Bad Girls, Bad Girls, Whatcha Gonna Do?
The age of girls being considered “sugar and spice and everything nice” is rapidly coming to a close. Fully grown women have always been considered evil succubi sent only to trick and torment men, yet girls tend to be viewed with more softness, especially in the movie world. Most femme fatale movies involve fully grown, openly sexual women – never teens or younger – involving all of the power that comes with having a complete grasp on her sexuality. But how does one rectify in their mind that girls start out as “everything nice," only to then become manipulative she-beasts as soon as they “ripen”? The truth is that girls are just like everyone else: some are good, some are bad, and some are just trying to figure their own shit out. Like everyone else, there’s no set mold for how that looks. For some it’s about escaping, for some it’s about surviving, and for a few others it’s about murder.
(Author’s note: Heathers won’t be discussed for two reasons. One is that everyone already knows that movie, and two is that my name is Veronica and watching Heathers when your name is Veronica is like being yelled at for 90 minutes. Everyone just says your name over and over again in increasingly pissed off tones. It’s very uncomfortable.)
In movies, the decision to kill someone is often made with concern given only to the prospect of getting caught. There’s limited screen time for the exploration of guilt or what watching someone die will do to a character’s sanity. Instead of the focus remains on the question of getting away with the crime. Thoroughbreds (2018) shifts that focus so that the question goes from “what if you could get away with it?” to “what if you could do it without guilt?”
Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is a pragmatic sociopath whose mother is paying her childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) to hang out with her. Lily presents herself as a sensitive and extremely cautious person, but the truth is that she is pretty self-involved, with a powerful competitive streak that has gotten her kicked out of boarding school for plagiarism. At the start we’re supposed to see Amanda as potentially more dangerous, as she discusses her inability to feel much of anything. She also has a lack of regret for her actions, such as the opening scene where she kills a horse. When pressed by Lily on why and how she did what she did it, Amanda responds with a rational but not cold answer: the horse, her horse, had broken its legs and would never walk again. It was a mercy killing that nobody else had the nerve to do.
The danger of Amanda only really takes form when Lily inhabits it. Lily makes decisions or hesitates based on what she’s feeling, and she feels mainly for herself. Amanda’s suggestion that Lily kill her hated step-father Mark (Paul Sparks) is met with repulsion at first but then Lily warms to the idea, asking Amanda how they would do it and get away with it. As Amanda helps her plan out the crime, we see that Amanda understands that getting away with it in a legal sense is the easy part. Making a decision and following through is the hard part. Amanda warns Lily of being indecisive, especially when the gears being put into motion are this intense. This turns out to be a lesson Lily takes to heart as she ultimately frames Amanda for the murder.
Changing your circumstances through any means necessary is a running theme is female-led movies. Because so much of a girl’s life is supposedly mapped out for her by everyone else, some of these means can seem more extreme (like murder) while others can seem hopeless when seen from the perspective of a worldly adult. Such is the case with seventeen year old Maria in the Guatemalan movie Ixcanul (2015).
Ixcanul follows an indigenous Guatemalan Kaqchikel family as the arranged marriage of their daughter Maria (María Mercedes Coroy) approaches. Maria is promised to an older, successful man but has her eye on Pepe (Marvin Conroy), a coffee picker around her age who has plans to cross Mexico into America. All of this takes place on the slope of an active ixcanul, or volcano in the Kaqchikel Mayan language, that alternates between threatening and calm. Much like life.
In an attempt to get Pepe to take her along, Maria has sex with him. She winds up pregnant, and Pepe takes off before she finds out, leaving her behind without even an attempt to contact her. As full grown adults living in the modern world, we can see the oft-repeated mistake of a teenage girl assuming that anything a teenage boy says with an erection has validity but we can also understand Maria’s logic. She was promised to another man because she was beautiful and has the ability to make babies, so why shouldn’t that work as currency in another situation?
Maria is trying to figure out the rules of a world that keeps changing them when it comes to her and her gender. She doesn’t really want to be a full blown rebel, but she hates the position she was born into. She’s not actively trying to break her parents’ hearts but she feels trapped in every situation and anything she does makes it worse. The hesitance of entering the modern world and the dismissal of outdated traditions comes to a head when Maria is bitten by a rattlesnake during a ritual and needs to be brought to a hospital. Labor is induced and the baby is adopted out from under the family by shady means. The final scene of the movie is Maria being prepared for the wedding she spent her whole life trying to escape.
Tangling up love with life in teen years can be pretty damaging. Think of all those teen couples who told everyone they were going to be together forever only to break up before Thanksgiving their freshman year. Life gets in the way of a lot of plans, love being at the top of that list. Regardless of age and gender, love has a way of making crazy those who seek it.
Getting what you want is a double edged sword. Being told that you don’t know what you want or deserve what you want is another beast altogether, which brings us to our final movie A Fantastic Woman (2017).
A Fantastic Woman is different from the other three movies mentioned in several ways. For starters it focuses on an adult, though a young one, who is being treated younger than she deserves to be. Second, the adult in question is a trans woman Marina (Daniel Vega). And the final difference is that while the girls in the previous movies were all making and carrying out plans, no matter how ill advised or grisly, Marina is instead reacting to circumstances and trying to move forward.
The movie starts with Marina and her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) celebrating a birthday with a night out. They’re clearly in love and truly happy together but when Orlando wakes up in severe pain and dies at the hospital of an aneurysm, things quickly go from bad to worse. Marina, as a trans person, has been living her life in the fringes. She works as a waitress and a lounge singer and had been living with Orlando before he died. Stability is not something that occurs naturally in her day-to-day and the amount of disruption she receives because of Orlando’s death threatens to tear apart the existence she’s cobbled together.
Most of Orlando’s family are upset, not only by his death but with the partner he left behind; they’re actively aggressive toward Marina. Aside from Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), Orlando’s family mocks and harasses Marina. They try to force her out of her home and cause scenes where she works. Anyone who’s been trying to hold their tenuous life together knows both the feeling of having their ability to barely scrape by threatened and the anxiety that comes along with it. This anxiety creeps in and grows until Marina decides she’s tired of just surviving and demands more.
After being barred from attending the funeral, Marina shows up anyway and refuses to leave until Gabo calmly leads her out. She fights back against Orlando’s wife and kids who tell her she’s an abomination by attacking them in their car. She’s tired of attempting to be “a good girl” and decides that if everyone wants her to be a monster then she’ll be a monster. Naturally, this drains her emotionally, and we see her regrouping at the home of a former voice teacher who gently chides her for using him as crutch and abandoning him when it’s convenient for her.
Marina is not presented as a simplistic victim but someone who has spent her life sorting everything out, which means sometimes being an acerbic or cold person. That’s part of living after all, right? She isn’t exempt from her faults and she sometimes dismisses people who are trying to reach out to her. We’re also privy to the fact that help can often come with an asterisk, that good intentions usually bring with them further conditions. The scene with her teacher is a grounding moment for Marina, one where she realizes the difference between struggles based on who she is and struggles that she creates for herself.
The past few years have seen an explosion in developed and unusual female characters. What used to be limited to ingenues or femme fatales has now expanded to include realistic depictions of complex women and girls. There have always been “bad girl” characters but, in the grand tradition of everything revolving around men, past bad girls have usually been products of male anxiety or fantasy rather than being interesting and three dimensional. We still see versions of the flat femme fatale dressed up as “complicated” (cough, Gone Girl, cough) but fortunately we’re also getting the weird, the demented, the bloodthirsty, the selfish, the ambitious, the strong-willed, and all the other variations of women and girls that we see in reality and in ourselves.