Punishing the Male Gaze in John Carchietta’s ‘Teenage Cocktail’
For as long as movies have existed, a vast majority have been dominated by the vision of a very particular brand of human. The existence of the male gaze is not the problem, rather the lack of diverse gazes available to the masses. Despite a recent and overwhelming push for moviemakers to offer films that appeal to those outside the dominant male gaze, this gaze still largely prevails. Sometimes it looks like harassing actresses from mega-movie properties for simply existing. Sometimes, it’s negatively review-bombing movies before they come out in an attempt to ruin box office runs like Captain Marvel or Ghostbusters.
And then there’s a film like director John Carchietta’s Teenage Cocktail, shot completely with the male gaze in mind, solely to help point out what a piece of shit you are for enjoying the world from this perspective.
Teenage Cocktail is the story of two more-than-friends named Annie (Nichole Bloom) and Jules (Fabianne Therese). They dream of leaving their hometown behind in favor of greener pastures in the Big Apple. Considering they’re both high schoolers with no real savings or assets to their name, the duo begins fostering a nest egg by recreationally performing as cat-masked cam girls, happily taking money from those willing to pay to watch them do what they frequently would when the cameras aren’t rolling. Some suspension of disbelief is required considering cam sites are rigorous about ensuring talent is over the age of eighteen—compared to the Wild Wild West that was Tumblr pre-porn ban—but other than this nitpicky detail, everything else tracks.
The relationship between Annie and Jules is one budding with teenage sexual exploration both in experience and identity. Annie’s feelings for Jules border on intoxication; while Jules is clearly the alpha/top/domme in this relationship, she’s not manipulating Annie or forcing her to do anything without her full and enthusiastic consent. They genuinely care about one another and have the irrational “love” that you can only have as a high school student. And as anyone who has ever been in love as a high school student can attest, sometimes that blind devotion makes all common sense evaporate into the ether.
But they’re still teenagers trying to titillate an audience for money, and we, as the audience, are the voyeurs looking in on them.
Outside of queer-made media, Women-Loving-Women relationships (WLW) are almost always portrayed in order to appeal to straight men. The body positioning typically favors look over logic—scissoring is impractical as hell, y’all—the intimacy is performative and presentational, and any semblance of intimacy is abandoned in favor of appearing “inviting” to the viewer. There are moments where Teenage Cocktail slips into this gaze, presenting Annie and Jules as pink-filtered sex pots appearing and existing solely for our pleasure.
Then, as an intentionally jarring counter, the camera cuts to something that reminds us how these girls are teenagers. A shot of a kissing jewelry box underscored by the sound of Annie moaning, followed by a close-up of her clutching a pillow and tightening her eyes as Jules’ head in the foreground tricks your brain into thinking that she is providing her pleasure, only for the camera to reveal her applying a stick and poke tattoo on her hip bone.
Wait, did you think Jules was going down on her? Is it because that’s what the movie was indicating or is it because it’s what you wanted to be happening?
As punishment, not only are you not going to get “what you want,” but you’re instead shown two girls innocently sharing their first kiss, then interrupted by Annie’s mom with a basket full of laundry, followed by a family game of Uno.
Did you forget? They’re teenagers.
The first time Annie and Jules go on camera together, Jules delivers an under-the-clothing-without-removal sexual encounter, with Annie kicking her head back in ecstasy and declaring her love to Jules. As Annie’s pleasure mounts, the film cuts to the aftermath where a hungover Annie is now being yelled at by her mom for lazing on the couch and having an attitude problem. Enjoying a teenager’s near-orgasm means you need to be reprimanded by a stern mother for being so inappropriate.
Around halfway through the movie, there’s a moment I’ve called the “main room montage,” where scenes of Annie and Jules performing on cam are spliced with moments of their out-of-cam relationship. Every time a cat-masked scene of sensuality is put on screen, it’s ripped away for moments of typical teen life like playing with sparklers in a parking lot, smoking cigarettes outside a mini-mart, painting nails, taping postcards to a bedroom wall, and falling asleep to a movie on the couch. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being caught looking at internet porn and immediately having to switch browser windows.
One of the most gifted performers working today, Pat Healy, plays Frank, Annie and Jules’ biggest fan. He trolls the internet in private, feeding his obsession with nubile content from his family computer by sneaking out of bed at night and using this world of fantasy as a form of escapism from his mundane life.
We’re introduced to Frank in the film’s opening moments, crashing his truck into our young lovers’ automobile and foreshadowing the horrifying third act. When we meet Frank later in “real time,” we already know the inevitable, so it immediately signals to viewers that there will be red flags worth recognizing along the way. We know that Frank’s interactions with these girls are not on the up and up, because the film hands us the message on a silver platter. This is why when Annie, Jules, and Frank’s worlds finally collide, the moment that should be the biggest pay off for the male gaze (a threesome) is indicated off-screen. We never see what happens in the bedroom the night they meet, because once again, the film is punishing the audience for craving what the male gaze frequently offers.
We, as the viewer, are constantly being told by the film that leaning into the male gaze makes us as reckless and dangerous as the choices Annie and Jules are making, while continuing to remind us how we should know better than to follow the lead of teen girls still trying to figure out their lives. Frank is the male gaze personified.
Annie and Jules’ love and sexual relationship is not the villain of Teenage Cocktail, but villainy is present in many forms. It’s Jules’ pseudo-boyfriend who only finds out about Jules’ life on cam after breaking into her house and entering her room unannounced while she sleeps. It’s Annie’s one-time sex partner who records her without consent from the bleachers as punishment for being with someone else, what he felt was reserved for himself. It’s the school that demonized the girls for performing on camera, an institution that does nothing in regard to the students spreading their images around like a virus.
Our duo is not absolved from their participation in negligent activities because they’re young, but the problem with the male gaze is that nuance and “full-person” understanding of characters is thrown out the window in favor of what said gaze wants to focus on for its own enjoyment.
The male gaze doesn’t want us to think about the fact Annie was uprooted and thrown into a new environment against her will. The male gaze doesn’t want us to dissect Jules’ abandonment issues from her mother leaving and her father’s lack of attention. The male gaze certainly doesn’t want us to talk about the age of consent and body autonomy.
What the male gaze does want is for these girls to be villainized for their actions for “teasing” instead of giving themselves to the proverbial wolves. Unfortunately, as the final scene shows us, there are serious consequences for refusing to grant the male gaze what it wants. The entire movie is spent punishing us for reveling in the male gaze, only to send us home with the painful-as-fuck reminder that no amount of punishment is going to prevent the inevitability of the male gaze getting what it wants in the end. By any means necessary.