5 Classic Movies That Can Trigger Conversations About Sexual Assault and Consent

In light of #MeToo, these '80s movies feel very outdated -- but ripe for conversation with kids. By Sierra Filucci
5 Classic Movies That Can Trigger Conversations About Sexual Assault and Consent

One of the joys of parenthood is sharing your favorite childhood movies with your kids. So when it was my turn to choose a movie for family movie night recently, I was excited to show my tweens the original Ghostbusters. But pretty early in the film, Bill Murray's character starts acting super sleazy with one of his young, female students. I had completely forgotten about this scene -- and the more I thought about all the '80s movies I loved as a teenager, I realized this wasn't even the worst of it.

Looking back, it's pretty incredible how many kid- and teen-targeted movies included scenes of sexual harassment, assault, or even rape -- mostly for laughs. Watching now, these scenes feel completely outdated and inappropriate. As our culture comes to terms with these issues -- from better sexual harassment training in the workplace to the #MeToo movement -- the content in popular movies has largely shifted with the times. But if you're planning to dip back into the nostalgia zone with your kids, be prepared to discuss these issues when they come up. You don't have to skip these films entirely -- in fact, they can be great examples of how ideas change over time -- but you might want to be prepared with some talking points.

Here are five movies that are entertaining classics but that include very problematic scenes or storylines. Read to the bottom for tips on how to talk to kids about consent, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.

Almost Famous
First, 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is playfully dragged by three young women who say they want to "deflower" him, and while he says "no" and "stop," they remove his clothes. We don't see the resolution of the scene, but it's clear he doesn't want to be there. Later, while Penny (Kate Hudson) is barely conscious from taking quaaludes, William confesses his love for her and kisses her on the mouth (acknowledging that she'll "never remember" any of it).

Back to the Future
In an attempt to ensure his teenage parents fall in love, Marty (Michael J. Fox) -- who has traveled back in time -- concocts a plan to pretend to sexually assault his mother. The plan backfires when Biff (Thomas S. Wilson) the bully ends up really trying to assault Marty's mom (Lea Thompson).

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) tricks his young, attractive female student into spending time with him by administering false ESP tests. Later in the movie, he makes sexually suggestive comments while in Dana's (Sigourney Weaver's) apartment and then later -- after she becomes possessed -- doses her with a pharmaceutical sedative (which makes you wonder why he had it with him in the first place).

Revenge of the Nerds
The central "nerd" character (Robert Carradine) dresses up like the main "jock" character (Ted McGinley) to trick the jock's girlfriend (Julie Montgomery) into having sex with him. This is after the nerds sell nude photos of the girlfriend (taken without permission) to raise money for their fraternity. The girlfriend later says she's in love with the nerd.

Sixteen Candles
High school hunk Jake Ryan (Michael Shoeffling) tells Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) that his girlfriend is passed out at a party and that he could "violate her 10 different ways" if he wanted to. The guys conspire to have Ted take the unconscious girl home, and later it seems like they had sex, though neither remembers it. They later kiss passionately.

How to talk about iffy scenes

First, don't worry if you aren't sure exactly how to discuss this stuff. It's tricky, but the most important thing is to let kids know that sexual assault isn't OK and isn't funny. Even if you can't explain exactly why something is wrong, you can express your feelings about certain scenes and ask kids what their reaction is. Here are some common plot devices involving sexual assault in classic movies and how to talk to kids about them.

  • The myth of the "hard to get" woman. Lots of movies portray men as the pursuers of women who are just playing "hard to get," implying that women don't really mean what they say. That idea is as old as the silent film. No means no.
  • The role of drugs and alcohol in seduction. Slipping a mickey in someone's drink may result in comedic situations on-screen. But in reality, drugging someone to have your way with them is dangerous (and illegal). Someone who is drunk (or otherwise intoxicated) or asleep cannot give consent.
  • The supporting characters who enable bad behavior. Sexual abuse often involves folks who help the perpetrator get away with their crimes -- or at least look the other way. Tell your kids not to be bystanders. If someone appears to be in danger of being sexually assaulted, step in or call a trusted adult or authority.
  • Consent isn't just for women. Turning the tables on sexual assault by making a man the victim always gets the audience's attention. But consent goes both ways. Both men and women should expect to give and receive verbal and physical consent from their sexual partners.
  • The relationship between sex and humor. Sexual situations make us nervous -- which is why they're often played for laughs. But there's plenty of comedy gold to be found in romantic hijinks without involving sexual assault, harassment, and rape. Sexual aggression is no laughing matter.

About Sierra Filucci

Image of blog author
Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more... Read more

Add comment

Sign in or sign up to share your thoughts

Comments (3)

Adult written by Carolyn F.

I don't know about Back to the Future, just because while that is Marty's plan once he gets there it is quite clear that he wouldn't be able to go through with it even if Biff hadn't busted in. The peeping tom part is more objectionable to me, and even though isn't as bad as the other scenes on the list. One that I would add is the "Tune In Tokyo" scene from Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. The male lead's wingman uses trickery to tweak a girl's breasts in a very weird way, seemingly for no other purpose than to embarrass her. It is totally extraneous to the plot, just included for laughs. We never see the girl again and the guy doesn't suffer any repercussions.
Adult written by 0dysseus

Uncle Buck! // There is a scene crosscut between what we think is the eldest daughter (niece, actually) being sexually assaulted by her boyfriend and Uncle Buck racing to rescue her. The half-dozen back and forth cuts include the non-consenting girl desperately whispering "Stop it, please" and "I don't want to do this." It's all set to Young MC's "Bust A Move" playing in a crowded high school party while the boyfriend continues taking off her clothes. / / It turns out it's not his niece who is being raped but a different girl. Uncle Buck somehow finds his niece and this is the emotional resolution between him and the kids. I find this particularly dangerous because this is the scene where Uncle Buck puts aside his plans to bet at the track. This is where he becomes an adult. It is also where his niece realizes she isn't the adult she thought she was. This makes it seem as if being ready to lose your virginity at a party over happy music is the threshold to adulthood. "Bust A Move" indeed! // There is also Buck's problematic relationship with women, honesty, cigars and offering dogs beer and pretzels. And a hella pollutin' car.