Set during the Clinton Administration, THE TO-DO LIST stars Aubrey Plaza as Brandy Klark, a high school graduate who discovers she knows nothing about sex and boys, despite her numerous academic achievements (or perhaps because of them). She decides to do some research, make a list of sex acts and then, you know, do them with the various guys around town. Her ultimate goal is to lose her V-card to local hunk Rusty Waters (Scott Porter).
Written and directed by Maggie Carey, THE TO-DO LIST is one of many comedies released this summer that was written and/or directed by a woman, including THE HEAT, FRANCES HA, and IN A WORLD… THE TO-DO LIST, however, has more in common with the 2011 landmark feminist comedy BRIDESMAIDS; it takes the usually male-centric gross-out comedy genre and places it into a comedy about the feminine experience.
Feminist film critics are split regarding women entering the gross-out comedy genre. For some, it’s degrading and forces woman writers/directors to cater to a male audience by offering scatological humor. Producer Judd Apatow suggested to BRIDESMAIDS screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo that they add in the infamous wedding dress shop scene in BRIDESMAIDS to bring in an audience which he thought wouldn’t want to see a movie called BRIDESMAIDS (read: men).
For others, it just evens the playing field. Female characters in male-centered, gross-out comedies often play one of three roles: the Dream Girl, the Sex Kitten or the Nagging Shrew. But when female comedies go the gross-out route, the girls get to be at the front and center of the big comic set pieces.
Of those two arguments, I agree with the former. The Hollywood obsession with getting a large, male audience is so ingrained into movie culture that even a low-budget, independent film like THE TO-DO LIST has to include more Apatow-like scenes to balance out the female-centered sex comedy. THE TO-DO LIST doesn’t go too far with the gross-out comedy, luckily, but some parts (like Brandy getting hazed at her summer job as a lifeguard) do feel out-of-place, tonally.
Even if you don’t like lady-comedies indulging in gross-out humor, THE TO-DO LIST does more for feminism onscreen than you would really expect from a summer teen sex comedy. Laura Mulvey once wrote that the male gaze predominates how the viewer perceives the figures on the screen, with the audience identifying with the male hero and objectifying the female heroine.
THE TO-DO LIST reverses that. The female gaze dominates this film. As the protagonist, we see the male characters through Brandy’s eyes. She is the agent of her own desire and the guys are the objects of said desire. And yet, Carey doesn’t treat Brandy as some sort of man-eating sex-monster. The film establishes that she is a well-rounded, intelligent young woman with potential for future success (tellingly, her role model is Hilary Clinton). She just lacks experience in sex and dating. Brandy’s sexuality is just one part of her whole identity. That is the true triumph of THE TO-DO LIST.
Brandy and her friends, Wendy (Sarah Steele) and Fiona (Alia Shawkat), bring up Sigmund Freud’s Madonna-Whore Complex theory when Brandy’s longtime suitor Cameron (Johnny Simmons) gets upset with her after finding out about her to-do list. The Madonna-Whore Complex states that some men view women as either a Madonna (pure, maternal, virginal) or a Whore (sexual, dirty, dispensable). The most famous example of this in pop culture: Charlotte York’s marriage to Trey MacDougal on Sex and the City.
Hilariously, the girls decide that being the Whore is much more fun than being the Madonna. Brandy decides she shouldn’t feel guilty about her to-do list because it has nothing to do with Cameron. Granted, she uses him to tick off a few items on the list and then ignores him when other guys show an interest in her, for which Cameron vilifies her. But Carey doesn’t vilify her and encourages the audience not to either. Brandy is just asserting her independence against Cameron’s patriarchal expectations of her. While her actions may not be entirely noble, they are understandable.
Brandy discovers that she can’t treat sex like a research project because emotions and stuff can get in the way, allowing the film to steer clear of full-on slut shaming. Brandy’s friends do turn on her when they discover she used Wendy’s crush-object for her list. But it’s the betrayal that angers her friends, not Brandy’s sexuality. The friendship between these three girls is treated with respect and authenticity and, in turn, becomes a highlight of the film.
THE TO-DO LIST is a refreshing spin on the teen sex comedy, offering a female viewpoint on sex and sexuality. And it’s just a funny, bright little comedy with an incredible ensemble including Rachel Bilson, Connie Britton, Bill Hader, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Andy Samberg and Clark Gregg. Aubrey Plaza herself delivers a strong performance and grounds some of the more outlandish scenes with her everywoman charm and winking sense of humor.
When Brandy finally achieves the last item on her list—the orgasm—it’s with a picture of Hilary Clinton nearby. And so THE TO-DO LIST ends with a scene that so perfectly demonstrates its own sex-positive feminism.