'Girls Aren't Given The Chance To Be Sexual' The Author Of The Diary Of A Teenage Girl Speaks To Us
The Debrief: Phoebe Gloeckner is the author of the book that spawned last year's controversial coming of age film. So, why is growing up so much harder for girls than it is for boys?
When Phoebe Gloeckner published her semi-autobiographical novel The Diary Of A Teenage Girl back in 2002, the novel was praised for it's frank and accurate depiction of teen female sexuality. Then, last year, when the film adaption came out, the BBFC slapped an 18 certificate on a film that concerned the sex life of a 17-year-old.
The book (and film) is about Minnie Goetz, a precocious teenager living in San Francisco in the 1970s who loses her virginity to her mother's much older boyfriend Monroe. Laid out as a graphic novel, the book is the story of that not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman phase when girls struggle with their burgeoning sexuality, all the while remaining childlike in the eyes of others.
The journey of The Diary Of A Teenage Girl from book to film began when, after many failed attempts by others, writer Marielle Heller (married to one of the chaps from Lonely Island!) convinced Phoebe to let her turn the book into a play. ‘I was very wary at that time,' Phoebe admits when we speak to her, 'because I did put so much of myself into it.’ But, Mariel proved enthusiastic and besides, Phoebe thought – how much of a permanent record could a play leave? ‘If I didn’t like it, it wouldn’t be around for long right?’ She laughs.
Famous last words. The play was a success. So much so that when Mariel put tentative plans in place to pitch it as a film, Sundance were interested in backing it. ‘Plus by that time she was my friend,’ Says Phoebe. ‘It was much harder to say no!’
In the film, Minnie is played by Bel Powley, a now 23-year-old British actress from London whose previous work included a very different role playing Bianca in nan-fave Benidorm.
Did Phoebe see Minnie in Bel? ‘Truthfully no’ She admits. ‘I was only shown a picture of her face and her face is so beautiful but in a very unusual way. She’s so individual – it wasn’t a blank slate as there was already so much in her face.’ Nevertheless, she assures me that once she saw Bel perform, she was totally comfortable with the casting choice.
Previously, Phoebe has said that she finds Film Minnie more in control than Book Minnie, referring specifically to one scene that's not in the book where Minnie initiates sexual contact with Monroe by sucking his finger seductively. ‘That finger sucking thing was out of character for me,’ Says Phoebe, ‘It quickly gave a message that Minnie is not weak, she has some kind of agency and that’s kind of comforting in a way I guess. So maybe it was necessary for the film otherwise it would be tragic.’ She says.
When the film was released, as mentioned previously, there was uproar in the UK at the BBFC’s decision to rate the film an 18, meaning that girls Minnie’s age (17) would not be able to see it legally. Phoebe wasn’t too surprised though. ‘I had already experienced that with the books (her debut novel A Child’s Life was banned from libraries and called ‘A how-to guide for paedophiles’ by the Mayor of one town) a million times.’ Says Phoebe. ‘But the film is polished and presented to the audience in a way that’s easier to digest so in a way I was surprised there was so much noise about teen sex. But,' She acknowledges, 'on the other hand, it presents girlhood in a way I haven’t seen before in film so I’m not surprised there was backlash.’
Because for years, films about male teenage sexuality have been celebrated. Think back (if you dare) to the days of American Pie when a group of teenage boys were cheered on for trying desperately to lose their virginity – one, as is similar to Minnie – with a much older adult. ‘I find it really depressing’ Says Phoebe. ‘By nature girls are equally as sexual and as curious as boys but that kind of sexual awakening is encouraged and applauded in boys. It’s an adventure when they realize what they can do with their bodies. But women,’ she continues, ‘Are given two roles; the virgin caretaker type thing, and the slut.’
This attitude prevailed in the early days of the film’s production when Phoebe met with one (male) director who wanted Minnie and Monroe to end up married at the end of the film in what I can only imagine was a misguided attempt to ‘purifiy’ Minnie despite the fact that the union would have been a bloody disaster. ‘He also said that after he’d read the book he’d "never look at teenage girls in the same way again."’ Says Phoebe. ‘The implication was something lascivious or prurient like "Oh WOW they really are thinking about sex!" It was horrifying to me because it was an opportunity to see them as prey. It was creepy.’
Amongst all the uproar about teen sexuality surrounding the film, Phoebe’s keen that the main message of the book doesn’t get lost. ‘It is not so much about sexuality.’ She says. ‘It’s about a young person discovering who they are and moving towards adulthood, discovering what their values and talents are. That is your job as a teenager.’
With the book being set in the 1970s, comparisons to today's world are inevitable. Does Phoebe think that girls today have it harder? ‘I have a 17-year-old, ‘ she says. ‘And when I see what she’s going through I just shudder. Right now it must be harder for women because in the last ten years we’ve had the collective thought that women are equal to men. But they’re not. They’re still the people that have the babies, they’re still paid far less for equivalent jobs but yet the assumption is that they’re equal so when they realize gradually that they’re not looked at that way…’ She pauses. ‘Women have different challenges than men in becoming fully formed adults. There’s too many pressures against them and, even worse, those pressures are often invisible.’
The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is out on DVD January 11th from Vertigo Releasing and Entertainment One
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