‘Do I look different than I did yesterday?’, Minnie Goetze asks her pet cat a few hours after she has sex for the first time in Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl. A logical question to ask for an adolescent girl in such a situation, given westernised society’s belief in the transformative power of virginity loss. As you may well know, if you have physically experienced the act or if you paid attention in high school sex-ed classes, popping your cherry isn’t as transformative as the movies will have us believe. Yet, despite our better judgment, as Minnie asks her introspective question, we can’t help but lean in for a better look, scrutinising her appearance as we try to identify how she differs from the previous day.
Transformation and identity crisis have now become synonymous with heterosexual female virginity fiction, with mediums from art-house to prime-time TV frequently perpetuating the idea that a woman’s being or sense of self come into question after her first sexual encounter. Be it a subtle emotional deviation or an elaborate demonic metamorphosis; on-screen transformations often reveal society’s contradictory view of sexually active young women. In blood-filled slashers and male-centred comedies, such girls are often punished and ridiculed for their sexual transgressions. Labelled sluts and whores or prudes and virgins; this type of cinema has allowed little space for women to form their identities free of the shaming eye of public opinion. However, in emerging, predominantly women-led projects, female sexuality is starting to be destigmatised. This new wave of ‘sex-positive’ film demonstrates how our continued acceptance of the social connotations surrounding female purity and promiscuity lead to judgmental ideologies, and ultimately, to our belief in the illusion of female transformation.
Set in 1970’s San Francisco, at the height of women’s sexual liberation, Diary of A Teenage Girl allows Minnie a sexual freedom that is uncommon in the average ‘coming of age’ film. Yet, despite this, Minnie internally struggles with her post-coital identity; seen most vividly through animation, in which she imagines herself a giant, stomping through the streets, picking up boys and trapping them within her humongous hands. Shamed by Monroe, who only wants her when it suits him, and a high school peer, who brands her desire for sex as ‘too intense,’ Minnie, now believes herself transformed into a monstrous, sex-addicted ‘nympho’. Caught paradoxically between changing attitudes towards free love and the male fear of sexually confident women, Diary of A Teenage Girl outlines how Minnie’s misinformed understanding of her sexual desire perpetuates the belief that she has undergone a physical change.
Minnie eventually comes to realise that male attention does not define her. However, some on-screen transformations are far more radical and everlasting. From history’s insidious witchcraft trials to Christina Aguilera’s pop hit ‘Genie in A Bottle’, humanity has continually made the connection between ‘impure’ women and mythological creatures. Such is the case with one of cinema’s most recognisable teen-protagonists, Bella Swan. Throughout the entire Twilight Saga, we watched as Bella hungrily lusted over Edward Cullen and his unattainable, sparkling body. In the fourth instalment of the hit series of movies, Breaking Dawn-Part One, Edward finally surrenders to Bella’s advances after she upped the ante by presenting her virginal body to him in expensive lingerie. Bella’s ensuing loss of virginity revealed some uncomfortable truths about how society (even undead society) views sex in relation to gender roles. Not only does Bella transform from virgin into one of horror’s most notorious monsters, she also changes instantaneously from virgin to another traditionally accepted female role: a mother.
Breaking Dawn showcases the repercussions and sacrifices that come with a woman’s sexual discovery; a trope often explored within the horror genre. While Breaking Dawn tidily dealt with Bella’s sexual urges, some horror movies aim to explore female desire a little more broadly. In Julia Ducournau’s Raw, Justine, a life-long vegetarian, finds herself craving meat after being forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney during her first week at Veterinarian school. Justine’s cravings grow in intensity until she surrenders to the taste of human flesh. In Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, the titular Jennifer is used as a virgin sacrifice performed by a rock-band in exchange for fame. As Jennifer lies about her pure status, she transforms into a demon, who hungrily devours her male classmates. These films work as allegories for sexual hunger, using monster transformations to outline the perception of women who are exploring growing sexual urges. Through mutant spectacle, they showcase the thin line existing between unconscious attitudes of the virgin and the slut, revealing the double-bind women are often caught in when they actively seek out sex. These films outline how societies disdain for sexually confident women trickles down into the minds of adolescents, causing many to struggle with their identities, and even view their sexual needs as otherworldly.
Horror movies are not alone in their attempts to grapple with the idea of virginal transformation; with comedies such as Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum and Kay Cannon’s Blockers following young women seeking a promised change by embarking on a ‘sex quest’. Coel’s Tracey is a young, sexually curious woman living in a London tower block estate, who struggles with her identity, caught between the conflicting attitudes of her religious Mother: ‘My dear; your vagina is holy. I command you to leave your nether regions be,’ and those of her sexually experienced friends: ‘Just sit on his face’. Her goal is to transform from a naive, catholic virgin into a sexually confident modern woman, yet, her comical ignorance of how sex and seduction work, means her goal isn’t as achievable as initially anticipated. Cannon’s Blockers follows three teenage friends who make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night, to live through a significant experience they believe will bond their friendship forever, and to ready themselves for the reality of life after high school. However, the girls are pursued by their overprotective parents, who do their utmost throughout the night to prevent their daughters from making any sex-related mistakes.
Both Blockers and Chewing Gum embrace female desire, taking a crude, pull-no-punches stance as they explore the reality of young women’s evolving sex-positive attitudes. These stories tackle the binds of faith, modern society and parents of daughters head-on, giving their characters space to explore their developing sexual urges without shame. While sex may signify a transformative experience for the women in question, when creators remove sex from the connotations of innocence and wantonness, the result can be constructive and freeing, allowing women to understand their sexual identities free from the warped ideologies of outside pressure.
Alternatively, It Felt Like Love, a 2013, neorealist film by Eliza Hittman, exposed the dangers of a girl embarking on a sex quest outside of the carefree confines of a comedy. Lila wants to become like her best friend, Chiara, who casually basks in the glory of male attention; and so, sets her sights on Sammy, an older, thuggish boy, who she believes will rid her of her undesirable virginal qualities. Lila’s pursuit of Sammy becomes predatory, yet, as Sammy and his leary friends become aware of Lila’s desire for sex, they begin to push her into sexual acts she isn’t comfortable with. By rapidly morphing Lila from hunter to prey, the film outlines the dangers facing women who find themselves wanting to experience the transformative power of becoming sexually active; demonstrating how a girl’s developing lust can easily be weaponised against her by the wrong kind of partner.
However, not all women are fortunate enough to form their own identities. Easy A’s Olive Penderghast and The Virgin Suicides’ Lisbon Sisters are viewed solely through the lens of their sexual activity, ultimately causing them to be othered and outcast by the damning perspectives of their peers. The fictitious news of Olive’s promiscuous activity spreads like wildfire throughout her school. At first, having become popular, Olive allows herself to enjoy her transformation, however, as her lies grow out of hand, she quickly becomes branded as the school slut, resulting in unwanted sexual advances and the breakdown of her most important friendship. The Lisbon Sisters are viewed voyeuristically by the neighbourhood boys who convince themselves they need to save the girls from their Catholic parents. The sisters, forced to exist paradoxically by their parents, who want them to remain innocent and untouched, and the neighbourhood boys, who can only see them as erotic creatures trapped in the restraints of virginity, are only able to claim back their agency in death. Society views the Lisbon Sisters as innocent Madonnas: gatekept, sexually pure beings, who are deserving of male attention and attraction. In contrast, Olive becomes a ‘whore’: impure and undeserving of respect and friendship. The girl’s unfairly determined transformations take place solely in the minds of others. Yet, the real-life repercussions mean that the girls must fight for control of their identities by any means necessary.
In male virginity fiction, losing your virginity is a magical quest. Sure, there might be some annoying obstacles, like finding a way to buy booze, nosy parents, or getting the super-hot, popular girls to notice you. But, once that cherry pops, you’re one of the boys, free to explore your developing sexual urges without shame. It’s different for girls. For women, virginity is both precious and a burden; sex an act with the power to transform them. Once her cherry pops, she might not recognise the body staring back at her in the mirror.
The work of creators such as Kay Cannon, Michaela Coel, Eliza Hittman and Marielle Heller – to name just a few – boldly reclaims female agency and allows women to break free of how society has taught them how to behave. By enabling women to reframe female desire on-screen, we teach young women to identify transformation propaganda and the importance of accepting themselves for who they are.
As Minnie says in her parting words, ‘Maybe nobody loves me, maybe nobody will ever love me, but maybe it’s not about being loved by somebody else’.