Chapter 6: 21st-century media and issues

6.2.3 Girlhood on film (prospectus)

Sofie Patch

English 102, October 2020

For my prospectus essay and final paper, I would like to continue with my analysis of films made by women. However, this time I want to focus on films about girlhood, adolescence, and growing up as a girl. I think that the second paragraph of my synthesis essay and the source I was analyzing would work well with this specific topic, since I will likely be analyzing modern films. I will choose a couple of movies to analyze alongside several academic papers that I will relate them to. I would like to study the impact of these films on girls in real life. I would also like to talk about my experience with the topic, and perhaps conduct a few interviews as qualitative research. It is important to me that I include perspectives from real girls and women in my analysis. I believe my thesis will be that films made by women offer better and more realistic representation of girlhood, and that it is crucial that these films are made because of the impact they have on girls’ and women’s self-image, as well as society as a whole’s perception of girls.

Some of my research questions are: What themes are prevalent in movies about girlhood? Are these realistic and relatable? How has the amount of films about girls changed over the years? Are there any trends in themes over time? How do girls and women feel about these movies? What do female filmmakers think about these movies? And why do they make these movies? What messages to these movies send to girls and women?

For my final paper, there are a couple specific films that I would like to discuss and analyze. One major film I want to talk about is the 2003 drama Thirteen, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. The screenplay was actually cowritten by a teenage girl at the time—Nikki Reed, who was 13 at the time of writing the screenplay and also plays the main antagonist in the film. Thirteen details the life of Tracy, a thirteen year old girl, throughout her travails to become popular and impress the school’s queen bee, Evie. Under the influence of Evie’s friendship, Tracy begins to experiment with drugs, boys, self-harm, and general rule-breaking, causing damage and trauma to her relationship with her single-mother. However, Tracy’s This movie is a hugely relevant and realistic portrait of the pressures girls face when going through puberty and adolescence to “grow up,” “be mature,” and act older than they are in order to be viewed as desirable and accepted by their peers and by society in general. This film gives insight to the way these factors affect an adolescent’s mental health. It offers a look into the very harsh realities that many young girls face, which is proven by the fact that it was mainly written by a teen girl.

Another film I will discuss is The Virgin Suicides (1999), directed by Sofia Coppola. I will be further discussing Coppola as a director, because she has a reputation for making films centered around girls, and has undoubtedly had an impact on the genre. This film in particular, based on a book written by Jeffrey Euginedes, follows the lives of a group of teenage sisters aged 13-17 in the American suburbia of the 1970s. After the youngest sister attempts suicide, the girls are put on lockdown by their parents, and the movie is narrated by a group of neighborhood boys who are fascinated by the unattainable and mysterious sisters. This film centers around the themes of isolation and desire to escape. There is extreme pressure put on these sisters by their parents to remain “pure” in a world that has already begun sexualizing them, and this has an extreme toll on their mental health, causing them to act out. Lux, the second the youngest sister, begins experimenting with her sexuality and is subsequently punished further, causing more isolation and depression. The film ends morbidly with the sisters committing suicide due to their loneliness, showing how their mental state was not taken seriously by their parents. This film is particularly interesting because it is adapted from a text written by a man, but rewritten by a woman. The film still centers around the idealized versions of the girls from the boys’ perspectives, but still display the reality of the overprotectiveness that many parents feel over their daughters, and how this can in turn cause more harm than good.

I am going to analyze a more “mainstream” film, The Princess Diaries (2001), as well, in order to compare the messages, tropes, and representation of girlhood. The movie is directed by a man, Garry Marshall, but the screenwriter is a woman, Gina Wendkos. This film follows teenage Mia as she navigates being an unpopular girl at high school alongside learning that she is actually the princess of a small country. Mia must face the standards for femininity that being a princess requires you meet, and this has a large impact on both her confidence and how she is perceived by others, causing strain on her personal relationships. There is a famous makeover scene in this movie that I will make sure to deconstruct, as makeover scenes are a common part of “girl’s’ films,” which promotes the idea that girls need to change their appearance and attitude in order to be seen as beautiful and accepted by others. This movie is part of a larger theme of princesses in movies. Perhaps the biggest example of this theme is the Disney princesses. I will be discussing this theme and how the movie The Princess Diaries plays into the common stereotypes and tropes portrayed in these kinds of films.

In my research on modern films about girlhood, I have discovered an interesting and complex trope for media: girl power. In the past couple of decades, there has been a push in marketing for a sort of faux-empowerment for girls. This includes promotion of “powerful” female characters that rely on borrowed “masculine” characteristics such as assertiveness, leadership, physical strength, etc. (Kearney 132). This empowerment is false because it does not view the development of girls’ identities as something separate from that of boys; girls are simply used as something to compare to boys, completely unoriginal and one-dimensional. There are certainly girls who are assertive, leaders, and physically strong, but those girls are much more complex than those characteristics, and this is not represented in these “girl power” films. Furthermore, the motivation for the leads of these films is often due to being oppressed by men, prompting anger and revenge (Kearney 134). This promotes the idea that girls cannot be strong unless they have been hurt before by men, or conversely that the only reason girls are strong is that they have been hurt by men, making it so that girls rely on males in order for their strength.

Some discourses that might be interested in this paper would be women’s studies, gender studies, film studies, and feminists. However, I believe it is important for everyone to contribute to the discussion of this topic in film, because thinking critically about the messages we are sent through media has a huge impact on our self-image and perception of the world.
















Annotated Bibliography

Handyside, Fiona. Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017. Google Books,

In this book, the author writes about prominent filmmaker Sofia Coppola and her body of work. Hayside discusses in length the prevalence of postfeminism in Coppola’s work, and also addresses the limited nature of her storytelling due to lack of diverse representation in her films. The author discusses the plot, themes, and motifs of each of Coppola’s movies and explains what they say about girlhood. She also tells of Coppola’s upbringing and the cultural factors that influenced her outlook. The aesthetics of Coppola’s films, such as fashion and music, are discussed as an expression of femininity, which leads to more discussion of how it feels to be a girl.


Hentges, Sarah. Pictures of Girlhood: Modern Female Adolescence on Film. McFarland, 2015. Google

In this book, the author examines common storylines in “girls’ movies.” She discusses such tropes as the “good girl” and the “bad girl” and the implications they have. She also studies the “makeover” that always happens in popular movies, and what message it sends to girls. She also analyzes the relationship between depictions of girlhood and consumer culture. The author offers an in-depth study of popular culture and the impact it has on adolescence.


Kearney, Mary Celeste. “Girls Make Movies.” Youth Cultures: Texts, Images, and Identities, Edited by Kerry Mallan, Sharyn Pearce, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, pp. 17-25. Google Books,

In this chapter, the author talks about the rise of girl filmmakers, and the reasons it has come to such a height. She analyzes movies made by young girls to decipher how they use this medium to tell their stories through a gendered lens. She also discusses the importance of media literacy initiatives and how they have helped young girls become a part of the production discourse. That said, the author also gives critique on the “protectionist” nature of much media literacy curricula, and offers a different method of teaching: “promotionist.”


Kearney, Mary Celeste. “Girlfriends and Girl Power: Female Adolescence in Contemporary U.S. Cinema.” Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood, Chuck Kleinhans et al, Wayne State University Press, 2002, pp. 125-45. Google Books,

In this chapter, the author gives a history of the storytelling of girls coming of age. Within this discussion are topics such as the beginnings of female youth culture, the physiological changes of girls’ puberty, and the riot grrrl community. She writes about the importance of including issues of age in feminist film criticism, and aims to challenge the ignorant ideas of gender roles in film. Kearney also analyzes the plots of specific independent films about girlhood through a feminist lens, as well as noting their thematic differences to popular teen movies.


Smith, Stacy L., et al. “Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers.” Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles Women Filmmakers Initiative, 1 Jan. 2013, pp. 1–43.

In this study, the authors discuss the prevalence of women in filmmaking. They also analyze the themes that are more commonly displayed in films made by women and compare them to those in films made by men. They argue that this pattern is not only shown in film, but that the gender of a writer, journalist, or reporter has an effect on their work. The findings of this study indicate that there is an identifiable difference between films that have woman directors, producers, and screenwriters, and films that do not.


Thompson, Lauren. “Girlhood and Sexual Repression in The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled.” Little White Lies. 8 July 2017.

In this article, the writer analyzes the films The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled, both directed by Sofia Coppola. The author discusses the themes of purity, femininity, and maturity, discussing how in both films the main girls are stuck between the pressure to be pure and the pressure to be mature, all while fitting into the narrow box of what is correctly feminine. She also discusses the relevance of death and religion in these films, and how they tie-in to the aforementioned themes. She compares the similarities of both films and the messages they send to the viewer.


Woodhead, Hannah. “What Sofia Coppola’s Films Taught Me About Being a Teenage Girl.” Little White Lies. 24 June 2017.

In this article, the author discusses her experience as a teenage girl and her relationship with Sofia Coppola’s work. She talks about how much she relates/related to Coppola’s films, and the impact they had on her as a teenager. She also discusses how in later years she has realized the role of the male gaze in Coppola’s films, and how realistic it is. The author specifically analyzes The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette and their representation of girlhood.


Sparling, Rebecca. “Princess Lessons: Gender, Power, and The Princess Diaries.” Marywood University Scientia Journal of the Honors Program. 2005.

This paper dives into the trope of the “princess.” The author analyzes Disney princesses along with other movies about princesses, including The Princess Diaries. She discusses the gender roles often present in fairy tales up to the modern day.


Hansell, Sarah. “’Twilight´ Director Catherine Hardwicke Advocates for Women in Film.” Street Roots. 25 February 2016.

This article contains an interview with the director Catherine Hardwicke where she discusses what its like to be a woman in the film industry. The director talks about her experience making movies and gives advice to women who aspire to become filmmakers.


Mueller, Walt. “Tracy Speaks: An Excerpt about ‘Thirteen.’” Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. 2004.

This article gives an in-depth analysis of the movie Thirteen. The author discusses how the film portrays teens and what this says about the reality of youth in society. He also examines the effect of parental relationships on growing adolescents.


Teufel, Trey and Emily Greytak. “Thirteen: A View into the Complex, Inner Life of an Adolescent Girl.” The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s Online Urban Education

This journal article discusses the impact of the film Thirteen. The authors analyze the mother-daughter relationship in the movie and the realistic nature of the movie’s plot. The article dissects the main character’s struggles with mental health and how it leads to her behavior throughout the movie while relating it to the realities of teens.


Gonik, Marnina. “Between ‘Girl Power’ and ‘Reviving Ophelia’: Constituting the Neoliberal Girl Subject.” 2006.

This journal article explores two gender-focused discourses and their relationship with each other. The somewhat old-fashioned “Reviving Ophelia” discourse offers a more demure, traditional girl, whilst the new-age “Girl Power” discourse posits a head-strong and confident girl who defies gender stereotypes. These discourses are commonly viewed as opposites, but the author of this article analyzes how they might not be as contradictory as they seem.

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