This feature contains mild spoilers for The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
The primary topic of discussion surrounding the release of Marielle Heller’s Sundance hit The Diary of a Teenage Girl has been its quality. The film currently holds a 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been the subject of a deluge of positive reviews, particularly citing both its unflinching and honest take on the coming-of-age genre and its collection of excellent performances – especially from relative newcomer Bel Powley as Minnie, the titular teen who embarks upon an affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (an excellent Alexander Skarsgård). In wake of the film’s UK release, however, a second issue has been raised as an interesting subject of discussion: its 18 certificate granted by the BBFC. Some have argued, given the subject of the film is the sexual awakening of a 15 year old girl, that the film’s 18 certificate ostracises those that it is in fact intended for.
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) – the UK body in charge of granting films an age certificate – is no stranger to criticism for its decisions, and it is not beyond the general public to somewhat ridiculously hound them as oppressors of liberty for rejecting (ostensibly banning) some such gore-filled atrocity that has fallen into their laps. Notoriously nasty films such as A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede 2 were famously butchered by cuts to ensure release, while other films such as Grotesque and The Bunny Game were rejected outright. The undoubtedly fascinating debate as to whether or not certain films should be cut or rejected entirely is somewhat beside the point here. While the exploitative nature of those films mentioned above directly contributed to the BBFC’s decision to reject them, exploitation is in fact a thing that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is purportedly lacking. Protesters have argued that the film is a sensitively illustrated depiction of teenage sexuality that carries an empowering message to young female viewers.
One point worth considering, especially as this is indeed an American film, is the fact that the UK and the US have rather contrasting systems of certification. While the 15 and 18 certificates represent two subcategories for those films that are considered more ‘mature’, the R (Restricted) rating that the US utilises demarcates a wider space between the PG-13 certificate (their equivalent of our 12A) and the NC-17 certificate (no children admitted under 17) which is seldom given for films not deemed pornography and in those instances only to the most adult films anticipating wide release (a good point of reference is that The Diary of a Teenage Girl was awarded an R rating and Nymphomaniac was awarded NC-17). So to American audiences this is essentially a non-point; to British audiences, however, there is a fair argument for the film being awarded the lesser of the two ratings. Arguably, the UK system is both more nuanced and, by that virtue, more subject to criticism. Without the safety blanket rating of the R certificate, the UK system must work to distinguish between softer and harder treatments of more mature material. Upon making their decision, the BBFC argued that The Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s mature content, especially its depictions of sex, were too graphic and frequent to allow for the lesser rating.
It is true that similar films such as Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank have walked the thin, sensitive line that is content appropriateness and fared better – Fish Tank was in fact awarded a 15 certificate but even that was considered a controversial decision that might have gone either way. ‘Appropriateness’ is very much the buzzword regarding this discussion. Many might argue that a school playground is home to far worse language than most 18 certificate films but that is hardly cause for something like Snatch to be recertified a PG, despite children’s occasional tendency to swear. This was essentially one of the BBFC’s chief arguments against Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen; while the message of that film was deemed important for younger viewers, its frequent and aggressive use of the ‘c’ word led the advisers to conclude that the 18 certificate was their only option (for a similarly controversial decision, this time in relation to violence, see Shane Meadow’s This Is England).
It is this simple: knowing what you know about the demographic that has been sanctioned as age-appropriate by a film’s certificate, you must decide who is at greater risk. Is there a greater risk in denying those mature, more knowing teens a film that might offer them advisory messages regarding the maturation of their sexuality; or, is the greater risk in exposing those less mature, sexually inexperienced teens to a film which, for the large part, illustrates a juvenile inability to reconcile physical intimacy with emotional satisfaction? For while some 15-year-olds will indeed have reached the maturity levels necessary to think carefully about sex as this film does, naturally, a large proportion won’t have reached that same stage. For it is only towards the film’s climax that Minnie really takes control of her own desires and emerges a liberated and sexually autonomous individual. By that point, however, Minnie has endured a physically and emotionally demanding journey and the payoff might be already lost upon less mature viewers now confused and/or terrified by her various, unflinchingly performed experiences. It could be a hard, vague lesson for those teens not yet ready for it.
In fact, if anything, Minnie’s emotional journey makes a very strong claim for the importance of an age of consent and certainly for laws governing the illegality of her affair with Monroe (note that Minnie is 15 and Monroe is 35; the age of consent in the UK is 16 and it is 18 in California where the film takes place). While Minnie’s actions are very much of her own making, there is a sense that she is not yet mature enough for the burden of such destabilising responsibility. There is sadness in Minnie’s story, but at its core it is not altogether a sad story. Monroe’s responsibility for the affair is sure to be read in contradictory ways, yet for all the hardship Minnie endures she ends up grown, and her climactic awakening stands as a hard-fought victory that is entirely her own. Her revelation is an optimistic assurance that loving one’s self is more important than love as a shared endeavour; by the film’s end you have no doubt that Minnie’s future securely rests in her own capable hands. The film closes with a simple message: “This is for all the girls when they have grown.” In that line lies an answer to this debate: this is a film for those looking back, not necessarily a film for those looking forward.