The films I’ve considered in this essay come from, and represent, very different social, historical and cultural contexts. They were made in very different circumstances, from the official state-funded revival of the Australian film industry to the margins of Hollywood and the smaller scale independent and art-house sectors in Britain, New Zealand and the United States. They were made over a period of forty years, but their retrospective historical span is even broader than this. It’s a long way from the Australian bush of 1900 to the Illinois suburbs of the 1970s; or from colonial New Zealand in the 1950s to the contemporary African-American inner city of Cincinnati. The films are also self-evidently very different in terms of genre and style: they include elements of costume drama, horror, comedy, art film and documentary realism.
However, they all provide different takes on the central question of adolescent girlhood. In doing so, they dwell on ‘Gothic’ themes of sexuality and adult repression, and ultimately on sickness, contagion and death. In different ways, and to different degrees, they all blur the boundaries between reality and illusion. Several of them are based on real-life cases, or misleadingly claim to be; but in all of them, there is a continuing debate about what is real and what is not, and there is always a sense that something lies beyond or beneath the reality we see. In each of the films, there is a search for explanation that is ultimately not fulfilled: different possibilities are entertained, expert authorities offer their opinions, but ultimately none will suffice. Not only in the overt narrative, but also through the cinematography and sound design, the films all represent adolescent girlhood as an unresolved mystery, which is not just inexplicable (especially to adults, and to men) but also profoundly unsettling and uncanny.
These are not straightforward ‘coming of age’ films, in which children become adults, and girls become women. The characters’ transitions to adulthood are unstable and precarious, and in most cases they are ultimately blocked or prevented. Adolescent girlhood – and the experience of developing gender identity – is a constant source of disruption, not just for the girls themselves but also for adults. These girls challenge authority: they are troubled, often for obscure reasons, but they are also troubling for those around them. They do not comfortably mature into sensible, conforming adult women: indeed, adult womanhood is frequently seen in these films as an undesirable state of frustration and repression (while adult masculinity is largely marginalized or belittled). Even adult sexual activity is not figured as desirable or pleasurable: indeed, in many cases it is regarded as disgusting or deviant.
As such, ‘coming of age’ in these films is not necessarily welcomed as a moment of empowerment and liberation – it is much more ambivalent and dangerous than that. The girls do not assume or settle into a comfortable gender identity: on the contrary, identity remains fluid and unstable, and often unclear to the girls themselves. In all these ways, these films represent a challenge to the (predominantly male) rite-of-passage narratives that are so familiar in teen film: they provide a troubling glimpse into the underside of our received ideas about adolescence, and indeed about the nature of adulthood as well.