Just One Of The Guys: An 80s Stealth-Feminist Sex Comedy (Updated)


Welcome to Girls On Film, in which we rewatch the campy and occasionally wonderful movies of our youths. This week: Just One Of The Guys, the 1985 crossdressing teen comedy that seamlessly integrated boob shots and gender discrimination critiques.

On first glance, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Just One Of The Guys is going to be worth anything beyond “so bad it’s good” attention. But upon further inspection, this movie — written by two guys, and directed by a woman, Lisa Gottlieb — that absolutely no one took seriously when it came out (and which was on TV all the time when many of us were growing up) deserves another look. While some of the acting is undeniably godawful, it pulls off its bawdy update of the classic cross-dressing comedy with some positive, and dare I say it, feminist messages. Is it about gender discrimination? Sublimated homosexuality? The experience of being trans? Or just teenagers getting laid?

Terry is a pretty, popular suburban teenager — who also happens to want to be a newspaper journalist. But when she enters a school contest to get an internship at a local paper, she’s passed over for two guys and told by her journalism teacher that she should consider being a model instead. “Why, because a pretty girl can’t possibly have a brain?” she shoots back.

Whoa. Did they just slip workplace discrimination into teen fluff and not back away from it? The mind reels.

It doesn’t stop for Terry when she goes home and is told by her boyfriend that her job aspirations should be a hobby, and then finds her horny little brother’s room festooned with Playboy centerfolds. “You guys think beautiful women are nothing but decoration!” she complains. Her brother insists that it’s more than that — one of them reads Vonnegut in her bubble bath. It’s like this is secretly a sophisticated movie!

“It’s as if women’s lib never existed,” Terry says. Her brother replies, “Today’s woman has the freedom to be just as sick and perverted as us guys.”

Terry decides to go undercover at a neighboring school and enter the same internship contest with the same story, this time dressed as a boy. Here, her brother obligingly teaches her how to be a man: Take up space and scratch your balls.

But of course, when Terry enrolls in her new school (her absence from her actual school somehow going unnoted) she falls for Rick, a nerdy social outcast whom she promptly gives a makeover. Another reversal: the dude gets made over. Terry’s own male styling is referred to in the movie as Elvis Costello-like; it’s a smart choice for androgyny. This scene is surprisingly layered; set in the bathroom, a loaded and potentially terrifying place for the interactions of actual trans people, it’s the first time we see Terry touch Rick out of her growing attraction, and then realize she’s violated the codes of male bonding.

Another complication: a sexually assertive girl who doesn’t care how small Terry’s penis is. And (spoiler!) who never quite gets slut-shamed.

Warning: NSFW at about 1:20 in.
Like many teen movies, this one culminates at the prom. But the scene is slightly different: Terry gets caught in the crossfire between Rick’s date and her bully ex-boyfriend, and then her own boyfriend shows up. At which point Rick is totally fine with her being gay. He’s less fine with her having “tits.” (Why no binding? In any case, this scene — so hot for basic cable! — burned itself in my childhood brain.)

Will Rick get over his feelings of betrayal? Well, all it takes is time and Terry finally scoring an article in that paper — about what she learned posing as a guyl. At first, it seems as if this happy-ending scene — in which Rick likes her as long as she wears a dress and lets him call the shots and drive the car — is about restoring things to their natural order — which is to say, man on top. But then her brother Buddy scurries onto a random chick’s motorcycle, and I suspect the filmmakers are just fucking with us.

In the end, Terry’s thesis that she would get taken seriously if she were a man isn’t exactly validated by the movie — when she submits the same piece as a boy, she’s still told it’s not quite good enough. Meanwhile, her male alter ego actually lacks the same social power she commanded at her old school, especially because boy Terry is no one’s idea of macho, and the new school is dominated by one of those blonde, preppy villains 80s movies enshrined. Girl Terry had a boyfriend who looks a little bit like that villain; boy Terry has to sympathize with the shy nerds, eventually falling in love with one music-obsessed outcast (but after she gives him a makeover). The experience of transforming herself through a radical change in perspective ultimately nets her professional and personal success. Who knew it was possible to have both — and in an 80s teen movie, no less?

Next Week: Dirty Dancing.

Update: Please welcome Just One Of The Guys director Lisa Gottlieb, who is now registered as a commenter and is happy to answer your questions about the movie!

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