Boys Will Be Boys and Girls Will Be Ignored

Girls in film are either sexual or superpowered. Can’t we make room for them to just be girls?

Image: Beverly Marsh in “IT.” / Source: YouTube.
CC BY-NC 2.0.

Hollywood is getting a shakedown from top to bottom. Though it remains a bastion for white male privilege and power, the foundations are cracking under the popular call for greater diversity and representation. There’s a strengthening current of democratization and decentralization in mainstream American film making, as old representational tropes are locked in a tug-of-war with narratives that have long been shut out. While this battle has no discernible “winning” moment, it manifests in a series of smaller victories that promise new voices, new faces, and new possibilities. But can Hollywood really get out of its own way?

Women continue to be underrepresented in film, and even when they are included, they’re often flat, one-dimensional characters who function either as sexual objects or as mirrors to enlarge their male counterparts. This isn’t news – much has already been said about the history of women in film and about the changes that need to be made. But what about girls? Do they get to be a part of the conversation?

Girlhood is a touchy subject in Hollywood, and rarely the focal point of films. Stories of pre-pubescent or non-sexual girls that dare to consider aspects of life outside of the sexual realm are largely erased in mainstream American film because they lack sexual currency. A girl who plays an active role other than a sexual one holds little weight in the collective imagination.

This erasure is imbedded throughout film and television, yet many will object to its existence. “But what about that girl in ‘Stranger Things?!”, they’ll shout; “What about Matilda?!” While girls are central characters in many stories, they’re usually hyper-something —if not serving as sexual objects, young girls are often granted super-human abilities or rendered monstrous, as if their lived experiences as regular human girls would not be interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention on their own. While these stories are fun to watch, it can become dangerous when they are the only stories about girls that we get to see. By only telling stories of “super-girls” and leaving ordinary girls out of Hollywood, they perpetuate the myth  m that girls themselves are not worthy of our time and attention.

Andy Muschietti’s “IT”, now the highest grossing horror film of all time, perfectly illustrates this obvious disinterest in girls’ lives. Muschietti tackled the challenge of cutting down King’s sprawling narrative, which follows the same characters as both children and adults, by splicing it into two feature-length films. While “IT” hits all the major beats of the story without compromising the nuanced friendships that bind the characters together, a key ingredient to Stephen King’s story is lost in translation: the dynamic character of Beverly Marsh. As the November release date for “IT: Chapter 2”  looms ever closer, it’s important to consider what the first film got wrong in the hopes that the second can make amends.

The story is familiar by now. An eternal, evil entity known only as “It” lives in the drains and sewers below the town of Derry, Maine, disguising itself as Pennywise the clown and luring children to their deaths. A group of seven middle-schoolers, charmingly dubbed “The Losers Club”, must defeat the monster once and for all to save themselves and the town. While the film captures the nuance and attention to detail that were such a signature of the male characters captured in King’s novel, Beverly Marsh’s character is not shown the same respect. Even though she’s the heroine of King’s tale, Muschietti treats her as a disposable object.

While some readers may have only seen her as another member of the Losers Club,  I loved Stephen King’s Beverly Marsh, also warmly referred to as ‘Bev’. Reading “IT” was like stepping into another world that was at once terrifying and oddly comforting, not too different from the world I knew. In the novel, Bev is scrappy and brave but also deeply compassionate and loyal. She is anything but a damsel in distress. In the first of two final confrontations with “It”, Bev—the best slingshotter in the group—is the one who deals a near-fatal blow to It. In this scene, she is powerful, actively resisting the monster that seeks to harm her and her friends, who live or die by her actions. Bev understands this duty, getting the job done and making herself a hero by anyone’s definition.  

Muschietti cuts this scene from his adaptation, choosing to streamline the multiple confrontations between the Losers Club and “It” into a grand finale in the sewers. This decision makes sense for the continuity and flow of the film, but what remains confusing is Muschietti’s decision to cut out any semblance of Bev’s agency. In the book’s climax, the Losers Club descends into the drains in active pursuit of Pennywise. Yet in Muschietti’s film, Pennywise captures Bev and drags her into the sewers, forcing the boys to descend as an ad-hoc rescue party. When they reach “It”’s lair, Bev is suspended in mid-air, catatonic, unseeing—a lifeless doll waiting to be rescued. After they pull her down, Ben kisses her to bring her back to consciousness. They ultimately save her from “It”, but they can’t restore the agency that’s been stolen from her.  She goes from the badass, slingshot-wielding warrior to an object made for saving by a (male) hero in one fell swoop. In a larger sense, Beverley’s heroic arc in the novel is reduced to a standard damsel in distress narrative in the film.

The changes to Bev’s character aren’t limited just to this dramatic finale, but shape her role in the entire plot. In the novel, Bev is a fully fleshed-out person who juggles her growing self-awareness with the trauma of an abusive father and the questions of her impending adolescence. She’s young – just reaching the age where sexuality starts to creep in at the edges of consciousness, barely there and nebulous. The same goes for the boys of the Losers Club; for Ben and later Bill, Beverly is someone for whom they feel a confusing mix of emotions, the early stirrings of sexual attraction mixed with genuine affection and love. They all teeter on the edge of adolescence – knowing that a change is coming but not quite knowing what it is, they are equals in this experience. In this respect, Bev’s coming-of-age story rests on her actions and thoughts rather than on her gender. Bev is not positioned as a sexual object, but rather as an individual coming-of-age, just like the boys. That’s not to say the book ignores the fact that she’s a girl – but when King deals with questions of love or budding sexuality, he does so with expansive nuance rather than a stifling, gendered reductivity. (Although, to its credit, the film leaves out the novel’s pre-teen orgy, in which Bev invites each member of the Losers Club to have sex with her after they defeat Pennywise.)

Yet this nuance is thrown out the window in Muschietti’s adaptation. The first sign of trouble was casting 15 year-old Sophia Lillis, a fine actress but one who is noticeably older than Bev’s character in the novel. Interestingly, while Muschietti deemed it necessary to age the female character up, he was content to cast male actors who more or less corresponded to the age of the  boys in the book. In the movie, Bev is not pre-pubescent, nor is she in the early throes of her sexual discovery. Muschietti’s Bev is a fully-fledged teenager who opts for heavy eyeliner and dresses that feminize her tomboy aesthetic. It’s a view that the camera seems to have trouble looking away from, often shooting her as a sexual object. When the Losers Club goes for a swim in a scene roughly halfway through the film, Bev lounges in her bra and underwear, exposed to both the staring eyes of the boys and the audience. Later, she flirts with an adult male pharmacist while the boys steal first aid supplies to heal a wounded Loser, demonstrating that her sexuality is not merely being discovered but owned, used to navigate the world.

Further, while the book chronicles Bev’s struggles with an abusive father who eventually tries to sexually abuse her— a scene in which she escapes by her own actions—the adaptation suggests that Bev has already been the victim of her father’s sexual abuse. Where as King’s Bev was a tough upstart who made a place for herself as an essential, equal member of the Loser’s Club, Muschietti’s Bev is an objectified victim through and through.

So what is it about young girls that makes their stories so unappealing? In the case of Bev, it’s quite clear; her character in the novel lacks sexual currency, and to make her story valuable enough to be included in a blockbuster film, she needed that currency. But in many other situations, it’s not sex that adds value to girls’ stories – it’s a super power, or a deadly curse – anything to make her story worth sharing. Coming-of-age is a milestone reserved for boys, unless there’s sex involved.

Take, for instance, the family-friendly “Matilda”. The film, adapted from the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, tells the story of a young girl raised by unfeeling parents who develops a strong bond with her teacher and ultimately confronts her evil principal Miss Trunchbull. The story is rich and lovely, dealing with themes of abandonment, of the beauty of forming relationships out of love rather than obligation, and of the importance of standing up to those who hurt you. Seems like that would be enough to work with on its own, right?

Nevertheless, Matilda is endowed with the power of telekinesis. She can move things with her mind, which comes in handy when she wants to feed herself Cheerios without using her hands, and when she fights Miss Trunchbull (and wins!). And while her superpower is a lot of fun, the story doesn’t particularly need it – there’s plenty to work with, in both the plot and character development, without giving Matilda a superpower. It’s almost as if without it, the audience would question what the point of telling her story is. Yet the story is compelling, but by only telling stories of “super-girls” and leaving ordinary girls out of feature-length films, we only perpetuate the myth that girls themselves are not interesting in their own right.

We can read the character of Eleven in the Netflix hit show “Stranger Things” in the same light as “Matilda” – the boys get to exist as boys, but the girl must have something extra special about her to be included at all. In the case of Eleven, her agency depends on her superhuman abilities, as though without her powers she would be totally passive. It’s not a far stretch – the character has about three speaking lines in the entire first season.

Yet Eleven’s superpowers have a dark side: she can use her powers to kill bad guys or, at times when she loses control, accidentally hurt those around her. Not only is she a super-girl, but her girlhood is associated with monstrosity – when things get overwhelming, or when she simply feels its necessary, Eleven is a violent killer. It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with endowing girls with extra powers or abilities; the issue is when the only representations of girlhood fall under the categories of sexualized, monstrous, or super-human. On-screen depictions of young girls fall short when their agency depends on a super-power – it’s a limited frame of identity to present about what it’s like to be a young girl. It fails to provide anything to which young girl viewers could actually relate.

There are of course exceptions to this trend, films like “Little Miss Sunshine” (20TK) and the recent “Eighth Grade” that focus on girls’ experiences. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” a young girl named Olive, played by Abigail Breslin, wants to be a beauty queen, but is definitely treated as more of an “ugly duckling.” The film follows Olive’s formation of her self-image in the context of a messy, dysfunctional family road trip to realize her beauty pageant ambitions. Though the film succeeds in portraying a young girl outside of the Hollywood ideal (pre-sexual, chubby, and weird), the story itself is more of a family drama that, while anchored by the narrative of the young girl, is not really driven by her growth.

In this sense, Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” represents a watershed moment for girls in film, an example of how girls are just starting to be considered as a category worthy of representation. The story follows Kayla Day (played by Elsie Fisher) in her last week of middle school as she navigates social anxiety, self-image issues and budding sexuality all in the context of the social-media age. While sexuality is a theme throughout the film, Kayla is not reduced to a sexual object. Even as an outcast, she communicates her story in her own voice, stands up to bullies, grows in her relationship with her father, and ultimately prepares herself for high school. Her story is told in her words and through her eyes. It’s an example of a coming-of-age story that asserts that the experiences of young girls are worth telling. It’s exactly the type of story that we need more of. Girls don’t need superpowers or a dark side; they just need space.

While “Eighth Grade” represents a move in the right direction, it’s important to note that all of the stories mentioned above are told by men, demonstrating how girlhood is rare not only in the narratives themselves but in their production as well. Additionally, all the characters mentioned above are written as white and cisgender, in the stories where it’s relevant, straight. Girls of color, gay, bisexual or transgender girls and girls with disabilities have been left out altogether. Marginalization of girlhood is ubiquitous, but not felt evenly across all communities.

As we continue to advocate for diversity and representation in films, let’s not forget to include girls. Narratives that present girls as sexualized or super-powered beings simplifies their complexity and reduces them to tired, gendered tropes. It also makes for bad movies. Book-Bev is tough as nails, pushing the story forward with her bravery and heroism. Movie-Bev just floats in space, encapsulating the damsel in distress persona. I’m more entertained by the former, and I think many people feel the same. And while “Eighth Grade” is a great start, we need more. I want to see more girls on screen that I can relate to. I also want more girls on screen that people who have completely different experiences than me can relate to.

The moment has arrived for storytellers to invest in girls. Film is a reflection of culture, an art form that people turn to for both escape and affirmation. Hollywood needs to make room for complicated girlhood, for girls who take charge, who are intelligent and creative and brave, and not because of a super power. Isn’t it time to give more time to girls just being girls?

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