‘Is this what it feels like for someone to love you?’: How The Diary of a Teenage Girl Complicates the Sexual Awakening

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is available to watch for free on BoB

Content Warning: sexual abuse, drug abuse

The sexual awakening is a key facet of the contemporary coming of age genre, and the emotional exploration surrounding the first hints of desire has proven a rich resource for filmmakers; this is evidenced in works such as Lady Bird (2018) and Booksmart (2019). However, the affect of the relationship between power and desire on a teenager’s sexual awakening is a discussion which could be explored further in the genre . Even in indie-darling Call Me by Your Name (2017), featuring a relationship between a teenage boy and an intern in his mid-twenties, there is little interrogation of the power dynamics at play and how they affect the characters. With all of this in mind, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 book of the same name, feels radical in the way in which it portrays the relationship between 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) and 34-year-old Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).

Firstly, the film acknowledges the teenage (and stereotypically female) desire to be seen and loved, and how this can open the door for manipulation and abuse. Here this is tied to the insecurity that comes with puberty, making attention from men feel desirable and necessary. Minnie, faced with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) simultaneous disparagement of her daughter’s body and encouragement that she flaunts her youth, jumps at the chance to be validated by Monroe. He is able to groom her precisely because of her disbelief that she will ever be loved – Minnie is seen to be comparing herself to other girls and women throughout the film, aided by her mother, and believes that it is a ‘lucky break’ when Monroe is attracted to her ‘youthfulness’. As such, she feels like she can’t miss her chance with Monroe because ‘I may never get another’. As she puts it, ‘what’s the point of living if nobody loves you, nobody sees you, nobody touches you?’

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Gif source: Giphy

Minnie’s insecurities are relatable and reflective of the teen girl experience, making the viewing experience for me both relevant and uncomfortable when her vulnerability and distorted understanding of love sets her up for abuse by her mother’s boyfriend. Bel Powley’s performance as Minnie is honest and vulnerable. The film’s style, using non-diegetic narration, invites the viewer to see her complex emotions at every turn.

When watching this film, I was struck by the masterful balance it strikes between representing its teenage protagonist’s real and often uncomfortable emotions surrounding her relationship, while subtly outlining details which prevent the audience from romanticising it. Minnie regularly talks about how good the affair makes her feel, especially the sexual aspect of it (which she clings to as a mark of her new-found ‘maturity’), but the audience is also privy to the reality of how Monroe treats her. He is frequently disparaging of her, calling her ‘fucking hyper’ then enticing her with platitudes about how only she understands him minutes later.

This manipulation halts Minnie’s formulation of the concept of what a healthy relationship looks like – she is constantly being either validated by Monroe or reminded of her own ‘shortcomings’ – she’s ‘immature’, she’s ‘hyper’ she’s ‘stupid’ and ‘a fucking child’. At one point, he threatens to tell her mother about their affair and accuses her of manipulating him, further warping her perception of the situation. It is clearly an unhealthy relationship, and it is presented as such. Frequent allusions to the Patty Hearst case , in which a 19 year old was kidnapped and brainwashed by a cult group, further solidify the idea of power and control being exercised over vulnerable young women.  

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Gif source: Giphy

The film draws attention to the damage caused by this abusive relationship in the form of Minnie’s dramatically changed demeanour and stability. She is shown to be hypersexualised during and after their relationship, wondering ‘does everyone think about fucking as much as I do?’, and engaging in risky sexual encounters, including selling oral sex in a bar bathroom with her friend Kimmie. At one point, she declares ‘I want a body pressed up next to me, so that I know I’m really here’. She has become dependent on sex for validation. The film portrays this as an effect of being groomed, one that we don’t tend to see represented in films precisely because the representation of such relationships is rare and, when explored, can appear romanticised. When Monroe stops being sexually interested in Minnie and has a bad acid trip, he declares his need for her to look after him. But Minnie loses interest, she is no longer getting what she feels she needs – sexual release.

It seems like she’s finally taking control of her life, which makes what happens next all the more distressing. When her mother discovers the tapes Minnie has recorded, detailing her relationship with Monroe, Minnie runs away from home and puts herself in serious danger to get drugs. Now she can no longer rely on Monroe to validate her existence, she seeks other ways of blocking out her intense emotions. This sequence is punctuated (as much of the film is) with Minnie’s animated drawings, and here they are threatening, looming over her and the audience. It is impossible to view this as anything other than a harrowing indictment of the relationship between Monroe and Minnie.

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Gif source: Giphy

Minnie’s subsequent self-reclamation, therefore, comes as a great relief to the viewer, and the process is cathartic. After a particularly dangerous night, she returns home where her mother (whose response to the affair was that Monroe and Minnie should marry – suggested due to her own warped perceptions of love and relationships) welcomes her with open arms, albeit they can never speak of what has transpired ever again. Minnie starts selling her art, a constant for her throughout her ordeal and a rare thing she has complete control over.

The final scene of the film is an ode to rebuilding, to building yourself back up after trauma. Minnie dances alone – she no longer needs anyone else to feel validated. She is joyful, carefree, and determined to cultivate a new kind of relationship: self-love. ‘Maybe nobody loves me. Maybe nobody will ever love me. But maybe it’s not about being loved by somebody else’.

Minnie is free to be a teen girl again.

Caitlin Barr

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