Bechdel Test Canon: Girls Town
I'll hazard that many of Bitch's core readership grew up during the 1990s, potentially influenced by the mainstream success of alternative rock. Based on the recent success of Sara Marcus' Girls to the Front: The True Story of Riot Grrrl Revolution and Marisa Meltzer's Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, as well as the possible relaunch of Sassy Magazine, it's clear that the merging of punk's DIY ethos and radical gender and sexual politics that helped define mainstream feminism in the first half of the decade still resonate for many feminists.
Jim McKay's 1996 feature Girls Town came out at an interesting time. It was released a few years after riot grrrl was co-opted by the mainstream and Sassy folded, but a year before Spin Magazine attempted to capitalize on a cultural moment with their problematic Girl Issue and Alex Sichel's coming-of-age drama All Over Me received a limited theatrical release. It made its stateside cinematic debut two days before Annette Haywood-Carter's Foxfire, an adaptation of Joyce Carrol Oates' novel that also focused on a teenage girl gang, which helped launch Angelina Jolie's career, attempted to do the same for Calvin Klein model Jenny Shimizu, and represented a liminal period for former child actress and Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis. While Foxfire is better-known, I'd argue that Girls Town evinces more progressive gender and racial politics, despite Lili Taylor's chola drag.
The quartet at the center of Girls Town is Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis), Emma (Anna Grace), Angela (Bruklin Harris), and Patti (Taylor). The quartet are seniors in an urban high school, who establish themselves as characters by reading journal entries aloud in class. Nikki and Emma are preparing their college applications and interning at a magazine. Emma also volunteers at a women's shelter and wants to be a journalist. College is in Angela's future, though poetry, Audre Lorde, basketball, and hip hop are more present in her mind. Patti is a mother to infant daughter Tomy. She has been held back a few times and is hoping to graduate and be a photographer, though demonstrates skill as a mechanic. In a different movie, Patti would be a bad influence. Here, she is accepted as a part of the group, despite conflicts about academic performance and the responsibilities of motherhood.
The movie is concerned with Nikki, who intends to pursue a dual degree in African American studies and creative writing at Princeton, despite her father's wishes that she major in business. She kills herself roughly 15 minutes into the movie, well before the scene above. The chilling opening sequence clues us into why. As she walks down a city street, cacophonous background music and sirens are gradually drowned out by a man's grunting and her screaming. She was raped by a writer at the magazine. Reading this in her suicide note galvanizes the girls. Emma intimates that she was recently assaulted by a guy she met at a party, and then challenges the abuse Patti incurs from her child's father.
Enraged but disenfranchised by their marginalized status as female minors, they engage in politicized deliquent behavior. They spray-paint the word "rapist" on the car of Emma's abuser. They turn the girls' bathroom into a wall of shame for other rapists who attend their school, influencing other girls to participate. Their violent opposition culminates in an encounter with Nikki's attacker, who they literally kick to the curb in front of the magazine's office. While these actions prompt some of their female classmates to come to the defense of the perpetrators, they gain one ally named Marlys (Asia Minor).
The damage they do is ultimately minor in a movie where seemingly nothing happens. However, their actions are transformative to the girls' perspectives on heterosexual relationships and gender equity. Emma breaks up with her boyfriend Dylan (Guilermo Díaz) after he refuses to support her. Angela has meaningful exchanges with platonic friend Cam (Nathaniel Freeman) while shooting hoops. Patti stands up against her abuser and gets a crude young man (Michael Imperioli) to apologize for lewd behavior, though his actions are met with incredulity from her friends. Angela has a touching conversation with her mother (Stephanie Berry), wherein she tells her daughter that she's concerned about her recent behavior but understands that she's processing the loss of her friend.
Tempered with conversations about abortion and social injustice are the girls' casual observations about trains and Beverly Hills 90210. The three leads deliver these lines, which they co-wrote with McKay and Denise Caruso, with the humorous candor of a group of girlfriends who have spent years in each other's company.
It is also important to criticize the actresses' contributions. In her essay "Just A Girl?: Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth," Gayle Wald notes that riot grrrl and alternative rock were defined by adult women reconceptualizing predominantly white representations of girlhood for their own purposes. As was often a criticism waged against riot grrrl, adult women are portraying girl characters and representing their concerns rather than helping provide space for girl media producers to participate. This is also reflected in the movie's soundtrack, which weaves Guru's original music with selections from Luscious Jackson and Queen Latifah. Though something of a departure from the punk and riot grrrl offerings that dominate Foxfire and All Over Me, Girls Town's soundtrack reinforces its girl-centered themes, as Mary Celeste Kearney notes in her essay "Girlfriends and Girl Power: Female Adolescence in Contemporary U.S. Cinema." None of these texts were created by girls.
Yet I remain hopeful for future generations of girl media producers. I await whatever version of Sassy Tavi Gevinson brings to the market. I celebrate the work of Austin filmmaker Emily Hagins and look forward to following the careers of girls currently involved in programs like Reel Grrls. As a volunteer at Girls Rock Camp Austin, I'm excited about a new generation of girl musicians. I hope that movies like Girls Town suggest cultural changes girls put in place that give them the authority to raise their voices and demand respect by any means necessary.
Thanks to my friend, colleague, and fellow University of Texas at Austin graduate Kristen Lambert. She wrote her master's thesis Revenge, Girl Style: Violent Forms of Girl Empowerment in Contemporary U.S. Cinema, on filmic representations and sociological surveys of girl aggression. Her third chapter considered Girls Town and Foxfire in tandem, and heavily influenced this piece.
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