While YA girls have had their fun saving their families from constant supernatural and dystopian peril, a new sort of teenage girl has emerged in cinema, fueled by the age-old mantra of “live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.” 2013 was the year that young women found a different kind of representation in film through characters who took a different approach to life. Without the YA label, there was a decent crop of films centered upon teenage girls who not only lived in the real world, but also experienced real dilemmas (as for realistic, we can get into that later).
Free from being the heroine that the people desperately needed and the love interest that some bland boy thought he deserved, these new teenage girls were free to be – and eagerly were – selfish, brutal and unapologetically uninterested in saving anyone but themselves. And why shouldn’t they be? After years of being relegated to the punch lines and stereotypes of the teen comedies that populated the 1990s and early 2000s, then taking up residence in the present day literary dramas, it was time for a change. 2013 was the year of girls behaving badly – and for being portrayed as real people on screen.
“Badly” can be taken in several ways. In films like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, the message is very clear: look out for number one, take your friends along for the fabulous ride and forget about everyone else. Swathed in neon light and dunked in Natty Light, the girls of Spring Breakers would probably never be given a second glance by Coppola’s L.A. posse, but the two cliques have much more in common than they might imagine.
With Spring Breakers, the girls’ objective is simple if terrifying in how easy they find the whole endeavor. Bored with their small town college life and flat broke, they rob a diner to get the funds to experience the Florida MTV spring break of their dreams. Aside from the sweet and pious Faith (Selena Gomez), the girls have no qualms about their actions, gleefully spending their money on liquor, cocaine, scooter rides and anything they can get their hands on with their newfound freedom. It’s an exercise in excess, and one that isn’t shown so often with young women as the proprietors. Not only are young women the ones in charge of this vacation from reality, their exploits are depicted in a way that they’re not getting shamed for what they do.
At the point where Alien (James Franco) shows up to entice them in more debauchery, it may seem like he’s the ringleader in their beach party crime spree, but the girls still continue to call the shots every step of the way. They’re carefree, young and in love with the way their power makes them feel. And when that feeling starts to slip away from them, they reclaim it by dealing with the person who tried to control them.
The teens of The Bling Ring are in a different predicament in that their penchant for robbery and the finer things is borne from boredom and a want for fame, rather than a desire for the good life. Nestled in their Beverly Hills bubble, the girls (and one guy) don’t give robbing a series of homes for all they’re worth a second thought, because nobody has ever stepped in and told them that this crime could (and should) have consequences.
They flit about town in their “borrowed” designer clothes and jewelry, brazenly flaunting their catches online for the world to see because they truly believe that they deserve everything they obtain. Their behavior is cavalier and awful, but here’s the important part about it: they’re teenage girls who aren’t written to be likable. As they teeter around on their sky-high heels and chatter with incessant vocal fry and talk about absolutely nothing, there’s little on screen to root for by the end of the film. But how many of those characters do you know in real life?
Being “bad” is interpreted in another context with films like Maggie Carey’s The To Do List and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color, where teenage girls are featured front and center exploring their sexuality. Their activities – sex – is something that most teenagers deal with at some point or another, but it’s never really talked about from a female perspective; though teenage girls might be having sex as much as the guys, in the media it’s still a taboo topic to depict.
Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) of The To Do List is a noteworthy character because she takes sex and makes it a matter-of-fact assignment. The sheltered, inexperienced valedictorian of her high school, Brandy decides that she’s going to tackle all of the sexual deeds from French kissing to full-on intercourse before leaving for college in the fall. She does this the only way she knows how, by making it into a goal-oriented list itemized by deed, boy and overall rating. Though much of what contributes to Brandy’s clinical, casual attitude toward sex is that she doesn’t know any better, it’s still refreshing to see a teenage girl encouraged and applauded to go after her own private sexual revolution – even by some of the guys.
In the case of Blue is the Warmest Color, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) deals with her burgeoning feelings for Emma (Léa Seydoux) both through the context of her sexuality and in the physical act of sex. While her high school friends are off gossiping about boys and having “normal” dating experiences, Adele is smitten with a blue-haired young woman she sees on the street. They become entwined in a passionate love affair that’s as emotionally and psychologically intense as it is sexually fulfilling for the couple. Though there are problems abound with the film and its sex scenes, its existence is another case of young women on screen owning their right to have sex.
Looking into 2014, hopefully the trend of placing strong, varied teenage girls on screen will continue at the rate carried out in 2013. This year’s crop proved that teenage girls can exist outside the pages of a YA adaptation, outside of being something normal and “nice;” when girls are behaving badly on screen it’s something to celebrate.