Summer Lovin’: Considering The Teen Vacation Romance Movie

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005)

The four characters from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—white teenage girls—hug and laugh in a polaroid photo on a blue background.
illustration by Tom Ralston

Weeping and wearing white linen, a teenage girl stands at the edge of the sea. She moves to unbutton her blouse, a bleached white church looming in the background. As the girl unzips her skirt, the camera returns to the church, not allowing the audience to witness the skirt falling away. She enters the water. A sexy part-time fisherman appears and, with surprise, spots the girl in the water. He unbuttons his shirt and dives in to meet her. 

This is The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). We are in Santorini, Greece, and the characters have just done the teen movie equivalent of rawdogging on screen. Lena (Alexis Bledel) has met a boy who sees her full magnificence. Through him, she is learning how to love, and how to live—they swim, they boat, they dance in dim tavernas and moped-ing over cobblestones. Lena grows even more dazzlingly beautiful as she hones a sense of wonder. 

And none of this could be possible without the transforming, sensual undertaking that is the family vacation. 

An entire genre exists to nurture the fantasy that romance can—and must!—blossom on an adult vacation. You will leave your drab persona at home and become another version of yourself, a person you only meet in more luxurious accommodations, free from the expectations of others and tiny daily experiences of discomfort. You will cease to worry about the future and exist only in the glorious, sunlit present. Instead of feeling the handles of an overly-stuffed grocery bag cutting ridges into your arm, you will be glowing and relaxed and wine drunk. Your heart rate will slow; your hair will achieve greatness. You will feel as you think you would if you took a daily regimen of expensive vitamins. And then, you will find love. 

This love would never have been possible in the tedium of your regular life. It is a passion nourished by bodies of water, candlelight, and a firm end date. Vacation You is temporary. But this love will change you forever. 

This is a suitable daydream to propel a grownup through months at a job where time off has to be “earned.” This category of film extends from Before Sunrise to Forgetting Sarah Marshall. These stories are not restricted to the summer months (see: The Holiday) but they flourish in the heat (How Stella Got Her Groove Back). 

If you are a single adult, a less telegenic version of this is well within reach. It is not crazy to aspire to fuck one of your fellow hotel guests on a solo vacation. Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun are irresistible in part because they are based on memoirs. The vacation romance is certainly more realistic than other romantic sub-genres: you cast a wider net at a resort swim-up bar than you do banking on a whirlwind enemies-to-lovers arc with your coworker. 

The great horror is that vacation love stories aren’t just aimed at adults with Delta miles and PTO. Many of them are intended for teens. The premise of Grease is that a teenage girl who would otherwise be treated like a loser in high school hooks up with the hottest guy in her grade on summer vacation. Dirty Dancing promised that even at a family-friendly summer camp, resort workers are professionally obligated to flirt with you. The Last Song claimed that spending the summer in a small town with your single parent would actually yield more romantic possibilities than life in the big city—a mantle reclaimed recently by the TV show The Summer I Turned Pretty

The extent to which I, as a twelve-year-old, believed that I could have a summer fling while staying with my family of five at a motel in Oregon cannot be overstated. This kind of thing must happen all the time, I reasoned, to go-getters who zip up their velour imitation Juicy Couture jackets and loiter conspicuously by the indoor pool. If Troy and Gabriella could meet through a fated karaoke duet pushed by the overly-zealous chaperones of a ski resort’s teen New Year’s Eve party, anything could happen. It’s not as if that meeting was exceptional: a very similar thing happened to Lizzie McGuire on vacation in Rome. “I would never want to miss this,” sings Hilary Duff, as Lizzie. “Cuz in my heart, I know what this is.” I didn’t want to miss my chance, either. 

“[F]rom fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine,” Jane Austen writes in 1803 of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. Morland autodidacts by inhaling romances. But there is nothing for it: she is in a 19th-century dick desert. “She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility, without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient,” Austen writes. Catherine has willed her story to be a romance, and she cannot start the action without a potential suitor. In Chapter 2, to the reader’s and Catherine’s great relief, she is invited to Bath, a resort town. “If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad,” writes Austen. 

How terrible it is to be raised addicted to romance when you are a child and there really isn’t anything you can do about it. How awful to be seized upon for years by the vague idea of potential affection, to be making eyes at your male peers as they enjoy the luxury of unembarrassed playtime. There is a strange claustrophobia to this feeling that you are forbidden from pursuing your goal by the exact culture that taught you to pursue it. In these circumstances, movies that suggested another possibility were both deluding and comforting—another world was possible, for the thin, white, beautiful, and lucky. 

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, more than any other movie, typifies the marvelous misleading pleasures of the teen manifest destiny romance. Based on the first in a series of young adult books by Ann Brashares, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is about female friendship, butt-size anxiety, and the power of summer vacation. Carmen (America Ferrera), Lena (Alexis Bledel), Bridget (Blake Lively), and Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) are upper class-ish daughters of Bethesda, Maryland, their best-friendship quartet predestined by their mothers, who met in a prenatal aerobics class. Every year when they part ways in June—each for her own adventure—the girls stay in constant contact by cycling a shared pair of pants through the group by mail. 

Three out of four members of the sisterhood have real problems, and their summers become trials of the spirit. Bridget comes from a family riven by tragedy. She spends the summer at soccer camp, where she has sex with her coach, a sequence that seemed fairytale-like as a teenage viewer and that now strikes me as predatory. Carmen visits her absentee father, who is remarrying and establishing a richer, whiter family. Tibby spends the summer at home working in retail, and strikes up a friendship with a dying child. 

Lena—a character who stumbled so Bella Swan could fall over—is the only sisterhood member who goes on a real vacation: she travels to visit her grandparents in Santorini, Greece, where they live in postcard perfection. Lena’s problem is that she is dysfunctionally beautiful. This is a real malady that some people seem to suffer from; it occurs when a person’s unfathomable hotness has become a sort of defect, resulting in a withered and underdeveloped personality. They become alienated from regular people, who either worship them or treat them with contempt. This lifestyle has rendered Lena almost mute, like a tree nymph preyed on by an ancient god. She wants to be an artist, perhaps because aesthetic attention is the defining aspect of her life. 

“That’s why it’s beautiful,” she says, praising a church. “It’s perfect in all its loneliness.” 

It is not in spite, but because of Lena’s family vacation that she and Kostos (Michael Rady) fall into a romance. Their grandfathers are at war with each other over the alleged sale of bad fish. The two young people are forbidden to interact, a Romeo and Juliet for those who enjoy exceptionally simple wordplay: 

Kostos: The arguments of old men have nothing to do with us! 

Lena: Well, they’re not arguing about nothing. 

And yet it is through observing her grandparents’ relationship that Lena begins to open up to Kostos’ interest. With her artist’s eye, she watches her grandmother hang clothing on a laundry line, her grandfather stroking her grandmother’s side and kissing her shoulder. They love each other, even though any conventional beauty they once possessed is gone. Lena has recorded the perfect loneliness of buildings, but neglected to notice the perfect companionship around her. And, too, her family’s opposition to her relationship with Kostos gives her an opportunity to rebel. They are a convenient impediment. Being on vacation with her grandparents means Lena has a house to sneak out of and parental figures to infuriate, giving stakes to a teenage relationship that might feel immature to its own participants without the gift of added drama. 

For parents, family vacation is perhaps a rare opportunity to relax and spend time together with fewer crying fights about dioramas. For children like me, inspired by teen romance movies like Sisterhood, family vacation is an opportunity to meet a nameless, faceless boy. My romantic life for a few decades consisted exclusively of determined wishing. My friends and I would sit on the swings in May and write lists of summer goals, like “Get tan,” “Wake up early,” “Get abs,” and “Meet a boy.” 

I never once even slightly executed on any of these things. The summer of my thirteenth birthday, my mom took me on a cruise and I was convinced that if I could just work up the courage to go to the “Kidz Klub” I would meet the love of my life or at least My First Kiss. Instead I got my period for the fourth time ever and I perioded so intensely on an upholstered chair in the cruise dining room that my mom and I threw a cloth napkin over the evidence and fled. 

The next May, on the swings with friends, the same conversation. “I am going to meet someone this summer,” we would say, as if we were divorcées at a wine bar instead of teenagers with geometry homework. The fact that the Sideways guys were scoring on their vacations and I was not boggled my mind. 

It is only away from home—but with blood relatives looking on—that Lena is able to vacate the identity of dainty perfection to which she has been confined. “All my life, everyone’s always kind of seen me a certain way…” she trails off, on a moonlit jaunt on Kostos’s fishing boat. Her paramour, in a sensational fisherman’s sweater, listens empathetically. From the start, he has seen her for who she is. “You didn’t tell me you were an artist,” he exclaims, noticing her sketches. She protests, but he insists: “Lena Kaligaris, you are an artist.” The setting is absurd, and the characters are the vaguest of archetypes, but the relationship is developmentally appropriate: teenage girls are pressured to fulfill certain standards of desirability and obedience. How reasonable to long to be seen and wanted by someone who is not a parent or a teacher, but still has the power to bestow worth. (Of course, that the supreme acknowledgment of a teen girl’s worth is male attention was an idea I was taught by these movies. Of course it’s a mild poison, leaching me of other kinds of curiosity and focus.) 

Her family intervenes. They discover Lena and Kostos together and tear them apart, though Lena downplays their connection. 

“You call that nothing?” says her grandmother, disgusted, holding up a sketch Lena made of Kostos shirtless. Confronted by adolescent sexuality, her grandmother is horrified, even though she has spent most of the movie praising Lena’s looks. She offers a brutal scolding. “In this life, family is the most precious gift we are given, the most sacred,” she spits. “Turn your back on them, and that is when you truly have nothing.” It is important to her family that Lena be a desired object, just as it is important to the culture that little girls inhale stories about romance. But for Lena to act on her own desire is to betray her family, just as it is a betrayal for an adolescent girl to express sexual desire. 

The genius of the teen vacation romance is that it resolves these tensions. When Lena wants to see Kostos, she sways her grandparents by appealing to their own love story, relating her own relationship to theirs. As soon as she codes her relationship as a continuation of the family story, rather than a tryst, she has her grandparents’ permission. This fascinating dynamic, in which romance is always either sanctioned or scorned by parents, is of course missing from grownup vacation romance movies. 

Teen romances are viewed as frivolous, and I felt guilty and silly for enjoying them, somehow made into a fool by my own preferences. Now I feel that if there is a small tragedy here, it is not the emphasis on romantic love, but rather my misunderstanding that being a heroine meant nothing more than posing beautifully, waiting to be chosen. In fact, Lena does make choices, though they weren’t obvious to me as a young viewer. For the first half of the movie, Kostos pursues Lena, saving her in the water, asking her to dance. But finally, she pursues him, spying on him at the fish market, then doing an oceanside version of an airport chase sequence. She mends and deepens her relationship with her grandparents. These later acts were lost on me, perhaps because the Lena and Kostos characters so dramatically stuck to traditional gender roles in the first half of the movie—or perhaps because Bledel’s Lena, played similarly to her role as Rory on Gilmore Girls, is so meek and childlike, even as she pursues her desires and takes decisive risks. It was not made clear to me for years that a heroine is a person who makes choices. 

Lena meets Kostos when he saves her from drowning. She accepts his desire on that spontaneous half-naked swim in the Aegean. They kiss for the first time on his boat. Their relationship takes place on an island, and is most comfortable in the soft waters of the sea, in a boundlessness where no overbearing family members or personal anxieties feel like an impediment. After the teenage viewer turns off the movie, she exits the dreamy waves and returns to the unfinished basement, or to the shared bedroom. But she remembers the sensation of boundlessness, circumscribed by the screen.