Film

Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård talk about The Diary of a Teenage Girl

With an 18 certificate, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is bypassing its target audience. "Ridiculous!" say the film's stars

Released last week, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is written, produced and directed by women, made with a female audience in mind. Set in San Francisco in the 1970s, the film tracks 15-year-old Minnie’s coming-of-age, pinned on an affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe.

Minnie is a character cinema has been waiting years for – a realistic, empowering heroine who serves as a complex but ultimately positive role model for adolescent girls. There is just one problem with The Diary of a Teenage Girl: most teenage girls are not allowed to watch it.

In the UK the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has slapped the film with an 18 rating, restricting its intended audience from seeing it. There has been outcry from the film-makers who fought but lost a battle to appeal the decision due to the “theme and manner” of the film. The sex, drug use and bad language do not seem notably worse than other similarly themed films awarded a 15 certificate, so what has triggered this overprotective rating?

The film is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, who was hailed by American online magazine Nerve for “picking up a literary ball that’s been only fitfully carried after Salinger”. Minnie is played by rising British starlet Bel Powley, seen earlier this year playing Princess Margaret in A Royal Night Out.

Monroe is portrayed by Swedish pin-up Alexander Skarsgård, best known as True Blood’s smouldering vampire Eric Northman. Both were attracted to the project because it told an important story from a rarely seen perspective, that of a teenage girl, but when The Big Issue sits down with them at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (where the film went on to win Best International Feature prize), no one had told them the BBFC’s rating would prevent The Diary of a Teenage Girl being seen by teenage girls.

“Oh boy, I didn’t know that,” Powley says, open mouthed.

“I thought it was going to be a 15.”

“If I had a daughter, I would want her to see this,” says Skarsgård. “I remember being a teenager, it’s fucking confusing. ‘Am I the only one with these thoughts? What’s going on with my body, my sexuality?’ That transformation is a confusing time. Bel can speak more eloquently about this, as I didn’t have the opportunity of being a teenage girl.”

“When I was a teenager, which wasn’t that long ago, I felt really unrepresented in the movies I was watching,” says 23-year-old Powley. “There’s the virgin waiting for Prince Charming or there’s the sarcastic asexual geeky girl. If there’s a character that has a lot of sex then they are the high school slut.

“Teenage girls’ sexuality isn’t shown in movies,” she continues. “You never hear a girl in a film going,

‘I’m really horny,’ and if you do, you immediately know they’re the slut. I remember everyone used to say boys think about sex every 12 seconds. When you’re a teenager everyone thinks about sex every 12 seconds!

“The annoying thing for women is we have that feeling Minnie has in the movie, ‘Does this make me a freak?’ That’s why I wanted to do Diary – I related to it so much. I didn’t sleep with my mum’s boyfriend but I definitely felt all of the things that Minnie feels.”

The film shows the pair’s complex relationship with a constantly shifting balance of power. Do the actors feel the relationship between Minnie and Monroe is inappropriate?

“Yeah!” exclaims Skarsgård.

“It might be an inappropriate relationship but it doesn’t mean it isn’t a relationship,” Powley adds. It should be noted that in the UK any sexual activity with someone under the legal age of consent is a crime.

There is no content in The Diary of a Teenage Girl that hasn’t been seen in dozens of films aimed at teenagers. Film-makers have cited titles including The Reader, Fish Tank and Kidulthood as being similar in content but passing as 15s, and certainly Diary is less offensive and much more mature than dozens of comedies aimed at teenagers – such as The Inbetweeners or the American Pie series. The difference is that it deals with a teenage girl, instead of a teenage boy, wanting to lose her virginity.

Skarsgård believes audiences have become indifferent about boys in film being obsessed by sex but for a female character it is still taboo. “As a boy, you see all these guys in American comedies and think, I’m just like them because they’re fun and cool and we think about sex. But as a girl you go – fuck, what’s wrong with me? Why do I feel like an American teenage boy?! This story is more uncomfortable because people haven’t seen it before.”

The themes may not be explored often onscreen but in real life they are an everyday occurrence. According to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, half of all children in the UK have had a sexual experience by the age of 14. Should that not be better reflected in the films people are allowed to see, especially if they explore issues teenagers face in a positive way?

The BBFC thinks not. Here is its justification for the rating. Be warned, it gets quite hot and heavy: “Strong sex scenes include mechanical thrusting, breast and buttock nudity, and implied oral sex. One scene includes brief sight of a pencil drawing of a young woman with a penis in her mouth… Some still pictures and short animated sequences include the sight of penises, both erect and flaccid.”

“Strong sex?” clarifies Skarsgård, bemused. “It’s so ridiculous, puritanical.”

“Is that it?” asks Powley. “I’m baffled by this. That’s crazy. It’s not strong sex, that’s just what sex is like! That’s what we really aimed to do shooting the sex scenes. That is what sex is like between a man and a woman. It’s not particularly strong, it’s not particularly anything.”

“It wasn’t even particularly good!” adds Skarsgård. “I find it mind-blowing. How can it be more offensive to show a nipple than see someone’s head being bashed in by a baseball bat? This movie would be shown on the Cartoon Network in Sweden. So here, if you’re under 18, you can’t go?”

“You have to be 18,” answers Powley. “But what we used to do is buy a ticket for another film and then go into a different screen.”

“Smart,” says Skarsgård. “You’re not saying kids should do that… but it’s an option.”

The Big Issue asked the BBFC to explain a little more about their rating system. “The classification guidelines are based on public research, with over 10,000 members of the public taking part in their most recent review in 2013,” their spokesman says.

“The sex scenes and references are too numerous and sustained for a 15 classification to have been defensible. ‘Strong sex’ indicates the level of sexual detail in the work and is the key classification issue taking the work to the 18 level. The classification decision does take into account the context of a teenager having sex with an adult, however the same level of sexual detail if depicted by adults of the same age could be described using the same short insight terms.”

So if the concern is not purely age related, would the film have received the same treatment if told from a male perspective, as seen in most teen comedies and in fact the vast majority of films made?

“Context is central to interpreting the classification guidelines and therefore it is not possible to compare two different works entirely like for like,” the spokesman adds. “We cannot speculate whether the film would receive a different rating were it a comedy or other genre.”

“It’s cyclical,” says Powley. “How uncomfortable does it make you feel thinking about a 15-year-old girl wanting to have sex? It’s weird because we don’t talk about it and we don’t talk about it because we think it’s weird. It’s not something we discuss in life.”

After all this talk of sex and nudity, you would expect Skarsgård might want to keep his clothes on for his next project. However, he is the lead in Harry Potter director David Yates’ new adaptation of Tarzan – a character not known for being overdressed.

“Yeah, the clothes are coming off in Tarzan,” he promises. “Who am I kidding?”

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is in cinemas now

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