John Tucker Must Die
John Tucker Must Die offers a lively ode to Spice Girl-flavored girl power. This is not the feminism of Betty Friedan or Ms. magazine. Rather, the four heroines of the film derive power from overt sensuality, fashion, and popularity. Typical high school stuff. In fact, much of this film is typical, coloring by the numbers to hit all the expected notes and finish with the safe ending.
As new girl Kate, Brittany Snow steps back from her frightening turn on Nip/Tuck, returning to her friendlier persona on American Dreams. Having watched her “hot” mom (Jenny McCarthy) repeatedly be abandoned by men, Kate encourages three enemies (Ashanti, Sophia Bush, and Arielle Kebbel) to band together after discovering their boyfriend’s cheating ways and seek revenge. The boyfriend in question is John Tucker: star basketball player, most popular guy in school, and wealthy to boot. The girls play a few relatively harmless pranks, including feeding the cheater estrogen, but as he continually rises above, they determine to exchange an eye for an eye: their broken hearts for John Tucker’s.
Enter Kate. Despite her friendship with John Tucker’s much less popular brother, Kate pursues a relationship with John and achieves the sought after profession of love—which in this film equates to John placing his expensive watch on Kate’s wrist and announcing to the student body that he is, in fact, whipped. Who needs “I love you,” when a guy is willing to admit that you have conquered his wandering ways?
In the end, this battle is less about love than power. As Kate points out, the three frienemies obsess over John Tucker, first trying to attract him and then trying to destroy him: either way, their lives revolve around him. When Kate swoons over a romantic date aboard John’s yacht (of course), the trifecta immediately restore her empowering anger by playing a tape of him bragging about his nocturnal plans for the lovely Kate. Basically, it is the same old story: the guy wants sex so he whispers sweet nothings (lies) in the girl’s ear. She wants to possess him, so she teases him with her sexuality. John Tucker Must Die exposes the strategy inherent in surviving the social war that is high school at its most base and vapid.
Director Betty Thomas’s vision saturates the screen with color and vitality, yet her depiction of the girls’ friendship lacks warmth. Most troubling, however, is Thomas’s acceptance of any and all gender stereotypes. Overdosing on estrogen, John behaves like Thomas’s vision of a girl: whiny, emotional, and paranoid. Kate becomes popular not after the usual teen film transformation montage sequence but rather through the simple act of straightening her radiantly blonde hair (would it have been that hard to give her a pair of Clark Kent glasses for her to wear to demonstrate the pre- and post- popularity Kate?). Thomas also stages the requisite chick fight, complete with hair pulling.
The elephant in the room is teen sexuality. Ashanti’s head cheerleader character and Bush’s oversexed vegan admit to sleeping with John, repeatedly. Bush’s character bemoans her slutty ways, and the other girls mock her for her easiness, but Thomas frequently plays her sexual freedom for laughs. In one sequence, Bush finds a bra in the back of John’s car. Her first reaction is fury, until she spies the “100% hemp” label on the bra and realizes that it is her own. These young women are completely lost in a world that validates their sexuality even while it condemns them.
Thomas cowardly steps away from the obvious challenge: placing virgin Kate in a position in which she is tempted to sleep with the known cad. How would she face her own desire in light of her rationalism? How would Kate’s mother confront her daughter’s awakening sexuality in light of her own promiscuity? Thomas avoids all tricky sandtraps, choosing instead to offer us a glossy but empty betrayal of young women. So much for girl power.
Though my feminism recoils from Thomas’s refusal to empower girls with such antiquated ideas as self-esteem and discriminating sexuality, the movie isn’t a complete bust. John Tucker Must Die is a well-packaged film delivering every conventional expectation. As John Tucker, Desperate Housewives alum Jesse Metcalfe demonstrates more than beauty: in fact he is quite charming and charismatic. All the young female stars share the screen with generosity despite the fact that the limitations of the script relegate them to shallowland. For an entertaining and amusing couple of hours as the cinema, John Tucker fits the bill. But it falls far from achieving satirical depth, choosing to reinforce stereotypes rather than undercut them.