Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman, and Chelsea Swain in The Virgin Suicides. Courtesy Criterion Collection.

What White Girl Coming-of-Age Movies Don't Do For a Black Girl

It's almost as if characters like Lady Bird and Juno were created to prepare me for a life of subordination to the trials, yearnings, and humanities of white women.

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Jun 6 2018, 4:06pm

Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman, and Chelsea Swain in The Virgin Suicides. Courtesy Criterion Collection.

Female coming-of-age films are the pinnacle of teenage sanctuary for so many. But they’re more comforting to some than others.

Growing up as a middle class Black woman in blisteringly white Missouri suburbs, the white girl-centered genre’s generally saccharine endings were not so much relatable to me as they were aspirational and a portal away from the alienating anti-Black environment in which I lived. In a way, they offered me more loneliness than relief, because all I was able to consume were the hopes and dreams and experiences of young white women.

Most recently, I was reminded of that adolescent isolation while watching Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which also works as a helpful example of the trappings of the genre.

As most people know at this point, Lady Bird is an objectively charming 2017 coming-of-age dramedy about Lady Bird McPherson, a white teenage girl whose aspirations are greater than her constraining working class Sacramento life. She dreams of a life beyond her wrong-side-of-the-tracks home, finding solace in cool classmates and promptly abandoning her best friend. The film’s tensions, of course, are familiar ones: the tumultuous mother-daughter relationship with a quietly suffering and empathetic father, big city dreams, the contemptible popular teenagers leading the pure-hearted protagonist astray, a religious boyfriend eventually revealed to be gay (á la Saved!). Saoirse Ronan plays the titular character in a way that’s layered but still as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as you’d hope and expect; Laurie Metcalf embodies the deeply recognizable troubled maternal role beautifully; and Timothée Chalamet portrays the broody, doe-eyed pseudo-intellectual we unfortunately continue to date well after high school to a painful tee. It is a familiar assortment of stock-like characters that fit seamlessly together; and so the film, after being met with near universal acclaim, immediately became fodder for the 2017 awards season.

Lady Bird was sweet. A filmmaker acquaintance described it to me as “a filmmaker’s movie” with “impeccable craft” in which “every scene is executed for maximum effect.” I can easily concede to his points. Still, though, I felt the movie was formulaic, predictable, and boring; it was something I had both never seen before and somehow also seen dozens of times.

That can largely be attributed to the film’s genre: the female coming-of-age story (which I’m defining quite loosely) in which the protagonist in question is always presumed to be and must necessarily be white. It exists as a more progressive foil to the white male coming-of-age genre (inasmuch as the pedestaling of stock character white womanhood is intended to be some kind of relief to the ubiquity of white manhood). And almost as a rule, there can’t be any major plot-twists or overly surprising character developments; it must be entirely ordinary, and thus just like the others.

Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird (2017). Courtesy A24.

Molly Ringwald is the genre’s superstar, with her iconic performances in Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986). And then there are the gritty cautionary titles like Thirteen (2003) and White Girl (2016). There are sweetly sentimental movies with characters overcoming adversities like Juno (2007) and Edge of Seventeen (2016). There are feel-good friend-centered movies like Now and Then (1995), Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), and Crossroads (2002). There are movies around family and discovery like What a Girl Wants (2003) and the first Princess Diaries (2001). Of course, there are some notable exceptions to the genre's aforementioned typology: Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), Todd Solondz’ Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), to name a few.

In general, though, these films about white female adolescence and teenhood revolve around particular experiences of and meditations on dissatisfaction and boredom, using nostalgia as their primary pull. And yet for me, their projections of high school misery and endless summers only served as a reminder that Black girls are never afforded the kind of ordinariness that would make them relatable to white audiences.

I watched these coming-of-age stories because I similarly yearned for my own escape from the stifling whiteness of suburbia. But because I was Black, none of these stories were really for me—not the blockbuster features, and not the independent manic-pixie-dream-girl ones, either. If I found myself in those films at all, I got to see myself as a filler or stock character or foil to the protagonist—a bully, a competitor, a neighbor, a sidekick, an aloof pretty girl, an adopted sibling, a kindly counselor or teacher or classmate (all of which were Lady Bird’s token Black characters, but only her counselor and theater teacher had any scripted dialogue), service worker, a passing character on the street. It was almost as if the characters were created to prepare me for a life of subordination to the narratives and life stories and yearnings and desires and humanities of white women.

Michael Cera and Ellen Page in Juno (2007). Courtesy Fox Searchlight.

Now, looking back, it feels like there’s something more to this genre’s fascination with and insistence on the suburban environment as a setting, beyond being an apt background for these stories about boredom. And I think its demystification could help explain this political moment.

In November 2017, the New York Times ran a shockingly even-toned—He’s just like you and I!—profile of Tony Hovater, a Nazi sympathizer and active member of the white nationalist group the Traditional Workers Party, that included extensive details about his quaint suburban lifestyle. And following so many incidents of racial or mass shooting violence—from the now prototypical Columbine shooting in 1999 to the November 2017 shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas—residents pour out of the cracks like ants to express their disbelief that the quiet, polite neighbor boy could do something so dreadful. Following the February showing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, one student said: “You hear about this all the time, but you never expect it to happen right here in your neighborhood. Everybody knows around here is a safe place and you don’t expect this to happen here.” At a time when white American racism and violence is unavoidably explicit, it seems that the suburbia in which so many of these coming-of-age stories take place has become the last bastion of white innocence.

It’s within and through this space that white picket fence-owning believers of the good ole American Dream hold out hope despite job loss, home foreclosures, and bankrupting medical debt—the horsemen of late capitalism—threatening to yank the rug from under their feet. But the fact that this particularly raced and classed setting has come to characterize this kind of quintessential working-class Americana makes for predictable (and almost propagandistic) cinematic worlds and canned plot lines. Within this racial imaginary, there are only so many variations of first loves and heartbreaks, tragedies, and familial dramas that can still remain familiar to white audiences.

And because these white suburbs are seemingly uncontoured by the segregatory social structures that created them, they allow for a sense of racial absolution in an industry increasingly being rightfully pressured to better its race and gender politics—in a culture war world where “confronting white privilege” is the virtue-signaling social justice politic du jour. Non-white people do not exist or live equally meaningful lives in suburbia, so it would simply be unrealistic to portray anything else. Through this logic, the suburbs become a proverbial safe space for the white imaginary, in which disclaimers of literary adaptations or autobiographies or true stories offer license to only humanize whiteness.

The Virgin Suicides (2000). Courtesy Criterion Collection.

Perhaps the almost infinitesimal variation of suburban stories might be more interesting if they served a purpose beyond bland storytelling for the sake of it—such as treating whiteness with some self-awareness rather than simply perpetuating status quo notions of race.

Morgan Jerkins’ essay “Reading Bored White Girls” describes suburban ennui as a kind of map for understanding gendered white psyches, first through analyzing Emma Cline’s 2016 The Girls (about a Manson family-resembling cult) and then Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993-cum-1999 Sofia Coppola directed cult classic, The Virgin Suicides. In the case of the latter, both the novel and the film are narrated from the perspective of neighborhood boys who are fascinated by the alluring Lisbon sisters, whose collective air of mystery is heightened after the youngest sister, Cecilia, kills herself, and the girls are isolated by their fearful parents.

Jerkins reminds us that the book/film’s Grosse Point setting is one of the richest suburbs in Detroit, and that “in the Detroit metropolitan area, more than half of white families, poor and rich alike, live in suburbs, whereas among blacks, only a tenth of families, even those who were wealthy, did.” It is racial discrimination that created the idyllic utopia that eventually drives these girls to their ruin, that whiteness’ “privilege and…pre-determined order is what leads them to self-destruction.” Her reading makes clear how the film could offer an interesting and rarely seized opportunity for white writers and filmmakers alike to use an all-white roster of characters as a backdrop for a thorough (and useful) psychological interrogation of whiteness.

What are the ethics and rationale (beyond profit) of regurgitating the same plot devices, and perpetuating the same racial ideas and dynamics, over and over and over again?

Perhaps the film would have been more interesting if, for example, we understood the parental paranoia that compelled the shroud of overprotection cast over the girls as at least being partially rooted in white anxieties. These anxieties are alluded to in unobvious ways, like Mrs. Scheer’s speculation that Cecilia wasn’t really trying to kill herself, she simply wanted to get out of the house and escape the confines of her beautiful, suffocating suburban prison. But that could never be explicitly revealed, because, ironically, the all-whiteness that makes the movie ripe for self-confrontation is the same characteristic that allows for the suspension of racial-structural reality that makes these movies appealing to audiences in the first place.

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Despite the empirical reality that “diverse” casts enjoy larger audiences and greater box office success (most recently demonstrated by the overwhelming global success of Black Panther), the lily-white female coming-of-age genre does not seem to be dwindling in popularity. This year alone has produced/will produce The Year of Spectacular Men, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (the genre’s attempt to be inclusive of the LGBTQ community with this story of a young queer (white) girl who is sent to conversion therapy), Never Goin’ Back (a crude buddy movie typically not featuring female protagonists), and Eighth Grade.

Art is not necessarily obligated to provide or attempt to provide all of the answers to the world’s social ills with every articulation. But it's still worth asking: What are the ethics and rationale (beyond profit) of regurgitating the same plot devices, and perpetuating the same racial ideas and dynamics, over and over and over again? Art reflects life, and as long as white people are terrified of acknowledging racial inequalities, white movie characters will be, too.