Looking and talking back – desire and agency in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

“The first feminist gesture is to say, well, okay, they may be looking at me, but I’m looking too. The act of deciding to look and deciding that the world is not defined by how they look at me but how I look at them.”
Agnes Varda

Looking is a powerful act. Early in Marielle Heller’s debut film, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (based on the graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner), 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) stands naked in front of a mirror, looking at herself. Minnie has returned home after a day spent playing truant and having sex for the first time, with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).

In this act of looking, and of inviting us to look at her looking, Minnie begins to take control of how she is seen and guides how we see her. We look as she looks and evaluates her body, giving herself value within a recognisable framework. She wonders: “What’s the point of living if nobody loves you? Nobody sees you? Nobody touches you?” And decides: “I want a body pressed up against me so that I know I’m really here.” In this questioning there is vulnerability, insecurity, uncertainty, and also, quite a bit of the earnest, emotional drama of youth. But there is also philosophy, and a keen desire to explore where that body she looks at might take her in the world.

Bel Powley as Minnie Goetz in The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Bel Powley as Minnie Goetz in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

It’s one of many scenes in Heller’s energizing, raw and very funny film that captures with significant honesty what it feels like to be a girl on the precipice of womanhood, to see yourself in this dual way – always as others see you, as others define you, before you really learn to define yourself. As any woman will tell you, this experience is not clear-cut; it’s neither one thing nor another. French filmmaker, Catherine Breillat has spoken of the necessary contradictions involved in telling stories about female desire. This language of contradictions creates a uniquely female film language. As Breillat explains:

“I know why I make films – partly because I want to describe female shame – but beyond that, cinema is a mode of expression that allows you to express all the nuances of a thing while including its opposites. These are things that can’t be quantified mentally; yet they can exist and be juxtaposed. That may seem very contradictory. Cinema allows you to film these contradictions.”

Minnie standing naked before the mirror, looking at herself, trying to detect whether a change in consciousness is marked on her body, is not a scene designed to titillate or fetishize her body. It is a scene, I would suggest, that couldn’t have been written by or directed by a man with anywhere near the same excruciating precision, and without the same understanding of the contradictory ways women experience their bodies in the world, as both powerful and alienating.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, set in San Francisco in 1976, is principally a coming-of-age film, a genre we know well. But Minnie is a character that troubles pervasive myths of gender and the popular representations of femaleness and femininity on screen. Throughout history, female sexuality has most often been defined as a lack or absence, woman as a passive body, a prop to be acted upon. As feminist philosopher Luce Irigary described in ‘This Sex Which Is Not One,’ woman exists “for the enactment of man’s fantasies,” for the fulfillment of his pleasures, not her own, unable to say what she wants because she doesn’t know what it is. This situation is mirrored in culture, and frequently in film.

From the moment we meet her walking down the street declaring, “I had sex today … holy shit!” Minnie breaks this mould. She knows what she wants, and if she doesn’t know how to name it, she’s keen to find out. She wants to taste the world; she’s hungry for it. She decides that she only exists if she’s seen, if she’s present, if she moves confidently forward through the world. But this isn’t presented as a position without its complications. Minnie is still learning, and early on, she’s learning most of her lessons on how to be a woman from her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), who lives by the belief that her value is measured through a man’s eyes, encouraging her daughter to wear makeup and a skirt to show off her body while she has her youth, even if “it’s not very feminist.”

Bel gets advice from mum Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) on what will make her a successful female
Minnie gets advice from mum Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) on what will make her a successful female

Within this context, Minnie’s road to adulthood is a fascinating one. As Heller explains in an interview with Elvis Mitchell (KCRW’s The Treatment, 9 September), in the world of the film adulthood is defined as “being seen.” San Francisco during the 1970s is imagined as a city brimming with stunted adults desperately seeking attention and external validation. This is where Minnie starts, when we see her, ecstatic after her sexual awakening, and this is the world she’s grappling with when she stands naked in front of the mirror. But as she grows in confidence, as a young woman and as a sexual being, Minnie comes to understand the fallacy of this economy. She pushes boundaries (sometimes too far, and there are some tears), but we’re not encouraged to judge her, and her regrets don’t hold her back. As a budding comic book artist, she is productive and creative, an agent of her own destiny, not content with being decorative or a “sniveling crybaby.” By the end of the film, she returns to the mirror and sees herself with new eyes.

Few American films show us the teenage female experience in this way. Teenage girls are most often sarcastic rebels (think Ghost World and Mean Girls) – their rebellions and calamities depicted to serve some greater moral narrative. Sexuality is dangerous. Young girls are preyed upon by groping boys (think American Pie) or deceitful older men (think Michael Fassbender in Andrea Arnold’s excellent Fish Tank) and rarely take the lead in exploring their desires. Female sexuality is mostly a problem to be solved, and those who transgress too far, are punished for it (much of film noir provides ample examples of this trend). The very idea of representing women’s sexual pleasure becomes cause for exaggerated controversy, as was evident in the initial NC-17 rating that Blue Valentine (2010) received in the United States because of the apparently alarming sight of Ryan Gosling going down on Michelle Williams.

But in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the narrative takes a very different turn, revealing more in common with European art cinema than a quirky Sundance indie. Like a Breillat heroine (her 1976 debut, A Real Young Girl and 2001’s Fat Girl both show young women transgressing the spaces demarcated as appropriate to them as they explore their longing to be desired), Minnie takes control of her own pleasure. She names it and relentlessly pursues it, admitting she’s constantly distracted by her thoughts about men and sex.

Despite having a sexual relationship with a much older, more experienced man, Minnie is neither exploited nor submissive. She wants Monroe and she pursues him. Yes, Monroe is having sex with a minor, and there are grey areas here that may make some viewers uncomfortable. A nuanced argument could definitely be mounted to explore the subtle workings of power in relationships between seemingly unequal partners, but the point of view presented to us is squarely Minnie’s and it is this worldview within which we must conduct our evaluation of her. She’s unafraid of intimacy; she’s a risk taker not a victim, who sees everything as a chance to grow and discover.

Minnie actively follows her desire for Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård)
Minnie actively follows her desire for Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård)

Her relations with boys her own age also challenge conventional representation. The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens up a space for young female sexual desire in a cinematic landscape where we mostly witness young males thinking about sex and initiating it. If American cinema, in particular, is to be believed, young women never feel aroused. But in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, it’s the boys Minnie’s own age that just don’t get it, who come up lacking. They want to have sex but their desires are no match for hers. Once Minnie has a taste for sex and the extraordinary pleasure it brings her (in one of her internal monologues she boldly states, “I really like getting fucked”), she finds that she overwhelms the teenage boys she experiments with. They cannot match her intensity, or the longing for sensation that she actively pursues. Powley, as Minnie, has an expressively open, glowing face; we are on this intense trip with her from the film’s opening scene, enveloped in all aspects of her emotional state, the highs, the lows, the many dramatic plateaus in between.

Who talks? Minnie does. Minnie is telling us how it is. Hers is one story of teenage sexuality, told from her unique perspective. It’s not a universal experience, it’s hers, but it’s an experience in which most women, I would suspect, see much of the complexity of their own burgeoning sexuality. And that’s something quite rare – to be seen as complex and dynamic, at a time in our lives when we are usually perceived to be passive and blank.

Minnie speaks for herself
Minnie speaks for herself

What’s really important is that no one else speaks for Minnie. The film repeatedly refuses this. Minnie talks back, a practice, as Jane Campion has noted, that makes audiences conditioned to engage with women as something passive, to be looked at, very uncomfortable. Minnie has a powerful drive to fight against this invisibility. She knows what she wants and eventually, importantly, also what she doesn’t want, rejecting the model of femininity represented by her mother. Minnie chooses to build her self-esteem on something other than her desirability towards men. This fight to be visible, on her terms, might be said to mirror the state of women in film, where both behind the camera and in front of it, the statistics remain grim. Viewed in this context, The Diary of a Teenage Girl almost feels like a minor revolution, making that which has been previously unknown and unspeakable, brashly seen and heard.

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3 thoughts on “Looking and talking back – desire and agency in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

  1. Very interesting post. I didn’t manage to see Diary Of A Teenage Girl when it was released here. It only received a handful of screenings near me and that’s a huge shame – a film like this deserves to reach a much bigger audience.

    1. Thanks. It does seem the way now that those films that really challenge and excite are seen by fewer by fewer people than those that simply play with and regurgitate tired old tropes.

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