Film Forward

Once You Hear About This Science Fiction Trope, You're Never Going To Look At Film Or TV The Same Way Ever Again

It's called "Born Sexy Yesterday" — and it's everywhere.

We love science fiction films as much as the next person, but after the Pop Culture Detective Agency did a deep dive into one trope that haunts the genre — and specifically the women in it — things will never be the same. Let's break down this overused narrative device, which has been dubbed "Born Sexy Yesterday."

The channel's YouTube video explains that Born Sexy Yesterday basically takes the idiom "born yesterday" — which describes someone as being ignorant to the way the world works — as well as a pretty literal interpretation, too. The inclusion of the word sexy has a pretty obvious meaning for the female character described, as they're often beautiful creatures.

"Through the use of science fiction conventions, they are brought into the human world already fully formed. The mind of a child manifested in a mature female body," Jonathan McIntosh says in the video essay. "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."

Now that we know exactly what Born Sexy Yesterday is, let's take a look at a few need-to-know aspects about this trope and how it is affecting the science fiction genre in a negative way:

The classic example.

McIntosh notes that both 1997's The Fifth Element and 2010's Tron: Legacy are excellent examples of the Born Sexy Yesterday trope. In Tron: Legacy, the character of Quorra is described as both "profoundly naïve" and "unimaginably wise." Leeloo from The Fifth Element is quite similar.

"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," McIntosh says, pointing out that these women are almost always the love interest of the film's male hero.

These female characters are "deliberately written to be completely unaware of their sex appeal" and are often "highly skilled at something men will respect, frequently that thing is combat."

It’s actually all about the men.

As McIntosh goes on to point out, this whole situation isn't even about the female characters — it's about the men. He points out that the women in this situation are basically just part of a relationship trope and, because of that, you need to examine the men in the story more closely.

"Typically, he's a straight, red-blooded man who, for a variety of reasons, found himself alone or unsatisfied in love," McIntosh says. "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."

The one thing the male character has going for him though is that he knows how to be a functioning human being — at least in the traditional sense. This makes him unremarkable to most, but extraordinary to someone who was Born Sexy Yesterday. This is how the trope is structured to be a male fantasy.

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This is nothing new.

While this might be blowing your minds, it's not because Born Sexy Yesterday is something new — it's just because you're noticing it now. This has been around for a long time in the genre, as McIntosh used examples from between 1948 and 2012. And just because McIntosh stuck to that timespan doesn't mean that there weren't examples before 1948, just like we know there have certainly been examples since 2012. It's rooted deeply in science fiction and has always been lurking beneath the surface.

How race factors into things.

While many examples that McIntosh uses to explain the Born Sexy Yesterday phenomenon shows White women at the center of the story, that it applies to females of every color. When looking at race in this situation, though, McIntosh explains that Born Sexy Yesterday is an offshoot of another trope, which features White male adventurers discovering indigenous or exotic women. As McIntosh points out, science fiction has replaced colonialism. Often, though, there is an overlap as females from different planets or universes can be treated as different to the men from more traditional and recognized societies.

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Can it be the other way around?

Born Sexy Yesterday "hinges on a lopsided power dynamic" and "it's almost never portrayed the other way around." Therefore you won't be seeing any women in places of power over men. McIntosh notes that it would be "extremely rare" to see this happen — but that there's probably a logical explanation as to why that is.

"Perhaps that's because most grown women don't find the idea of dating an inexperienced adolescent boy all that appealing," he says. "On the rare occasion when the genders are reversed, male ineptitude becomes the butt of the joke. She may even end up falling for him, but she falls for him despite his inexperience, not because of it."

Here’s why it’s super harmful.

McIntosh points out how the Born Sexy Yesterday trope "fetishizes the stark power imbalance" between a man who is wiser and more experienced, and a woman who is naïve and less experienced, calling it "the ultimate teacher-student dynamic." It is, as he describes, "an unbalanced relationship" that is "very much connected to masculinity" and fear of women getting the upper hand or achieving equality.

Not only that, but Born Sexy Yesterday "rests on some troubling patriarchal ideas about female purity and virginity," McIntosh points out. Since women who were Born Sexy Yesterday have been framed as having never had previous lovers, sexual experiences, or romances, the men they fall in love with when portrayed on the big or small screen don't have to worry about "not measuring up" and don't have to face the potential "humiliation of rejection."

"Which means he doesn't even have to try to be a better partner, a better boyfriend, or a better lover. 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," McIntosh adds. "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."

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So how can this be fixed or avoided entirely?

Just because aspects of Born Sexy Yesterday are present in a film or TV show doesn't mean it has to be done in a negative way. This trope can actually be super empowering as long as the woman's romance with the man is downplayed and there is enough character development to evolve the role into something more than just the run-of-the-mill archetype.

"The problem with this trope is not necessarily the female characters themselves. If these were simply stories involving naïve extraterrestrial women who learned about love and humanity, that wouldn't be an issue," McIntosh explains. "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."

As for how the script can be flipped? Just write stories that don't rely on it. McIntosh leaves off with this piece of advice — which we totally agree with — to would-be science fiction writers who might be listening: "Innocence is not sexy. Knowledge and experience, on the other hand, now that, that's extremely sexy."

Watch the full video on Born Sexy Yesterday here:

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

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