Since it was released 15 years ago, Judd Apatow’s abstinence comedy The 40-Year Old Virgin hasn’t completely withstood the test of time. In 2005, it seems, homophobic slurs still passed as humour and predatory behaviour was presented as jovial (if Seth Rogen walked into my bathroom unannounced there would be less giggling and a lot more kicking of soft body parts).
Better was its decision to present viewers with a new kind of male protagonist: a mature virgin, one who doesn’t feel starved of sex or need it to prop up his fragile masculinity. It’s a milestone in cinema’s muddled relationship with virginity, in which women have since taken control of their virtue on screen, while men remain largely underrepresented.
Of course, it has been a lengthy, meandering journey to empowerment for the female virgin that still backtracks from time to time (here’s looking at you, Twilight and your heavy-handed 10 hour campaign for abstinence). Historically, virgin girls have been either fetishised or sat high on a pedestal (or in a lot of cases both).
Horror, for example, has carved out its own style of movie virgin and tried to save them instead – from Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween to the original Scream, when Neve Campbell’s virtuous heroine Sidney escapes the clutches of Ghostface and the promiscuous Tatum is unceremoniously crushed in a garage door. For The Cabin in the Woods, masters of meta Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard even gave their final girl a codename: The Virgin.
But it is in the coming-of-age genre that we see the real evolution of the cinematic virgin. John Hughes made a career out of lonely teens either hiding, protecting or trying to lose their virginity in the 1980s, although Molly Ringwald has since reflected upon the films with disdain, criticising the mixed messages about consent in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.
Her reviewed take on the films only emphasises how women’s stories have progressed when it comes to losing it. A big turning point came with Clueless, the 1995 game-changer that saw Cher Horrowitz – a fussy but loveable high schooler – take full control of her life, and that included who she would choose to sleep with for the first time. When she’s infamously branded “a virgin who can’t drive,” by Brittany Murphy’s Tai in a moment of blind anger, the insult is isolated rather than a suggestion that Cher should join the masses (director Amy Heckerling is vocal about how she was one of the last of her friends to lose her virginity).
Other similarly positive perspectives would break the mould: Gina Prince-Bythewood captured consensual teen sex at its tender best in Love & Basketball; as did cult queer hit But I’m A Cheerleader. In Easy A, Emma Stone’s Olive Pendergast remains a defiant virgin while wearing promiscuity like armour in the shape of a red “A” on her chest.
Today, female movie virgins are proudly abundant. In Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Kaitlyn Denver and Beanie Feldstein’s relentless overachievers are at their comic best when they’re sexually curious – navigating porn and first encounters with hopeless wonder. In Netflix smash hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean is the poster girl for doing things on your own terms.
When these films have male leads, it seems, the story seldom wanders beyond the need to conquer women – either to lose their virginity or acquire status among their peers. Even protagonists in sweet-natured entries like American Pie and The Girl Next Door, where they seem wholesome, affable and unthreatening, don’t quite hold the same agency as their female counterparts. They get the girl, and the story ends.
As much could be said for The 40-Year-Old Virgin (although going out on an excessively optimistic musical number isn’t a bad way to end Andy’s story). Yet this mild-mannered store worker with an overwhelming amount of action figures managed to show audiences a new attitude towards first-time sex. Arguably, he was never going to be fetishised or put on a pedestal like his female counterparts, but he did avoid the sympathy often expected from his younger peers. It might make him the most powerful movie virgin of them all.