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How "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" Creates Film's First Real Teenage Heroine

How "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" Creates Film's First Real Teenage Heroine

By Jenni Miller

When Minnie Goetze strides onto movie screens this weekend, it will mark the arrival of the first real-life, modern heroine for teenage girls — ever. 

"The Diary of a Teenage Girl" was adapted for the screen and directed by Marielle Heller, and she has made the creative and endlessly curious 15 year old stomping around 1970s San Francisco look like a fearless Red Riding Hood thrashing around in the forest. As so many reviews and features have noted with glee, the movie kicks off with Minnie striding through the park in her bell-bottoms, glowing, with star Bel Powley declaring in a voice-over, "I had sex today. Holy shit."

Powley herself sparks with the same intelligence and passion that makes Minnie an unforgettable heroine. She describes it as "the kind of constant oscillating between different emotions and the feeling that everything is, like, life or death," she says with a laugh. "And also the confusion that one gets between sex and love. You know, it's like, someone touching your tit and then feeling like you're in love with them or feeling like you need a man next to you to feel like you exist. I think that's something everyone goes through, and becoming an adult is coming out the other side of that and realizing that, actually, if I love myself and love the body I'm in, that everything else will come after that, and I don’t need a man to be happy."

The film is based on Phoebe Gloeckner's book of the same name, which Salon called "one of the most brutally honest, shocking, tender, and beautiful portrayals of growing up female in America" when it was published in 2002.

In the film, as in the book, Minnie is having sex with Monroe, her mom's 35-year-old boyfriend, who toes the line between creep and man-child. The story has been a lightning rod ever since "Diary" premiered at Sundance; Heller remembers, with exasperation, an audience member demanding to know if the she was "glorying or condemning pedophilia."

Monroe is played by Alexander Skarsgård, the really, really, ridiculously good-looking Scandinavian actor known more for his roles in "Zoolander" and "True Blood" than his nuanced turns in "Melancholia," "The East," and "What Maisie Knew." And those good looks are very much part of the point.

"Minnie says he's the handsomest man in the world, so we needed to be able to see him through her eyes as somebody who was incredibly attractive," Heller says, adding, "I think there are moments in the movie where he does feel super creepy, and that's because that's when she feels that way about him."

Heller praises Skarsgård for his daring to take on such a character — "I hate that term ['unlikeable']. I don’t think we should ever use the word 'likeability' when it comes to characters" — especially given how inextricably linked his career is to his image. The writing and direction in Diary means Monroe is as fully fleshed-out as Minnie allows him to be, and as she wises up, she begins to see him through more critical eyes.

A scene between Monroe and Minnie's stepfather, Pascal, played by Christopher Meloni, captures the state of Monroe’s arrested development perfectly. Pascal, with his glinting eyeglasses and professorial sweaters, comes to Minnie’s house looking for his ex-wife, Charlotte, who’s played with a fabulous loucheness by Kristen Wiig. Instead, Pascal finds Monroe splayed out on the couch, eating cereal and watching TV. Monroe and his endless cans of beer and dreams of retiring on a boat are increasingly pathetic, both to the audience and to Minnie. (It's worth reiterating that none of this is an excuse for abuse.)

It's easy to laud Diary for illustrating Minnie's rapacious emotional desires; in an extraordinary scene, Powley mournfully examines her naked body in a mirror and contemplates how lonely she is. What’s much more daring is the movie’s challenge to the viewer to withhold judgment of Minnie’s relationship with Monroe.

When asked about the topic of consent, Powley says, "Everybody's going to have their opinion on this relationship. From my point of view, because I was playing Minnie, I couldn't judge it. I can't judge it, because Minnie wanted to have sex with Monroe, so I'm all for it, do you know what I mean? And I think also we just wanted to show it through Minnie's lens, so if Minnie feels like it's fine, then we as an audience should feel like it's fine." She adds, "I don't want to sound like I'm promoting 15 year olds having sex with 35-year-old men, but she moves on."

As Heller points out, "Nobody watches 'Breaking Bad' and accuses 'Breaking Bad' [of] telling people you should become a drug kingpin. That's a really complex male character; but why is it that when we make something about teenage girls that we want it to be an idealized version of how you're supposed to be?

"The problem with that narrative is then we have a harder time recognizing much more real, complicated versions of abuse," Heller explains. "And this is a much more complicated version of abuse, one in which Minnie often does not feel like a victim. I think there are moments where she does, but I think for a lot of the story she doesn't. And because I was telling the story purely from her point of view, it was important to me that we had to feel what she felt. So if she didn’t feel like she was a victim, we shouldn’t feel like she was a victim."

"Diary" begins with sex, but it doesn't end with it. And, in the middle, Minnie is faced with all sorts of other choices and frankly harrowing events. The point of it all is that she survives. "I think one of the biggest things that we learn when we come out of teenage-hood is, Wow, I can do fucking stupid things and the world won't implode," Powley says. "I might not even learn from it. I will just move on and things will be fine."

"In real life," Heller says, "you're like, 'Yeah, let's go harder! Let's try more! Let's push the envelope more!,' and then later you might go, 'Maybe we shouldn't have done that.'"

It’s clear that undertaking this journey didn’t just change Minnie. Heller and Powley are both avowed feminists, and Diary has only solidified their commitment to making media that doesn't bow down to status quo. Both take shots at the patriarchy during their separate interviews, with plans to dismantle the structure from all sides.

There's a never-ending supply of articles on gender disparity in filmmaking, in front of and behind the camera, and Heller is ready for the revolution. "Let's talk more about it until it actually becomes true, until we take down this very male, patriarchal system of Hollywood and shame them into being more gender-friendly and equal."

The self-described feminist declares, "I want to talk about it and meet every other female filmmaker and help each other and work with each other and promote each other. ... I don't think anyone should be afraid anymore. We definitely shouldn’t be afraid to make men uncomfortable."

Watch Heller and Powley discuss "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" on AOL's BUILD series at AOL's New York headquarters:


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Photo Credit: Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images , Sony Pictures Classics