Portraying Girlhood


As Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst), protagonist of the 1999 film, The Virgin Suicides, sits up on a football field and surveys her blue-tinted world, she is a true representation of many young girls. After spending the night with famed womanizing, teenage heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), she is abandoned by him and left heartbroken and angry. This sentiment is not quite like any other and is unfortunately a recurring theme throughout womanhood.

The Virgin Suicides, Carrie, Sixteen Candles, Girl, Interrupted, American Beauty, and more are all excellent film portrayals of girlhood through film. They showcase the true versatile nature of it, how raw and vicious and terrifying it can be. But also how carefree, beautiful, and soft it is. The girls portrayed in these films endure problems varying in severity, such as crushes, religious conflicts, conflicts with parents and family, their emerging sexuality, heartbreak, telekinetic powers, being institutionalized into mental hospitals, death, and more.

The big question many ask is, which is the most realistic portrayal of not only girlhood but adolescence and life itself? The answer is unquestionably the Virgin Suicides.

Set in 1975, in a demure, soft haze of suburban Michigan, The Virgin Suicides is a reflection on the suicides of the five Lisbon sisters, narrated by the local neighborhood boys, who are now men with wives and families. The whole community seemed to be in awe and in love with the girls, they were put on a pedestal. The five girls resembled the picture of the American teenage dream, all lovely and golden.

“The Lisbon girls are odd, spectral, starting out as an amorphous and interchangeable mass of five daughters, ‘a patch of glare like a congregation of angels.’” This flowery wording truly shows what the boys genuinely think of the girls, as delicate and untouchable beings. They were never human to them.

They were deemed as mysterious, beautiful, out-of-reach creatures by the boys, objects of desire,  seemingly glittering illusions that haunted the blandness of their suburban life. The girls were obsessed over hungrily.

However, if you look closely, the girls’ real stories and true selves begin to seep in at the seams. The girls live in a cold, oppressive, controlling, overtly religious home. Their parents do not allow them to interact with their classmates and friends outside of school, leaving them isolated and lonely. They only go out to church and school, like a resigned troop, a mass of bemused blonde hair glaring softly in the sunlight as they pile into their family’s van each morning.

“Everyone dated the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls. People saw their clairvoyance in the wiped-out elms.” The girls and their existence were so symbolic to the people, and their struggles and problems were constantly put on blast, a special kind of sick entertainment for the neighborhood. The girls and their death also keenly represents the death of the American dream, of what America represented. Traditional values and morals and family constructs seemed to be dying in the 1970s, a long burning fire being slowly extinguished, just like the girls. The Lisbon daughters were bursting with life, and yet they slowly died out.

Cecilia, the youngest of the girls, at 13, was the first to attempt to end her life. The scene is the girls’ bathroom, with Cecilia in the tub, holding a Virgin Mary prayer card, her eyes nonchalant and glazed over.  She did not succeed at her attempt. 

Cecilia was described as the ‘weird’ sister, as the ‘kook’. She had very few friends, wore a 1920s wedding gown, was reserved and quiet, and enjoyed writing in her journal. She was desired by the boys too, but from a distance. It was as if she knew about the atrocities the world had to offer, and saw so much darkness, whereas her sisters at the time were still pictures of innocence, their typical teenage concerns at the front of their minds.

On that fateful day when she was found in the bathtub, she was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, gathering mass awareness, or really, nosy neighbors coming out of their houses to stand on their lawns to preface this. In such a small town, the attempt of such a young girl to end her life was truly a shocking, earth-shattering event. “Cecilia, who in dog years, was still a puppy.” 

As Cecilia lay on the hospital bed after having her wrists bandaged, the doctor asked her; “What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” 

This sort of dismissal by adults is very much a shared experience. The tried and true phrase “My parents don’t understand me” in some part is accurate. Adults constantly disregard teenagers and their struggles, it’s only a natural passage of life. “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.” 

Cecilia was put in intensive therapy shortly after and was put under the careful watch of her sisters. This image of all five of the Lisbon sisters gathered in the front yard during the hazy days of summer, laying out on the grass, reading science books, walking around the grass, writing in a diary, encapsulates what girlhood truly is. This shared boredom, the limiting borders of their front yard. The desire to get out, to break free.

Eventually, Cecilia’s psychiatrist recommended an “interaction with males Cecilia’s age outside the constraints of school.”  Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon decided to throw “the first and only party of the girls’ lives.” This party was held in the Lisbon basement, and the girls invited the local neighborhood boys, the narrators, and sent them handmade cards, which the boys marveled over. 

The scene of the party is so realistic and true to what most interactions between teenagers are like. The majority of the kids were shy and reserved and talked about mundane things such as applying for colleges, model airplanes, and music. The girls seemed radiant and happy, almost as if coming out of their collective repressed shells.

This was shattered, however, by Cecilia climbing up the stairs into her room during the middle of her party. She ended her life that night. 

The boys went home and the girls were huddled together on their porch as they watched on, again, another painfully accurate picture of girlhood. This event, this loss of a sister so appallingly,  marked the girls significantly, but the boys couldn’t seem to give such a tragedy the importance it deserved. Instead, they were still reduced to objects of their desire, as sex objects. 

The girls’ lives go on, they enter school, do homework, talk with friends, have crushes, but the boys note the general neighborhood awareness that there was something awry with them. They seem a little lifeless and there is a mossy, uncomfortable restlessness and sadness to them. Instead of pinpointing this on the simple fact that the girls’ sister has died, they mostly see the Lisbon’s sadness as almost a romantic ideal. In fact, they see the Lisbon’s entire existence and life as a romantic ideal. This is shown most through Eugenedies’ lyrical and romantic, albeit masterful prose. 

The girls are eventually allowed to go to homecoming with a troupe of nervous, excited local boys, a cruelly deceptive and euphoric last act before the ultimate self-orchestrated tragedy would be bestowed upon them. At this point, Lux Lisbon, the main focal point of the boys’ desire, is very taken with Trip Fontaine, local heartthrob. He pursued her first, and she rejected and denied, until she eventually gave in and accepted his offer to go out with him. The girls wore identical long, flower-printed prairie dresses, yet they still remained a beautiful, blonde halo in the boys’ eyes. 

They went to the homecoming dance, and Lux and Trip were ceremoniously crowned homecoming queen and king. After this, they both went to the football field, where their quick-flame relationship was consummated. Lux was abandoned on the field after the act and did not hear from Trip forever more. 

After all this, Mrs. Lisbon locked the girls inside the house, they were not allowed to leave, and no one was allowed to enter. The girls grew increasingly depressed and hopeless, and eventually, they all ended their lives on the same night.

The girls may have been gone, but truly, no one and nothing forgot them. They stayed in the air, on the tongues of people; they represented the dying trees in the neighborhood. They became almost like a myth, a legend. But yet, this comes down to the true nature of this matter. The Lisbons were simply girls. Suffering as such. Being quite honest, the passage of girlhood is that of suffering. The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Sofia Coppola all portray it in such a realistic way, the most realistic way in my opinion.