perhaps comes in the characters’ responses to Holden’s proposed threesome. Although this wouldn’t be a first for Alyssa, she refuses his request. Her reasons for doing so are telling, if only because no consideration of carnal gratification plays into her decision-making. Instead, she cautions Holden about the grave emotional consequences that could result: perhaps Holden would come to resent her for going along with the idea; perhaps she would develop an attraction to Banky, etc. Her monologue is poignant in that it acknowledges the natural possessiveness that one feels in an exclusive love relationship: “Or maybe I just love you too much. And I feel hurt and let down that you would want to share me with anyone. I love you. I always will.” After a laden pause, she slaps Holden, and continues: “But I’m not your fucking whore.” As she moves to leave, she flings a verbal grenade at Banky: “He’s yours again.”

All of these themes coalesce to remind viewers of the ultimate preeminence of monogamy, of the complementary and mutual attraction that exists between men and women, and of the grave physical, emotional, relational, and reputational consequences that result from unrestrained sexual indulgence.

This is not to say that there are not themes in the film that run counter to the older ethic of sexual restraint. In many ways, the film eagerly anticipates the complete overturning of whatever sexual stigma remained in 1997. Banky and Holden are mocked for their ignorance of LGBT culture, whereas the other characters seem to view that culture as decidedly normal – almost to the point of painting it as passé. The movie also affirms the trope of the girlboss and the total self-sufficiency of the strong, independent, urban woman, who does what she wants and makes no apologies. Nevertheless, the film ultimately provides a final glimpse of the traditional sexual ethic at the moment just before it sunk below the cultural horizon. Instead of twisting the knife, Chasing Amy gestures toward the dignity and honor of the old norms. In so doing, it provides a stark contrast to the sexual nihilism of 2022 – and invites us to reflect on what we’ve lost before we wade further into the morass. 

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