Not That Innocent
The Sexy Catholic Schoolgirl embodies a paradox; she’s confident, but sweet; sexually captivating, but dangerous. In other words, who wouldn’t want to be her?
She saunters down the corridor in slow-mo – crowds parting not at her behest, but as unwitting byproducts of a spiritual marvel. Her hips undulate beneath the telltale swish-swish of her kilt. It’s hemmed a bit high for Christ: a swath of peachy skin bisects the cotton and wool sheaths of white knee socks and pleated skirt. Perhaps, if she’s living dangerously, there’s a blush of cleavage creeping from her white oxford shirt – accessorized with suspenders and a black velvet choker if she decides to fully flout the dress code.
Of course you know her: the Sexy Catholic Schoolgirl. I know her too, if only in the abstract. She’s a mainstay of my teenage fantasies, inhabiting the gulf between aspirational and erotic. And as I came of age, she materialized everywhere: Britney Spears in her 1998 music video for “…Baby One More Time,” lovesome overachiever Corey (Liv Tyler) from Empire Records (1995), the coven from The Craft (1996), even Cher (Alicia Silverstone) from Clueless (1995) and the Heathers (1989) appropriated blazers and tartan in the curation of their fashion-forward wardrobes. Madonna, too, has appropriated the look on multiple occasions, including during her Drowned World Tour in 2001. I longed to recreate these cheeky variations of the vestal ensemble, to shorten the hemline of a kilt with Scotch tape, to pair it with fishnets, and a Radiohead T-shirt barely concealed by a white button-down. Yet, too meek to attempt this look at my own high school – littered as it was with Express’s polyester floral skirts, macro-aggressive Abercrombie tees, and Volcom hoodies – I abided by the unofficial dress code and only dreamed of plaid miniskirts and saddle shoes.
What made her so potent, this scholastic siren, and why does she remain so? White American popular culture reproduces her image with near-reverence: for decades the sexy Catholic schoolgirl has embodied the erotic potential of young, white femininity. Men want to deflower her. She is everywhere present at Halloween parties. And some of us (my current self included) are wooed by her obvious sexual capital. But the crux of her power lies in her mutability. While her uniform is a well-worn trope, the sexy Catholic schoolgirl is fundamentally protean. She embodies a paradox, and as a teenager I longed to strike that impossible juxtaposition: confident, but naïve; sexually captivating, but endowed with an ingénue’s sweetness. I wanted to summon desire without knowing that I had – or, at least, without knowing what precisely had made me so alluring. I wanted to possess the sexy Catholic schoolgirl’s contradictions, which in my young mind translated to a fluid magnetism.
Permit me one unholy confession: I never attended Catholic school, nor was I ever required to wear a school uniform of any kind. And while my mother took my sisters and me to mass as children, religious observation was largely perfunctory in our household. So my relationship to the Catholic schoolgirl was, and remains, one of romanticized ignorance. I worshipped a pastiche of ’90s pop culture adaptations and their fetching articulations of sexual desirability and precocity. Well-behaved, sexually inexperienced, and bored, my teenage self – a graceless thirteen-year-old – was dazzled by the aesthetic of corrupted purity (for my part, I really was that innocent).
And my fixation suggested another tantalizing possibility: I wanted to be the sort of girl people longed to corrupt, to transform from Cruel Intentions’ wide-eyed Annette Hargrove – an apple-cheeked American virgin with pigtail braids – into the cool, cruel Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), “the Marcia fucking Brady of the Upper East Side” who orchestrates tragedy to exact her own vengeance and amusement. Kathryn invokes religious rhetoric for purposes of manipulation, betraying a keen comprehension of the institution she bends to her will. Meanwhile, she heeds her own libertine gospel of coke, and sex, and devious schemes. Those around her, men especially, are toys for supplying whatever pleasure she fancies: erotic, tormenting, murderous. Kathryn’s sordid pastimes might not have aligned with my own personal objectives – my fantasies generally stop short of bloodthirst. Still, the sexy Catholic schoolgirl enacted a certain psychic tensions that gripped me as I came of age: I yearned to possess stereotypical good girl appeal, but also not giving a fuck about authority, my reputation, or my virginity.
My preoccupation began with my first viewing of The Craft. I was twelve, or thirteen at most, a time when nothing sounded quite so tempting as becoming someone else. I was spindly and anxious, by no means the cool girl – and while I didn’t attempt the impossible (being cool by my southern private school’s metrics), I cared. It’s not surprising that the film commanded my interest from the start, since its protagonist Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) chases a new, sharpened identity of her own. She has barely passed a week at her new school when, after a date with Chris Hooker (Skeet Ulrich), the class’s most-admired meathead, she discovers that he has circulated falsehoods about their night together (that they had sex, and her performance was subpar). Rebuffed and humiliated, Sarah finds solace with witchy outcasts Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True). Together, they nurture their witchcraft skills, and Sarah, who inherited powers from her late mother, becomes the crucial fourth member of the coven. As their intimacy coalesces, the girls cultivate a reckless, zero-fucks-given attitude, the sort I – an emotionally porous, love-hungry romantic – could only dream of fostering myself.
Their concern for their snobbish schoolmates withers – and sometimes warps into aggression. They cast a spell to punish Rochelle’s racist tormenter, Laura (Christine Taylor) and another to make Chris fall wildly in love with Sarah. Sitting alongside wide-eyed children on a bus, Nancy returns their quizzical stares with a glower. Later, when the driver admonishes the coven to be wary of “weirdos,” her response is smug: “We are the weirdos, mister.”
The film solemnizes the coven’s new, brassy demeanor in a montage set to The Cars’ “The Dangerous Type,” covered by alt-rock teen movie mainstay Letters to Cleo. The foursome struts down the school hallway, shoulder to shoulder. The camera is set to slow-motion, so I hungrily scanned every detail: Rochelle’s suspenders, paired with a plunging neckline; Sarah’s black vest, grazing against her breasts; Nancy’s choker. They are unified by color palette, and by their fashionably hemmed kilts. Later, alone in my bedroom, I would play the movie soundtrack on my boombox, squeeze my eyes shut, and imagine myself among the coven – a dangerous type, a lot like them.
I knew this heady moment wouldn’t last for Sarah and her friends: arrogance and heedlessness would give way to in-fighting and competition and then, ultimately, horror. But what occupied my mind were those precious minutes at the start of the film. I thought perhaps I could survive the protracted crucible of adolescence on a few subversive moments like that.
Catholic schoolgirl uniforms have been manipulated in the cultural imagination to signify everything from Britney Spears’ brand of all-American eroticized chastity to the pitch-dark menace of spiritual and sexual deviance (The Craft, Kathryn Merteuil). With the passing decades, the ensemble has amassed symbolic heft, ultimately becoming a motif in American popular culture. Often the uniform functions as a vessel for social anxieties and desires – daring to wear one’s sexuality without apology. And in its explicitly sexualized iterations, it conveys a lusty contortion of institutional values. When, in 2001, Not Another Teen Movie lampooned conventions of teenage cinema, the libidinous Catherine Wyler (Mia Kirshner) emerged, cleavage first, as a plaid-clad, rosary-licking parody of Cruel Intentions’ Kathryn. In the original film, Kathryn only dons a school uniform at the end, though we quickly learn that the cross she wears with such devotion conceals a stash of cocaine.
Catherine, on the other hand, sports a risqué iteration of the uniform at a school where students may dress as they please. In this context, Catherine’s lace-fringed bobby socks and bare midriff are a sartorial cliché, a well-worn hallmark of corrupted youth. As she pins her brother to his locker, oozing ribald comments and incestuous lust, we are meant to recognize the Catholic schoolgirl uniform as an exhausted metaphor – common, lazy, and even farcical. We’ve seen this wardrobe trick too many times.
And yet, the entertainment industries of various Western countries continue to indulge in this peculiar, plaid figure. Motifs accrue power through malleability, and, with time, the sexy Catholic schoolgirl has become more patina than presence. Of course, we continue to rely on cultural touchstones. “…Baby One More Time” has attained archetypal status – while Britney wears three different outfits over the course of the video, it’s the pigtail braids and fitted gray cardigan that we are quickest to recall. But the conceit of the Catholic schoolgirl has been modified since the ’90s to express the breaking of different strictures, for instance, the tension between queer desire and the corset strings of institutional values. In the early aughts, films set at all girls’ schools like Lost and Delirious (a Canadian film from 2001), D.E.B.S. (2004), and Loving Annabelle (2006) incorporated school uniforms, often modified (this always means shortened skirts) as a way to cast in relief burgeoning queer desire within the fetters of panoptic educational institutions. The 2014 British psychological drama The Falling borrows from a similar premise: the flint-like rigidity of an all-girl’s school cracks under the entropic pressure of mysterious fainting spells and homosocial intimacy.
Traces of the co-ed ingénue can be found in this decade, too. She’s in the haute couture of Gossip Girl’s Constance Billard School; in the Barden Bellas’ original, office-sexy uniforms in Pitch Perfect (2012), and in popstar Ariana Grande’s vampish wardrobe. The popularity of this year’s TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, defies our current administration’s offensive against reproductive rights, but there are grotesque echos of a schoolgirl appeal in the handmaids’ costume of crimson cloaks and winged bonnets as well. The handmaids uniform, according to the book, is a shroud of fertility and sexual shame, designed to conceal bodies that have been accused of aberrant erotic practices. The women’s dramatic containment within this uniform often makes them all the more alluring to the show’s (presumably) heterosexual males. And when, in Hulu’s adaptation of the story, the show’s attractive female stars (Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, and Alexis Bledel) are dressed in the tell-tale garb, its conservative symbolism becomes impossible to separate from the men’s flagrant and exploitive purposes.
Indeed, it would be naïve to write about the sexy Catholic schoolgirl as if she can be detached from the sexism that has rendered her image perniciously fetishistic. In near-simultaneity with the early 2000s release of Not Another Teen Movie, the managers of Russian pop duo t.a.T.u. seized the opportunity to exploit schoolgirl innocence by pairing it with faux-lesbian performativity. In the music video for “All the Things She Said,” Yulia Volkova and Lena Katina – neither of whom identify as queer – wear plaid miniskirts and backpacks as they make out in the middle of a downpour. The video and, consequently, Volkova and Katina, rocketed to meteoric fame. Nearly two decades later, a Google image search for “Catholic schoolgirl” indicates that for many “sexy” is always already implied. The results yield a surfeit of voluptuous costumes – scraps of plaid, bare midriffs, rosaries that droop beneath lacy crimson bras. But the genre extends beyond debauched Catholicism to any educational institution that embraces a tradition of uniforms. Because they are common in Japan, the Japanese schoolgirl’s sailor suit has become notorious as a hallmark of virginal submissiveness. Pornhub supplies its viewers with “naughty schoolgirl” videos filed into multiple, luridly specific subsections. Lingerie retailers craft patterns based on the tartan kilt, and of course, Halloween costumes of the same genre abound, everything from dominatrix vinyl to sheer nun habits to Hermione Granger’s Gryffindor uniform from the Harry Potter series.
A fetishist’s pleasure is so often ephemeral. You possess the object you desire for as long as you want, and only when it strikes your fancy. This is one way to gratify a sexual inclination, an aesthetic fixation, or the mélange of the two. For my part, performing the sexy schoolgirl was a fetish of another ilk, an obsessive one tied up in my identitarian fantasies. I didn’t harbor any illusions that this co-ed temptress existed anywhere beyond the outskirts of imagination. She was an assemblage of cultural flotsam animated by my own crisis of self. She was mine to cherish, and mine to become. She offered a template for a new identity, with pieces to adopt or discard, a cultural symbol to refashion as I would, and assume as a mask. If I was attracted to a Catholic schoolgirl, her fetishistic aspects were inconsequential – at least in the context of interpersonal desire. She offered me erotic capital without the perils of vulnerability. I could explore men on my own terms, eschewing their control.
During the summer of 2003, my most prized item of clothing was a white, pleated miniskirt from Abercrombie & Fitch. I was a fresh 18, pretty and restless, still a virgin, and humming like a taut string. Men noticed: a few I trusted and others I didn’t. Everything felt achingly near – youth and adulthood, sex, boredom, my own grudgingly self-imposed chastity. And the sexy Catholic schoolgirl: she and I, it seemed, had become intimate as well. Suspended in that heady dualism, I burned with energy, but was confounded by my own impossible confusion. Still, as I twitched in my skirt and drank wine coolers and flashed guys, all those trivialities gestured to promise. I was promising, the magic of the Catholic schoolgirl was brewing inside me.
A few months later, I dressed as a sexy Catholic schoolgirl for Halloween, got extremely drunk on Bacardi 151, and had a stupid night that I only remember insofar as it was largely a disappointment. There’s the obvious caveat: my fantasy had thrived as long as it remained purely aspirational. Summoning my beloved archetype into the mortal realm was a doomed endeavor. When I flipped through photos from that evening, inevitably frustrated with my appearance in each one, I recognized my folly: literalization had punctured my dream.
But at 32 I’m still seeking her, my schoolgirl femme fatale, even though I encounter her as a relic of the past. It’s a necessary parting. The sexy Catholic schoolgirl, as I envisioned her, has always been tethered to an investment in what men think of me, much as I’d like to imagine otherwise. And I’m weary of men’s opinions. I’m weary of my own attempts to impress them, charm them; I’d rather not think of them at all. I grant you that it’s easy for me to say these things: I’m married now, happily, and as a queer woman am generally less attracted to men than I used to be. And yet, when my eye catches sight of her – cheeky, tartaned, skipping Mass to smoke underneath the bleachers – I glimpse a shade of something just beyond my grasp. It could be bygone flirtatious confidence or cool or the delusion of power we possess before understanding too much. Sometimes, it still looks like freedom.