If anyone wants to talk about the female gaze in mainstream film, Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde, is ideal. It’s a 2019 coming-of-age comedy about two high-achieving girls determined to have one night of fun before high school graduation. Nerdy and ambitious, they realize that maybe they’ve missed out on too much by sticking to the rules, so they set out to attend a party on their last day of school.
Both ardent feminists, Amy is queer and out but mostly ignorant about the mysteries of having sex with another woman. Molly is uptight, bossy but also a little insecure.
The whole film is a great example of the female gaze. Booksmart centers the experiences of two teenage girls, one queer and one heterosexual. They are overtly feminist in their views, openly discuss female masturbation, sex techniques and sexuality, and embrace their own unusual fashion sense in a way that is wholesome and supportive. In another scene they watch lesbian porn with skepticism and fascination, despite being concerned about possible exploitation. Both girls’ crushes are presented in a way that amplifies them as an object of fantasy while the realistic friendship of the girls is given priority and explored in depth.
The doll hallucination scene
In the doll scene, the girls start to feel the effects of a hallucinogenic drug given to them secretly by a friend. Worried they’ll get into trouble for drug-taking, they escape to a little girl’s bedroom to hide the fact that they’re stoned. They hallucinate that they’ve become Barbie dolls with hilarious results.
The doll scene scores comedy goals with the absurdity of Barbie doll anatomy and skewers unrealistic expectations of how women should look. It also throws in observations as to how tempting it can be to give in to the societal desire for perfection. For extra fun it expands a little on Amy’s queerness.
The fact that both characters end up studying themselves in a mirror gives us three versions of the female gaze. One is critical – of society and of unrealistic physical expectations (“Ugh! I have no core!” “How do I shit?”) The second self appraising, with both girls sizing up their reflection and finding it both appealing and disturbing in equal measure. The third is sexual, at least from Amy’s perspective. She finds the doll’s female form to be sexy and we’re not sure whether it’s something she admires in others or wants only for herself.
Booksmart is a film written and directed by women that focuses primarily on one aspect of female experience. It doesn’t shy away from positive depictions of feminism, nor does it dismiss female friendships and female emotions. It’s a textbook example of the female gaze.