Exploring Girlhood Through Film

Exploring Girlhood Through Film
May 19, 2017
By Katie Kohn

There’s no non-creepy way to say this. I’ve been thinking about girls, particularly little girls, for quite some time. So long, in fact, that it’s dubious whether I can even still claim to be a girl myself. And yet I do. So, when I pitched four film programs to the Schlesinger, perhaps I was secretly hoping they would choose “Girlhood.” I was already well down the rabbit hole. And apparently, I’m not alone.

The boom in “girl culture,” or at least its visibility, has become integral to how we think about post-net youth culture, commerce, and millennial politics. Contemporary girlhood can be identified as strongly with the bohème entrepreneurship and girl-club vibe of Tavi Gevinson (Rookie mag) as with the transnational “girls’ rights are human rights” activism of Malala Yousafzi (I Am Malala). Amid Orensteinian fears of “princess culture,” over-sexualization, cyberbullying, and sexting, this decade has in fact seen girl culture quietly flourish—online, IRL [in real life], and in many of the stranger spaces between.

Meanwhile, our collective imagination of girls and girlhood occupies an increasingly influential share of contemporary narrative cultures. In the publishing world, the notoriety of the girl has become a story in its own right, with such major media outlets as the Guardian, the New York Times, and NPR noting the sharp increase in the appearance of the “Girl” in book titles across genres. The notion that fairy tales and princess stories dominate the narrative kingdom of girlhood has always been a myth, but now, it’s hard to deny that girlhood itself has a magic—and one as dark as that of any Grimm fairy tale—of its own.

Beyond this, girlhood has developed from something of a historically politicized category—the Victorian cult of girls’ biological innocence and patriarchal fetishes of the girl-child, for example—into an increasingly popular politics of identity. Famously, one is not born but made a woman. What, then, is she in the making? What or who becomes a woman, and why, today, do so many ostensibly grown women prefer to identify or politicize their identities as girls? When third-wave feminist, trans, queer, and post-structuralist theories of sex and gender began to displace “woman” from the center of its politics, did anyone imagine that “girl” would come to take her place? What does girlhood mean in the era of intersectional feminism, post-feminism, or neo-feminist sensibilities?

The Schlesinger library film series has provided a unique opportunity to explore the power, the precariousness, and the politics of girlhood, by way of the strange, at times mythic spaces in which our ideas and images of girlhood live—often but not always cinema. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, cinematic imaginaries of the girl appear “larger than life and twice as natural.”

If the many faces of Girlhood speak to one idea, it’s that the girl is never quite what she seems. A little girl is not so small when she commands a big screen, big voices, or even bigger audiences. “Girl power” means having power where others least expect it. A girl is magic, and the rest of her is a mystery.

Our first half of the series (September–December) focused on genres that privilege the girl’s historical relationship with magic, power, and the supernatural. I knew the series would have to include a selection from the realms of girl horror—and just in time for Halloween—as well as a representative of the equally rich narrative and cinematic tradition of the “Wonderland” connection between the girl and historicized realms of the fantastic. In horror and science fiction, girls—particularly little girls—are either prized and in peril before the monstrous “other” or else revealed to be the secret source of horror themselves. In either case, the narrative world of the girl seems always to include myth-making and morality-bending encounters with monsters and beasts, a tradition we could draw from “Little Red Riding Hood” and European fantasy stories to New World fairy tales like Twilight or other all-American horrors with all their “final girls,” or last protagonists left alive (Halloween), and evil children (Night of the Living Dead, The Bad Seed, The Ring).

Set against the broader context in which tweenage girls flock to Mattel’s expansive world of Monster High merchandising (like Twilight, a multimedia monster of a franchise in its own right) or grow under the wing of “Mother Monster” Lada Gaga, who celebrates her millions-strong brood of gender-fluid Little Monsters, we might say that the monster has become something of a solution to the implied gender conformity or biologized sexuality of womanhood. It is not simply that the goth girl’s romantic partner tends toward the beastly or the outright inhuman. Today, the girl herself is the monster, revealing that her trouble was never with her partner being “just a boy,” but with the prospect of gender conformity and biological adulthood that such partnership brings. This is just one of many reasons to consider vamp-girl narratives such as Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2011, or to reconsider Stephenie Meyer’s well-known but poorly understood pop phenomenon The Twilight Saga. In the end, our series included Ana Lily Amirpour’s singular A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a film that is as much a girl-meets-boy story as it is another tale as old as (cinematic) time: the low-budget monster movie. Then again, it is also a Western, the arch-genre of American cultural memory and cinema-made history.

The prevalence of beastly things and monstrous creatures is no less so the case in the subgenre I like to call “historical fantasy,” although in it, the relationship between girl and monster changes dramatically. Here, the monster is not a solution to the problem of womanhood but a wondrous ally and gender-neutral friend. From postapocalyptic fantasies of the historical future (The Girl with All the Gifts, The Hunger Games) to surreal visions of the historical past (Spirit of the Beehive, Pan’s Labyrinth), historical fantasy has tended to privilege the girl in a way that defamiliarizes our experience of the social order while preserving the fantastic dimensions of knowledge, labor, and cultural memory. If, as the saying goes, “well behaved women seldom make history,” then girls seem destined to redefine history or even culture itself, no less than the making of it.

Under the visionary direction of Miyazaki Hayao, the film and animation house Studio Ghibli has made a study of such relationships—both their connection to cultural memory and to a fabulous, friendly family of “beasts.” However, Princess Mononoke’s (1997) epic scale also comes with an epic running time, favoring Beasts of the Southern Wild for a spot in the series. Both films invoke mythologies of the girl as a kind of Earth spirit and put a “geo-pagan” spin on the Disney-trademarked trope of the fairy-tale princess who talks to animals, takes care of her father, and communes with nature as easily as if it were her (long-removed) mother. Today’s “little princesses” might not abide by pretty dresses and pleated hair, but their place in the mythic time of “once upon . . .” histories is still as assured as the trappings of cultural values (loyalty, self-reliance, strength through hardship) that imbue them with auras of exceptionalism.

By contrast, the film with which we began, Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire De . . . (1966), might not first appear to broach the mystical, magical dimension of the girl. At least, certainly not as much as Sembène’s Moolaadé (2004)—the title of which translates to “magical protection”—would have, specifically of four young girls who resist the prospect of their ritual purification through genital mutilation. Meanwhile, the most common translation of La Noire de . . ., or “somebody’s black [lady]” is Black Girl. But what exactly is it that makes Diouana, the young woman of La Noire de . . ., a “girl”?

Both films, Black Girl and Moolaadé, which bookend the celebrated career of this “father of African film” in narratives of the girl and conditions of girlhood, highlight a number of ideas with which I felt it was important to begin, including the weighted dimensions of “the cut” and “cutting” in both the imagination of girlhood and its cinemas, as well as the emergence of cinematic girlhoods alongside the autobiographically boyish, politically puerile, and overall youthful tendencies of New Wave cinema, all of which coincide but do not necessarily equate with the work of Sembène. In that sense, the specifically postcolonial circumstances of Sembène’s Black Girl are uniquely revelatory. The film (and, I hope, this series) continues to remind us that it is impossible to think girlhood—nor its place in cinematic traditions—without thinking through postcolonial conditions of race set by European empire, exploitation, and enculturated white supremacy, but also through the gendered conditions of youth culture fostered, in part, through the 20th century’s New Wave cinemas.

The dark reality of the girl’s exceptionalism is, in Sembène’s work, brought to a particularly gruesome fore. The tagline for Ossie Davis’s unrelated American production of the same name, Black Girl (1972), might as well apply to the protagonist of Sembène’s story: “She’s got to cut it . . . or cut out.” Between impossible acceptance and utter abjection, Sembène’s girls are faced with no way out save for “magical protection” and the irrevocable violence of a final cut.

Apart from Black Girl, the entire series is quite contemporary, with all the remaining films having been released within the past five years. This was only half intentional. While films like Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (our October monster-girl movie) and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (our November historical fantasy and New World fairy tale) speak to this century’s vibrant interest in the mythological potential of the girl, the films of the second half of the series are a testament to the increased visibility of girl culture in recent years.

Taken together, cinematic genres of the girl remind us that girlhood is not all “sugar and spice and everything nice.” More often than not, the girls of our imaginations are wild, monstrous, and mean. They are world builders, rule breakers, myth makers. They misbehave, dissimulate, and depart from the path. Girls, like gender itself, are trouble. This dangerous dimension of a girl’s power persists in narrative cinemas that attempt to document contemporary conditions of girlhood and of those girl cultures that arise when girls are left to their own devices.

As the preeminent “girl noirist,” the writer Megan Abbot has said, “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.” This sentiment finds expression in the three films that conclude the series, The Fits (2015), Spring Breakers (2012), and Zero Motivation (2014), but also haunts the three films with which we began. Boredom, in cinemas of the girl, seems to be a genre all its own. Girlhood offers but six films that feature a girl with too much time or too little, with a room and a mind of her own, however powerfully motivated and precariously held. Narratives of the girl consistently return to the sometimes quiet, sometimes riotous battlegrounds over individuation, self-realization, and the trials of privacy. Through all of these, cinemas of girlhood fashion something of a metanarrative out of mythological exceptionalism (and its deep social perils) and into the right to escape.

In The Fits, the need for escape translates to the ecstasies of identification and social ritual associated with adolescent conformity and the overwhelmingly gendered specter of “mass hysteria,” or psychosomatic conversion disorder. Through the high concept conceit of the mysteriously sick girls, Anna Rose Holmer quietly teases out these mystical dimensions and oft-unspoken meanings of the affirmational rallying cry—and hashtag—“black girl magic,” all without losing its association with physicality, performance, and self-styled power. There is little mystery but a lot of rallying (and crying) in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, where the need for escape follows the emotional logic and social psychology of the rager, reimagining youthful escapism itself, particularly the freshly “girled” face of its barely legal, navel-pierced, and tramp-stamped underbelly as a dark, day-glo vision of the American Dream-cum-native nightmare. Oft compared to Lena Dunham’s premium cable series, Girls, Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation reckons with the prospect of girlhood as a no-exit scenario of low economic prospects, sexual dissatisfaction, and the relentless daily onslaught of psychosocial exhaustion.

In all three films, the threat of life’s physical, social, and emotional inescapability comes head-to-head with the deviant or even deadly forces of the desperate girl. If they could share an urtext (as Alice in Wonderland could be said to be an urtext for mythologies of contemporary girlhood), I would have to say it would be Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. These are girls who are lonely, horny, greedy, desirous, ruthless, reveling, strong, mean, simpering, scheming, lying, cultural co-opting, gangsta, surviving, idling, dreaming, defiling, unapologizing, (fake-apologizing), starving, glutting, moving forces to be reckoned with—and fragile configurations of contemporary personhood.

If I could add a few more films to their intriguing company, they would be films which speak to the uneasy mysteries of “gone girls,” to the even more discomfiting spectaculars of girls gone wild, and to the multitude of inadequacies that appear in the harsh light of day to the working girl, raised on cinema, but asked to live in life. Many of these films are already cult films, from Peter Weir’s wistful paean to the occultism of girlhood, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), to Sofia Coppola’s no less haunted adaptation of Jefferey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (1999). To these, I would add both Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) and its less high-profile contemporary, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), which opens to Gwen Stefani’s zeitgeisty anthem “Just a Girl” and the two titular protagonists waxing ironic on Garry Marshall’s consumer cult classic Pretty Woman (1990).

In these somewhat poppy but important representatives of that precursor to girl culture and other contributing tradition to cinemas of the girl, the chick flick (and chick lit), girlishness is first taken to be a sign of inadequacy, of romantic failure or careerist inconstancy, and a general, psychological condition of arrested development. It is perhaps with this wave of films and the cultural conditions through which they emerged that a (still predominantly white imagination) has been embracing girlhood as the new, unapologetically viable political subject of feminism. Whether such a space will prove to be a workable meeting ground between a predominately white and/or consumer-oriented girl-power feminism and the enduring powers of intersectional feminism, trans and queer subjectivities, identities that are affirmationally “magic” and mixed—well, I will venture my own optimism in saying that I’m a believer in the imagined powers of the girl. Reality does not like to be left alone with itself for long, and wherever the imagination goes, including our cinematic imaginaries, so goes the tide of the living world.

Conversely, this series leaves out a great history of cinemas which the lived realities of girlhood have borne out. In that spirit, I would add one nonfiction film to the program, one which was actually the last to be cut from the series, becoming an eleventh-hour swap with The Fits. Julia Query and Vicky Funari’s Live Nude Girls Unite! (2000) is by no means tongue-in-cheek, but it is a vaudeville-funny documentary following the push to form the first union of exotic dancers in the United States. Ultimately, the film documents not only an important moment in US women’s labor movements, but also provides a fascinating and supremely funny portrait of premillennial feminism’s momentous drift towards the politics and identity of girlhood. Query and Funari’s San Francisco is a city of riot grrrls and SuicideGirls as much as “working girls” and XXX Real Live Dancing Girls!!! If you watch one documentary about the Exotic Dancers Union this year, make it this.

All of these films I have mentioned here, including the suggestions for supplementary programing (highlighted in bold), give expression to the transformational, tragicomic, and treacherously subversive powers of collective girlhood. They reaffirm the cinematic girl’s creative approach to the construction of histories and memories both personal and shared, real and fantastic. This is the case in Spring Breakers’ sensually and surreal “ethnographic” approach to an orgiastic American rite of passage, in Lavie’s unabashedly autobiographic film diary of her service in the IDF, and in Holmer’s The Fits, which maintains the spirit of creative nonfiction in its casting of primarily nonprofessional actors (including Cincinnati’s premier drill team, the Q-Kidz Dance Team), on-location shooting, and a breadth of intimate, observant choices of subject. Today’s visions of girlhood are as much the product of cinematic pleasures and provocations, as they are intimate explorations of what it means to become a person—sexually and socially—within contemporary narratives of biological sex, youth, and adulthood, narratives which do not always align with the encultured or actually experienced meaning of these terms.

I’m a 31-year-old graduate student who considers herself a woman by biology, an adult in formation, and a girl by all other standards that count or matter. If by identifying in ourselves the place where sex and politics meet at an impasse—at a queer category failure or a “girled” one, at a strange, magic, half-imagined, half-abject space and a mysterious one—amounts to a place where the politics of personhood and sexual difference can be shared at precisely such impasses, then, gurl? Let’s go.

Cinemas of Girlhood

Katie Kohn has put together a list of suggested titles, based on the different girlhood tropes that she included in the film series. Titles in bold were screened at the Schlesinger Library.


And God Created Woman . . . (Et Dieu… créa la femme) (R. Vadim, 1956)
La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) (Agnès Varda, 1962)
Red Desert (Il deserto rosso) (Michelangelo Antonioni,1964)
Black Girl (La noire de . . .) (Ousmane Sembène, 1966)
Daisies (Sedmikrásky) (Vera Chytilová, 1966)
Masculin Féminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)
Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)


The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956)
Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002)
Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Aminpour, 2014)
Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)


Alice (Woody Allen, 1990)
Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
The Hunger Games Film Series
The Twilight Saga


Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)
A Girl Like Her (Amy S. Weber, 2015)
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, 2015)
The Silenced (Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul) (Hae-young Lee, 2015)


Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013)


Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954)
Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1988)
Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990)
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997)
Live Nude Girls Unite! (Julia Query and Vicky Funari, 2000)
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
Zero Motivation (Efes beyahasei enosh) (Taya Lavie, 2014)

Katie Kohn is a doctoral candidate in film and visual studies in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.


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