Being a teenage girl can sometimes feel like a death sentence. Navigating the horrors of high school, confronting daily micro- and macro-aggressions in male-dominated spaces, and trying to figure out identity and sexuality on top of all that… it can be utterly overwhelming. But women don’t have to suffer in silence. The films of Sarah Jacobson allow female characters to tell their own stories as they experiment in life and flirt with death, raising their voices in a primal scream against the patriarchy.
Jacobson was at the forefront of the do-it-yourself, underground aesthetic in the 1990s, and in her experimental films, teenage angst is pulled out of the shadows, and feminine rage can have a body count. In her short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993), a nineteen-year-old woman fights back against the abuse and sexual violence inflicted by men through murdering them, while her feature Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1998) depicts the mundanity of teenage life in all its awkward romances and physical explorations. These films, screened as a double feature as part of Matchbox Cineclub’s Weird Weekend cult film festival, act as a potent antidote to reductive depictions of women onscreen.
The two teenage protagonists are seemingly worlds apart: Mary (Kristin Calabrese), the teen serial killer, is a drifter and a survivor of abuse, while Mary Jane (Lisa Gerstein) is a painfully average suburbanite who escapes to her job at a city movie theater as often as possible. Mary’s story is gritty and punk, filmed in grainy black and white; Mary Jane’s is brutally honest and funny. But it is perhaps no coincidence that they share the name “Mary,” which brings along with it all sorts of associations with virginity and female purity. Through murders or sex in cemeteries, through watching movies or watching men die, teenage girls make many attempts, some more misguided than others, to gain control over their bodies and desires. In the eyes of a patriarchal god, maybe the actions of these women would be totally sacrilegious. But we’re not looking through that oppressive male gaze — we’re seeing women as they see themselves.
I Was a Teenage Serial Killer opens with a figurative, and literal, killing of the male ego, with a shot of the bloody body of one of Mary’s victims. Mary, clad in dark sunglasses, smokes and applies lipstick as the soundtrack voices murmur “I could just kill a man.” She’s survived sexism from strangers and heinous abuse from her father; now, she confronts catcallers, kills sex partners who try to remove their condoms, and puts an end to any man who tries to take advantage of her. In this world, it’s either her or them; only one can make it out alive.
As if it wasn’t already clear that being a teenage girl isn’t easy, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore further emphasizes the gap between media images of women and their lived realities. Mary Jane and her movie-obsessed theater colleagues know better than anyone else that life isn’t like the movies, and Jacobson’s film functions as the antithesis to unrealistic films that set us up for disappointment. It opens with a scene from one of those phony romances: a beautiful blond girl in bed with her boyfriend, talking about how she is about to lose her virginity, and the credits roll over the scene complete with red satin sheets, candles, and jazz music. It’s all perfectly curated… but it’s not real. We then cut to Mary Jane losing her virginity to Steve in a cemetery. There’s no swell of music or luscious bedspread, but the sound of crunching dirt and groans of discomfort. This isn’t a melodramatic Hollywood fantasy, and sex is not always going to be mind-blowing or life-altering; it can be simply fun, or awkward, or entirely anticlimactic.
With her first time now out of the way, Mary Jane can spend the rest of the film focused on more pressing concerns. The cemetery setting for Mary Jane and Steve’s hookup creates a sense that there is a gravity to her actions, and as she navigates gossip, rejection, and heartbreak, Jacobson takes even the funny moments in her protagonist’s life deadly seriously. Sure, there are plenty of moments in our teens and twenties that looking back are undeniably ridiculous or inconsequential, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel like matters of life and death at the moment. Being a teen girl can feel incredible, and it can also hurt.
Jacobson’s films consistently work to acknowledge that female pain exists, and they take down a culture of toxic masculinity that denies women power and pleasure. Mary Jane sees the danger of masculine energy fueled by beer commercials and repressed emotions; after her unpleasant first experience with Steve, she is determined to figure out what she likes, sexually and emotionally, and get it. She doesn’t need mediocre men to fulfill her needs, but trusts in her own power.
As another serial killer, Mary meets succinctly puts it: “The white straight male is the epitome of what’s wrong with society.” For far too long, Mary has had her voice silenced and her suffering denied, and every time she tells someone about the abuse she faced, she is told that it is her own fault. The only way that aggressive white men will stop telling her that she is to blame is for her to shut them up with whatever her weapon of choice is that day. “I’ve killed 19 men. One for every year I’ve ever lived,” Mary declares, but as her film and her teenage years start to come to an end, she decides that instead of killing the patriarchy with weapons, she will kill it with her words. “You can’t keep me quiet,” she says, or keep her story buried underground for too long. She will tell her story even if nobody wants to listen. But people will listen, because the tales that Jacobson tells feel vibrantly real and relatable, even to those of us who aren’t teenagers or serial killers. Adolescence can be hell, but these films remind us that there is still hope for everyone coming of age in a scary, sexist, cynical world — we can survive.