The Diary of a Teenage Girl: who’s afraid of teenage girls who defy stereotypes?

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, directed and written by Marielle Heller and based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, is about the life of 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) growing up in 1970s San Francisco. Independent, headstrong and spirited, Minnie initiates an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). The film is an honest and entertaining account of a girl’s self-discovery. It is one of very few mainstream films featuring a female character who is interested in sex, and it challenges the everyday stigma and stereotypes associated with female sexual expression. The film gives women the right to control their own sexuality, which is so often reserved for or controlled by men. It creates diversity and inspires confidence.

At the centre of a plot like this, one could easily imagine a lost, weak, young girl, desperately searching for self-confidence in the love of an older man. But Minnie is neither lost nor weak and her search is courageous rather than desperate. She is not conventionally beautiful; in fact, she is beautifully average looking, confident in herself without believing herself to be attractive. Whilst she does wonder if Monroe finds her sexually appealing, she is not overly concerned by his opinion. In Minnie we meet a girl free from stereotype, independent in character, not quite an adult, who is trying to find and empower herself. She tries to compensate for the lack of control she has over her own life by taking control of her relationship with Monroe.

The film is a story of Minnie’s discovery and learning, not only about herself, but about how to relate to others

Of course, she is not in control of that particular relationship, and it amounts to child abuse. Monroe takes advantage of a young girl searching for identity as she grows up in a world in which she feels out of place. Minnie struggles to make a valuable distinction between love and self-love; she believes that the love from someone else can fill the void of self-esteem. Monroe does not love her, yet he finds her sexually attractive, and so he hinders her attempt to distinguish love from sexual desire. In one scene, Minnie says that perhaps Monroe’s lust for her is what it feels like to be loved: an example of how she suffers at the hands of Monroe.

However, whilst we condemn Monroe, we should not ignore Minnie’s agency. We must acknowledge her position of misplaced choice; we must listen to Minnie when she says to us: “I didn’t know if I wanted him or anyone else to fuck me, but I was afraid to pass up the chance ‘cause I may never get another.” She addresses her relationship with Monroe in an honest and mature manner; on some level, the viewer almost feels that Minnie knows that he is taking advantage of her, and that the relationship is perhaps not what she wants. Not to consider Minnie’s will would be to confine her to precisely what she fights against in her relationship with Monroe: a position of inferiority and powerlessness.

The film begins with Minnie in a position of abuse and ends with her in a position of superiority. She suffers in this transition and it is Monroe who we condemn for her suffering, but Minnie’s strength that we celebrate as she takes control of the situation through her actions. The film is a story of Minnie’s discovery and learning, not only about herself, but about how to relate to others.

Minnie does not allow herself to be controlled. This is not a film about weakness and that is what makes The Diary of a Teenage Girl stand out in the genre of coming-of age films. Not only is it rare to find a film in which a female character is interested in sex more than the male characters, but it is also controversial to address the grey area between autonomy and abuse, especially surrounding young women. We must value films such as this because women are too often presented as the weaker, the second, the inferior sex and the result is a vicious circle: the media reinforce what we expect in society and what we expect in society moulds the media we produce. We tell girls that they must be careful when they go out at night, that they should be walked home by a boy, that they have to dress a certain way in order not to attract unwanted attention. It is no surprise that girls are growing up hyper-aware of their appearance and the impression they give to others. From their first moment of independence girls are forced into a mindset of constant self-judgment.

I do not argue that girls should be told the contrary because they are often targeted. However, whilst we may often be weaker physically, I am concerned by the view that we are psychologically weaker – in terms of our mentality, character and capabilities. In situations of abuse the qualities that make the victim a target are often identified sooner than the motivations of the perpetrator. We need more films about young women that show them outgrowing the stereotype of the victim that has been assigned to them. There is too much popular cinema in which the female characters wait for their male counterparts to ask for their numbers or to propose – in short, to make all decisions that get them closer to fulfilling their role of the provider on which women are supposedly dependent. Male characters are too often active whilst female are passive.

“Fucking” has a vulgarity to it that takes control and draws attention, whereas “losing one’s virginity” suggests an accident, something lost, something outwith one’s control

We must therefore be careful not to describe Minnie with the passive phrases that are built into our language. Throughout the film, Minnie usually refers to sex as “fucking”; indeed, she first says to Monroe: “I want you to fuck me.” It is through her language that Minnie tries to take control of situations in which she might otherwise find herself powerless. I do not recall Minnie ever talking about “losing her virginity”; this phrase is not part of her vocabulary. And I think this is important. “Fucking” has a vulgarity to it that takes control and has agency, whereas “losing one’s virginity” suggests an accident, something lost, something outwith one’s control – and, crucially, it is most often attributed to girls. I dislike it for the same reason I imagine Minnie does not use it: it is passive, it puts the subject in the position of a victim and it is unhelpful because it creates a grey area of uncertainty as to the identity of the agent. Minnie is always direct in her speech, and I think we can learn something from her. How can we create clear boundaries when our language does not do so? We need active phrases that draw attention to the agent of the action, not passive phrases that focus on the recipient.

I think films like The Diary of a Teenage Girl bring us closer to establishing a society with no gender constraints or expectations, helping to build a valuable balance. I find it disappointing that this film was given an 18 rating by the British Board of Film Classification, preventing teenage girls – the audience at which this film is aimed – from watching it legally. The 18 certificate means that this film is confined to a select audience, which sends a very clear message: there is something to be hidden from young people. Whether or not this rating is followed by the young people themselves, it damages the film’s suitability for viewing in schools and public sector organisations, both of which have a strong influence on young people’s attitudes. It seems we are only too ready to show girls in positions of sexual oppression, yet we continue to fear their sexual liberation. The result is a very narrow view of what it means to be a woman, and of how women should view their own sexuality. It is also unfair on boys, often portrayed by popular culture as a threat, as perpetrators of sexual violence.

Film classification has the ability to both protect and hinder. I feel strongly that in the case of The Diary of a Teenage Girl young people are denied access to a film rare in its kind, with societal norms forced upon them in the name of ‘protecting’ them. Ultimately, the obsession with obliging boys to be in control of what happens to girls is not only dangerous, it is unhealthy, sexist, and should never have become the norm. This film is great because things do not just happen to Minnie: she is powerful, she is strong, she is confident. I think we can all admire her as she says: “I refuse to be some snivelling crybaby. I’m a fucking woman, and this is my life.”

Both pictures taken from the film’s official FB page.
First picture is a close-up of a young white woman’s face, shot from above as she’s lying on her back so her head is pointing to the right. It seems she’s in a bath tub as her face and shoulders are wet. She has big blue eyes and full pink lips, slightly ajar.
Second picture shows an adult white woman sitting on the wooden step at the house entrance, hugging two white girls on both her sides. The girl on the left has long blonde hair and glasses, and the girl on the right has long black hair with a fringe. They’re all wearing warm colourful clothes from the 1970s and are looking into the camera as if posing for a picture. It’s not a frame from the film, probably a posed publicity photograph.

The feature image is the red logo for an 18 film.