When this film came around in Sundance’s 2015 showcase, it quickly gained a reputation as one of the best feminist movies ever made. A studio as successful as Sony Pictures was quick to snap it up and, in an interview with Variety Sony’s co-president Tom Bernard commented that ‘it should have been made a long time ago’, marking ‘the year of woman’ in film. Bernard, along with many other critics, was not wrong. The premise is simple enough: in a post-hippy 1976 San Francisco, heroine Minnie (Bel Powley) embarks upon an affair with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) 35 year old man child boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). In the process, she learns about sex, love and herself in a way that rarely graces the big screen. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic semi-autobiography and bravely tackled by first time filmmaker and screenwriter Marielle Heller, a film about female sexuality was nothing new. What was new, however, was the unapologetic attitude of the protagonist, showing audiences that women, just like men, can enjoy sex too. And not just enjoy it, but do so with a zealous enthusiasm that could rival any Christian Grey type. I look back on one of the most important films for women, about women and by women in recent memory; Diary of a Teenage Girl.
The diary itself, recorded on a cassette tape recorder, is created by Minnie with the intention of documenting her new sexual relationship with Monroe. Couched in a bohemian environment of drugs, sex and T-Rex, it is unsurprising (as it is shocking) that the languid Monroe willingly ‘submits’ to Minnie’s sexual propositioning. The films first sex scene ends with Minnie marking an X on Monroe’s thigh with her own blood. She also asks him to take a polaroid so she can forever remember such a definitive moment, eager to capture her first taste of post-coital euphoria. We then see an ongoing power-play between the two, manipulative on both sides. Monroe is obviously exploitative, but this feeling is often bolstered by Minnie’s strong sexual impulses and her powerful, almost ruthless knowledge of exactly what she wants and exactly how to get it. Heller’s moral neutrality on the nature of the relationship proved to be one of the most controversial elements of Diary, dividing critics and evoking broader questions about the purpose of film itself- should movies instruct reality? By appeasing disgusting acts, such as underage sex, should filmmakers be held accountable for promoting them? The answer is that these are the wrong questions to be asking. To focus on the issue of cinema and morality in this film is to completely miss the point; Monroe functions as a test ground on which Minnie can explore and manifest her sexual desires. Her developing enthusiasm for sex is enhanced by her experiences with him, no matter how disturbing they appear to the modern viewer. In this way, the film is more than just a story of a disturbing brand of first love, a genre trope that has been exhausted by female perspective cinema and in 2016, quite frankly, is redundant. If you’re looking for a tale of forbidden, tormented teenage love, Diary will not suffice. Heller refuses to orbit the film around a victim/predator relationship, where the audience is wrapped up in figuring out who is exploiting who. That isn’t to say that Monroe’s actions escape condemnation; every audience member knows this and Heller is not patronising enough to emphasise it; her mind is on other things. And, thankfully, so is Minnie’s.
Minnie’s tapes, critically, serve to reveal much more than the affair. Monroe, and all the other characters for that matter, are always on the backseat as Minnie’s voice is too loud and vibrant for anyone to overtake her. It is through the diary that we learn just how much Minnie likes to fuck and likes to be fucked. We gain explicit insight into her passion for sex, her longings and desires, complete in their uncut version. We also learn about Minnie’s ambitions to be the next Aline Kominsky (Susannah Schulman), an underground artist who creates the witty, cynical comics that Minnie adores. Minnie might love sex, but she understands that life also has a lot more to offer her. As well as an oral narrative, illustrations ranging from the psychedelic to the grotesque prove to be a character in their own right. Art is everywhere, popping up in a cafe, mid conversation and, of course, during a sexual act. Essentially, the cartoons visually represent not only Minnie’s burgeoning sexuality, but also her complex, tangled and thoroughly relatable emotions. They also suggest that Minnie’s attitude toward sex is as real as it is embroiled in delusion, imagination and creativity. Through both the diary and the drawings, we learn that Minnie is an inherently creative person who uses sex as a stimuli for art, and vice versa. This character is not just obsessed with her sexuality, but how it should be remembered, narrated, brought to life through artistic expression and coloured in. And sometimes, as is often the case in real life, Minnie struggles to stay inside the lines.
So just how feminist is Diary? For a start, it passes the Bechdel Test and scores a relatively high B grade on The Representation Project, designed to rate the diversity of experience in film. Despite this, whilst it may have passed the Bechdel Test, it does not do so consistently throughout. Much of the dialogue between women is focused on man. Minnie and best friend Kimmy spend a lot of time talking about Monroe, or their mutual admiration of giving a blow jobs. Minnie’s mother Charlotte is also no textbook feminist, as she encourages her daughter to wear skirts ‘that show her waist’, otherwise she’d struggle getting a boyfriend. But as is the case for much of the film itself, there is much more going on than meets the eye. The nature of the conversations about men have their own unique stamp of individuality on them. They are ego-centric, with woman most frequently discussing what men can do for them and how men are affecting them on a personal level. In other words, women do not speak about men in a purely emotional or romantic sense, reflecting a unwavering female independence that is ultimately the spirit of the piece. Bildungsroman films from the male perspective regarding sexuality tend to put the ‘come’ in ‘coming-of-age’. A string of nineties and noughties films saw young boys jacking off at the thought of tits – women reduced to nothing more than blonde hair and body parts. This hi-fiving male hubris certainly gets a run for its money with the strong females in Diary. And when the conversations between female characters are not doing this, they tend to instead highlight a culture of misogyny towards female sexuality that, sadly, is still with us today.
Diary of a Teenage Girl proves that women making films about women is the best way to create real, honest and utterly relatable portraits of the female experience. Many of the themes in Diary are profoundly relatable to young women. What a predictable shame then, that the BFFC decided to give this picture an 18 rating. All young women, regardless of age, deserve to take look into Minnie’s mind and see parts of themselves amidst the colour (hopefully females everywhere have since had the chance to grab the DVD). Like Minnie’s views on sex, Diary of a Teenage Girl gave me an incredible feeling of warmth and made me want to do the whole thing all over again, almost immediately after the first time around.