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Teenage Discovery: A Comparison Film Review of Dirty Dancing, Fish Tank, and The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Does the film industry have an obsession with the storyline of the teenage girl that becomes sexually awakened by the much older man? Or is it just a good opportunity to tell stories about the challenging presence of youth and how it always leads to self-discovery?

In 1987, girls and teenagers everywhere fell in love Patrick Swayze as the dancing teacher who could literally sweep you off your feet; Johnny Castle from Dirty Dancing. Everyone was taken by his swaying hips and big hearted nature, and desperately wanted to trade places with his love interest; 17-year-old 'Baby' played by Jennifer Grey. Their love was forbidden due to Johnny being much older and from the wrong side of the tracks in comparison to Baby, which made their coupling fiery and passionate.

Dirty Dancing gave hope to teenage girls everywhere, that sometimes lusting after the older man could lead to love and a steamy dance scene that ends in sex. Whether this is an accurate portrayal of real life is irrelevant, as the goal of Dirty Dancing seemed to be to leave the audience feeling good and ready to boogie along to an award winning soundtrack. Yet perhaps there is something in the art of dance that provides a good centralised point for the audience to focus on, in the midst of the emotional turmoil of teenage girl meets older man.

In the 2009 film Fish Tank, 15-year-old Mia played by Katie Jarvis is obsessed with hip hop and practices her dance moves in an abandoned flat on a council estate. By comparison, Mia's background is much more in line with Johnny Castle's than Baby's, and in this scenario, the older male love interest is Mia's mother’s boyfriend Conor, played by Michael Fassbender. Fish Tank is not a feel good movie by any means, and instead shines a harsh but very realistic light on one young girls experience living on a council estate with a wayward mother and a defiant attitude. It is set in the Essex town of Tilbury, and demonstrates how quickly lines can be crossed in the teenage girl/ older man dichotomy when there is no adult supervision and no safe space left to express hurt feelings. Mia and Conor's encounters are cringe-worthy at times but accurate in their portrayal; so much so that the film could have been a documentary and a cautionary tale.

2015's The Diary of a Teenage Girl however, does what Fish Tank and Dirty Dancing never did, which is to make the sex between the 15-year-old girl and her older lover very central to the story. Minnie, played by Bel Powley is not so much obsessed with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgård, as she is aroused and intrigued by him. The film is set in the 70s and is therefore tinted with elements of 'free love' and 'sexual fluidity' which allows for the numerous sex scenes between Minnie and Monroe, and the dry, witty narration from Minnie herself, as she records her new sexual antics as an audio diary. Her self-discovery is gradual and will likely resonate with anyone who was ever a teenage girl.

All three films show the teenage girls not as prey being manipulated, but as independent, albeit misguided young women trying to make their way in the world they find themselves in. The older men do not actually lead, but assist the female characters on their paths to self-discovery, and more often than not they eventually find themselves discarded as the young women begin the next chapters in their lives.

Written by Maame Blue

 

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