by Melissa Hair, Northumbria University, UK.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens with a triumphant confession from 15-year-old protagonist Minnie (Bel Powley).
‘I had sex today, holy shit!’
The teenager grins widely, and the Dwight Twilley Band’s upbeat ‘Looking for the Magic’ begins to play, as she walks alone through a sunny Golden Gate Park in 1976 San Francisco. Minnie’s recent sexual awakening is apparent, as she interestedly observes a group of teenage boys, a large-chested woman out jogging, and a topless female sunbather, as if realising for the first time that the potential for sexual expression is all around her. Still smiling, Minnie skips childishly, and the scene cuts to her ascending the steps of a large townhouse. Once in the privacy of her bedroom, which is decorated with sketches of female bodies, Minnie begins to record an audio-diary and offers the first allusion to her sexual partner, musing: ‘it was a lucky break when he was attracted by my youthfulness.’ Clearly there is a paedophilic undertone to this revelation, yet the potential for this declaration to be read as sinister is deflected by Minnie’s sudden playful interaction with her cat.
Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical, diaristic graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures (2002), the film’s subsequent narrative follows Minnie’s sexual relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Despite focusing on a paedophilic relationship, and indirectly invoking issues of grooming, rape, and incest, the film is not particularly concerned with explicitly addressing these issues, or with examining Monroe’s morality. Instead, the film centralises Minnie’s feelings, both positive and negative, towards her experiences with Monroe, and towards her burgeoning sexuality in general, and focuses exclusively on Minnie’s personal growth and wellbeing. In adopting Minnie’s perspective, the film effectively portrays the teenager’s experiences with Monroe as satisfying to her, without necessarily implying that the relationship itself is appropriate or ‘right’.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl draws parallels with Andrea Arnold’s British film Fish Tank (2009), which also follows a 15-year-old girl’s relationship with her mother’s boyfriend. Despite that both films feature adult men having non-forced sex with girls under the age of 16, strong language, and drug and alcohol consumption, when the films were rated by the BBFC, Fish Tank received an age rating of 15 while The Diary of a Teenage Girl was deemed inappropriate for audiences under 18. It seems significant that Fish Tank offers the strong impression that teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis), is groomed over a period of time by her mother’s boyfriend Conor (Michael Fassbender), as he flirtatiously compliments her dancing abilities, and jokingly spanks her when she misbehaves. The Diary of a Teenage Girl on the other hand, takes a more ambiguous approach towards this central relationship, never quite establishing a victim/perpetrator dynamic between Minnie and Monroe, and it is perhaps this ambiguity with regard to both a paedophilic character, and sexually subjective teenage girl, which has resulted in the film’s severe age restrictions.
When asked in an interview, whether she would describe Minnie’s experiences with Monroe as abuse, an affair, rape, or a relationship, author Gloeckner responded:
‘Well, the thing is, I don’t really judge it as simply as calling it one thing or another […] I was trying to just describe it exactly as it was for that girl. She wasn’t thinking in those terms, because she wasn’t able to, so I wasn’t thinking in those terms. It is a relationship, it’s a sexual relationship. To say it’s abuse or rape is, again, qualifying it in a way that’s in a sense simplifying it, and that wasn’t my intent’.
The film’s director, Marielle Heller, maintains this attitude in her adaptation and has emphasised the importance of audience identification with Minnie:
‘If she doesn’t feel like a victim in that moment […] we shouldn’t be feeling that way […] a lot of the times when you’re doing the most dangerous things in your teenagehood, I think you’re probably having a lot of fun’.
Indeed even during instances in which Minnie does feel like a victim, she perceives herself to be a victim of heartbreak, rather than a victim of an abusive relationship or sexual manipulation. Significantly, it is during verbal communication with Monroe that Minnie most often appears vulnerable or hurt, while their physical interactions are shown to be, or are described by Minnie as being pleasurable and exciting. The term ‘rape’ is only ever invoked by the teenager as she play-fights with Monroe on a boat and relishes in the danger that the pair will be caught. Giggling and screaming, Minnie allows Monroe to pin her down on a sofa before gleefully yelling, ‘help, I’m being raped’, as if the notion that Monroe would sexually assault her is laughable, despite the fact that in legal terms, he is.
Until the climax of the film’s second act, Minnie perceives Monroe to be a boyfriend-type figure rather than a predator and, therefore, this is how his character is portrayed. Yet as the film draws to an end and Minnie’s perception of herself and of Monroe alters, she questions in voice-over:
‘did you ever go back to your pre-school once you had gotten big, and everything looked miniature? Like the chairs and the monkey bars, just much smaller than you remembered? I know nothing’s changed, but everything looks totally different to me now.’
In the scene that follows, as Minnie sells her artwork at the beach, she encounters Monroe. The exchange is awkward though amiable, with Minnie offering a piece of her art before saying goodbye. Despite their pleasantries, as the pair shake hands Minnie asserts internally: ‘I’m better than you, you son of a bitch’. Never quite portrayed as a villain, Monroe is not ‘punished’ in the traditional sense yet Minnie’s matured perspective on his behaviour and their relationship, and her increased confidence, self-assuredness, and determination are perhaps more satisfying.
Melissa Hair is a PhD candidate at Northumbria University. Her research is concerned with the on and off screen presence of women in contemporary American indie cinema, and examines the work of directors such as Miranda July, Lena Dunham and Nicole Holofcener. She has presented papers on the representation of abortion in American cinema and the construction of ‘quirky’ femininity in popular culture.