Katt Shea: Poison Ivy (1992) | poster excerpt
Drew Barrymore in Katt Shea's Poison Ivy (1992) | poster excerpt

Erotic Thriller ‘Poison Ivy’ Isn’t the Lolita Story You Think You Remember

Katt Shea’s subversive 1992 erotic thriller Poison Ivy, like its teenage villainess, is misunderstood, and American media remains obsessed with devious girls.

Poison Ivy
Katt Shea
New LIne
May 1992

America changed a lot in the decade between Poison Ivy and Thirteen. Thirteen’s critical acclaim was probably due, at least partially, to its utility as a cautionary tale in what had become a much more conservative culture (after the film was screened at Sundance, the anti-drug organization D.A.R.E. passed out informative pamphlets to the audience). What didn’t change was the media’s response to the young actresses acting out on film. A 2004 Esquire profile of 17-year-old Evan Rachel Wood echoed earlier coverage of Barrymore and Alicia Silverstone in its gleeful recollection of Wood’s onscreen persona. “Wood was unforgettable in Thirteen, a blue-eyed baby doll with a tongue stud and visible thong,” journalist Mike Sager wrote in the article’s opening paragraph. “Every mother’s nightmare, every man’s…er, don’t even go there.”

Though erotic thrillers and their associated tropes had long since failed to be a studio priority, the figure of a teenager so desirable that she required labeling with a dire warning “not to go there” remained a source of fascination. Despite both Shea and Hardwicke’s best efforts to create nuanced, complex characters out of their troubled teens, they could not protect their young actresses from being reduced to fetish objects when outside the realm of the film. Taken out of context, the characters of Ivy, Tracy, and Evie created tantalizing images which, of course, incentivized the media to take these characters out of context. 

But this impulse was not limited to the media. When I was in high school, I became aware of films like Poison Ivy, The Crush, and Thirteen through images that proliferated on Tumblr – most of which were shared not by horny older men but by other teenage girls. There were GIFs of Barrymore as Ivy swinging on a rope; there were screencaps of a frustrated Nick Eliot (Cary Elwes) telling Adrian Forrester (Alicia Silverstone) in The Crush, “You’re too young for me!” as she grinned back under her sunglasses.

My peers seemed to be in the process of reclaiming these characters: they loved their clothes, their confidence, and the control they exerted over much older and more powerful men. Even Lolita – Sue Lyon’s version in Kubrik’s film, but especially Dominique Swain in Lyne’s film – was embraced into this fold as someone to admire or even emulate. One reason I suspect these characters endured outside of their respective films is that emulating them felt somewhat possible. They were portrayed by real teenagers with round cheeks and unfinished bodies; they were not perfect-looking twentysomethings acting out complex adult dramas, as in Wild Things or any number of the “teen” shows that proliferated in the 2000s and 2010s.

The danger of collapsing the context in which these characters appeared, however, is that it ignores the uncomfortable realities that women filmmakers like Hardwicke and Shea are also interested in portraying. It also erases the toll these roles took on the real teenagers who embody them (as with Silverstone). Still, the popularity of these films – or rather, the popular elements of these films – amongst real teenage girls seems to indicate a desire for media that reflects the truth that adolescence, for women, is often the time you realize that adults are just as scared of you as you are of them.

As Abbey Bender wrote in a recent New York Times article, “Why I Love Erotic Thrillers”, “The erotic thriller’s femme fatale can fit into any number of sexist tropes: She can be a teenage temptress, a home-wrecker, a sexy psycho…I cringe at her while recognizing that I’m drawn to her. The thrills she and these films present are not merely sexual. She seduces some viewers — at least this one — into interrogating their assumptions about what strong femininity can look like.” Teenage villainesses, in these films, may be presented as hyperfeminine, costumed in white cotton underwear, flowered sundresses, and pastel bikinis. They may be emotionally unstable and violent or morally vacant and sociopathic. What they seldom are is weak. 

But even media that intends to empower its teenage girl characters too frequently relies on wishful thinking regarding their sexuality, particularly media conceived by men. As recently as 2019, an episode in the first season of the HBO show, Euphoria, described the character Maddy (Alexa Demie) losing her virginity at the age of 14 to an adult man, dismissing the situation’s power dynamics by stating unequivocally in voiceover that “she was the one in control”. After the premiere of the second season of Euphoria, conversation swirled about the frequency with which one of the show’s stars, Sydney Sweeney, a 24-year-old playing 17-year-old, appeared topless. The “she was in control” line was a quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it plot detail, and it didn’t spark nearly as much controversy as Sweeney’s nudity, which I think is telling.

Sweeney has vigorously defended her decision to disrobe in her projects, saying that her character Cassie’s “body is a different form of communication for her”, and all the intimate scenes for her character take place with other high school students. While there is likely concern that Sweeney’s nudity perpetuates the fantasy of a desirable, sexually precocious girl for Euphoria’s mostly adult viewership, it also seems to reveal fears about what teenagers are doing amongst themselves.

The line about Maddy, however, went largely unchallenged by the audience or critics. Her character, the tough, vindictive queen bee, experiences a sexual encounter with an adult man that is presented as the natural outcome of her blossoming confidence. (Race is also a factor here: Cassie, who is white, seems to inspire the protective impulses of Euphoria’s consumers more than Maddy, who is Latina.) Showrunner Sam Levinson, who writes every episode of the show, seems at some points able to portray the complex realities of teenage sexuality, while at other points, he falls quickly and uncritically back onto the old stereotypes portrayed in the films of the ’90s. 

That we still have not shaken the character of the teenage temptress in our entertainment, even in media that is ostensibly concerned with the difficult inner lives of its young characters, is precisely why Poison Ivy is worth revisiting. Those who are intrigued by the idea of a teenage femme fatale should appreciate it for its nuanced family drama and its commitment to playing out its salacious premise with authenticity. Those who chafe against portraying teenage girls as complicated, antisocial, or amoral should take another look at it for the same reason.

Poison Ivy provides a rare example of an adolescent role that seems grounded in the real desperation of adolescence, and it’s certainly the only instance within the erotic thriller genre. Shea, like other female filmmakers after her – Catherine Hardwicke with Thirteen, for one, Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody with Jennifer’s Body (2009), for another – was able to trouble the popular tropes of teenagers through different narrative structures and playful use of satire and melodrama. Poison Ivy is a prime example of what can be accomplished when filmmakers draw from their experiences of trauma and fetishization to create stories that are culturally relevant and characters that exhibit recognizably human behavior. We may not have yet shaken the American obsession with “the Lolita”, but certain films, like Poison Ivy, can work to remind us that these stories are often about so much more than the sexy girl at their center. 

Works Cited

Bender, Abbey. “Why I Love Erotic Thrillers”. The New York Times. 29 March 2022.

Benenson, Laurie Halpern. “How ‘Poison Ivy’ Got Its Sting”. The New York Times. 3 May 1992. 

Cohen, Rich. “Alicia Silverstone: Ballad of a Teenage Queen“. Rolling Stone. 7 September 1995.

Gleiberman, Owen. “Poison Ivy”. Entertainment Weekly. 8 May 1992.

Lee, Benjamin. “Alicia Silverstone: ‘I probably behaved not as well as I could have’”. The Guardian. 18 April 2020. 

Mitchell, Elvis. “FILM REVIEW: Trading Barbie for Drugs, Sex, and Halter Tops”. The New York Times. 20 August 2003.

Rainer, Peter. “MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Ivy’: Family Itchin’ for TroubleThe Los Angeles Times. 8 May 1992. 

St. Asaph, Katherine. “S.Z.A.: How the Breakout R&B Star Conquered Self-Doubt and Took ‘Ctrl’”. Rolling Stone. 14 June 2017.

Wells, Ira. “Forgetting Lolita: How Nabokov’s Victim Became An American Fantasy”. The New Republic. 28 May 2015.

White, Adam. “Revisiting the erotic coming-of-age thriller Poison Ivy”. Dazed. 28 June 2017.