Don't you know that it's different for girls?

"Coming Soon" director Colette Burson talks about a girl's inalienable right to better sex, the old Hollywood double standard and why the MPAA board has got to go.

Published July 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The quest for sex has long been a staple of summer "teen" movies. But when it comes to teenage girls going after their own sexual satisfaction, the double standard is apparently alive and well in Hollywood.

Or so says Colette Burson, the 30-year-old writer and director of the new sex comedy "Coming Soon," about three precocious Manhattan high school girls in search of better sex.

Despite a star-studded cast, which includes Mia Farrow, Ryan O'Neal and Spalding Gray, and rave reviews from audiences at the Nantucket and Los Angeles film festivals, "Coming Soon" has yet to find a distributor because studio executives are saying that it's too lurid. There's no nudity in the film, but nonetheless the MPAA board originally gave it a crippling NC-17 rating.

Salon Arts & Entertainment recently spoke with Burson in New York about why this coming of age comedy is causing such a controversy.

Why do you think the movie is having problems getting distribution?

With the exception of my one female producer, Keven Duffy, I had four male producers and was told by them and my financiers to make a commercial teen movie. I had to work within commercial constraints and a lot of those are dictated by gender ideas. For example, there was a scene when one of the main characters, Stream, who is played by Bonnie Root, goes to a guy's house who she met through a personal ad she placed in the paper. My male producer said that it made her seem unlikable that she was actively seeking out sex that way. I feel like where "Coming Soon" has got me into trouble is that it's trying to put a radical message into the mainstream consciousness, which is that teenage girls have a right to go after good sex.

Why is that a radical idea for a studio film?

What kept coming back to us time and time again is that there is no market for this movie. Nobody ever came back and said the acting was bad, or the movie doesn't work. All those things came back extremely positive. I think what that really meant was that it was a little scary to market. It's so easy to market guys wanting to get laid and girls getting talked into it, but the idea of teenage girls actively looking for it is unusual. There is a demographic that doesn't respond to this theme, and that's 40-year-old men with teenage daughters. It makes them very uncomfortable, and that was most saliently represented by a production designer who went up to my editor and said, "this movie really gets to me, it's as if these girls think that they have the right to have an orgasm." I think what is scaring them is just what is attracting teenage girls to the movie.

There's no nudity in the movie. Why is it considered too lurid?

The fact of the matter is there is still a double standard. I was looking at the publicity for "Big Daddy"-- the picture of Adam Sandler and the kid pissing against a wall. I thought, can you ever see the publicity for a movie of two women squatting? Nobody would think that was funny. They would think it was gross and weird. In my movie, the double standard is that girls are actively seeking out an orgasm and empowering themselves by it.

Were you surprised that it was given an NC-17 rating?

Yes. I knew the film was subversive, but I thought that I had wrapped it in such lace and pink that I had pulled one past everybody. I expected it to be rated PG-13. It's an R now, but it was given an NC-17, twice. At first the MPAA board had 17 areas of issue. They thought that showing Stream masturbating in a Jacuzzi was too lurid. There's a scene where Stream gives her boyfriend a blow job off camera -- her head leaves frame and then comes back up into frame, and then she rubs her jaw. The board said she could leave frame or reenter frame, but not both, because it implies duration. That was the whole point! It's a classic inside joke for women.

Almost any time a girl orgasmed, the board wanted me to cut the scene by 75 percent, even though she was 18. I was told specifically that the board has a problem with young girls' orgasms. I got on the phone with a woman from the board and said I can't help but point out that if it were boys, you wouldn't have a problem. She said that may well be true, however, it is the job of the board to judge for parents across America and if the parents were to see the movie they would be judging it with a double standard and therefore the board must judge it that way too. The board really does need to be changed. They are such watchdogs about sex, and yet violence is OK. It's the old story that it's OK to cut off the nipple, but not kiss it. The day I was given an NC-17 rating, I was reading about "Eight Millimeter" in Premiere. It's a movie about snuff films. Joel Shumacher was saying that he had a surprisingly easy time getting an R rating. It's a movie about killing young girls.

What are some of the scenes you have fought to keep in?

There's one scene where Stream is sitting in her therapist's office and she says, "Seventy percent of American teenagers do it, what's wrong with girls wanting to have sex as much as guys?" The producers were always saying cut that line, and I was always saying no because that is the defense of the movie. It's not the funniest scene, but it lays the issues of the movie bare. I think that if it does get picked up for distribution, the greatest danger is that they will ask me to cut the orgasm at the end. At one point, when it seemed that a major distributor was about to pick it up, they said that they wanted that scene cut. I'll fight a lot for that scene because is it is what makes the movie political, rather than just another happy-ending romance.

Why did you choose to set the film in New York?

I was shocked by how different adolescence is in Manhattan compared to my hometown in Virginia. The level of culture that these kids are exposed to, and the awareness of society and wealth, is so much higher. I chose this setting because of anyone who should know more about sex and orgasm, then it should be these kids. But they don't. That's the point of my character Jenny. She thinks she's having an orgasm, but in reality she's not sexually fulfilled -- she only experiences her idea of what sexual fulfillment should be. I think a lot of girls do that.

Is that what inspired you to write this movie?

For years I had been involved in conversations with women about sex. I was surprised that there was so much confusion out there, and how many women were having sex without having an orgasm. There are a lot of movies made about teenagers and sex -- "Cruel Intentions," "Varsity Blues" and now "American Pie" -- but few deal with the issue of whether the girl has a good time. Whether it's sex or not, a teenage girl's initial interactions with guys forms her sexual ego, and that carries on throughout her life. I'm trying to send a message that if you're having bad sex, sister, that you're not alone -- and there is better sex out there.

By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is a freelance writer in New York.

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