Born Sexy Yesterday

This video essay is about a gendered trope that has bothered me for years but didn’t have a name, so I gave it one: Born Sexy Yesterday. It’s a science fiction convention where the mind of what’s essentially a naive, yet highly skilled, girl is written into the body of a mature sexualized woman. Born sexy yesterday is about an unbalanced relationship dynamic, but it’s also very much connected to masculinity. The subtext of the trope is rooted in a deep seated male insecurity around experienced women and sexuality.

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• The Mary Sue – Science Fiction and the Problem with the Born Sexy Yesterday Trope
• io9 – Video Explores Scifi Trope of Women Who Are Born Sexy Yesterday
• AV Club – Sci-fi’s troubling trope of serving up hot adult women with the minds of children
• – Science Fiction Really Hasn’t Been Good to Women
• The Verge – Why are some of sci-fi’s beloved female leads hopelessly naive?

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The full transcript text of this episode below the fold.

Tron: Legacy, Disney’s neon-infused sequel to the 1982 classic, includes a particularly egregious example of a trope that has bothered me for years.

CLIP – Tron: Legacy (2010)
“I’m Quorra.”

It’s a gendered convention that will be instantly familiar to science fiction fans. The convention shows up over and over again in speculative media but it didn’t have a name. So I gave it one. I call it Born Sexy Yesterday. The character of Quorra is an isomorphic algorithm or ISO. Basically she’s a sentient computer program in the shape of a woman.

CLIP – Tron: Legacy (2010)
“She’s an ISO?”
“She’s the miracle man, everything I ever worked for. A digital frontier to reshape the human condition.”

As the last of the ISOs, Quorra is described this way:

CLIP – Tron: Legacy (2010)
“Profoundly naive, unimaginably wise.”

If that sounds vaguely like something someone might say about a child, it’s no accident because that’s exactly how Tron: Legacy portrays Quorra.

CLIP – Tron: Legacy (2010)
“But between you and me, Jules Verne is my favourite. Do you know Jules Verne?”
“What’s he like?”

She has the mind of a naive, yet highly skilled child but in the body of a mature sexualized woman. She also serves as our hero’s love interest. Profoundly naive, yet unimaginably wise captures the essence of this trope.

Born Yesterday is an idiom meaning extremely naive, inexperienced or ignorant.

CLIP – Born Yesterday (1950)
“He thinks I’m too stupid, huh?”
“Uh, no.”
“He’s right, I’m stupid and I like it.”
“You do?”
“Sure, I’m happy! I get everything I want, two mink coats, everything.”

As a media trope, Born Sexy Yesterday, has both a figurative, and in many cases, a literal meaning. The 1997 sci-fi cult classic The Fifth Element, is probably the most quintessential example of Born Sexy Yesterday.

Like Quorra, Leeloo is whimsical and naive but she’s also deliberately framed in a sexualized or alluring way.

CLIP – The Fifth Element (1997)
“They really make her ..”
“Perfect, I know.”

The female characters that this trope is built around are defined by their innocence of, and inexperience with, worldly things. Especially when it comes to sex, romance or basic social interaction.

CLIP – My Stepmother Is An Alien (1988)
“Would you mind if I kissed you?”
“Does it hurt?”

Through the use of science fiction conventions, they’re brought into the human world already fully formed. The mind of a child manifeste in a mature female body. She may be an android, a computer program, a mermaid, an alien, a magical being, or otherwise raised in an environment isolated from the rest of human society.

Many of these female characters have one very specific thing in common; they’re all deliberately written to be completely unaware of their own sex appeal.

This then provides filmmakers with an excuse to include at least one scene in which she disrobes in front of men, and because she’s so naive, she doesn’t understand the implications of this action.

CLIP – Forbidden Planet (1956)
“Morning, come on in.”
“Didn’t bring my bathing suit.”
“What’s a bathing suit?”
“Oh, murder.”

Now as you might imagine… there’s quite a bit of overlap here with the the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.

CLIP – Enchanted (2007)
“Oh, good morning, Robert! This is a magical room. Where does the water come from?”
“Uhh, oh well, the water comes from the pipes.”
“Where do the pipes get it?”

Although characters who are Born Sexy Yesterday are often highly skilled at something that men will respect. Frequently that thing is combat.

Now so far we’ve only focused on the female characters associated with this trope, but it isn’t really about them.

CLIP – Splash (1984)
“That, uh, the door always spins, it spins around”.

Like most things in Hollywood, Born Sexy Yesterday is written for men. And ultimately it’s a relationship trope.

CLIP – The Fifth Element (1997)
“5’9”, blue eyes, long legs, great skin. You know, perfect.”

So that means we need to talk about the other side of the equation, the male heroes. Typically, he’s a straight red blooded man who has, for a variety of reasons, found himself alone or unsatisfied in love. He finds himself disenfranchised, or otherwise directionless. He either can’t find, or doesn’t want, a woman from his own world, a woman who might be his equal in matters of love and sexuality.

He does have one thing going for him though: he knows all about living life as a normal human being.

CLIP – My Stepmother Is An Alien (1988)
“It’s too bad you don’t eat food. You might find it can be quite pleasurable.” “What, do you get pleasure out of food?”
“No, thank you.”
“If you want my secrets, you’ll eat my sandwich.”
“This is fun! What is it?”
“Ham and cheese on rye with mayo.”

Of course so does every other guy on earth, which should make him unremarkable. Except to a woman born yesterday. Because she’s presumably never known another man, he would seem like the smartest, most amazing guy in the entire universe.

And here’s where we start to see how the trope is constructed as a male fantasy. It’s precisely her naivety and her innocence that allows her to “see something special in him,” something that other less innocent or more experienced women can not.

CLIP – Outlaw Star (1998)
“Systems normal. Estimated resuscitation time: 600 seconds, commencing countdown.”

Now we don’t have time to go into it here but Born Sexy Yesterday is absolutely everywhere in Japanese Anime.

Now I should note that Born Sexy Yesterday is not a modern trope. In fact it’s been a fixture of the of Classic Hollywood science fiction films since the beginning of the genre.

CLIP – The Time Machine (1960)
“This was intriguing. I wonder just how far women would permit this to go.”

CLIP – Forbidden Planet (1956)
“It’s nothing really personal, it’s just a kiss.”
“Hmm, but why should people want to kiss each other?”
“Oh, it’s an old custom. All of the really high civilisations go in for it.”
“But that’s so silly!”
“But it’s good for you though, it stimulates the whole system. As a matter of fact, you can’t be in tip-top health without it.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.”
“I’d be only too happy to show you.”
“Why thank you very much, Lieutenant.”
“No trouble at all.”

Forbidden Planet in 1956 is one example. The Time Machine in 1960 is another.

CLIP – The Time Machine (1960)
“Well, what’s your name?”
“Weena? How do you spell it?”
“Spell, write. Can’t you write?”

Then there’s the character of Nova from the original Planet of the Apes.

CLIP – Planet of the Apes (1968)
“Look at that. I taught you to smile.”

Who is the protagonist’s love interest despite not understanding the concept of language.

The trope usually involves white women, but Born Sexy Yesterday is an offshoot of a much older media convention.

One in which white adventures “discover” indigenous women. Although in this case science fiction replaces colonialism as the mechanism driving that narrative.

CLIP – The Fifth Element (1997)
“Big. Bada big boom. Big. Boom!”
“Yeah, yeah, big bada boom.”
“Bada boom!”
“Big boom! Big bada boom!”

Still sometimes it’s a little of both. Born Sexy Yesterday fetishizes the stark power imbalance between a wiser more experienced man and a naive inexperienced woman. It’s the ultimate teacher/student dynamic.

CLIP – Star Trek TOS (1964)
“It’s the custom of my people, to help one another when we’re in trouble.”
“And .. and this, is this also helping?”
“You could call it that.”
“Please? Help me once again?”

Star Trek is famous for making frequent use of this trope. Perhaps infamous is a better word, because the trope shows up in the original series and then in every other series afterwards.

CLIP – Star Trek Voyager (1999)
“Let’s start by doing something different with your hair.”
“Try shaking your head a little bit.”
“Is this more appropriate?”

Seven of Nine’s relationship with the doctor on Star Trek Voyager is a prominent example, especially as depicted in the episode “Someone To Watch Over Me.” Fans of that series will remember that the doctor’s own social naivete is never framed by the show as something sexy.

CLIP – Star Trek Voyager (1999)
“How shall I choose?”
“I think you’d look very nice in this one.”
“I am uncertain how to wear such a garment. Assist me.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll manage. I’ll go prepare the holodeck. Remember, the idea is to have fun tonight! I’ll expect a full report in the morning.”

Although Born Sexy Yesterday was a major part of Seven’s character, at least to begin with, she is ultimately made much more than that. And outside of a handful of rather cringeworthy episodes, Seven’s story is largely one of self-realization and self-discovery, which manages to transcend the constraints of the trope.

To a large degree this is also true of a character like Somni-451 from Cloud Atlas. Like Seven, her romantic relationship is downplayed while her character development is made central.

CLIP – Cloud Atlas (2012)
“Knowledge is a mirror and for the first time in my life, I was allowed to see who I was and who I might become.”

Which brings me to this point; The problem with this trope is not necessarily with the female characters themselves, if these were simply stories involving naive extraterrestrial women who learned about love and humanity, then that wouldn’t be an issue.

Likewise, if the male hero was also inexperienced and our two protagonists could discover love and sex together, then that would avoid most of the troubling power dynamic issues.

CLIP – Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
“What’s going on?”
“You need to understand how it works.”
“This chip. This body.”

So for example, Cameron from the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show fits the trope, but her relationship with a young John Connor is framed as much more of a mutual exploration.

Since Born Sexy Yesterday hinges on a lopsided power dynamic, it’s almost never portrayed the other way around. It’s extremely rare for a more experienced female character to teach a naive man about sex.

CLIP – Pleasantville (1998)
“I think I better go home now, Mary Sue.”
“I think I might be ill. Something’s happening to me.”
“That’s supposed to happen.”
“It is?”
“Yeah, trust me.”

CLIP – Starman (1984)
“What wait no, no no! That’s your dessert. You eat that with a fork.”
“No no, but um, you eat that last. Sandwich first, dessert last.”

Perhaps that’s because most grown women don’t find the idea of dating an inexperienced adolescent boy all that appealing.

On the rare occasion when the genders are reversed, male ineptitude then becomes the butt of the joke.

CLIP – Blast from the Past (1999)
“Hi. This is the woman from the baseball card store, remember me?”
“Oh yes, hi! Hello, hot diggity dog! Thanks for calling me on the telephone.”

She may even end up falling for him, but she falls for him despite his inexperience, not because of it.

CLIP – The Fifth Element (1997)
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I forgot about the auto-wash.”

Born Sexy Yesterday is about an unbalanced relationship, but it’s also very much connected to masculinity. The subtext of the trope is rooted in a deep seated male insecurity around sex and sexuality. The crux of the trope is a fixation on male superiority. A fixation with holding power over an innocent girl. But in order to make that socially acceptable, science fiction is employed to put the mind of that girl into a sexualised adult woman’s body. It’s a fantasy based on fear. Fear of women who are men’s equal in sexual experience and romantic history. And fear of losing the intellectual upper hand to women.

In Woody Allen’s 1973 comedy Sleeper, the protagonist is frozen and when he wakes up in the future he’s suddenly and very conveniently the only man left on earth who still remembers how to have sex. That same exact thing happens to Stallone’s character in Demolition Man.

CLIP – Demolition Man (1993)
“Oh my! Are all fluid transfer activities like this?”

So Born Sexy Yesterday is a science fiction trope that’s designed specifically so male heroes get to automatically be the most extraordinary man in a woman’s life. Again because they’re basically the “only” man to have ever been in her life.

As such the trope rests on some troubling patriarchal ideas about female purity and virginity. By definition, characters Born Sexy Yesterday have no past lovers, and no previous sexual experiences. She is framed as pure and innocent sexually and romantically, unchanged and uncorrupted by the attention of other men.

The male hero therefore avoids even the possibility of being compared, of being judged, of not measuring up. At the end of the day, this is a male fantasy about escaping the humiliation of rejection. Since he is the first (and only) man in this woman’s life, he gets to be “the best” by default. Which means, he doesn’t even have to try to be a better partner, a better boyfriend, or a better lover.

CLIP – Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948)
“That’s what we call a kiss.”

Of course the reality is that life experience is a plus and not a minus in relationships. And we need more media to reflect that. We need media where men enthusiastically embrace women who are their equals, equals in everything, including in matters of love and sex.

So to all you would be science fiction writers out there, I’ll leave you with this: Innocence is not sexy. Knowledge and experience on the other hand? Now that, that’s extremely sexy.

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