With her first re-view for 10YA (and I hope she writes many more, should she be so inclined), here’s writer Jean Burnet with another look at The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
I have a confession to make: my love for all things chick flick is limited only by my irrational hatred for Diane Keaton. (But seriously, how many times can she drink a glass of wine and call it a movie?) And if I could count the number of times I’ve watched two seasons of The Voice within a week-long period to get over a break-up (several) it would be a number not at all as close to how many chick flicks I’ve devoured. So now you know.
That said, in many ways I think Sisterhood transcends its genre—sort of. Kind of. A little.
Ten years ago, when this premiered, I was taking driver’s ed, doing hand stuff with my then-boyfriend, listening to Kid A until my ears bled, and trying to figure out how far away I could get from home without actually leaving the planet. The point is: as a sixteen-year-old girl, Iwas the target audience. So if you were not a teenage girl, or trying to date a teenage girl, or trying to be a teenage girl, or currently are a teenage girl—then the likelihood of this film having hit your radar at all decreases exponentially the more un-teenage girl you get. Bear with me.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Anne Brashares, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants explores the interconnected lives of four friends bound together by one magical pair of jeans. I did read the book. I can’t remember if I liked it. What I know is that the “magical” part of the jeans seemed a lot less ridiculous in the book than seeing it literally pass hands between four totally-not-the-same-size-at-all women and still fit them all perfectly. (“It must be some kind of Lycra!” one exclaims. Yeah, okay.) But whatever. We’d all seen Harry Potter by then; we were primed to believe in magic.
Anyway, after their pregnant moms meet in mommy yoga our four main gals enter a lifelong friendship and eventually blossom into their teenage forms: “wild, unstoppable” Bridget, “shy and beautiful” Lena,” Tibby “the rebel,” and our narrator Carmen, “the writer.” Note how this movie is using wardrobe to code character: Tibby rocks blue-streaked hair cause FUCK the status quo; blonde and swan-like Bridget towers over them with the shortest shorts ever; Lena the frump enjoys wearing… I don’t know, she looks fine to me, does that mean I’m frumpy?; and Carmen is wearing some colorful flowery shit that definitely emphasizes the curvy, emotionally volatile half-Puerto Rican that she is. “Ay dios mio!” she says at some point, reiterating she’s the Latina.
Like, if these girls were in Divergent, Bridget would’ve definitely been a Dauntless, Tibby straight up Candor, Lena in Abnegation, and Carmen in, um, Erudite? (Someone write this fan fiction.) Why is this important? I don’t know. Maybe because it’s somewhat setting up what many young adult stories try to say in some way eventually: that we are more than a category. But we’ll get to that.
So back to the jeans: as the girls get ready to spend their first ever summer apart they go on a shopping spree at the local thrift shop. Here they find the jeans, which they begin to pass between each other with increasingly magical results. (Side note: UM WHY ARE THEY UNDRESSING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STORE? WHAT KIND OF BOUTIQUE IS THIS?)
Having secured what they believe to be magical pair of jeans, they have an after-hours sneak into the yoga studio where their moms first met to perform a séance, thus reviving the GHOST OF SIXTH SENSE’S BRUCE WILLIS nah they just celebrate the jeans with some sparkly candles and tell jokes and laugh or whatever. They decide to pass the jeans between them over the summer, and set some magical jeans-related rules, like “no picking your nose when wearing the pants,” “any removal of the pants must be done by the wearer herself” (here they all pointedly look at Bridget, who is totally unapologetic about what she does with her body YOU GO GIRL), and finally, that “pants equal love, love your sisters and love yourself.” This is how metaphors are born people.
Thus they depart.
Lena heads to Greece to spend the summer with her grandparents, or as she refers to them: Papou and Yia Yia. She is immediately swarmed by twenty relatives all throwing jewelry and shit at her. I wish this was how my family greeted me. In beautiful Santorini, she’s also immediately assaulted by a visual frenzy of skin. Everywhere. People show it there. And it makes her uncomfortable because, remember: she’s Shy. In fact, she’s so physically embarrassed that as she’s strolling on a fishing dock, her eyes hungrily aching for the bounty of flesh around her, she trips and falls into the water and almost drowns. Luckily, a hottie watching nearby scoops her up and saves her life. I will now refer to him as Greek God.
I think when I first watched this movie I didn’t appreciate the full Greek God-ness of this guy, but in terms of hot men on screen he’s pretty damn A+. He’s a college guy who’s going to school at the University of Athens (whatever, it’s probably a cover for his godly duties) but in the summers he helps out on his family’s fishing boat. He lends her a shirt to wear. She looks adorably uncomfortable in it. When she gets home she soon discovers that the Greek God is from the dreaded RIVAL FAMILY and is forbidden to see him. Heyo! I smell a Romeo and Juliet plot cooking!
Oh, also, did I mention she’s an artist? She passes her time sketching random shit around the country, and the Greek God and her keep running into each other at places and she keeps trying to lose him ‘cause of the Rival Family business. But he doesn’t care! “Is it really them you are afraid of, or is it something else?” he asks her, deeply and earnestly. Looks like that question cut pretty deep because a few scenes later she’s crying as she’s looking out toward the open ocean, and in a highly symbolic moment strips off her clothes and jumps into the sea. Inhibition be damned! He’s there for some reason too suddenly and they go for a romantic swim. So looks like they’re in love based on that one time he lent her his t-shirt.
Meanwhile, Bridget, who is still reeling from her mother’s recent suicide but covering it up with a bunch of hair flipping, is on her way to her all-girls soccer camp in Mexico. Can we pause for a second to talk about this? Like is this a thing that white people actually regularly do? Because this is complete news to me. Anyways, Bridget’s pretty bummed about the camp being girls only…. Except for that Hot Coach, that is. Uh oh! As if feeling the audience’s obvious reaction, some girl next to her declares, “Don’t even think about it. It’s against the rules to have flings with the coaches.” Blake Lively looks at her like: I smell a challenge, bitch.
Bridget is really good at soccer and at running. That’s what I can gather from her screen time. Something that did not make me uncomfortable ten years ago that made me uncomfortable today during this re-view was just how much attention the camera pays to her body and overtly sexualizes her. I mean her wardrobe consists of literally sports bras and booty shorts and that the magical jeans are probably the longest pair of pants she actually owns and there she is, always, running somewhere. Hair flowing. Thrust up like some perfect specimen of humanity that we might model ourselves by—it’s weird and it’s creepy, especially considering she’s supposed to be what, seventeen? CAN THE CAMERA GET OFF HER DICK PLEASE?
Her and the Hot Coach have some embarrassing conversation about running and chasing the high (sorry runners) and ugh it’s just embarrassing. But I have to hand it to Bridget, she is not shy about expressing her desire to bone this dude, and having recently undergone low-level rejection myself, Bridget’s brazenness serves as a good reminder to GET. WHAT’S. OURS. You know what I’m saying? DAMN she literally just poured water on herself in front of him.
Back at home, Tibby is stuck working her shitty job at Wallman’s (get it?) while she works on a documentary she calls an ode to the “the lameness of human existence.” While on the clock one day she comes across a little girl who is passed out in an aisle. She calls an ambulance and the girl’s taken away, but not before saying something mildly snarky to her. Sometime later her documentary is still going pretty shitty because nobody taught her how to be a good producer and the girl shows up on her doorstep with the package of magical jeans in hand, wrongly delivered to her address. From then on she becomes the official Sidekick, or, plot point the movie can’t get rid of because Tibby needs to Grow Up. Sidekick does run the audio for Tibby, though, and seems to be a lot better at interviewing people because she can muster up an ounce or two of enthusiasm and charisma, two qualities Tibby still doesn’t have in her repertoire.
And so we get to Carmen. Carmen, my lady. My number one. Numero uno. As a mixed race Latina myself, I think part of the charm of this movie ten years ago was finding a mixed race leading lady in Carmen. But what felt somewhat relatable to me then feels forced and clumsy and embarrassing now.
Carmen is pumped to spend a summer with her clearly white dad for the first time ever—especially because he hasn’t been around much. She tells him how she’s going to make him “arroz con pollo” and “platanos, too.” When she rolls her Rs to affirm her Latin identity a fissure in the earth opens up and the demon god of Jean’s Pet Peeves awakens to devour the earth.
Then, on the car ride home, her dad tells her he has a surprise for her. Turns out the surprise is a whole new fucking family—also, he’s getting married—also, she’s in the wedding. Someone seriously needs to teach this guy about surprises. Her new family resembles a mixture of the Cleavers and Children of the Corn. Understandably, she fucking hates this.
Eventually things heat up for all the girls. At this point, Lena is deep in her love montage/travel promo with Greek God. They sail. They motorbike. They do not go to a single museum. She draws him like one of her French girls. I will say around this time one of the truly cutest moments in the film happens when Lena catches Papou kissing Yia Yia’s shoulder as she’s laying octopus out to dry. A lifetime of marriage and he still kisses her goddamn shoulder at random. Let me compose myself.
Later, even when their families try to tear Lena and the Greek God apart, she finds the strength to stand up for herself and finally tell a human male she loves him. It’s a Big Deal. Bridget eventually wears down Hot Coach and they have sex on the beach. Let me reiterate: she loses her virginity. IN THE SAND. ON A BEACH. Ugh. Afterward, Bridget spends a lot of time moodily staring into the distance which seems to indicate she feels pretty shitty about giving it up to Hot Coach. And possibly from the sand forever lodged in the folds of her labia.
Sidekick is eventually revealed to have leukemia, and Tibby, who sucks at accessing her feelings, deals with this by pretending it isn’t happening and refusing to visit her at the hospital. Fed up with her dad’s total shit job at incorporating her into the new family, Carmen and the Cleavers come to verbal blows and she takes the first bus out of there and goes home.
It’s when the girls join together again that the film seems to try to be something more. “Sisterhood” in its many forms becomes the central feature of this latter half of the film, and we are witness to the many ways they do, in fact, bloom from the friendship they share: it’s Tibby that encourages Carmen to voice her feelings of abandonment to her father, Lena who rounds up Carmen and Tibby to comfort Bridget as she comes to the realization that she’s pretty fucking sad about her mom and dealing with it by banging random dude-bros, and Carmen who pushes Tibby to get in touch with her feelings long enough to have one last and true connection with the dying Sidekick. Despite their differences, they are One.
Full disclosure: I totally ugly-cried during all the parts I ugly-cried ten years ago. I don’t know if this means I’m emotionally stunted or if I emotionally developed early. But I think my heart broke a little watching what feels like a very real exchange between Carmen and her father on the phone in which she finally tells him that he’s been a shitty father and that he can’t say sorry and fix it, and that fuck you dad for trading her in for something better.
It brings to mind this quote from director Luc Besson on his parents’ early divorce that’s stayed with me for some reason: “Here there is two families, and I am the only bad souvenir of something that doesn’t work—if I disappear, then everything is perfect. The rage to exist comes from here. I have to do something. Otherwise, I am going to die.”
I think Carmen really did need that phone call.
Everything wraps up neatly in the end, and even Hot Coach makes one final appearance to apologize for his part in taking Bridget’s v-card while still managing to keep that sexytimes door open by telling her to call him when she’s twenty (AKA legal but not TOO legal????). Which I now realize is CREEPY AS HELL GUYS. THIS WAS NOT A CUTE MOMENT.
So maybe their characters are a little one-dimensional, but the issues they individually endure are certainly not. And I for one can confirm that after breaking up exactly a million times since age sixteen and dating some truly heinous PSAs for loving yourself more in the process—at the end of the day, it’s the people willing to let you cry into a beer in public while telling you you’re awesome that really matter. At least, that’s what I think this movie is telling me.
Something new that I could only experience now, with ten years of perspective, is that this film—one filled with positive messages, for the most part—is the perfect ode to teenagedom. I mean, teenagers do weird things to show their affection for each other. They make friendship bracelets and pinky swear and I think now they take a shitton of selfies. I think that’s still true. Once, as a teenager, a boy gave me a mixed tape (just kidding, I’m a millennial, it was a CD) and included the song “Billie Jean” in it which I think was supposed to be a gesture toward my name (???) but inadvertently also gave me a pretty peculiar message about our possible future relationship—the point is: we do weird things to show each other our affection. And that clumsiness to connect is such a real part of this movie.
What I’m saying is sometimes being a grown-up fucking sucks, man. And this film encapsulates exactly what is perfect about being a teenager: that everything is still wonderful and full of promise, bursting and yet to be captured, and that the imaginary place where we envision our best selves still exists in the Great Future, somewhere in the looming haze of adulthood.
Let us all remember that time. Let us all treat every pair of jeans as magical. The Great Future is still out there, y’all.
Verdict: I’m on a lot of NyQuil right now.
Continuing to do it for all the Latinas here in the U.S., America Ferrera went on to star in the English version of my favorite Spanish soap opera, Ugly Betty (Yo Soy Betty, La Fea). Not as good as the original. But A+ for effort. I’m not even going to address how morally terrible this image is right now.
And the best part? They’re all still friends.