by Trina Robbins
On the evening of Monday, August 3, the iconic Castro Theater in San Francisco’s famous Castro District more resembled a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show than a preview of The Diary of Teenage Girl, a movie adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel. There is a brief scene in Diary that takes place outside a showing of Rocky Horror, although since I blinked, I missed it. Nonetheless, in San Francisco, anything is an excuse for drag queens to dress up, and so they did, filling the aisles with glitter and spangles, and invoking memories of the famous 1970s drag theater group, the Cockettes.
The San Francisco Chronicle devoted most of a recent Sunday entertainment section to the movie, headlining it on the cover with the title “Girl Power.” I dunno.
The Diary of Teenage Girl is about the 1970s, a time when the previous decade’s Summer of Love had degenerated into drugged-out hedonism. Not the best time for a 15-year-old girl whose cocaine-snorting mother has a sleazy boyfriend. The 15-year-old girl, Minnie Goetze, played by British actor Bel Powley, is not a victim. It is her decision to have sex with her mother’s boyfriend, although it must be argued that any ethical guy would hardly have agreed so easily.
The movie is painful and funny and true to Gloeckner’s graphic novel, up to a point. The scenes of 1970s San Francisco are perfect (I should know, I was there), and Powley’s Minnie bears an uncanny resemblance to Gloeckner’s cartoon character, and to a young Gloeckner herself. The colors, looking like slightly faded Polaroids, invoke the period excellently. The animation is a high point, with art by Sara Gunnarsdóttir closely resembling Gloeckner’s early cartoons. So why, after seeing the movie, did I feel so uneasy?
Speaking of colors, the movie is all grey areas. Sure, Minnie initiates the sex with her mother’s boyfriend, but hey, she’s fifteen years old. There’s a reason why fifteen-year-olds are not legally permitted to drive, drink, smoke, vote, or join the army. They are children, for god’s sake! So, while I laughed at the funny scenes, something inside of me was disturbed.
Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel is actually darker than the movie. Monroe, the boyfriend, is even sleazier on the comics pages, initiating the sex rather than just agreeing to it, and the degradation that Minnie eventually falls into is more graphic.
So I went to the source. I asked Phoebe herself: Do you think the movie adaptation made light of a serious subject?
And Phoebe replied:
… It did what movies have to do — it takes the viewer into a different world for a couple of hours, hitting various high notes and low notes, and telling the story in as powerful a way as possible…
The film is “lighter” in a sense. The reasons that the filmmaker related to the book were different than my motivations for writing it. The movie is less of a painful experience than the book, I think. The issues that the book addresses are interpreted differently in the movie, and perhaps the question of Minnie’s “sexual agency” is simplified. But the spirit of the book, and, indeed, of the central character, Minnie, is carried through brilliantly.
So enjoy the movie, shout “Girl power!” if you want, but … think about it.
Trina Robbins was an early and influential participant in underground comix, one of the few female artists in the fledgling movement. Both as a cartoonist and historian, Robbins has long been involved in creating outlets for and promoting female comics artists. She started writing and drawing comics in 1966, while running a Haight-Ashbury clothing boutique. Joining the staff of America’s first Women’s Liberation newspaper, the Berkeley-based It Ain’t Me, Babe in 1970 she got the moral support of the staff and produced It Ain’t Me, Babe Comix, the first ever all-woman comic book. In 1972 she was one of ten women who formed the Wimmen’s Comix Collective to produce Wimmen’s Comix, still the longest-lasting all-woman comic book anthology, running from 1972 to 1992. She was the penciller for Wonder Woman for a time in the 1980s and designed Vampirella’s costume for Forrest Ackerman and James Warren. Trina co-edited Strip AIDS USA, an AIDS benefit comic book in 1988 and in 1990 she self-published a pro-choice benefit book entitled Choices.
Her many comix have ranged from her underground strips to an adaptation of Sax Rohmer’s Dope for Eclipse Comics and GoGirl with artist Anne Timmons for Image Comics.
Besides numerous articles in art periodicals, Trina has also written histories of once-forgotten early women cartoonists including The Great Women Cartoonists, which she co-wrote with Cat Yronwode, From Girls to Grrlz, Pretty in Ink and A Century of Women Cartoonists. She also has produced a number of children’s books and paperdoll books which are now highly sought-after collector’s items.
She has the largest collection in the world of original comic art by early 20th century women cartoonists and has exhibited her collection in Europe, Japan, and the United States. In 2016 the collection will travel to Israel.
And, a little known fact: She is the first of the three “Ladies of the Canyon” in Joni Mitchell’s classic song from the album of the same name.
If you would like to know more about her and read her newest article Women at War , visit TrinaRobbins.com.
Read a recent interview about her newest book, Babes in Arms: Women in Comics During the Second World War and watch her on a panel at the San Diego Comic Con 2015 “A Celebration of Women Artists in Comics During WWII.”
- Read Peggy Orenstein’s discussion with Phoebe Gloeckner about Minnie from the New York times just before Diary was first published.
- Read other reviews about The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Dodie Bellamy, Janelle Hessig, Kevin Killian, and Lynn Rapoport.
- Visit the official Sony Pictures web site.
- IMDb.com’s listing for The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
- Follow The Diary of a Teenage Girl on Facebook and Twitter.
- Phoebe Gloeckner’s web site.
- Read more by Phoebe Gloeckner at Amazon and Indiebound.
- Follow Phoebe Gloeckner on Twitter.
- Follow Bel Powley on Twitter.
- Hear Terry Gross interview author Phoebe Gloeckner and filmmaker Marielle Heller on the NPR Fresh Air podcast.