The “teenage girl” character should be a diverse one. After all, like most groups of people, this is a category which is made up of a plethora of races, classes, cultures, the list goes on. Therefore – being so diverse – they will all have different experiences to bring to the table. Surely, no two shall be the same on-screen, just as no two are the same in real life? Right?
However, most younger girls (and older ones too – I may be ageing, but I still love whatever coming of age film is offered to me) who have a penchant for watching every film aimed at them would tell you a quite different story. Teenage girls have vastly been put into two ‘categories’ in the film world. The first character trope is of the course the bitchy blonde hot girl who, for what she lacks in intelligence, makes up for in her seduction skills – something which is inherently problematic given her age, but the sexualisation of young girls on screen is a conversation for another day. The second is the smart girl whose ‘above’ bitchiness, concentrates on homework, cannot dress to save her life but this doesn’t matter because she’s simply not like other girls. Despite these apparently massive differences in character, these two girls are united in one thing: they’ll do absolutely anything to get the attention of a skinny and equally one-dimensional boy.
This rendering of the “teenage girl” as boy obsessed and girl hating (read: misogynistic) is tiresome at best and harrowing at worst. Media is what creates role models and guides young girls through the terrifying post-pubescent world a lot of the time and offering them nothing but girls who live to cater to the male gaze and who pit themselves against other women is doing them a disservice. And while this terrible trope is still being produced (as seen in The Kissing Booth, 2018 and slightly earlier in 2015’s The DUFF) there are countless writers and directors offering us a much fuller picture of what its really like to be a teenage girl navigating the world around her.
Although I’m definitely late to the hype as per usual, I finally got round to watching Booksmart (2019, directed by Olivia Wilde) and I was beyond shocked at just how much coming of age cinema has changed since I was growing up. While this film isn’t immune to criticism due to the disappointing lack of characters of colour, this film understands teenage girls as what they are – complex, intelligent and driven by more than the male gaze. The film is fully directed and written by women, and this has certainly been helpful in terms of writing teenage girls which actually seem real. While we’ve seen boys in films talk candidly about sex, masturbation (although this isn’t always a welcome feature and I certainly could have lived without the pie-cum-fleshlight scene in American Pie, 1999) and relationships, girls in films are wholly silenced in this area. However, Booksmart doesn’t shy away from these topics and has Amy and Molly, its protagonists, discuss all of these topics openly in a way that isn’t voyeuristic or male gaze-y. And this trope of treating young girls as funny, endearingly confused yet open with their bodies and feelings is exactly the void that the coming-of-age film genre needed to fill.
As a side note, I don’t think that girls in coming of age films shouldn’t talk about boys – most heterosexual and bisexual girls have indeed gone through phases in which they’re obsessed with a boy, and this doesn’t have to be negative. Booksmart acknowledges this but also ensures that Amy and Molly have greater focuses such as their friendship with each other, their education and their futures. This seems like common sense, but in a world where most teen films certainly don’t pass the Bechdel test, its refreshing to see young girls on screen who don’t see boys as the be-all-and-end-all of their teenage existence.
Also, I didn’t know anything about the film before, but I was unbelievably happy to see a lesbian and a heterosexual girl being portrayed as friends – and not only that, but the heterosexual girl being completely accepting and comfortable with her friend’s sexuality. Growing up is confusing enough without your sexuality being a massive burden on your shoulders, but Booksmart shows that there is a life beyond discrimination and that you can still live a ‘normal’ teenage life, even if you’re identity isn’t what’s considered normal in our hetero-centric world. Furthering this, the inclusion of a lesbian sex scene in a coming of age film is nothing short of ground-breaking – why shouldn’t young gay girls get to see that yes, they too can have awkward first times and be comforted in the knowledge that they’re not the only one?
This film isn’t just the perfect balance between socially aware and light-hearted, it’s also crucially educational. Amy and Molly might fall into some misogynistic traps like slut-shaming and name-calling of other girls in the same way most real girls living within the patriarchy will too, but the key difference is that they call each other out and learn from their ways. Also, the inclusion of a protagonist who’s not Hollywood stick-thin yet doesn’t ever correlate her worth and her weight is crucial. Both of these are seemingly small details, but they do girls a much-needed justice in terms of teaching them crucial lessons about confidence and raising other girls up instead of bringing them down.
It’s not hard to see why Booksmart restored my faith in the land of cinema making. After growing up with entertaining but problematic teenage films, watching this as an adult made my heart so full in the knowledge that the next generation of young girls will be growing up with films that understand them wholeheartedly, and don’t shy away from their experiences. Teenage girls are powerhouses in their own right, and they deserve films which cater to their needs, desires, experiences and problems. And with films like this coming into prominence, I don’t see any reason why this welcomed trend won’t continue.