Teen sexuality & identity onscreen – the short film Oleander
Updated: Dec 20, 2021
In the award-winning 12-minute film Oleander – starring Emily Robinson, of Eighth Grade (2018) and TV show Transparent fame – a rebel teenager speaks out against an abstinence-only sex-education programme via her YouTube channel. Part sex-positive teen narrative and part cautionary tale about emotional and digital manipulation, Oleander is the coming-of-age portrait of a 17-year-old asserting her sexuality and identity. It’s so multifaceted that you can fill in your own blanks: do you empathise, criticise and/or cheer her on?
Here Kate Hackett – the director, writer, producer and editor of Oleander – talks to us about not learning about consent, what happens to beautiful women in Game Of Thrones and what parents and teenagers can get out of watching her striking short film
I believe in the power of love. And by love I mean sex, and by sex I mean that sexual fulfilment is a fundamental right – Oleander Jones in Oleander
Your film’s main character, Oleander Jones, is charismatic and direct. Why is she called Oleander?
The film is set in Bakersfield, California – a city whose primary business is agriculture – and oleanders grow everywhere. So Oleander was named after this desert plant that is hardy, resilient and trying to survive but also stigmatised – it’s seen as beautiful but dangerous.
The film is about a teenage girl who’s rebelling against an abstinence-only sex-education programme. Oleander puts herself out into the world by being strong and vulnerable, and that’s what draws people to her YouTube channel. She speaks about the things that are difficult for her and about who she wants to be. But despite her bravado she’s unaware that her vulnerabilities leave her open to getting hurt.
With this short film I wanted to explore issues around the sexual shame that can be put on young women when they’re coming of age.
Sexual awakening was also the theme of a short film written and directed by Emily Robinson, who plays Oleander. We had great synergy and a shared goal about wanting to … the idea of teenagers learning more about themselves as sexual people.
Oleander is having a few exploratory sexual experiences and is challenged on that by adults instead of being listened to. So then she becomes a warrior for her own freedom and triples down on everything, for example listing how many people she’s slept with to elicit a reaction from adults and prove that her intellectual freedom and her agency are essential.
It’s so interesting to see the films-within-a-film where Oleander narrates her life for her YouTube channel in such a forthright way…
Films about girls discovering themselves are often about them being insecure, unsure or awkward. That’s wonderful, but I feel very strongly that although teenagers’ minds are not fully formed, they’re individuals with agency and thoughts about how they want to live.
Female coming-of-age stories are seen as “niche” even though they affect so many people. A lot of male producers don’t really care about them unless they’re fun, like Ladybird.
As a teenager I was very sure about certain things – I did sort of have a thesis of how I should exist in the world and how I wanted to be seen. So I wanted to create a character who, at 17, has a lot of ideas about who she is and who she wants to be.
When you were a preteen you’d argue with teachers about issues like women’s autonomy over their bodies…
In Catholic school I had abstinence-based education that led me to feel a great deal of shame about my sexuality. I was very unexposed to topics of consent, STIs, the whole gamut of sex education. This lack of conversation can be damaging.
Only as an adult could I articulate the extent to which that education affected me. Any sexual experience seemed inherently bad and shameful. Sexual shaming at a young age can shut down your barometer for when you’re in a right or wrong situation. Not learning about consent left me much more open to destructive relationships. It made it difficult to sort out consensual good experiences with a thoughtful partner from ones that were not, and that numbed my ability to have any discernment.
The abstinence programme in the film is more extreme than what I experienced, and Oleander isn’t exactly me, but through her I’m expressing some struggles I went through. It’s about some of the pain a young woman can feel while navigating her growth as a sexual person if she’s in a restrictive environment.
Speaking to other people now, I find this kind of experience to be so repeated. I don’t want anybody else to feel so much shame about their very natural sexual growth.
Because the film seems to give equal weight to different points of view, it’s hard to work out where you stand as a director. Your moral stance seems ambiguous – was that deliberate?
My centre of empathy as a filmmaker is with the teenage character who’s trying to express herself. The even-handedness comes from my not believing that many people are all bad or all good – many people in, for example, religious institutions that might oppress female agency truly believe that they’re serving a social purpose and making us safer. So although I don’t agree with them, I have a desire to understand the other side.
As a film editor I know how easily people can be deceived with editing and filming techniques and deceived by things on the web put out by marketers and people who work in think tanks.
Teenagers are just as susceptible to marketing, false marketing, false images and digitally manipulated images as adults. They’re digital natives, so they’re very savvy about the internet but also very vulnerable.
I’ve had people say about Oleander: “I don’t know if a teenager would get tricked the way she did.” But I know young people who were tricked, who thought they were putting one image out on the web and it was something else.
I could identify with the abstinence-programme leader’s criticism that Oleander uses sex and rocky relationships to hide from her emotions – but I also really felt for Oleander. I was worried about what she’d say or do next…
The film has a borderline psychological-thriller sense to it where you feel: “Is she going to be OK?”
There is a kernel of truth in the judgment that Oleander is drowning her emotions in sex but I also feel it doesn’t matter why. She should still be allowed to have a frank, honest, direct conversation about her sexuality that’s focused on health and information rather than one based on shutting everything down. Every young person is owed open, healthy conversations with an adult.
It feels significant that your website states: “Oleander was proudly made with a 65% female cast and crew”
When I was in film school – I graduated in 2009 – crews were predominantly male and white. There’s been a global movement in the past few years to represent the world as we see it better and to be aware of the demographics of your crew. So I listed the gender balance to be a beacon and to show that highly talented female crew members are readily available.
Tell us your thoughts on the messages we get from our culture about young women and sexuality
As a media maker I think a lot about how media impacts our lives. I’m interested in the place where a young woman’s coming-of-age intersects with the forces of the media all around us.
Teenagers are asked to think about their self-presentation and to have an online presence pretty much from when they start coming of age.
The slut shaming of young women – or the shaming for not being sexual enough: it’s always on one side of the equation or the other. Our society has supposedly changed, but my great-grandmother talked about the kinds of things that I experienced and that I see teenagers experiencing.
In advertising and the media, young women are sexualised, but at the same time we hide any authentic expression of female sexuality in our culture. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is very likely to give a film an NC17 rating if it shows a female orgasm.
Female film characters are often treated as disposable or as only sexual – and women are always shown as the prize. There’s pressure to be hypersexual – but in horror films teenage sexuality is often punished by death. It’s such a common trope. I love Game Of Thrones but in it you see over and over again this idea that just to be a woman – especially a beautiful woman – and walk the earth you’re going to be the recipient of sexual violence.
So we have all these messages that are thrown at us from all sides while we’re developing.
You say that Oleander was a personal, not political, project – but it made you aware of how political sex education actually is. Do you think the film can be interpreted positively by different kinds of people?
I haven’t had anyone from an abstinence point of view say they relate to it. But I have had religious educators say that this film shows why we need to do better. People from the LGBT+ community also reached out to say: “This feels like my experience with education.”
Oleander is a proof-of-concept short – to show my style, tone and vision and to situate the characters in their world – for a feature film I’m planning called Purify My Heart. I’ve had interest from producers partly because sex education is a pressing political issue.
I’ve now learned how many policy concerns there are in America with states that don’t require sex education fully or that mandate damaging abstinence-only sex ed. In the past few years the interplay between religion – especially socially conservative ideology – and the media has been playing out in some pretty epic ways that became more extreme over the course of shooting Oleander.
Sex educators told me: “There’s no film out there addressing how we approach sex education – not just in the US but around the world.” The subject matter is somewhat taboo.
You emailed me: “I want to use Oleander to advocate for comprehensive sex ed, as well as for transparency and honesty in conversations between adults and teens about sexuality.” What can parents and teenagers get out of watching Oleander?
When I spoke to a few sex educators, the consensus was that as a parent you’d watch Oleander with your teen and it would be a great parent-teen conversation piece. Or ideally watch it first because of the depictions of sexuality and the language – some people would care about that.
I do feel that teenagers and adults will read the film differently. I’m not a parent – I’m in between – but it could be a really good conversation starter, a brainstorming tool for having direct and open conversations.
In a way the conversation topics Oleander sparks are maybe the same for teenagers and adults – for a teenager it might be about the kinds of talks related to sexuality and sexual development that you’d like to have with adults, and for a parent it might be about reflecting on your teenage years or your relationship with your child.
I wrote this film about a young woman who has so many ideas about her life – and teenagers are as interested as adults in topics like how much agency they should have, what the media is trying to say to them, whether it’s deceptive, and what a healthy conversation consists of.
The film points a spotlight, by negation, on the drawbacks of having deceptive conversations and on the pain and shame that my young protagonist experiences as someone whose very clear voice gets taken away from them. Conversations that are not frank can be destructive. So showing the wrong way to talk can open up thoughts about what tenor could promote emotional and physical health. If a teenager is listened to, it’s such a better interaction.
I hope that Oleander will spark conversation around how conversations about sexual development can be better.
Kate Hackett, ACE is a filmmaker and editor living in Los Angeles. She is known for editing Netflix’s Last Chance U and the Sundance documentary Half The Picture and is an Emmy recipient for her editing work on the Netflix documentary series Cheer
And watch our National Lottery funded Outspoken / Speak Out interview with Kate about Oleander – including clips from the film – here