I remember when we found out our child was likely going to be born a girl. I remember seeing the word “female” on the report handed over by the ultrasound receptionist at Mount Sinai Hospital, reading it under fluorescent light in a waiting room full of other women with big, convex, heavy bellies.
I also remember the surge of anxiety that came with reading that word, “female,” on the chart. I was scared to have a girl, I’m ashamed to say, in part because that girl would one day be a teenager. And like a lot of people in our culture, I have some pretty negative associations with teenage girls and teenage girlhood.
Subjectively, for me, when I was a teenage girl (one white and middle-class, in the deep dark years of 1988 to 1994), I found myself confronted with expectations from society in general, and other teenage girls in particular, that I possess or display the following qualities: silliness; vapidity; boy-craziness; proficiency with and interest in hair, clothes and makeup; straightness/heteronormativity; interest in narratives of romance; interest in sex; interest in gossip.
As a teenage girl, I did a poor job of possessing or displaying many of these qualities, and a few other teenage girls, formerly my friends, were, let’s say, “generous” in letting me know of that deficiency.
Some two decades later, my mundane, common high-school hurt resurfaced in a waiting room of other women who were, I imagine, like me—simultaneously tired, swollen, excited, apprehensive, impatient. I was terrified that my daughter would reject me like my peers once did, that she would be interested in a kind of femininity that I couldn’t teach her or help her with—or if not help her with, in the very least, display.
These old stereotypes of teenage girlhood—and associated societal and personal narratives of sex, terror and superficiality—came up again in my mind as I took in the film Rudzienko by American artist Sharon Lockhart, currently on view at Gallery TPW in Toronto.
Watching Rudzienko, which Lockhart created in collaboration with a group of teenage girls in Poland, reminded me of an important truth: as much I did not conform, or did not want to conform, to the stereotyped ideals of teenage girlhood in my own youth, I continue to carry those stereotypes with me, and project them onto many of the teenage girls I encounter in life and in art.
(A note: I use the term “teenage girl” consciously here, rather than “young woman,” for the connotations around “teenage girl” are more specific, and, I think, more a focus of past and current societal and personal anxiety. In the gallery website’s description of the show, Lockhart’s collaborators are referred to four times as “girls,” once as “teens,” and once as “young women.”)
What we see in Rudzienko are teenage girls—scenes of teenage girls mainly in nature or farmland, interacting with each other. Sometimes, they attempt to fly kites. Sometimes, they dare each other to jump a gap in a wall. Sometimes, they lie together in the sun-dappled forest, talking quietly. Sometimes, they dance together. Sometimes, they dance on their own.
All these girls speak in Polish, and, in an unusual filmic turn, no subtitles are provided for their dialogue as they speak onscreen.
As a result, for non-Polish-speakers such as myself, these scenes become an “opportunity” in which to project all kinds of assumptions and stereotypes about the content of these girls’ dialogues. For me, this included wondering if they were talking about boys, or clothes, or makeup, or parties.
These stereotype-based wonderings that I have both resisted (upon myself) and projected (upon others) were confronted with the reality of teenage girlhood when, in brief interludes, the projection screen went black, and white text scrolling from the bottom of the screen to the top offered fragments of the girls’ actual conversations.
Among the girls’ actual talking points: deaths of parents; being blamed for deaths of parents; feeling responsible for deaths of parents; being hurt by friends and family; anxiety and how to cope with it.
What these teen girls are discussing are topics heavy, philosophical, existential and elemental. And yet I imagined—despite my own best wishes, and my own best self—that they must have been chatting about lipstick, hair colour and Joe Jonas.
I am grateful for the subtitling decision on the part of Lockhart and her collaborators; it has provided me with this insight that returns and returns and returns—that of the double and triple and quadruple consciousness, which seeks to escape stereotypes personally at the same time as it polices them upon and projects them onto others.
The unconventional subtitling in Rudzienko also works in other brilliant ways.
For instance, the way the excerpts from the girls’ conversations scroll from the bottom of the movie screen to the top reminds me (likely unintentionally) of Star Wars and other cinema narratives that rely on a similar text crawl to create an epic, mythic feel. (How often are teen girls’ lives described as epic, or in terms of a swashbuckling actioner?)
Also, by giving the girls’ comments sole-focus on the screen, it allows the screen to be taken up, for a time, with the girls’ internal realities, rather than their external realities.
The girls in Rudzienko, notably, interface with nature and naturalness, and notions thereof.
In one scene, the camera frames a meadow at dusk or dawn. For several minutes, we watch this field as its grasses wave in the breeze, under the soft, shifting light. Then, girls emerge from the grasses, and they walk and run towards the camera, and past it, out of the frame.
In another scene, the landscape is silhouetted against the sky. Eventually, a couple of girls emerge in silhouette as well. As they walk down a hill, zigzagging randomly, the light situation means that the shadows of these girls merge with the shadow of the landscape.
On the one hand, connecting these girls thematically with nature might seem troubling—a re-enactment and reinforcement of the old “women belong to nature, and men, to culture” cliché.
But the way that connection between girlhood and nature is handled in Rudzienko reads more, to me, as empowering.
The largely relaxed way the girls behave seems to have more to do with the notion of “getting in touch with your true nature” than “belonging to nature.”
The fact that the girls have participated in creating these scenes, and deciding when to expose and to hide themselves within the landscape, underlines a sense of choice and autonomy.
The use of fixed-frame shots exacerbates this feeling of the girls being in charge—the girls run away, or move out of the frame, and the camera doesn’t follow them; the girls decide when they are onscreen and what they do on it.
This is, perhaps, a different way for girls to go “wild.”
Despite my enjoyment of Rudzienko, and the ways it has prompted me to see my own biases more clearly, it is not a work devoid of thorny or potentially problematic issues.
I think, in any collaboration with minors—particularly ones who have been through such traumas as the girls in Rudzienko—there is always a question of who holds the upper hand in the power dynamic in an art collaboration. I would assume it is almost always adults who have that upper hand.
On this front, it may help viewers to know that the collaborations for Rudzienko took place over the course of two summers alongside workshops with a movement therapist, theatre director, philosopher, and curator. And the director of the youth centre where these girls lived at the time has described Lockhart as committed in her work. Prior to this project, for some years, she has collaborated with other youth, both individually and in groups—for what that is worth.
I also know my primary approach to this subject matter has its own problematic aspects. What about leaving room for genderqueer and trans identities, rather than labelling my child with the word “girl” right away? Certainly, raising a child without gendered labels, at least for their first few years, is something at least one Toronto family has famously attempted, allowing their children to articulate their own gender identities when they are old enough—and I admire their approach deeply.
Today, I sometimes refer to my daughter, jokingly, as “Hurricane Zadie.” As an energetic and healthy toddler, she leaves disorder and torn-up Robert Munsch books and scattered Duplo blocks and crushed Goldfish crackers and mushed-up bananas in her wake.
Since we first learned about her sex some 30 months ago, I have been reassured by some people who remind me that it may be a helpful thing for her to grow up with a mother who doesn’t consciously intend to reinforce society’s full-force expectations around femininity. And that if she does truly want to femme, there will be ways I can still help her to do that. (Thank you, YouTube braiding tutorials.)
I want my daughter to be wild, in a way that works for her, in a way that reflects her own true nature. I want that for the girls of Rudzienko as well. And I am grateful for the ways that those girls have helped alert me to the stereotypes that I store and gestate and reproduce unconsciously, that I swell with and birth, and rebirth, against my gender’s own best interests.
Sharon Lockhart’s Rudzienko is on public view until October 29 at Gallery TPW. It is co-presented with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program.