"Do more punk to me."
It’s a line uttered by Elle Fanning in the punk-rock rom-com How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Fanning plays Zan, an otherworldly being who lands in a sleepy English nook and discovers a riotous, rebellious kind of humanity thanks to a wannabe revolutionist named Enn (Alex Sharp). It’s a Romeo and Juliet kind of love story, held together by paper-clip nose rings and eyeliner the color of tar and housed in the backdrops of abandoned warehouses and dimly lit mosh pits. It’s also the latest in a string of sci-fi films that come dangerously close to falling into something the internet has recently dubbed the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope.
The “Born Sexy Yesterday” plot device is as old as sci-fi itself, at least the version we see on the big and small screen. It was there in the 1956 space adventure The Forbidden Planet when a group of astronauts explores an unknown world only to be held captive by a beautiful young woman ill-versed in the ways of men. It popped up in plenty of Star Trek installments, as Captain Kirk swooned his way into the hearts of innocent extra-terrestrials. In fact, it might be difficult to find a sci-fi film that doesn’t dabble in some form of the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope, which is why the narrative is so harmful to the genre.
Maybe you’re unfamiliar with the lingo, but we’ve all seen countless examples of what it means for a character to be “Born Sexy Yesterday.” Usually a woman — a young, beautiful, scantily-clad woman at that — “Born Sexy Yesterday” characters can be aliens, algorithms, robots, and mermaids. They’re introduced to a story fully-formed and attractive, obviously, but without meaning to be. They’re inexplicably naïve, often relying on other characters (read: the handsome, charming, fully-capable male hero) to guide, mentor, and teach them the ways of humanity, a species they usually don’t belong to and have never encountered before.
They’re Leeloo in The Fifth Element, a being created to destroy a great evil but also an orange-haired Mila Jovovich strapped into barely-there costumes and forced to recite baby sounds as dialogue. Leeloo, for all intents and purposes, should be the protagonist of the cult-classic, a weapon crafted to save humanity. Instead, she becomes the romantic interest of a taxi driver played by Bruce Willis and little more than a humanoid in a woman’s body who unknowingly arouses men by stripping naked in front of them on various occasions.
They’re Olivia Wilde’s ass-kicking Quorra in Tron: Legacy, an extremely rare isomorphic algorithm (ISO) whose beauty does not equal her common sense. Quorra is the last ISO, a divine flaw in a program created by tech genius Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). She’s the key to understanding some of science’s greatest mysteries. She possesses the ability to a battle a club-full of highly-trained baddies single-handedly and win. She’s also, as Flynn describes her, “profoundly naïve yet unimaginably wise.”
“Born Sexy Yesterday” characters serve a rather nefarious purpose in sci-fi. They present an image of a woman who is physically mature and capable of contributing to the story in some way — usually they’re skilled in combat, or tech geniuses, or another hobby particularly attractive to a male audience — but who is so naïve, so unwise to the ways of the world that she needs a man to guide and take care of her. Leeloo could annihilate entire energy fields but she couldn’t dry herself off properly without Dallas (Willis) rubbing her down with a towel. Quorra holds the key to a new technological age, has studied under a creator of unparalleled genius, yet she looks at Tron: Legacy's protagonist Sam (Garrett Hedlund) with wide eyes.
The trope is dangerous because it teaches women that to be valued you must be a dichotomy of a person — skilled in some way and yet completely useless in another. It places value on outward appearance and the lack of self-awareness. You must be beautiful but also adorably unaware of your beauty. In turn, it gifts incredibly ordinary, often unremarkable men a questionable kind of confidence. Willis’ taxi driver and Hedlund’s trust fund baby aren’t perfect by any means. In fact, they’re pretty average, even unattractive in certain lights, and yet because the aliens and algorithms they interact with have never encountered men before, they’re suddenly afforded a new status: hero, hunk, savior.
The “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope furthers the myth that women, even powerful, extraordinary women, need saving and that really, any old bloke can do the job, which is why catching glimpses of it in Neil Gaiman and John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls At Parties is particularly frustrating.
Based on a short story by Gaiman, Mitchell's punk-rock opus so obviously hopes to become a campy cult classic in the genre. It’s got the necessary ingredients too: lots of youths running around, yelling about punk and sticking it to the man, aliens acting strangely and threatening human existence. It’s even got Nicole Kidman clad in Vivienne Westwood knock-offs doing her best Pan's Labyrinth in underground bar scenes, which is enough to recommend it to pretty much anyone. But it’s also got Elle Fanning as Zan, the aforementioned bright-eyed, young extra-terrestrial who’s so eager to explore the unruly world of punk that she utters straight-faced deliveries of sexually charged innuendos like, “Do more punk to me.”
Fanning, who has become an ingenue of a Hollywood who prefers their stars with swan-like physiques, milky skin tones, blushing cheeks and forlorn expressions, relies on her strengths to play Zan. She pumps her lines with a kind of inventive humor it’s hard to imagine existed on the page — the various ways she pronounces “punk” are particularly entertaining.
Zan is also a member of a mysterious group of celestial beings whose first taste of human interaction comes thanks to a young man living in the suburbs, unimpressed with his life and looking for an exciting new adventure. For Enn, Zan becomes that adventure and most of the movie centers on exploring the world of punk, the trials and triumphs of young love, and the different modes of self-discovery through his eyes. Zan wants to escape her conformist “family,” and Enn is her guide to all things worldly. Both Gaiman and Mitchell have described the love story as a metaphor for what first love feels like — alien, exciting, dangerous, and misunderstood. Which, fine. What worries me about the story of Zan is that her development is entirely tied to Enn’s existence. She rebels because of Enn. She falls in love with punk because of Enn’s constant praise of the lifestyle. She meets very few humans, and yet, over the course of two days, fancies herself in love with an average boy who’s done nothing but let her lick his face and bring her to some abandoned warehouse parties.
What’s even more disturbing about this trope existing in a film like this is that punk and the era it was born into was all about identity, both finding your own and expressing it. Yet, we know absolutely nothing of Zan’s background. Where she comes from, the weird rituals her people take part in, their obsession with latex and strange sexual acts aren’t explained because they really don’t matter. Zan is a vessel through which we’re taught about punk, about love, about a young boy’s desires. Tangible character traits — her family history, her own experiences, her angst — come second, and if they are introduced, they're part of her “quirks,” her “charm.”
To Mitchell’s credit, Zan does seem to find herself, or at least discover the power of self-expression, through music and punk and her relationship with Enn. She’s not given much agency, but what is there is ready to riot against authority, to break free. Again, that better serves Enn’s story since he’s also looking to disassociate from the trappings of his own life, but still, Zan gets to wear eyeliner and scream into a microphone at some point, so that’s something.
As far as the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope is concerned, you can do a lot worse than a rom-com space opera like How to Talk to Girls at Parties, but in a time of empowering movements like #MeToo and Time's Up it’d be nice to watch a piece of science fiction with aliens, robots, software programs, or fantastical species that doesn’t treat its female characters as unassuming, guileless props for the benefit of its male heroes. A character’s masculinity doesn’t have to be defined by another character’s artless, disarming femininity. It’s sci-fi. Let’s be more imaginative than that.