From ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ to ‘MMXXL,' this summer’s cinema has focused on female pleasure. But is it a sea change or just a one-night stand?
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Early in the film Diary of a Teenage Girl, we witness Minnie, our 15-year-old protagonist, drawing a picture of herself. She uses as her guide a Polaroid that she insisted her mother’s boyfriend Monroe take of her, right after Minnie convinced him to have sex with her for the first time. It’s a remarkable meditation on the depth of the female gaze: It’s not enough for Minnie to convince Monroe to have sex with her, not enough for her to employ him to create an image of her after he’s given her what she wanted (“I just want to see,” she insists when he hesitates to record the moment). She must also create an image of the image. A hall of mirrors endlessly amplifying her desires.
Diary is a shocking film in many respects, not the least of which is its frank depiction of sex between a grown man and a teenager. Most shockingly, it’s the rare tale of a teen girl trying to take control of her sexuality—told from the perspective of a teen girl.
Even more astonishing is how much company Minnie has had this summer. In a season usually reserved for films about manly men saving the world, 2015 has brought us a veritable sampler platter of women seizing control of their sexual destinies. Angry about all the ways women are still dehumanized as men’s playthings? Your film is Mad Max: Fury Road, a revenge fantasy in which Charlize Theron busts some Victoria’s Secret models out of sexual slavery. Together with the help of some tough wise crones and a couple of Guys Who Get It, they overthrow the literal patriarchy. Craving less rebellion and more release? Get thee to Magic Mike XXL, a prolonged feminist dream sequence in which all women are queens whose individual, particular sexual satisfaction is paramount. Prefer a more traditional romance, just without the typical sexism and slut-shaming that usually tag along? Trainwreck is your ticket. That’s to say nothing of films like Spy, which isn’t centrally about sex but does boast a plus-size leading lady whose sexual appeal is taken seriously, and limited release indie flicks like the forthcoming Grandma, which features Lily Tomlin as the titular matriarch on a mission to find the money for her granddaughter’s abortion.
Over the past ten years, only one film about a girl taking ownership of her own body—Juno—conquered the box office. Last summer, there were weeks at a time where you couldn’t buy a ticket for a film that passed the Bechdel Test. So who do we have to thank for this sudden flush of films centered around women’s sexual agency?
I put that question to Melissa Silverstein, founder and director of Indiewire’s Women and Hollywood project, who told me that in some ways, it’s random chance. Magic Mike XXL is a spinoff of a movie more concerned with men’s exploitation than it was with women’s pleasure. “And look at the advertising for Mad Max,” she points out. “It was never geared toward women. And then all of a sudden women went to see it and then everyone was saying ‘It’s a big action adventure that’s all about girl power.’” Even the timing is coincidental: Fury Road was in development for 15 years before it hit the screen, while Magic Mike XXL spun off an unexpected 2012 hit. Marielle Heller, director of Diary, was handed the source material as a Christmas gift eight years ago, and adapted it into a stage play before she even thought to make a film. There’s no universal Hollywood back room where men smoke cigars and decide what we should think about women this year.
Still, the feminism in these films can’t be written off as entirely accidental. George Miller, the auteur behind Mad Max, made a conscious decision to hire Eve Ensler to help the cast and crew more fully understand the complex realities of sexual slavery, and to hire his wife, Margaret Sixel, to edit the film, “[so] it won’t look like every other action movie.” Amy Schumer’s ascendance was unthinkable even five years ago, when Comedy Central was much more interested in fostering Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes than it was in raunchy feminist comedy. And Heller has credited Sundance’s filmmaking labs—a project known for its support of women and people of color—with preparing her to bring Diary to screen. This crop of films may not have been deliberately planted, but they’re still growing in an in environment sown for decades by feminist activism.
However it came to pass, this summer of cinematic sexual liberation is an undeniably powerful moment for all the young women who, like Diary of a Teenage Girl’s heroine Minnie, are right now trying to grow into their sexual selves. Diary tells the story of girl groping toward her own power in a world that’s utterly unprepared for her to wield it. Outside of the cool darkness of the theater, our current moment is not much different. Abortion rights are being rolled back on both the state and federal level. At least five of the top Republican contenders for president want to restrict our access to birth control. Women who speak up about almost anything online are threatened with sexual violation.
At least at the movies this summer, our modern-day Minnies can experience worlds where their humanity is respected, their pleasure is celebrated and their well-being is worthy of defense. Even better: instead of fighting to make one “girl-powered” breakout hit satisfy every representational need women have, we have a range of options this time around, and the box office receipts to prove that we’re in good company.
Plus, centering women’s sexual pleasure and agency has some great side effects. The leading men in these films are smart and brave (and often deliciously buff), but also competent and sincere and secure in their manhood. The “male entertainers” of Magic Mike dance at a drag bar and share a bedroom without exchanging a single “no homo.” Bill Hader’s bromance with LeBron James in Trainwreck involves Downton Abbey and lots of talk about feelings. Max may be mad, but his PTSD and the trust issues it produces are taken seriously by the film as problems that make life harder for him, not lauded as the qualities of a stoic hero.
But the picture of female sexuality currently being projected is far from complete. Unless you’re watching Magic Mike, you’d think the only women who get to have fully human sexual experiences are white, straight, young, cisgender, thin and beautiful. There are still a lot of Minnies who don’t get to bask in their own celluloid glow. And whether or not that will change anytime soon is a wide open question. Even with the boffo box office these films have been pulling in, it’s way too soon to tell if this summer of love will be a blip or the beginning of a golden age for on-screen female sexuality. “It’s about way more than just box office,” Silverstein tells me. “It’s business with gender stereotypes layered on top of it. And it’s really hard to break through these stereotypes.” Still she remains optimistic. “It takes a long time to turn a ship around, and we’ve been talking about this for a long time already. There are lots of signals out there from the public that they are really interested in these kinds of movies. And I’m hopeful that Hollywood gets the message.”
So am I. At its heart, Diary of a Teenage Girl is about the power of female sexual desire, how utterly ill-equipped the world is to support it, and how sometimes women manage to prevail anyhow. Here’s hoping that’s a Hollywood ending in more ways than one.
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