hurry up please it’s time

by Megan Abbott

Sunday’s New York Times ran an interesting piece that speculated about why Hollywood seems to have so few (and even fewer successful) movies with preadolescent girls (roughly ages nine to 14) at the center. While the book market for this age group is booming, the carryover to film has been far less reliable. While movies like 13 certainly depict the perils (in a way that reminded me mostly of the best art-directed after-school special ever) of the age, this article focuses instead on movies targeting preadolescent girl viewers.

The author, Pamela Paul, speculates as one of the reasons these movies struggle is that  “The tween occupies a shifting space between the girl who has carefree adventures and the sexy teenager who angsts. It’s a phase that makes both parents and Hollywood executives uncomfortable.”

I’m sure this is true. My new book, The End of Everything, is from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl and I guess I picked that age because there is hardly a time of more “cuspiness.” It’s a time when the world still seems (at least, in my generation) mysterious. Even when your days are mostly filled with the tedium of school and killing time and searching desperately for moments of unsupervised anything, you are old enough to peer into a world infinitely more exotic, substantial and intoxicating than your own. To get a taste of it. It’s such an eye to the key-hole age. But, of course, you usually don’t know what to do once those doors creak—or fling—open.

One of the films mentioned in the piece as a rare positive example is The Man in the Moon (1991), which I remember getting it pretty right. The main character, Dani (Reese Witherspoon), is 14 and develops a crush on her 17-year-old neighbor.  The two begin a flirtation but once the neighbor meets Dani’s more age appropriate sister, everything feels taken from her.  There are some dark plot turns, but they are not sordid ones. And they feel very real.

The Man in the Moon is set in the 50s, and, thinking too of 14-year-old Matty Ross in True Grit, I wonder if period films manage this better, or we manage them better. They feel less close to us. Less close to home. And the social mores, more conservative, seem to assure us we won’t be confronted with what we face today. Because we always feel everything is more dangerous now, and young girls—we still invest so much in their purity, their goodness.

When I was nine the “teen sex comedy” Little Darlings came out. I still remember the tagline distinctly: “Don’t Let the Title Fool You.” The stars were Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal, who my favorite child actress as a kid (Bad News Bears, now that’s a preadolescent girl character you can write home about).

With its summer camp-virginity-loss-bet, I was too young to see it, but I remember being so tantalized and so terrified of it at the same time. I think I was fairly fascinated by it and when I eventually did see it, years later, I was surprised. For all its trying-too-hard raunch, at heart it’s a movie eager to, intermittently, show something real—about the thorny relationships girls can have with each other (including as complicated by class issues) and most of all about the ways curiosity and competition can push you into some pretty hard corners.  Kristy McNichol in particular gives her part so much subtlety, digging into the rawest parts of the story. And the outcome of the “bet” felt utterly, painfully real.

The girls in the movie are 15, and I think most girls like movies/books where the female leads are a couple of years older. And had I seen it as young girl, I think it would have been a complicated gift, but a gift nonetheless.

14 Comments to “hurry up please it’s time”

  1. Fascinating. It’s like as the parameters of being a 13 girl shifts…now it’s considered a “demographic” to which so many pop culture products are aimed….we find it harder and harder to depict that age and state. Jesus I wouldn’t know how to write a book about 13 year olds in 2011. Cos the “tweenie” thing, this is very very new and in my opinion nothing but a marketing construct…and yet of course if effects (i imagine) how you define yourself if you are of that age today. huh….

  2. I have this firm sense that being 13 never changes, at its essence, just the noise around you, the devices at your fingertips (notes passed in school become texts), the speed of life. But all those feelings? Still there.

  3. I agree with you, Megan. Great post! I agree with Nathan too. All the feelings of 13 are still there, as are a million new expectations; 21st century pressures put up by the media and marketplace. Some of my son’s female friends seem to be doing well, others not so much. Is nine the new 13?

  4. Indeed, the Cyrusesque stuff now had its BRADY and PARTRIDGE and such equivalents when I was a preadolescent…while items like THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVED DOWN THE LANE and RICH KIDS and A LITTLE ROMANCE would speak to me more directly (as certainly did THE BAD NEWS BEARS, and PAPER MOON) and while I was older than the protags when I caught up with FORBIDDEN GAMES and THE 400 BLOWS (13 or so), they were telling, too. Pitched a bit older, but touching on similar matter, I could certainly still appreciate VALLEY GIRL and HEATHERS and RIVER’S EDGE when they came along…and EASY A, perhaps a shade too glibly, does harken back to them. THIRTEEN certainly seemed to lack subtlety, in a way that MY SO-CALLED LIFE and ONCE AND AGAIN (which dealt with its child/teen characters well, I thought) didn’t.

  5. Thanks, Richard! Todd, I remember loving Little Romance and Paper Moon, the early edge of pre-adolescence). It’s funny–my impression is those 70s movies may have been less focused on market targeting. I think it’s much easier to deal with teenagers than pre-teens, though. That tremulous age between 9 and 13, particularly for girls…..

  6. Oh, PAPER MOON, certainly…it was at least as much about senior Pray as junior. And I doubt LITTLE GIRL was made with only early-teen intelligent misfits in mind…but that’s who it struck a chord with most strongly, I’m sure. Boys aren’t too sure of themselves, either, but they have (or at least had…I hope the past tense is more true) more outlets to sublimate that confusion without damage to themselves (well, sometimes to the extent of damage to themselves, as with the nastier sports, football of course the primary one in the States).

  7. God, I love that movie. But I do think it’s nice there is some effort now to get movies made that target young girls as viewers. Other than Disney (Jodie Foster in Candleshoe!), there were not many movies meant for me.
    I wonder, today, how much of it is about that discomfort with girls that age–too young to sexualize but no longer the kewpie dolls they once were at age seven and eight.
    Another memory: Bugsy Malone! The far side of realistic but I loved it…

  8. I remember Jodi Foster in FOXES. I think those characters were around 17-18? But Molly Ringwald and John Hughes made a huge impression on me back in the 80’s

  9. Oh, I loved FOXES too!!! FOXES (and John Hughes) are in the teen terrain–but what about movies with preadolescent girls? (Dare we go back to Deanna Durbin for its heyday?)

  10. Of course, for me, at least, adolescence started coming in at age 9…hence the trickiness of all this (and why a 9yo might well benefit from FOXES). I have a film awaiting me, EVE AND THE FIRE HORSE, which was praised to the skies as a genuine family film that has a girl protag…and then there were the films that didn’t quite live up to their literary sources, such as THE ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (I forget the alternate title the first film version also took), and latterly HARRIET THE SPY…

  11. I loved Little Darlings when I was a wee lass! And Man in the Moon is one of my favorite coming of age films!

    Great article!

  12. If I have to go way back, I’ll take a preadolescent Judy Garland over Deanna Durbin. Deanna is a little sweet for my taste!

  13. Say, what’s your take on the likes of AKEELAH AND THE BEE…again, teens, but still…

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