The movie Thirteen made a big splash when it first debuted in 2003. To many it felt different than your run-of-the-mill coming of age story. Perhaps because it doesn’t read like an after school special or attempt to tie everything into a neat bow at the end? Or perhaps because it was written by Nikki Reed, who was an adolescent herself at the time?
There is a specific phenomenon that occurs when a girl enters her childbearing years and becomes a sexual being. To be seen as feminine and attractive, girls learn they must sacrifice their masculine traits and strive to conform to norms regarding passivity and submissiveness. This can be quite confusing, however, at a time when they are being given more responsibilities and expected to grow into mature young women.
In an iconic study done by psychologist I.K. Broverman, participants were given a list of adjectives and instructed to attribute them with femininity, masculinity, or healthy adulthood as Mary Pipher reports in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,
“The results showed that while people describe healthy men and healthy adults as having the same qualities, they describe women as having quite different qualities than healthy adults. For example, healthy women were described as passive, dependent and illogical, while healthy adults were active, independent and logical. In fact, it was impossible to score as both a healthy adult and a healthy woman (emphasis mine).”
Of course, most 13-year-olds have no idea of the magnitude of gender roles and their potential to wreak havoc on a frail and developing psyche (most adults don’t either, for that matter). Perhaps this is why young women often experience sexuality in extremes, either saving themselves until marriage or dabbling in promiscuity. Cultural messages make it clear that there is no middle ground, and teen girls certainly feel a sense of doom when they realize they must decide between the two.
The first time I watched Thirteen, I was struck by its clarity and valor. By then I had given up on finding a Hollywood film with any semblance to real female adolescent experience. While I did not engage in the same behaviors as the girls in the movie, the raw sense of terror and passion was not foreign to me. I remember pushing the limits until they broke and snapping back to normality like a boomerang. I remember what it was like to have to choose.