Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost World (2001)

Revisiting the Cynical Female Teenager in Ghost World

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Ghost World was a film that had always been on my radar. A popular cult-classic film starring two cynical teenage girls (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson)? Sign me up. When I got the chance to watch it for a podcast recently, I was excited and didn’t look into the story so I could come in totally fresh. What I ended up watching took me back to a time when the simple act of being mean and cynical while being “unconventionally attractive” was considered a subversive, and even empowering personality—if you were white, that is.

Loosely based on the comic book of the same name by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World is about Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Johansson), two best friends, the summer after their high school graduation. Enid is aimless in her ambitions, while Rebecca, at least, has the clear plan of getting a job so they can get an apartment together, as they’ve always planned.

Things get interrupted when Enid ends up befriending a lonely older man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi), and the gap between the two friends grows wider and wider. Now, this sounds compelling and it would have been if Enid and Rebecca weren’t so utterly obnoxious, and the film spent more time with them and not the odd relationship between Enid and Seymour.

Let me start out by saying that I get the appeal of the cynical heroine. I love Daria, Raven from Teen Titans, and many a tiny goth female protag. But you know what those characters have? Layers. Depth of personality. More going on for them than being a tiny white edgelord, which is exactly what Enid is. Her personality is a collection of tropes that, again, would be alright if I felt like I understood anything about her. She dislikes her father’s girlfriend (why, we don’t know), doesn’t seem to actually care about Rebecca, and her entire personality reeks in a way that only escalates when she “borrows” an old Coon Chicken sign in order to get ahead in her art class.

Enid is a talented artist, so she doesn’t even need remedial art, but she’s lazy and wants to coast through life—which, again, I think is an interesting look at a female character. I just wish she wasn’t ableist, homophobic, and all-around mean doing it. I know in the early 2000s the “r-word” gets dropped a lot, but even so, you know who didn’t drop that word? Daria Morgendorffer.

You can’t help but compare Enid to Daria, as they share many of the same aesthetics of being cynical and disaffected with life. The issue is that a lot of Daria also works to establish that despite Daria’s wit, smarts, and appeal, she is sometimes just wrong. She’s wrong, sometimes she is too privileged in the way she wields her sarcasm, and sometimes she’s a bad friend. All of that is part of making her more than just a stand-in for male writers, but an examination of where that attitude and loneliness comes from. Ghost World never takes the time to add those layers to Enid. There is no weight to her personality, only an assumption that we will find her actions endearing because of the person who is performing them.

My reaction to Ghost World might have been a bit different if I’d grown up with it and had a bit more nostalgia for the kind of characters it is trying to showcase, but I think the aspect that still seems glaring to me is that while people herald it as the slow unraveling of a friendship, I never got a true feel for that friendship. Seymour and Enid have a stranglehold over this movie, and I wish more time had been given to the female leads.

I have not read the comic, but I’ve heard it is very different and more focused on the ladies. I’m hoping that’ll be the case when I eventually check it out, but I can’t say the movie itself encouraged me to give it another shot.

(image: Tracy Bennett/ United Artists)

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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.