Being a teenager can be stressful, emotional, and so so wonderful. As a girl with only seven months left before I’m 20, I feel that I can look fairly objectively at the past six years of my life, which I would consider the most important years of my life so far. I’ve realised that there is so much to be learned about yourself, your ideas, your creativity, and the world around you between the ages of 13-19.
But things aren’t always great when you’re growing up, so it’s natural to look outside of your immediate surroundings for inspiration. You look at books, and films, and music, all to find ideas on how to be a teenager. While there is no right way, there are a fair number of accounts available to be inspired by. The sad reality for this generation of feminists is that there are far more coming of age stories for boys than there are for anybody else.
Due to the lesser known accounts of teenage girlhood, it’s easier for some negative ideas to be adopted by girls as they grow. While boys can use stories such as The Catcher in the Rye, or cult films like American Pie and Submarine, to normalise sexuality and self-awareness, girls can often feel detached from these messages if they fail to identify with male protagonists. The few tales of female maturation available usually centre upon white characters and heterosexual relationships, leading to further disappointment when the many people who aren’t white or heterosexual seek inspiration and guidance.
If there is inequality in art, there will be in society, the two almost mirror one another, reflecting dominant narratives and social norms. Whilst the number of bildungsromane catering to males still appears higher, we have found some coming-of-age stories to inspire teenage girls.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)
I watched The Diary of a Teenage Girl a few days ago, and I think it is already one of my favourite films. It stars Bel Powley as Minnie Goetze, a fifteen year old aspiring cartoonist from San Francisco. The film begins with her declaration: “I had sex today. Holy shit.” It then documents her sexual exploration, as she endeavours to normalise female sexuality in the process.
The film brings to light certain ideas which are intrinsic to feminist theory, most notably the sexuality of teenage girls. Though Minnie is fifteen – legally not old enough to consent to having sex – she very much is in control of her sexuality. This is most evident when contrasted with the underlying plot line: a news story that Minnie’s mother (played so wonderfully by Kristen Wiig) constantly mentions, about a young girl that has been found after being kidnapped, having fallen in love with her kidnapper. The subplot brings forward ideas of victim-hood and consent, as well as depicting attempts to control and manipulate teenage sexuality.
While the plot is highly controversial (in that Minnie sleeps with her mother’s boyfriend) never once in her affair with Monroe does Minnie appear a victim; the film honestly isn’t as Lolita as it could seem. Minnie’s desires are central to the plot – at the start she proclaims: “I want someone to be so totally in love with me that they would feel like they would die if I were gone”. But with these desires come insecurities: the want to be older, the want to feel less alone, the want to have more friends. These insecurities remind the viewer that Minnie is still fifteen and not yet completely in control of her emotions. It is these that emphasise the importance of this film.
When Minnie’s mother finds out about the affair, Minnie feels as if she is “finally nothing”. It is at this point that she loses control, leaving home for a few days, taking far too many drugs and entering into a manipulative relationship with a girl called Tabitha. The limits of her independence are shown and she returns home. Here, Minnie’s relationship with her mother and sister is highlighted; a relationship just as important as Minnie’s relationship with Monroe and her relationship with her own self-worth.
The main point of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is to inspire self-love; though not completely, Minnie discovers who she is and what she wants through the course of the film. She rejects the idea her mother has instilled within her that happiness depends upon whether or not somebody is in love with her. Art is so central to the film, allowing Minnie to develop her artistic skill as she develops personally. Overall, it is stunning. I wish I could have watched this film when I was fifteen.
Words by Caitlin O’Connor
The Virgin Suicides // Jeffrey Eugenides
I first picked up The Virgin Suicides when I was 15 on the recommendation of teen queen and Editor-in-Chief of Rookie magazine, Tavi Gevinson. Trust me when I say there is no higher authority in teendom than the Ladyboss, a woman who gained a platform as teenager, writing for teenagers and running a website dedicated to teenagers – you catch my drift. So, with her endorsement I began my relationship with TVS’s mysterious Lisbon sisters and their suburban lives.
The title alone hints at the allure of temptation and its transgressive consequences: “virgin” almost juxtaposed with “suicides” makes this book encapsulate teenage girldom so wonderfully It invites you in with the dark promise of the fulfilment of sex and death but what sells you is mundanity and normalcy in beautiful prose. It emphasises experience through aesthetics, and you realise that sometimes that can be enough.
It’s about those moments where you are lying on your bedroom floor listening to your favourite records and hearing a lyric that makes you think: “I wish some-one could write something like that for me”, or “I wish I could write that!”. TVS shows all teenagers – but especially teenage girls – that it’s ok not to be fully submerged in the world of experience yet. You don’t have to make out with some guy that you don’t really like just because you want to know what it’s like to kiss someone; but, equally, it’s ok if that is what you want to do.
Hormones are scary, parents can seem like the dictators of your life (and sure enough they are, a lot of the time), and being a teenager can be so isolating; that’s why we breed angst. Ultimately, TVS shows that adolescence is as much about our imagined experiences as our lived ones, and I think there’s a lot of comfort to be found in that sentiment.
Words by Issy Marcantonio
If Only Out of Vanity // Staceyann Chin
Coming of age can be a gritty process, and rarely do our teachers or parents explain to us the ins and outs of youth. ‘Adolescence’ may as well be synonymous with a period of confusion, angst and a total sense of anger at a world that is unable to understand us. Being a girl in this process of confusion brings about its own unique confusions. In Staceyann Chin’s epic spoken word poem, ‘If Only Out of Vanity’, Chin faultlessly captures the damaging expectations placed on women.
Chin begins by ironically musing ‘if only out of vanity / I have wondered what type of woman I will be’. In just two lines, Chin subtly critiques the expectations placed on young women. By pondering ‘what type of woman’ she will be, Chin critics the limited views of women in society. To paraphrase Kelsey McKinney: where are our female Kerouacs? As we have seen in the recent Tory leadership election, women cannot enter certain fields without being compared to other women, or without having their femininity being discussed, rather than their individual attributes.
Furthermore, by bringing the idea of ‘vanity’ into the equation, she exposes the male gaze that is often placed on female self-empowerment. Kim Kardashian’s topless instagram? It was only out of vanity. Want to spend ages perfecting on-point smokey-eye eye makeup? You’re only doing it out of vanity.
Chin finds a crack in the literary canon and forces it open. She snakes her way around the little explored black female voice and shouts it out from the rooftops. For, indeed, her poetry is distinctively female, and not only that, but queer:
‘Will I still be lesbian then
or will the church or family finally convince me
to marry some man with a smaller dick
than the one my woman uses to afford me
violent and multiple orgasms’
While often crude (she is perhaps not one to read with the grandparents), her expression captures the deep-set anger of what happens when you silence a voice a minority voice; the voice breaks free into a scream, an ‘orgasm’ of anger and empowerment.
Yet her final stanza expresses the difficulty of writing about the female experience. It can be all too easy to homogenise womanhood as a unified group in order to fight the female entrapment. While ‘Girl Power!’ and ‘Sisterhood’ are great expressions of unity (and in greater numbers comes a greater force), it is important to remember that there is no ‘female voice’. There is no female ‘type’. In a literary world in which men can be anything from Holden Caulfield to Mark Renton, let’s ‘erase the straight lines’ so women can be just as gritty, just as inspiring, just as iconic as any male protagonist.
‘I want to go down in history
in a chapter marked miscellaneous
because the writers could find
no other way to categorise me
In this world where classification is key
I want to erase the straight lines
So I can be me’
Words by Juliette Rowsell
Blue Is The Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Easily one of the most controversial and widely discussed LGBT films of recent years, Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 coming-of-age tale, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, paints one of the most vivid and authentic pictures of female adolescence and sexual discovery ever put to film. The film chronicles the life of Adèle, a student in her late teens, as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery which stems from her lack of satisfaction in terms of both her relationships and her life in general. After meeting free-spirited painter, Emma, she begins to explore her sexuality and develops a new-found passion for life through the uninhibited confidence and maturity of her partner. The early stages of Emma and Adèle’s relationship are captured in a way which is both illuminating and thought-provoking, with undertones of existentialism underpinning their conversations and complementing the theme of self-exploration which is so prevalent here.
The confusion of pre-adulthood, apathy and resentment for mundanity are all addressed through the growing lack of fulfilment which plagues Adèle prior to her experiences with Emma. It is rare to come across a coming-of-age film which so expertly addresses the uncertainty and confusion of being a teenage girl, as well as exploring the fluidity of sexual orientation, which is often underrepresented across all forms of media. Blue Is The Warmest Colour pays great attention to the nuances and insecurities of early adulthood, as well as providing stimulating commentaries on art, philosophy and social class. Despite the film being almost an epic in its length, featuring drawn-out, meandering scenes, involving conversations which could be seen as trivial by many, its beauty lies within its astonishingly realistic examination of relationships, desire, freedom and contentment.
Regardless of sexual orientation, I feel that this film is essential viewing for young women, due to its hugely powerful and emotionally arresting portrayal of first love, and the tumultuous transition from childhood into womanhood. It’s a film that lingers long after the credits roll, haunting in its immensity and the way in which Kechiche envelops the viewer within the world of Adèle and Emma. Rarely has female sexuality been depicted so honestly and credibly, which is why Blue Is The Warmest Colour is one of the greatest female coming-of-age films of the 21st century.
Words by Georgia Welch
Franny and Zooey // J. D. Salinger
One of Salinger’s other novels, The Catcher in the Rye, is often cited as a seminal bildungsroman. Depicting Holden Caulfield’s angst, confusion and disillusionment, it concerns the messy and uncertain aspects of adolescence. Less well-known however, is his novella, Franny and Zooey. Split into two parts, this coming-of-age narrative deals with two members of the Glass family, who reappear in his short story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’. It would be all to easy to position Franny as Holden’s female Doppelganger, and indeed, both characters often appear to be in a state of submersion, turning in on themselves as a means of dissociating from a world which no longer makes sense to them.
We hear Franny before we see her, in the form of a letter that her boyfriend, Lane, reads as he waits for her on a train platform. Full of hyperbole and digressions (“I love you to pieces, distraction, etc.), gossip and profundity, she initially appears enigmatic in the extreme. This impression is maintained as she appears to us, small, blonde, drowned by a ‘raccoon coat’ and talking a mile a minute. Indeed, she is so impressionable that Wes Anderson used her as his inspiration for Margot Tenenbaum (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) in his film ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’.
As something of a child star (regularly appearing alongside her brothers on a radio talk show called ‘It’s a Wise Child), she has grown contemptuous of the theatre, of “egos” and of pretense. Indeed, like Holden Caulfield, she shies away from the ‘phoneys’ of the world. Unlike Holden however, she recognises herself as inextricably part of this ostentation, and takes to an unorthodox form of prayer as a means of seeking out order in the chaos.
It is not so much in action but in ideology that Franny Glass can be viably considered a role model. Although faced with her own internal conflicts regarding her relationship, her religion and her family, she wholeheartedly refuses to be drawn in by the ‘rah’ and collegiate world that her boyfriend inhabits. Sipping on a glass of milk with a chicken sandwich – while everyone around her drinks beer – she questions the merits of higher education, highlighting the possibility that it is not simply the next destination after high school. Her partial breakdown later in the narrative comes partly as a result of the overwhelming confusion of teenage life: the pressure to rigorously self-define and to perform oneself according to pre-existing expectations. Although ostensibly, her religion appears as a form of escapism, it allows her to rile against pigeon-holing, functioning as a covert form of rebellion, ensuring that she can maintain the essence of individuality.
Words by Beth Chaplow