In an article appropriately entitled “In Defence of Tumblr Feminism” published on Dazed Digital, Ione Gamble, Editor-in-Chief of the very aesthetic Polyester Zine, writes, “It seems like we’re all suffering from feminism fatigue…With the newest wave and its aesthetic affiliations defined by teenage girls from the comfort of their bedrooms, what initially seemed a progressive, forward thinking approach to femininity is now considered by many as passé.” Gamble comes to the defense of this new wave “championed by artists such as Arvida Byström, Petra Collins, Molly Soda and Grace Miceli,” using the argument that an embracing of vulnerability and femininity in order to “normalise the teen girl experience,” is politically and personally powerful.
This argument is, in many ways, sound. Vulnerability is powerful; the vehement political rejection of femininity by many past feminists has done harm that is finally coming to light. But a problem arises with Gamble’s mention of the artists “championing” the movement of teen girl aesthetics—each of these artists is even older than I (a woman unfortunately well out of her teens) am. This is not to say that these women did not get their start prior to midnight of their twentieth birthdays, but it is worth examining what it means when adult women champion a young girl’s aesthetic.
Gamble describes this aesthetic as “a saccharine aesthetic more commonly co-opted by Claire’s Accessories enthusiasts and pre-adolescent teen girls…lolita-style frills, My Little Pony emblems and lots of glitter.” Feminist artists are defining their work through fresh faces and pastel washes; while few are using actual pre-adolescents, they are performing pre-adolescence.
Spoiler alert! Watch Generation Girl here first!
It is into this complicated artistic and political environment that Generation Girl, a short film written by Fiona Gillman and directed by Anna Blum, a Vassar ’17 film major, during her time abroad at the Sydney Film School, is released. The short features a clean color scheme, a somewhat melancholic soundtrack, and a strange stilted dialogue between two beautiful actresses as they drink “alcohol from the alcohol store,” discuss going to the mall without supervision, and vie for both the attention of Brad, a blonde heart surgeon, and the role of the Alpha Girl in the film. The sum of the short’s parts is a commentary on the way in which social roles and expectations manifest in women through lessons in girlhood.
The result of this commentary is striking. Generation Girl features a young girl, who acts as both a product of her environment and a creator of the scene we see in the short. As she plays with her Generation Girl brand dolls, she speaks through them, putting on a production of what it means to be a young woman using phrases she has heard from any number of sources. Blum’s direction here is crucial; the delivery of the actresses’ lines emphasize that they are being “regurgitated,” in Blum’s words. This was not the original vision of the writer, she also reports. “[Gillman’s] vision was more like a soap opera,” Blum says. “She pitched it with the genre of ‘melodrama.’”
Blum was not the only director to interpret Gillman’s script, however, and it is in comparison to this other Generation Girl directed by Sydney Film School student Megan Baker, that I feel the strength of Blum’s version really shows. Of seeing the other film after completion, Blum states that it was weird to hear the lines in such a different context. “All the people said hers was funnier,” she admits. “I think it played well to the Australian sense of humor.” In contrast, Blum’s version takes on a very American interpretation of the subject matter of female relations and body image. “Mine plays well especially to an American audience, where we know [of] this time when you become aware of this relationship between friends and women. It makes you look at yourself,” she says.
And it’s true. Baker’s version is funny, whereas Blum’s is more profound. In Baker’s, the young women seem to have an agenda. There is an artificiality to their voices, but it is the trained artificiality of a woman with an ulterior motive, rather than that of a young girl who doesn’t fully understand the words she says. It is in little moments that this is especially seen: when Whitney takes off her jacket or licks frosting off her finger, Baker overemphasizes an explicit sexuality behind these actions. Blum, on the other hand, goes for an action that is sexual without sexual intent; the young girl understands there is something enticing about these actions, but does not know exactly how to perform that enticement.
It is this question of performance that really distinguishes the two versions of Generation Girl, and in doing so, provides a metric for judging artwork about girlhood. While Baker’s brighter, more sarcastic version of the script is successful in what it aims to do—it is funny!—the question remains of whether its aims fit the script. Baker does deliver the “melodrama” Gillman had envisioned, and Blum does admit some nervousness at claiming the authority to change the tone and vision of the original script. But, says Blum, “I was trying to stay true to the idea that this girl is someone distinctly young, innocent yet still receiving.”
What Baker is aiming for, then, is performance, while Blum aims for regurgitation. With much of our discussion of gender orbiting around the idea of performativity, it is not surprising that Baker, like many of the woman artists I began this discussion with, aims for performance. But what is correct for ideas of adult femininity fall short when applied to the framework of girlhood. Whereas women perform identity, girls are socialized into a series lessons which they then repeat until they become either naturalized, or the girls, upon growing up, have the agency to reject them.
This question of agency is a tough one in works about girlhood, especially when made by young women who were formerly girls. Part of the toughness, articulated Blum, is that by the time girls have the language to discuss what they are constantly seeing and internalizing, it is often already internalized. This is why Blum’s ending to Generation Girl differs from Baker’s, which follows Gillman’s original script and features a much less subtle performance of the young girl’s budding body image issues. Blum was able to tell her young actor only to “spit out her food like it tasted bad,” rather than having to explain the heavier implications of the actions, though, she admits, that she does not know how much the young girl knew.
Blum’s version of Generation Girl has been accepted into three film festivals as of yet: the Ivy Film Festival at Brown University, the Harvard University Film Festival, and the Machetanz Arts Festival in Alaska. Blum is still waiting to hear back from more.
Anna Blum is a junior film major, deeply interested in studying and telling stories about the profound and difficult experience of personhood. She aims to give a voice to sensitivity, insecurity and emotionality through filmmaking, exploring and celebrating their importance where she feels they have often been trivialized. Other passions include The Voice, unitards and chicken piccata.