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Ghost World: the ultimate teen girl outsider film

Flawed and bored, the characters in Ghost World weren’t Manic Pixies – they were human

Against the line-up of films also released in 2001 – the bawdy frat boy humour of American Pie 2, the ‘win back the girl’ premise of Get Over It, and the Plain Jane gets a makeover stereotype of The Princess Diaries – Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World stood out by a mile. Adapted from the comic of the same name, the film explores the life of Enid (Thora Birch), her friends Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) and Seymour (Steve Buscemi), as Enid teeters on the verge of adulthood in a no-name town of suburban blandness, mini-malls, and interfering soon-to-be stepmothers.

Radical for its candid depiction of teenage apathy, and even, depressingly, for having such a three dimensional female character as its lead, Ghost World has earned a dedicated cult following, despite barely making back its budget at the box office. On the 14th anniversary of its release, we look back at five ways it leapfrogged over its contemporaries to resonate with the next generation of bored girls, who – like Enid – sometimes just wanted to disappear.

IT TURNED AGAINST THE TYPICAL TEEN PLOT

With Enid and Rebecca uninterested in heading off to school – telling a classmate that his straight-and-narrow plan of a degree in business is “exactly the type of thing we’re trying to avoid” – Ghost World turned against the traditional “last summer before college” narrative of the American teen movie. The plot instead dealt with the existential uncertainty of the start of adulthood without the buffer of college – getting jobs, feeling trapped, the excitement of life without high school getting replaced by the boredom life in the real world. Even in its final scene, Ghost World resisted the temptation to be simple or straightforward, or to neatly resolve itself with a clichéd happy ending.

“Even in its final scene, Ghost World resisted the temptation to be simple or straightforward, or to neatly resolve itself with a clichéd happy ending”

IT WAS HONEST ABOUT FEMALE SEXUALITY

With protagonists who – within the first 15 minutes – laughed about their sexual experience making them ineligible for murder by a group of virgin-sacrificing satanists, Ghost World did away with the anxiety around teenage girls having sex (and particularly doing it for the first time) that was the crux of so many films of the era. Gone was cinema’s virgin/whore complex that painted women as either innocent maidens or guilty sluts: these girls openly discussed going crazy from sexual frustration and the miracle of masturbation – no shame attached. 

IT CELEBRATED THE OUTCASTS

Jumping on their highschool graduation caps in Dr Martens boots before turning to give the building (and the peers that are pouring from it) the finger, Enid and Rebecca are outsiders from the film’s outset. With their blank stares, deadpan sarcasm (“We graduated high school. How totally amazing.”) and totally over it attitudes (“Mostly, I just feel like poisoning everybody” says Rebecca of her coffee shop job), their personalities could give Daria a run for her money. They were truly identifiable to any girl that never quite fit in, and they weren’t impressed by “extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers” either.

IT USED CLOTHING AS REBELLION

You can see it on her face within the first few minutes: as a trio of dancers hit the stage at graduation in Tina Knowles-worthy matching cargo pants and crop tops, Enid scowls, her frosted lipsticked mouth contorting. She may be wearing same the cheap red gown as her classmates in this scene, but throughout the film her outfits mark her out as someone who is distinctly her own person, swapping between decades and subcultural styles (psychedelic, riot grrrl, emo, grunge, punk, goth, kinderwhore) with thrift-store mix and match sensibilities. While Rebecca’s outfits get increasingly dull, reflecting her integration into “real life” Enid’s wardrobe stays clashing, kitsch and anti-trend: she doesn’t want to be like everyone else.

IT REJECTED THE MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL TROPE

The central women in Ghost World weren’t characters that fit into neat boxes, and they certainly didn’t exist to fit the role of love interest, the “quirky” Hollywood cut out designed to add adventure and purpose to the life of a male character (instead, Enid just makes Seymour’s kind of a mess). What makes Ghost World important wasn’t just that its girls were flawed – cruel as much as they were kind, weak as much as they were strong – but that they were human: complicated, messy, lonely, and with more character than most teen films of the decade combined.

Watch the Ghost World trailer below: