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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.

Girls Town poster

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.

Nikki, Angela, Emma, and Patti in Girls Town

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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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

"... riot grrrl and

"... riot grrrl and alternative rock were defined by adult women reconceptualizing predominantly white representations of girlhood for their own purposes. "

I think this is a big part of why riot grrrl didn't appeal to me: by the time I had an idea of what a riot grrrl was, it had been filtered through mainstream media and reduced to, basically, a sartorial statement. Because I wasn't into punk -- the look or the music -- I didn't know how to make the politics work for me. And, thinking as my nineteen-year-old self who still got all her information through traditional media -- it was hard to separate the two.

I love Girls Town. At the time, it really did seem authentic compared to the media's idea of "girl power." (Remember the riot grrrl episode of Roseanne?)

It's really good. I wish

It's really good. I wish Girls Town were morely readily available but it's worth tracking down. I remember seeing it in a girls' studies class and being blown away. I recall some critics trumpeting the supposed grittiness of Larry Clarke's 1995 feature Kids (which, ugh, seriously, I hate that movie) and I think this movie is far more interesting in its artlessness. The screening also prompted an interesting discussion about whether or not representing girl violence is positive or negative.

I'm really glad you brought in traditional media's role in prioritizing, framing, and circulating information, kperfetto. I came of age in the second half of the 90s in a rural Houston suburb and learned about riot grrrl through mediated channels like Spin's Girl Issue and Roseanne (do I ever remember that episode--as awkward and ham-fisted as that scene is, it was the first time I ever heard Bikini Kill, so I still treasure it). I started listening to college radio during high school and learned about Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre, so I knew of riot grrrl. But it wasn't really until I went of college that I got into riot grrrl. I either didn't have access to it or didn't know where to look/listen for it.

I also appreciate you bringing up disliking the genres riot grrrl was associated with as well. I co-teach music history workshops for Girls Rock Camp Austin (a chapter of an organization of course heavily indebted to riot grrrl's legacy). Kristen and I try to be as inclusive of as many genres as possible particularly because some girls don't relate to riot grrrl. As Janet Jackson was one of our first musical idols, we certainly don't want to preach rockism and put female contributions in a hierachy where riot grrrl is on top. As a kid who grew up listening to a lot more hip hop and R&B than punk, Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." meant a great deal more to me. I love how it's used in this movie.

Alyx Vesey

Yes!

I, too, came of age in the later half of the 90s and remember first being introduced to riot grrrl and Bikini Kill through that problematic Spin issue. I've been meaning to write about that issue's importance to me in the fall of 1997, when I was going on fourteen, after seeing it on Tavi's website. I thought to myself, "Wow. I read that issue when I was Tavi's age and remember feeling like I was completely missing out on 'girl culture' for being too young or too far 'upstate' in New York, so I wonder how she must feel having just been born when that issue came out."

Admittedly, I hold a place for that issue (I recently found it on eBay and placed it next to my Veruca Salt guitar book 'cause, you know, the ladies of Veruca Salt were who my girlfriends and I actually listened to at the time) for introducing me to music I still listen to and brands of feminism that helped me survive all the things that were going on in my life (eating disorder, cutting, puberty changes, shame for my sexuality) because I felt like there was a world out there waiting for me to get old enough.

But then I see the problem right there: how things today still reek of the same ageism that left out a lot of the potential in that Spin issue, or Sassy, or even Girls Town. One example of this is the "It Gets Better" Project, something that recently turned me off to this blog after seeing the warm reception to it from a post when I consider it to be such an affront to the work I try to do within a queer, feminist, anti-oppressive framework. Adults continuing to try and get down to the "level" of being a teen is kind of a problem! I understand that some of us hold paying jobs of writing this shit for the youth, but when we're constantly predicting the impact it is all going to have or does have, we're committing an "older sibling" form of appropriation. ("I know how you feel, but if you listen to this or read this or watch this, you'll get through it. I promise! You'll even thank me later.") I mean, isn't that what folks thought was so "progressive" about Sassy?

Of course, to reiterate something once expressed over at 90swoman, there are enough lists and books over how fucking important Bob Dylan was that one magazine drawing attention to "girl culture" isn't the worst thing out there, if not a somewhat radical departure from what young consumers had access to even within that cultural trend at the time. (And just to point things back at myself: Would I be commenting on this post today if not for that Spin issue back then?)

It's just about getting better. Not as Dan Savage "promises" with his videos, but at how we decide to talk about the change that's going on or could potentially be happening; and who is actually being addressed and who is, once again, being forgotten, stereotyped, tokenized or killed off.

(Also: What are the thoughts and critiques on Lili Taylor's performance as a woman of color?)

Wow, love these comments

Wow, love these comments Adrian. I never thought about linking ageism to artifacts of 90s feminism and the It Gets Better but I'm really intrigued by the connections you make here. Thanks so much for sharing.

As for Lili Taylor, I haven't read any criticism that specifically targets her performance as racial drag. Indeed, it is just my interpretation that it's racial drag, though I remember this issue came up after we watched this movie in my girls' studies class. This could be due, in part, to Patti's racial ambiguity. While she adopts the dress and some of the vocal mannerisms associated with cholas (or perhaps gangsta rap, which was still fairly popular before Tupac's murder later that year and Biggie's the following spring), her racial/ethnic identity is not commented upon. She is, however, the only girl in the group with a surname. It's Pucci, which is Italian.

Alyx Vesey

Weirdly enough, while I have

Weirdly enough, while I have never seen Girls Town, I have read the screenplay. It was in the Fall 1996 issue of Scenario magazine, which runs screenplays of movies, both mainstream and less so (weirdly, this issue also had the screenplay of Bound, which I thought sounded pretty silly, but would technically pass the Bechdel test). I remember really liking it, though I'd forgotten the title until now, and reading that the fight scene between the girls and Nikki's attacker was filmed ad lib, and that the elderly woman crying out, "Boys! Stop that!" (or something to that effect) was not planned; she was a bystander who mistook the attack for a real one. I'll have to see the film, now that I have the title. Thanks for jogging my memory!

Thanks for sharing, Owl.

Thanks for sharing, Owl. That's really interesting--your story about reading the script to a movie you haven't seen reminds me of reading about bands like the ones associated with riot grrrl before I heard them. It's strange form of reception that lets you imagine what the text might be like.

Thanks for also sharing Scenario Magazine. Reading the script clues you in to all kinds of production realities and happy accidents like the one you recounted above. I've never heard of it before. I wonder how many other publications (past or present, in print or on-line) run screenplays and the legal ramifications of doing so. What's its history?

As for Bound, it would technically pass but I'm not sure I could add anything new to the discussion there. I do intend to include selections that foreground LGBT characters in the future though.

Alyx Vesey

Scenario

I don't know much about the magazine, and there isn't much information about it online, which leads me to the possibility that it is no longer being published. My mother subscribed to it for a while when I was younger, which led to me reading a lot of R rated screenplays between the ages of 10 and 13 (I mainly remember The Full Monty and American Psycho). They ran about four screenplays per issue, and published four issues per year. As far as I know, the publications were all legal, and often included interviews with the directors/producers. I do recall, however, that occasionally the final film would differ slightly from the screenplay published, which may have been the result of a legal stipulation.

It was really interesting to see the clips you posted, and how the compared with the version I had imagined on reading the screenplay. Also, when I first read it, I didn't know who Lili Taylor was!

It's been on cable TV

I think the last channel I saw it on was IFC ... quite awhile ago. This film is brilliant in so many ways I indeed wish it were more widely available.

90s bechdel cinema

I've been following your great writing here about women in cinema and need to pipe in as one of the producers of one of those 90s indie (queer) grrl films, in my case "The Watermelon Woman" (Cheryl Dunye, 1996). I actually blogged ("Bechdel's Bechdel (1997): ) about how Bechdel included our film in her strip, Dykes to Watch out For, in the 1990s (as well as "All Over Me," mentioned in your post). I suggested that 90s lesbian cinema in particular comes with an internal Bechdel test as its motivation, heart, and raison d'etre and may need another test to categorize how it may or may not be good for women.