The year 2015 saw the release of two fictional films from very different contexts that bore an uncanny resemblance: both centred on an unexplained outbreak of psychogenic illness among groups of teenage girls. The Fits, directed by Anna Rose Holmer, is a low-budget American independent film set in a community sports centre in an African-American community in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Falling, directed by Carol Morley, is a British drama set in a traditional girls’ school in the late 1960s. In both films, groups of girls gradually succumb to a mysterious sickness, in which they have uncontrollable fits and fall unconscious. Both films are loosely based on real events.
These two films might be seen as instances of the familiar ‘coming of age’ narrative; but both of them are rather more unsettling and disturbing. This is partly because the cause of the sickness remains unexplained. Only girls and younger women are affected; and while there is a sexual element in both cases, and other possible explanations are offered, the mystery is never properly resolved. Albeit in quite contrasting ways, the films represent girlhood as a source of ‘gender trouble’ – as something troubling, or troublesome, both for girls themselves and for the adults around them.
The Fits and The Falling have some historical precursors. In addition to these two recent films, in this essay I will be considering three older films that represent adolescent girlhood in similarly troubling and mysterious ways: Picnic at Hanging Rock (directed by Peter Weir, 1975, Australia); Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994, New Zealand); and The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999, USA). While there are a great many differences between these films in terms of context, style and narrative, it is this common thread of ‘gender trouble’ that I want to draw out.
Adolescence, girlhood and the Gothic
The notion of ‘adolescence’ is a relatively modern invention. The term itself originated in the fifteenth century, but its popular use is generally attributed to the work of G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association. Hall regarded adolescence as a particularly precarious stage in individual development. It was a period of ‘storm and stress’, characterised by inter-generational conflicts, mood swings and an enthusiasm for risky behaviour. From this perspective, the discussion of adolescence often leads inexorably to concerns about drugs, delinquency, depression and sexual deviance. Hall’s approach is perhaps best termed ‘psycho-biological’: his symptomatically-titled book Youth: Its Education, Regimen and Hygiene (1906) includes extensive proposals for moral and religious training, incorporating practical advice on gymnastics and muscular development (not to mention quaint discussions of ‘sex dangers’ and the virtues of cold baths).
Adolescence, then, is popularly seen as a stage in which the process of socialization may fail: there is a risk that the child may not successfully manage the transition to what is imagined to be a stable, mature adulthood. As such, at least in modern Western societies, adolescence is often regarded as a potential threat to the social order. That threat may take many forms, but it is especially inflected by gender. While the risk of adolescent boyhood centres primarily on violence and criminality (as I have discussed in my essay on the ‘juvenile delinquent’ films), the risk for girls focuses very much on their emergent sexuality. Representations of adolescent girlhood typically emphasise their fragility and vulnerability to sexual exploitation; or alternatively, the risks of an assertive, independent sexuality. These are girls ‘at risk’, but also girls who represent a risk to others. In this context, the ‘protection’ of girls, and the regulation of their sexuality, become key imperatives.
Conventional ‘coming of age’ narratives – both in fiction and in academic research – tend to present adolescence as a transitional stage on the road towards adulthood. It is a state of becoming, rather than one of being. Adolescent identity is often seen as erratic and shifting, and unclear to young people themselves. Achieving adult identity is a matter of conformity and self-control. In order to become men, boys must learn to curb their violent, anti-social instincts; in order to become women, girls must learn to regulate their own sexuality. ‘Girlish’ femininity is a symptom of immaturity, a kind of disorder, and it has to be left behind if girls are to make a successful transition to adult womanhood. And yet adolescence remains a liminal (in-between) stage, in which a limited degree of freedom has to be sanctioned, before it can be brought back under control.
However, as Cara Koehler suggests, there is another cultural tradition in which adolescence – and perhaps particularly female adolescence – is represented in a rather different way. This is the ‘Gothic’ tradition, which has arguably undergone a remarkable resurgence in Anglo-American popular culture over the past few decades. Here, adolescence appears to possess a dangerous and mysterious power. Rather than being contained, in these narratives adolescents subvert and transgress adult authority. Adolescent girls in particular are seen as a kind of inchoate, fearsome threat to masculine control. This image is perhaps most obvious in the case of horror, which has a long tradition of demonic girls, going back to The Bad Seed, Carrie and The Exorcist: notably, it is Carrie’s first period that precipitates her telekinetic power. Meanwhile, in more recent ‘splatter’ movies, sexually active girls struggle against the adults who seek to repress and constrain them, and the monstrous forces they seem to have unleashed.
However, this tendency is also evident in a less spectacular and bloody form in more recent independent films, including those I’ll be considering here. In these movies, the female adolescent often becomes a kind of conflict zone, a meeting point between sex, illness and death. The problem here is not so much sex itself, but the repression of it: it is repression that induces disease and pollution, and also provokes girls to wreak havoc. In these films, adolescent girlhood is somehow alien and unknowable, even supernatural: it induces feelings of discomfort, dread and dislocation. However, the process of maturation is often seen in negative or ambivalent ways. Several of the key characters fail to make a successful transition to adulthood: they cannot be assimilated within the family or the wider society, and so they have to die.
This kind of disordered (and disorderly) behaviour is frequently described as ‘hysterical’. Indeed, Carol Morley, the director of The Falling, willingly accepts the notion of ‘mass hysteria’ as a description of the kind of behaviour shown in her film. The idea that girls’ psychological problems or repressed memories might be manifested in physical symptoms is a staple of Freudian theory, which Freud himself took on from his predecessors Josef Breuer and Jean-Martin Charcot. Hysteria is self-evidently a gendered term: the word derives from the ancient Greek for ‘uterus’, and the condition is sometimes seen to be caused by a ‘wandering womb’. Some critics have condemned the idea as a kind of pseudo-diagnosis, and others have seen it as a manifestation of the misogynistic bias of psychoanalysis: yet the idea of hysteria has also been reclaimed by those who argue that it can be seen as a kind of proto-feminist rebellion against oppressive gender roles.
This representation of dangerous, ‘hysterical’ adolescent girlhood is a kind of counter-narrative, which stands in striking contrast to that of mainstream teen culture. It’s not just that, unlike in most ‘teen movies’, girls take centre stage here. Rather, as Cara Koehler suggests, these ‘sick teens’ are also the very opposite of the ‘healthy, bouncy teen bodies’ that dominate most teen movies; and their film narratives are very much at odds with those of the normative coming-of-age story.
Representing the mystery of girlhood
These characteristics are present in different ways, and to different degrees, across the five films I’ll discuss. While male characters do appear in some of them, these are all films that are centrally preoccupied with girlhood. To different degrees, they show intense solidarity among groups of girls, which can extend to physical love; although they also show how girls can be competitive and violent towards each other. In different ways, all of the films are concerned with sexuality and sexual repression, although this is not always explicitly represented. However, conventional heterosexual activity is often shown as somehow deviant or at least unpleasurable. Adults (teachers, parents) typically seek to restrict the freedom of the girl characters; but interestingly, it is the adult female characters who are the most disciplinarian, and who are generally represented in the most negative terms. What’s particularly striking here is that very few of the girls in these films manage to make a successful transition to adult womanhood: they disappear or die or kill themselves, or they are incarcerated. Even where they appear to be ‘cured’, the problem is far from resolved.
All these films create a degree of mystery. Several of them are based – in some cases fairly loosely – on real events; and even where they are not, they sometimes claim to be. Strikingly, all but one of the films is set in the past; yet the question of what really happened, or what is really happening, remains a focus of continuing uncertainty and anxiety, not just for the adults but often for the girls themselves. In different ways, all these films blur the line between reality and fantasy. They refuse to provide clear explanations for the characters’ behaviour, and even mock those (like psychologists and teachers) who attempt to do so. Through the use of music, and especially through the careful use of sound effects, they seek to create atmospheres of foreboding, threat and dislocation; and yet several of them also combine dark tragedy and absurd comedy, often to ironic effect. In all these films, adolescent girlhood remains mysterious and troubling in ways that cannot be reduced to any straightforward explanation.