The Empowerment of Female Pleasure in ‘The To Do List’

The To Do List 2013 Movie - Film Essay

For all my 21 years living on this planet as a woman, sex and masturbation have always been considered taboo subjects to me. In the media, female sexuality is often scrutinized and stigmatized, penned as “slutty” or used as a character-defining trait when it shouldn’t be. The industry has kind of been getting better at respectfully portraying women in more recent years, but proper sexual representation is definitely still lacking in a lot of departments. Writer and director Maggie Carey’s feature directorial debut, The To Do List, was one of the first films that fully took away the stigma that was stuck to sex like glue for me. Boys got the raunchy American Pie, girls get The To Do List.

A couple of years ago, after I had finished binge-watching Parks and Recreation, I had completely fallen into a hyper-fixation with Aubrey Plaza. I decided to dig through her filmography and ultimately chose a film that I had never heard of, but one that had a lot of actors in it whose work I admired, along with my number one girl crush at the time. At the centre of Carey’s sex-positive comedy, behind all of the vagina and virgin jokes that are actually funny for once (you can really tell The To Do List was written with care by a woman), there is a really sweet and honest depiction of what sex is like for teenagers in high school. Plaza’s effortless portrayal of the sexually inexperienced yet extremely driven Brandy Klark made me feel more than comfortable talking about my sexuality and even made me feel more secure in my own skin.

Set in 1993, in the director’s hometown of Boise, Idaho, The To Do List thrives in 90s pop culture as Brandy, a valedictorian, checks off each sexual venture she successfully takes part in after graduating high school. Brandy gets amazing grades and even has the highest GPA in her school’s history. During Brandy’s adventure, she ticks off each sexual activity, from necking and receiving hickies to finally having her first orgasm. Later on, The To Do List shows Brandy in the middle of checking “masturbation” off of her list, all while wearing a “Pro-Choice Pro-Clinton” t-shirt. There’s even a scene where she uses movie theater butter for lube while jacking off Johnny Simmons’ uncircumcised penis. 

The To Do List Movie Film

As a character, Brandy is extremely versatile and multi dimensional — she has so many layers and an overflowing personality that makes watching her conquests so much more interesting. Her sexual journey of self-discovery ultimately ends in her growth as a person; an authentic portrayal for young women going through the same thing. 

One of my favourite things about the masterpiece that is The To Do List is that Brandy isn’t completely defined by her gender. She is defined by her journey, and her goals, to find out something new about herself and her body. It’s worth noting that Brandy’s best friends, Fiona and Wendy (played by Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele, respectively), both get their time to shine as well, allowing The To Do List to pass the Bechdel Test. These friends frequently discuss their own sexual experiences with different partners while encouraging and supporting Brandy’s want and need to fulfill all of her fantasies before going to college. Something else worth noting is that the titular list itself is created purely out of Brandy’s own wish to explore herself — no one forces her to do anything. Brandy’s friends tell her that college is like a sexual pop quiz, and she wants to ace it. 

The To Do List also shows the beautifully comedic relationship between Brandy and her mother (Connie Britton), who spends much of the film trying to give Brandy “the talk.” Near the end, Brandy’s mother gives her the best graduation gift of all: a nice, big bottle of lube. Isn’t that something we all want our moms to give us? No?

The To Do List Movie Film

The most climactic moment of The To Do List is when Brandy loses her virginity to real-life Ken doll, Rusty Waters. She requests two things: that he wear a condom, and that she be on top because it will raise her chances of having an orgasm by a whopping 40 percent. Brandy is clearly studying, but definitely not taking notes on how to lose her virginity. This is obviously said by her for laughs, but it just goes to show how serious and dedicated Brandy is at achieving her goal and completing her list — just like how dedicated she was with her grades. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really seen the female orgasm discussed in a film so openly in recent years, so it’s definitely refreshing to see the female to male orgasm gap acknowledged in a light-hearted yet prominent way. 

When I was younger, I always noticed that books I read or films I watched de-sexualized female characters or sexualized them too much with the male gaze. Female sexuality was usually either nonexistent, used to scare women or teach them lessons. It wasn’t until I saw The To Do List that I felt my feelings were reflected back to me like a boomerang. Regardless of how much I cherish it, a lot of opinions on this film were — and still are — split by gender. The To Do List reminds me a lot of Jennifer’s Body in the way that any good reviews it received upon its release, that were mostly from women, were thrown under the radar by negative reviews, mostly from men, which unfortunately succeeded in throwing away how much importance this film holds.

It’s actually quite unique to see a woman in a film using men solely for her own pleasure, and to have the men watching on the sidelines. What’s also unique to me about The To Do List is that Brandy — even though she may be a little less emotional than your typical teenage girl — represents someone that myself and other young women can actually relate to. The director stays away from making decisions that will purposely surprise the audience for a little shock value — the best part about The To Do List is that it’s just about a girl doing outrageously fun and empowering things. 

The To Do List Movie Film

To be completely honest, it’s hard for me to think of another film that fully embraces the great elements of female sexuality. The way that Brandy’s experiences play out on-screen feels so organic to how women actually behave in real life. We talk about sex in the exact same dirty and grotesque ways men do. There’s a multitude of ways that young men — in both films and in real life — get to flaunt their sexuality and brag about sexual conquests, but if you’re a woman who does the same thing, you will be ridiculed and scorned — maybe even showed off as a trophy or used as an object.

The To Do List isn’t a cinematic masterpiece by any means. Every once in a while, though, it’s great to throw on a film where women are allowed to just have sex and embrace it. The message that sex is not that much of a big deal, as people and the media make it out be, is revolutionary. The To Do List not only made me feel comfortable with my sexuality and my body as a woman, but it also helped me understand that sex is natural and organic. Women shouldn’t be shamed for the same exact things men are congratulated for, and it took me a long time to realize that because of the stigma around the conversation.

I’ll forever be indebted to all of the fierce and strong women in cinematic history who have positively influenced and taught young girls important things about sex and relationships that they never would have learned any other way.

Bethany Wilson (@bethanywilsxn) is a horror and indie loving 21-year-old currently living in Toronto. She is a dedicated binge-watcher, a huge fan of Florence Pugh’s nose and often writes about film, pop-culture, feminism and other social issues.