- Pictures of Girlhood: Modern Female Adolescence on Film
Sarah Hentges' Pictures of Girlhood: Modern Female Adolescence on Film begins with an ambitious goal: not only to review motion pictures targeted at teenage girls, but to actually change the films. By documenting and exploring the ways in which girls' films alternately empower and diminish their protagonists, she directs attention to the many adolescent experiences that are not represented in mainstream titles, and hopes to pave the way for movies that offer more unconventional, and more complex, portrayals of girlhood.
Pictures of Girlhood challenges the reader to critically ponder teenage movies comprehensively and the options they present to adolescent girls. Where, Hentges asks, are young women of color in mainstream films? Where are those from poor backgrounds? Where are those who are questioning their sexuality? And, most importantly, what does it mean to be empowered? Hentges argues that conventional "girl-power" movies allow for the narrowest definition of success—a rock star, a princess, and a prom queen—and only within the context of a straight, white, socioeconomically privileged society. Even heroines who triumph within this narrow framework are still not, by Hentges' definition, "empowered."
Though Girlhood evokes meaningful questions about female empowerment in the cinema, many of the independent films Hentges presents as alternatives to mainstream Hollywood movies are not, by her standards, empowering. Instead, Hentges believes that these films are noteworthy for offering a more nuanced view of what it means to come of age, even if their protagonists are not able to do this successfully themselves. Because the real possibility of failure exists for the heroines of independent films—in mainstream "coming of age" films, a triumphant ending is all but guaranteed —these movies are able to show a broader range of the challenges that face adolescent girls.
Teen movies set in upper-middle-class suburbia, like 10 Things I Hate About You, blithely dismiss pregnancy as something that only happens to "fifteen-year-old crack whores," but independent films like Just Another Girl on the IRT and Belly Fruit confront this issue, acknowledging that smart, ambitious teens sometimes make choices that lead to pregnancy. Hentges postulates that because independent photodramas deal with marginalized characters, the films have been marginalized themselves by the media; by exposing the reader to smaller-budget films, she helps to create a space in which these alternative titles can jockey alongside their Hollywood counterparts for critical attention.
Though Pictures of Girlhood tries to cover an extraordinary amount of territory, Hentges deliberately leaves the door open for future scholarship. For example, the tendency of several movies to present "the father-daughter relationship as a kind of model for the daughter-lover relationship . . . is disturbing and under theorized" (72), but, perhaps recognizing that Pictures of Girlhood is already burgeoning in scope, does not continue further along this track. Nor does Hentges thoroughly examine the connection between adolescents' consumer power and the film industry—whether adolescent girls are able to influence what the film industry produces by the movies they choose to watch (and pay for).
Sarah Hentges' debut work is an extensive examination of "coming of age" films portraying teenage girls, and establishes space for further research in the field. Its greatest strength lies in the questions it generates to its readers: moviegoers who could previously relax in the fairy-tale fun of a "family" film such as The Princess Diaries will likely find themselves thinking critically about the message sent to adolescent girls. It is unlikely that Pictures of Girlhood will change the motion picture industry overnight, but it may alter our perception of teen films.