Author of The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, Phoebe Gloeckner is showing teens what it’s like to come of age. Honestly.
The main issue I had while watching The Diary of a Teenage Girl was that I was the only teenage girl watching it. It’s a predicament that anyone who’s even seen the poster let alone the trailers is confronted with. Rated 18, Minnie Goetze our admirable, hormone fuelled, emotion bleeding heroine, played by Bel Powley, would have to wait three years to see herself on screen, if she wasn’t fictional, that is. So why make a film about a 15-year-old girl’s experiences if 15-year-old girls, and boys, aren’t allowed to see it? That’s an argument to have with the problematic suits in charge of rating films. Underagers, if you want to see it in the cinema and can pass for a 19-year-old blonde, I’ll lend you my provisional driving license.
Originally a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, Diary is a coming of age story that’s honest to its core. It helps that the story comes from truth, based entirely on Gloeckner’s own adolescence, but its uncensored nature is so raw and so rare that it had me cringing and gave me second-hand embarrassment within the first ten minutes. Minnie stands unaware of the fragility of her position as a teenage girl on the brink of looming adulthood and throws herself into everything with the whole of her loving heart. After sleeping with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) you’re given Minnie’s formative moments, condensed into two hours.
I’m here under-18s, at least one year your senior, to share a handful of the lessons that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is trying to teach you. You need this in your adolescent armoury now, to comfort you while it’s happening, not when it’s all a hungover memory you’re trying to bury as your twenties tick towards you with every confused and embarrassed heartbeat. The most important teachings Diary has to offer? Don’t confuse sex with love. You will probably love someone too passionately but that’s ok. Don’t believe it when people on drugs tell you they love you. If you pimp yourself out, you probably won’t feel great about it in the morning. It’s ok to want to be wanted. At some point, you’ll cry uncontrollably in the bath. The adults don’t have a fucking clue either and in the most perfectly uplifting finale after all that heartbreak, love yourself.
It’s hard to believe that Minnie Goetze, who I’m hoping will become something of an icon, exists within Phoebe Gloeckner, an artist and novelist who documented her 1970s San Francisco life in 2002. It was very surreal to speak to the grown-up version of my new fictional kindred spirit but after some initial gushing, we discussed the inception of the story, the controversy surrounding the film’s rating and why you have to make all the toe-curling mistakes before you can learn all the lessons.
I’m going to be a bit embarrassing and say just how amazing I thought the film and the story was, I came out of it completely in awe so I just want to congratulate you on how incredible it is!
Well thank you, yes you should be very embarrassed!
If we go right from the very beginning, do you remember the day you sat down to write The Diary of a Teenage Girl?
Yeah, I think I had thought about writing the book for a very long time. I was afraid honestly and then something happened in my life, something happened with my husband that made me feel like I perhaps couldn’t rely on that relationship for support. It was kind of life changing and I decided within a day or two of that, I had to write that book. I had moved far away from my home where I had an illustration business to follow my husband to another job and I had no freelance work there, I had nothing. I was stuck in this suburban nightmare with no connections and in dealing with that situation and everything that happened in that time, I just locked myself up in my garage and I started writing that book. I had this energy from my anger and my frustration and fear of what was going on in my life, I put it into that and I just said, ‘I need to do this book.’ I thought of nothing else for a year and a half and did it.
Saying you wrote the book as a reaction to something, did it work, did it give you that catharsis that you seem to have needed?
Well, it was a reaction to a situation so I wasn’t looking for catharsis from the content of the book but from the act of making that book, so yeah it did. It gave me more independence and other things opened up and I felt very good about it. But writing the book itself, people sometimes ask me, is it like therapy? Is it some sort of emotional catharsis to do that? The answer is no, that’s not why I write books. I write books because there’s things I don’t understand and I really don’t understand them, so in trying to understand them, they become the questions that my art or my literature is about.
Doing it itself isn’t the therapy but it sort of helps you along the way I guess.
Something like that, I guess it’s a complicated answer to a short question! Anyway, the book is not therapy, the book is a novel.
I’ve been reading a lot that people say the book is semi-autobiographical or just put it straight out there and say an autobiography, how would you define it?
Everything that happened in the book and therefore in the movie happened to me, or that was my experience when I was a teenager, so that is true. I hesitate to call it autobiography simply because as I look at it, it’s a novel. I’m taking my own experience but it doesn’t matter to me that anybody knows it’s me, I’ve made myself into a character. It’s not a document, no-one knows who I am and no-one gives a fuck! I’m not Donald Trump! That would be an interesting autobiography and you would care if you knew who he was but I should be invisible I think to someone reading the book.
Regarding who’s reading the book and knowing the story, the film’s controversially been rated an 18, you have two daughters, do you wish they’d been taught every lesson A Diary of a Teenage Girl has to offer at 15?
If I hadn’t written the book, I would say, “of course!” They have read the book by the way! Their relationship to me is different because I’m their mother, it’s their understanding of the book and the situation and their view of the characters is going to very different to anyone else’s. It’s more complex for them. Both of them are actually in the film, I wanted to have them have that experience. They have read the book and one of them was 15 when she was in the film, the other one worked on the film she was a production assistant, so I’m not hiding that from them and I don’t think it’s damaged them.
Does it bother you that the film is an 18? I definitely think that 15-year-olds everywhere need to see this film, do you wish that they could?
Yeah I agree absolutely because for me that is their film, the book is their book. Essentially so many of those words were written originally by a 15-year-old! I wanted to give that voice and bring it into three dimensionality and put it onto paper, draw the pictures. I wanted that voice to be as alive as possible, as true as possible, as honest as possible and if that’s how the movie is being received, I’m really happy. 15-year-olds should definitely, definitely be able to see that.
I completely agree. I went to a screening with a Q+A afterwards and everyone was horrified that the people the film was made for won’t be able to see it. But everyone agreed that now it’s been such a talking point, kids will actively seek it out and find a way to watch it. It’s a double-edged sword.
I hope so!
At the end of the story, it comes to a wonderful place where Minnie realises and understands that she needs to love herself – I suppose that’s you, I’m talking about you! What do you think was the biggest turning point that led to that realisation?
I’m processing that thought, I usually don’t even hesitate when someone asks me something! I think that what Minnie is looking for is not sex, ever. It might seem that way but she’s looking for love and she’s confounding sex with love – so sex is a good thing, but she’s confusing it with what she really needs – not that she doesn’t need sex. She’s in a situation where the adults around her are not providing the unconditional love that they say kids really need. I think at some point she might not realise that explicitly but she begins to realise no matter how much love she has for others, it hasn’t really been reciprocated in a way that is filling her up and she realises that everything she’s been developing about herself, like the artwork, she’s come to know herself through all of these experiences and she still has quite a long way to go. Something has just snapped and she realises it’s going to be her responsibility and she has to embrace herself in order to love others or to even continue in life.
I think when I was writing this book, that was an important realisation for me, because at first I started to write it very much mixing my perspective with Minnie’s perspective back then. It didn’t work because every time I looked at that character, all the feelings I had when I was a teenager came back and I hated her! Because I kind of hated myself then. I had to step back and realise if that was anyone else I would love them and I would want to take care of them. I had to look at that aspect of myself and embrace it for it to be able to have that voice and for other people to be able to relate to it.
So many people will relate to it but even now, as we’re getting more positive messages to love yourself in the media, do you think most people, like Minnie, will have to make the mistakes themselves before they learn the lessons?
Yeah, that’s what life is. Maybe a movie or a book gives a young person a character to relate to and they become that character while they’re in that world and maybe that gives them some kind of spark to instigate that change and realisation they have themselves. Essentially that’s all we have, we can love others but we’re stuck in our own psyche. For that to flourish in the world we have to reach out but it has to be coming from a fertile place that’s nourished and sometimes we have to do that ourselves because other people aren’t doing it.
When I saw the film with the Q+A, it was mostly women in the audience saying how this was such a wonderful thing to be able to see a girl enjoying sex and being allowed to make her decisions and mistakes. Then there was one man who said that he thought Monroe, the male lead, wasn’t a good character because he was used as a sexual object, what would be your reaction to that?
Well that’s essentially the nature of that character, he is a grown man who is stuck in adolescence himself and he’s living life with little awareness so that is the character. To object that he is painted that way, that’s the way he is! People are like that, I have no problem with that guy complaining about it but if he doesn’t realise that there are people like that he should look a little further I think.
Words: Lily Walker.