Coming of age is a classic theme. It’s a topic of seemingly endless potential to explore and examine from every angle, and it has been tackled by writers and artists since we first began leaving records of our experiences. In all the thousands of years of stories about learning life’s hardest lessons for the first time, however, we’ve rarely had the opportunity to see a lady protagonist in a coming of age story outside of YA lit or John Hughes movies.
While buried under a pile of dirty tissues and cough drop wrappers this past week, I had the chance to see two relatively recent and equally delightful movies that do give us a lady perspective on the moments that make us real live adults. Set fifty years and an ocean apart, 2009’s An Education and 2010’s Easy A both show us clever and curious heroines realizing the world isn’t quite what they expected it to be.
As exciting as it is to see two (2!) stories with women protagonists who aren’t having wacky adventures on their way to the alter by killing time in a vague writing related job, both Jenny and Olive are white, straight, able-bodied, conventionally attractive and middle class. We still have miles to go before our art and culture actually reflect the experiences of all the people who consume it. I’d love recommendations in the comments from readers towards stories on the screen or page that reflect a more diverse set of experiences of young women on the cusp of adulthood.
Easy A and An Education both feature extremely talented actresses. Emma Stone and Carey Mulligan (respectively) each completely own the screen with their performances, and it’s obvious that they are each as smart and clever as the young women they are portraying. Spoilers follow for both movies, so if you haven’t seen them you may want to turn away now. (Go watch! You won’t be disappointed.)
In An Education, Carey Mulligan’s Jenny is a bright, middle class high school student in a London suburb.
She’s planning on attending Oxford, and it’s made clear that she’s worked extensively towards that goal by excelling in school, learning Latin and playing the cello. She’s adored by her teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), pushed by her well-meaning parents and idolized a bit by her peers for her sophistication. I identified with Jenny pretty quickly, I think we smart girls from small ponds have a unique combination of hubris and naÃ¯vete that can easily bring us as much trouble as it does success. Floating on her dreams of traveling to interesting cities and meeting interesting people and talking of interesting things, Jenny is easily snookered by a smooth-talking jackass, played (to slimy-hot perfection) by Peter Sarsgaard. I can’t judge, I would have been just as obtuse at 16 as Jenny is in the movie. Jenny has a passionate fling with Sarsgaard’s David, who takes her to Paris and to fancy eateries. Along the way, Jenny learns David and his business partner Danny (the rather dashing Dominic Cooper) earn their keep by moving black families into neighborhoods to scare away the wealthy whites and stealing art. Charming. Jenny chooses to overlook this, and drops out of school when David (in a panic when Jenny discovers his livelihood) proposes.
Jenny’s parents are (at first puzzlingly) delighted, Miss Stubbs and the stuffy headmistress (Emma Thompson, in a small but memorable role) are aghast. Jenny’s parents assume her marriage meets the same goal as an Oxford education, she’ll be taken care of financially. As it turns out, even with an Oxford education, Jenny would likely only be able to find work as a teacher or in civil service.
Jenny’s plans unravel when she discovers David is married. He actually lives right around the corner from her family. Jenny visits his home and sees his wife and small son. David’s wife (Poppy Montgomery) knows who she is instantly, commenting that she’s only a child and giving the impression Jenny is but the last in a long line of David’s indiscretions. I think this scene is what earned Mulligan her Oscar nomination, in just a few seconds we see her grow up, her face reflecting years worth of wisdom occurring to her at once. Jenny turns quickly to Miss Stubbs, and we see a montage of her studying hard. It’s easy, in 2011, to scoff at her for taking the path she knew she didn’t want three or four scenes ago, but I think she made the best decision she could for 1961. The movie ends with her opening the letter informing her of Oxford’s decision.
Easy A’s Olive is also a bright, middle class girl from the suburbs.
Blessed with parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) 100x more fun and foreword than Jenny’s, Olive seems to have quite a lot going for her. Like Jenny, Olive is a great student who has earned the respect of her teacher Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church). Olive’s troubles start with a tiny white lie, told to her best friend to avoid having to go camping with her and her kooky family. Olive fibs that she has a date, but in fact spends the weekend being a boring, average, trustworthy teenager and becoming enamored of Natasha Bedingfield’s Pocketful of Sunshine)
Facing her friend on Monday, Olive’s little white like inadvertently becomes a huge, honking, life changing lie about losing her virginity, when then unleashes the full force of the school’s (Ojai High School, heh.) religious club (led by a trying-very-hard Amanda Bynes) on her suddenly erroneously slutty ass. This leads to her friend, closeted Brandon, to ask if she’ll pretend to sleep with him to get the bullies who are making his life hell off his back long enough for him to get out of town. Olive reluctantly agrees, and the two have loud and hilarious pretend sex at a party thrown by a popular girl. Brandon is instantly heralded as a stud and Olive is instantly treated as though she has leprosy. Slutty, slutty leprosy.
Brandon, stud, tells a few socially awkward friends about Olive’s service to him, and they come to her with varying offers of gift cards, discount coupons and other such miscellany to get her to pretend to sleep with them, too. Olive reluctantly agrees, but things soon get out of hand for her. Her BFF won’t talk to her, the religious fringe are all up in her business and her market value is slipping from several hundred dollars at a store Olive chose to 20% off at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Playing up her role at school by dressing provocatively has her teacher, Mr. Griffiths, worried about her as well.
Mr. Griffiths turns into a complication himself when a male student blames Olive for giving him an STI when in fact it was Mrs. Griffiths (played by the wonderful-at-evil Lisa Kudrow). Evil Mrs. Griffiths talks Olive into taking the blame, if only to spare seeing Mr. Griffiths get hurt.
Olive ends up outing Mrs. Griffiths STI embellished indiscretions to Mr. Griffiths after being made a pariah at school. Everything unravels, leaving various people in all sorts of levels of mess. Olive feels terrible, but she’s learned valuable lessons about how the world views sexuality differently depending on the gender (and sexuality) of those who are expressing it. Dan Humphry from Gossip Girl is her only friend, and the school mascot, and Olive and UsuallyDan end up riding off into the sunset on a riding lawnmower.
Olive and Jenny are about as similar as two female characters separated by half a decade of feminism can be, they each make colossal mistakes that many viewers can instantly empathize with while recognizing the inherent difficulties the mistakes will cause. Both of them are battling against what they think the rest of the world, from their peers to their parents to their teachers, expect of them and what they want for themselves. Both are smarter than the average teenager, and more curious about the world around them. Both take huge, foolish, passionate leaps with the best of intentions and little foresight to the consequences, but then pick themselves up and brush themselves off and keep going.
Olive and Jenny sort of span my generation, Jenny was the same age my mom was in 1961, and I’m conceivably old enough to have a daughter Olive’s age. I tried to find the best example of a gen x protagonist that fit with these two, but I found myself stuck. Winona Ryder’s Charlotte in Mermaids is the closest comparison I could make, as she’s less fluffy and a bit more fleshed out than the typical John Huges heroine. What do you think, fellow gen xers? Do we have a really great coming of age story about a women around our age?