Kara, last night we went to see the new theater production of The Diary of a Teenage Girl in lower Manhattan, largely because the tagline was “female sexuality and unabashed optimism,” which is the unofficial tagline of 90swoman, and also because we are doing a lecture next month at EMP on “pre-internet teen bedroom culture,” and Diary is the ultimate representation of that.
(Then we had a drink at the only open bar in the Financial District and started to talk about the play, which we both liked a whole lot, but got distracted by talking about the New York Post, ADD, and, mostly, the bar we were at, which we agreed was like being at the absolute fanciest place in some second-tier city and the absolute best place to have an affair with a day trader.)
ANYWAY, now we can focus on the play, an adaptation of the cult-classic graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner (on Amazon, it is #39 Books: Parenting & Families: Family Relationships: Dysfunctional Relationships). Marielle Heller, the very pretty and talented creator and star of the show, fought for the rights to the book and really did it justice. The production is very creative and affecting and smart and it made us think a lot of things. So let’s chat about it . . .
Ada: This is the most authentic play I’ve ever seen about being a teenage girl. Minus the affair with the mom’s boyfriend and a few other details, this was exactly like my life as a teenager in NYC in the early ’90s. I had the drugs, the moth-eaten sweaters, the dubious older men, the Converse, the notebooks, and the piles of cassettes. Watching this show, I found myself thinking, “Wow, do guys feel this way when they go to all the zillions of movies about being a dude: yep, that’s what it’s like?”
Kara: Ohhhh, interesting! I was thinking too much about myself to think about guys. I wasn’t into drugs or older men, my sweaters were of the brand-new Benetton variety, and yet, this play felt to me, too, like it perfectly evoked my teen emotional life.
Ada: One thing we were talking about a lot on the walk to the train is that teenage (and later) feeling of loneliness, that realization that there is just no one available to you. The show really nails that. Also, it illustrates how dangerous the combination of loneliness, boredom and curiosity can be. That is the teenage emotional danger zone trifecta, because when you’re in that place pretty much anything can seem like a good idea, including making out with a lesbian junkie who will sell your body to her dealer or taking a whole bunch of your mom’s Valium. Sex in particular provides (at least temporarily) everything you want: physical affection, emotional stimulation, something new and exciting . . . It’s a wonder teenagers today don’t have more sex.
Kara: Yes, I feel like people often want to simplify why girls have sex and, as you said, those are three big reasons, and they can exist in any given sexual encounter to varying degrees. Plus, you know, it feels good. And the play was really good at getting that across, too. I mean, Minnie is 15 years old; her body wants to have sex.
Ada: I thought this show perfectly captured the not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman sexual voraciousness combined with deep ambivalence, which is often mistaken for being a “tease.” To her mom’s boyfriend, Minnie says: “I really mean it, I really really want you to fuck me.” Then when he’s excited by the prospect, she’s all: “I don’t know whether I want him or anyone else to fuck me, but I’m afraid to pass up the chance because I might never get another.” And that is why there are statutory rape laws.
Kara: Totally. And, at the same time, the play highlights why laws will always be inadequate in legislating this kind of thing. It’s complicated. So complicated that I feel like I can’t even articulate what I mean right now.
Ada: You said the book was creepier to you than the play. Why?
Kara: The book was really haunting. But there was something about watching the chemistry between live bodies onstage that made it even easier to see how people can slide into definitely-not-socially-sanctioned sexual relationships. Which made it creepy in a different way.
Ada: This play made me really respect Marielle Heller and Phoebe Gloeckner. It also made me want to immediately take all my teenage nieces and goddaughters out to lunch and make sure they have my cell number. So I’m going to get on that.