Opinion: ‘Bottoms’ is a bellwether of what teen girls are up against

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

If you want a barometer of cultural terrors, the latest movie about teenage girls is usually a good place to look. A pair of new films have their blood-stained fingers on that pulse: “Bottoms” is a satirical comedy about a queer-founded high school fight club, and “Perpetrator” is an indie horror movie about a rebellious teen who evolves into a supernatural creature.

Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson
Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson

These two stories, though wildly different, have both drawn (and openly invited) comparisons to the grandmother of teen-girl satire, 1989’s “Heathers.” Like that indelible Winona Ryder movie, “Bottoms” and “Perpetrator” use stylized riffs on high school movie tropes to delve into the challenges teenage girls are up against. Some—from the chronic threat of school shootings to toxic masculinity—are unique to our times; others—for example, wide-ranging misogyny—are timeless.

“Bottoms,” from “Shiva Baby” director Emma Seligman, uses raunchy humor to tell the story of PJ (“Shiva Baby” star Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri of “The Bear”), gay best friends at the bottom of the social hierarchy who start a self-defense club for girls as a plot to hook up with their cheerleader crushes.

The movie takes an ax to all kinds of cinematic clichés, starting with its poster, which reimagines the hoary old pose of male heroes with women clinging to their legs. (Here, it’s the lesbians on top, with the football players at the bottom of the heap.)

It’s heartening to see homophobia is never really an issue in either of these movies; queer girls are accepted as they are (aside from the sweaty principal in “Bottoms” who summons “the ugly, untalented gays” PJ and Josie to the office). But in its place, in both films, is the general notion that all girls are under attack or should always be prepared to be.

Heathers, Winona Ryder, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannen Doherty in "Heathers" (1989) - Moviestore/Shutterstock
Heathers, Winona Ryder, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannen Doherty in "Heathers" (1989) - Moviestore/Shutterstock

“Bottoms” has a number of memorable, spit-out-your-Coke lines, but one scene in particular stuck with me for the sheer bravado of its morbid humor. As the fight club members sit in a circle to open up about their feelings, PJ kicks it off with an enthusiastic “Who’s been raped? Raise your hand!”

After a moment of stunned silence she adds, “Gray-area stuff counts too.” Slowly everyone’s hand goes into the air.

This jarring moment doesn’t segue into an emotional breakthrough of any sort; that’s not this movie’s vibe. But it’s a joke that’s nevertheless based in very real statistics. Elsewhere, the girls revel in their newfound ability to throw a punch: One will be able to take down her stalker. Another rejoices that “I’ll be able to kill my stepdad!”

Yeah: This is dark stuff. Maybe even tasteless. But it’s not nearly as dark as recent studies about how much violence and trauma girls are experiencing in real life. Can a movie be a goofy sex comedy and also make you stop and think about the real life and suffering of teen girls? Demonstrably, yes.

Kiah McKirnan as "Jonquil 'Jonny' Baptiste" in "Perpetrator" (2023) - Courtesy of Shudder
Kiah McKirnan as "Jonquil 'Jonny' Baptiste" in "Perpetrator" (2023) - Courtesy of Shudder

“Perpetrator” also points at the perilous state of being a teen girl, albeit with way more gore; it’s been noted that much of it evokes menstrual blood, which is no coincidence. Wild-child Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), whose troubled single dad has given up trying to parent, sends her to live with a relative; in a fantastic hat tip to iconic teen movies, Alicia Silverstone of 1990s comedy “Clueless” plays Jonny’s witchy aunt-mentor.

At the new school, students are put through school-shooter drills in which the PA system blares “Code: massacre! Level: bloodbath!” and the school principal (Christopher Lowell) gleefully sprays kids with fake blood from a squirt-gun rifle. One girl complains she’ll be grounded for getting murdered. Again, yes, bleak humor — but not nearly as bleak as the Washington Post’s report that more than 356,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine shooting in 1999, with a dramatic uptick starting in 2018.

In the longtime tradition of supernatural-girl movies like “Carrie,” “Ginger Snaps” and “The Craft,” Jonny of “Perpetrator” is growing into powers that are a metaphor for adolescence. But in this case, her power lies in her empathy. “What if being overly emotional was your superpower? Because we still live in a world that’s just like, well, women can’t be president because she’ll be on her period and she’ll start a nuclear war,” writer-director Jennifer Reeder of “Perpetrator” told RogerEbert.com, adding: “But let’s talk about all the petulant men in Hollywood or in politics right now.”

Rachel True, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell in "The Craft" (1996) - Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock
Rachel True, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell in "The Craft" (1996) - Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock

Reeder’s plot revolves around Jonny using her heightened senses to find out who’s snatching schoolgirls off the street. As Reeder points out, it’s not often you see a main character of color (McKirnan is biracial) make it to the end of the movie — and equally rare in real life that the media pays attention to missing girls who aren’t White.

“There’s lots of women of color, lots of indigenous women, sex workers who go missing. They don’t get a slot on Friday night’s Dateline. And even though they’re missed deeply by their friends and family, they’re just disposable. There’s that sense kind of like, ‘Girls go missing all the time. What’s the big deal?’” Reeder told Jezebel.

Therein is the nutshell of the best of teen-girl cinema: It shows you exactly what’s being shrugged off as not a big deal when it’s usually just the opposite. Over the decades, you can see these issues morphing and changing, with directors getting more aware and less likely to stereotype.

I co-host a youth movie group, and when I showed a teen comedy recently, one girl rolled her eyes. 1990s movies, she groaned, were just “so problematic.” She’s not wrong (although the movie I was showing, 1999’s “But I’m a Cheerleader,” was pretty progressive for its era).

The evolution of the teen-girl movie is a lesson in course correction, and it’s always eye-opening to see how the needle moves. John Hughes’ movies humanized teenagers as real people, then “Heathers” rather literally blew up the idea of tidy high-school happy endings.

“Mean Girls,” spun out of the book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” showcased a new cultural focus on bullying. More recently, movies like “Booksmart” have ushered in an egalitarian spin on the schlub comedy, putting girls — including queer ones — in the roles historically occupied only by guys, with women relegated to humorless partners or unattainable objects of lust. With “Bottoms” and “Perpetrator,” we’ve moved yet another step forward in queer representation — not to mention in nuanced dark humor.

If you conclude these movies are celebrating bad behavior, well, apparently so did corporate America. Seligman has said that “Bottoms” wasn’t able to get any product placement, not even, she told Vulture, “any liberal corporation that has a Pride float.”

But these filmmakers are making the argument that some chaos is necessary for change —and that young women are justified in embracing that. As Reeder put it, “There’s power in kicking in the basement window, and it’ll be because we are consistently not allowed to come into the house from the front door.”

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