Ma’yan Movie Date: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Beth

I want to start with the observation that so much of the film is about experimenting with power, whether through Minnie’s sexual explorations; the topsy-turvy adult world of late-hippie 1970s San Francisco; the framing of Patty Hearst as an SLA terrorist or a Stockholm Syndrome victim; the power of art and self-expression; the rejection of traditional adult authority (Minnie’s attitude towards school; Charlotte’s divorce from Pascal); Minnie and her friend’s assertion that prostitutes hold all the power; etc.  Adult authority doesn’t come off looking too good here, but really everyone seems to be wrestling with power—their own and others’.

Shayna

Speaking of wrestling with power, at the start of the movie Charlotte tells Minnie her body gives her “more power than she knows.” Monroe reaffirms this idea by telling Minnie, “You have a kind of hold on me,” implying that her sexuality/his attraction to her makes him vulnerable. But what are the limits of the “power” of sexuality? There is no systemic power in being sexually attractive but it is a kind of power nonetheless.

Beth

Clearly, sexuality as power is a complicated thing.  If we define power as “the ability to control circumstances” or impact others, then certainly Minnie’s sexuality gives her SOME power. 

Shayna

While walking back from the movie we disagreed about whether or not Minnie was capable of manipulating Monroe, as he claims that she does. She makes up a story about having sex with a man in a movie theater in order to incite his jealousy. But given the context of their uneven power dynamic is this manipulation? Women are often accused of using their sexual power to manipulate.

Talia

I’ve been thinking about the manipulation question and I came up with a metaphor.  Imagine there are two people: one of them has sufficient access to food and can more or less get the food he wants. If he sees yummy food, he knows how to get it, even via manipulation. Then imagine another person who is starving and has no access to food. She’s so hungry! Someone dangles a piece of moldy bread in front of her. It’s not really the food she wants, but at least it’s food! You better believe she will do ANYTHING to get that piece of moldy bread. I don’t see that as manipulation, but fighting for basic human needs. The point is that the food is love. Minnie feels like no one in the world loves her, and she’s kinda right (I think her family does love her, but they don’t know how to actually show that). So when Monroe comes along it feels like her only chance at giving and receiving love- a basic human need. Early in the film she questions if she even wants him or if it’s just that she may never have another chance. He’s the moldy bread– a bad option, but at least an option. Of course she would do anything to fight to hold on to that.

Beth

This also reminds me of a scene in Season 3 of Orange is the New Black, where Red manipulates Officer Healy to try to reclaim her role as manager of the prison kitchen, and when he confronts her, she basically says that when you take away every other type of power a woman has (imprisoning her, taking away her authority, etc.), she’s going to use what she has left.  Similarly, Minnie’s options for exercising power are limited, so her use of her sexuality (or experimenting with the power of her sexuality) can be read at least partly as a symptom of a broader lack of power.  I would still call it manipulation, but in context I think it’s entirely understandable.

Andrea

I agree with Talia, given the power differential it doesn’t seem possible for Minnie to have any real power. And I think Monroe knows this – and he is manipulative and his accusation seems to me like an attempt to rationalize something that he is conflicted about doing–which is clear because he knows he needs to hide their affair.

Andrea

On a related note, one thing that really struck me about the film was that Minnie and her body are not sexualized for the audience in the way teen girls in other films of similar genres are. Obviously we see her in sexual situations but the one scene where we see her fully nude she is looking at herself in the mirror and it felt honest and different from pretty much anything else I’ve seen in film in this coming of age genre. There is a frankness in the sex and nudity scenes that comes from presenting it from Minnie’s perspective that is groundbreaking. I’m thinking for example of American Beauty which – like this film – is partly the story of a young woman searching for love and attention and getting it from an adult male. But that film is ALL about male gaze. This was Minnie’s story told from her perspective more or less. How often do we see that?   

I think that is why some of the issues about agency and judgment are complicated. Objectively, Monroe is engaging in an abusive relationship, taking advantage of Minnie’s need for love and affection as well as her curiosity, in order to satisfy his own sexual appetite. On the other hand looking at it from Minnie’s vantage point, as the film presents it, she has agency, she has found a way to explore her curiosity. I felt there were moments when the film clearly points to the fact that Minnie is quite young; she is in many ways a child seeking comfort and taking it any way she can get it (as Talia pointed out).  She’s an emerging adult not entirely emotionally prepared for the adult sexual relationship that she pursues, but also using it as a testing ground perhaps. In some ways the film seemed to imply that despite its problematic nature, her relationship with Monroe was a safer place to gain her own sense of her sexual agency than it might have been with teenage boys.  

Beth

I agree that the relationship with Monroe, perhaps ironically, actually gives Minnie some sexual agency.  Because she has “learned” sex with Monroe, she knows what she likes; and when she has sex with that jackrabbit of a teenage boy, she feels entitled to ask for it.  That seems like a rare quality for a teen girl.  It is CERTAINLY a rare commodity for a teen girl in film, and for that scene alone, I would be grateful for this movie.  (Remember, a la our last bit of pop culture analysis, that even in her 60s, Grace [in Grace and Frankie] has trouble expressing her sexual preferences to a new partner!)

Andrea

I wanted to raise a question about casual racism in the film: the frequent sexual references to Black men. This racist trope has been around since the founding of our country. It dehumanize Black men in a particular way. While I know the comments are very likely authentic to the conversations and thoughts of Minnie and her friends – the repetition was really striking. Curious how you all understood these references both in terms of the film content and also in terms of the decision on the part of the film makers to include it. 

Shayna

To me the comments highlight the girls’ social position as both vulnerable and capable of oppressing others. Their comments reveal some of the limitations of that stage of liberation for people of color and for women.

Talia

It would have been cool if the film had been able to frame it in the way you are suggesting, but without this framing, it seems to me like the comments were just racism.

Andrea

Intentional or not, the inclusion of casual racism in the film points to the fact that these white teenage girls are products of a racist society and subject to being “infected” by racism while they simultaneously fight for their own agency against sexism. 

Shayna

On another note, I liked Minnie’s closing dedication of the movie to “all the girls when they have grown”, do you guys think there’s a message that she’s trying to convey to other young women?  Phoebe Gloeckner, who based the screenplay on her autobiographical graphic novel, said in an interview, “I am not unique at all,” “Hundreds if not thousands of people have experienced this same thing, in some version of it…”

Andrea

One of the things that I appreciate about the film as I reflect more is how it showed how harrowing, confusing and nearly fatal it is for girls to to try to figure out our sexuality, take agency, and find affection. Perhaps because of my own harrowing experiences as a teen and young adult woman, I am very conscious of how hard it is. Our culture is not set up to support girls, young women, really any female to have an easy time. The Diary of a Teenage Girl doesn’t pull punches in showing that.

Beth

The film mostly avoided any moralistic framing or lessons — Minnie isn’t “punished’ for having sex by getting pregnant or contracting an STD or even, in the end, by experiencing sexual violence (at least in the film’s version of the story).  When she and her friend decide to play at prostitution, the end result isn’t some sort of psychic or physical or legal punishment, it’s just regular old regret.  And they have each other to process the experience with and support each other in choosing not to repeat it.  Every girl should be so fortunate when she makes a risky decision with her body or her heart.  Yes, she’s in a troubling and inappropriate relationship with a grown man, and I don’t mean to minimize how problematic and messy and icky that is.  But that relationship ends and she moves past it, ultimately greeting him on the street and giving him a piece of her art–and expecting to be compensated for it!  $5!

Talia

To me, the main point of the film was the power of art. Beth said as we exited the theater that she left feeling like Minnie was going to be ok. I agree, and I think that’s because of art. Art was the place that she could care for herself and love herself and explore herself. Her art also seemed a part of how she held onto her feminism and her own sense of self-worth. I think art saved her life. And I identified with that piece, knowing how art has gotten me and my mom through rough patches in life.

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