a guide to girls on film
As it's i-D Girl Week and we're celebrating everything girl, Summer Camp singer Elizabeth Sankey gives you the low-down on her favourite female stereotypes to have graced the silver screen, from Heathers to Clueless, Disney Princesses and Manic Pixie...
I've never had the good fortune to fall in love with a real girl, but I've fallen in love hundreds of times with their celluloid counterparts. I adore watching women on screen, I can't get enough, and I'm not alone - it's why so many of us devour shows like Orange Is The New Black at record speeds. The more female-led narratives we have, the more we realise we've been missing out. Which isn't to say I don't love watching men and boys on screen too - but there are more stories to be told, and I'm so excited at the prospect of the yarns that are going to be spun around us in the future. So this guide is really a piece of personal Hollywood nostalgia, looking back wistfully at a time before the Bechdel test, when there was more innocence and conformity, women were presented as "types" not people. But still, these are the women I grew up with, the girls I still want to watch over and over again, even as I inch closer and closer to 30 with each passing second. I hope you're ready to fall in love.
The Dream Girls
Disney Princesses made flesh. They smell like cookies, their hair is silk, they never shit. Apparently created lovingly in a laboratory, their every breath is dedicated to bringing joy and happiness to others. We delight in their dimples, their soft skin, their luminescent faces. If they have hair on their legs it's downy and blonde, and any flaws just make them all the more appealing. The ultimate dream girl is Lux Lisbon in Virgin Suicides (played by Kirsten Dunst). She's elusive, there's mystery, but she's also tragic with a darkness no one can ever light up. We want to protect these girls and make them ours, possess them. Of course they often also fit into the manic pixie dream girl trope. In Garden State Natalie Portman's character Sam, despite having a myriad of personal problems, is really only there to inspire and support Zach Braff's character as he struggles with an identity crisis. In Girl Next Door, Elisha Cuthbert's character Danielle is teenage fantasy personified - she's an impossibly beautiful porn star. But when Matthew presents her with an ultimatum - your career or me? - she's only too willing to give it up so they can be together. She bends to fit in with his idea of what a girlfriend should be. And then says, "Thank you". Of course, sometimes we get a dream girl with teeth. Penny Lane in Almost Famous, played by Kate Hudson, is a muse, a groupie who is sold to another band for beer by the man she loves. but there is a strength and steel to her, and at the end of the film she chooses her own dream instead of being the enabler for a man's success. One of my favourite dream girls is Sarah Jessica Parker's character SanDeE* in L.A. Story. She's a gum-snapping, roller-blading slice of heaven. When Steve Martin says, "Don't you see I'd only be using you to get back at her for going away with someone else?" she replies, "I don't mind" and leaps into his arms.
The Rebels And Outsiders
Dream girls were always problematic, I desperately wanted to be one, but they set an impossibly high standard of perfection. So the rebels and outsiders are what really made me fall in love. They were just as beautiful, inspiring and attractive, but real. These girls were angry; they didn't care about what people thought of them. No, actually they did. They really cared, but they still did everything in their power not to conform. Sure, they were limited in how much they could be rebellious - the difference between a cheerleader and a rebel in these films is mainly taste in music/clothes and how much they smile - but still. When the world these women were operating in was so small, any amount of pushing against the status quo seemed significant and delicious. Julia Styles' character Kat in Ten Things I Hate About You is one of the best rebels, mainly because she's chosen the path of the outcast rather than having it thrust upon her. She's lived the popular girl storyline and rejected it. Of course she is still "tamed" at the end of the film, but she's not required to change to be accepted and loved. A consummate actress currently enjoying a career revival is Natasha Lyonne, who spent her own teen years playing rebels in films such as American Pie and Slums Of Beverly Hills. In But I'm A Cheerleader she plays a lesbian high school girl who, despite being perky and popular, is sent to conversion camp by her parents in an attempt to rid her of the sexual orientation they find so abhorrent. The film itself is an outsider in a sea of repeated story-lines and cardboard cut-out characters that make up so much of the teen genre. Of course sometimes, as with the dream girls, rebels are required to change. In She's All That Rachel Leigh Cook's character Laney Boggs (that name!) is a teen artist not interested in the social strata or fitting in. Luckily the high school heartthrob Freddie Prinze, Jr. is there to oversee a makeover and help her see the error of her rebellious ways. My favourite outsiders are the ones who never change, even if they often meet with sad ends; Drew Barrymore in Poison Ivy rips apart her best friend's family without a blush, while Nancy in The Craft seeks cruel revenge on all the peers who mocked and bullied her, but is consumed by evil in the process. It's tough to be different.
The idols are perhaps the most nuanced of the Hollywood girl types. These are the young women we watch go on a journey, their social standing is never as important as how much they learn and grow over the 90 minutes we're watching them. Cher Horowitz in Clueless sets the bar, she's aspirational - we want to be her or be friends with her - but she's flawed. We love her because she realises her limitations and struggles with them. One of the first idols was Audrey Hepburn's Princess Ann in Roman Holiday. Like Cher she is naïve and spoilt, but with a heart of gold, and despite outward appearances she doesn't have it all. Veronica Sawyer in Heathers is an idol, as is Cady Heron in Mean Girls: her innocence is corrupted and selfishness emerges, but we cheer as she takes responsibility for what she's done. In her films with John Hughes, Molly Ringwald was a sweet and loveable idol, particularly in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. We like to see these women challenged, watching as they're torn down then rebuilt better and stronger - it's these personal battles that make them all the more real. The classic teen idol is Sandy in Grease. Through the course of the film we see her discover her sexuality as she wades through icky self-doubt and vanilla morals, and emerges edgy, powerful and strong. She defies her doubters and gets the guy, all while wearing trousers so tight Olivia Newton-John had to be stitched into them.
The Mean Girls
Oh it must be so fun to be a mean girl. And I don't mean sad mean girls like Dawn Wiener in Welcome To The Dollhouse, I'm talking about the girls we like despite their harsh behaviour. We love to watch them revel in their mischief. In Cruel Intentions Sarah Michelle Gellar's Kathryn is a coke-snorting Catholic schoolgirl with an acid tongue. She cares little about how her actions affect others, luxuriating in her beautifully decadent bedroom, playing cat and mouse with her stepbrother. Raven-haired and black-hearted, it's a delight to watch her cause misery and chaos. Regina George (of course) and Heather Chandler are two more mean girls who turn manipulation into an art form, wielding their power over the school system with a manicured hand, bashing down anyone in their way, then flicking their hair as they step over the bodies. See also Rose McGowan in Jawbreaker, an excellent high school villain, despite looking like she's been held back from graduating for five years. As head of the 'Flawless Four' she uses everyone around her, making them bend over so she can climb her way to the top, using their backs as a staircase. The ultimate goal of the mean girl is often to be stood on stage wearing a prom queen crown at the end of the semester. However in Election, Tracy Flick, played by Reese Witherspoon, has the end game of being elected class president. She's just as mean, but she uses different tools, and has a different goal. Observe from a distance.
I fell for these women and I fell hard. Watching them now is like rifling through a memory box of lost loves, the girls that got away. I hope there will always be Sam Bakers and Heather Sawyers and Penny Lanes for new generations to fall in love with - they're so important. They were our big sisters, standing at the bedroom door, pointing to the window, "Psst, your parents are asleep, let's sneak out".
Text Elizabeth Sankey
Film still from Heathers