After recently appearing both on Netflix and Sky Movies, I finally decided to indulge in Marielle Heller’s exploration of sexual awakening in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. 15-year-old Minnie (British actress Bel Powley), an aspiring cartoonist besotted with the prospect of losing her virginity and discovering the pleasures of sex, begins an inappropriate relationship with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Attempting to understand the meaning of love, whilst concealing the relationship from her family, Minnie is forced into quickly maturing beyond her teenage years.
As beautiful illustrations from the protagonist’s sketchbooks accompany the real-life action on screen, the 1970s costume design and set pieces become saturated with vivid projections of teenage fantasy and create a delight for the eyes. But there’s something far more important hidden beneath the colourful layers of Heller’s graphic novel adaptation. Despite the undeniable illegality of Monroe and Minnie’s relationship and the abuse of power between adult and child, several important parts of the film confront female sexual experience and pleasure through rarely-depicted projections of the naked body and bodily functions. By presenting the workings of the female anatomy, Heller juxtaposes stereotypical, romanticised representations of sex in teen-orientated dramas.
For example, a refreshing perspective on female virginity is portrayed through Minnie’s confrontation of bodily secretions; inspecting the vaginal blood on her fingers after her first sexual encounter with Monroe. Many teen movies present air-brushed versions of sex, glamorising character’s experiences without depicting the realities of the act. Minnie’s inspection of the blood from the breakage of the hymen showcases on-screen a common, natural occurrence of female sex. Yet, her immediate disinterest simultaneously serves to reflect how female blood is something to neither be disgusted nor concerned by. It simply happens and that is all. Another scene depicts Minnie guiding her own sexual pleasure with a love interest from school by reversing the position and taking control, climaxing through her own physical movements whilst the boy looks helpless. Instead of the male character holding a dominant position, both literally and figuratively, Minnie’s sexual pleasure belongs entirely to herself; presented through her audible moans. Other scenes present Minnie prodding and inspecting her naked torso in front of her bedroom mirror, the camera angles highlighting her bemusement and intrigue at her own shape. The discovery of her pubescent breasts and her questioning of the development of her body provide a multi-dimensional perspective on teenage puberty, rejecting unnatural standards of female representation.
Heller’s inclusion of these fleeting scenes throughout present female sexuality in vastly juxtaposing ways to the norm, intensified by Minnie’s crude, matter-of-fact narration. Throughout the film, she speaks into a cassette recorder to document her post-virginal life, commenting on her developing sexual experiences. Bluntly explaining the details between herself and Monroe’s acts, and her feelings towards the peculiar situation, viewers remain firmly situated within the perspective of the teenager. Heller’s portrayal of female sexual pleasure and the entwined complications of emotion and attachment create a highly intelligent, moving and refreshing film.