A Scarily Accurate Portrait of a Catholic Schoolgirl’s Sexual Awakening

Daily Beast

July 23, 2020

By Kyndall Cunningham

Karen Maine’s new film explores the coming-of-age of a Catholic schoolgirl (“Stranger Things” star Natalia Dyer). And it’s pretty spot-on.

Growing up in Christian spaces, I heard all types of bad analogies and gender-essentialist arguments about human sexuality—but none like the one I heard at my Catholic high school. In an unofficial sex ed course, we received a lecture from a teacher on the sacredness of female virginity. He spoke about the confined nature of female genitalia, comparing a vagina to a cave and virginity to treasure. He said that the interiority of a woman’s genitalia compared to the exteriority of a man’s signified a special need for privacy and protection. Girls had to be careful about who they let inside their “caves”—ideally only their husbands—but boys, by nature, would end up sticking their penises wherever they wanted.

I was transported back to this particular moment watching an early scene in the new coming-of-age film Yes, God, Yes in which a priest uses a similarly ridiculous metaphor about kitchen appliances to differentiate between the ways boys and girls get aroused. “Guys are like microwave ovens,” he states matter-of-factly. “And ladies are like conventional ovens. Guys only need a few seconds, you know, like microwaves, to get switched on. Ladies—they typically need to preheat.”

Female sexual desire as an idle, passive experience is one of the religious notions Obvious Child co-writer Karen Maine debunks in her semi-autobiographical film about a Catholic, Midwestern teenager in the early 2000s. Alice, played by Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer, finds herself in a spiritual crisis when she discovers masturbation one evening on a dirty AIM chat with a stranger. Her increasing desire for self-pleasure is countered by judgmental remarks from her prudish best friend and messages from school faculty that pre-marital sex in any form leads to eternal damnation (not to mention the whole conventional oven thing). But when a male classmate spreads a rumor throughout the school that she “tossed his salad,” her need to become sanctified—or at least appear that way to her peers—becomes more urgent, leading her on a rather clumsy but heart-warming spiritual—and sexual—journey.

To save face (and possibly her soul), Alice attends a four-day retreat organized by her school called Kirkos. If you attended a Jesuit high school, you’ll immediately recognize Maine’s fictional version of the real-life Kairos retreat, built around the the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. From the gold-cross pendant that looks like a waffle to the Christian contemporary music playlists to the forced self-reflections that comprise most of the itinerary, Maine precisely captures the experience of the retreat in all of its sentimentalism and self-seriousness.

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