By Angelica Chong, a Highlighter staff columnist
This is the first installment of Salt & Pepper, a new fortnightly column where I blab about two pieces of media that I feel go together well—like PB & J, Bert & Ernie, and salt & pepper. There is no method to the madness, just what my gut tells me. Today I will be writing about The Diary of a Teenage Girl, directed by Marielle Heller, 2015, and The Rehearsal, written by Eleanor Catton, 2008.
At first glance, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and The Rehearsal are easy comparisons. The former follows the sexual awakening of an artistically precocious 15-year-old Minnie in 1970’s San Francisco when she begins an affair with Monroe, her mother’s boyfriend; the latter depicts the lives of a host of young female students in the aftermath of a local student-teacher affair. Both works are about burgeoning female sexuality; both works, in their own way, are interested in the telling of a specifically female bildungsroman.
However, while Diary is, at the end of the day, an emotionally rewarding and cathartic story of one girl’s self-actualization, The Rehearsal is more of a slippery beast, at once lyrical and caustically penned to evoke the kind of meanness only a sharp-tongued teenage girl can spit forth. At the end of Diary, Minnie triumphantly declares, “I’m a fucking woman and this is my life.” At the end of The Rehearsal, the cycle of female jealousy and petty gossip comes around yet again. Both stories deal with the very real truths of what it means to be a teenage girl, but while Diary celebrates the individual girl’s path to adulthood, The Rehearsal focuses on how the internal politics of girl cliques are affected when one of their own transcends girlhood to become a woman.
In Diary, Minnie’s story is narrated through her internal monologue: we hear her every thought and the camera captures her every expression and move. Sometimes, the comic book creations she sketches come to life and populate the film’s universe, making it clear that this is Minnie’s world; the film is about her personal growth and individual agency. However, even though she is her own person with her own idiosyncrasies and fears, Minnie also represents a generation of girls who are finding it in themselves to wield not just female sexual agency, but personhood. Her affair with Monroe is not typical, but the whirlwind of emotions she goes through—confusion, shame, excitement, fear, and longing—are familiar to any teenage girl who’s thought about things she’s always been told not to think about. At one point in the film, she thinks to herself, “I just want to be touched. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with Minnie; young girls all over the world have thought these thoughts—just never aloud, until now.
Conversely, The Rehearsal is not centered on any individual; it tells the story of a group of girls, but only from the sidelines—the writing is sharply observant and incisive, but never does it let the reader get close to the characters. Instead, more attention is paid to female group dynamics: there are the young saxophone students of an unnamed woman who regale her with gossip of the affair between Victoria and Mr. Saladin, her music teacher; and the older pack of these students’ mothers, who fall over themselves seeking praise of their daughters from the saxophone teacher. While Diary is suffused with warmth, The Rehearsal is an exercise in sly writing. In order to reveal how artificially constructed these characters are, their speech is highly stylized to the point of radical honesty—at one point, the saxophone teacher says to a prospective student’s mother that “If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realizes that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me.”
The saxophone teacher speaks bluntly the truth which all young girls are accustomed to hearing using euphemisms. Indeed, even as the girls in school whisper about Victoria and shame her for blatantly flaunting her sexuality by daring to have an affair (with a teacher!), they all want to be her. Why not me? they all think. Thus The Rehearsal deftly navigates the contradictory inner workings of a female clique, where transgression is at once outwardly deplored across the board, yet also internally, and secretly longed for. Victoria has transcended the ‘rehearsal’ stage of life; she has now become an adult, a new creature that all the other girls simultaneously resent and aspire to be.
At the end of the day, there is no dichotomy between these two female coming-of-age stories. Female sexuality, something on which women have traditionally been silenced, plays a key role in both stories. One story is uplifting and affirming; the other is disarmingly and scathingly honest—both, in their own way, tell the truth of how girls really grow up.