A couple of years back, I did an essay for the website about the evolution of teen movies. Coming-of-age films have always had a special place in my heart (if it’s because of my nostalgic age or just the transitionary period many of the films represent remains unclear), and since that essay, I have continued to expand my catalog. A thread I noticed while doing my hunt is how much of an impact turn-of-the-century Kirsten Dunst had on the teenage conscience.
Kirsten Dunst in Spiderman (2002) dir. Sam Raimi
Before she starred as Mary Jane in the original Spiderman trilogy in 2002, Dunst was in 20-something odd films the decade before. Most successful child actors stay booked and busy (particularly in the 90s), so the number is hardly surprising. What does stand out to me, however, is how often she collaborated with female directors and writers.
Most Dunst fans know that she became Sofia Coppola’s muse after starring in her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999). But even before then, she worked with Gillian Armstrong and Catherine Cyran, and in films written by Anne Rice and Sheri Elwood. The late '90s were not the Stone Age for women, but in Hollywood, they may as well have been. Dunst would go on to collaborate with many more woman directors in her career, including Leslye Headland, the Mulleavy sisters, and Jane Campion.
Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides (1999) dir. Sofia Coppola
The majority of teen comedies at the time were helmed by men, contributing to broad caricatures or extreme sexualization of its female characters. Remarkably, Dunst starred in four excellent comedies in the ‘90s and early 2000s that were all written or co-written by women (perhaps that contributes to their excellence). With the exception of Bring it On, most of these films never saw much return. All contain an empowering or corrective message for young girls.
No longer shall these goofy feminist masterpieces be hidden away in the depths of her filmography. Let’s dig in.
“Up your ziggy with a wa-wa brush!”
Strike! (a.k.a All I Wanna Do) (1998)
written and directed by Sarah Kernochan
This piece of media was a rare find. It grossed less than a million dollars domestically and has the privilege of being one of those limited release B movies that is known under two different names. Neither of those names was its original working title, The Hairy Bird. Strange, too, as the movie starred a series of already famous child actors and soon-to-be-celebrated faces such as Gaby Hoffman, Heather Matarazzo, Rachael Lee Cook, and Vincent Kartheiser, not to mention Lynn Redgrave.
The film went straight to video with its second distributor and became somewhat of a relic lost to time. It’s a shame, too, because Strike! (my preferred title) should’ve been a feminist classic. A zany flick set in an all-girls boarding school in the ‘60s, the film starts out as one would expect in such stereotypically catty surroundings. However, the film gives way to an interesting toggle of issues including female liberation, the value of sex-separate education, and students’ rights.
Odette (Gaby Hoffman) is the new girl in school; her parents shipped her off because they caught wind of her plans to have sex with her boyfriend. She is designated roommates with Tinka and Verena (Monica Keena and Kirsten Dunst), best friends who create double the trouble in their stuffy classrooms. Their friend group is completed by Theresa, an insecure girl who suffers from bulimia, and Maureen, the apparent brains of the operation.
After some gang initiation and early character shenanigans, the central conflict of the movie reveals itself: their school is losing funding (the all-women alumni base simply isn’t making enough money to cover the costs), and it plans to combine with the nearby all-boys school. The girls are divided about whether they think their education would be enhanced by adding boys to the mix. Tinka is confidently promiscuous while Verena is a bit more prudish. Some think their plight to become jobless housewives will become more automatic if put in competition with the boys, while others think that it would equalize the playing field and provide opportunities to bond.
As the film battles the patriarchy, it also advocates sex positivity. It encourages girls to take charge of their personal lives so long as they’re being safe about it (seriously, hats off to this film’s inclusion of a scene about the roadblock of contraception – Odette’s boyfriend eventually arrives on campus, down to clown, but not with the condoms he promised. Instead, he purchased a fancy new female contraceptive foam that… you can imagine, isn’t foolproof). The girls admire Tinka for her boldness with men, and they admire Maureen for her disinterest. Most importantly, they rally around Theresa when she is humiliated by a group of pervy boys.
All the girls deal with their burgeoning sexuality in different ways (based on the “where are they now” end credits, I have a suspicion that the original draft of the movie contained a queer subplot, which would’ve made it even more revolutionary). However, self-discovery is not what moves the story forward. The film builds up to the girls banding together to embarrass the visiting boys' school at a dance. Their plan emerges from a place of anger – they feel that they lack control over their education. Their teachers don’t listen (and even if they do, they are unable to affect change), and their parents are essentially out of the picture. Their ambition (in many different forms) is dismissed because of their lower place in the societal hierarchy.
Enter: this movie’s title, and a beautiful reiteration of the very principles this country was founded upon. If the movie had had a little more room to flex its politics, I’m sure that we would’ve seen a little more intersectionality in its grievances, but it seemed to have gotten away with narrow-scoped white girl feminism because of the location and decade it was set in.
The elimination of gender-exclusive schools is not one of those issues that I’ve ever really considered. My interpretation of them was always that they seemed controlling and regressive. For the girls who defend their institution, however, the experience is regarded as an opportunity to break out from the sexism of the time period. Everyone is equal, and students don’t have to worry about appeasing men with their looks or manners. It’s women supporting women to the max, and such centers of learning do have a valuable place within society. I walked away from the movie with a newfound appreciation for girls-only schools as a safe space for women to freely be themselves.
You might be wondering, what is Kirsten up to in this movie? Dunst as Verena is the anti-boy leader. But just as she is about to stage a sexual mishap on a very drunk boy (one of this movie’s more questionable elements), she softens and falls for him. I can’t say this is her best performance, but her comedic timing has always been strong, and she turns a certain coca-cola scene into one for the books.
Strike! Is not a beautiful-looking or tonally ingenious movie. Sometimes its narrative gets lost in the sauce. But its agenda is mostly on-point, and the team of girls spearheading it is insanely charismatic. Despite its funnier moments, it is quelled by its dedication to rage. Hopefully, some young girl who sees it feels compelled to stand by her fellow woman and fight the patriarchy on her own time.
“You can’t let Dick control your life!”
co-written by Sheryl Longin
Dick is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Not a hint of irony precedes me. I have never understood why a wildly inventive revisionist history teen comedy such as this one would not be better known. Perhaps it’s the crass title (a nickname for “Richard,” as in Richard Nixon, but most certainly aware of its double entendre – see quote above) or perhaps it’s the trope-y '70s backdrop, but something about it did not manage to break into the public conscience.
Following two 15-year-old girls, Betsy and Arlene, (Dunst and future Academy Award winner Michelle Williams) who accidentally witness Watergate, Dick is a goofy and remarkably enthusiastic third feature from multi-camp-classic director Andrew Fleming. Shamelessly nostalgic, the movie’s soundtrack and costumes had to have taken up most of the budget, with hits from ABBA, Elton John and Redbone accompanying the girls’ groovy disco outfits.
Modifying the groundbreaking historical events are items that can be traced back to the friends: the two discover the political crime while they are trying to win a celebrity date contest and the code name “Deep Throat” originates from a joke told by Betsy’s brother which they did not understand. Even Richard Nixon’s paranoia is attributed to the side effects of eating her brother’s weed cookies. Nixon resolves to keep them quiet by making them his White House dog walkers. It’s all so silly and randomly embellished, but as a piece of historical fiction, the movie is incredibly entertaining.
Dick made a modest sum at the box office, but it was mostly marketed to teen girls, who, at the time of Watergate, would not have been born yet. Although Betsy and Arlene are unabashedly girly girls, I do think that the general populous would find this movie rather funny. The problem is that society doesn’t take teen girls seriously, which is exactly what the movie aims to undo.
Betsy and Arlene are a little boy-crazy, but they’re innocent. It’s refreshing to watch the two act their age. Aside from a minor seduction scene involving a young, oddly haircut Ryan Reynolds, they’re able to navigate the intimidating world of politics and journalism without weaponizing their sex appeal. Dunst is at her bubbliest in this movie, and she and Williams have great banter (“You’re the smartest person I know!” “But you don’t know anybody…”). I am very disappointed that Sheryl Longin didn’t write any more movies after this one, because her and Fleming’s command of the dick joke is truly something that to marvel at.
The film’s superb cast is rounded out by SNL heavyweights Will Ferrell, Ana Gasteyer, and Bruce McCulloch, not to mention Dan Hedaya in his most gritted-teeth, cleft jaw role to date. Dick should be culturally revered. It captures and pokes fun at a farcical time in U.S. politics with the perfect mix of hard satire and idyllic memoria. It should tell you something that the deliberately ditsy leads are just about on par with the depicted intelligence of the White House staff.
Historical fiction teen comedies should be their own formal genre by now. Send Betsy and Arlene to uncover George W. Bush’s Lawyergate!
“If they ask you to take you to take your top off, get the money first.”
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
written by Lona Williams
Drop Dead Gorgeous actually tanked with critics. That’s not that shocking, considering that it's a black comedy mockumentary about beauty pageants. People just weren’t ready for the truth about the routine, systematic judgment of female appearances back in 1999.
Now revered as a cult classic, the film’s bleak narrative plays out like a horror movie: a dozen teenage girls in a small Minnesota town compete to win the title of Miss American Teen Princess, but bizarre accidents begin to affect the proceedings, and girls start to drop out, one by one. The young women all have their shortcomings in beauty, talent, or intelligence (and some characters are less developed than others), but one seems to rise above the rest: Amber (Kirsten Dunst), a peppy Diane Sawyer-wannabe who seems so far removed from the world of pageantry that only she could possibly see beyond it.
By her side is an all-star cast of up-and-comers including Amy Adams, Denise Richards, and Brittany Murphy. And don’t dare forget the show moms, a dream lineup for snarky bitches everywhere: Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, and Kirstie Alley, the latter of whom appears to have been the inspiration for John Travolta's rendition of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (2007). Together, they make the most toxic extracurricular work environment known to wo-man, with biting backhanded compliments and outright acts of aggression being the norm.
Some people might argue that this portrayal sets women back hundreds of years. I think that, at the end of the day, it is a woman’s story. Writer Lona Williams (whose highest credit to date includes her contributions to Dreamworks animation masterpiece, Shark Tale), makes deliberate reference to the misogyny and gross sexualization exhibited by the townies and male judges. There are a few elements that certainly haven’t aged well, but for the most part, the satire is effectively scathing and not meant to be taken at face value.
Kirsten Dunst consistently played the fresh-faced girl-next-door in most of her early films. She fell into her niche early and she plays the part well. Her Minnesota accent is the highlight of this movie, as is her rivalry with certified-hot-girl Denise Richards. Their strained dynamic is one of the more obvious depictions of society’s patriarchal design to pit women against each other, but the tense mother-daughter relations (particularly between Richards’ Becky and Alley’s Gladys) suggest that it is a generational internalized misogyny that helps it persist throughout time.
For the right fan of trashy, mean movies, Drop Dead Gorgeous will surely fillip a laugh. It is equal parts ridiculous and relentless. The American values apparently preserved by the pageant practice appear merely as a ruse for men to force women to value their looks and personal etiquette above all else (and oh, how desperate these women are). Perhaps the luxe of the beauty queen standard has since changed, but Gorgeous’s dissection of the limits of small-town economic prospects and social opportunity explains the cycle of brutal deference to such a practice.
“This is not a democracy. It’s a cheerocracy.”
Bring it On (2000)
written by Jessica Bendinger
Last but not least, Bring It On. This teen dramedy is set in the high-stakes world of competitive cheerleading and inspired not one, not two, but five spin-offs (as well as a television film set to premiere this year, aptly named Cheer or Die). Kirsten Dunst did not star in any of the sequels, and nor did any of the other original cast. Many will recall the second spin-off, All or Nothing (2006) for Hayden Panetierre’s recently-viral dance-off scene where she gyrates around, thrusts on, and fake punches a dude to demonstrate her sick choreographic skills. I digress.
The film follows Torrance (Dunst), a cheerleader who is elected to be the next cheer captain after the old leader, Big Red, graduates. It is a great honor and a lot of responsibility, as the team maintains a legacy of six consecutive championship titles. Unfortunately, after a girl on the team is injured, Torrance has to bring in a new member to take her place. The most talented of the bunch, Missy, also happens to be the most apathetic. Torrance reluctantly gives her the spot.
The movie captured a fun time to be in high school, depicting that interesting sliver of time between the eve of a new century and the tragedy of 9/11. The film was screenwriter Jessica Bendinger’s debut, and she has since gone on to write sleepover classics like Aquamarine and Stick It. It features Kirsten Dunst at her peak charm, as well as absolutely classic teeth brushing scene (which might’ve been the first time I understood sexual tension as a child).
Conflict strikes when Torrance finds out that one of their main cheer routines has been stolen from a neighboring school – a predominantly Black high school with a cheerleading team, the Clovers, led by Captain Isis (Gabrielle Union). Although the tense dynamic is only lightly addressed on the grounds of race, it does become an issue when the Clovers can’t afford to attend the championship, which Torrance attempts to fix by asking her father to sponsor their team. Torrance does get corrected for failing to recognize her privilege (and further, for the team’s appropriation of the cheers), which is pretty revolutionary commentary for a teen movie at the time. The genre was only just emerging from the “everyone-is-upper-middle-class-and-white” John Hughes era.
The film received mixed reviews upon its release, with praise for its performances/content but criticism for its uneven tone. It has since gained a positive reputation for daring to portray serious social topics and ending on a more realistic note. Plus, the cheer scenes still look great. Perhaps if it was given the flexibility of an R rating, it would be able to balance its sillier moments with its harsher truths, but the PG-13 version that viewers received still manages to make a cultural impact to this day, and probably for the better with its intended young audience.
Bring It On takes a sport that has been widely stereotyped in popular media as only being for the shallow pretty girls and turns the trope on its head. Even with its silly lines (such as the one quoted at the beginning of this section), it implores the viewer to take cheerleading seriously because the characters are so passionate about it. And if you’re so much better than them, why don’t you get up there and do it? It’s sincere and subverting, with feminist tendencies to boot, and will surely make even the least athletic of girls aspire ♫ to cheer, to lead, to act like you’re on speed. We’re cheerleaders! We are cheerleaders! ♫
Although Dunst is popular and successful, it has always seemed to me that there has been a hesitation to take her seriously because she starred in these movies early on in her career. It wasn’t until her collaboration with noted auteur Lars Von Trier in Melancholia (2011) that people really started to appreciate her acting chops, culminating in her first Oscar nomination last year for The Power of the Dog.
Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog (2021) dir. Jane Campion
But the teen comedy is valid. Dunst’s decision to star in notably feminist-leaning scripts is important. Such movies are an integral part of popular culture and make for formative experiences in young minds. She provided a beacon of light in a formulaic and oftentimes sexist genre, and I believe she opened the gateway to the future Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantses and Lady Birds wherein the female protagonists' plights are not entirely dependent on which guy she ends up with. Her filmography rules (if none of the aforementioned choices piqued your interest, go watch one of her Coppola collaborations), and she will always be famous.