I first saw Whip It, Drew Barrymore’s debut film about a misfit indie rocker girl finding salvation in roller derby, at a preview screening for media types. Let it be known, those screenings are the worst; you’re in a room with 100 other people are required to see at the movie for a variety of reasons, and you don’t even get to talk about it afterwards.
Which was a shame, really, because for me, Whip It was an emotional experience. I was weeping, heartily, throughout the film. Tears of joy and recognition, because for the first time in quite some time I saw a movie that presented the slings and arrows of womanhood as something realistic, entertaining, and charming. Tears because yes, there is a film out there directed by a woman, written by a woman, and about a girl who wants to be rad with a nearly all girl cast and it’s a uncompromising vision! That isn’t condescending!
It’s simply the type of movie that I hunger for – and have been hungering for – as a female and an intelligent consumer of pop culture. It’s a tragedy, honestly, that the (generally) genius marketers at Fox Searchlight dropped the ball on having this film make money. We’re out there, I swear, and we’ll see more films like Whip It.
It’s also one of the most 90s Women movies I can recall. Here are a couple of reasons why:
1) Whip It was directed by an original 90s Woman, Drew Barrymore. And she’s really a director to watch! All of the choices in the film were smart and sharp. There were a wide variety of butt-kicking ladies on the derby track, it was a nicely shot flick, and it ends with a sweeping zoom-cam shot that’s very The 400 Blows. Best of all, it felt like a personal film, straight from the heart, down to even the music cues, and that is a credit to Barrymore’s work. Please make more films, Drew!
2) Bodies: One of the cultural artifacts of the 00s–the super-skinny, post-Kate Moss, anorexia look–has filtered into film in a worrying manner. It’s really disconcerting to watch actresses shrink down before our eyes, particularly because it hasn’t been for the sake of craft, but mostly to fit into some sort of beauty ideal. (*It’s something that’s particularly distressing when you watch a solid 100+ movies in a year, like I did for work. There’s no denying that images have power.) Whip It says fuck that and presents the female body in a variety of real-girl body forms: sylphlike and rollerskate skinny, broad and strong and tall, actresses with awesome boobs, and much more. The film is equally egalitarian when it comes to what characters are doing with their bodies–excellently blase + unleering when presenting girls flirting with no time for dudes (Eve and Ari Graynor), or covering Bliss’ (Ellen Page) fling with a (sort of realistic) indie rock boy.
3) Class: Where did class go in the past ten years? It’s so tiring to watch movies, teen-centered or female centered or otherwise, where the main characters are going through their story in a ridiculously unrealistic swank locale. Whip It feels rooted in a lower-class boonies Texas town and milleu. Bliss’ house is cramped and small, clashing with her mother’s pageant dreams. Kristin Wiig’s character is a dignified portrayal of a single mom.
4) Girl Power: Roller Derby feels very 90s woman, a celebration of being strong and rough and tumble and sexy. Whip It makes roller derby into the coolest thing in the world, and Ellen Page does an excellent job of changing into a natural derby badass. Sure, it’s a glossier, Hollywood version of the real thing, but it’s a heck of a gateway drug, I think.
5) Ellen Page would totally be on the cover of Sassy. We all know that. She and Alia Shawkat did a Bust interview promoting the film where they called themselves feminists and talked about image and sexuality and doing creative stuff together. They’re rad and they make me feel good about the future.
Pop culture is an interesting thing to follow and critique, but to be honest, sometimes I have to tie myself up in knots to justify why a certain story or narrative is actually “important” or “good for” women. When you have to consume a lot (as I did in my previous job), there really is a lot out there that’s just icky towards women and made strictly for the goal of lots of money. (And that’s one of the reasons that a Sandra Bullock, for example, can have such a schizophrenic year in film, even though she’s a powerful producer/actress.) Being a female in Hollywood is complicated, and actually getting an across the board great film out about women? Also a difficult feat. Where’s the female director pumping out films like a Woody Allen? And why doesn’t she exist?
I have no doubts about the importance of Whip It, however – it’s a great movie about girls and goal, girls and their mothers, and girls and friendships that every woman should own on DVD. If you need to encourage people to see it, say it’s Breaking Away for girls, which it basically is. Have you seen it?–Elisabeth Donnelly