2018 Film Essays

Random Dating: ‘Where the Boys Are’ and the Evolution of Sex in Teenage Cinema

Directed by Henry Levin, Where the Boys Are premiered in December of 1960, placing it squarely inside a building wave of teen culture. The content of the era’s films vary drastically from the bright and fluffy Beach Party series to more intense and emotional melodramas like A Summer Place. However, there was commonality, as the films were all directed at teenagers.

Where the Boys Are follows four college co-eds during a spring break jaunt to Ft. Lauderdale. During their much-needed fun in the sun, the girls meet boys and eventually partner off. While spring break is just a week long, each of the women learns a great deal about themselves, especially as it relates to life, love and the most important subject in teen movies: sex.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Baby Boomer generation was starting to come of age. There were suddenly more teenagers than ever before, and they were hungry for any entertainment they could find. Where the Boys Are is very much a product of its time. However, through its unique treatment of sex, the female-led teen film shows American culture in a transitional period. The black and white values of the Eisenhower era were building towards the political explosion which would happen in the late 1960s.

In our contemporary, #MeToo culture, it is well documented that Hollywood still struggles with female-led films. Interestingly, Where the Boys Are features not just one, but four female leads. Furthermore, the four male characters function as love interests who only enter the story through their relationships with the girls. The women are the focus, and Where the Boys Are is their story. Furthermore, the camera even assumes their perspective, actually gazing at boys as they pass. In fact, it is through Angie’s (Connie Francis) gaze which viewers are first introduced to Ryder (George Hamilton). Laura Mulvey’s landmark work, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was still a number of years off. However, to see Where the Boys Are adopt the gaze of a female character as early as 1960 feels quite groundbreaking.

Where the Boys Are doesn’t wait long to establish its initial theme. The post-WWII period is known for its social conservatism, but the script shows the effects of the era’s rapidly changing social norms. Early in the first act, Merritt (Dolores Hart) stands up in class, arguing against her “Courtship and Marriage” professor. The elderly instructor lectures about the fad of “random dating” and calls on Merritt to discuss the trend. Merritt looks around and says “If a girl doesn’t become a little emotionally involved on the first date, it’s going to be her last, with that man, anyhow.” When pushed on the topic, she continues, “Should a girl, or should she not, play house before marriage? My opinion is yes.” The language here might be dated, but it’s not hard to ascertain one thing. Merritt is talking about sex. She stands openly against the older generation (symbolized by her professor), defending the rapidly changing moral code in America. This isn’t the 1950s anymore.

Throughout the film, Merritt functions as the voice of reason and story’s primary source of audience identification. She is the main female lead, and the viewers are seeing things largely from her perspective. As such, the movie’s frank and surprisingly progressive discussion of sex is telling in the narrative. Midway through act two, Merritt and her love interest Ryder talk about sex. He says: “Sex is no longer a matter of morals, that idea went out with the raccoon coats. Sex is… part of personal relations… it’s a pleasant, friendly thing like shaking hands or catching a person’s name when you’re introduced.” The couple verbally spars, but they are ultimately compatible in their beliefs. While previous generations held marriage as the ultimate goal in a relationship, the conservatism of the post World War II period was gradually giving way to a new normal.

Where the Boys Are provides an interesting narrative comparison in the character of Melanie (Yvette Mimieux). She exists as a standard representation of early 1960s femininity. From the beginning of the film, she singularly fixates on landing a husband. She soon takes up with two roguish “Ivy Leaguers” and just as quickly exits the story. While she remains a part of the narrative, Melanie shifts to the periphery. After a particularly rough night, Merritt tells a hungover Melanie, “Come hang out with us, you’re always so alone. We never see you anymore.” This isolation allows the film to establish Melanie’s path in contrast to that of her friends. It is Melanie’s direction in Where the Boys Are which further develops the film’s view of sex.

Director Levin creates a rather illicit feel to Melanie’s scenes as she explores life and love in Ft. Lauderdale. Every time the action returns to Melanie, the movie is shot in a noticeably different style. The scenes are filmed in tight close-ups, with Melanie and Franklin (Rory Harrity) on their own. A sultry, almost boozy jazz plays over the dialogue. Melanie finds herself trapped in something she doesn’t quite understand. During these sequences, Where the Boys Are feels exactly like the exploitation teen movies of the 1950s. The film is keenly aware of right and wrong, and Melanie is most assuredly in the wrong.

Where the Boys Are takes a sharp turn in the final act as Melanie goes to a rundown hotel to meet Franklin while the others are at the beach. The scene is hazy and confusing as Franklin “attacks” the drunken Melanie. While the specific nature of the scene is left unstated, it happens in the bedroom. Furthermore, as Melanie emerges from the room, her dress hangs open in the back. Melanie was raped. In a Hollywood shaped by the Production Code, an ending like this is used for one reason: to teach a lesson.

Melanie’s treatment throughout Where the Boys Are draws some interesting conclusions relating to the film’s perspective. Despite everything, Melanie isn’t a “bad girl.” Her biggest flaw is enjoying the occasional drink, and letting herself be swallowed up in the fun and excitement of spring break. At most, she’s boy crazy and fixated on finding a husband. Early in the film, she repeatedly tells the girls stories about coeds she knew who found husbands while on spring break. She’s innocent and earnest in her quest to find an “Ivy-Leaguer” husband of her very own.

Melanie is a clear depiction of the idealized femininity of the post-World War II period, described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. Friedan writes, “By the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20, and was still dropping into the teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by 17…. girls went to college to get husbands” (58). The quest for quiet stability following World War II defines the 1950s. However, as Melanie realises over spring break, the world is quickly beginning to change.

In the final act, the girls are once again reunited at the hospital after Melanie is attacked. Each of the women have their own reactions to the trauma of the night. Tuggle (Paula Prentiss) is outwardly emotional while Merritt keeps herself more in-check. However, Merritt’s feelings come to a boil with Ryder. She’s suddenly angry: “Think of girls and something cheap and common, just put here for your personal kicks!” In this moment, Merritt establishes herself as more than simply the main character in a bubbly teen film. She presents a progressive face and viewpoint at a time when society was still struggling to evolve.

Where the Boys Are is ultimately still a product of its time. The teen film feels like a relatively tame bit of beach fluff from the extremely conservative early 1960s. However, in its treatment of gender and sexual relations, the film shows surprising progressivism in its subject matter, far from the often black and white morals from the movies at the same time. The country was speeding towards the social upheaval of the late 1960s, and those changes didn’t happen all at once.

Kimberly Pierce (@kpierce624) is a film critic, historian and co-host of the Citizen Dame podcast. Her passion for film dates back to the first time she watched ‘Hatari’ as a toddler.