20 years on, Girlfight is more radical than ever

Karyn Kusama’s raw coming of age portrait defies all conventions about brown girl self-realization.

by Beatrice Loayza
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Sep 30 2020, 9:04am

Still from Girlfight.

Released 20 years ago today, Karyn Kusama’s debut film, Girlfight, remains a singular coming of age portrait. An honest and raw depiction of inner city adolescence that uniquely centers a young Latina, it bucks conventions about brown girl self-realization in a way that feels even more radical two decades later.

When Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, Destroyer) arrived at Sundance in 2000, she was nervous about how the primarily white festival audience would react to her all-Latino cast and her difficult female protagonist, portrayed by the untrained and then-unknown Michelle Rodriguez. The rest is history. Audiences were swept up by the director’s gritty portrayal of feminine rebelliousness — her first entry in a filmography dedicated to difficult women — and Rodriguez’s snarling performance, which laid the groundwork for the tough-girl action star she would later become.

Decked out in cornrows and a boxy, military-style jacket, Diana Guzman (Rodriguez) leans back against a locker as the camera approaches her from a distance. She looks up and gives a bone-chilling glare. It says “fuck off” with a depth and clarity that sucks the air out of the crowded high school hallway. This is how we’re introduced to our protagonist, who stands there radiating attitude, pulling us into her orbit. Shortly after, Diana’s anger issues come out when she initiates a fight with a bitchy classmate. In boxing, she finds an outlet for all those pent-up feelings. But Girlfight goes beyond what the title suggests, and shows us what it looks like for a teen girl to make meaning out of her life entirely on her own terms, with little regard for gender roles or family approval.

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Diana lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in housing projects with her artsy younger brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago) and her father (Paul Calderón), an old-school machista who forces Tiny to take boxing lessons with a local trainer, Hector (Jaime Tirelli). There’s nothing glamorous about Hector’s gym. It’s a dingy hangout for young, mostly Black and Latino guys hoping to one day go pro and get out of town. After visiting Tiny at practice one day, Diana gets a taste of the boxing ring, and finds a way to pay for lessons. Hector doesn’t see the point in training girls — the likelihood of becoming a professional female boxer is slim to none — but he begrudgingly agrees to train the persistent young woman, who at the very least shows more promise than her brother.

Her community’s strident machismo is one reason for Diana’s anger. Beyond her ruthless attitude, Diana’s makeup-less, masculine-coded aesthetic of wife beaters, sweatpants and sneakers pits her against the other girls at school. Kusama doesn’t necessarily put down the women who find personal satisfaction in getting glammed up, but she does suggest that feminine beauty ideals are often in service of male fantasies. Rather than apologize for having sex with the guy Marisol (Elisa Bocanegra) has a crush on, mean girl Veronica (Shannon Walker Williams) recommends Diana’s slighted best friend get a makeover. Had Marisol made herself more sexually viable, perhaps her dream boy would’ve paid attention to her instead of Veronica, she suggests. This is not to say that Diana has no interest in curating her self-image: she’s concerned with maintaining her signature look — tight braids along the top of her scalp — and seeks out Marisol’s help for their ritual upkeep. But her braids aren’t meant to make her look more attractive to men, they’re markers of her individuality, a declaration that she opts out of a patriarchal economy she finds demeaning.

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In choosing to box, Diana defies expectations while making better use of the time she’d normally spend after school in detention. Bogged down by sexist preconceptions, Diana’s father can’t see how his daughter’s new hobby might be a good thing. When he appears at the gym and witnesses Diana in the middle of a sparring match, he looks away, disgusted by the fact that his daughter enjoys the fight. It’s later revealed that Diana’s mother committed suicide, pushed to the limit after years of abuse from Diana’s father. In one harrowing scene, Diana responds to her father’s verbal goading by rising up and beating him to the ground. It’s not meant to be righteous, so much as a brutal reminder that the cards are not automatically in men’s favor when it comes to physical power. Here is a young woman with the same lack of scruples, the same feverish rage that might have once consumed this former abuser. She wields that power to show her father where she stands.

With such an aggressive, butch character, Kusama could have easily stripped Diana of all vulnerability and sexual desire. Instead, Diana falls in love. As the gym becomes a greater part of Diana’s life, a fellow boxer, Adrian (Santiago Douglas), grabs her interest. He’s being groomed for the big leagues, and dates women like Veronica who make him feel like a big, strong man. But in Diana he finds someone to whom he can genuinely relate, as opposed to a girl who simply reaffirms his masculinity.

American coming of age movies have a hard time visualizing teenage sexuality beyond the experiences of first-timers and timid virgins. There’s a taboo in depicting underage sex that’s supposedly diminished when the experience is depicted as cute or hesitant, and rarely are teenagers on film given free reign to have sex and enjoy it without consequences, unless its as some sort of high stakes rite of passage. That’s part of what makes Girlfight so inspired — Diana may be rough around the edges, but she’s still a sexual being without her sexuality playing a central role in her character arc. For once teenage sexuality is depicted as an aspect of existence rather than some major life-defining catalyst.

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For Diana and Adrian, sex isn’t the issue so much as how the two lovers define heterosexual romance and the roles each of them should be playing. It’s difficult for Adrian to abandon the sense of security and legitimacy that other, more feminine women offer him. When he shows up to a party with his ex-girlfriend by his side, Diana’s face flickers with betrayal before she storms out — all of a sudden her perpetual anger and resting bitch face seem more like defense mechanisms than signs of inherent meanness. Ultimately, the two end up as finalists in a gender neutral competition for amateur boxers. Adrian refuses to fight a girl out of fear that his reputation might get ruined, while Diana demands he fight her as he would any other opponent — anything less would be a sign of disrespect. When Diana comes out on top, her victory is all the more meaningful because Adrian treats her as his equal.

Unlike other teen sports movies, Diana’s boxing achievements do not resolve all her problems.  There’s no disapproving family member with whom she ultimately reconciles — her dad fades away after their brawl. The match is low-stakes — there’s no prize money, no big college scholarship or one-way ticket out of town. It's a refreshing outcome that flouts our culture's demand for productivity and material progress. Diana struggles and trains to achieve the dignity she never had, but always deserved, without changing her image for anyone’s approval. Her glare is as sharp and intimidating as it was in the beginning, but her punches land cleaner; her target is clear.

Tagged:
Girlfight
Michelle Rodriguez
Karyn Kusama