Eighth Grade, #MeToo, and Me

Promotional image for Bo Burnham's film Eighth Grade (2018).

Eighth Grade, comedian Bo Burnham’s film directorial debut, follows 13-year-old Kayla as she navigates her last week of middle school. Among other things, this movie is a story about the awkwardness of this age and stage, the role that technology now plays in children’s lives, and the often painful process of growing up. I wasn’t totally like Kayla when I was in eighth grade, but something about her definitely speaks to my middle-school self––and I get the sense that something about her will speak to most people’s middle-school selves.

One scene from this movie that I can’t get out of my head, is one that, in the age of #MeToo, speaks volumes about not-quite-right sexual encounters at a young age. In this scene, Kayla is on her way home from the mall with a female high school student, Olivia, and Olivia’s male friend Riley. Riley drops Olivia off first, which leaves Kayla alone in the car with him. He comments on how it’s awkward to talk with her in the backseat, but instead of inviting her to move forward, he moves into the back with her.

Riley then initiates a game of “truth or dare,” during which he voluntarily takes his own shirt off when Kayla hesitates to suggest a dare, and then dares Kayla to take her shirt off. After she refuses, first timidly and then more strongly, the next shot is of Riley back in the front seat, driving, and Kayla apologizing profusely as Riley angrily says that it’s fine, and that he was just trying to “help her.” I can’t do this scene justice––you’ll have to see the movie––but I think you get the idea.

A few years ago, this scene (where ostensibly nothing really happened) would have made me uncomfortable, but I wouldn't have been able to fully articulate why. 17-year-old Riley was trying to coerce 13-year-old Kayla into hooking up with him, but wasn’t successful. In the age of #MeToo, we finally have the context and the language to be able to explain why this moment was definitely not nothing. 

It’s the #MeToo movement that has finally given me the context and the language to talk about a similar moment in my own life. When I was a senior in high school I dated this “nice Jewish boy” I had met on a trip to Israel a couple of years before. We were one year apart, so he was a freshman in college when we got together. We only dated for about five months, during which there was plenty of sexual coercion and emotional manipulation, but one particular moment came rushing back to me as I sat and watched Kayla and Riley.

One day when we were hanging out at his house, he said to me, “let me put it in for a second.” Saying this crass phrase, even now, makes me cringe from embarrassment, but I want to share it with you. I have no reason to be embarrassed because someone said something disgusting to me while he was trying to convince me to do something I didn’t want to do.

Now, we hadn’t (and never did) have sex. I was a virgin at the time, and, in that moment, I knew that I wasn’t ready to take that step. Even though I didn’t yet have the language to articulate why, I knew that something wasn’t right. I told him that I wasn't ready for that. He pressed me one more time, and after I said no again, he said something along the lines of: “Maybe we should just end our relationship now. We’re just in such different places.”

All in all, nothing happened that day. I didn’t let him “put it in for a second,” and we didn’t break up right away.

As with Kayla and Riley, it’s not what happened but what could’ve happened that’s haunting. If I had given in, it’s possible that what I’d be describing right now is a rape or rape-like incident. Like Kayla, I’ll never know exactly what would’ve happened if I’d let him wear me down.

Though it’s not something I think about all the time, this moment has clearly stayed with me. Kayla is a fictional character, but I can imagine how her moment with Riley might stay with her, and how it would come to take on new meaning over time as she processed the incident.

I’m grateful that Bo Burnham gave voice to these types of encounters in Eighth Grade. I’m grateful that the #MeToo movement has enabled me to share part of my story that, until now, I’d been unable to articulate.

The #MeToo movement has taught me that Kayla and I don’t need to apologize for saying no; it’s taught me that Kayla and I can hold men and boys who pull this crap accountable; it’s taught me about the complex nature of consent, and about the everyday effects of toxic masculinity. It’s taught me that moments like this are certainly not nothing.

Kayla and I might’ve been targets, but we’re not victims. Girls and women who experience moments like this––most girls and women––are not victims. For better or worse these moments become woven into the fabric of who we are, and while the actual facts of what happened don’t change, how we view them, and our own role in them, invariably changes over time.

To all the young women who are experiencing moments like this right now, I hope that stories and messages like Eighth Grade and #MeToo will provide clarity, support, and comfort. My wish for you is that moments like these won’t remain locked in a question mark-labeled box in your mind for years, but that you’ll know exactly what happened, that it’s not ok, and that it’s not your fault. My hope for you is that you’ll have what you need to tell your story.

Topics: Feminism, Film
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This type of verbal harrassment that Kayla experiences is rampant in middle schools and high schools.The national nonprofit SSAIS works to stop this epidemic by providing educational videos and toolkits for students, teachers, and parents. 

How to cite this page

Klebe, Larisa. "Eighth Grade, #MeToo, and Me." 24 July 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/eighth-grade-metoo-and-me>.

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