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Actor-Network Theory

at the Movies
Reassembling the
Contemporary American
Teen Film With Latour
Björn Sonnenberg-Schrank
Actor-Network Theory at the Movies
Björn Sonnenberg-Schrank

Theory at the Movies
Reassembling the Contemporary
American Teen Film With Latour
Björn Sonnenberg-Schrank
University of Cologne
Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

ISBN 978-3-030-31286-2 ISBN 978-3-030-31287-9 (eBook)

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With gratitude to the genius of Laura Mulvey, Sigrid Lange, and Stefanie
Schrank for the lessons they have taught my eyes, mind, and heart.
Dedicated to Henni—may the teen film in which you will star one day be
the most exciting of all.

Studies of youth in movies and other media have enjoyed fruitful progress
since I first started my research in the mid-1990s. At that time, a
few foundational books had been published, and journal articles were
appearing that suggested the “teen screen” was no longer reviled for
puerile depictions of sex quests and stalker killers. Cinema’s maturing
address of adolescence, which began in the post-World War II era, yielded
an increasingly serious academic interest in how youth were not only
targeted as a market (which the industry understood for decades) but
how they were represented by these media products. The resulting anal-
yses were thus concerned with the social roles, politics, sexual dynamics,
economics, and psychology of teenagers, an amorphous segment of
the population that draws endless concern from parental figures, moral
guardians, corporate capitalists, educators, and demographers.
The academic study of youth in cinema has remained primarily the
domain of these representational concerns, yet this volume presents a
further evolution of the field with its theoretical applications to the
teen genre. The meticulously detailed accounts of recent teen films here
engage with the work of Bruno Latour at a sophisticated level, providing

viii Foreword

insight to the use of Actor-Network Theory and related concepts within

a codified realm of media while also revealing the ongoing complexity
with which adolescence is portrayed in cinema. Sonnenberg-Schrank
takes on a delightfully intriguing array of topics within adolescent media
concerns, such as makeover narratives, gay conversion therapy, racial
tensions, and even ecology. This resulting re-appreciation of teen cinema
through employing a comprehensive social theory is refreshing and inno-
The examples considered are admittedly contained within the Amer-
ican realm, which does tend to dominate the global market, yet the key
texts are not selected merely for their popularity. In the chapters that
follow, you will see how Latourian concepts and ANT can inform our
understanding of youth and how they may understand themselves, and
furthermore, you will discern the rich contexts these films propose for
understanding American culture in the early twenty-first century. This
study is obviously not monolithic but rather expansive in its evaluation of
the potential for studies of “youth” and “media” as those terms continue
to undergo revision in our ongoing history. The promise of work such as
this is inspiring indeed.

Cocoa, FL, USA Timothy Shary


Opening Credits Roll: Spoiler Alert

This is a book about film—more specifically about US American teen
films (also known as teen movies or teenpics), and about theory. If it
were a film and not a book about film, this would be the moment for
a spoiler alert. Every film that is worthwhile can be spoiled by someone
revealing to you its one climactic surprise, its engine or outcome. Having
a film spoiled grants you an entirely different satisfaction. If you already
know the what you are more likely to be interested in the how, if you
know the one trick, you are more likely to look for others, maybe more
subtle ones. Darth Vader is actually Luke Skywalker’s father, Norman
Bates enacts his dead mother, and the Planet of the Apes was Earth
all along; fine, so how does each respective film unfurl to reach these
crucial revelations? A spoiled film is neither a ruined film, nor is it
automatically more fun, but spoilers do have their benefit. Here comes
mine that gives away the entire premise in few sentences: As a child
of the 1980s, I grew up during the advent of the golden age of the
genre; I became an avid viewer of teen films in the late 1980s, never

x Preface

stopped watching them, and witnessed how they evolved in the past three
decades (along with the scholarship and criticism that addresses them).
Part of teen films’ allure is how they constitute a, or perhaps THE, most
mutable Hollywood subgenre. It stays the same while constantly under-
going radical changes, difference and/in repetition. However, the genre’s
changes since the early/mid-2000s, i.e. its consistent diversification into
different forms and media, necessitate a diversification of the analytical
tools with which we approach them as scholars, viewers, fans, and teens
[future/current/former]. Enter Bruno Latour, a French philosopher, one
of whose central ideas I will grossly over-simplify as follows: Don’t be
general, don’t give a panoramic overview to create a vast horizontal land-
scape of facts and references, but become as specific as possible and take
the thing and its material relations seriously. Develop the context from
within the text—not the other way round, where context is taken as
a given and the task is placing the thing in there. Look as closely as
possible and let your object of study, your matter of concern lead the
way instead of leading it into explanation. Don’t be an explainer of what
things mean, be a meticulous notetaker on what they are and do, and
only then comment on something like meaning. This is what I will try
to do in the pages to come, hoping to allow teen films the complexity
they are often not granted as aesthetic artifacts in their own right. If this
were a movie screening, then the trailer reel and the movie’s exposition
would be the following notes on teen film in general and an introduction
to Mr. Latour—the actual feature begins when the two of them converge
and the theory becomes a practice.
The architecture of the book is intended to invite you as a reader
to move freely between the chapters: Read them as essays on different
films, or as a coherent chunk, in which a methodology forms itself in the
making. I’d like to see the book read as an open system of practice and
discourse that invites to supplement, expand, and enlarge the network—
to use these critical registers or mobilize further Latourian propositions
for an engagement with (teen) films.
[And if you do, I’d be excited to read it.]

Cologne, Germany Björn Sonnenberg-Schrank


If this were a movie and not a book, this would be my “I want to thank
the Academy” moment (the part that isn’t important for you as a reader,
but very important for me as its author).
Thanking the academy is indeed what I am about to do first, as I orig-
inally developed this project as a doctoral dissertation that was accepted
by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Cologne in
2017. I am thankful to my two supervisors Hanjo Berressem and Norbert
Finzsch. Hanjo can see a cake in half-baked ideas, and he granted me and
many others the freedom to pursue seemingly (and sometimes, actually)
nonsensical ideas that might or might not turn into great projects. He
was an inspiring supervisor, is a generous colleague, and someone whose
company is a pleasure in so many ways. Norbert Finzsch helped bring
focus especially during the final stages, and he deserves credit for being
a soulful force of nature, reminding me and many others that there is an
ethics and a politics to any research project and that the work is as much
about doing the work as it is about developing a stance. Thank you also

xii Acknowledgements

to the members of my commission—Sigrid Lange, Nicolas Pethes, Elisa-

beth Schäfer-Wünsche, Sabine Sielke, and Andreas Speer—for your time,
feedback, and thoughts.
During my time at the University of Cologne’s English Seminar, I
had the privilege of meeting and working with peers and colleagues
whose input and friendship strongly shaped this project and the years
I spent with it. In alphabetical order, I wave to these dear and bril-
liant people: Nils Bothmann, Jasmin Dücker-Herrmann, Michael Göbel,
Moritz Ingwersen, Kelly Kawar, Olga Tarapata, Eleana Vaja, and the
members of the Tuesday evening Oberseminar. The helpful spirits of our
department deserve more than an honorable mention: Marlene Mück,
Mario Laarmann, Konstantin Ketteler, thank you very much for scanning
scads of books (who knew how much Latour had actually published…)
and for being nice, fun, and interesting people, and especially Markus
Pinell for cleaning up the manuscript and my coworker and faithful
research assistant Jonas Neldner who must be credited here for his help
with the nitty-gritty, his insightful comments, and his probably semi-
legal ways of “finding” hard-to-get films for me.
I am grateful to a number of people besides those already mentioned
who shaped my experience at the University of Cologne in different
capacities. Regine Romberg and Peter Brenner were exceptional teachers
whose lessons in and beyond the classroom will remain profoundly
important to me. Bärbel Eltschig and Sabine Folger-Fonfara need to be
acknowledged for their kindness, for leading the way, and for untangling
a Kafkaesque jungle of bureaucracy and administration.
I want to thank Lina Aboujieb for her encouragement, flexibility, and
friendliness. Not only am I excited and humbled to publish my book
with one of my favorite houses, but working on this project with her,
Emily Wood, and their crew at Palgrave Macmillan was pleasant from
the first email on. Lina’s focus and input were crucial to turn this into a
concise (I hope it is) book—it’s appreciated very much.
My consulting editor Daniel Fitzpatrick had a huge impact with his
careful eye, his hard work, and dedication. I’m delighted that a chance
meeting after a concert in Dublin led to a visit to the cinema and a dinner
the next day and the quick realization that among our shared interests,
Acknowledgements xiii

teen films and critical theory rate high. Daniel helped to make this a
better book. Thank you.
Extra special thanks to Timothy Shary and Nadine Boljkovac, the
readers for this book. Timothy wrote several brilliant books on film
(teen and otherwise) that have paved the way for pretty much everyone
interested in teen film and, of course, for my book, too. I value Tim’s
generosity and counsel, his encouragement of my project and that he
pointed out where it might be improved on. As secondary literature and
human being, he is impossible to not cherish. Nadine’s beautiful book
Untimely Affects not only discusses affect, but deeply affected me and my
own attempt at doing film studies with a different way of looking at films
and, by extension, the world. Tim and Nadine, thank you for your work,
which I adore, and for your support and contributions to this book. Let’s
go to the Ethiopian restaurant sometime.
Thank you to my friend Jan Niklas Jansen, who doesn’t enjoy films
that much, doesn’t really watch films, but watches them for me and
read (multiple versions of ) this text (multiple times). Niklas’ ideas, ques-
tions, and comments have challenged me to think better since 2001, for
which I am thankful more than I can express. Benjamin Walter always
seemed genuinely excited about what I said or wrote about films, which
motivated me greatly, yet another benefit to having him in my life as a
friend, as his comradeship was invaluably important to me in the last two
decades. A big hug to Su, who watches films in ways my theory-corrupted
eyes can no longer watch them, for her perspective and for the fun that
she is. To Christoph for involving me in his David Foster Wallace project
to a degree that reminded me during a writer’s block that I enjoy writing
very, very thick descriptions of interesting texts. And footnotes. And for
being one of the few actual teens-and-then-twens whom I could observe
living inside their own teen film realities. And of course to Stefanie. That
tomato is you.

Cologne Björn Sonnenberg-Schrank


1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory at the

Movies—Watching Twenty-First Century US Teen
Films with Latour 1
Leaving the Cinema: Contemporary Teen Narratives’ Medial
and Agential Shift 1
ANT Goes to High School: At the Movies with Bruno
Latour 11
Outline and Argument of the Book 21
Filmography 24
Bibliography 25

2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 31

Translating the Transition: The DUFF and the Makeover
Film Subgenre 31
Referentiality, Representation, and Non-Mimesis 35
Case Study: The DUFF 37
Disassembling The DUFF: Discipline 39
The Makeover 49

xvi Contents

Character Organization: Types and Updates 64

Media Use: Translating the Bully and the Extensions of
Teens 67
Filmography 80
Bibliography 81

3 Actants | Objects | Participation: Teen Film Ecologies 85

The Teenager as Adult and Winter’s Bone as a Teen Film for
Adults 85
“A Method and Not a Theory”—A Short Introduction to
Actor-Network-Theory 89
(White) Trash Ecology: Abject Objects, Abject Father, and
Spaces of Obsolescence 91
Real Estate 103
Act Local: Cinematography and Music 105
Absence 111
Education 118
Responsibility as Rebirth: TeenAgency as Teenage Heroism 122
Flimography 132
Bibliography 133

4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject: Technology, Drugs,

Language, Ethnicity 137
A Black Tech Teen Hood Film: Technology and Drugs as
Quasi-Objects in Dope 137
Quasi-Object and Quasi-Subject 140
Case Study: Dope 142
Repurposing Language, Reclaiming Meaning 145
Mapping by Movement: Repurposed Spaces 146
Appropriated Objects and Media 152
Transferring Agency: Bitcoin | Etrade | Weapon 156
Hybrid Aesthetics | Hybrid Identities 169
Ethnicity | Language | Education | Agency 172
Contents xvii

Filmography 183
Bibliography 184

5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 187

Images and Inscriptions: Visual Hybridity as
Meta-Commentary in The Diary of a Teenage Girl 187
Case Study: The Diary of a Teenage Girl 188
Teen Films and Female Sexuality 190
Visualization 194
Teenage Inscriptions: Voicing and Visualizing the Self 196
Une Ecriture Feminine, Une Ecriture Adolescente: Writing
the Body, Writing the Self 204
“Everybody Wants to Be Touched.” Victimization vs. Agency,
Male and Female Desire 211
POSTSCRIPTUM—The Laboratory of the Self 222
Filmography 227
Bibliography 228

6 Conclusion 233
Looking Back to the Future: Conclusion and Outlook 233
POSTSCRIPTUM: TeenAgency 239
Filmography 241
Bibliography 242

Index 245
List of Figures

Fig. 2.1 Introducing a typology and taxonomy: football

players, cheerleaders and mathletes are all literally
on the same page 42
Fig. 2.2 Both women achieve imaginary completeness by
recognizing themselves in their specular reflection 58
Fig. 2.3 A mosaic of screens, becoming the visualization of a
hybrid human-media-machine 72
Fig. 2.4 The anthropology shot subdivides the totality
of teens into separate groups and classes. This
quasi-geographical map is from Mean Girls 73
Fig. 3.1 Trash ecology: the burnt-out meth lab and discarded
cars in Winter’s Bone 92
Fig. 3.2 Winter’s Bone’s first picture: the sublime Ozarks
trashscape 107
Fig. 3.3 Frank B. Nuderscher, The View from the Studio, oil on
canvas, ca. 1920 109
Fig. 3.4 On the outside looking in through the glass barrier 120
Fig. 3.5 Responsibility and response-ability. Animals as
non-human actants 125

xx List of Figures

Fig. 3.6 Sonny and Peanutbutter, doubled and completed by

their reflection in the mirror 126
Fig. 3.7 Entangled ecology: objects, human and non-human
life in Leave No Trace 130
Fig. 4.1 “No verticality or underground.” Traversing the
Bottoms on BMX bikes 149
Fig. 4.2 Geeky bricoleurs: Super Nintendo still life 153
Fig. 4.3 “Nobody‘s going to suspect a thing. We‘re just geeks
doing what geeks do” 157
Fig. 4.4 School as a space for science and crime 158
Fig. 4.5 Hybrid visual architecture: the drone footage 161
Fig. 4.6 Proliferation of images in an attention economy 163
Fig. 4.7 The all-seeing human and non-human eye/i: iphone
panopticism 163
Fig. 4.8 Excess, exhibitionism, narcissim and voyeurism:
meme culture 164
Fig. 4.9 Post-continuity stylistics 172
Fig. 4.10 The Barbie dolls as cinematographic objects in
Seventh Grade 181
Fig. 5.1a and b Birthing and wagging penis animation: defusing and
emphasizing sexual content 200
Fig. 5.2 Mirror scene in the cluttered boudoir 202
Fig. 5.3 Cascades of images: reenacting the polaroid 206
Fig. 5.4 The immediacy of the inscription device: a page
from the book where Gloeckner/Minnie tests
automatic-machinic typing as opposed to consciously
writing 208
Fig. 5.5 Becoming hybrid: Minnie morphing into her cartoon
counterpart 210
Fig. 5.6 King Kong and the white boy: Minnie’s comic strip
“The Making of a Harlot” 215
Fig. 5.7 Literalization of the metaphor: Minnie is high on
LSD 218
Fig. 5.8 Holy sisterhood: snacking on communion wafers in
Lady Bird 224
Introduction: Actor-Network Theory
at the Movies—Watching Twenty-First
Century US Teen Films with Latour

Leaving the Cinema: Contemporary Teen

Narratives’ Medial and Agential Shift
American teen films have been reliable cinematic companions for US
teenagers since their inception after the end of World War II, when both
the teenager as a term with its current meaning and as a distinct societal
group came into being.1 As a body of film, they are traditionally both

1The preconditions out of which “the teenager” emerged after World War II are retraced
in-depth by Jon Savage in his transcultural overview Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875–
1945 (2007) and by Bodo Mrozek for the 1950s and 1960s in Jugend Pop Kultur (2019);
also see Kelly Schrum’s Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls’ Culture (2004).
Analyzing the circumstances in which the American teenager as a cultural construction took
shape, Thomas Hine points out that the invention of the term teenager in its current use
in 1941 was a move to turn adolescents into a distinct group to which commodities can be
sold, but also that this development is at once a genuine twentieth-century phenomenon, as
well as a genuinely American figuration: “America created the teenager in its own image—
brash, unfinished, ebullient, idealistic, crude, energetic, innocent, greedy, changing in all sorts
of unsettling ways. … The American teenager is the noble savage in blue jeans, the future in
your face. Teenagers occupy a special place in the society. They are envied and sold to, studied
and deplored” (2007, 10). For an overview of the American teenager and their cinematic
representation, also see Considine, Shary, Driscoll, Tropiano, and Smith (who also offers an
excellent recent overview on teen film scholarship [2017, 6–20]).
© The Author(s) 2020 1
B. Sonnenberg-Schrank, Actor-Network Theory at the Movies,
2 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

consistent and dynamic to a high degree: On the one hand, they are
by definition organized around the coming-of-age experience and revisit
similar and recurring tropes, settings, rites, and types; on the other hand,
they narrate them in a multitude of ever-changing ways and media. As
Hollywood’s take on the bildungsroman, the literary roots of the teen
film can be traced back to the gradual acknowledging that took in since
the Enlightenment that the subdivisions of human development need
more gradation than the distinction into children and adults. In dif-
ferent fields, the in-between stage of adolescence was addressed, from
Rousseau’s educational philosophy to G. Stanley Hall’s groundbreaking
work on Adolescence (1904), to literature, and law and instigated the pro-
cess from which eventually “the teenager” emerged.
While the cinematic roots of the modern teen film go back as far as
the first quarter of the twentieth century and representations of then-
burgeoning youth cultures (e.g., in the flapper film), the first wave of
teen films is a postwar phenomenon, coinciding with the discovery of
the teenager as a new market that demands new product. Industries in
this thriving postwar economy reacted quickly to the awakening con-
sumerist desires of the new marketplace, catering to a hungry teenage
demographic with tailored-to-fit products. At the frontline was Holly-
wood with an increased output of narratives that can now be acknowl-
edged as the starting point of the modern teen film and cinema’s coun-
terpart to young adult fiction. Driscoll observes that historically “film
and modern adolescence emerged at the same time and have consis-
tently influenced each other” (2011, 5). Now a massive and heteroge-
neous body of films, subgenres, and cycles, teen films have since those
early days targeted and depicted adolescent audiences with quite specific
protagonists, settings, themes, rites, and institutions that are connected
to the coming-of-age experience.
The dominant modes in which youths on screen were represented in
the first big teen film waves from the mid-1940s to the 1950s shifted
from “clean teens” to “juvenile delinquents,” indicating how America’s
youth has been the canvas for manifold, quickly changing, and often con-
tradicting projections ever since. The teen film’s heyday, when its form
(both in terms of narrative and mediality) was firmly established, was
the prolific 1980s and 1990s, the era when the genre arguably peaked
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 3

through a slew of constitutive, genre-defining, commercially successful,

and culturally influential texts. In the last decade, however a medial shift
can be observed, away from the cinema as a space and the feature film as
its predominant form, and a shift away from the enclosed diegetic worlds
of teen films toward a different involvement of the audience, which can
be usefully termed agential shift. Both the medial and agential shift can
be illustrated by a recent example: In 2017, the TV series Riverdale,
started airing as an adaptation (or rather re-interpretation or remedia-
tion [Bolter and Grusin 1999]) of the famous Archie Comics, a comic
book universe organized around and geared to adolescents, which takes
place in the fictional All-American small town of Riverdale. Established
in 1939 and branching out into a multitude of franchises and differ-
ent media, Archie Comics and their characters have become ingrained in
the collective memory of American pop and youth culture, famous for
their saccharine wholesomeness, embodied by Archie Comics’ own The
Archies, arguably the first virtual pop group, and their aptly titled 1969
#1 hit “Sugar Sugar.”2 Besides the surprisingly—surprising in compari-
son with other teen series and the reputation of the Archieverse—dark
tone, themes, and the excessive visual style of the show, Riverdale is char-
acterized by its vast number of explicit and implicit references, both visu-
ally, in content, in the screenwriting that is rife with witty in-jokes and
allusions to literature or films, and even in the casting, featuring some
of the biggest stars of 1980s and 1990s teen films and television, such as
Molly Ringwald from the John Hughes cycle, and Beverly Hills 90210 ’s
late Luke Perry, who in the show play Archie Andrews’ conflicted
parents—a meta-casting almost that posits the show as the offspring of
the “parent” texts. Such postmodern referentiality is common fare in
popular culture, yet the textual interplay in this example goes beyond
mere (self-)reflexivity. What I will argue here is that the techniques of
citation and appropriation are not a play on, but a part of our real-
ity. We see characters talking about a world (ours and theirs) that is
both in the process of being made and making itself, intertwining intra-
and extradiegetic fictions and realities and making such distinctions no

2 Forthe development of the Archieverse as well as its efforts to go with the times by gradually
opening its diegetic cosmos to new characters and themes echoing respective cultural shifts
especially regarding race, gender, and sexuality, see also Sonnenberg-Schrank (2015).
4 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

longer possible. The following dialogue between Riverdale’s main charac-

ters exemplifies how the show constantly makes its position in the corpus
of cinematic teen narratives visible and self-awarely reflects it:

Jughead: The drive-in closing, it’s just one more nail in the coffin that
is Riverdale. No. Forget Riverdale. In the coffin of the American
dream … The Twilight Drive-In should mean something to us.
People should be trying to save it.
Veronica: In this age of Netflix and VOD, do people really want to
watch a movie in a car? I mean, who even goes there?
Jason: People who want to buy crack.
Jughead: And cinephiles and car enthusiasts, right, Bets? … Also, you
guys should come to closing night. I’m thinking American Graffiti.
Or is that too obvious?
Betty: Maybe Rebel Without a Cause?
(from Riverdale, season 1, episode 4, 2017)

Their conversation is a more general commentary on the development

of cinematic production and consumption, but it is particularly con-
cerned with the status of the American teen film. In its traditional form,
the teen film has lost its arena and perhaps even become a thing of the
past, relegated to nostalgia while it is simultaneously reinvented in new
forms and new media. While Rebel Without a Cause (1955) can be seen
as an urtext for teen films, American Graffiti (1973) is already a nostal-
gic look back on a bygone era in which teenagers move through a car-
centered postwar California of drive-in cinemas and drive-in restaurants,
accompanied by the ever-present score provided by car radios. Both films
address the importance of the moviegoing experience as part of the tran-
sitional coming-of-age experience: In American Graffiti, the drive-in cin-
ema functions as an allegorical place of desire for the past (as it does
in Riverdale); in Rebel Without a Cause, the teens’ reaction to the power
of the big screen is played out in the planetarium scene where the pro-
tagonists’ feeling of being overwhelmed metaphorically by their difficult
adolescence is literalized by showing them overwhelmed by the weight
of the entire cosmos as well as by the cinematic apparatus which projects
it onto the screen in unison. Like the scene from Riverdale, both films
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 5

are concerned with the relation of teenagers and (teen) films, their medi-
ality, and locales. By having the characters reflect about the demise of
the drive-in, the once so significant locale, and by attaching this to the
demise of towns and small-town America, the myth of the car (and thus,
by extension, the American Dream), and by having them at the same
time connect this demise to a shift in media and technology (“In this age
of Netflix and VOD”), the medial shift is both acknowledged and co-
constructed. The fact that the show in which the characters discuss this
medial shift is delivered to spectators by these very channels not only
makes this a metafictional comment about the teen narrative’s shift away
from both the original comics (and by extension, magazines and printed
matter more generally3 ) or about the traditional narrative feature, those
films that were screened in the very movie theaters and drive-ins that
have apparently become obsolete; even more, by doing this from within
the medium of VOD, the comment emphasizes the repercussions of the
medial shift to a postcinematic era: A teen series commenting on the
decline of traditional teen cinema—a development, to which it itself also
There is still substantial demand for cinematic teen narratives sup-
plied by the Hollywood industrial complex, but they have modified in
correspondence to (and in order to accommodate) changing modes of
consumption, as well as a shift from analog to digital. This also entails
a spatial or environmental shift from location-bound cinemas, or TV
broadcasts determined by programmers, to consumer-determined view-
ing, uncoupled from any fixed location or temporal requirement, but
also to some degree from the more conclusive and self-contained narra-
tives of the traditional ninety-minute feature. What we are more likely
to encounter are potentially infinitely renewable continuing serial narra-
tives. In this altered media landscape, teen films’ modes of existence have
evolved into the present state where teen narratives find articulations in
a diversified set of forms. In the last ten years, two main trends can be
identified then in terms of targeting a teen demographic: television or

3 For the past decade, the number of titles in the teen magazine segment and their sales and
circulation have declined drastically, mostly attributed to the Internet, social media, and a
changed media use in general. Also see Haughney (2013) or Ilyashov (2016).
6 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

VOD series, and—as sub-category of a broader Hollywood trend—teen-

focused blockbuster event cinema, often based on franchises, typically
with an inherent seriality, for instance Twilight (2008–2012), Hunger
Games (2012–2015), Maze Runner (2014–2018), or Divergent (2014–
2016). Hybrid forms such as the Twilight Saga have become emblem-
atic of this medial transition. The individual installments of the series
function as self-contained films, but they differ from the traditional teen
film: As adaptations of a series of novels, they are already in the realm
of remediation (or from a less media studies-driven angle, in the realm
of franchising and branding) that goes beyond the more self-contained
film. In addition to being a singular cinematic event, each individual film
is also a vehicle to sell a wider pool of products and to continuously test
the viability of an ongoing film series as well as any potential offshoots.
In that regard, the Twilight films already follow a narrative and economic
logic of seriality and expansion; they both echo and enforce the medial
shift the teen film has undergone.4
Serial formats and franchises may be the last decade’s two dominant
trends, but they are not by any means the only current forms for teen-
focused narratives. The one-off stand-alone teen film is not a dying art;
they are still produced and consumed; and a visible proliferation of the
modes in which the coming-of-age trope is narrated has taken place.
As commercial interests focus on serialization and expansion, there are
many instances in which the teen film no longer needs to be restricted
by the more formulaic requirements of mainstream cinema and TV
(mainstream in the sense of being produced and/or distributed by major
companies, but also with regard to their content and composition). We
increasingly find articulations through what is typically recognized as an
independent, art house, or more auteur-driven cinema, a cinema which
for a long time only exceptionally overlapped with the teen film. In other
words: if the center drops out, the margins can thrive.
The other significant transformation is what I will term here the agen-
tial shift. Talking about agency generally has to happen on two levels:
Diegetic agencies need to be addressed, the cinematic teens are not only
interesting for what they are, become, and stand for, but for what they

4 Also see Nelson (2017) on the franchise teen film as industry strategy.
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 7

do and for the agencies that flow through them, that make them do
what they do. Their quests for autonomy and self-actualization in this
regard become stories about the denial or assumption of agency (teena-
gency, so to say). The second part of the agential shift pertains then to
the extradiegetic associations of a narrative. The above-quoted passage
from Riverdale illustrates a change in the way many contemporary teen
narratives communicate with their audience as a certain degree of famil-
iarity with the genre, its history, types, and tropes has become prerequi-
site. A few scenes after the one quoted above for example, Veronica will
say to her adversary Cheryl: “Don’t worry. You may be a stock character
from a ’90s teen movie, but I’m not.” In order to fully grasp what this
entails, the spectators have to bring with them a specific knowledge, a
set of understandings rooted in the tropes of the teen film and its vari-
ous histories, and to some extent, they complete the meaning themselves.
This also shifts the status of the spectator: from a more passive mode of
consumption, affectation, and identification, to more active, more self-
aware forms of engagement that expand upon those former modes and
histories, radically reshuffling the agencies of/connected to/identifiable
in these narratives. Such strategies to create polyvalence can also be con-
sidered as a way to address “former” teens, those adults who came of age
during a different teen film era and whose popcultural memory can be
triggered by alluding to what to them is nostalgia. In that sense, they
lead to “teen films for adults” or “all-age teen films.”5
These two shifts, the medial and agential shift, for which the TV show
Riverdale is but one exemplary point of culmination, have developed over
time. Both shifts are neither entirely new nor relegated solely to the teen
film.6 The agential shift induced by the self-awareness and referentiality
of the texts however allows for and necessitates a different mode of spec-
tatorship and participation, a shift that has already been addressed within
certain genre discourses, for instance due to the emergence of so-called

5 For different modes of multimedia engagement and interaction, see Wee (2017).
6The medial shift, the change of the entire cinematographic apparatus, and the connected
cultural, technological, and societal transformations are widely addressed in media histories, in
the field of Seriality Studies (see Eco [1989], Hagedorn [1988], Tudor [1993], Wünsch [2015],
Beil et al. [2015], Bronfen et al. [2016], and Kelleter [2017]), the abovementioned conception
of remediation or Henry Jenkins’ notion of convergence culture (2006).
8 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

postmodern horror films after Wes Craven’s Scream (1996; incidentally

also a watermark teen film). The films covered by this umbrella term rely
heavily on metacinematic elements in their use of knowledge of generic
and formulaic conventions, and they helped contribute to shifting spec-
tators’ agencies.7 The changed interaction with the spectator through the
(assumed) familiarity with a corpus leads to a different kind of complic-
ity between audience and artifact. The question then pertains to how
the changed agency of the audience manifests itself beyond the deci-
phering of specialist knowledge—if it does not go beyond genre in-jokes
and meta-referencing, it will undercut the polyvalence of the artifacts,
primarily functioning for insiders and excluding those unaware of the
quoted texts and the conventions of the respective subgenre.
As mentioned above: techniques of citation and appropriation are not
a play on, but a part of our reality. If for instance the typology and tropes
are already established and assume the function here of an agreed-upon,
basic knowledge which can be easily referred to in a self-reflexive manner,
difference then becomes visible. Teen film urtexts such as The Breakfast
Club (1985) have proposed archetypes and a taxonomy which over time
has become influential standards. If the tropes, types, and other con-
ventions along with those that are continuously added to the teen film
repertoire over time are played out over and over again, they become
inscribed as tradition by their multiplication and circulation. This repet-
itive circulation solidifies these conventions, regardless of whether a text
challenges or affirms them, in a self-confirming discursive loop: If an
archetype is repeated, no matter if as a parody, a copy, or as an update, it
is continuously reinforced as a building block of popcultural vocabulary
that constitutes a shared cultural archive. This dynamic implements a

7 In his study Television and Youth Culture, jan jagodzinski uses the example of the TV series
Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003) to illustrate an “ironic mode of address [that] speaks to the
audience by inviting them to participate as knowledgeable and savvy viewers … film and
television in their postmodern textual forms are unable to push this interactive dimension as
far, so the narratives invite audience interactivity in other ways. Ironic self-referentiality has
become the standard fare … The writer /director becomes a knowing participant who indulges
in jokes and asides with the audience. This produces a suspension of the taken-for-granted past
that the genre has established, or that has become hegemonic (often claimed as a return of
nostalgia, in this case, to the horror genre)” (2008, 4–5), and supports Shaviro’s (2013) concern
by extending the shift to literary theory, especially Roland Barthes (1974) and Umberto Eco
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 9

regime of which such conventions are an intrinsic part, and it feeds into
teen films’ prescriptive agency: the affirmation-by-repetition of conven-
tions turns them into a language-like agreed-upon system of codes and
signs. They are installed stably both within the medium, the individual
texts, the diegetic realities, but also in the actual reality: When we speak
about nerds, jocks, or cheerleaders, about the prom, being grounded,
Ferris Bueller, detention, or the shopping mall, we use the same inter-
nalized references and referents as the fictionalized characters from teen
films. The associated images, ideas, and connotations are already co-
constructed through a dynamism of mutual feedback between teen films
and teen realities that are in a constant process of generating and redefin-
ing each other. However, the reflection and/or perpetuation of such codes
and conventions also makes them visible: These patterns emerge from
teen films, and by emerging from them, they become identifiable as pat-
terns in the first place. Consequently, these films can neither be perceived
nor critically analyzed as unambiguous or as unilateral communication
but must be assessed as parts of a dynamic collective network, in which
a multitude of actants—an actant, simply put is something that acts or
makes others act, is part of an action and thus produces difference—and
agencies converge.
Teen films not only refer to the experience of going through high
school as a rite of passage that is common to most Americans, but also,
and almost equally, to the shared experience of watching teen films as a
mediation of this rite of passage—which thus becomes a rite of passage in
its own right. In this sense, high school and/or the coming-of-age expe-
rience is negotiated cinematically and perceived as an experience that is
intrinsically and inseparably coupled with its mediation and mediated-
ness. This consequently contains, adds, and opens more layers of referen-
tiality in which it is no longer possible to separate teen realities and teen
film realities into clear-cut spheres. Writing about Joseph Kahn’s Deten-
tion (2011), which falls into the category of highly referential teen films
that can almost only be understood from the context of the genre, Steven
Shaviro addresses the duality of reality and its representation as no longer
distinguishable, from which arises a re-formed reality:
10 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

There was a time when we found slasher films scary (say, the time of
Halloween, 1978). Then, we became so familiar with the rules that we
could only enjoy a slasher film ironically and self-referentially, “in quo-
tation marks” (this is the moment of Scream, 1996, and all its sequels).
This is the same time when postmodern academic theorists were read-
ing Baudrillard, and deploring the alleged “death of the real.” But today,
the situation has changed. For now we know that all those citations and
remediations and so on and so forth are themselves altogether real, part
of The Real. The exacerbated irony of the “postmodern” 1990s eventually
imploded into what we can see today as a multifaceted immanence. We
have moved on from Baudrillard’s “death of the Real” to Laruelle’s sense
of radical immanence, or the Real as One. Irony is dead, not because of
some supposed “new sincerity,” but because all the hierarchies of reflec-
tion have collapsed. Today, there can be no ontological privileging of ref-
erentiality and self-referentiality. There is simply no difference between
reality and the mediatic representation of that reality, because the lat-
ter is itself entirely real, in exactly the same way that what it ostensibly
represents is real. Hyperrealism has been transformed into Bazinian or
Laruellian realism. (2013)

Shaviro’s assessment that there is no longer any “difference between real-

ity and the mediatic representation of that reality” is intended as a
general description of a post-everything (post-modern, post-irony, post-
continuity) ontology, in which “all the hierarchies of reflection have col-
lapsed,” and not a phenomenon specifically located in the realm of teen
culture. It is fitting, though, that he attaches his observation to the dis-
cussion of teen films from different eras. Indeed, the always intricate,
practically inseparable relationship of teen reality and its representation
illustrates that the teenager, much more than a biological stage in the
development of a person, is a cultural construction; just like teen films
and other human and non-human actors, it is enmeshed in an actor-
network that creates, or “inscribes” teenagers, who in turn influence, or
inscribe the ever-fluctuating network in a constant process of association,
inscription, and translation.
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 11

ANT Goes to High School: At the Movies

with Bruno Latour
Inquiring where the teen film stands at present makes it necessary to
take inventory of how the canon has been renewed, expanded, and
regurgitated—in terms of format, media, modes of consumption, and
production, but also as regards its content, types, themes, tropes, politics,
and aesthetics. In order to accommodate the shifts, changes, and consis-
tencies of the teen film, its discourse needs to shift too, and become flex-
ible enough to follow and embrace its evolution(s) and diversification. I
take Bruno Latour’s “cinematic language” as a cue here, especially in his
contributions to Actor-Network-Theory where he relies on metaphors
and key terms from drama and film, such as scripts, actors, setting, or roles
to elucidate how the social as a collective or network is assembled.
Bruno Latour’s body of work as both a prolific and eclectic philoso-
pher connects science history, material studies, and critical ecology.
Throughout his career, he has argued how pervasive separations between
cultures, natures, and the sciences as well as the belief systems that have
established all of these terms have inhibited the analysis of social and
material practices and political ecologies by imposing distinctions that
ignore what he calls “matters of concern” (as opposed to “matters of
fact”) the tangled networks and hybrids as diverse as HIV/Aids, the atom
bomb, and the ecological crises. In an interview, Latour says:

I produce books, not a philosophy. Every book I am involved with is

a work of writing that has its own categories and its own makeup. I
cannot transform all of these books into a unified field of thought that
would remain stable over time and of which one book would simply be
coherent manifestations. On the other hand, I don’t believe in being irre-
sponsible for what I have written. I agree that I have a responsibility for
being compatible, like a software designer has to maintain compatibility.
(Crease et al. 2003, 19)

What connects all of Latour’s publications is the displacement of divides

in favor of a process-like mode of rethinking entities as collectives. After
12 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

all, it is processed from which knowledge and facts emerge in the labo-
ratory experiments, his preferred site of observation and non-metaphoric
metaphor: Since the late 1970s (Laboratory Life, 1979 with Steve Wool-
gar), Latour has pursued the question how “objective” facts are produced.
In his laboratory studies, he has shown that any objectivity depends
on many variables as disparate as the devices used, funding, bacteria,
and many other factors, is therefore not objective at all, and instead
emerges from a complex interplay of numerous participants, be they
human actants or the formerly mostly overlooked non-human actants—
which can be objects, concepts, fictions, institutions, or other visible or
invisible, tangible or intangible non-humans. The study of the laborato-
ries of Pasteur or those he visits himself inform his “sociology of transla-
tion,” which will then morph into Actor-Network Theory and his “wish
to devise an alternative definition for ‘sociology’” (Latour 2005, 2–3),
and segue into his more recent preoccupations with the anthropocene
and “Gaia,” ecology, the climate, and the state of the planet. The revo-
cation of divides and simplistic binarisms at the heart of his work is the
central element of ANT, as John Law reminds in his essay “After ANT”

Essentialist divisions are thrown on the bonfire of the dualisms. Truth

and falsehood. Large and small. Agency and structure. Human and non-
human. Before and after. Knowledge and power. Context and content.
Materiality and sociality. Activity and passivity … all of these divides
have been rubbished in work undertaken in the name of actor-network
theory. (1999, 3)

Actor-Network Theory in its development already is an entangled actor-

network, and a collective in the making, as it builds on other concepts,
on Latour’s own former work, and on the cooperation with other schol-
ars. Latour not only is always candid about his sources of inspiration,
but also regarding the importance of the collaborative nature of ANT,
thereby practicing what ANT preaches and illustrating the collective,
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 13

processes, and translations as opposed to the singular auteur genius pro-

ducing monolithic theorems.8
ANTs conceptual mode is not entirely unprecedented; the kinship
with other concepts is most obvious between ANT and Deleuze and
Guattari’s rhizome—and Latour freely admits that the actor-network
is his equivalent to this proposition.9 In A Thousand Plateaus (1972),
Deleuze and Guattari use the image of a horizontal root system like
the ginger’s tuber-like growth without a clear center or a tree trunk
as a metaphor for the non-hierarchic connections between entities in
a network in which every point, no matter how close or disparate, is
connected with every other point in decentered, localized assemblages.
Despite apparent similarities, Michel Foucault’s dispositif needs to be
distinguished from Latour’s notion of network, even though Foucault,
too, defines the dispositif as a heterogeneous apparatus consisting of a
system of relations in an interplay of discursive and non-discursive ele-
ments (1980, 194–197). For Latour, the actor-network is a more neutral
concept, as “the dispositif is always critically linked to the notion of insti-
tution and carries with it a certain political program and certain evalua-
tions of power and subjectification. The network in comparison is more
positive about institutions and both as a term and as a concept tries to be
as devoid of meaning as possible in order to arrive at a position where ‘no
power’ means that power is everywhere and in everything,”10 allowing to
overcome the subject as a category in a different political program.
Criticism, such as the omission of intentionality and morality or being
apolitical, have been addressed by ANT protagonists themselves (Latour’s
version of ANT contains an explicit self-avowed “political project, …
a search for political relevance” [2005, 260]; also see Felski 2015). In

8 Latour’s intellectual biography is retraced in several introductions that systematically and

chronologically cover his oeuvre, for instance Schmidgen (2015), Ruffing (2009), and the most
recent by de Vries (2016). Foundational texts for ANT and the modifications that were inspired
both by the success and the criticism ANT generated are not only Latour’s monographs, but
also numerous texts by other key figures such as Michel Callon, John Law, Madeleine Akrich,
Antoine Hennion or Annemarie Mol that are for instance assembled in John Law and John
Hassard’s Actor Network Theory and After (1999) and Andréa Belliger and David J. Krieger’s
ANThology (2006). For an overview of ANT (as opposed to anthologies featuring foundational
texts) see Holzer and Schmidt (2009), Wieser (2012) or Mike (2016).
9 See the interview by Hugh Crawford (1993) and “On Recalling ANT” (Latour 1999b, 263).
10 Bruno Latour, personal communication, 18 June 2015.
14 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

an interview, Latour addresses this when speaking about normativity:

“I don’t believe that morality is something that floats on top of purely
descriptive or merely empiric stuff. Morality is inside the things, and
thus it can also become an object for empirical enquiries … to overcome
this very distinction between facts and values, descriptive and normative,
and to explore its political root” (Crease et al. 2003, 20). The being-
devoid-of-meaning and the putting-description-before-commentary are
on the one hand important features of ANT and, on the other hand,
ANT doesn’t by any means rule out these dimensions, but rather tries to
provide a pre-judgmental account on which interpretation can then be
Besides orbiting around itself in meta-theoretical discussions,
Latourian ideas and ANT have entered the discourse and initiated a mul-
titude of ANT-inspired approaches. While it suggests itself that Latour’s
ideas have been taken up in other fields where the production of knowl-
edge and social assemblages are analyzed such as science studies or social
studies, the growth of the network extends its obvious habitat into
disparate fields. Latourian concepts and especially ANT have become
increasingly important in the humanities and are drawn on to gener-
ate different questions and approaches. Latour has worked in and con-
tributed to science studies, sociology, philosophy, or ecology, but never
overlooked that “sociologists have a lot to learn from artists” (2005, 82).
Not only Latour’s rhetoric evens the boundaries between hard and soft
sciences or arts and facts, in his oeuvre, there is a Latourian aesthetics,
and an engagement with art. Besides the recourses to literature, paint-
ing, film, or photography, Latour has acted as a co-curator of exhibitions
and has thus himself operated at the intersection of disciplines. About the
rethinking of objects that is essential for his attempt to revoke traditional
dualisms, he states:

In the first denunciation, objects count for nothing; they are just there to
be used as the white screen on to which society projects its cinema. But
in the second, they are so powerful that they shape the human society,

11 See Reassembling the Social (2005, 244–245). An exemplary collection of positionings both
inspired by and critical of ANT is Kneer, Schroer, and Schüttpelz’s edited volume Bruno Latours
Kollektive (2008).
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 15

while the social construction of the sciences that have produced them
remains invisible. Objects, things, consumer goods, sciences, works of art
are either too weak or too strong. (1993, 53)

The metaphor of a cinema projection onto a screen to illustrate the (erro-

neous) conception how some kind of social reality is created by project-
ing “the social film” as a reality-constituting illusion is one of the afore-
mentioned instances of his “filmic” language. “Objects, things, consumer
goods, sciences, works of art” assume a problematic position when sub-
jected to the dualism “too weak” vs. “too strong.” “Too weak” means
objects—and among them works of art such as films—are just seen as
descriptive, as objects that capture and describe a certain zeitgeist which
is projected onto them, but are by themselves not considered much more
than vessels, projection screens, canvases, and thus as not powerful. And
they become “too strong” when they are seen as just prescriptive—as very
powerful actants that are able to shape, alter, influence, but of whom only
the agency is acknowledged, while “the social” from which they emerge
remains obfuscated just like a hidden film projector.
Both notions are valid as much as they are inept. They only become
useful when put in relation: Of course, works of art are projection
screens, allegories for, or images of something; they do represent or stand
for something with their myriad layers of text, subtext, and meaning,
and thus, they also can be read, and even without inviting their audience
explicitly, they will be read. But if the equation ends here, we strip them
off of more agency than mere representation and they would mainly be
interesting for consumers (who unknowingly consume) as a commodity,
and for semioticians (who knowingly read, decode, and explain) as an
exercise in cultural history. We need to assume that they are also actors:
They actively do something. They not only stand for, or are an image of
a thing; they are things in their own right. While this is more common,
e.g., for art historians to acknowledge when they deal with video/moving
image art, scholars who deal with narrative cinema in close readings often
ignore this or at least elegantly brush it aside.12

12The redistribution of agency is fortunately beginning to enter film studies discourse: with
recourse to both Étienne Souriau, and John T. Caldwell and other protagonists of Production
16 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

For this rethinking of material-semiotic relations, Actor-Network The-

ory offers itself as a way to approach artifacts in a different fashion, as
the basic assumption of ANT is that not only knowledge or scientific
facts are produced by networks of human and non-human actors, but
that every entity, unity, system, society must be understood as a poten-
tially indefinitely complex network which is made, re-made, and per-
formed by the dynamic relations that arise from the actions and inter-
actions of human and non-human actors. Actors are entities that act,
that make a difference (2005, 154), and they become visible when they
cause other actors to act. At this moment, they enter an actor-network—
and to understand or untangle it, we don’t need to (in fact, mustn’t) rely
on preexisting knowledge or premade assumptions, we have to “follow
the actors” and the traces they leave behind by becoming entangled in
activity. Depending on the context, Latour uses agent, actor, and actant
almost synonymously, I will stick with actant for its clarity in identifying
action and agency and its species-neutrality.
Among artistic forms and practices, film is the preeminent one to
include and even necessitate a collective, both in the general language
sense of “collective” as a multiplicity of people involved and in the
Latourian sense of “a Collective of Humans and Nonhumans” (Latour
1999a, 126; which refers to the association/collective that forms as soon
as humans “do something” and interact with non-human actants). The
levels of mediation between a writer and a novel, or between a painter
and a painting seem flatter, at least pragmatically: There is your painter,
there is her idea, there is her material, and the chain ends with the fin-
ished painting. Ultimately, the equation is more complex, too, since the
painter’s idea and material all include more interactions and traces, not to
mention the chain that begins once the painting is finished which might
include galleries, collectors, museums, catalogues, critics, or scholars. The
distributed agency of a film in this regard makes it more mediated, which

Studies, Volker Pantenburg suggests Cinematographic Objects as a way to re-think the filmic
artifact through “a plethora of human and non-human actors that assemble to create a network
of distributed agency which challenges any simple notions of the auteur” (2015, 12). A related
redistributing of agency in this case to the spaces/spatial dimension of film is at the center of
the research project Kinematographische Räume and its two publications (edited by Fohne and
Haberer 2012, 2014). Also see Elizabeth Ezra, The Cinema of Things (2019).
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 17

can be illustrated by simply looking at the credits rolling by at the end

of a film. Dozens, if not hundreds of people, institutions, companies,
technologies are involved in the cinematic apparatus. From the first idea
a director, writer, or producer has to the finished film, it is an incredibly
long, expansive, and expensive undertaking that involves almost innu-
merable steps (it is for good reason that projects sometimes get stuck
in the so-called development hell): Someone to star, someone to point
the camera, to edit, to train the animals, to testify that no animals were
harmed, someone to keep track of everyone involved to write such a list,
some source for the funds necessary, the machines and devices to be able
to shoot at all, someone to sell and distribute the finished product and an
audience who sees it, possibly pays for it, uploads it to illegal streaming
sites on the internet, blogs about it—the associations and relations are
numerous, diverse, and a widely ramified illustration of how agency is
distributed. The number of human and non-human actants and interac-
tions is huge in a film, since it so clearly is, and emerges from a collective
of humans and non-humans. While it is imaginable that a poet writes
poetry independent of the literary market and solely because she seeks
expression without regard to what happens after the poem is finished
(someone is quite certainly writing a poem in this fashion right now),
it is hardly imaginable that a Hollywood film is produced in the same
way—it is by default a collective artifact that transcends the singular
author-individual or auteur, most obviously, but by far not exclusively,
because it is so expensive so produce.
A strand of film theory that shifts away from the focus on single agen-
cies and takes the multi-dimensionality of agencies into account with
the aim to deconstruct the entanglement of the cinematic artifact with
dominant ideologies and the ways they inscribe themselves into it is the
so-called apparatus theory, which tries to factor in the entire apparatus
in which the production and consumption of a film takes place.13 ANT’s
M.O., to reassemble actors, interactions, layers, and forces to account for
collectives, offers itself as an approach to reassemble films as a collective
effort in their complexity. ANT’s premise that the world does not consist

13 See
also Althusser (1970), Comolli (2015), Metz (1974), Baudry (1976, 1985), de Lauretis
and Heath (1980), Rosen (1986), and Riesinger (2003).
18 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

of clearly delineated subjects and objects, but is produced by interactions

and dynamic relations calls into question binaries, hierarchies, master-
slave dynamics by looking for the multiplicities of actor-networks.
By suggesting Actor-Network Theory and ANT-related Latourian con-
cepts as a pre-theoretical method to be a framework for the analysis of
teen films, I want to transfer Latour’s ideas into a method for film stud-
ies related to approaches toward a material(ist) media theory.14 The posi-
tion of cinematic teen narratives is more dynamic than normally granted
to them: Teen film is not just descriptive; it is also prescriptive and
inscriptive. Teen film depicts and shapes teenagers, their tastes, interests,
desires, but it is neither only a mirror, nor merely normative; it is also
shaped by interactions with the audience, and it produces new inscrip-
tions in the ANT sense, which means “the result of the translation of
one’s interest into material form” (Callon 1991, 143).15 Besides aligning
cultural artifacts with sociocultural factors in contextual readings, writ-
ing an ANT account necessitates going back to the actual artifact. This
means to bring the actants of each film to the foreground to “make them
talk,” in line with ANT’s dictum to “follow the actors”:

[I]t is no longer enough to limit actors to the role of informers offering

cases of some well-known types. You have to grant them back the ability
to make up their own theories … Your task is no longer to impose some
order, to limit the range of acceptable entities, to teach actors what they
are, or to add some reflexivity to their blind practice. Using a slogan from
ANT, you have “to follow the actors themselves.” (Latour 2005, 12)

Actants “talk” by the differences they produce and they carry within
them different scripts. A script, or the “prescriptions encoded in
the mechanism” (Latour 2008, 157) is the way Latour “call[s] after
Madeleine Akrich (1992), the behavior imposed back onto the human

14 Also see Herzogenrath (2017), Bollmer (2019), Parikka (2012), and Phillips (2017).
15 In the Pandora’s Hope (1999a) glossary, Latour defines inscription as “a general term that
refers to all the types of transformations through which an entity becomes materialized into
a sign, an archive, a document, a piece of paper, a trace. Usually but not always, inscriptions
are two-dimensional, superimposable, and combinable. They are always mobile, that is, they
allow new translations and articulations while keeping some types of relations intact” (1999a,
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 19

by non-human delegates prescription. Prescription is the moral and eth-

ical dimension of mechanisms” (ibid.). This means that an artifact, be
it a speed bump, a knife, a key, a lecture, or a film, prescribes a certain
way in which to use it on the material level, how to behave in order to
comply with its “program of action.” Thus, actants also suggest ways to
approach them: “It’s the object itself that adds multiplicity, or rather the
thing, the ‘gathering’ … Leave hermeneutics aside and go back to the
object—or rather, to the thing. [ANT’s] main tenet is that actors them-
selves make everything, including their own frames, their own theories,
their own contexts, their own metaphysics, even their own ontologies …
Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property
of the world itself ” (Latour 2005, 144–147, 345).
I propose ANT as a neutral and—this is important—pre-theoretical
way to consider and bring together a multitude of approaches that enable
us to draw from different fields and methods. Annemarie Mol’s essay
about certain ANT terms and the state of ANT in regard to its theory-
ness underlines this essential trait:

ANT is not a ‘theory’, or, if it is, then a ‘theory’ does not necessarily offer
a coherent framework, but may as well be an adaptable, open repository.
A list of terms. A set of sensitivities. The strength of ANT, then, is not
that it is solid, but rather that it is adaptable. It has assembled a rich
array of explorative and experimental ways of attuning to the world. The
terms and texts that circulate in ANT are co-ordination devices. They
move topics and concerns from one context to another. They translate
and betray what they help to analyze. They sharpen the sensitivity of
their readers, attuning them/us to what is going on and to what changes,
here, there, elsewhere. (2010, 265–266)

Latourian ideas at the center present a foundation and starting point

to open up to a larger discourse. The ANT position renounces the pre-
sumption that an invisible-yet-solid structure makes actants do things,
and instead reshifts its focus on the individual actants and the net-
work they produce as a collective. Observation, determining the actants
involved, and detailed description make difference visible and repre-
sentable in order to obtain new insights. Every description refers to a
singular event, not to a rule or a pattern. Therefore, the ANT position
20 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

allows on the one hand to treat films as complex, hybrid actor-networks

by analyzing them and their actants and agencies thoroughly and slowly,
and on the other hand also to treat films as actants in a larger network.16
Even though it is crucial to be slow and thorough, to put description
before explanation, we mustn’t get lost in the amassing of detail that just
produce more but not clearer insight:

I confess the difficulty: Is it not counterproductive in the end to abandon

the convenient shorthand of social explanations, to split hairs indefinitely
about what is or is not a group, to trick intermediaries into behaving as
mediators, to register the queerest idiosyncrasies of the humblest actors,
to set up long lists of objects participating in action, and to drop the
background made of solid matters of fact for the foreground of shifty
matters of concern? How ridiculous is it to claim that inquirers should
‘follow the actors themselves’, when the actors to be followed swarm in
all directions like a bee’s nest disturbed by a wayward child? Which actor
should be chosen? Which one should be followed and for how long? And
if each actor is made of another bee’s nest swarming in all directions and it
goes on indefinitely, then when the hell are we supposed to stop? If there
is something especially stupid, it is a method that prides itself in being so
meticulous, so radical, so all encompassing, and so object-oriented as to
be totally impractical. This is not a sociology any more but a slowciology!
(Latour 2005, 122)

Complexity doesn’t have to be overly complicated, and it defies its pur-

pose if it’s only there for the sake of complexity as a mere getting granu-
lar, a writing-down-of-everything, a micro-managing of the text instead
of a striving for specificity. Despite the agency granted to the actants
themselves, despite the neutrality of the starting position, we have to
make decisions and selections constantly when writing an ANT account.
The ANT position is not meant to be intrinsically objective nor does it
contain an imperative to discard subjective readings, interpretations, and

16 Erhard Schüttpelz notes that every actant is always also an actor-network in its own right:
“Everything that comes into play as ‘actor’ or becomes effective and visible as an acting fac-
tor by causing other factors to act, enters an ‘actor-network’ and can only take effect as an
intertwining of actions—‘Actors’ are ‘actor-networks’ or linkages. And in turn, intertwinings,
regardless of which sort, only take effect as ‘action-networks’—‘networks’ are gradually acting
‘actor-networks’” (Schüttpelz 2013, 10, my translation).
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 21

personal stances as a way to approach scholarly critical analyses in favor

of an allegedly non-subjective, non-interpretative engagement.17 On the
contrary, Latour states: “what makes you think that ‘having a viewpoint’
means ‘being limited’ or especially ‘subjective’?” (2005, 145).

Outline and Argument of the Book

Each of the following chapters will be organized around one of Latour’s
interconnected ideas and mobilize it in the analysis of a specific teen film.
Registers that are central for the genre, such as sexuality, ethnicity, gen-
der, or class will be “reassembled” through concepts from Latour’s oeuvre,
such as the rethinking of agencies and actants, the role of objects, or the
notion of translation as connective movement. These categories are not
rigid, but fluid and overlapping and build on each other in a succes-
sion that work toward the goal of finding a new perspective from which
to do film semiotics or film studies with other accentuations and foci,
since in my opinion, the ANT position allows us to ask questions that
have not been proposed previously. Teen films are mostly evaluated and
analyzed as consumer-driven cinematic commodities from a historical
and/or sociological perspective, but less often as complex artifacts whose
composition or aesthetics deserve attention. Their interplay of media and
technology, and of cultural and social factors makes teen films potent
artifacts that are charged with information about the culture and the
time in which they are produced and consumed, but this property has
canonically lead to a scholarly engagement in which cultural/film history
often plays a bigger role than film studies. In order not to reduce these
artifacts to echo chambers for zeitgeist in contextual readings, I suggest a

17 Inher manifesto-esque essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag already proposes such a
non-interpretative approach beyond the content-fixated hermeneutics to American art criticism
where she finds “[i]nterpretation runs rampant” (2009, 10): “What is needed, first, is more
attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation,
more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a
vocabulary—a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary—for forms. … Our task is to
cut back content so that we can see the thing at all … The function of criticism should be to
show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means” (2009,
22 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

different engagement, building on Bruno Latour and specifically Actor-

Network Theory: If we claim that a film has a message, agenda, function,
perpetuates ideology and values, it is crucial to identifying where exactly
this manifests itself, where in the production (and consumption) process
it enters the equation, and by what means and which human and non-
human actants it is brought there. This process of reassembling grants
access to an inquiry into how a cinematic style is produced and what
agency it has, whether it is an actant, and which actants constitute it,
and, ultimately, what these film-objects are, what meanings they hold,
what they are made of, what they do and how they do it.
Against the backdrop of a changed media ecology, a different tech-
nological, aesthetic, and cultural landscape in which the traditional teen
film as a cinematic event witnessed on a theater or TV screen has been
expanded by a multitude of new medial outlets, I want to look at the
contemporary teen film. My focus is explicitly not on the television series
and franchise films but on the stand-alone feature, films that are pro-
duced at a postcinematic time when those other modes have already
become the more dominant trends.
The central films in my sample have been commercially successful,18
which is not saying anything about whether they are good or bad or
interesting, but it means that they have resonated (and keep resonating)
with commensurable audiences. More than based on their commercial
performance or lack of critical analysis, I have selected them for what
they are: Each film resonates with other (teen and non-teen) texts, but at
the same presents significant and novel narratological, thematic, or aes-
thetic aspects that make it an important contribution to the teen film
canon. The DUFF (2015) as a postmodern suburban high school com-
edy strongly engages with generic traditions, Winter ’s Bone (2010) oper-
ates as a rural teen film for adults, Dope (2015) with its urban high school
setting presents an African American take on teen films, and Diary of a
Teenage Girl (2015) is organized around female sexuality.

18They all have recouped their production budgets in their theatrical run and have earned
between $2.2 million (Diary of a Teenage Girl ) and 43.5 million (The DUFF ) excluding any
secondary exploitation.
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 23

Chapter 2 discusses The DUFF as an exemplary Hollywood film and

update of the well-rehearsed formula of the makeover film. I suggest circu-
lating reference instead of a mimetic understanding of teen film to retrace
that reference is not between world and representation, but runs along
a chain of transformations. Latourian key terms like translation and trans-
formation will be introduced here as important concepts to be repeat-
edly revisited in the subsequent chapters. In order to identify the trans-
lations, transformations, and renewals, my analysis not only focuses on
plot and characters, but also on other actants (such as music, casting,
relation between novel and adaptation, relation between teen film canon
and The DUFF, agency of the audience and their media literacy).
Building on the notion of how agency can/must be reshuffled,
Chapter 3 discussion of Winter ’s Bone as a coming-of-age narrative relo-
cated to the rather unconventional teen film setting of rural America
introduces ANT as framework by which the less obvious; however, signif-
icant background actants are brought to the foreground, such as settings,
light, camera and film stock, or on-location filming. The analysis segues
from a description of the material level into the semiotic/symbolic level
and illustrates that ANT as an approach for film studies allows a seam-
less movement between these levels as a “materialist hermeneutics” and
“empiricist (film) philosophy.”
In correspondence with the rethinking of actants and agencies, the
classic Latourian question of how objects influence human behavior is
the starting point for Chapter 4 and the discussion of Dope. Dope was
released at the same time as The DUFF, and both films can be seen as
updates of specific teen film traditions inserting the marker of technol-
ogy as “updating agent.” While The DUFF is a renewal of the “makeover
film,” Dope is a renewal of the “hood film” and its specific milieus,
themes and questions regarding class and race. Dope must not only be
read as an update of black teen films, but as one that is updated by very
specific actants, which will be analyzed based on Latourian notions such
as quasi-objects and scripts. The film’s construction and aesthetics echo
the technology it negotiates on the plot level as human and non-human
actants translate and redefine each other, objects become quasi-objects,
and subjects become quasi-subjects in a constant process of interactions,
inscriptions, and mutual influence.
24 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Following these chapters and their project of establishing a Latourian

film semiotics based on multiplicity and hybridity, Chapter 5 discusses
Diary of a Teenage Girl, the movie adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s
autobiographical comic (2002). As mixed-mode film that incorporates
animation, it is a formal hybrid and thus makes its own artifice even
more visible—and with it, the inscriptions, apparatuses, and machines of
tradition which produce it. The film’s perspective is unusual for teen films
as it is organized around female sexuality in a non-exploitative way, and
not as the object-of-desire from the heteronormative perspective of male
sexuality. In a hybrid film with a hybrid gaze instead of a clearly gendered
gaze, a new perspective on sexuality not only plays itself out on the level
of the film’s action, but also on the formal level, and the ANT position
allows to identify which actants produce or subvert a different gaze and
serves as a reminder that gazes, like knowledge, are actively produced and
not objective entities.
This book is a twofold project: I will use ANT to expand the analyt-
ical tools for teen film scholarship—and the study of narrative cinema,
by extension; I will use the American teen film as an arena to test out
whether ANT is a productive contribution to film studies that allows to
proceed differently and leads do a deeper, or different understanding, of
these artifacts.

American Graffiti, George Lucas, Universal Pictures, USA, 1973.
Beverly Hills 90210, Darren Star, CBS Television Distribution, USA, 1990–
The Breakfast Club, John Hughes, Universal Pictures, USA, 1985.
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Detention, Joseph Kahn, Sony Pictures, USA, 2011.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller, Sony Pictures Classics, USA, 2015.
The Divergent Series, Neil Burger, Robert Schwentke, Lionsgate Films, USA,
DOPE, Rick Famuyiwa, Open Road Films, USA, 2015.
The DUFF, Ari Sandel, CBS Films, USA, 2015.
1 Introduction: Actor-Network Theory … 25

Halloween, John Carpenter, Compass International Pictures, USA, 1978.

The Hunger Games film series, Gary Ross, Francis Lawrence, Lionsgate Films,
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Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray, Warner Brothers, USA, 1955.
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Scream, Wes Craven, Dimension Films, USA, 1996.
Twilight Saga, Summit Entertainment, USA, 2008–2012.
Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik, Roadside Attractions, USA, 2010.

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Circulating Reference: Making Over
the Makeover

Translating the Transition: The DUFF

and the Makeover Film Subgenre
The DUFF (2015) is one of the most recent additions to a strand of teen
films that can be usefully called makeover teen film. The premise of the
makeover film is the conversion of a (or several) protagonist(s) from one
group into another that entails the liminal experience of passing through
transformational rituals. While self-evidently liminal experience and ini-
tiation are central to any coming-of-age narrative, in makeover narratives,
they are played out in the form of catalyst events in which everything
happens and everything changes are a means to condense the entire ado-
lescent process, various instances of which include the loss of virginity
as a placeholder for becoming physically/sexually adult, graduation as a
placeholder for the transition of being a student to what comes after, or
the one big night (often prom).
In regard to the transformation around which most teen films are orga-
nized, the makeover film is the most literal and least metaphorical real-
ization of adolescent transition as something that does not just occur, but
is a process that is actively pursued, a self-actualization, orchestrated and
performed with specific intended outcomes. The qualitative and agential
© The Author(s) 2020 31
B. Sonnenberg-Schrank, Actor-Network Theory at the Movies,
32 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

difference between coming-of-age and makeover is already contained in

the terms themselves and their word classes: The first is a gerund indicat-
ing an ongoing process, and coming-of-age implies that the agency (com-
ing) is that of the process, or the maturation (age), not of the affected
adolescent object. The latter is a verb or a substantiated infinitive, imply-
ing activity and thus agency of a subject, if understood as active verb
form (I make myself over) or of the objectified subject, if understood as
passive (I am made over).
The makeover film focuses on two components that set it apart from
other types of transition narratives:

1. A character is identified as belonging to a certain caste-like group or

class and is then made over in order to be able to transition into a
different group, most commonly one that is higher in the social hier-
archy of the teen and high school world.
2. In the very identification of the character as belonging to a certain
group, not only the character’s group affiliation, but the hierarchy
itself is identified and established—and with it, a typology and tax-
onomy: nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, and an array of other types are
depicted as clear-cut classifications with allotted characteristics and
ensuing social scripts. The permeability of the distinct groups differs,
as with any form of social mobility. Beyond negotiating a character’s
self-actualization, the makeover narratives thus also interrogate class
and classism, and their impact on the individual.1

What gives the subgenre its name is the actual makeover: The charac-
ter does not simply change affiliations and group membership, but has
to undergo a change, and transform into the metaphorical butterfly. The
agents and agencies of the numerous makeovers across teen film history
vary, but distinctions can be established by looking at who and what
motivates this transformation as either external or internal incentive. The
external makeover corresponds to the traditional Pygmalion story: Some-
one from higher up in the social order of teens chooses a specimen from

1 Alsosee Frances Smith’s analysis of gender and class interpellation in high school films (and
the prom as locus specifically), who shows that “despite Americans’ traditional squeamishness
about class, normative gender in the teen movie is always a classed discourse” (2017, 64ff.).
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 33

a lower caste who is being made over—for love, as a bet, to demonstrate

manipulative power and thus social status, or a combination of these fac-
tors. The other (internal) possibility is that a character out of their own
volition feels the desire to cross over into a different caste and makes her-
self or himself over (for love, due to desperation, etc.). Either way, there
is a process of schooling as the characters, and audience, need to have
(or acquire) literacy and awareness of the high school class system and
its semiotics in order to read and understand the signs and codes of the
group they want to escape as well as the group into which they want to
cross over by re-forming, re-assigning, and re-writing themselves. In this
regard, the makeover film is not solely concerned with the inner work-
ings of a character, but very much with the character’s engagement with
her or his environment and the acquisition of what Pierre Bourdieu terms
cultural and social capital.2 The (intradiegetic) ability to read oneself and
others in terms of typology and taxonomy is key for the transition and
for its need and willful causation. Such awareness is the premise for The
DUFF, whose main character did not realize that a type called “DUFF”
(an acronym for “designated ugly fat friend”) exists to begin with and
much less that she fits this category, which she then seeks to escape.
Across numerous makeover films over a long period of time, the basic
narrative remains the same—at least concerning the outcome and con-
clusive evaluation.3 As regards the recurring types, plot and result, and
their references, also structurally, the makeover films share resemblances
that could in most cases be easily mapped onto a grid with particu-
lar characters, plot elements, and developments occurring at prescribed
moments. Even though they may look different on the surface or intro-
duce variations and differentiations of types or entirely new types such

2 See Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972, 183ff.); “The Forms of Capital” (1986, 241ff.);
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984).
3The first adolescent makeover narratives might arguably be the Lillian Gish vehicle Broken
Blossoms (1919) or the Clara Bow “flapper film” The Plastic Age (1925) as Driscoll points out
(14–15, 22–24). Better known examples include Grease (1978), The Breakfast Club (1985),
Pretty in Pink (1986), Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), Clueless (1995), She’s All That (1999),
Jawbreaker (1999), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), The Princess Diaries (2001), Mean Girls
(2004), or She’s the Man (2006).
34 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

as a DUFF, the function in the narrative of these characters, plot ele-

ments, and developments will correspond with preceding and anteced-
ing incarnations. These resonances provide a connective tissue that ties
each of the incarnations together: Their engagement with the canon and
their way of “translating” certain elements—by updating, by keeping, by
differentiating, and by self-reflexivity—is how reference keeps circulat-
ing: the figures of the made-over and the making-over need to be con-
structed, scripted, narrated, cast, and acted in certain ways in order to
fulfill the same functions and convey the same underlying idea in a dif-
ferent cultural, historical, and film-historical setting. These transforma-
tions—not the transformed elements, but the nature of the transforma-
tion—are what ultimately reveals something about changing cultural and
historical contexts. Not just the type is where we should look, but how
that type was adapted: The way of the bully says much more than the
mere presence of a bully.
In earlier makeover films, the conflicts and different groups are—at
least on the surface—less diversified. In films such as Pretty in Pink or
Some Kind of Wonderful, the two juxtaposed groups are narrated as clear,
almost rudimentary, rich-poor binarism. The more recent the film, the
more diversified the groups and conflicts are (even with particular recent
films that still, or again, are extremely class-conscious and highly con-
cerned with rich-poor binarisms such as Lady Bird [2017]). The DUFF
is a prime example of diversified groups and categories with its constel-
lation of self-aware figures who are constantly accompanied and docu-
mented by their use of social media and who actively produce and per-
form their own typologies and taxonomy. However, even though their
typology is less crude than rich vs. poor and the labeling enhanced by
hashtagging as a cultural practice, this diversification is merely a trans-
formation or translation, and not a fundamental change or novelty. Such
connections allow to delineate how reference is circulating, and they
establish the bond between the respective films.
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 35

Referentiality, Representation,
and Non-Mimesis
At this point, teen film is such a well-rehearsed, albeit fluid genre, that
every new addition to the corpus automatically is enmeshed with that
corpus, but not necessarily with any form of reality that could be pre-
cisely determined. Considine already proposed that “it may well be that
in perpetuating stereotypes of adolescence, the film industry, rather than
merely mirroring reality, helps to create it” (1985, 277) and several waves
of teen film and scholarship later, Driscoll assesses that a “mimetic under-
standing of teen film as a reflection of adolescent lives” (2011, 5) is lim-
ited, as the mutual influence of teen films and their audiences is more
dynamic. Certainly, it is possible to find correlations of James Dean’s and
Marlon Brando’s iconic 1950s film rebels with historically documented
waves and youth cultures, their styles and signs; or to embed the Twi-
light films (2008–2012) and their sexual, religious, or gender politics
in specific discourses of their production era. But instead of contextual
readings that ask what a film represents, and treat it as the manifestation
of something external to its diegetic cosmos which then via discursive
practices inscribes itself into the film, I propose to circumvent mimesis
and representation and determine instead what each specific film is—
and whether the constellation from which it emerges and in which it
is consumed really is such a stable and traceable reality-representation
or object-word relation. Instead of representation, I suggest reference as
a register to think about teen films as entangled in a complex interplay
with a generic tradition and with their audience, indeed relational, how-
ever non-mimetic (or at least not solely mimetic). As a way to overcome
what Bruno Latour calls “the old settlement,” the binarisms nature–lan-
guage, world–word, or realism–construction and the chasms that open
up between each two poles, he introduces his idea “to show that there
is neither correspondence, nor gaps, nor even two distinct ontological
domains, but an entirely different phenomenon: circulating reference”
(Latour 1999, 24).
In order to illustrate how reference circulates, Latour gives account of
an expedition to Boa Vista, Brazil, and details how scientific practice and
the work with very concrete matters of concern is then translated into
36 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

words, graphs, tables, or papers—in the exemplary test case at hand, how
soil samples from the Amazon are constantly transformed by an interplay
of human and non-human actors (scientists, tools, machines, etc.) and
change from matter to form to matter and so on: The forest as matter
is translated into form or signs through tagging and mapping, which is
then again translated and becomes “new” matter, e.g., a map, or color
grids. This process of movements continues until there is a (preliminary)
result, as for instance the summary in a finished article. Latour’s conclu-
sion then is that reference does not run from word to object and vice
versa, but rather circulates along a chain of transformations. Instead of
debating the degree of realism of artifacts (or inscriptions) of any sort, the
correspondence of thing and representation, the focus shifts to the “risky
intermediary pathway,” that long process along the chain of transforma-
tions and how these translations and gaps come to be in order to ensure
that the reference remains stable and thus circulating.4 Filmmaker John
Waters in a different context explains how “the concept must change or
the Xerox copy gets weaker and weaker until you can’t read it at all”
(2019, 42), a fitting analogy for processes of updating in which a trans-
formation has better capacity to retain reference to the original than a
direct copy.
Knowledge, facts, and “truth,” be they scientific, cinematic, or other,
are not objective entities that exist autonomously, they are (1) produced,
and (2) an activity that involves an interplay of materials and forms—as
are works of art. By looking at the many markers and steps that connect
a thing and its representation instead of trying to identify the assumed
origin from which it is derived, the activity of knowledge production
itself becomes visible where it is normally erased.
The mimetic understanding of a film, taking it as a barometer for the
cultural-historical context from which it emerges, means reducing art to
purely social factors. But besides a reflection of physical reality certified
by, contained in, or claimed by film (the way it produces a familiarity

4 “Itseems that reference is not simply the act of pointing or a way of keeping, on the outside,
some material guarantee for the truth of a statement; rather it is our way of keeping something
constant through a series of transformations. Knowledge does not reflect a real external world
that it resembles via mimesis, but rather a real interior world, the coherence and continuity of
which it helps to ensure” (Latour 1999, 58).
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 37

with reality: real bodily actors, real police stations, real small towns, real
New York, real high schools), the diegetic world can obviously also refer
to something that might not be real, but “fictionally real.” It can allude to
common knowledge and/or experiences and thus produce a truth effect
that relies on resemblance, a—cultural or generic—verisimilitude (Neale
2005, 27ff.), meaning a familiarity with genre conventions, their signs,
and signifiers. The chain of reference in this regard does not connect
teen realities and teen films, but the different incarnations of related sto-
ries and characters within the genre. Moving chronologically backwards
through the corpus, along the chain of mediations, transformations, and
translations, will take us back along a timeline within the genre or a cycle,
but not to a reality. A resulting conclusion could be that teen films do
not refer back to teen realities, but to teen films—and to the teen film as
a crucial element of teen realities. Teen film is not a mirror that simply
reflects, documents, or processes a reality that exists independent from
it. Its role is more dynamic: The teen film ultimately co-produces teen
reality and is in turn co-produced by it.5 This interrelation of mutual
influence of extra- and intradiegetic realities bleeding into each other
becomes visible by looking at the types, tropes, settings, or actresses and
actors in The DUFF.

Case Study: The DUFF

The DUFF ’s Bianca Piper leads a relatively carefree life as a nerdy high
school senior with an unconventional fashion sense who lives together
with her recently divorced single mom, loves cult horror films, is a good
student, and has two best friends, Jess Harris and Casey Cordero, who
are considerably more popular and more conventionally attractive than
she is. Despite her academic and popcultural smarts and maturity, she is

5There are sociological narratives that speak about teen realities going back to C. Wayne
Gordon’s influential study The Social System and the High School from 1957. Using the method-
ology of Talcott Parsons’ action theory, Gordon analyses the social interactions of high school
students and even though his frame, method, and era are quite different from the narrative fic-
tional films about which I am writing, many of his findings, like types, tropes, rites, correspond
exactly as known from Hollywood’s teen films.
38 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

surprisingly naïve (or rather: she lacks literacy) in terms of High School
Sociography. Thus, she is entirely unaware of her status in the school’s
hierarchy until her childhood friend and next-door neighbor Wesley
Rush (attractive, athletic, and sexually active) reveals to her that she is
what is referred to in teen vernacular as a “DUFF”:

Every group of friends has one. The one who doesn’t look as good, thus
making their friends look better. The one who’s approachable and easy
to talk to, because no one’s trying to get in their pants. And if you don’t
know who it is, chances are it’s you … Guys can be DUFFs too … acting
as, like, the gatekeeper to their better-looking friends. The guy with the
info people go to before they make their move.

Hurt and humiliated by having been reduced to a sociological function,

and on top of that one that relegates her to a low and not very desir-
able, quasi-parasitic or at least strictly symbiotic agency-less position in
the hierarchy, Bianca decides to take action. She temporarily ends her
friendship with her best friends and offers Wesley a deal: He shall be
her makeover counselor while her end of the bargain is to help him get
up his grades, as the academically failing Wesley is in danger of losing
his football scholarship, which he hopes will be his ticket out of a dys-
functional and stifling home. Wesley teaches Bianca how to belong via a
multi-step program and by introducing her to the social scripts of dress-
ing, courtship, dating, and sexuality (in the form of practicing how to
kiss correctly) so she is ready to pursue her love interest Toby Tucker. As
is to be expected, both Wesley and Bianca learn more about themselves,
each other, and their environment in the process and again as is to be
expected, fall in love. After several detours, they end up as a romantic
couple on prom night where Wesley eventually opts against accepting
his homecoming king crown and instead takes off with Bianca. Before
we get to this however, obstacles include Bianca’s ill-fated courtship of
Toby (whose sensitive façade eventually lays bare a shallow character, as
he just tries to use her as DUFF-gatekeeper to her friends) and Wesley’s
involvement with his on-off girlfriend Madison Morgan, who is coded as
rich, beautiful, manipulative, and spiteful (since rich and morally corrupt
tend to go hand in hand). Madison is the film’s resident mean girl (and
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 39

homecoming queen) who humiliates and cyberbullies Bianca to black-

mail her away from Wesley upon realizing that the two are connected by
a less superficial bond than the Darwinian fitness that logically renders
her and Wesley eligible. Following the ending’s catharsis, as dénouement
Bianca publishes an article about homecoming, her senior year experi-
ence and the figure of the DUFF in the student newspaper which goes
viral and redeems all the DUFFs out there. She and Wesley go to dif-
ferent universities, but stay together as an uncommon couple that has
overcome the imperative of high school’s social-sexual-romantic protocol
to mate befitting one’s respective rank and have thus at the same time
ensured heteronormativity (other than all other potential candidates in
this relatively couple-free film, from Bianca’s and Wesley’s parents, to the
love interests Madison and Toby) while simultaneously achieving indi-
vidual autonomy.
While the types as well as film styles (the settings, the mise-en-scène,
the use of music, the editing, the camera perspectives) seem familiar and
are congruent with their counterparts in comparable texts, what is inter-
esting here are not the repetitions, but the differences. Repetitions estab-
lish a formula, but the variations of a formula highlight its demarcations.
In turn, they enable a different perspective on the transformations and
movements, how, for example, Bianca as DUFF differs from Pretty in
Pink’s Andie Walsh or Laney Boggs in She’s All That as the made-over
and how this will eventually lead to them fulfilling the same narrative,
diegetic, cultural, or ideological function in their respective era and for
their respective audience.

Disassembling The DUFF: Discipline

The DUFF opens with a black background onto which along the Z-axis
“CBS Films” in a plain serif-less font and neon-green letters with a faint
neon pink shadow (creating a somewhat 1980s-looking 3D effect) moves
into the frame. The font and color palette of the title card introduce a
style that is both retro and contemporary in its re-using and update of a
color scheme that is connoted eighties. As such, it is a reference that is
easily recognizable and traceable and presents the first element in which
40 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

the film connects itself to the canon, especially the defining 1980s texts,
while at the same time translating it for a present-day audience and into
its accustomed contemporary styles. Rather than reading this use of ref-
erences and recycling of existing forms and elements merely as typically
postmodern pastiche, this can already be seen as the installation of a
link in the chain through which reference circulates back and forth. At
the same time, and even before the audience is introduced to the visi-
ble high school setting it is sonically transported there with the symbolic
wake-up call of the ringing school bell that intradiegetically and literally
heralds a high school day both for the protagonists and for the audience
in whom a wide range of connotations associated with school situations
and with cinematic representations of school is evoked. For the audi-
ence, the bell does more than audibly signal that the film begins and the
milieu in which it is set. It implements a regime, sonically and symbol-
ically, much like the church bell or the factory whistle (or other insti-
tutions and embodiments of power, as Foucault analyzed in “Of Other
Spaces” (1986, 27): The chime of the church bell for a long time has
been a reminder both of the looming omnipresence of the church and
everything it represents, as well as a reminder of the fact that it is the
very institution that structures and organizes time by the very ringing of
the bell and thus, by extension, structures and organizes the daily lives
of those within its reach. The school bell as the multi-functional opener
of The DUFF fulfills a similar purpose: In the diegesis, it structures the
students’ days, their classes, and breaks and thus is a major agent of the
discipline whose acquisition is the ultimate project of a high school edu-
cation. Discipline is a central force field through which the characters
in The DUFF move, however, as it will soon turn out, this discipline
(or ideology) not only runs from top to bottom with the bell as a rep-
resentative of school as an Althusserian (1970) ISA, an Ideological State
Apparatus, par excellence. In an ISA, to which Louis Althusser counts
the educational system, the family, and media (The DUFF as a main-
stream film and thus as part of mass media must be consequently be seen
as another ISA), the social order and the dominant ideology are repro-
duced and reinforced not only by institutions of power, but also by the
society members themselves through a process of coercion, submission,
and interpellation which leads to an identification with said ideology
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 41

and ultimately produces subjects (with an emphasis here on the prefix

sub, and in the sense of the Latin subiectus, subjugated, under the rule).
Even though on the surface level the characters will have reached auton-
omy from that ideology at the end of the film, their finding and occu-
pying their own niche within it—finding love, becoming a convention-
defying happy couple—can also be read as consent to that ideology and
their having become subjects within it, thus reproducing the order. This
proposition is specifically American, as it suggests an ideology of non-
ideology based on the myth that a pure and free subject exists outside of
the absorption by any ideology—which of course is an ideology in itself,
and a powerfully pervasive one at that: American individualism.6
The accompanying theme music that opens The DUFF likewise
anchors the film temporally and stylistically and informs its audience
about its popcultural position. After 41 seconds, the piece is interrupted
by—naturally—the school bell that closes the bracket around the open-
ing sequence to then segue into a pop song collage in which Bianca and
her friends are introduced. The three-song medley in slightly over two
minutes uses music to comment on the characters, to address the audi-
ence, to set the film’s pace, and to connect it to the canon. The fact that
the songs’ eminent stylistic variation7 is juxtaposed with almost congru-
ent tempi and identical time signatures—all three songs are straightfor-
ward four-four time—already hints at the imminent interrogation of an
unchanging underlying structure in which what seems as makeover and
as changes is merely style and surface: as diverse as Bianca and her friends
may seem by look, style, and by entrance music, they all move through
an order whose deep structure is not impacted by changes of and on its

6 Also see Smith (with recourses to Scott and Leonhardt, Fussell, Halle) on how “the USA
continues to construct itself as a classless society” (2017, 66).
7The variation becomes even more heterogeneous when not only listening to the songs but
also looking at the attached performers and their backgrounds: Junkie XL as a Dutch-American
male artist, Nacey and Angel Haze are a white male dance music producer and an African-
American rapper and LGBT activist, to the Canadian musician and performance artist Peaches’
whose main themes are female empowerment, gender roles, and sexual identities. In his essay
about Clueless, Ben Aslinger attests it to have “signaled an increased hybridization of teen
listening tastes” (2014, 127) and “audience demands for more complicated constructions of
sonic cultures” (ibid., 131), a hybridization we see continued and increased in The DUFF.
42 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Priming the audience for further central themes and the strategies with
which they will be worked through, the first frame after the title card is
the image of a computer screen on which “Malloy High School’s The
Pitchfork,” the school newspaper, is being layouted while Bianca’s voice-
over sets in:

For generations of high schoolers, you could only be a jock, a geek, a

princess, a bully, or a basket case. But times have changed. Jocks play
video games. Princesses are on antidepressants. And geeks basically run
the country. I thought we were living in a brave new world, a place with-
out labels. But every so often, there’s that one moment in high school
that changes your perspective on everything. And for me, it happened
senior year, about a month before homecoming.

While this monologue is audible, the aligning of the newspaper arti-

cle, the addition of author’s names (all articles have been written by
Bianca and her two friends), positioning and resizing of pictures, illus-
trates Bianca’s claim how the formerly seemingly so clear delineations
between the distinct classes have been eroded by showing images of some
of the types she mentions: Football players, cheerleaders, and mathletes
are, quite literally, all on the same page (see Fig. 2.1). The newspaper
layout frame is only 17 seconds long, but already contains and prepares

Fig. 2.1 Introducing a typology and taxonomy: football players, cheerleaders

and mathletes are all literally on the same page
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 43

the decisive elements of The DUFF. It introduces a typology and taxon-

omy; furthermore, this classification and the vocabulary to talk about it
overtly hark back to The Breakfast Club where these labels are used almost
verbatim (“You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and
the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a bas-
ket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each
other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.”). From the
onset, typology and taxonomy are not just used as shorthand to perpetu-
ate known types or to signal to the audience in which generic tradition to
read the following, but as central theme and narrative element: This will
be a film that not only uses labels, but is essentially about labeling in all
its facets. Bianca creates labels not just to refer to her experience (other
than the protagonists in The Breakfast Club who coined the terms), she
refers to them as preexisting knowledge that is rooted in an extradiegetic
fictional source. By positing The Breakfast Club, this Citizen Kane of teen
films, as a point of reference for both the concrete film, its film genre,
and its audience, an understanding is established as the film characters
and the audience share the same cultural archive and circulate the same
inscriptions. Not solely production or invention takes place, but trans-
formation and translation, which is also how the Breakfast Club refer-
ence contains a double address and can be understood by those who are
familiar with the referent and those who are only familiar with its trans-
lations—or for whom it functions as a mere teen film citation system in
the sense of a Bildungszitat.8
Beyond the intertextual link-up with a foundational generic text by
the voice-over narration, the introduction of the school paper sets up an
important premise: self-documentation. This ties in both with the notion
of inscriptions, of translating one’s interest (or self-interest, to be more

8 Literally,
an “educated quote,” the reference to an acquired knowledge. According to von Polenz
(1999, 382), the Bildungszitat that functions as a signifier for knowledge without necessarily
referring to real knowledge. Eva Hölter identifies its function as constitutive for a distinct class
of users: “The knowledge [of the literary canon] was relative and often restricted … to the
familiarity with some facts and quotes, through whose usage and recognition the class that
later came to be called Bildungsbürgertum legitimized itself and which served to understand
and assess each other … an expression of a bourgeois culture that increasingly defined itself by
‘education’” (2002, 69, my translation).
44 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

specific in regards to The DUFF ) in material form,9 and also with the
theme of how discipline and ideology are not mainly implemented from
top to bottom (the editorial staff is led by a teacher who assigns sto-
ries), but rather produced and reproduced by the teens themselves. Self-
documentation has entered the pathologies of the DUFF teens as a form
of internalized self-control in the sense of Foucault’s panopticism (1995,
195ff.). The unquestioned compliance with the imperative to document
and disclose oneself, to make oneself available to the controlling gazes
and scrutiny of the other members of the social order, is most blatantly
embodied in Bianca’s antagonist Madison, constantly accompanied by
her sidekick Caitlyn whose job is to capture Madison’s every move with
a smartphone (Wesley: “Does she have to film everything?”; Madison:
“Wesley, I’m what’s known as pre-famous. My life is an audition for real-
ity TV. So, yeah, I need to chronicle everything. That was a good take
for me. Get a wide shot too.”).
The cartoonish exaggeration of Madison as narcissistic, compulsive
self-documenter parodies power in the form of internalized control/self-
surveillance, but the seemingly democratic institution of a school news-
paper (in which the disenfranchised can express their voice and which
equally acknowledges members of all distinct classes, the mathletes, and
football players), after all is also an apparatus that reproduces the same
panoptic power by documenting/surveilling the adolescent subjects. This
crystallizes in the homecoming dance—as the ultimate event of self-
presentation and status evaluation10 —around which Bianca’s newspaper
article, her transitional makeover journey, and the film are organized. In
this scene, one of the lead stories on the front page written by Bianca’s
friend Jess is titled “How To Find The Perfect Prom Date,” in one of the
final scenes the article Bianca was assigned to write about her experience
of the homecoming dance is finally published (“Tales of a High School
When the short opening is followed by an establishing shot to intro-
duce the setting, zooming in from an aerial shot which shows the entire

9 See
also Callon “Techno-Economic Networks and Irreversibility” (Callon 1991, 143).
10 Alsosee Amy L. Best’s work on the social rites embedded in school dances in Prom Night
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 45

school grounds embedded in a suburban area, to the archway at the

school entrance with the school building behind it, before cutting to
a busy hallway and finally to the close-up of a wall clock whose hands
jump to 7.45 AM, this short montage is again accompanied by the ring-
ing of the bell. Three anonymous teenage boys appear, coded as nerds by
their clothes and banter that displays their sexual inexperience and inter-
est in video games, and when realizing the time, their anxious expecta-
tion of what is about to happen lets them burst out with: “Oooh, oooh,
oooh, oooh, Showtime!” The boys appear here as a Greek chorus—part
of the diegesis, yet commenting and interpreting it for the audience and
acting as a link between the two spheres—and make it clear that the
ensuing entrance of Bianca, Jess, and Casey is a daily ritual, a reliably
timed performative act and one that caters to their viewing pleasure—or
at least is looked at by them as if it did. While the girls are introduced via
fast-paced metadiegetic montages in which multiple facets of their per-
sonalities are introduced in the quick succession of pictures, one of the
boys brags that he would “bang [Jess] so hard that they would both need
helmets.” His chauvinistic comment is somewhat defused by presenting
them as inexperienced pubescent boys, not in the shape of the sexually
aggressive alpha males as whom the athlete stereotype is conventionally
constructed. Nonetheless, they are also performing their allocated gender
role—among other things by gazing at the to-be-looked-at girls—main-
taining the heteronormative masculinity they know they are supposed to
enact. The performative aspect becomes all the more clear when one of
the boys says: “Casey Cordero. I would play Call of Duty with her all
night,” expressing his actual and much more innocent desire which is
not to “bang her” but to play a video game with a female companion, to
which his friends react surprised: “Wait, what?” He adds, nervously cov-
ering up this slip and reassuming his performance of heteronormative
masculinity: “And bang her hard too, to the point of needing helmets.”
Accordingly, the entrance scene in which the audience first gets to see
the three girls has the camera fetishizing them in lieu of the three boys’
(and thus by extension the audience’s) male gaze and thereby implements
a scopic regime: beginning as a close-up of their three pairs of feet in
slow-motion, then quickly cutting back and forth between the three boys
and further shots of the individual girls. Jess is introduced first, again in
46 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

slow-motion with the camera moving upwards along her legs, cutting to
her face and then to brief shots of her pursuing various activities. These
images are accompanied by hashtags that characterize the girls and seem-
ingly deconstruct the expected types: Jess Harris and Casey Cordero are
not only demarcations of a demographic spectrum indicated by name
and look (the WASPy blonde and the black-haired Latina), nor the mere
objects of male desire (“Jess has the hottest ass. Casey has the hottest
rack.”) and thus the two-dimensional “princess” type that conventionally
ensues from female beauty, moreover Jess is also “#TheKindOne, Aspir-
ing Fashion Designer, and Zen Buddhist” and Casey “#TheToughOne,
[soccer] Striker, and Hacker.” Aesthetically, the film here adopts the fast
pacing of contemporary use of social media, as well as its look and feel
in the way that it employs typical graphic elements, such as hashtags and
the tag labels attached to depicted people, to visualize the labeling that
takes place while it takes place and conveying a sense of up-to-date-ness
while simultaneously illustrating the main theme. Both the framing looks
and language, by the boys’ gazes and their comments, as well by the tag-
ging and hashtagging enforces the girls’ to-be-looked-at-ness instead of
deconstructing it. Labeling is not subverted, or even done away with, but
merely diversified, the empowerment of a female underdog ultimately
will be equated with getting the guy, and self-acceptance will be coupled
with male approval.
Bianca’s above-quoted introductory voice-over monologue installs her
as an autodiegetic narrator with the ability to address the audience,
simultaneously from within as well as situated above the plot due to her
knowledge of the outcome that neither the characters nor the audience
have, thus turning her also into a metadiegetic mediator between film
and spectator. Narrator-Bianca speaks in the past tense, looking back
on what is now about to unfurl from the future point toward which
protagonist-Bianca and the audience are moving, a retrospective position
that contains the promise of a conclusion while establishing the underly-
ing theme of self-documentation and self-writing. The autodiegetic nar-
rator keeps the reference stably circulating between two distinct sign- or
media systems (and several “Bianca systems”): The DUFF as the adapta-
tion of the homonymous young adult novel by Kody Keplinger (2010)
takes its architecture, plot, and character organization from a written
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 47

story and never tries to overcome or hide this. After all, the fact that
the author was 17 and thus an actual teen when she wrote the novel may
not necessarily turn the narrative into a documentary with an in-built
authenticity claim, but adds a further element of up-to-date-ness, just
like the role of social media does. Bianca writing her article about being a
DUFF mirrors Keplinger writing a novel, and consequently, even though
the film’s visual language relies less on written text, The DUFF is very
much concerned with words: its protagonists’ experiences and lives are
shaped by words more than by actions, they express themselves by self-
documentation, among others by writing, and the cinematography/mise-
en-scène heavily includes words. In every sense of the phrase, and to bear
John Austin (1962) in mind, in The DUFF we are shown “How to Do
Things with Words.”11 It is the most openly, the most self-awarely, and
generally the most logocentric teen film in existence.
When protagonist-Bianca appears on screen for the first time and
narrator-Bianca states “That’s me,” her attributions are “#TheOtherOne,
Cult Movie Fanatic, Honor Roll Student, and Adequate Violin Player.”
It is comically over-illustrated how content Bianca is while still unaware
of the perception others have of her, that she is a type at all, and that
there is a name for that type. Wesley revealing to her what everyone else
already seems to know is the instant in which the complication begins.
It is not a gradual realization, but a sudden revelation, already alluded to
in the opening voice-over monologue: “that one moment in high school
that changes your perspective on everything.” The watershed and her
loss of innocence sets in when she is forced into a category by being
forced into a word, by being baptized and symbolically reborn. Bianca,
in voice-over: “You know in Batman when that guy falls into the vat of
acid and becomes the Joker? This was my ‘vat of acid’ moment. My best
friends made me the DUFF.” Her Batman analogy recalls a powerful
image from the pop consciousness of a drastic and involuntary transfor-
mation that is very obviously staged as baptism: A “guy” (it is impor-
tant that he is nameless in Bianca’s comparison, parallel to her hitherto

11 Referringto Austin’s influential essay from 1962, his contribution to speech act theory. The
“performatives” or “illocutionary acts” as verbal utterances that not only convey information,
but also constitute an action with real, material consequences are at the core of his theory of
the performative.
48 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

blank labeling as “#TheOtherOne”) falls into a baptismal fountain in the

shape of a vat of acid and returns as a new and reborn figure with new
ascriptions: a name and a role in the Batman universe. For Bianca, the
ascription of the new name and the appendant role also turn out to be
a christening. It is not acid, but language that absorbs her into a social
order and into the symbolic order, in the same way the entering of the
language is the child’s/subject’s entrance into the Symbolic in Lacanian
psychoanalysis (2004). The recognition of the Name-of-the-Father /nom-
du-père (1981) as Lacan’s byword for the normative order (i.e., the rules
and restrictions that control and structure the unconscious, desire, and
communication) simultaneously completes the entrance into a commu-
nity with others and thus, the acceptance of that society’s law that consti-
tutes the Symbolic, “the pact which links subjects together in one action.
The human action par excellence is originally founded on the existence
of the world of the symbol, namely on laws and contracts … it is the
act of speech which is constitutive” (1991, 230–232). The Name-of-the-
Father becomes the Name-of-the-DUFF: By being made to recognize it,
Bianca is made to recognize the ideology she has been absorbed into; her
world and her position therein has been impacted by words, or speech
acts even.
The labels that have been established by, among others, The Break-
fast Club and continuously built on and diversified since, are used as a
means to narrate the quest for autonomy and individuation and are an
integral part of the (cinematic) high school experience. It is notewor-
thy that many of these fixed types or other elements of teen life such as
prom or the homecoming dance have no equivalent outside of US cul-
ture, both as an archetype (the cheerleader and all its connotations, for
instance) and linguistically: While every American high school student
knows exactly what the jock or the bully are, how they look, dress, and
behave, these labels are only translatable approximately. Whether these
types and what they embody are genuinely American or at least a gen-
uinely American film construct is to some extent a question of linguistic
relativity: Do these labels exist in the American dictionary to refer to a
specifically American experience or does the existence of such vocabu-
lary reveal a linguistic structure that also informs the worldview of its
speakers? Then again, in Bianca’s introductory monologue she states that
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 49

she had “thought we were living in a brave new world, a place without
labels,” when really this brave new world did not even exist in her own
allegedly label-free thinking. The mere fact that “times have changed.
Jocks play video games. Princesses are on antidepressants. And geeks
basically run the country” simply shows that the allocated characteris-
tics for each type have started to bleed into those of other types and that
the types have become more hybrid, but not that they have been obso-
lete. She has been participating in speech acts, performative acts, and the
reproduction of the permeating ideology (or non-ideology); the only dif-
ference is that she was not aware of it. She is not made to recognize a new
development, only something that is a new realization for her, but that
however has been enacted, performed, reproduced all along by herself
and the other members of her social cosmos, the order of teens.

The Makeover
The makeover as metaphor and vehicle for the liminal transition of a
teenager draws on an established teen film tradition that is played out
in the theme of navigating the social pressure in the culture of popular-
ity that comes with being ascribed a label and then reaching autonomy
by escaping the label. In her analysis of Clueless, Alice Leppert links the
trope of the makeover to teen magazines and their “didactic and imper-
ative” (McRobbie 1991, 104) tone with which they guide their readers
through transformational beauty rites, simultaneously enforcing conven-
tions and selling styles and products, conjoining “the makeover plot and
the malleability of teen identity that is so central to Clueless and teen
magazines alike” (Leppert 2014, 137). In the makeovers in canonic films
whose commercial success and enduring influence endows them a posi-
tion in which they can be seen as “didactic and imperative” at all, or as
inscriptive texts between which reference circulates, several patterns are
noticeable. Conspicuously, the made-over are in most commonly (white)
females. While their agency, motivation, and the organization of their
makeover vary, there are far fewer examples in which a male is given or
50 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

feels the need to give himself a makeover.12 The rare occurrences of a

male makeover—as for instance many stories about male nerds hinge on
the makeover myth—work to the outcome of transforming the protag-
onist into an improved version of himself, which often means a cooler,
more popular, more masculine, sexually initiated version, or one that pre-
vails at sports or physical combat.13 The female makeover on the other
hand in most cases presents an ugly-duckling-into-beautiful-swan trans-
formation that often implies the compliance with conventional physical
beauty as the arena in which a female can and has to transform and
succeed. In correspondence, writing about The Breakfast Club, Bulman
concludes: “After Claire gives Allison a beauty makeover, Allison and
Andrew become romantically involved (an all-too-common scene in sub-
urban high school films that suggests women must conform to standard
measures of beauty in order to attract men)” (2004, 107).
The eminent makeovers are canonically read as working according
to similar principles—women making themselves over in order to cater

12 One instance is Grease in which both the John Travolta character Danny Zuko and Olivia
Newton John’s Sandy Olsson make themselves over in order to become what they assume is
the other’s ideal image of them. In Grease, this is not used as a central or even very important
element, but rather as the effective and comic premise to then sing the iconic song “You’re
the One That I Want.” Also, it is rather used to satirize the dichotomous stereotypization
into “clean teens” and “juvenile delinquents” so typical for 1950s media and cinema narratives
exploiting these types, as the film’s project as a campy musical that from the perspective of 1978
looks back on a fictional 1958 is a self-aware examination of clichés—on the level of genre,
plot, characters, and style. It is noticeable that one of the few examples for a male makeover
takes place in a frame that connotes it as over-the-top satire. While I read this framing as
parody with the potential to subvert these 1950s values and roles by making them visible as
constructions, Shary (2005, 46–47) and Considine (1985, 270) at the same time see it as a
perpetuation of the conservative gender roles which both attest Grease.
13 Among the examples for a male makeover from various (sub)genres are Christine (1983), Once
Bitten (1985), Can’t Buy Me Love (1987), Class Act (1992), Deal of a Lifetime (1999), Spider-
Man (2002), or obviously The Karate Kid (1984, as well as the 2010 remake) when read as a
teen film and not as genre film from the martial arts genre. Here, the predictable transformation
of the dorky and nice kid that struggles to fit in after relocating with his single mom and who
in the end becomes a karate champion beating seemingly stronger, more masculine competitors
who are more prone to displays of alpha male violence, reinforces the dominant clichés of the
makeover and its conventional gender organization. This kind of masculine transformation is
central for many martial arts narratives going back to the classical boxer drama, but some texts
merge the martial arts transformation with a coming-of-age transformation and an adolescent
protagonist, as for instance Sidekicks (1992), the Karate Kid rip-off Showdown a.k.a. American
Karate Tiger (1993) or Never Back Down (2008)—however none as clearly and as successfully
as The Karate Kid franchise.
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 51

to male desire—and in terms of Laura Mulvey’s conceptualization of

the male gaze (1975) as the predominant way in which women are
(re)presented in visual culture. The performative aspect of a makeover
allows for further readings of how agencies of transformation (and the
transformed and transforming) can operate outside of the male gaze, as
for instance as an excess of signs and codes that, like drag performances,
just as much subvert as affirm normative conventions of beauty and gen-
der or even as “mockery of gender and class norms” (Smith 2017, 75), or
as a less unilateral flow of transformative powers and rather as a mutual
shaping process, especially as the making-over usually also ends up as
made-over. The starting position most commonly is a female being “im-
proved” and the confirmation that she has proven herself as improved
and the validation for her improved self is the prize in the form of the
(male) love interest, most commonly someone who was out of her league
when she was still her old, unimproved self. It is apparent why and how
this can be construed as problematic in its affirmation of cultural and
societal biases and asymmetries, and how these stories double as alle-
gories for the neoliberal imperative to self-optimize, which they visualize
and thereby secure.
While these political insinuations of most makeover films are not fun-
damentally different in The DUFF, the way the makeover narrative is
updated and translated for a 2015 audience is interesting nonetheless—
after all, in terms of audience acceptance and commercial success, the
film has a similarly prominent position as Pretty in Pink or She’s All That
had in their time and possibly serves a similar function.14
The DUFF makeover begins as a deal (bear in mind that this is pre-
Trump USA, before “the art of the deal” had become a byword for the
implosion of a political system and the epitome for capitalism in its sheer
ugliness): “Here’s my offer. I will make sure you pass science if you help
me with this,” says Bianca during a phys. ed. class after having overheard
Wesley talking to a teacher after chemistry class and learning about his

14 In the 2015 box office rankings, The DUFF is at #76 with only two teen films ahead, The
Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015) as the fourth installment of the established franchise
at #8 and Maze Runner : The Scorch Trials (2015) at #36, as its second installment, also part of
a teen post-apocalypse series (Source: Box Office Mojo website,
52 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

academic predicament. She does not approach him there and right away,
on her turf so to say, a room designated for science, where he would
perhaps feel vulnerable or intimidated and thus perhaps defensive, but
on his turf, the sports field. Bianca approaching Wesley—especially in
that tactical manner, like a true dealmaker—is not only asking for advice
or a plea for help among peers or friends, it is an exchange of goods
and services, cultural and social capital, the implementation of a con-
tract, in line with the logic of neoliberalism. Wesley can use Bianca for
his personal advancement and potential transformation—going to uni-
versity, leaving his dysfunctional home—and Bianca can use Wesley for
her ends, her transformation, i.e., making herself attractive for a boy and
equating/mistaking this with/for autonomy: “I don’t wanna be anybody’s
DUFF anymore, okay? I wanna be my own person. I’m tired of being
the approachable one. I wanna be the dateable one.” There is a con-
tradiction in on the one hand wanting to be “my own person” and the
wish to have independency and agency and not to be defined as a mere
symbiont, as someone’s friend, and on the other simultaneously want-
ing to be “the dateable one” (not dating one), as it expresses the wish
to be the passive and looked-at female. This oscillation between active
and passive is doubled in the figure of her mother, Dottie Piper. Ms.
Piper is a single mom after the father has left the family three years ago,
which at first was traumatic for her. In a short montage, she is shown
on a ride-on lawnmower destroying belongings of her former husband
and binge-watching TV, both while drinking alcohol, all well-rehearsed
clichés about the hysterical female falling apart without a man and a
not-so-subtle allusion to the degree of her crisis and her lack of strate-
gies to handle being left. She turns her life around in a transformational
(or vat of acid) moment when, as narrator-Bianca comments during her
voice-over introduction, “one night divine inspiration struck.” When her
mother watched an episode of The Simpsons in which cartoon patriarch
Homer Simpson is facing his potential death and goes through five stages
to cope with his imminent demise, the so-called Kübler-Ross model (or
“five stages of grief ” [1969]), she is inspired to come up with a self-help
book about “The Five Stages of Divorce,” a concept resulting from the
one-to-one application of the Simpsons scene (or rather of the Kübler-
Ross-model-via-the-Simpsons-scene) to her own situation, propelling her
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 53

to the status of self-improvement celebrity. Her success and newfound

purpose have reinstated her self-esteem and she is now finally able to
set up online dating profiles with Bianca’s help to become romantically
involved again. Like Bianca, she was forced into a situation by a man
(being left by, not having left her husband) after which she has to gain
a sense of self and go through a liminal five-stage transition into auton-
omy; but her autonomy is also equated with being dateable (after becom-
ing useful/successful) again. The proposition that drunkenly watching a
TV show, with smeared mascara due to crying, can lead to a moment of
divine inspiration visualizes how reference jumps back and forth, how it
is translated and assumes different forms while always retaining its rela-
tion: A concept from psychology is taken up in a TV show, from there
seeps into the mind of a spectator who then transforms it into self-help
literature. This progression can be read as a self-reflexive comment which
self-awarely posits The DUFF as a link in chain through which reference
is continuously circulating: It is not so much novelty or the invention of
an idea that produces new insight, knowledge, or up-to-date iterations
of an idea, it is its translation and transformation.
The transformational movement embedded in the film’s narrative cor-
responds to The DUFF ’s general strategy of translating generic markers
and elements.15 In the abovementioned scene, metadiegetic translation
becomes intradiegetic translation in a plot concerned with transforma-
tion. Focusing on the Latourian translation makes it all the more evi-
dent that Bianca’s mother turning her life around by turning her grief
into (self-help) literature is less sublimation than it is the conversion
of personal pain and something quite private into marketable commod-
ity. Bianca is making deals to alleviate her hurt and dissatisfaction, her
mother is selling books and seminars. Their respective agency does not

15 Genre here is not seen as rigid classification, but as something that constitutes itself in the
discourse from and about films and from the way other films and genres, as for instance
addressed by Steve Neale (1988) or Claudia Liebrand’s proposition of anti-essentialist genre
theory. She states: “Genres do not exist ‘by themselves.’ We are rather dealing with them in
the guise of films: with films that can be attributed to genres, but ‘are’ not these genres. Every
film refers to genre conventions, but rewrites them at the same time. … The genre is not the
film, but we encounter it in the film, it (logically) precedes the film and yet (in practice) is
its effect” (Liebrand 2003, 174; Bothmann 2018, 37). Rick Altman explicitly factors in the
community that “uses” a generic text and the formation of a “constellated community” (1999,
162) that reacts to and interacts with the text as constitutive for any genre.
54 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

take place on the plane of personal space or sexuality—both want to be

dateable and offer themselves—but on the plane of self-optimization.
The actual makeover Wesley has devised for Bianca’s improvement is
also a multiple-step program, a learning experience echoing the under-
current of discipline and self-control. It starts at the shopping mall, one
of American teen films’ preeminent settings besides high school and the
family home. Steps one and two are the acquisition of more feminine
underwear. The ensuing fashion parade of various more or less hilarious
outfits and the aptitude of actress Mae Whitman to endow her Bianca
not with humiliation, but physical comedy turns the scene into a satire of
the generic tradition of how a female undergoes the makeover by being
dressed in new clothes, having makeup put on and getting a new hairdo,
sometimes also by simply taking off her glasses (e.g., the makeovers in
Breakfast Club, She’s All That, or their parody in Not Another Teen Movie
[2001]). Whitman’s comedic acting paired with the over-the-top-ness of
the costumes adds further layers of meaning to and masks, but not truly
subverts the fetishization she has to undergo. She is at the same time
playing along with the program and making fun of it by posing for Wes-
ley like a porno model, doing silly push-ups or pretending to aggressively
flirt with a mannequin that happens to look like her love interest Toby
Tucker. Wesley films Bianca with his smartphone and upon realizing this,
she is reluctant, concealing parts of her body clad in the unfamiliar outfit
with her arms and hands, but Wesley reassures her that she can trust him,
she loses her inhibitions and begins to play it up for the camera. They are
still in an ongoing deal-making process, weighing each other’s positions,
which only later will morph into a genuine friendship and even romance.
An important factor in this transformation’s agencies is the agency of the
camera(s): It is again used as a means of self-documentation, it adds a
self-reflexive meta-level and serves to blur the boundaries of the medium
(Bianca is supposed to be herself in front of the camera, but of course
just acts out a fictitious version of herself ), and it constitutes Bianca’s to-
be-looked-at-ness and externalizes Wesley’s male gaze and by extension
that of everyone else, as he acts not as an individual but as a represen-
tative of an entire order whose gaze Bianca wants to subject herself to
(this will change later when Wesley presents her with a beautiful black
dress he saw Bianca adoring at the mall and thus actively and individually
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 55

clothes her). As the scene plays in a mall, the epitome of a social center in
the otherwise social-center-less suburban America, their rather intimate
experience becomes a public performance when they are secretly watched
and filmed by Caitlyn, sidekick and aide to the antagonist Madison. Her
camera is not meant for documentation, but for surveillance: She also
films the spectacle and thus really turns it into one, when she and Madi-
son later use the material to shame Bianca and prevent her conversion
into a higher class by putting it on YouTube (cyberbullying as a very
real facet of contemporary teenage and high school life contributes to
the film’s project of signaling its audience its topicality). The constella-
tion is significant: Someone watches and films someone who watches and
films, a mise-en-abyme of sorts. Like other famous moments of cinematic
voyeurism including urtexts like Psycho (1960) or Peeping Tom (1960),
the audience is forced to recognize and acknowledge its own spectator-
ship and complicity by having its position of the gazing-at doubled or
even tripled by the on-screen gazers and their apparatuses.16
Highlighting the fetishization and subjectification of the made-over
female in such fashion makes visible the power dynamics inherent in the
highly sexualized (and often male) gazes of the makeover film’s generic
history, dynamics which have rarely been put on self-reflexive display as
clearly as they are in The DUFF. When for instance She’s All That female
protagonist Laney Boggs is about to be made over, Zack, the boy who is
making her over to win a bet, brings his sister Mac to Laney’s house (Mac
also begins her makeover program with the request “You’d really have to
trust me.”). After having been made over in her own upper floor room—
since Victorian times the architectural sphere of privacy and intimacy
where guests normally are not allowed—she is called downstairs by Mac
several times, still too shy to go with the fashion parade she is asked to
enact. When she finally does descend the staircase of her suburban fam-
ily home, the mise-en-scène strongly suggests a specific perception, when
the camera cuts back and forth between the expectant gazes of Zack and
Laney’s little brother, who are either filmed up from the torso or with

16 Foran interrogation of gazes and gazes made visible by a visible camera, also see my discussion
of Stanley Kubrick’s Nabokov adaptation Lolita (1962) in Sonnenberg-Schrank (2016).
56 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

close-ups of their faces, unmistakably visualizing their positions in the

dynamics of the gazing and the gazed-at. Laney is filmed while slowly
walking down the stairs from her feet upwards, gradually exposing high-
heeled shoes, an evening dress, her pushed-up breasts and finally her face,
she is wearing makeup, jewelry, a new haircut and no longer her signature
horn-rimmed glasses. At the bottom of the stairs, she clumsily stumbles,
still not used to the high heels, to fall right into the arms of Zack. The
cinderella-esque staging of the damsel-knight constellation is seemingly
caricatured by the little brother who mocks the resulting embrace as a
goofy imitation of kissing, but actually he occupies the aforementioned
Greek chorus function: By mocking, he reassures that we are witnessing
the moment when Laney begins to enact her new role as the klutzy (read:
weak and in need of a prince who saves her) girl in a script of heteronor-
mative courtship, and Zack consequently falls in love with his creation,
a love interest reorganized to cater to his desire. Their deal is consum-
mated by, and in this moment: The cultural capital Laney acquires by
her association with Zack is repaid by delivering herself into his arms—
submission for status. However, the mise-en-scène does not provide a
marker that comments on the scene’s arrangement on the textual level,
nothing to unmask the gazes and the identification patterns they offer.17
The DUFF differs from its predecessors in this regard—and thus occu-
pies a slightly different position in the makeover canon—by showing the
transformative act as something that is not only actively and consciously
performed, but also perceived, recorded, and multiplied as performance.
The mere fact that the gendered gaze of the camera(s) is unmasked and
visualized in The DUFF does not deconstruct it, as the film never calls
into question that Bianca has to submit herself to a situation to begin
with in which she must turn herself into a spectacle, or an object (-of-
desire). This updating of a well-rehearsed formula is another instance
where reference circulates: In order to translate the trope for an audience
whose awareness of the predecessors can be taken for granted just as well
as their literacy, a meta-level of self-reflexivity needs to be added to keep
the reference stable and capable of fulfilling the same narrative/structural

17 Also see Gilligan (2011) and Smith (2017, 85–88).

2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 57

The shopping mall as a setting with very particular characteristics,

connotations, and fixed place as a staple of teen film sites also factors
in the next step of Bianca’s transformation. In order to overcome her
lack of experience, shy- and awkwardness, she has to practice engaging
with random boys and men outside of the school’s cosmos. The mall
with its levels, escalators, and food court becomes a metaphorical and
actual test laboratory in which to experiment on live humans. Bianca’s
position remains ambivalent: On the one hand, agency is with her as
she proactively approaches strange men instead of waiting for someone
to approach her; on the other hand, she acts on Wesley’s instructions
and practices how to offer herself in the best possible way to seem desir-
able or dateable enough (measured by the numbers of phone numbers
she can acquire). Arguments can be made for her agency and her own
desire, just as when she actively decides to transform herself, as well as
against, because the transformation she seeks is one organized according
to someone else’s desire. The shopping mall as a highly orchestrated space
designed for predictability, safety, commerce, and consumerism’s escapist
functions as a most appropriate backdrop. On the textual level, it is a
realistic location through which actual (suburban) teens move; on the
intertextual level, it is a location that has a deep-rooted generic tradition;
and on the subtextual level, it is a location where the making-oneself-
dateable—or in other words fit-for-the-market—can most appropriately
be played out: a marketplace for looks, goods, food, and romance.
After mastering the first steps of Wesley’s program and having had
to suffer the defamation as “mall whore” in Madison’s and Caitlyn’s
YouTube video and the degradation of being exposed in both her trans-
formation ambitions and her feelings for Toby Tucker, Bianca musters
her courage, owns the embarrassment, and asks Toby on a date as Wes-
ley’s next step. Step seven is the preparation of the actual date, which
Wesley lays out on the blackboard in a locker room that the football
coach normally uses to explain game tactics—after all, he is an athletic
jock who, at least for the time being, is kept spatially and intellectu-
ally stuck in his stereotype in order to establish and maintain the class
system to which he and Bianca constitute two ends. These ends need
to be in place and stable for both of them (when Wesley explains the
subtleties of dating, Bianca says surprised: “I had no idea guys like you
58 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

even thought about this kind of stuff;” and Wesley responds: “Well, that’s
because you’re racist against jocks. You’re a jock-cist.”) before their bor-
ders can become porous.
The actual date with Toby is disappointing, and the real Toby turns
out to be far from Bianca’s idealization. She has built him up and used
him as a projection screen, and thereby, she has done what everyone in
the order of teens apparently does: She ascribes him a certain function, a
function that is important to give cohesion to the social order and to her
own comprehension thereof. In Bianca’s case, she has installed Toby as
someone who is at the same time popular and a sensitive outsider (not a
jock, but a guitar player and songwriter), and thus, she has posited Toby
as the male ego-ideal and counterpart to what she strives to become and,
ironically, ultimately does become—unlike the debunked Toby.
The preparation for the crucial date is staged as Bianca regarding her-
self in a mirror, wearing the dress Wesley gave her and accompanied by
voice-over narration, as second external incarnation of herself in addition
to her own specular image. At the bottom of the staircase, she runs into
her mother who is also getting ready for her first “internet date,” also
wearing a black dress, also regarding herself in a mirror (see Fig. 2.2).
The actual mirroring not only literalizes the metaphorical mirroring, of
how the mother figure echoes Bianca’s situation and development, it is

Fig. 2.2 Both women achieve imaginary completeness by recognizing them-

selves in their specular reflection
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 59

also a Lacanian mirror stage moment, where both women achieve imag-
inary completeness by recognizing themselves in their specular reflection
and in an external image of themselves in a film that is so concerned
with images and image. This is the moment where they have found their
position in the Symbolic, after they have improved themselves to be date-
able and dating, visualized by exchanging their common getup—Bianca
as a slacker in t-shirts and dungarees, mom in Hillary Clinton-inspired
pantsuits—for the elegant black evening dress as the archetypical fashion
embodiment of femininity. Yet, narrator-Bianca undermines the fashion-
borne symbolic rebirth: “In my head, I think I was expecting some big
reality-show reveal. But it was just me. Me in a dress.” She does recognize
herself in the external image, but does not really feel that putting on a
dress was a major shift in the process of her I-formation and that she has
only now become a full subject—which means that she either still hasn’t
and is still fragmented and oscillating between Ego and body, Imaginary
and Real, child and mother (especially since these two are put next to
each other as mirror images), or that she had already been a complete,
yet decentered Bianca-subject and merely needs to realize this.
Before Bianca’s date with Toby, she and Wesley have shared an inti-
mate moment on Bianca’s “special place,” her “Think Rock,” a spot in
the nearby woods where she used to come with her dog before her par-
ents got divorced and when her mother wanted custody of her and her
father of the dog. By associating it with these carefree memories, the
rock becomes a space of regression, a reminder of the lost innocence of
her pre-divorce childhood before the familial order had been uprooted
by the falling apart of the parents’ marriage and the loss of the father
figure, and thus been made visible as a structure at all, a parallel to her
state of being before the social order of teens had not yet been made
visible by assigning her the label of the DUFF. Wesley as her neigh-
bor and childhood friend remembers the dog fondly and thus is able
to regress with her into a shared space of pre-performative innocence.
Caught in the moment, they start kissing, which they both immediately
defuse, Wesley by declaring this as step eight of his program, Bianca by
teasing him and licking his face when he is expecting another big kiss.
For the audience, this is the moment in which it becomes clear that they
are really rehearsing their own romance, even if they both maintain the
60 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

protocol: Bianca goes on her date with Toby and Wesley reassumes his
quasi-natural position at the side of the alpha female Madison. Their
kissing on Think Rock was—again—witnessed by Caitlyn and her cam-
era. The fact that she always shows up in private moments almost makes
her an embodiment of the appropriate paranoia teens might feel in the
age of social media, Bentham’s Panopticon Incarnate,18 always invisibly
ready for surveillance and coercion, ready to document, judge, and pun-
ish, to enforce discipline and uphold the dominant ideology. When her
meddling eventually leads to Madison displaying her position of power
by stepping up her blackmailing game, it also leads to Bianca becoming
able to withdraw from the competitive system and to truly reach auton-
omy through their final encounter at the homecoming dance, when she
realizes and professes that she does not care about categories and classifi-
The dance as another, if not the preeminent trope of the teen
film, becomes the moment when Bianca’s makeover is actualized. The
superficial makeover had already been completed when she went on
her date with Toby, trained to be dateable and in a feminine dress
after going through various scripted and unintended stages of transfor-
mation (underwear/clothing—interacting—dating—shame—dress). In
addition, the process that initiated the outwards makeover—her incor-
poration into a category and thereby into the social order—has found its
conclusion in her denial to subject herself. She finally stands up to Madi-
son and delivers a short speech that is as much infused by traditional
American values such as individualism, democracy, and laissez-faire, as it
is by the positive-thinking and self-acceptance rhetoric that has become
her mother’s strategy to cope with adversity:

Look, Madison, it’s okay. Madison, you used to make me so upset, but
now I just feel bad for you. Yeah, I’m somebody’s DUFF. Guess what,

18 For Foucault, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1798) as prison architecture serves as model for
modern disciplinary societies, in which control by observation eventually is internalized and
becomes self-control: “the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of
conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. … this
architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation inde-
pendent of the person who exercises it; … The Panopticon … automatizes and disindividualizes
power” (Foucault 1995, 201–202).
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 61

so are you. So is everybody. There’s always gonna be somebody prettier

or more talented or richer than you, but it shouldn’t affect how you see
yourself. You label everybody to try to keep them down, but you end up
missing out on all this great stuff around you. You have Wesley, and you
treat him like he’s stupid, but he isn’t. And people don’t like him because
he’s with you. They like him because he’s, like, an amazing guy. Look,
I like myself. I wouldn’t wanna be anybody else. And I realize now that
none of this matters to me. But it does to you. It’s your dream. And I
totally support that. Just don’t tear me down for not giving a shit about
your labels, because in the end, they’re meaningless.

At the homecoming dance it becomes evident that the makeover was not
only transformative for Bianca, Wesley, too, has been made over. When
the principal as expected announces him the king to Madison’s queen,
he does not even bother to enter the stage and take part in the corona-
tion. His refusing to participate in the ritual is tantamount with a with-
drawing of consent to the order he belonged to and represented to this
point. He may not have changed his outer appearance, but his makeover
is substantial: Not just academically (now a B student and eligible for
his scholarship) and spiritually, he has also gained autonomy, proving
that the deal he and Bianca struck was indeed a fair contract with an
even exchange of services. Appropriately, the ending is simultaneously a
kitschy romcom feel-good fulfillment of the promised romantic redemp-
tion of both Wesley and Bianca who have individually and as a couple
transcended the rigid borders of the class system, and a pragmatic and
indeed very adult conclusion: The big night with all its excitement was
not just a dreamlike spike in the graph, but the contract-cum-romance is
maintained in the form of a long-distance relationship that allows both to
pursue their individual goals as well as to maintain a monogamous het-
eronormative relationship and still live at their parents’ houses.19 They

19 In her analysis of The Plastic Age and the flapper film in general as a precursor for teen
films, Driscoll talks about the ways in which romance is enacted in teen-geared narratives, also
applicable to the quasi-marriage ending for Bianca and Wesley in The DUFF : “One of the
key differences between flapper films and girl-centered teen film in later decades is that they
might feasibly end in marriage, which was gradually removed from the realm of films about
adolescence while romance stayed central. For centuries across different media, plots where
girls played central roles have closed with a romantic couple, but the teen film belongs to
62 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

have made themselves and each other over to become the ideal version
of the failed model of their suburban middle-class parents while remain-
ing in their accustomed childhood roles, a mixture of progression and
regression. They have found a niche within the system that posits indi-
vidualism as generally possible within these systemic confinements and
proposes autonomy and agency as something that is attainable through
ambivalence. By blurring the edges of the class system, by diversifying
categories and coming up with hybrid types and new labels, the borders
become, or at least seem, porous. Both Bianca’s and Wesley’s makeovers
were necessary to produce unclear positions, not to graduate to the more
sharply defined types they aspired to become or to stay as they were at
the beginning, but to become ambivalent and hybrid, something that
for instance Madison can never be, as a one-dimensional character who
believes that “the thing you have to understand is what happens in high
school is gonna stay with us forever.” Ultimately, Madison may be right,
as no true alternative to both the social order of high school and its depic-
tion in teen films is given here.20
This leads to the following equation in which high school appears
as an actant in its own right (not only as thematic backdrop), just as
prominently as the individual teens: While adolescence is partly a bio-
logic transition that just happens, cannot be delayed, stopped, or altered,
the makeover as a produced transition driven by external forces (or inter-
nal forces caused by external forces, such as social pressure in its various
forms) is something that decidedly does not just happen but is actively
pursued and performed. The makeover as a sometimes chosen, some-
times forced-on (mostly both) entry into the Symbolic, performativity,
and subjectification becomes a metaphor for the socialization process

the extension of adolescent development and thus delay of the full social maturity with which
marriage is associated” (2011, 24).
20 Some Kind of Wonderful (which is mostly seen as a makeover film diptych from the John
Hughes think tank along with Pretty in Pink) is a rare exception to offer a deviation: The
one who has truly transformed and reached autonomy is Amanda, as she is now able to exist
without defining herself by the male she is with. She says: “Remember how I said I’d rather
be with someone for the wrong reasons than alone for the right ones? I’d rather be right. It’s
gonna feel good to stand on my own.” Amanda is one of the few makeover characters whose
outcome is not an indirect, rerouted affirmation of the status quo, but a genuine development
towards individuation.
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 63

of a high school education, of the recognition of an order, of an ide-

ology, and of its laws. High school is not only the space in which the
makeover is enacted, high school = the makeover. And high school, like
the mall or the prom dance, is also a pars pro toto, which metonymically
refers to the larger apparatus of which it is an institution. Therefore,
the makeover narrative needs not only to be scrutinized in regard to its
gender organization, the nature of its social landscapes, or many other
appendant, implied or included discourses. Much more, these narratives
are an expression of what Althusser calls ideology, what Foucault calls
power, what for Lacan is the nom-du-père, and what Bourdieu alludes to
in his theories of capital: a capitalist class system, its borders, and the way
it symbolically and literally deforms, de-forms, and subjectifies.21
High school as an actant inserts itself into the film and its action in
the form of high-school-as-institution, and as a locale, a material setting,
and signifier. The high school in The DUFF (its architecture, aisles, lock-
ers, gyms, and class rooms) visually does not deviate from the plethora
of cinematic representations of suburban high schools, which are rela-
tively stable with an almost unchanging spatial organization. Depending
on the era in which a film is set and/or produced, details change, such
as the clothes, hairstyles, the ethnic variety of the students and teachers
passing through the aisles, or technological objects such as computer labs
and cellphones as historical markers. But the school that is shown here
must be seen as indebted to actual high schools, as a Hollywood inven-
tion, and as a translation of translations of 1950s cinematic high schools,
and is in that sense as co-produced by reality and Hollywood, and along
with all the other comparable cinematic schools stabilized by their many
Like the rain forest from the Boa Vista expedition Latour writes about
is made visible and translated, but also simultaneously produced by the
translations (“This expedition … discovers or constructs” [1999, 53]),
school is simultaneously translated from reality into cinematic depiction
as well as produced or invented by it. The cinematic schools constitute
an apparatus that simply undergoes surface variations, but essentially

21 For a mobilization of Bourdieu’s different forms of capital (1986) for an engagement with
teen film’s preoccupation with class also see Driscoll (2011, 59) and Smith (2017, 64–104).
64 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

remains unchanged, comparable to the cinematic representations of the

suburbs themselves. In that sense, high school (or the suburbs) functions
as a module with a fixed set of qualities and connotations that can be
used as a stable building block into which stable knowledge is built and
which in turn contributes to the stabilization of this knowledge.

Character Organization: Types and Updates

The DUFF ’s success in attaching itself to a generic tradition by not sim-
ply reiterating a formula, but by carrying it further in the way it trans-
forms known and established types and tropes in a timely manner with-
out losing its place within a chain of reference, to some extent, is achieved
by being very frank about its sources. In a featurette, Allison Janney
who plays Ms. Piper calls the film “an updated version of Mean Girls
including all social media” and director Ari Sandel aptly labels it “Social
Media Breakfast Club.” There are numerous and clearly intended simi-
larities, especially with She’s All That and Mean Girls from which The
DUFF adopts certain visual and narrative devices (e.g., alternative out-
comes for scenes, which visualize the presence of the voice-over narrator
alongside the protagonist in both films, or the insertion of quickly-cut
music video-like parenthetical scenes that visualize the narrator’s stream-
Complementary to the content, the interactions of the characters, or
the dialogues, the film’s ability to visually signify, to translate the form
into actual matter, is what gives it coherence. The chain of transforma-
tions in this regard is not abstract at all, as reference can only circulate
stably when the material dimension is adequate for the respective trans-
lation. In the same way, the settings and other elements of the mise-en-
scène have certain effects on spectatorship, the actors, their bodies, and
acting styles do, and they are simultaneously individual as well as time-
specific articulations of related concepts that then find varying expres-
sions. Bianca is portrayed by Mae Whitman who was 26 years old when
she played the high school senior. Whitman certainly not only brings
with her the materiality of her body and her adulthood, but also the
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 65

reality of her body-of-work as an actress. She played a significant sup-

porting role as Mary Elizabeth in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012),
a quirky character with subcultural affiliation and mannerisms not unlike
The DUFF ’s Bianca. In this regard, the human behind the role already
is situated, or even lives in the teen film genre and embodies a teen film
type. Besides all the information that unfurls on the connotative level,
within the film’s diegetic reality she is presented as non-conventional by
her body size, especially when juxtaposed with her antagonist Madison
and her conventionally beautiful, “hot” friends. It is not only her inter-
ests (cult horror films), fashion sense (dungarees), or degree of feminine
masquerade (e.g., no carefully curated hairstyle or makeup) that signify
her status here, it is also her size. The casting choices adhere to the sta-
tistical median of the average height for females in the characters’ age
group according to the CDC’s Vital and Health Statistics issued by the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Bianca is evidently
smaller than average, her best friends are slightly above average, Madi-
son is evidently taller again than average. In the same way, Bianca is
determined as not-conventionally-beautiful, Madison is constructed as
fashion-model-like by writing, casting, camera perspectives, and acting.
Whitman’s comedic acting style and the way she makes use of gestures,
facial expressions, and her entire body is again juxtaposed with Bella
Thorne’s deliberately flat interpretation of Madison. Whitman’s Bianca
is not only more multilayered due to the construction of the characters
and the acting styles of both actresses, she is also filmed from more per-
spectives and significantly more close-ups: The multitude of perspectives
visualizes a higher ambivalence and complexity, especially played out
against the cardboard character Madison who is staged to be glamorous,
but under-complex, predictable, aloof, and dull. The mise-en-scène, and
before it the casting, actively and visibly co-produce meanings.
In comparable texts, the casting does not enforce the writing as obvi-
ously as in The DUFF. Mean Girls’ Cady Heron (played by Lindsay
Lohan, a teen film staple in her own right) is mainly marked outsider
by costume, name (sounding like Katie, but idiosyncratically spelled C-
A-D-Y—cause of some minor comic confusion), and by the backstory
of her character: Due to her parents being research zoologists, Cady has
spent most of her life in Africa and was homeschooled until the age
66 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

of 16. Her peers are delighted by her almost child-like innocence and
lack of tactical knowledge—or of social and cultural capital—because
she has not been hardened/indoctrinated by a high school socialization.
“I love her. She’s like a Martian,” says Regina, feared-and-adored leader of
the Plastics, the alpha female girl gang. Cady’s outsider-dom pertains to
socialization and geography (positing African wilderness as counterpart
to American civilization), but not to physical otherness. When Molly
Ringwald’s character in Pretty in Pink enters her makeover she is an indi-
vidualist with a decidedly working-class background and a family con-
stellation that deviates from middle-class conventions (motherless and
taking care of her unemployed slacker father), who is somewhat ashamed
of her origins but aspiring to become eligible for her upper-class love
interest. The casting does not reinforce the text that much. In a time
span of less than two years, this was the third film in which Ringwald
starred after Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club. Regardless
of what she brought with her as actress and person, and while not a typ-
ical Hollywood face, she was already established in the teen film cosmos
and she brought with her specific connotations that induced a transfer
of knowledge22 which arguably eradicated any outer-diegetic existence of
the actress and allowed for her to become a projection screen on which
contrary teen film types such as The Breakfast Club’s upper-class princess
as well as Pretty in Pink’s working-class weirdo could be played out. The
casting of Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That is even less of a weird
choice for the seemingly weird character as which Laney Boggs is intro-
duced. Cook’s outsider-dom is strictly claimed on the textual level—
which is all the more highlighted by the direct parody in Not Another
Teen Movie in which the made-over’s makeover simply and solely con-
sists of the instantaneous letting down her hair and taking off her classes
to stunned reactions.
The respective antagonists’ casting is more consistent, but then, their
function is also more consistent: They embody the high rank in their

22 For “transfer of knowledge,” see Seeßlen. He writes about the re-use of known, and thus
already connoted, pieces of music in film soundtracks and thus about music as medium for
the transfer of knowledge (2004, 75). But other actants can become such media, too. Christina
Lee has dedicated an entire chapter of her teen film study to Molly Ringwald (2016, 43–58)
and to her capacity to occupy such a function.
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 67

social order, a status that is both desired and despised, as “upper class” is
commonly equivalent with arrogance, snobbishness, classism, and a con-
stant performance of the higher rank by behavior, clothing, and other
demonstrations of status and power. Accordingly, the characters are con-
structed by drawing on several stereotypes, such as the alpha female/male
behavior of the princess/the jock or the status-consciousness of the
preppy. The different makeover films’ antagonists are more obviously
incarnations of the same concept than are their counterparts, almost as if
the embodiments of power in a capitalist order are less prone to change
than the other end of that order. What becomes evident is a crucial polit-
ical evaluation in the fluidity of the disenfranchised outsider character:
Here, the translations are remarkably more profound in contrast to the
consistency of the rather soft translations the popular in-power characters
undergo. The outsiders’ variability reflects their individualism that is at
stake and ultimately reached and re-gained via the dramaturgically neces-
sary detours and their era’s time-specific idea and markers of individual-
ism. However, the steadiness of the antagonists reflects an unideological
ideology embedded in an unchanging order with seemingly porous bor-
ders that deflect from the fact that they might actually be not porous at
all but stable as can be.

Media Use: Translating the Bully

and the Extensions of Teens
Timothy Shary dedicates a subchapter titled “Teen tech” to the appear-
ance of new technologies and their cinematic representation in teen films.
Looking at teens and technology from a historical perspective, he links
the end of the teen film’s love affair with technology-centered themes to
the high-tech-induced traumas of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion
and Chernobyl:

With the introduction of personal computers into American homes in

the 1980s came a corresponding concern with how young people may
use them. At the same time, the mounting fears of teens’ abilities to
understand science better than adults was finding its way into the popular
68 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

culture through a number of films that explored teens using technology.

Such films were very rare before the 1980s … when suddenly studios
took on a wide variety of plots in which adolescents threaten adult culture
with their scientific knowledge … Yet as teen films were beginning to take
teenagers seriously in the 1980s, they also began taking their intellectual
capacities seriously as well, resulting in many poignant films of the time
that celebrated teenage intelligence, at least until that intelligence became
too problematic to even promote. (Shary 2005, 72–73)

It would be incorrect to equate science (which is mostly Shary’s con-

cern23 ) and technology and also to lump different technologies, media,
and eras together, since technology as a trope never had a stable function.
The newer and more advanced technology gets, the more complex and
multifaceted its roles in the narrative and in the making of tech-themed
films become. Beyond the historical perspective, a cybernetic perspective
on teen film needs to be developed which takes into account technol-
ogy as an actant and not only as a prop or an atmospheric background
One pattern Shary identifies that applies to The DUFF in the same
way it applies to WarGames (1983) and other examples he mentions,
is the “mounting fears of teens’ abilities to understand science better
than adults.” Adults play a significant, but small part in The DUFF —a
most common characteristic of teen films: The presence of adults can be
felt and they sometimes impact the teens’ lives, but they rarely are cen-
tral figures, an effect reminiscent of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic
strips, in which they may appear regularly, but only their legs are visi-
ble, never their faces (in the animated films, their voices are trombone
sounds instead of intelligible speech). This “Charlie Brown Effect” to
some extent defines The DUFF : Besides Bianca’s mother, the only two
adults with more screen time than a few short moments are Mr. Arthur,

23 Also see Generation Multiplex, where Shary dedicates a chapter to the “teen science film”
(2002, 180–209) as distinct, albeit small, subgenre. The DUFF besides the sub-sub-plot of
Casey’s hacking activity to delete the defaming YouTube clip from the Internet isn’t concerned
with science, the treatment of new media and technologies however is in line with a pattern
Shary attests to science teen films: “The image of youth in science films is always one of awe
and fascination, on the part of both the protagonists and the adult perspectives that inform
the films’ production, always emphasizing the newness and surprising complexity—and hence
mystery—of youth’s involvement with science and technology” (ibid., 181).
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 69

the chief editor of the school paper, and Principal Buchanan. Yet, to
establish the technology theme, the adults are necessary for contouring
the teens and as embodiment of adult fears about teens and technol-
ogy/media. The film narrates the generational gap via the gap in media
literacy and goes to great lengths to contrast media-savvy teenagers and
incompetent, struggling, and even fearfully hostile adults, not only sep-
arated by status and age, but technologically estranged. The obligatory
hashtag when first introducing Bianca’s mother is “#WhatsAHashtag?,”
at one point she is shown taking selfies for her e-dating platform pro-
file, trying to adopt the young peoples’ techniques (the “duck face”) she
seems to know only by hearsay. After the defaming YouTube video has
gone viral, principal Buchanan’s handling of the situation shows him in
the clichéd role of the struggling adult who is out of touch with new
developments and views new media as harmful and corrupting agents,
calling the students as “YOLO terrorists” that have compromised the
school with “the stench of cyber bullying.”
Technology and social media are something adults might well be
aware of but do not truly understand, something that belongs decidedly
within the realm of the teenagers. By emphasizing this contrast, social
media as cultural technique and the technological apparatuses necessary
to navigate it and to accumulate its inherent cultural capital is attributed
to young people (accordingly, the principal’s strategy is confiscating all
phones, both draconian and ineffective, but in line with how the school
functions as mechanism of socialization by applying discipline). Com-
parably, when Bianca is introduced as a lover of cult horror films, she is
shown on her bed watching a zombie movie on her laptop. When on the
other hand her mother’s “divine inspiration” strikes while watching The
Simpsons, she is watching the show on a traditional television set while
sitting on the living room couch. Even though for both age groups media
and ubiquitous screens occupy a dominant position, Bianca’s interactive
and personalized media use with her own device in her own room as con-
temporary mode vs. her mother’s linear, non-interactive media use visu-
alize how laptops and smartphones have become “extensions of teens,” to
adopt Marshall McLuhan’s notion, or even machines that prescribe cer-
tain behaviors, in the sense of the technological determinism Friedrich
70 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Kittler proclaimed.24 The lives of the teens in The DUFF are inextricably
interwoven with the media they use: Madison as “#FutureRealityStar”
with two YouTube channels and a sidekick who constantly documents
her every move with a phone camera is participating in the competitive
culture of popularity and knows how to maneuver the attention economy
in which she is enmeshed, openly turning herself into a marketable com-
modity. Even the less competitive girls around Bianca have fully incorpo-
rated media into their interpersonal interaction to more or less the same
degree. Bianca temporarily breaks off her friendship with Casey and Jess,
confronts them in person, but executes the break-off medially (“unfriend-
ing,” “unfollowing,” and “taking them off ” of the different social media
platforms) in order to become “a free woman.” The world in The DUFF
is completely pervaded with media and every action is seen as something
that can be evaluated within the logic of an attention economy. When
Bianca has to practice talking to strangers in the mall, one especially awk-
ward interaction ends by Bianca’s test object assuming that this can only
be a prank (“It’s a YouTube video, right? Oh, man, you’re so good. Totally
believable. How many hits did this get? Where can I find it online? Man,
so many unanswered questions. Really good.”). One of her peers after the
principal’s confiscation of all phones angrily approaches her and says “I
just thought of something funny, and now nobody’s gonna know. Hope
you’re happy.” These situations all work as parody of the generational
technology gap embodied by the teens and adults in the film, but from
an adult perspective smuggled into a teen narrative, as the evaluation of
media is rather negative: In the fashion of a cautionary tale, we can see
what happens when the “YOLO terrorists” are on the loose and boost
their Darwinistic competition with the help of media and technology.
The reality of the characters is semantically charged by media and
mediated interactions, yet there is a qualitative and semiotic difference
between their respective media of choice: Bianca’s forum is the school
newspaper (democracy), Madison has two YouTube channels (narcis-
sism, coercion), as well as the panoptic Caitlyn and her camera phone

24 Referring
here to Kittler’s famous dictum with which he begins the preface to Gramophone
Film Typewriter: “Media determine our situation” (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter 1999, xxxix).
For McLuhan’s extensions of man, see Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 71

(surveillance), and Casey is a gifted “white hat” computer hacker (subver-

sion). These media are not necessarily “extensions of man,” rather they
are signifiers for different intentions and different relationships these
teens have entered with their machines (or different machinic milieus
they are embedded in). Madison as a cyberbully simply uses her media
competence as an enhancement of regular bullying and visualizes the
dark side of teen tech: not knowledge or education, or scientific curiosity
which Shary ascribes to be connoted by technology, but narcissism and
bullying are her project. Bianca’s allegiance to the traditional school
newspaper is a semi-nostalgic proposition—there is even a print and an
online edition—reassuring that there is good and bad media use, but
either one is more prone to happen in specific media outlets. (Had the
film been released two years later, there would be an argument in there
to read its negotiation of technology and media as analogy to the current
political landscape in which a twittering, narcissistic bully with access
to the POTUS twitter account that grants him an even wider audience
is, and stages himself as, the counter position to traditional media and
their insistence on a free traditional media ecology as cornerstone of
Media and machines when they become machines of self-
documentation like in The DUFF facilitate a quasi-anthropological
perspective, as the self-documentation generates a self-mapping. These
mediations and media literalize the notion of a peer group as social net-
work: a social scientist’s dream come true, all the social media which are
referred to in Bianca, Casey, and Jess’s breakup conversation, make rela-
tions visible and quantifiable. For a narcissist such as Madison, they are a
tool to examine her status, for the nice teens who merely use these media
to connect, to share funny comments and images, they still are a medial
reification of intangible feelings: Friendship, as well as its termination, is
realized via media.
Beyond the look of social media and its agency in the narrative and
a certain quickness in the editing, the film mostly does not stray far
from Hollywood or teen film aesthetics. The one moment that stands
out in The DUFF in which we are confronted with new images enter-
ing a filmic universe that came into existence through the presence of
social media is when the YouTube video Madison and Caitlyn have
72 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

uploaded to humiliate her goes viral and the picture gradually morphs
into a mosaic of screens to illustrate the proliferation of the clip into a
prismatic polyphony by the innumerable participants of the social net-
works, visualizing a hybrid human-media-machine and suggesting that
the DUFF teens coexist in reality and virtual reality (see Fig. 2.3).
The maps and networks the film produces by its visual networks (even
though they are not visible in the film but mostly referred to in the dia-
logue or by graphic allusions) join the chain of films that employ map-
ping in the form of what Kaveney terms the “anthropology shot” (2006,
3, 56), a device to subdivide the totality of teens into separate groups
and classes. Often visualized by these groups’ seating arrangements in the
school cafeteria, the quasi-geographical maps, their parodies, and diver-
sifications have led to highly and comically specific subcategories (exam-
ples include the manifesto of the Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Clueless, or
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl [2015]) (see Fig. 2.4). The DUFF in this
sense can be seen as an anthropological teen film with its focus on classi-
fication, categories, the maps it explicitly suggests and the implicit map-
ping conducted by its protagonists. On the level of its technology dis-
course, this map is extended by an effective device: When the film ends
and Bianca and Wesley drive from their parents’ houses toward the sub-
urban (and rather close) horizon in a jeep while narrator-Bianca voices
truisms about individualism (“In the end, it’s not about popularity or

Fig. 2.3 A mosaic of screens, becoming the visualization of a hybrid human-

2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 73

Fig. 2.4 The anthropology shot subdivides the totality of teens into separate
groups and classes. This quasi-geographical map is from Mean Girls

even getting the guy. It’s about understanding that no matter what label
is thrown your way, only you can define yourself. Take it from a DUFF.”),
we segue into the final credits and on the margins, a novelty takes place.
The design of the credits again refers to the look of various social media,
their login screens, and other graphic conventions familiar to their users,
they are collaged with the Hollywood comedy standard bloopers while
the actual twitter names of the actresses and actors appear on the screen.
The intradiegetic characters and the extradiegetic actors are put on the
same medial level by taking place in the same media. The characters and
actors not only share an archive with their audience, they share networks
(in the social media and the Latourian sense), and realities as the reality
of the actresses and actors becomes congruent with the reality of social
media. The roles start to seep into the humans playing them and further
anchor them in a genre (or a multitude of genres) and suggest that these
actresses are part of a genre even when they are not acting. The mixing of
roles, realities, ideology, and Hollywood ideologies pretends to blur the
74 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

lines where the fiction ends and reality begins and therefore calls into
question such a division in an age of simultaneity and surveillance. Just
as narrator-Bianca as voice-over presence keeps the reference stable as an
authorial instance, this is an attempt at producing congruence between
signifier and signified, between form and matter. Coherence is ensured
by making visible the presence of referents in the text. In the follow-
ing quote, Latour speaks about “the scientific text,” but we have seen in
The DUFF even though it is a different form of narrative, how “its own
verification” is embedded:

The scientific text is different from all other forms of narrative. It speaks
of a referent, present in the text, in a form other than prose: a chart,
diagram, equation, map, or sketch. Mobilizing its own internal referent,
the scientific text carries within itself its own verification. (Latour 1999,

This carried-within verification is decidedly and self-awarely constituted

by the way in which The DUFF carves out its position in relation to
other texts. Its renewal of established teen film types and tropes such as
bullying, friendship, and the makeover partially functions exactly because
it openly connects itself to other referents and makes visible the way
in which it updates them. The makeover in this sense is not only what
structures the narrative, but also the premise and principle by which The
DUFF works. It is not only a film about a makeover; it is a film that
makes over—and therefore a film that not only illustrates the notion of
circulating reference, but that actually lets reference circulate. The text
aligns itself with other texts and offers itself as a text with which other,
future texts can be aligned—given that its strategies of transforming and
renewing prove to be stable enough to keep reference circulating.

As recent and important additions to the makeover subgenre, I briefly
want to mention two coming-of-age dramas centering on the so-called
Gay conversion therapy. Their take on the notion of a makeover dif-
fers dramatically from the traditional form—especially concerning the
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 75

agency of the made-over. The makeover itself inverts the typical balance
of choice and force; it is less allegorical, less fairy-tale-like, less colorful,
and instead more violent, more intrusive, and more real. The Misedu-
cation of Cameron Post (directed by Desiree Akhavan, released August
2018) and Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton, November 2018) were inserted
into the teen film canon at the same cultural moment, and they are both
remarkable adaptations of literary texts, personal in content and outspo-
ken in their positionings. Even though the premise is very similar, they
work differently, suggesting a different aesthetics and politics.
Conversion therapy as a pseudoscientific treatment conducted by
Christian fundamentalist hard-liners with the goal of changing individ-
uals’ sexual orientations has already been at the center of Jamie Bab-
bitt’s But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), possibly somewhat ahead of its
time due to working through its subject matter in a comedy format.
In these two 2018 films, conversion therapy is situated in (cultural,
historical, and diegetic) environments that assert a claim to realism as
opposed to other “brainwashing” teen narratives, most famously Stanley
Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of A Clockwork Orange with Alex undergo-
ing the fictional “Ludovico” conditioning technique. The sci-fi/dystopia
aspects and the allegorical capacities of such texts are displaced here by
the real-life absurdity and abusiveness of the depicted content matter,
as both films use the temporal displacement of a nostalgic mode (The
Miseducation of Cameron Post plays in 1994, Boy Erased in 2004) to
generate a this-really-happened effect. When watching The Miseduca-
tion of Cameron Post and Boy Erased back-to-back and choosing which
actants to follow (the ones that suggest themselves most ostensibly are
religion/faith, sexuality/lust/desire, cinematography, casting, setting, lan-
guage, (self-)writing), the ways in which the two films mobilize the same
devices produces significant differences. Besides one being a more star-
studded, major studio-produced film and the other an independent pro-
duced on a significantly smaller budget, the more obvious variant seems
to be The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ s female protagonist, who is sent
to “God’s Promise” to overcome her lesbian tendencies, as opposed to
Boy Erased ’s Jared, who is forced to battle his gayness at the “Love In
76 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Action Camp.”25 It is not only the foregrounding of male experience

that makes Boy Erased a more traditional Hollywood narrative (even
though admittedly its subject matter isn’t a very Hollywood topic): The
central conflict is not the teenager’s experience or individuation, but the
family’s dilemma and especially the relationship between a boy and his
father. Neither the characters, their inner lives, nor Jared’s sexuality are
granted much in the way of complexity, almost framing it as a para-
ble with a moral lesson (befitting its diegetic religious environments), an
after-school special, as opposed to a narrative of individuation. Jared is
presented as the misunderstood and hurt voice of reason who in the end
both stands up to the aggressive and incompetent therapist and to his
conservative yet decent father. His standing up though is not an act of
rebellion: In his pain and resolve, he remains friendly, respectful, and a
level-headed and eloquent young man whose good manners mark the
contrast with the dangerous violence and bigotry of dogmatic funda-
mentalism. Jared is constructed as an American hero, a lone wolf type
determined to go his own way, a person whose individualism cannot be
broken, whose Christian faith will remain intact, and who ultimately will
be able to achieve reconciliation with the father. The ending is followed
by actual photos of Garrard Conley (the author of the nonfiction mem-
oir Boy Erased is based on) with his parents, accompanying text centers
on his marriage to another man, his writings as empowerment for the
LGBTIQ community as well as on the fact that conversion therapy still
hasn’t been outlawed in 36 states—reminders of the film’s authenticity
claim and its didactics.

25The camp as a specifically American and teen-centered locus and as a rite/site-of-initiation in

a different form is a teen film staple worked through for instance in numerous slasher films
after Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980), as it offers the isolation and a mostly
adult-free space for teenagers to explore transgression and confront horror. The gay conversion
camps here are less burlesque, but just as horrible sites, whose power and coercion climax in
the self-mutilation and the suicide, respectively, of an inmate.
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 77

Love, lust, and bodies are problematized in the film, thereby tragi-
cally keeping in line with the pathologization and shaming of homosex-
uality that takes place at the horrid camp: There is not a single phys-
ical experience in the film that is not terrible. Jared’s attempt at a sex-
ual moment with his high school girlfriend fails due to his homosexual-
ity, he is raped by another boy in college, and a boy at camp will later
take his own life after a degrading ritual “burial” in which he is beaten
with a bible by everyone present including his family. Despite the film’s
well-meaning intentions, homosexuality is depicted as devoid of sexual-
ity. Gayness is “normal”; however, there is nothing sexy, or at least nice,
about being a gay teenager here, the gay body is not a site for any pleasur-
able experience whatsoever, except for the outlook before the end credits
roll that marriage/happiness might await. The fatalism that befalls the
(rural) homosexual as a destructive trope of LGBTIQ narratives that Boy
Erased doesn’t question, or offer an alternative to, but visualizes, might
ultimately be resolved between father and son, but only after Jared has
moved to New York, which is depicted ostentatiously as a multiracial,
tolerant counter-space to his native Arkansas. The assessment isn’t new,
as many rural teen films (e.g., The Wizard of Oz [1939], What’s Eat-
ing Gilbert Grape [1993], or Boys Don’t Cry [1999]) equate “getting out’
as the only feasible solution for non-normative teen identities to pros-
per and mature. Even though that might often be close to the truth, it
sends a bleak signal to LGBTIQ teens in rural America by reiterating the
impossibility of deviation in the heartland, a coding addressed by Mary
L. Gray. In Out in the Country (2009), her study on queer visibility in
rural areas, she assigns the media a significant function in circulating the
social grammar, appearance, and sites of LGBTIQ-ness and how “rurality
itself is depicted as antithetical to LGBT identities. Mass media consis-
tently narrate rural LGBT identities as out of place, necessarily estranged
from authentic (urban) queerness” (2009, 12). In terms of inclusion or
acceptance, Boy Erased is not as progressive as its subject matter suggests,
as it doesn’t utilize the Hollywood dream machine to code Otherness or
gayness in non-fatalistic terms.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post on the other hand manages to
propose sexualities as something singular and fluid by its portrayal of
multilayered characters, both among the teens and among the camp
78 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

counselors. The depiction of lust and sexuality is more in line with

the film’s larger project and shows adolescent confusion with, but also
an enjoyment of the body. The sex scenes are awkward, intense, and
realistic, but not in and of themselves painful and/or shameful. They
are neither shot along the lines of horny male fantasies about “chicks
making out,” nor with a problematizing or othering gaze. Director
Desiree Akhavan consciously and confidently stages this aspect of the
coming-of-age experience to offer a more adequate depiction of female
sexuality, stating that “nothing disgusts and angers me more than the
disparity between the portrayals on screen of men receiving pleasure and
women receiving pleasure” (Northrop 2018, 23).26
Both the film’s aesthetics and conclusion indicate that it is possible to
use the premise as a means for a different outcome other than that Boy
Erased proposes. Aesthetically what is most apparent is how The Mise-
ducation of Cameron Post ’s color palette remains in a warm spectrum
and the slightly unstable handheld camera allows for a different move-
ment toward and with the characters. Boy Erased ’s camera perspectives
are generally further removed from the characters, have more steadiness,
and its color palette leans to a darker, more blue-gray spectrum, the only
exception in terms of color being the New York scenes in the end. The
images of The Miseducation of Cameron Post contain more movement,
fluidity and indeed color, an aesthetics echoing its attempt to derive a
livable future from past experiences.
Accordingly, The Miseducation of Cameron Post ’s relationality works
toward a different goal and not only to contour Cameron further as pro-
tagonist, but instead to introduce other fully formed and complex char-
acters along with their desires and difficulties in their public and private
lives, too. Cameron’s allies in the camp are her fellow “disciples” Jane, a
girl with a prosthetic leg, and Adam, a Lakotan wíŋkte or “two-spirit.”
The film’s politics of inclusion are thus further echoed by inserting a dis-
abled and an indigenous presence. Adam’s backstory (his father became
a politician and reinvented himself as Christian, so “me being like this

26 “It’s important to look at the American ratings system; if somebody films a scene of a woman
giving head to a man, it’s rated R, but if a woman gets pleasure in a scene, it’s an X rating. If
a man goes down on a woman, you will lose your R rating and go to porn territory” (Akhavan
interviewed by Northrop 2018, 24).
2 Circulating Reference: Making Over the Makeover 79

fucks his image”) introduces the Lakotan mindset and language, in which
a concept of a “third gender” exists on the same level as others and even
has a term that linguistically allots it an equal position. Thereby, Chris-
tian fundamentalism is established as a crude und ultimately harmful
binary system of good|bad, God|Satan, heterosexual|homosexual, nor-
mal|perverted. American Christian fundamentalism overriding indige-
nous beliefs, languages, sexual, and identity politics contains a critique
of American colonialism that ranges from the historical colonization of
indigenous peoples to the ongoing colonization of the sexual identities
of non-normative teens.
The film ends ambiguously when the three friends will use the pre-
text of a hike to sneak away and hitchhike into an unclear future with
the film’s last minutes showing them on the loading area of a pickup
truck, providing no clear answers, a classic American road film motif. In
Boy Erased, adolescent individuation is a lonely act, in The Miseducation
of Cameron Post it is a collective becoming. Where Boy Erased opts for
the clarity of a prevailing American individualism embodied by a heroic
man with an unwavering belief in the institution of the family that can
overcome divergent gender identities, The Miseducation of Cameron Post
suggests a productive queerness and sexual identity as a spectrum. Multi-
plicity, companionship that doesn’t have to be situated within the nuclear
family, and ultimately processuality/movement: They haven’t arrived at a
safe place and fully resolved who they want to become; their freedom is
not the freedom to enter gay marriage, but the freedom to journey and to
stay in-between. Instead of positing adolescence as an intermediate stage
that must lead to a more clearly delineated, seemingly stable state, “the
teenager” is taken seriously and acknowledged: Being teen is not just a
step toward being the improved and actualized adult version of yourself,
it’s one of a thousand tiny self-actualizations.
My superimposition of The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy
Erased isn’t meant as a comparison to rate them in relation to one
another. In the way they resonate with each other though, each film’s
singular approach to the topic gains more contour and demonstrates
the potentialities of teen narratives. Director Desiree Akhavan deliber-
ately set out to make a teen film that incorporates the “rawness, weird-
ness, messiness, and ugliness” (Northrop 2018, 22) of the John Hughes
80 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

films she grew up with, while acknowledging that his “films were about
straight white people … and didn’t challenge the status quo” (2018, 23).
Akhavan expands the range and explicitness of the ways in which teen
identities and especially teen sexualities are represented here. Boy Erased
gives us on the other hand an indication of what can be done with
particular teen-centered themes within a mainstream Hollywood drama,
we see how comparably simplistic and didactic these themes are when
approached in a way that makes them more palatable, where in contrast
The Miseducation of Cameron Post gives an indication what of can (and
should) be achieved within the teen film genre in order to keep it from
becoming stagnant and repetitive.

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Actants | Objects | Participation: Teen Film

The Teenager as Adult and Winter’s Bone

as a Teen Film for Adults
Winter’s Bone (2010) is a slow-paced drama set in the Missouri Ozarks, a
decidedly rural and isolated setting, in the temporal and economic con-
text of a “New Great Depression” due to the 2007/2008 recession. The
adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s eponymous novel (2006) features Jen-
nifer Lawrence, at the time 19 years old, in a breakout role that earned
her an Oscar nomination as the 17-year-old Ree Dolly who lives with
her mentally ill mother and her two younger siblings Sonny and Ash-
lee. The family leads a destitute life, existing on the fringes of the geo-
graphic and social spectrum of US civilization, and their decidedly un-
urban life is not depicted and romanticized as serene communion with
nature, but is characterized by hardship. Over the course of the film,
which gradually unfurls into a 100-minute-tour-de-force, Ree sets out
to find her disappeared father—or at least a confirmation of his death.
As seemingly almost everyone in the area, Ree’s father Jessup Dolly was
deeply mired in the manufacture and trading of drugs, more specifically
“crank”/methamphetamine. Jessup had been arrested and agreed to turn

© The Author(s) 2020 85

B. Sonnenberg-Schrank, Actor-Network Theory at the Movies,
86 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

police informant, most likely leading to him getting killed. However, Jes-
sup put up the family home in the woods as collateral for his bail which
leaves Ree with the task of locating her father or his body, or otherwise
the family faces eviction—which would equal the destruction of the fam-
ily unit that is hanging by a bare thread as it is, with the teenage daughter
serving as caretaker for her incapacitated mother and surrogate mother
for her siblings.
For a number of obvious reasons, Winter’s Bone is not what is typi-
cally considered a teen film, yet for a number of less obvious, but equally
significant reasons, it is. In terms of genre, the film is a hybrid, oscil-
lating between thriller, detective film, gothic elements, neo-realist, neo-
noir, classical western, or mumblecore (a strand of mainly American
independent film characterized by its low-budget aesthetics, naturalistic
and often at least partly improvised acting and dialogue, and on-location
shooting). Woodrell, a Missouri Ozarks resident, coined the term “coun-
try noir” (see Merrigan 2014) for his style of writing, another embodi-
ment of hybridity in merging of two genuinely American generic ascrip-
tions—Western and Film Noir—and sites, as the Western plays itself out
in non-urban settings whereas the film noir is mostly urban. Woodrell’s
label has been used oftentimes to classify his novels, a label whose impli-
cations also apply to the film adaptation—as does the hybridity of the
film, which creates a generic and stylistic oscillation that echoes the film’s
negotiation of liminality on many levels. Woodrell’s focus is on the South
and the economic decline of certain regions, which since the Civil War
has generated an inner conflict for the USA, in which legacy and history
are on the one hand idealized and romanticized, but at the same time
revealed as the dark underbelly of a forgotten America (a theme that
has become very topical in the Trump era USA with a president incit-
ing these same tensions by siding with right-wing extremists “defending”
confederate symbols, as in the Charlottesville incidents in August 2017).
In American literature and cinema, the tension concerning the glory and
the depravity of the (mythical) South is addressed in a wide range of
texts, and both in Woodrell’s novels as well as in the movie adaptation of
Winter’s Bone, these elements can be identified, but simultaneously the
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 87

archaic diegetic world is largely devoid of a cohesive history and pre-

sented as littered scenery of economic (infra-)structural, and personal
Despite these ambiguities, Winter’s Bone is also undeniably a coming-
of-age narrative in the tradition of the bildungsroman retracing the pro-
cess by which the protagonist becomes mature. The center of the film
is Ree’s maturation, even though it may not be narrated via any clichéd
high school film tropes such as getting together with an adorable boy,
landing a date for the big dance, reaching autonomy from social pres-
sure, or the loss of virginity. Her journey bears as much similarity with
film noir or detective films as it does with Greek mythology, an Odyssey
to find a vanished father, passing through the Hades of degradation, cor-
ruption, immorality, and extreme violence, but the narrative also yields
the cathartic conclusion of her ending up as a determined and symbol-
ically cleansed heroine who fully assumes responsibility for her family.
This element, the “teenager as adult” trope, can be connected to numer-
ous canonic texts, such as Pretty in Pink (1986) or What’s Eating Gilbert
Grape (1993) which both feature adolescent protagonists living with a
single parent who is incapacitated in one way or another: Andie’s father
in Pretty in Pink is an alcoholic idler, unwilling and/or unable to lead
a conventional middle-class life and in addition traumatized by hav-
ing been left by his wife. Andie occupies a triple function as adolescent
daughter, ersatz wife, and parent in a reversal of roles when it is she who
wakes up her father in the morning, prepares him breakfast, and reminds
him of appointments (he, in turn, occupies a hybrid function as father,
partner, mother, and child). Similarly, Gilbert’s mother in What’s Eat-
ing Gilbert Grape has become morbidly obese and is now literally stuck
in her own body after the father’s ominous suicide, which leaves it up
to Gilbert and his sisters to manage the household and take care of his
developmentally challenged little brother. There are more examples here
of different-yet-similar constellations,1 but they all play out the experi-
ence of adolescence’s liminal transition in a very literal way: the legal,

1 Inhis article about the 1990s teen films, Robin Wood comments the role of parents in the
sample he analyzes: “Most of the films seem reluctant to suggest that all these high school
students actually come from somewhere, that they have a specific background. The mother’s
presence is particularly negligible, by far the most important mother being the dead one of
88 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

physical, developmental, psychological, juridical, and symbolic transfor-

mation processes from child to adult is negotiated by assigning (some-
times contradictory) aspects associated with either stage to one charac-
ter.2 Most examples however, just like the two mentioned, deliver their
protagonists from being stuck in their transitional in-between states with
conclusions that present a successfully completed transition: in Pretty in
Pink, it is the class-divide-defying romantic ending for Andie and her
upper-class love interest—and the simultaneous transition of her father
who finally starts to cope with the loss of his wife and starts to regain
control over his life; in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape it is the death of the
mother, the ritual burning of the family’s house and the advancement of
the sisters who move to bigger cities and of Gilbert who is reunited with
his love interest and can now embark on a yet-uncharted journey with
her while still taking care of his little brother.
Winter’s Bone is not unambiguously a teen film, mainly because it
may adhere to generic and formulaic patterns, themes, types, settings,
or aesthetics—just not the ones one would expect. If read as a teen film
however (not as a high school film for high schoolers, but still as a film
with, about and organized around a teenager), the ways in which the
coming-of-age trope is narrated here, the similarities and differences to
the strategies of more traditional teen films, become productive registers
to engage with both Winter’s Bone as well as with the teen film canon. In
relation to the canon, the move away from a generic (sub)urban locale
is one of the apparent deviations necessitating the question what impact
space will have, and also, which other actants contribute to Winter’s Bone
to make it a rural teen film.
I will test the applicability of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and par-
ticularly its focus on objects and the dynamic relations of human and
non-human actors/actants in my reading of Winter’s Bone. In order to
address the status of especially non-human actants, select elements and

She’s All That (1999), continuing to exert her influence on the heroine, and on the whole
beneficially. Fathers are generally obstructive and a nuisance” (2002, 7).
2 Driscoll discusses the “Teen Film for Grown-Ups” (2011, 108 ff.) as texts that negotiate
adolescence in modes accessible for adults and teenagers (such as films from what she identifies
as the adolescent/adult body-swap subgenre), and she also assigns What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
to this category with its “doubled adolescent/adult protagonist” (ibid., 111).
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 89

vocabulary from the ANT context will be mobilized. The film is pre-
sented as a rural drama whose protagonist happens to be a teenage girl;
however, its center is the negotiation of transitional experiences and lim-
inal spaces—of a teenage character and of her distinct environment, or
we could say: a teen ecology. A keyword Latour uses is participation,
which emphasizes that in “a collective of humans and non-humans” there
is no default position prescribing who determines whom, as all partici-
pants are free to the same degree as they are determined by others due
to their entanglement in the network. “This is why specific tricks have
to be invented to make them talk, that is, to offer descriptions of them-
selves, to produce scripts of what they are making others—humans or
non-humans—do” (Latour 2005, 79). The “tricks” we have to invent
to make the actants talk are the slowed-down mode of thorough obser-
vation, the identification of actants, and the documentation of their

“A Method and Not a Theory”—A Short

Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory
Bruno Latour’s contributions to Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) are
arguably what he is most associated with and the concept that has been
applied, tried, and tested the most as an approach in different fields.
ANT has both been hailed as an intervention bridging the gap between
“hard” natural science and “soft” humanities, as well as famously crit-
icized as “fashionable nonsense” (Bricmont and Sokal 1997) bordering
on charlatanry, and watered-down version of other theories, ideas, and
philosophies, for instance those of Michel Serres or Gilles Deleuze and
Félix Guattari.
While the sheer amount of reactions, positionings, polemics, acco-
lades, and foremost the amount of ANT-based or -inspired scholarship
certainly proves neither stance to be appropriate, it does prove that we
are faced, both in terms of discourse and operation, with a productive
(in the sense of generating ) concept. ANT as one incarnation of Latour’s
ideas and overarching themes is the one that is laid out most explicitly
for “being made use of ”—in the introduction to Reassembling the Social,
90 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Latour states that “this book resembles a travel guide … It is directed at

practitioners as a how-to book” (2005, 17). My focus is on ANT and its
applicability for “practitioners” in an anti-essentialist movement, regard-
ing it not as “a theory” or “a philosophy,” but as a pre-theoretical method.
This important distinction is repeatedly stressed by the various ANT pro-
tagonists in order to remind us that ANT is explicitly meant as a way to
follow the actors instead of imposing an interpretation.
Actor-Network-Theory operates on a fundamental premise: Objects
of inquiry are to be treated as networks consisting of relations and inter-
actions between human and non-human actors (or actants). However,
almost every word in that sentence opens up further layers of complex-
ity: object, relation, interaction, human, non-human, actor—all of these
words assume quite specific (and productively unspecific) meanings that
differ from, or go beyond, their everyday usage, which is already a big
part of doing ANT: slowing things down, zooming in on details and
meticulously describing the complex makeup of assemblages.
The genealogical starting point for what would later be called Actor-
Network Theory was Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts,
which Latour co-authored with the British sociologist Steve Woolgar in
1979.3 Therein, they devised strategies to apply tools and methods from
linguistic and semiotic analysis to a text from the hard sciences with the
goal to let the results “speak for themselves.” The project is in its core
strongly related to the ideas laid out in the last chapter and the concept
of circulating reference, as it is a negotiation of translation, transmis-
sion, and transformation—and the machines, devices, apparatuses that
connect events and inscriptions. Latour’s irreductionism, and most of all
the consideration of how things, objects, or other non-human actants
become participants that impact actions and interactions and actively do
something, are central to Latourian thought in general:

After all, there is hardly any doubt that kettles ‘boil’ water, knifes ‘cut’
meat, baskets ‘hold’ provisions, hammers ‘hit’ nails on the head, rails
‘keep’ kids from falling, locks ‘close’ rooms against uninvited visitors, soap

3 Also see Matthias Wieser’s comprehensive study of Latourian networks (2012), where he
organizes the development of ANT in a diagram (125) beginning with Laboratory Life that
chronologically charts the most important contributions and their degree of differentiation.
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 91

‘takes’ the dirt away, schedules ‘list’ class sessions, prize tags ‘help’ people
calculating, and so on. Are those verbs not designating actions? … And
yet they do. The main reason why objects had no chance to play any role
before was not only due to the definition of the social used by sociol-
ogists, but also to the very definition of actors and agencies most often
chosen. If action is limited a priori to what ‘intentional’, ‘meaningful’
humans do, it is hard to see how a hammer, a basket, a door closer, a cat,
a rug, a mug, a list, or a tag could act. They might exist in the domain of
‘material’ ‘causal’ relations, but not in the ‘reflexive’ ‘symbolic’ domain of
social relations. By contrast, if we stick to our decision to start from the
controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does mod-
ify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor—or, if it has no
figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are
simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some
other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to
detect this difference? (Latour 2005, 71)

ANT’s particular novelty is “that objects are suddenly highlighted not

only as being full-blown actors, but also as what explains the contrasted
landscape we started with, the overarching powers of society, the huge
asymmetries, the crushing exercise of power” (Latour 2005, 72).

(White) Trash Ecology: Abject Objects, Abject

Father, and Spaces of Obsolescence
In Winter’s Bone, color, landscape, and settings are shown to be in
transition just as much as Ree, they leave their passive status as back-
drop and assume a position where place is one of the most important
factors—and indeed actors—further emphasizing the apparent realism
of the film by the staging of Ree’s environment: in-between seasons,
in-between the nature-culture divide, in-between (economic and ideo-
logical) self-sufficiency and dependency. Therefore, one major plane on
which Ree’s transition is negotiated is space and the orchestration of
particular spaces. Winter’s Bone’s mise-en-scène, and thus by extension
the world through its inhabitants move, is characterized by old, broken,
used non-human and human actants: haggard stray dogs, toys, caved-in
92 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 3.1 Trash ecology: the burnt-out meth lab and discarded cars in Winter’s

buildings, broken-down vehicles decomposing into rusty organic mat-

ter, a burnt-out meth lab overgrown by weeds, a corpse, and hand-me-
down clothing (see Fig. 3.1). The yards of all the houses give a double
meaning to the term junkyard, and naturally the omnipresence of junk
as slang term for drugs and the junkies who use them also inform the
film’s ecology. Not only as a theme and a metaphor, but also in material
form, junk and trash are significant participants of an ecological mate-
rialism. American culture is rich with representations of the decaying
South, providing depictions of a forgotten America with entire regions
left behind and excluded from American progress and prosperity. Figura-
tively speaking, these regions, to which Appalachia and the Ozarks count,
are landscapes of obsolescence4 and of abjection (in the way Kristeva uses
the term to refer to an in-between-ness disrupting identity and order),5
which in Winter’s Bone also is negotiated quite literally on the level of

4 For reflections on obsolescence, see also Toffler (1970), Strasser (2001), Rogers (2005), Slade
(2006), and Tischleder and Wasserman (2015).
5 “ … what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws
me toward the place where meaning collapses…. It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health
that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders,
positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva 1982, 2, 4).
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 93

materiality. Different than in The DUFF (2015) or in Dope (2015), it is

not technology that becomes the marker for the present here, the twenty-
first century is not represented by its technological advancements, but by
all that it has left behind and made disposable, be that its people, and the
moral garbage of a drug-ridden community or the material garbage that
clutters the landscape as another index for a culture of obsolescence.
Concerning obsolescence, Susan Strasser retraces the historical transi-
tion to an American consumer culture in which mass-produced objects
are ubiquitous and become obsolete quickly by ever-changing styles,
technologies, tastes, or slight damage, being replaced rather than repaired
as a “trend … toward a fundamentally new relationship with the mate-
rial world. People now took their definitions of self as much from what
they owned as from what they produced … a new kind of relation-
ship with the material world, to production, and to disposal” (Strasser
2015, 49–50). If the ability to participate in consumer culture—by buy-
ing, disposing of, and replacing objects—is tantamount to being able to
participate in progress, a chasm opens up between consuming partici-
pants and those left behind by their economic inability to participate
who are automatically excluded from progress. Thrown-away objects
become the markers for being at the receiving end of the “throwaway
culture:” (ibid., 57)

The new consumer culture changed ideas about throwing things away,
creating a way of life that incorporated technological advances, fashion
and design, organizational changes, and new perspectives, a lifestyle that
linked products made for one-time use, municipal trash collection, and
the association of reuse and recycling with poverty and backwardness.

In that sense, discarded and reused objects like those so prominently vis-
ible in Winter’s Bone carry within them a political dynamic and allo-
cate their position in a larger social order, here garbage and obsolescence
become vital categories in understanding Winter’s Bone’s trash ecology.
This material dimension of trash and the political dimension it con-
tains are embedded in the notion of “white trash” as a slur for poor
white people such as the characters in Winter’s Bone. Matt Wray begins
94 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

his study about white trash, which is built on Kristeva’s argument and
her conceptualization of the abject and its disturbing in-between-ness,
by looking at the term itself and how charged with meaning, or mean-
ings, it is:

But why white trash? Split the phrase in two and read the meanings
against each other: white and trash. Slowly, the term reveals itself as
an expression of fundamental tensions and deep structural antinomies:
between the sacred and the profane, purity and impurity, morality and
immorality, cleanliness and dirt. In conjoining such primal opposites into
a single category, white trash names a kind of disturbing liminality: a
monstrous, transgressive identity of mutually violating boundary terms,
a dangerous threshold state of being neither one nor the other. It brings
together into a single ontological category that which must be kept apart
in order to establish a meaningful and stable symbolic order. Symbolic
orders are those shared representations of reality and collective systems
of classification that are key elements in bringing about social solidarity.
White trash names a people whose very existence seems to threaten the
symbolic and social order. As such, the term can evoke strong emotions
of contempt, anger, and disgust. This is no ordinary slur. (Wray 2006, 2)

The very notion of white trash already contains so much tension that it
opens up a “disturbing liminality,” reflected also in Winter’s Bone and the
liminal spaces and transformative experiences it addresses. White trash
as a term is both racist and classist, but I am especially interested here
in “trash, a signifier of abject class status … Which word is the modi-
fier and which the modified? Does white modify trash or is it the other
way around?” (Wray 2006, 3) Re-imported into the world of Winter’s
Bone, which contains many markers for white trash in all its meanings
and contradictions, Wray’s fundamental etymological question becomes
an—unsolvable—ecological question, namely that of modification, or
determination: Are these people and their environment the product of
their ecology or did they produce it (in actor-network terms)? While
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939, film adaptation by John
Ford in 1940), a useful point of comparison here, is, for example, much
more resolved and much more didactic in its identification of unchecked
cut-throat capitalism as the destructive force eroding the American soil,
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 95

the American family unit, and ultimately the American Dream, Winter’s
Bone does not present itself as a social drama that explicitly points fin-
gers, even as it would be negligent not to read the text and subtext as a
critique of an unbridled neoliberal economy where “the market” should
regulate itself—co-producing the dark underbelly of shadow economies
seen here. Yet, the entanglement of cause and effect, victim and victim-
izer in Winter’s Bone is more complex and while it certainly can’t be fully
untangled, it can be better understood in its complexity by identifying its
agencies and agents, as “power, like society, is the final result of a process
and not a reservoir, a stock, or a capital that will automatically provide
an explanation. Power and domination have to be produced, made up,
composed” (Latour 2005, 63–64).
In order to reassemble the final result of the process that has produced
Winter’s Bone’s milieu, I want to begin then by looking more closely at
the (discarded) objects that are so central in its mise-en-scène, at the
functions they have and the different notions of trash and junk played
out in the film—as both objects and as signs. In a Boston Globe article
based on an interview with director Debra Granik, the author Erin Tra-
han comments: “Some might call the mise-en-scène junky, but Granik
prefers ‘layered with objects’” (2010, 2). This is significant insofar as
the entire film carefully avoids catering to the well-rehearsed hillbilly
exploitation that so often ensues from Hollywood’s urban gaze. In many
examples, rural America is presented as a ghost-town like pre- or post-
apocalyptic wasteland, a genuine dystopia insinuating that the USA is a
third world country about to happen—or that has already happened in
entire regions that are no longer needed in the post-Recession-USA, and
are in that sense geographies of obsolescence, from the Ozarks to the Rust
Belt. Granik’s choice of words reaffirms the importance (and semantics)
of objects, and also that of layering, implying more depth, longer dura-
tion, and higher entanglement than a mere decorative “wallpapering” for
local color and mood.
With that non-evaluative approach to the rather evaluative terms
“junk” and “trash” in mind, its depiction is another visual theme akin to
96 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

the anthropology shot, practically turning the settings into a museum6 —

or even a “mausoleum of ancient machines covered in blood-red rust,
windowless school buses, and John Deere tractors tangled in weed, [that]
represents the past, present, and future of the American hinterland”
(Wellum 2013, 10).
The early parts of the film all focus on Ree, her siblings, their daily
routines and ways of living together, and their immediate surroundings,
the leafless forest and the wooden hut they live in, which is shown in the
background from different sides while in the foreground Ree’s siblings
are jumping on a huge trampoline, playing with a skateboard, cuddling
with tiny kittens, or Ree and her little sister hanging the laundry on a
clothesline. Also in the background, a cluttered world is visible: plas-
tic toys, old tires, vehicles, and machinery are strewn over the premises,
making it clear that this is not a site of “eco tourism,” no romantic chalet
in the primordial forests somewhere in pastoral rural American, but an
environment in which the flotsam of American civilization seems to end
up and nothing is ever thrown away. The image of two children gaily
jumping on a trampoline signifies a playful easiness but also a repetitive
movement that ultimately leads nowhere and not out of the being stuck:
Sonny and Ashlee jump up and down, in circles, and later even with the
huge cuddly toy horses Brownie and Cupcake, but the intense movement
facilitated by the trampoline is only movement for movement’s sake, but
it’s not transitional and has no destination. However, it allows us to see
them interacting in a kind way, pulling and stabilizing each other. The
kindness and good behavior with which Ree and her siblings interact

6 Not only in this presentation a resemblance to the famous pictures taken for the FSA pho-
tography program from 1935–1944 by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others can be
identified, but also in the difficult task not to cater to certain viewing expectations and gazes
by showcasing rural poverty and turning it into what would now be called “ruin porn.” Also see
James Agee and Walker Evans‘ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), and Abigail Solomon-
Godeau (1991) who discusses documentary photography, and especially the FSA images in this
friction between victimization, subjectification, colonization, and exploitation vs. making-visible:
“The photographer’s desire to build pathos or sympathy into the image, to invest the subject
with either an emblematic or an archetypal importance, to visually dignify labor or poverty,
is a problem to the extent that such strategies eclipse or obscure the political sphere whose
determinations, actions, and instrumentalities are not in themselves visual” (Solomon-Godeau
1991, 179)—in this regard, Winter’s Bone is very careful not to exploit its characters and turn
them into the obvious and well-known rural stereotypes.
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 97

are a subtle, yet significant trait, as in a world characterized mostly by

emotional distance, curtness, and even violence, their greeting each other
with “Good morning,” saying “thank you” when receiving a gift, “bless
you” when someone sneezes, and “nice meeting you” after an encounter
really stands out as rare display of human decency and ethical standards
Even before, trash is visibly established in the film’s very first image,
a landscape shot with broken-down cars of all sorts. Looking closer at
them throughout the film and at the different houses—all the yards are
cluttered with discarded vehicles—they become a part of the landscape
on the one hand, and on the other hand reminders of a function that
they no longer fulfill and thus semiotic matter.7 The discarded school
bus is a reminder of the simple fact that it no longer runs, either due
to a lack of children at school age in a dying region, or due to a lack
of funding. The discarded agricultural vehicles such as the impressive
array of rusting small tractors in the Miltons’ yard refer to agriculture
as an outmoded way of living and of earning a living. The foundational
American ideal of the agrarian who lives in accordance with his ecol-
ogy and whose influence can be felt from the first settlers’ mythology to
the Transcendentalists to The Grapes of Wrath and Easy Rider (1969) is a
thing of the past. Agriculture has taken a turn for a streamlined and bru-
tal Monsanto economy and the individual farmer is no longer needed
or able to compete—an obsolete ideal and way of living embodied by
obsolete tools. The discarded, broken, or abandoned vehicles visualize
yet another absence, namely and simply that of their former owners. Not
only when abstractly read as Luhanian “extensions of man” or Barthesian
“projections of the ego” (1963) that are closely enmeshed with their own-
ers (accordingly, Gail says about the parking bondsman who awaits her
and Ree: “Judging by that car, he ain’t from our neck of the woods.”),
but also more literally: No car goes anywhere without someone driving
it. The fact that there is an abundance of junk cars and not that many
people further works toward painting a picture of rural exodus from a
dying world that is constantly being reminded of its own indelible past,
whether in song, such as in the title song “Missouri Waltz,” or in object.

7 See also Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (2001).
98 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

More than being indexes of a culture of poverty in which the flotsam

of consumer culture strands, and thus a dumping ground for consumerist
(sub)urban America, the plethora of garish plastic objects that is visible
from the first image on can be understood following the logic of Michael
Thompson’s Rubbish Theory (1979): When (discarded) objects keep cir-
culating, their value might change eventually due to social and historic
contexts changing and garbage may perhaps not turn into gold, but cer-
tainly assume a different value. In the way the images are staged and
acted, they don’t suggest in themselves that there is a lack, different than
there is in terms of food, which is shown and mentioned multiple times
as scarce and properly lacking. The lack these commodities might make
visible is actually borne from a middle-class viewpoint and much more
attests to how deeply ingrained in the public imagination the constructed
image of rural America as (sub)urban middle-class America’s waste dump
is. The evaluation of rural America as a place where the things end up
the more affluent no longer want to have around, perhaps situates it as
the middle class’s unconscious, the place where their fears and repressed
(violence, crime, inbreeding, drugs, conservative gender roles and moral-
ity, backwardness, lack of education) are buried and bubbling underneath
the surface awaiting violent return, piercing the thin veil of civilization—
a notion well-rehearsed in dozens of so-called backwoods horror films,
rural dramas, and thrillers.8
Similarly, the clothes Ree and her siblings are wearing are, like the
cluttered locations, also found objects and not markers for “trash” put
there by set decorators.9 In teen films mainly concerned with negotiat-
ing individuality versus conformity, fashion naturally becomes one of the
most important canvases on which a character’s status (sub)cultural affil-
iation, and development are projected, as for instance in the discussed
shopping mall scene in The DUFF. However, in a teen film where the
teen protagonist does not even have visible peers and has to deal with
truly existential “adult” problems, the project of orchestrating one’s indi-
viduality is first of all less important and secondly, individuality is less

8 See
also Bell (1997).
9Trahan in her Boston Globe article: “In a similar effort toward authenticity, locals gave their
worn clothes to the costume department in exchange for new Carhartts” (2010, 2).
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 99

a question of style than of self-reliance. Still, fashion and costume is an

important part of the mise-en-scène: the fact that Ree is neither coded
conventionally feminine (except for a pendant necklace she wears no jew-
elry at all and no makeup, other than most other females she meets), nor
coded conventionally masculine or tomboyish, factors in her construc-
tion as a character able to defy such ascriptions. There are a few pieces of
clothing that resonate strongly with the images and/or the plot such as
Ree’s sweatshirt with a printed-on deer motif (directly after the scene in
which a deer had become food) or Ashlee’s T-shirt on which “DANGER
ZONE!” is written in all caps, which she is wearing in the scene when
the brutally beaten Ree returns home. In the same sequence, Sonny walks
past the father’s wardrobe, carefully puts Ree’s knocked-out tooth—yet
another powerful and emblematic image of abjection—in a lemonade
jug filled with water and both he and Ashlee cuddle up with the semi-
conscious Ree, ending on a close-up of the two sisters. Like a subtitle
Ashlee’s DANGER ZONE! shirt dominates the right half of the image,
a most fitting header for where they are at right now, a dangerous zone
of abjection and liminality. Compared to the outfits seen elsewhere, Jes-
sup’s wardrobe however is comparatively neat and seems to contain all
of his (former) belongings and when Ree is standing in front of it in the
middle and at the end of the film, it’s almost like she is conversing with
these stand-ins for an absent father. Besides shirts and jackets, especially
his collection of at least six pairs of rather expensive-looking and well-
kept leather cowboy boots centralizes the role Ree will assume, having to
“walk in her father’s shoes.” It is only after his death has been confirmed
that she is able to finally take up one of her father’s objects, his banjo,
which she hands to her father’s brother Teardrop, he reluctantly plays a
tune on it but ultimately hands it back to Ree. The closing image of
the film shows Ashlee grabbing the banjo and strumming on its strings,
Teardrop and the mother are now literally out of the picture, the house
has been saved and the family has been, if not restored, then at least re-
organized (or: Ree-organized). The guilt of the father, his criminal life,
has been overcome. His “virtue” that has been passed on to the next gen-
eration, all that is good about his legacy, sensitivity, and humanness, is
embodied by the banjo as representative of music (music being arguably
the only carrier of tradition, mythology, and history in Winter’s Bone’s
100 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Ozarks). Like Jessup’s corpse is decomposing in a pond, dissolving into

matter and particles that re-enter the ecology on the material level, the
preservation of his legacy is a contribution to the composition of life.
In this environment now deprived of a cohesive common history and
institutions, the family as institution assumes a bigger function as pro-
ducer of meaning, social, personal, and symbolical cohesion. This can be
seen in the mafia-like clan laws (and even the mafia isn’t called family
for no reason) and the fact that everyone is related to some degree, but
even more prominent is Ree’s loyalty to her father. She does not doubt
his “professionalism” and competence as a meth cook (“He’s known for
never fucking up labs or cooking bad batches. He’s known for knowing
what he’s doing.”), and Ree justifies his actions despite the predicament
he has put the family in (Megan: “Your dad left you to do all that? That’s
fucked up.”/Ree: “Well, he had to, the way things go, you know.”). Con-
sequently, she has more understanding for his abandoning the family in
his flight from the law (as official written codex), but feels shame for his
eventual snitching, the betrayal of the unwritten clan laws.
Preparing for the imminent eviction, Ree is going through old objects,
deciding together with her siblings and mother which ones to hold on to
and which ones to burn, thus partly cleansing by fire, but also keeping
the father-substitutes in order not to give them up to whoever will take
over the estate. Among these significant objects are a wooden toy he once
carved for Ashlee, a love note the mother wrote him on the back of an
old portrait (and which explains their relationship and what it eventu-
ally did to Connie, again, by love and loyalty: “I don’t know how I ever
latched on to someone like you, but I sure hope I can keep you inter-
ested in me forever. I love you and will always be true.”), and a photo
album. The photos for instance depict him and Teardrop as little boys
and dressed in cowboy costumes, an image impregnated with meaning,
evoking associations from the innocence of childhood to signifiers of the
American frontier experience, and simply hinting at the fact that these
men, like their entire environment, as a matter of fact do have a history,
a history in which corruption has not been a part as a priori condition,
but into which it seeped at a certain point. One photograph shows Jessup
as a teenager, together with teenage Connie at her high school gradua-
tion, complete with robe and tasseled mortarboard hat, another reminder
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 101

that their life at one point was a regular teen and high school life with
institutions and romance. “How old was he in that picture?” Sonny asks,
to which Ree replies: “Probably around my age.” While this emphasizes
the difference of her coming-of-age experience and the things she has to
go through from the regular activities and rites of initiation of youths
around her age such as dating and graduating, it also shows that Ree is
now symbolically reconnecting with her absent and redeemed father. An
entire album page is filled with images from the grandmother’s funeral,
a close-up and a midshot of her in a coffin and a close-up of a bou-
quet of flowers. The photo album and the choice of what are memo-
rable, family-defining moments, literalizes the side-by-side existence of
life and death of the Dolly family, and of the succession of generations.
Ree’s reconciliation with the father and the commitment to her family
whose present leader she has now become will be confirmed when in
the end she tells the bondsman who is surprised that Ree was really able
to find the father’s corpse and save the house: “Bred’n buttered. I told
you,” referring back to their first conversation where she told him: “I’m
a Dolly, bred’n buttered, and that’s how I know Dad’s dead.” The bracket
of family allegiance has been closed by her reaffirmation of her identity
as part of the collective family identity.
The fact that her father is first substituted in the form of objects by
his belongings and in the end becomes “trash” himself not only illus-
trates the participation of non-human actants as decisive contribution to
the film, it will be the crystallization point of objects as actants and signs.
Merab and her sisters take Ree to a swamp at night, where the father’s
body has been dumped in a shallow watery grave. The film’s generic logic
here switches to thriller bordering on horror during these painfully slow
minutes and to which the blue-gray palette contributes, in which it is
unclear whether they really want to help Ree or abduct and get rid of
her. The group actually finds Jessup’s body, they cut his hands off with a
chainsaw (“You’re gonna need both hands, or sure as shit they’ll say he cut
one off to keep from going to prison. They know that trick.”). The gory
image as a symbolic castration, reminiscent for instance of Che Gue-
vara’s hands that have famously been cut off after he has been executed
in Bolivia and used both for identification purposes but also to visualize
the submission of an inimical war hero, becomes even more vivid when
102 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Ree delivers the hands in a crumpled generic plastic shopping bag on

which “Thank You Thank You Thank You Have A Nice Day” is written
in bold letters. Her white trash father, a junk peddler, has now become
trash, stuffed into a white trash bag while simultaneously decomposing,
turning into biomass, dissolving into the ecology like the “piles of shit in
a hogpen” Ree speculated before her father’s body is turning into. How-
ever, the content of Ree’s bag is not just piles of shit or random trash,
but parts of her father, and the image of her sitting in the police sta-
tion’s waiting area, surrounded by posters and brochures informing and
warning about drug abuse, in a crouched position, embracing the plastic
bag with both hands, expresses protectiveness rather than disgust. After
all, Merab Milton has confirmed by urging her to pull up the father’s
body and sawing off the hands (which Ree cannot bring herself to do)
with the words: “Oh, come on, child. Your daddy would want you to
do this” that this action does not undermine the father-instance. The
corpse, for Kristeva, is “the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has
encroached upon everything” (1982, 3). As the epitome of abjection, she
states that “[e]xcrement and its equivalents” (decay, infection, disease,
corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without:
the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life
by death (ibid., 71). Delivering her father’s hands while leaving his body
at rest in the swamp, thus will not only constitute a ritual by which Ree
crosses the border of her liminal adolescent space, but also a cathartic
cleansing ritual in which the corpse as “waste, transitional matter” (ibid.,
109) is buried and thus purified to render it no longer dangerous and
The purification, played out on the corpse and the passed-on banjo,
will complete Ree’s transition. More like a reward than an inheritance,
the bondsman returns the money Jessup’s murderers had posted in order

10 “But it is the corpse—like, more abstractly, money or the golden calf—that takes on the
abjection of waste in the biblical text. A decaying body, lifeless, completely turned into dejec-
tion, blurred between the inanimate and the inorganic, a transitional swarming, inseparable
lining of a human nature whose life is undistinguishable from the symbolic—the corpse rep-
resents fundamental pollution. A body without soul, a non-body, disquieting matter, it is to
be excluded from God’s territory as it is from his speech … The human corpse is a fount
of impurity and must not be touched (Numbers 19:13ft). Burial is a means of purification”
(Kristeva 1982, 109).
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 103

to get him out of jail and kill him before he can tell on them, and which
they most certainly will not collect themselves. The final conversation
before the film ends with an image of the three siblings is a discussion of
Ree’s transition:

Sonny: Does that money mean you’re leavin’?

Ree: I ain’t leavin’ you guys. Why do you think that?
S: We heard you talking about the Army. Are you wanting to leave us?
R: I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. (Ree kisses her
sister’s head.) I ain’t going anywhere.

Ree “ain’t going anywhere” because her transition is already complete

and in that sense, she has already gone somewhere and come full cir-
cle, a development that is echoed by revisiting the images from the film’s
beginning in the exact same order: Ashlee feeds Nickdog the dog, Sonny
is playing with his skateboard, the sisters are taking laundry from the
clothesline, the mother helps them fold it. In this sense, the editing closes
the bracket opened at the beginning, confirming the closure of the cir-
cular transitional movement.

Real Estate
Ree’s Odyssey is narrated as a multiple-stage search for her father, fol-
lowing a linear logic of escalation toward the pinnacle when his demise,
which no one ever really doubted, is finally proven by producing the
actual, material corpse. The object of the search may be the father, or
the father’s body, but the ultimate objective is quite simply the family
house whose ownership must be retained. In this sense, Winter’s Bone
also becomes a negotiation of real estate—and real estate becomes the
screen onto which a larger discourse is projected.
Etymologically, the term real estate is modified by the prefix real,
rooted in the Latin res, thing, and thus refers to the thing-ness of an
entity, to its materiality, its real, actual object dimension. However, the
United States housing bubble beginning in 2006 eroded the relation-
ship of Americans and their houses as material, immovable property in
a man-made crisis that like the stock market crash 2007–2008 and the
104 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Dot-com Bubble of the 1990s was caused by the market itself, in this
case by the abstraction of material objects into immaterial, virtual, mov-
able objects of speculation. The housing bubble in that sense is not only
the metaphor for the greed and inhumanness of a deregulated neoliberal-
ist economy, it is also the proof, literalization, and bodyless embodiment
thereof. The notion of invisible forces repossessing one’s house, not to
live in it, but to speculate with it, becomes a punishment for Ree that
she labors to avert for the narrative’s sake; but against the contemporane-
ous US American socio-historical background it is a topical concern for
millions of affected Americans, especially in poorer regions.
The sanctity of the home and the demise of this notion are both
depicted in Winter’s Bone. The lighting inside the Dolly family home
has a different color palette than any other location in the film and
even though the close quarters with the children sleeping on couches
and objects strewn everywhere clearly signify destitution (the only other
home that is shown from the inside is Gail’s, where especially a collec-
tion of DVDs in the background underlines a different economic sta-
tus by different objects), the difference in lighting elevates their quar-
ters into something that at least in comparison with the barren outside
is quite cozy. When the sheriff comes to interrogate Ree’s mother, he
requests: “Ask me inside. I need to talk some with your mama,” an eti-
quette repeated by Ree when visiting Gail and asking her young patri-
arch husband: “Hey, Floyd. You gonna invite me in? Or I could just stay
out here and talk to you.” The social protocol of requiring an explicitly
enunciated invitation in order to trespass the border into the privacy of
the home (known also from vampire lore) affirms the importance of this
symbolical-material border and the space it demarcates. The house is a
material extension of those who live in it and violating its borders is an
intrusion, consequently an even more severe intrusion is its repossession
as (and brought about by) the encroachment of an economy. The entire
landscape and the lifestyle of its inhabitants are characterized by such an
encroachment, in the shape of decay or in the shape of the meth industry
as an actual economy.
The sheriff ’s question—“Jessup signed over everything. If he doesn’t
show at trial, see, the way the deal works is, you all gonna lose this place.
You got some place to go?”—reflects his knowledge that the house is not
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 105

just a random, exchangeable container, but the material object necessary

by all means to keep the family unit intact. “If Dad has done wrong, Dad
has paid. And whoever killed him, I don’t need to know all that. But I
can’t forever carry them kids, and my mom—not without that house.”
says Ree in her plea to Thump Milton. Milton’s estate in turn is not only
characterized by the vast amount of broken-down vehicles cluttering the
yard, but also by the automatic white rolling shutter gate of his otherwise
brown, wooden, and dilapidated shed that becomes the claustrophobic
torture chamber in which Ree is chained and beaten under the bright and
unnatural glare of neon lights. The rolling gate appears as an architectural
disruption, a foreign object that does not really fit in, hinting at the con-
tamination that is the hidden presence of the underworld whose main
representative the meth kingpin Thump Milton is. Real estate not only
characterizes its inhabitants, they are in a sense conjoined, a reminder of
the “notion, that human identity is somehow inseparably bound up with
human location” (Malpas 1999, 4).
Ree has to deal with her real estate constantly, consciously and not.
Just how deep-seated and traumatic this conflict is for Ree is illus-
trated by her quasi-psychedelic fever dream. Compromised by the phys-
ical trauma of having been severely beaten and the toxicological trauma
of having been fed painkillers, Ree nods off and the floodgates of her
unconscious are opened, visualized by switching to black-and-white
Super 8 film stock as a different and more primal layer of cinematog-
raphy. To a collage of chainsaw noise, the sound of trees being cut down,
and tense violin soundscapes, images of chainsaws, trees, burning tim-
ber acres, startled squirrels and birds taking off, the theme of the Dolly
family’s eviction is translated into the expulsion of innocent animals and
images of a violated wilderness. American history repeats itself.

Act Local: Cinematography and Music

The expositional opening sequence of Winter’s Bone is a 81-second suc-
cession of nine images, each between six and twelve seconds long, accom-
panied by Marideth Sisco’s a capella version of the “Missouri Waltz.”
Besides contributing decisively to the soundtrack with six songs, Sisco as
106 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

a genuine and still active Missouri Ozarks figure dedicated to preserving

Appalachian folk music and culture also makes two cameo appearances in
the film and thus constitutes one of the many factors that not only pro-
duce a Barthesian reality effect (the seemingly insignificant details that
produce vraisemblance, the feeling of a text being realistic and coherent),
but that add genuine local color to the film.11 Not to just have Hol-
lywood actors mumble through their roles with a Southern drawl, but
placing the film directly in the milieu in which it is set is an exception in
the cinematic representation of rural America, which in most cases is re-
imagined from the distance of Hollywood and its urban gaze. The film’s
engagement with its environment also applies to the film’s locations, the
entire film having been shot on-site in the Missouri Ozarks and a large
portion of the cast are non-professional actors from the area. The com-
position in that sense emerges from the milieu it depicts, it is not only
about but also from that ecology.
The images reciprocate this on the level of content and technically,
as the opening sequence, like most of Winter’s Bone, is filmed with a
hand-held camera: the “RED One” produced by the American company
RED Digital Media and introduced to the market in 2007 as their first
digital production camera is known for bridging the gap between the
look of analog 35 mm film and digital cinematography.12 The RED One
can, depending on the lenses used, produce either quite polished hi-res
Hollywood images, or slightly grainy images whose look is perceived as
less produced and more realistic, or even mimicking a TV news or doc-
umentary style. These effects are especially strongly felt when comple-
mented with the unsteady motion of hand-held shooting and an absence
of more mediated movement (through, for example, the use of a camera

11 For the history of Appalachian folk music that goes back to the eighteenth century and wide-
ranging influences from African American and European music traditions, see Becker (1998)
and Williams (2002).
12The company’s product description underscores the “democratizing” function of endowing
filmmakers with the possibility to shoot images that look expensive without being expensive,
and also emphasizes the duality of formerly mutually exclusive paradigms by mentioning both
35 mm standards and most recent technological advancements: “The RED ONE redefined
digital cinema upon its arrival … Introduced as the purest digital alternative to 35 mm film,
the RED ONE has shot some of the most influential films of our time - from Che to The
Social Network.”
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 107

Fig. 3.2 Winter’s Bone’s first picture: the sublime Ozarks trashscape

dolly), techniques that are staples of documentary film, particularly in a

so-called direct cinema and cinema verité mode. In a sense, not only local
light informs the picture, but also localized movement and the choice
of a camera whose aesthetics are not as determined and which therefore
doesn’t already contain or prescribe a specific gaze on the landscape that
is photographed with it (Fig. 3.2).13
The aesthetic and technological emphasis on the naturalism of the
images translates both the setting and the important theme of an Ozarks
ecology with its own looks and laws, more in the tradition filmmaking

13The lenses used to film Winter’s Bone are the Zeiss Master Prime and Angenieux Optimo.
The Zeiss Master Primes have an especially high light sensitivity when shooting in fixed focal
length, i.e., they enable to open the aperture wide for a lower depth definition to create a more
“cinematic” look. The Angenieux lenses are said to produce a softer, “creamier” look (comparable
to the widespread Cookes) often used in digital filmmaking or commercials to shoot images that
are very crisp, yet look more like “warm” analog than “cold” digital photography. Both lenses
contribute to the cinematic “high end grittiness” of Winter’s Bone and enable the photography
of the film that relies so strongly on different kinds of light and lighting situations as a
means of conveying an entire ecology rather than just create an atmosphere. In comparison,
The DUFF was shot on Arri Alexa XT cameras, a bigger and heavier camera, simply due to
its size and weight more likely to be used with Steadicam systems or on stands (which both
automatically lead to a more stable image) and by design rather tailored to high-budget film
or TV productions, providing a “slicker” look.
108 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

modes that set out to devise a style that is less characterized by more tra-
ditional Hollywood conventions, but rather by an attempt to allow set-
tings and (light) situations their own look instead of obscuring them with
technology and special effects—a way to “let the actants speak for them-
selves” by granting them their own aesthetics and especially their own
light. In his essay about “Light in Faulkner,” Hanjo Berressem connects
American literary regionalism as a literary mode (also known as local
color writing ) with light “as the true medium of painting” (Berressem
2015, 80) to propose “local light” (ibid.) as a conceptual upgrade, some-
thing that also defines Winter’s Bone’s specific palette. While Faulkner’s
preoccupation with and use of light is mediated through language, in
Winter’s Bone the milieu’s local light becomes a full-fledged actant that
co-produces the film. The de-saturated color palette that defines the look
of Winter’s Bone does not celebrate the pastoral and nature as the lush
epitome of unadulterated life itself, they create a foggy blue-grayish look,
reminiscent of representations of specific light situations by the impres-
sionist painters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: The
agency of light, color, and atmosphere in well-known motifs such as a
hazy port or a haystack in gray weather are expressed through muted
colors and restrained valeurs, underscoring that light is the medium of
painting. The impressionists’ goal was the recreation of pure light and
pure sensations by leaving the studio, painting en plein air and a spe-
cific use of color to achieve a depiction of the world not constrained by
artificial light, contour lines, and imposed construction. To illustrate the
point, a painting by Frank Nuderscher as embodiment of the Ozarks’
light is useful: (Fig. 3.3)
Nuderscher is an American impressionist who after 1910 left his native
St. Louis and relocated to the Missouri Ozarks to concentrate on the
landscape paintings of the area he is mostly associated with. The simi-
larity between Winter’s Bone’s first picture and Nuderscher’s paintings is
striking, both in subject matter, perspective, and color—as if the area
itself dictates the way in which it is to be depicted by the light it exudes.
In comparison, though, Nuderscher’s use of purplish and yellow tones
makes the equally barren landscapes slightly more “delightful” than the
photographed image from 100 years later. The quasi-impressionistic, yet
real, local light in Winter’s Bone, which was also taken en plein air/on
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 109

Fig. 3.3 Frank B. Nuderscher, The View from the Studio, oil on canvas, ca. 1920

location, and despite of its luminous purity, on the other hand seems
almost devoid of purity and of life, just as the first picture is devoid of
living beings. The purity of Winter’s Bone’s naturalistic local light, pho-
tographed with the light-sensitive Zeiss lens and unaugmented by artifi-
cial light or heavy application of postproduction techniques such as color
grading, and even the purity of its light when thought of in relation to
impressionist light becomes the medium that, as the narrative unfurls,
will reveal the moral impurity of Winter’s Bone’s ecology, reinforcing the
agency of light in and for the film with the capacity to materially and
symbolically make visible.
The image that opens the film certainly contains signs of (human and
non-human) life, but they all appear as empty shells, indicating some-
thing that is actually absent: the leafless trees and hedges against the
cloudy gray skies in the fore- and background are complemented by the
110 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

mid-picture section full of junk cars of all sorts, the iconic American
yellow school bus, a caravan, and several pickup trucks. The depiction
of nature in this opening is a quite literal visualization of the Latourian
metaphors of the actor-network or the collective of humans and non-
humans: The borders of nature and culture are not discernible, the junk
cars and the barren trees are not in opposition, but they are participants
in the very same ecology. Other than in Thoreau’s Walden (1854), where
the whistle of the locomotive in the distance is a disruption of pastoral
beauty and serenity and a harsh encroachment of modern industrializa-
tion and urbanization on the natural landscape of Walden Pond,14 the
landscape in Winter’s Bone however has already been digested by these
cultural forces and discharged as a clump of amalgamated human–non-
human-matter. Trees, plants, dwellings, cars, sky—everything has been
drained of color, and of life. Accordingly, the nature we see is maybe not
undefined by color and shape, but certainly defined otherwise than by
an impressive mountain range, memorable trees, bodies of water, ani-
mals, or landmarks whatsoever, present neither in the foreground nor in
the background. For spectators who are not familiar with the Missouri
Ozarks (or for instance Nuderscher’s depictions of them), the marker-
free vista is an emptied-out landscape as unspecific as it gets, almost a
natural non-place (as opposed to the man-made non-places Marc Augé
[1995] writes about). The aesthetic orchestration of the picture aligns
itself with, and not only implicitly suggests a comparison to American
landscape painting, and later photography, with their emphasis on the
sublime of nature—either its beauty or indomitability.15 The ambiva-
lence and tension already generated on the sonic level by the title song
and its lyrics are echoed on the visual level: The sublime has left this
American landscape, Hollywood’s Technicolor excess has been replaced
by broken colors for the luminous recreation of a purity of impurity, and
the pastoral beauty of America’s hinterland has been compromised. It is
a landscape in transition, a proper liminal space, preparing the ground

14 Alsosee Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (1964).

15 For an overview of prominent protagonists especially from the Hudson River School of
painting, also see the catalogue of the Tate Britain exhibition American Sublime. Landscape
Painting in the United States 1820–1880 from 2002.
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 111

for Ree’s liminal experience and the way it is contrasted with the unsuc-
cessful navigations of liminal spaces by her parents. This liminality can
be extended to the entire region, whose out-of-balance order is only to
some extent restored in the end by Ree’s personal successful transition,
but a precarious “underclass” life will probably simply go on, still unaf-
fected by human, in this case Ree’s, activity.

One of the key terms to describe the sound, look, and plot of Winter’s
Bone is absence. Many things the audience hears or sees denote the pres-
ence of one thing, while connoting the absence of many more things.
The intro music is reduced solely to the voice, the color palette is char-
acterized by an absence of color and light (at least in the sense of Tech-
nicolor and Hollywood light), the environment is characterized by its
absence of structure, architecture, organization, or official institutions
and the Dolly family is characterized by its absence of (sentient) adults.
While removing the parental instance is a common trope for teen films
that also defines Ree’s quest, its function and evaluation here differ from
the vast number of parent-free teen film house parties gone awry, Joel
Goodson conducting his Risky Business (1983), Ferris Bueller tricking his
parents while actually having his famous Day Off (1986) or the depraved
youths in Kids (1995). The absence of Ree’s “breadwinner” father Jessup
Dolly is the premise for the plot and the quasi-absence of her mother is
what forces Ree into the role of the one who takes care of things, forces
her to become a detective, to be active, or in other words: to assume
agency. She does not act because of her sheer will and determination,
she acts because of the absence of those whose duty and responsibility it
would be to do so. She is asked twice “how old are you?” by a bondsman
and by an army recruiter, simply answering: “Seventeen.” Otherwise nei-
ther the characters nor the spectators would know for sure that this girl
is actually too young to experience what Ree has to go through. Ree is an
adult de facto, but a minor de jure, placing her into a strongly oscillating
liminal space.
112 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Absence is the premise for the agency around which Ree’s coming-of-
age is organized, and the very absence of parental figures is then what
makes Winter’s Bone a teen film: without relying on any adults whatso-
ever—the parents are gone or mentally ill, her uncle Teardrop is an erratic
drug addict with family loyalty and wild mood swings, her neighbors
Sonya and Blond Milton show solidarity, but have their own self-serving
agenda—she has to solve the “case” by herself and thereby simultane-
ously reach autonomy. Ree’s double status as child and adult is not only
touched upon explicitly in the mentioned “how old are you?” situations,
but also on the level of hard drugs. The drug theme is informative for
the entire film—and the main reason why it becomes necessary for Ree
to assume agency: “I bet your dad would still be here if he was just grow-
ing his marijuana” says the Sheriff, when Ree finally brings her father’s
sawed-off hands in order to prove that he is dead.
Drugs are traditionally an important theme for teen film, and espe-
cially in the urban and suburban films in which the drug motif is used
for different purposes, for instance as a rite of initiation, to character-
ize “bad” kids and youth’s depravity, or to create burlesque comedy sit-
uations. In Winter’s Bone, drugs fulfill a different function, partly due
to the specific setting in the rural Ozarks. Besides merely updating the
clichéd trope of moonshining stereotypically associated with hillbillies,
the drug theme turns Winter’s Bone into a mediation of the still-current
opioid crisis that in its current form began in the 1990s and has been
increasing ever since.16 Comparable to the sand storms responsible for
the Dust Bowl during the depression era that were caused by the appli-
cation of wrong agricultural methods and thus at least co-produced by
human activity, the opioid crisis is solely a fabricated, man-made prob-
lem. While the use of farming machinery that contributed to the Dust
Bowl is easily traceable to industrialization and capitalism, as famously
depicted The Grapes of Wrath, the opioid crisis is a similar encroachment
of disruptive capitalist forces on rural America, as the insurgence of hard

16 See the entry on the opioid crisis on The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s website, where
the extent of the crisis is addressed and its reasons clearly connected to the pharma industry.
Also see Lloyd Sederer’s Huffington Post article (2017) about the historic development of opioid
addictions and the current crisis in the USA, which even includes a reference to Winter’s Bone,
and Sheelah Kolhatkar’s New Yorker article (2017) on the economic implications of the crisis.
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 113

drug use does not mainly affect the expectable urban centers, but the
rural regions, where the use of prescription drugs such as OxyContin evi-
dentially facilitated a new market for opioids with those who get addicted
to painkillers that they then can no longer afford. We see evidence of
the nature of this epidemic in Winter’s Bone, when Ree’s neighbor Sonya
Milton pays her a visit—earlier, she gave the almost starving family some
deer meat but after Ree has been assaulted Sonya hands some pills in a
pharmacy vial to Ree’s best and only friend Gail who is taking care of
her, a progression from the nourishing meat she brought them before.
What these pills are, is fairly evident due to Connie’s prediction that
“she’s gonna want more.”
Again, comparable to the Grapes of Wrath movie adaptation where the
wind as a powerful, yet invisible force, and the dust it blows around to
become a destructive agent that is present in its absence (mentioned in
dialogues, as well as on the sonic and visual level), the production of
meth or a meth industry even is never explicitly shown, yet it is present
as an epidemic in rural America closely connected to white identity, and
also as an economic means. There are references to the drug industry on
many occasions in the dialogue, and there are telltale images of steam
rising from a vent at Thump Milton’s place, a burnt meth lab Blond
Milton takes Ree to in order to convince her that the search for Jessup is
in vain (see Fig. 2.1 on page 42), as well as posters visible in the police
precinct that illustrate how to recognize so-called meth mouth. But the
presence of meth, just like that of the dust storms in Grapes of Wrath and
of Ree’s father, is narrated through an indirect visibility, as an absence
in presence that simultaneously turns into a ghost-like haunting. This
haunting takes different forms, most prominently through violence and
power, with the violence in the film all more or less directly rooted in
the meth industry. (There are also more general observations here, in
the sense of Horkheimer and Adorno, whereby the violence of a brutal
capitalist system has become the violence of its subjects, mirroring “the
old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individ-
ual resistance, is the condition of life in this society” [2002, 110]. They
write this in reference to Donald Duck cartoons, which they read as a
medium to “accustom the senses to the new tempo … and learn to take
their own punishment” [1944, 110] by turning violence into something
114 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

hilarious and enjoyable. Winter’s Bone in that regard works differently:

The tempo and the de-aestheticization of the violence when Ree receives
her thrashing are painfully slow and visceral by staging it as decidedly
not spectacular [other than, e.g., the cartoonish over-excessive violence
from Peckinpah to Tarantino]. In that regard, Horkheimer and Adorno’s
argument works in reverse: By deviating from conventional Hollywood
tempo, editing, and style, the violence is shown as tedious and painful
and without any redeeming value whatsoever—and thus unmasks the
violence of capitalism. While violence in teen films mostly is relegated to
the “youth problem films” [see also Considine, Shary, and others], where
it is either used in an exploitation film manner or didactically, Winter’s
Bone is more analytical and more bleak in its matter-of-factly depiction
of violence.)
The production of meth is at the same time a normal way to earn a
living in the Ozarks, and a clandestine operation. Megan, niece of the
local crime lord Thump Milton, and one of Ree’s first stations in the
search for her father, replies to Ree’s comment that her missing father
cooks crank: “They all do now. You don’t even need to say it out loud.”
Megan’s answer is the request to keep quiet and the confirmation of com-
mon knowledge, and thus contains the ambivalence of the simultaneous
normalcy and clandestineness of an ecology that has been polluted by
the intrusion of the drug industry as the last resort to earn a living in
a dilapidated and structurally underdeveloped region. In Winter’s Bone,
being adult is practically equivalent to being involved in a world of illegal
drugs.17 Ree shields the children from a knowledge about their father’s
involvement in criminal activities that would erode their innocence and
their perception of the father and the institution of the family, however,
nobody makes an effort to hide this from the adolescent Ree, on the
contrary: Teardrop’s companion Victoria sends Ree away after giving her
a bundle of cash and “a doobie for your walk,” which Ree accepts with a

17 In a way, the presence of hard drugs is a literalization of Karl Marx’s evaluation of religion as
“opium of the people” (Marx 1977, 1) and Vladimir Lenin’s variation that “Religion is opium
for the people” (Lenin 1905, 83). The essential difference between Marx’s and Lenin’s allegory
is simply put agency: Marx’s opium of the people implies that it is self-administered by the
people, whereas Lenin’s opium for the people is administered by an external force. In Winter’s
Bone drugs occupy both positions and invert the allegory: Drugs indeed are the opium of and
for the people and in regard to how they affect the economic side, the bodies, and minds of
the Ozark residents, opium becomes the religion of the people.
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 115

quiet “thank you” (however, she is not shown consuming it). Ree’s uncle
Teardrop who openly snorts meth in front of Ree without inhibitions,
showcasing both the degree of his addiction and of the normalcy of the
drug in the present (diegetic) Ozarks ecology, offers Ree some: “You get
the taste for it yet?” Ree’s reply “Not so far” is highly ambivalent and a
key moment of the film. It could be understood as an ironic comment
on the depravity of practically every adult around her for which drug
use, regardless whether of prescription or so-called recreational drugs, is
almost a given. It could also be her acknowledging that the use of drugs
is practically inevitable in the ecology of which Ree is a part. All these
examples work toward painting a picture deeply pervaded by a bleak
fatalism—this however is exactly what Ree is stoically battling against,
not letting the fate of her family and herself be determined by external
forces. The pairing of fatalism and maturation, played out in the equa-
tion of adulthood with ethical and moral bankruptcy from cinematic
teenagers’ perspective, is a recurring teen film trope, most famously put
in what is perhaps the darkest moment in the otherwise pastel-colored
The Breakfast Club (1985):

Andrew: My God, are we gonna be like our parents?

Claire: Not me…ever…
Allison: It’s unavoidable, it just happens.
CL: What happens?
A: When you grow up, your heart dies.

The idealization of the child as the epitome of uncorrupted innocence

before culture, language, and all the other components of the adults’
world is a motif that has a long history in its own right and in pretty
much every culture. In Western culture alone, it manifests itself in arti-
facts as diverse as the Bible’s baby Jesus, the so-called kindchenschema 18
underlying the construction of most Disney figures and other cartoon
characters, or Nietzsche’s “three metamorphoses of the spirit” from the

18The psychologists’ term “Kindchenschema,” literally “scheme of childlike characteristics,” refers

to the over-determined “baby face” consisting of markers associated with children and thus
connoted especially cute, characteristically a high, domed forehead, a small pug nose, a small
doll’s mouth and chin, and unproportionally big eyes.
116 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1891).19 Nietzsche structures the

development of the human spirit into three stages, from the submissive
and obedient camel to the free, egotist, and forceful (“preying”) lion and
finally to the highest stage, the child, whose innocence and “first move-
ment” much less signify a lack of knowledge but a human ideal state of
being uninscribed and uncorrupted by culture, productively “forgetful”
and open (“sacred yes to life”)—only thus able to become a truly free
sentient being with agency, not merely ruled by external forces like the
camel, or instinctual drives and desires like the lion.
The idealization of the child must also be seen against the backdrop of
a specific notion of American innocence. American culture is enamored
by innocence as counter-position to the loss of innocence that comes
with the corrupting effect of civilization and the inscriptions of socializa-
tion, an innocence that plays itself out in romanticizations of the child
as good and pure, but also of wilderness along these lines. This is specifi-
cally American insofar as the European ideal put forth in the structure of
the bildungsroman—literally formation novel—is a process in which the
young hero (or child) becomes good by maturing and the eponymous for-
mation, by growing into culture and symbolically out of the pre-formed,
pre-culture original state. In his study of American culture’s relationship
with wilderness, Roderick Nash states: “From the feeling that uncivilized
regions bespoke God’s influence rather than Satan’s, it was just a step
to perceiving a beauty and grandeur in wild scenery comparable to that
of God” (2014, 45). The idealization of American wilderness works as
dichotomy, whether as God|Satan, nature|civilization, or city|country, as
it posits the purity of wilderness in opposition to civilization and culture,
which are deemed bad exactly because culture is formed and thus made
impure by human intervention.
The child’s innocence and the adult’s depravity as the two poles map-
ping the adolescent’s liminal space is negotiated in Winter’s Bone with
a harshness and consequence rarely encountered in teen films. That

19 “Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel,
the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child … But tell me, my brothers, what the child
can do, which even the lion could not do? Why must the predatory lion still become a child?
Innocence is the child, and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first
movement, a sacred Yes” (Nietzsche 1995, 26).
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 117

a development into adulthood that at the same time means deprav-

ity (embodied by drug use) is not only a possible option, it is almost
expected—as inevitable as the fulfilling of specific social and gendered
roles as acceptable behavior is in the majority of teen films.20 This is
what becomes clear in Ree’s conversation with Teardrop, and also in
her answer “Not so far.” In this regard, the drug theme not only makes
Winter’s Bone a crime film set in rural America’s criminal underworld, or
a social drama reflecting on the USA’s opioid crisis, but also a coming-
of-age narrative in which age or adulthood simply assumes a radically
different shape than that seen in most other teen films. In constituting
the defining feature of being adult, drugs represent a socialization that
leads to the reproduction of adult behaviors. Only in this context, the
reproduction of the forced-on social scripts of adulthood leads not only
to a metaphorical and spiritual corruption as in the aphoristic “When
you grow up, your heart dies,” it is literally toxic: When you grow up
like this, you die.
The drug-related absence and death of Ree’s father is complemented
by her mother Connie. While the father-ghost is present in absence,
her mother is absent in presence. Her state of being cannot be easily
reduced to terms such as “catatonia” or “autism” that are used by many
reviewers to summarize her character (or by Blond Milton’s condescend-
ing reference to her as “that nut job mama of yours”): She is sentient
enough to react, greet, smile, and participate; however, she never speaks.
Her child-like pre-language state emphasizes the reversal of roles of the
adolescent Ree and her adult parents. The mother’s condition serves to
illustrate another option in the spectrum of possible transitions: The
father’s model is the descent into the fatal world of drug criminal-
ity, the uncle’s model is drug-induced escapism as coping strategy, the
mother’s model is an inner exile as her withdrawal from the world and

20The Breakfast Club also contains an allusion to certain expected behaviors on the sidelines.
Bender, the “juvenile delinquent” and “white trash” character of the group explains his familial
situation: “You know what I got for Christmas this year? It was a banner fuckin’ year at the
old Bender family! I got a carton of cigarettes. The old man grabbed me and said ‘Hey! Smoke
up Johnny!’” The equation of consumption as rite of initiation with a scripted performance of
adulthood is taken to an extreme in Winter’s Bone.
118 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

the utmost possible reduction of participation and agency—a regres-

sion into the more easily endurable baby state glorified in the “Missouri
Waltz”‘s lyrics.21
As another possibility Ree’s plan to join the army could be a getting-
away different from the failed models of her parents—which of course
and ironically is not possible as she can neither obtain their signatures
she would need as a minor, nor ignore her responsibility for her mother
and siblings. Again, both the absence (as legal guardians and authority to
sign for her) and the presence (as nursing case) of the parents force her
to stay and choose or devise a survival strategy.

Ree’s conduct as ersatz parent for Sonny and Ashlee suggests education
not only as passing-on of knowledge and traditions, but also as a rare
opportunity for a survival strategy preferable to the available models per-
sonified by the adults around her. By educating her siblings, Ree is both
initiator and initiated: She is being initiated into parenthood and ini-
tiating the children into adulthood and she does this by assuming the
mother/father role both at the same time, or rather by becoming a non-
binary parent figure. Lessons learned here include for instance cooking
deer stew and gun use, but also, how not to use guns: “Don’t ever—both
of you look at me—never point this at each other, not ever. Alright?”
Ree also instructs them in the rules of social convention, not as openly a

21 As a side note to Winter’s Bone ’s incorporation of mental illness: When the teen film dif-
ferentiated into different strands in the 1980s (mainly sex comedies, horror movies, and the
“sensitive” films), the foundation was laid for a subgenre centering on “serious” topics such as
illness, depression, anorexia, suicide, or death already touched on in some of the John Hughes’
films. Such “existential teen films” more decidedly organized around various ailments have also
proliferated in the last decade, for instance It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010), The Fault in Our
Stars (2014), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015). In these films, agency is distributed
differently due to the characters’ default positions and their way of relating to their afflictions
becomes their plane of individuation. Even though ailing adults have always been present, they
have rarely been addressed as well-rounded, albeit ill, characters. Father Leviatch in Lady Bird
(2017) is another example for an empathetic depiction of a troubled adult in a teen-centered
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 119

“survival” strategy as the handling of firearms and hunting, but certainly

no less important in a world ruled by archaic and often invisible laws.
The most apparent teacher-pupil moments occur while Ree walks her
siblings to school. As a significant site in its own right here, and unlike
the schools in (sub)urban teen films it clearly belongs to another milieu,
one in which people move and behave according to a different set of rules
and practices. This is one of the few institutions not ruled by the clan sys-
tem and its drug industry. A Montage of Ree strolling through the aisles,
looking through a window and tenderly smiling at her sister Ashlee in an
arts and crafts class, engaged in a fun and somewhat meaningful activity
underscores that school, and even childhood generally are much further
away than they should be. Her walk through the institution’s corridors is
akin to the anthropology shot seen in other high school movies. While
it doesn’t introduce the different “tribes” of teenagers in a high school,
it does allow deeper insight into the whole school ecology. In one class-
room, young people are instructed how to properly handle babies using
training dolls (an indicator for the statistically much higher teen preg-
nancy numbers in poor areas), while the members of the local JROTC
chapter, wearing their gloves, hats, and rifles, are practicing parading in
the gymnasium where we later see Ree sign up for army recruiting. All
of these moments are staged similarly, with Ree shown in close-up, pho-
tographed from inside the room into which she is looking through a
glass window. Here Ree can dreamily or eagerly look in on the activities,
but she cannot participate, she is both framed and constrained by the
doorframe, kept at bay by this invisible barrier (see Fig. 3.4).
As important as what happens in the school is the way there, which the
three siblings take together, walking on a dirt road through the woods,
accompanied by their dogs. The short scene is photographed with a
hand-held camera, hence as spectators, we not only see them moving,
we move with them. We are participating in the movement in a way that
avoids either the characters or their world being “on display,” fetishized
and exhibited to a potentially more exploitative gaze. The mise-en-scène
in this regard emphasizes a participation that not only determines this
image, but the entire film: the woods, the dirt road, the humans, the
120 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 3.4 On the outside looking in through the glass barrier

dogs, and the camera that captures them all operate as actants, as “full-
blown mediators” with significant contributions to the ecology, disposi-
tif, or actor-network. As they walk, Ree makes up playful educational
games, giving Ashlee exercises in adding and spelling. The word Ash-
lee spells her is “House”—the central object of Ree’s journey. Ashlee is
unsure here whether to spell it like “Horse” or “House,” underscoring
her relative innocence: while elsewhere real estate will dominate Ree’s
world Ashlee has not yet (or at least, not linguistically) any fully formed
concept of the precarity of home. Were it not for the slight disruption
by the ill-fitting dirty clothes and ripped pants, this would be a serene
moment and a positive, if unconventional family dynamic.
Later in the film after having been seriously beaten and with strong
drugs racing through her system Ree continues to prioritize the children
and their education, making sure they will do their homework while she
is sedated with painkillers. Ree recognizes education as a viable strategy
for coping with, or escaping the hardships of their life and the culture
of poverty. In this regard, Winter’s Bone resonates with many other teen
films, but does something rather unusual: It shows a protagonist taking
education and academic effort very seriously, thus elevating it to the sta-
tus of a non-human actor. Education is not only a wallpaper in front of
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 121

which the characters experience personal crises and growth, it has a func-
tion. Certainly, this is no total exception, however according to Bulman’s
division of teen films into urban and suburban films—a categorization
that reaches its limits with this rural teen film—the teen film’s evalua-
tion of academic efforts follows two resultant main patterns: While the
suburban films use school very prominently, albeit rather as a backdrop
or “as a social space within which the drama of teen angst is played out”
(Bulman 2004, 85), the urban films devise a different didactics, more
akin but not identical to the function of education in Winter’s Bone:

Hollywood films about urban public schools suggest that low-income

inner city students need to believe in themselves, believe in the American
dream, believe in the power of education, work hard and make better
choices in their lives in order to escape their culture of poverty … Unlike
the students in urban school films, the middle-class students in the subur-
ban school films tend to take their education for granted…. These char-
acters know they will likely graduate from high school, attend college,
and at least reproduce their parents’ middle-class status. The rough social
trajectory of their lives has essentially been predetermined, independent
of their effort in school. They merely need to go through the motions.
Therefore, the education of the suburban school students is not a cen-
tral feature of the plot of these films. What matters most in these films
is not academic achievement, but the achievement of one’s independent
identity. (Bulman 2004, 47, 86)

In Winter’s Bone, education is not suggested as a redemptive solution,

only as an option: There will be no closure when a scholarship is won or
the entrance to college is granted as in many of the films Bulman writes
about and which he aptly reads as projections of middle-class values:
“What middle-class American culture wants most for poor urban adoles-
cents is a rejection of the culture of poverty and attainment of a middle-
class lifestyle and financial independence through hard work” (Bulman
2004, 86). Education as a means of social mobility simply doesn’t present
a feasible way out in an ecology (and economy) in which there hardly is
any social or otherwise mobility possible, at least not from the middle-
class perspective put forth by most teen films organized around education
and/or school. Winter’s Bone shows a specific culture of poverty whose
122 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

lack of structure also applies for its class organization devoid of an easily
classifiable, coherent low, middle, or upper class. It’s an economic micro-
climate that cannot be overcome by applying oneself to academics with
an inspired American work ethic—however the film’s conclusion isn’t as
bleak and fatalist to suggest that there is no possibility whatsoever to ever
“graduate” and eventually leave its cyclical trappings.

Responsibility as Rebirth: TeenAgency

as Teenage Heroism
The most common ways in which teen films narrate the success-
fully passed-through transformation are easily decipherable indicators of
autonomy, independence, or romance—not seldom, a mixture of all of
them. In Winter’s Bone, Ree accepting the responsibility to take care of
her family will fulfill a similar function. Although she does not attain
individual or spatial freedom in the sense of (or by) going away, joining
the army, escaping into drugs or autism, dying, or “doing her own thing”
in any other way, she does so by escaping and defeating fatalism. She nei-
ther becomes her mother nor her father, nor does she become a mother
or father figure in the traditional conservative sense, as she defies con-
ventional binary notions of the nurturing feminine and the resourceful
strong (or absent) male.
The models for men, women, and families around her are as limited
and without prospects as the models for adulthood in her own fam-
ily. Wellum writes that “Winter’s Bone is a feminist film about an anti-
feminist world. In the movie, men represent power, and authority, with
Thump serving as the tribe’s patriarch. Most of the dialogue between the
women characters is about men and their power” (2013). This goes for
the older and the young generation, as even Ree’s same-age friend Gail,
already the mother of baby Ned, has been absorbed into repressive gen-
der roles by marrying.
Overcoming the binarisms of her world, of mainstream cinema in gen-
eral, and of the teen film in particular becomes the premise for Ree’s
successful coming-of-age transition, but moreover, it is what constitutes
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 123

her heroism. Oversimplified, the men are bullies, the women are sub-
missive, or bullies as well. Ree calibrates her role by becoming neither:
Her strength is not violence, but non-violence, with which she endures
whatever she has to face, unwavering and unrelenting. She walks on and
on, most of the times on foot and through the woods, she does not leave
the Milton’s yard despite intimidations, pursues Thump Milton and tries
to confront him at a cattle auction (an impressive setting visualizing the
public world as purely male sphere), and continuously presses ahead with
her search. Ree’s path bears resemblance to Greek mythology, the urtext
for the hero’s journey and its narrative structure that turns the protag-
onist into a heroic figure. The traces of mythical heroism are hidden
in plain—allegorical—sight, from the obvious Odyssey comparison to
details such as Merab Milton and her sisters who beat Ree up as counter-
part to the Graeae (three witch-like old sisters), to the Labors of Heracles.
Among Heracles famous twelve tasks are not only the slaying or captur-
ing of several fierce animals or food gathering of sorts (obtaining the
cattle of the monster Geryon and stealing the apples of the Hesperides),
which in Ree’s journey is the obtaining of deer meat and the gutting
of squirrels. Even the intense scenes in the factory-like structure where
the cattle auction takes place conjure up the Augean stables Heracles
has to clean. But Heracles’ ultimate required task, after whose comple-
tion he finally becomes purified and thus heroic, is to capture and bring
back Cerberus, the gatekeeper dog of the Hades. Heracles’ archenemy
Eurystheus assigned him this specific task deeming it impossible—and it
implies the suspension of the fundamental border between the here and
the netherworld. Heracles must redeem himself from the sin of having
killed his wife and children and in a bout of madness induced by exter-
nal influence (in his case, not drugs or crime, but the vengeful Hera)
whereas here the guilt from which Ree must wash herself clean is her
father’s inherited sin. The negotiation of moving between life and death,
world and netherworld, not only takes place here in the form of liminal
geographical spaces, it is literal and visceral in Ree’s experience of violence
and in the ultimate retrieval of her father’s dead body, which she has to
pull up from the swamp, from the dead (the swamp in a sense becomes
the Hades of the clan cosmos, the place where they hide their corpses).
Ree achieves and confirms purity then by traveling through Hades and
124 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

thus becomes heroic—not an ancient Greek heroine, but a heroine of

the American frontier in its contemporary form, a heroism borne from
actively “choosing” to deal with her family’s fate instead of escaping into
drugs, the army, or other choices Ree is given.
Consequently, her heroic deeds lead to the rescue of her American
family and a shared ethos of responsibility that needs to be distinguished
from other forms of responsibility people take for each other in Winter’s
Bone. Ree is not only obstructed in her journey, she also receives help.
Her neighbor Sonya Milton feeds her starving horse and brings meat
and painkillers, Sonya’s husband Blond offers to take in Sonny and raise
him, Merab takes Ree to her father’s corpse which makes it possible to
save to the family home. All these generosities are counterbalanced by
actions that make it clear that they are borne from a clan codex than any
genuine responsibility or even selflessness: Blond adds to his and Sonya’s
proposal to take in Sonny that they have no interest in doing the same
for little Ashlee, which reaffirms the archaic patriarchal order they abide
by, and unmasks the offer as purely self-serving, looking for a male heir.
Merab’s life-saving help comes only after debating whether to kill Ree
or not.
Ree and her siblings however are characterized differently here, par-
ticularly in their relationships with further non-human actors: animals.
In the exposition, they take care of baby kittens, at the end, when the
full-circle-bracket around the film closes, Teardrop comes by and hands
each child a duckling he has wrapped in a piece of flannel. In unison,
Sonny and Ashlee say thank you and until the end credits roll, they will
hold them, both hands tenderly clutched around them. In a way, a suc-
cession and the future of the family are suggested by this doubling: Just
as Ree was given two helpless creatures to raise up through her parents’
absence, these two are now given two helpless creatures to raise by the
soon-to-be-absent uncle. A film scene that was deleted from the final
cut but is included on the DVD edition enforces this doubling, a mon-
tage of the two children looking everywhere and for a long time for the
stray dog they brought in earlier and named Peanut Butter (which is not
only a cute name for a dog, but also a reminder of what they desire:
nourishing food), calling his name in vain over and over again, a search
that both echoes Ree’s search for someone untraceable—their calls fading
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 125

Fig. 3.5 Responsibility and response-ability. Animals as non-human actants

away into a space where people and things just get lost—and the chil-
dren’s sense of responsibility. Ree has set an exemplary new model for
adulthood, unlike her parents’ absence, unlike the authoritarian families
around her, or the part solidary, part violent clannish blood ties—and
her siblings embrace that model. The interactions with animals func-
tion as a visualization of responsibility—or “response-ability” in Donna
Haraway’s sense22 —participation, and taking care of smaller, or perhaps
helpless beings. The presence of animals runs through the entire film:
horses, pet and stray dogs, a ferret, squirrels, a donkey, birds, and cats
not only add to the local color, in most cases they are treated with more
care and respect by humans than they treat each other (see Figs. 3.5 and
3.6). Even the gory scenes in which deer and squirrels are gutted and
later eaten are less shocking than they are an illustration of an ecology

22 InWhen Species Meet (2008), one of her reflections on the modes of coexistence of different
species, Haraway directly replies to Latour’s famous dictum We Have Never Been Modern (1991)
to take his concept into a different discursive and ontological realm as she speaks about the
entanglement of species under the header “We have never been human” to call into question
certain binarisms: “The Great Divides of animal/human, nature/culture, organic/technical, and
wild/domestic flatten into mundane differences—the kinds that have consequences and demand
respect and response—rather than rising to sublime and final ends” (Haraway 2008, 15). Her
plea for respect and response is the basis of “sharing suffering” (ibid., 69 f.) as an ethical
practice that involves the ability to recognize other (human and non-human) living beings and
126 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 3.6 Sonny and Peanutbutter, doubled and completed by their reflection in
the mirror

in which both humans and non-humans (in this case, animals) are par-
ticipants who coexist, feed each other, and if necessary eat each other.
When Ree bluntly tells the bail bondsman that her father “Jessup Dolly
is dead. He’s lying in a crappy grave somewhere or become piles of shit
in a hog pen,” her comment certainly is disdainful and fueled by anger,
but to some extent, she graphically describes a materialist ecology, where
a dead body is not so much glorified as a holy vessel that needs to be
ritualistically buried, but rather becomes decomposing matter, compost,
food for other participants of the ecology.
Ree’s model of responsibility and selflessness gains contour through
the interplay with her plan to join the army as another sphere of self-
sacrifice, responsibility, and dedication to the extended family unit of
the body politic, of “the American people” as family. The army recruiter
says to Ree: “Well, it sounds like it might be a bigger challenge just to
stay home, you know, and actually take care of your brother and sister
… So it sounds like right now, you need to buckle up and stay home. It’s
going to take a lot of backbone and a lot of courage to stay home, but

respond to suffering by “learning to live and think in practical opening to shared pain and
mortality and learning what that living and thinking teach” (ibid., 83).
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 127

that I think is what you need to do right at this point. OK?” Sgt. Schalk’s
consoling words upon seeing Ree’s bruised face and learning about her
bleak home situation also ennoble what she is doing, as it is accurate
that the task at hand takes more courage than joining the army, or even
possibly going to war, which might be an altruistic self-sacrifice, but also
an escape into a state-administered socially esteemed altruism, easier to
manage due to a rigidly structured system of hierarchy and orders, and
at the same time more prestigious and better paid than taking care of a
family all alone. There is no one telling Ree what to do at home and she
has to assume full responsibility as an individual, which is the opposite of
what would happen in the army as a de-individualizing agent. Only by
assuming responsibility, she can establish a model for herself and her sib-
lings in which agency defies fatalism and the deterioration of the family.
On their first encounter, Merab asked: “Ain’t you got no men could do
this?”, surprised that a teenage girl leaves the protocol of patriarchal clan
laws. Ree in that scene replied: “No, Ma’am, I don’t.”—because there
really is no one else, no man, no parent, no adult to assume agency.
The agency Ree has to assume is what ultimately leads to her attaining
autonomy and her individuation—not by emancipating herself from cer-
tain ascribed labels, but from certain prescribed life paths allotted to her
economic class. Overcoming fatalism is Ree’s liminal transformation and
constitutes her teenage heroism.

Winter’s Bone has arguably advanced the spectrum of teen-centered films
and, with that and by extension, the critical registers that might be devel-
oped for our engagement with the genre. The entanglement of characters
and their environment has always informed cinematic teens and figured
as part of what motivates their respective quests. However, most com-
monly what we encounter is not just the intersection between place and
circumstance, but a deterministic hypothesis arising from a normative
middle-class perspective: If a main character is situated in a lower-class
milieu or otherwise undesirable spaces, her desire to escape is depicted
as a way to mature or even survive; an upper-class milieu is commonly
128 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

coded as morally corrupt and characters are stifled by their overachieving

or self-absorbed parents’ expectations or their lack of interest respectively;
and a middle-class milieu is simultaneously boring and ideal (embodied
perfectly by Ferris Bueller ’s non-quest).
There are texts that challenge and rewrite the frequent spatial and
social determinism of the teen film (for instance Napoleon Dynamite
[2004]), but Winter’s Bone might be the first “ecological teen film”—
ecology here both in the everyday language sense as well as in the sense
of an extended notion of environment, or a complex network of coexist-
ing life forms, as proposed in this chapter. This entails a mutual influence
of characters and their environment as an entangled ecology, inseparable,
but not necessarily deterministic or a priori problematic. In this regard,
the engagement with Winter’s Bone generates a different perspective that
can be fed back into the discourse and be used for texts before and
after it. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) as a longtime-filmmaking
endeavor never before seen in the teen film genre explores an ecology
along its temporal axis. In it, not only a teen protagonist on the represen-
tational level, but his entire environment (or apparatus) are, both mate-
rially and symbolically, in transition, with cast, crew, and their machines
actually coming-of-age together in front of and behind the camera (for
a detailed account of Linklater and Boyhood, see Shary [2017]). Further
differing ecologies within teen cinema and similar ecological themes in
this extended sense of entanglement—particularly after Winter’s Bone—
are explored in other teen films as diverse as Hick (2012), Chronicle
(2012), The Hunger Games (2012), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Kings
of Summer (2013), Standing Up (2013), The Maze Runner (2014), Paper
Towns (2015), American Honey (2016), Beach Rats (2017), Super Dark
Times (2017), Mid90s (2018), or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019).
As a filmmaker with a social consciousness and a pronounced ethics
Debra Granik has in all of her feature films thus far explored fictional and
real characters on the margins of American life by trying to participate in
their reality without exposing them to a sensationalizing or othering gaze
and not using the camera as a mechanism of an anthropological or even
colonial investigation (and instead upholding the ideal of documentary
postulated by Walker Evans: “the camera seems to me, next to the unas-
sisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time”
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 129

[Agee and Evans 2001, 9]). Leave No Trace (2018) is another unusual
variant on the coming-of-age narrative and a useful companion piece to
Winter’s Bone (as well as to Granik’s 2014 documentary Stray Dog about
an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD). The 13-year-old girl Tom at
the center of the film lives “off the grid” with her war-traumatized father
Ben in the forests of a public park in Oregon, they are eventually dis-
covered, well-meaning social workers try to reintegrate them, and they
take off again in pursuit of an environment, or at least niches that might
accommodate their needs as a team as well as their increasingly diverging
individual demands, Ben needing to retreat further and Tom needing to
grow and branch out. “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong
with me,” Tom says when for the first time she decides to stake a claim
on her own development, the culmination of both the tenderness and
tensions between them, as well as a shift her father accepts, even though
it will mean a disruption to the family unit.
Many of the actants that defined Winter’s Bone can also be observed
in Leave No Trace. There is once more a pronounced presence of animals
that also help to trace human behavior and characterize people by their
relations; however, the human–animal associations are used in a more
allegorical and more anthropocentric manner here. Among the various
seahorse pendants, plastic toy horses, and taxidermied deer heads, there
is Boris the guard dog with the ability to wake veterans up from their
nightmarish hauntings, and a beehive that will serve as a moving alle-
gory on the social organism into which Ben is no longer able to be
incorporated by showing that whether the bees are a lethal force or a
body politic that produces warmth is a matter of trust on our part and
how we choose to coexist with them and understand their agency. When
Tom comes across a rabbit named Chainsaw while walking on a deserted
road, Leave No Trace incorporates a subtle Alice In Wonderland moment
that will lead her to a Future Farmers of America meeting, as one of her
first interactions with her peers, and an encounter that provides one of
the many occasions for the film to establish its own aesthetic corridor
between a cinema verité mode and a phantasmatic hi-res composition,
boldly stylized and understatedly intimate. The detail with which ferns,
130 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 3.7 Entangled ecology: objects, human and non-human life in Leave No

spider webs, moss, or other elements of their ecology are portrayed visu-
alizes the forest’s local light and optical unconscious 23 and grants depth
and agency (and agency via depth) not only to the humans in an environ-
ment, but to the complex and ramified makeup of the ecology. Conse-
quently, the film’s color palette unfolds an enormous number of shades of
green, the perspectives relying often on mid-shots or even aerial perspec-
tives dissolving humans and other singular actants in beautifully layered
rhizomatic landscapes, Granik thus visualizing “the consuming vastness
of the forest, the idea that you are immersed in this forest” (Garcia 2018,
38) (see Fig. 3.7).
An actant that is worth following in Leave No Trace is communica-
tion. Tom and Ben have developed nonverbal communication both as a
survival mechanism based on Ben’s army training, but also as expressions
of their particular modes of coexistence with each other and within their
milieu, like their humming together in the film’s beginning or making
clacking sounds. Their language exceeds words—an ecological language,
a way of one’s body relating to its environment.

23 Referring to Walter Benjamin’s term with which he refers to visual information the human
eye cannot perceive at first glance, but whose presence can be made visible by specific properties
of film and photography, as for instance enlargement or slow motion (2008, 30).
3 Actants | Objects | Participation … 131

Leave No Trace addresses, like Winter’s Bone, central issues besides

its adolescent protagonist’s individuation outside of conventional family
structures or other institutions. It can be read as ecocriticism in its nego-
tiation of the human–animal divide and the more general confrontation
of nature and culture, or wilderness and civilization as inimical entities
instead of their union in an ecology (as a reintegration measure, Ben has
to work in a tree nursery, trim, cut down, and package Christmas trees
to be shipped to Florida). Other recurring themes are the opioid crisis
(war vets having become addicted to medication they can then no longer
afford), parental figures and their absence, maturing beyond one’s years
and outside of traditional mechanisms of socialization, and real estate in
its relation to identity (the house Ben and Tom have to move into, the
tiny house, the RV park as counterparts to the Walden-esque retreat to
the forest).
Ben’s path as a traumatized loner and loving father becomes the vehi-
cle for a state of the union address on how the USA treat their vet-
erans: Granik lets her work as a documentarian from Stray Dog bleed
into the tragic-yet-tender depiction of American war heroes and their
trauma (about her process with co-writer Anne Rossellini, Granik says:
“We write and imagine, but reality reshapes the movie” [Garcia 2018,
38]). Ben’s self-reliance, but also his loss of any ability to become his
pre-war self again, is surprisingly akin to the first Rambo movie (1982),
yet Granik’s way to shape his interactions with other vets and non-vets
are all characterized by kindness and solidarity. Americans are genuinely
nice and compassionate in Leave No Trace. Against the social realism of
her subject matter and the aesthetic realism of her style, Granik’s grace-
ful negotiation of intimacy and companionship postulates an idealism—
while never offering simple answers by reducing the textures of American
life or blaming clear villains—whose didactics and politics-free of cyni-
cism in the Trump era USA almost seem like a gently radical proposition
of kindness (as a truly ecological mode). Even more than in Winter’s Bone,
all the metaphors and symbolism carry within themselves a reminder
how they relate to the lived world. The scope of what can be done with
coming-of-age narratives besides genre staples—getting the guy/girl, get-
ting high, getting laid, getting out, or getting into college—has clearly
been extended by Leave No Trace: The quest for autonomy doesn’t have
132 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

to be a solipsistic endeavor, but can become a quest for an ethical, eco-

logical individuation, in which being adequate to the world and to one’s
own desires aren’t mutually exclusive, both for the film characters and

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Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject: Technology,
Drugs, Language, Ethnicity

A Black Tech Teen Hood Film: Technology

and Drugs as Quasi-Objects in Dope
Technology played an important role in the discussion of The DUFF
(2015) as an important element, factoring in the interactions of its char-
acters with each other and with their diegetic world, as did drugs as
a traditional and manifold teen film trope in my reading of Winter’s
Bone (2010). Both themes and their respective articulations and func-
tions reoccur in Dope (2015). Like The DUFF, Dope is characterized
by the incorporation of time-specific technologies and their character-
istics; however, Dope is formally more experimental and more conse-
quently proposes a dramaturgy and aesthetics that corresponds to the
technologies it refers to. The use and literacy of technology on the level
of plot become a decisive catalyst on which other themes, conflicts, and
contradictions are played out. Dope is first and foremost a black teen
film, a text concerned with African-American identities and experiences
and secondarily a teen film concerned with technology. It can be consid-
ered here as a renewal of the technocentric teen film, but especially as a
renewal of the black teen film, which traditionally has been mostly in the
form of hood films. The term is derived both from the setting of these
© The Author(s) 2020 137
B. Sonnenberg-Schrank, Actor-Network Theory at the Movies,
138 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

films and from the title of John Singleton’s seminal Boyz N The Hood
(1991). Shary refers to the hood films as “The African-American crime
cycle.” He points out that not only the ethnicity, but also the age of
the authors is significant, as “[t]his marked another departure for youth
cinema, since for the first time young adult filmmakers began control-
ling their own images” (2002, 81). Besides “exposing audiences to (male)
African-American youth culture and questioning the current state of race
relations in the nation” (ibid., 82), they also revived the teen film cre-
atively and economically after a decline in the late 1980s. Mulholland
argues that the cycle has been outmoded by recent narratives such as The
Wire (2002–2008): “African-American teen cinema is notable only by
its absence. John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood felt like a major movie in
1991, again, because no one had seen the lives of ordinary black Ameri-
can kids in a mainstream movie before. But two decades later the senti-
mentality and one-dimensional preachiness is dated and cloying” (2011,
497). The hood film produces a progeny until the present with a persist-
ing popular mythology and iconography, but African-American coming-
of-age narratives have by now expanded into a multitude of more diverse
articulations (see postscriptum at the end of this chapter).
Dope is an important contemporary contribution to the teen film
canon, as the majority of texts purport a white middle-class perspective
with limited and oftentimes overtly stereotypical deviations in regard to
gender, sexuality, class, or ethnicity (instances of poorly handled repre-
sentations of non-white or non-American characters ranging from Six-
teen Candles’ [1984] Long Duk Dong to gratuitous African-American
sidekicks reduced to shouting catchphrases). One of the central elements
through which Dope renews the black teen films from the 1990s is
through the trope of technology. The legacy of the drug theme is insin-
uated by an ambiguous title that evokes a history of cinematic meet-
ings between adolescents and drugs. In most teen films, drugs function
as a powerful rite of initiation, similar to sexuality. Depending on the
type of film, its according depiction of drugs, the kinds of drugs used as
well as the kinds of teens who use drugs, these can be typically grouped
into two dominant modes—the first being the cautionary tale, in which
drug use is scandalized and sensationalized (a staple of American teen and
exploitation films, from Reefer Madness [1936] to a slew of 1950s youth
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 139

problem films to Kids [1995] and numerous recent films and TV shows),
and the second the stoner comedy subgenre, in which getting high and
the altered states that accompany it provides a platform for comedy.1
Both modes (as well as less prevalent ones) tend to rely on clichés and eas-
ily decipherable signifiers, be it the inevitable physical and moral decay
of the bad drug user, or the predictably erratic behavior, and occasion-
ally heightened perception and insight, of the good or “fun” drug user.
The history of the modes in which drug use is represented is closely con-
nected to the history of censorship and specifically the Hays Code—and
the danger of facing legal troubles, accusations of “advertising” substance
abuse, or a backlash from parental figures and institutional authorities
that automatically occurs if a film does not dismantle the drug topic by
either comedy, shock, or fearmongering. The function of drugs in Dope
however is different, as they occupy a more neutral position: In them-
selves, the drugs are just a substance, neither a lethal poison nor a fun-
or wisdom-inducing potion. Only by their associations do they change
their status and become something else and something not neutral.
Building on the position allotted to objects and other non-human
actants in the last chapter, both drugs and technology and their vari-
ous functions in Dope shall be investigated here by approaching them as
what Bruno Latour, referring to Michel Serres, calls the quasi-object—
and its complementary, the quasi-subject.

1 Driscolltraces drug use as a rite of initiation back to the flapper film in which “[s]ex and
drug use are often implied … In The Plastic Age (1925), smoking and drinking are represented
as commonplace parts of college life, despite (or because of ) the reigning US Prohibition laws
(from 1920 to 1933) and other illegal drug use is also apparently common … It’s impor-
tant to the flapper film that such risky behavior is entwined with the dominant expectations
of adolescence—school or college, career choice, and developing independence and romantic
attachments—and in this way the flapper film was a contributing factor in the debates that
led to the Code” (2011, 23–24). She also discusses the “stoner” film, which “generally employs
drug use as a comic eye on disenfranchised youth and on the hierarchized ‘straight world’ that
frames and judges them … They belong with teen party films because of their shared emphasis
on margins and excess and their discourse on immaturity, but they often stray beyond US teen
film’s common association with suburban white adolescence” (2011, 80).
140 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Quasi-Object and Quasi-Subject

Bruno Latour’s laboratory studies and especially the interest in inscrip-
tion devices would pave the way for his later studies of technological
objects and their influence on human (inter)actions and behaviors. It is
the devices themselves that define the translations (as processes of medi-
ations and actants continuously redefining each other) and in how far
the inscriptions have “a direct relationship to ‘the original substance’”
(Latour and Woolgar 2013, 51–52). Latour’s technology studies of dif-
ferent exemplary cases (such as the failed railway transportation system
Aramis, guns, VCR recorders, cameras, seatbelts, key chains, “sleeping
policemen,” or the particular lock system he writes about in The Berlin
Key) on the one hand are a methodological demonstration of what he
means by following the actors. On the other hand, they serve to illus-
trate how the translations, associations, and mediations between humans
and technological objects take place: Humans enter hybrid networks in
which objects influence their behavior. The different human and non-
human actors “do something” with and to each other and thereby define
and redefine each other.
Assigning agency to non-human actants is not tantamount to assign-
ing them a life of their own, free will or intentionality: “We should not
animate, we should stop de-animating!”2 —Latour’s non-human actants
are not made human, they simply are not denied their capacities to
do something and their capacities to alter human actions by “offer-
ing their services.” Following Madeleine Akrich, Latour postulates that
every device carries within it specific associations that it proposes, and
from which specific scripts emerge (“If we call the ‘script’ of a device
its ‘program of action’ [Akrich 1992], what is the programme of such
a key?” [Latour 2000, 17]). For Latour, the question, prompted by
Gilbert Simondon, is decisive as to how machines are part of the milieu
in which humans live, which also allows us to understand the hid-
den human aspects in the machine and the realization that milieus are
machinic. Machinic, hybrid networks in which mixed beings coexist,
oscillating between nature and culture, are part and parcel of a concept;

2 Bruno Latour, personal communication, June 18, 2015.

4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 141

Latour introduces in We Have Never Been Modern from 1991: Build-

ing on Michel Serres’ concept of the quasi-object that he laid out in
The Parasite (1982, 224–234), Latour picks up on the idea of the quasi-
object (see also 1993, 51) as the defining entity of a hybrid, collective
reality—or network. For Serres, a key aspect of the quasi-object is cir-
culation and participation which then leads to the formation of the col-
lective, as for instance with quasi-objects as different as the furet in a
hunt, language, money, bread, love, or the ball in a soccer game. The
position of the quasi-object therefore is connective—it is defined by the
relations in which it is entangled. The quasi-object is the (non-human)
actant around which a network forms, which circulates and is translated
by the interactions and other actants with which it is entangled. Quasi-
objects are not abstract figures of thought. They do exist as non-human
actants and have a very real, oftentimes (not always!) material dimension
and (always!) material consequences.

As soon as we are on the trail of some quasi-object, it appears to us some-

times as a thing, sometimes as a narrative, sometimes as a social bond,
without ever being reduced to a mere being … Of quasi-objects, quasi-
subjects, we shall simply say that they trace networks. They are real, quite
real, and we humans have not made them. But they are collective because
they attach us to one another, because they circulate in our hands and
define our social bond by their very circulation. They are discursive, how-
ever; they are narrated, historical, passionate, and peopled with actants
of autonomous forms. They are unstable and hazardous, existential, and
never forget Being. (Latour 1993, 89)

The quasi-subject then is complementary to the quasi-object and they

presuppose each other; they emerge from relations and in that sense are
relational, or relative—and these relations can, of course, also be relations
into which non-human actants can enter just as much as human actants.
The ontological status of quasi-objects and quasi-subjects is determined
by the interactions they are part of, by the translations, which they enable
and out of which they emerge. They are part of networks and constitute
(new) networks as they form collectives of humans and non-humans, as
they weave the social.
142 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Case Study: Dope

Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope follows high school senior Malcolm Adekanbi,
who lives with his single mother, and his two best friends James “Jib”
Caldones and the tomboyish lesbian Cassandra “Diggy” Andrews, all
of whom are introduced as “black geeks” by an invisible and anony-
mous voice-over narrator (voiced by famed African-American actor
Forest Whitaker) in the opening scenes. Despite living in a part of the
Los Angeles suburb Inglewood, California that is aptly named “The Bot-
toms” and characterized by poverty and crime, the three friends have
carved out a niche in their ecology in which they can pursue their geeky
interests, such as 1990s hip-hop culture or playing in their three-piece
band Awreeoh (a play on the Oreo cookie that inspired the slur for some-
one who is “black on the outside but white on the inside”). All of them
have aspirations of going to college, Malcolm has his mindset on study-
ing at Harvard and is in the process of writing an application essay and
meeting with a local businessman and Harvard alumnus for an interview.
More or less by coincidence, Malcolm acts as a go-between passing on
flirtatious messages to a girl named Nakia for Dom (played by rapper
A$AP Rocky), a slightly older boy who—like him—is highly intelligent
and eloquent, but has chosen the path of crime and is now involved
in trading drugs as a leader of his own crew. Invited to Dom’s birthday
party at a club, Malcolm and his friends witness a violent altercation
when a backroom drug deal goes wrong and rival gang members assail
Dom’s crew. The drugs, a big stash of a synthetic psychoactive similar to
the party drug MDMA called “Molly” (when presented to its potential
buyers, it is framed with the vocabulary of the teen film lexicon: “What
you got there?”/“Breakfast Club, nigga. Molly Ringwald.”), end up in
Malcolm’s backpack along with a gun. He finds himself in a bind as the
competing crews try to get hold of the drugs and he learns that AJ Jacoby,
the Harvard alumnus he is supposed to meet with, is secretly the head
of the drug ring for which Dom works. Jacoby denies any cognizance,
yet implicitly blackmails Malcolm into solving the problem himself by
tacitly threatening his life and bribing him with the promise of endors-
ing his Harvard application. Together with Jib and Diggy and a hacker
friend of theirs, he devises a way to sell the drugs on the darknet, pay
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 143

the druglord-cum-legitimate-businessman in bitcoin after hacking into

Jacoby’s account to implicate and thereby blackmail him in endorsing
Malcolm’s Harvard application. In order to escape poverty and crime, he
has to engage in criminal activity on a highly sophisticated level. And
while all this crime-related action takes place, Malcolm, who is still a vir-
gin, is almost seduced by the drugged-out daughter of AJ Jacoby, before
becoming romantically involved with Nikia, and inviting her to prom—
the central tropes of both the urban and the suburban high school film,
hardly ever mixed, are then all in place.
Dope was released practically at the same time as The DUFF and
both films’ similarities and differences help define a mid-2010s spec-
trum. Their prominent use of social media and modern technology posits
them as social-media-infused updates of certain strands of teen films
and in some aspects as antipodal texts: The DUFF is a major-backed
mainstream film with a predominantly white cast set in a middle-class
suburban world in which technology is used for cyberbullying and nar-
cissism, a use motivated by pettiness and pathological vanity. Dope in
contrast is an independent production (backed by several prominent
African-American entertainers such as actors like Forest Whitaker as well
as musicians Sean Combs and Pharrell Williams), written and directed
by a Nigerian-American and with a predominantly black cast and crew
set in an inner-city urban world in which technology is used for an intri-
cate drug-peddling scheme on the darknet, motivated by the desire to
escape a culture of poverty.
Both films treat a related topic matter and use it for diverging nar-
rative and formal/aesthetic goals and with diverging connotations, but
it would be counterproductive to limit them to a racial-, class- or site-
specific determination of zeitgeist phenomena, as if there were a “black”
and a “white,” an “urban” and a “suburban” way in which cinematic
teenagers make use of technological objects. While The DUFF clearly,
but also only to a certain extent, is a 2015 version of the makeover film
as a well-rehearsed type of teen film, Dope also only in parts is the 2015
version of the hood film, building on that specific tradition implicitly
and explicitly. The most obvious commonalities of Dope with the well-
known hood films from the early 1990s such as Juice (1992) or Boyz N
The Hood is among others the depiction of the urban environment of
144 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

black inner-city teenagers as fatalistic and potentially fatal crime-infested

ghetto world ruled by gangs, in which the sole trajectories seem to be
either becoming criminal or education as a literal and figurative way out.
However, Dope depicts a milieu that has become more stratified: The
borders of the ghetto world have become more porous, but so have those
of the other strata, the formerly clear black-and-white divisions starting
to bleed into each other.
On the one hand, the ghetto is not solely grim and a harsh danger
zone marred by a ruling culture of poverty—in comparison, in Boyz N
The Hood a current sonic presence of gunshots, disinterested, sadistic and
racist police, and the sound and searchlights of patrolling helicopters is
an integral part of the mise-en-scène and the lives of the protagonists,
foreshadowing the 1992 L.A. Riots (which in turn also form the the-
matic background for another important hood film, A. & A. Hughes’
Menace II Society from 1993). On the other hand, life “on the other side”
is also not free from corruption and violence, on the contrary, it is built
on these, as affluence seems not only to accept, but to necessitate the
exploitation of the lower classes for the advancement of individual and
personal gain. Most films from the cycle’s heyday in the early 1990s pre-
sented American capitalism and its (legal) economies as a predominantly
white enterprise with almost impenetrable borders—a clarity of racially
coded class distinctions reminiscent of Marxian economics: a white rul-
ing class resting on the exploitation of a precarious black Lumpenpro-
letariat .3 Dope in direct comparison somewhat uncouples the critique
of neoliberalism’s obedience to “the free market” and its capital flows
from ethnicity: Participation in contemporary high-speed capitalism is

3The Lumpenproletariat refers to those on the fringes of the industrialized world, such as
beggars, petty criminals, unemployed or unemployable people, prostitutes or other precarious
outcasts (Marx lists more specific terms in the Eighteenth Brumaire: “Alongside decayed roués
with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous
offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds … in
short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French
call la bohème” (Marx 1852, 75). Those affiliated with the Lumpenproletariat lack coherence
as a class, and accordingly also lack class consciousness, which in times of crises and social
breakdown makes them prey for demagogues (here, this would be Napoleon) as a “bribed tool
of reactionary intrigue,” as Marx and Engels (1992, 44) analyze in the Communist Manifesto—
and as historical and very recent political developments have continuously confirmed.
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 145

no longer a matter of black vs. white but of mastering certain technolo-

gies. While this implies a discourse à la Paul Virilio (1986) that puts
power and technology in a direct and mutual relation, it does not auto-
matically imply that contemporary virtual turbo-capitalism is an equal-
izing agent that finally dissolves societal asymmetries and democratizes
access to formerly white economies. In any way, a different perspective
on and evaluation of the black experience in the form of a coming-of-age
experience is suggested here, and if one of Winter’s Bone’s main merits is
the deconstruction of stereotypical teen film females and males, one of
Dope’s projects is the deconstruction of stereotypical teen film ascriptions
to whiteness and blackness.

Repurposing Language, Reclaiming Meaning

The first image before the film title is superimposed on the black back-
ground which then makes way for the establishing shot (an extreme
long shot of the Inglewood skyline) while the film title remains in the
same position—is a simple black screen on which three lines successively
appear to form a simulated dictionary entry that specifies the meanings
of “dope:”

1. noun: a drug taken illegally for recreational purposes

2. noun: a stupid person
3. slang: excellent. Used as a generalized term of approval.

Similarly to The DUFF, the quasi-object language is put to the fore-

ground in the form of vocabulary, or rather, a specific word as a symbolic
container that can be filled with meaning. Whereas “DUFF” as a neolo-
gism is about reinventing, diversifying, and specializing and thereby car-
ries with itself the film’s engagement with other generic texts, the word
“dope” already exists but is made fluid by its ambiguity: The differ-
ent and even contradicting meanings it can assume and has assumed
depending on temporal and (sub)cultural contexts correspond to the
film’s theme of re-attributing, appropriating, and expanding meanings
and denotations. Later in the film, this is done very explicitly, for instance
146 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

in a lengthy debate about the use of the word “nigga,” and implicitly, for
instance by constructing characters as black geeks. Whereas both the geek
(or nerd) and “the token black” character are staples of teen films, posi-
tioning black characters as geeks can be seen as a reclaiming of a niche
conventionally allotted to whites. This is already one of the moments
in which Dope becomes the missing link between the (white) suburban
high school film and the (black) hood film, in which typically black pro-
tagonists are either partaking in, or victimized by a culture of poverty
and crime that largely determines their milieu, with seldom anything
between these two hardly dynamic positions.
By emphasizing the multitude of meanings of dope, a theme—illegal
drugs—is established, and also a subcultural affiliation, as the slang use of
dope has its roots in African-American street vernacular and hip-hop cul-
ture. A word that belongs to different word classes, that can be a noun or
an adjective, and has completely opposite connotations as it can be used
as negative or positive, alludes to the arbitrariness of language. Language
as a culturally constructed entity can simultaneously be a language of
power as well as a counter-language undermining that power4 —and in
that capacity, it echoes the constructed character of teen film types and
tropes. In the same way, dope can be and has been repurposed and shifted
from a derogatory term to a laudatory term, the hood film, the geek
type, or even the prom can be repurposed. These terms and tropes can
be assigned more, new, and different ascriptions and meanings thereby
highlighting, questioning, and perhaps reshuffling in turn the modes of
action and ideological underpinnings of these conventions.

Mapping by Movement: Repurposed Spaces

Inglewood as location is a programmatic and meaningful choice that cor-
responds with the film’s many in-between positions. Winter’s Bone was
already discussed as being set in a transitioning landscape in which the

4 Inhis essay “On not Teaching English Usage” from 1965, James Sledd writes about the
function of slang, its potential to be a counter-language against the social/linguistic hegemony:
“To use slang is to deny allegiance to the existing order, either jokingly or in earnest, by refusing
even the words which represent convention and signal status” (Sledd 1965, 699).
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 147

setting’s liminality echoes the heroine’s own transformational experience.

In Dope, too, the setting is a multilayered liminal space, not in the sense
of an ecology in transition, but in the sense of a transitional geographical
place. As a city in between more clearly ascribed geographical and cine-
matic locations—Los Angeles on the one hand, nondescript suburbs on
the other—Inglewood is simultaneously urban and suburban and conse-
quently, neither of both. This way, specific connotations associated with
these spaces inform the diegetic world, but will not entirely define it.
Aspects of both the urban Los Angeles and the suburbs implement a spe-
cific spatial organization. Jean Baudrillard sees “the parody of cities and
urbanism in the sprawl of Los Angeles” (1988, 103), but this very sprawl
necessitates and allows for a movement that is different from other places
in its directionality; one could almost say it is two-dimensional instead
of three-dimensional. Baudrillard goes on:

Thus the only tissue of the city is that of the freeways, a vehicular, or
rather an incessant transurbanistic, tissue, … No elevator or subway in
Los Angeles. No verticality or underground, no intimacy or collectivity,
no streets or facades, no center or monuments: a fantastic space, a spectral
and discontinuous succession of all the various functions, of all signs with
no hierarchical ordering—an extravaganza of indifference, extravaganza of
undifferentiated surfaces. (1988, 125)

The lack of verticality, of contradictions, and other markers of a real

city make Los Angeles a hollowed out, hyperreal city: “you are delivered
from all depth there—a brilliant, mobile, superficial neutrality, a chal-
lenge to meaning and profundity, a challenge to nature and culture, an
outer hyperspace, with no origin, no reference-points” (ibid., 124). This
superficial neutrality and the absence of reference points are what cre-
ates a surface on which a repurposing can take place, especially when the
setting doubles as a suburban backdrop characterized by the dominance
of residential buildings and lack of social centers, a spatial arrangement
that results in an absence of plurality and produces superficial neutrality
in the first place. What at first glance seems to be a transitional non-
place, for the film’s project becomes the embodiment of an ambivalent
liminal corridor charged with friction.
148 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

The linear and horizontal movement by which the protagonists tra-

verse Inglewood turns it into a flat landscape with no verticality or under-
ground, which not only sets the pace of the film, moving back and forth
on bicycles, feet, and sometimes cars or buses, but at any rate modes of
transportation that always make visible the spaces they move through,
other than for instance a subway, elevator, or a plane would. The modes
of transportation simultaneously denote class or at least the level of
affluence: Malcolm and his friends walk, ride their bikes or the bus
(Malcolm’s mother also works as a bus driver), whereas AJ Jacoby’s
spoiled children have their own cars and the upper-level gangster
De’Andre rides a collectible red 1970 Chevrolet El Camino. Another
classic teen film motif Dope appropriates for its own purposes this way
is the “losers on bikes” trope, a genre staple occurring in texts as dif-
ferent as Stand By Me (1986), Gummo (1997), It (1990/2017), E.T.
(1982), Stranger Things (2016), Super Dark Times (2017), The Sum-
mer of 84 (2018), and Spike Jonze’s short film Scenes from the Suburbs
(2011) (as accompaniment to Arcade Fire’s 2010 album). Much has been
written about cars as cinematographic objects, and even in teen films
where they can become “mobile teen spaces moving between partial or
temporary teen spaces (like the drive-in, parks, the dance, or homes)”
(Driscoll 2011, 67). The bicycle as a quasi-object—and cinematographic
object—opens further possibilities of inquiry, mapping teen geographies,
constellating the riders, spatially organizing their quests, and generating
different movement, speed, associations and relation to their respective
diegetic ecologies than a quest on feet, in cars, buses, on motorcycles or
skateboards. Site-specificity in that sense goes hand in hand with, or is
generated by, the specificity of the respective mode of transportation (see
Fig. 4.1).
By moving through an ever-visible verticality-less world, their move-
ment maps the territory and this mapping-by-traversing has a compara-
ble function as the anthropology shot, the device that introduces the dif-
ferent tribes of which a teen film’s respective teen demographic consists.
In Dope, not a social, but a spatial network is charted though, as place
assumes such a central role here and serves as a reminder how identity
and location are intertwined, something that is neglected in the subur-
ban teen films that are almost solely focused on the development of the
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 149

Fig. 4.1 “No verticality or underground.” Traversing the Bottoms on BMX bikes

adolescent individual without much regard to the specifics of their sub-

urban milieu. The exploration of the film’s spaces as an explicit mapping
of a milieu is highlighted in the first ten minutes when Malcolm, Jib,
and Diggy are on their way home after their school day, complete with
Malcolm being robbed of one of his stylish collectible sneakers. While
the coexistence of the disembodied voice-over narrator’s monologue and
the characters’ dialogue contributes to the mapping of the narrative’s
architecture and its layers, the images of the three friends riding their
1980s BMX bikes and having to make choices at literal and metaphori-
cal crossroads which path to pursue enable the spectator to comprehend
the milieu through which they physically and figuratively move:

Narrator (voice-over): On this day, their usual route home is blocked by a

Blood [gang] gathering. They were shooting a video for their YouTube
Diggy: Well, where do you want to go?
Jib: Some nigga really needs to invent an app like Waze to avoid all these
hood traps.
Narrator: The only way to get home is down 104th Street. But that’s where
the dope dealers are who, for sport, routinely try to steal their bikes.
Such is the life of a geek in The Bottoms. A daily navigation between
bad and worse choices.

This “anthropological geography shot” that retraces the daily navigation

between bad and worse choices, and the exact allocation of hood traps
150 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

such as thieving dope dealers is the time- and site-specific equivalent of

the “here be dragons” from medieval maps. The mapping of Malcolm’s
territory continues throughout the film where the traversing of the city
becomes a journey through different social strata with fluent transitions
and different traps.
Besides establishing the mapping, the scene foreshadows both the
technology and the drug theme: Jib not only alludes to the video game-
like quality of their “mission” to get home safely and dodge all potential
perils, he also wishes for “an app like Waze to avoid all these hood traps.”
Waze is a popular app for smartphones and tablets that provides routing
by combining a GPS-supported engine with community-generated con-
tent, which is significant insofar as it refers to a certain mode of interact-
ing with media and technology in a true and Latourian network-sense:
It is not merely a map, it is a dynamic map (as opposed to a static map
that cannot be shaped by user input) that changes as the users’ perception
of and interactions with the territory change, a map that is in a current
translation process.
It’s a comic detail that a gang has its own YouTube channel for which
it produces gang-themed content as this defies the clandestine nature
of gangs, but it contributes to constructing a world that might be at
the bottom of the social, economical, and moral spectrum of the USA
while working with the same technology as all the other—and higher-
situated—participants. Latour reminds that “[w]hen people say of tech-
nologies that they are neither good nor bad, they forget to add: nor neu-
tral” (2013, 219). Dope repurposes language, types, tropes, settings, and
technology underlines how all these quasi-objects are neither determined,
nor determine, but function as connective tissue around which networks
When Malcolm is shown moving through Inglewood, one of the first
places he rides past is the “Academy Cathedral,” a former movie theater
that has been turned into a church in 1975. The marquee gives worship
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 151

times and the name of “Pastor Doyle Hart,” who preached in the repur-
posed cinema until his death in 2016. To see former large movie the-
aters transformed into churches is a common development in the USA5
and illustrates a particular shared history of media and technology: The
demand for rooms that seat large crowds wanes as a symptom of the
1970s decline of the movie industry and the studio system. That a cin-
ema as a dream machine built on selling myth, iconography, and illusions
is displaced by a church as yet another dream machine trading on myth,
iconographies, illusions, meaning, and purpose assumes symbolical sig-
nificance. Not only are these specifically designed architectures hollowed
out and repurposed, but especially here a black church reclaiming the
cinema, a space that for the most part of history has been a realm of
white domination, is a footnote echoing the film’s M.O. in doing the
same for the black and white teen film: hollowing out and repurposing.
The Academy Theatre thus doubles as an authentic visual backdrop, a
carrier of media history, and as a metacommentary on both the status of
Hollywood, teen films, and the strategy of Dope.
The moving image still plays a prominent role in the lives of adoles-
cents: Besides the gang’s YouTube channel, Awreeoh film their band prac-
tice with a smartphone, Malcolm is shown masturbating while looking at
the small screen of his phone (instead of a porno magazine or a movie),
and later on, the success of their drug sales is based on memes and viral
videos—but the traditional screens have become obsolete here. Cinema
as a social space and the film and TV industry as the sole provider of
powerful and widely disseminated moving images have been displaced
by media that have inseparably grown together with their users. More
than being mere Luhanian extensions of man, these human–non-human
collectives are Latourian hybrids (or cyborgs in Haraway’s [1985] sense)

5A famous cinema-turned-church similar to as the Inglewood Academy with over thousand

seats is the Loew’s Valencia on Jamaica Ave in Queens, NY. The Valencia was built in 1929 as
one of the world-renowned “Loew’s Wonder Theaters” with 3500 seats and eventually donated
to the “Tabernacle of Prayer” in 1977, coinciding with the demise of the huge pre-television-era
movie theaters. On select weekends, members of the congregation give guided tours, making the
Valencia a hybrid space, both film history museum and place of worship, an apt and genuinely
American amalgamation. Other North American cinemas have been turned into mega chain
“bookstores” that sell books, other media, and objects as another variant of repurposed movie
theaters reflecting changing media use and spaces.
152 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

comprising quasi-objects and quasi-subjects, and around their devices

and the platforms they access with them, networks are forming.

Appropriated Objects and Media

In his Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Latour in his rhetorical question
suggests recalibrating how we approach technological objects: “How have
the Moderns managed to miss the strangeness, the ubiquity, and yes, the
spirituality of technology? How could they have missed its sumptuous
opacity?” (2013, 10). Objects possess symbolic capacities embedded in
their environment such as potential for prestige; they are never boundless
and always identified within the cultural and historical frame through
which they originated. Dope as a tech-centered teen film strongly makes
use of these symbolical capacities (as well as of their technological capac-
ities) and attaches different strategies and issues to the incorporated
Whether technological objects and media function as an updating
agent to locate a narrative in the now or as a time machine that locates
a narrative in the past strongly depend on whether they are still-current
at the time of production and consumption, as every medium turns into
a time capsule at the moment, it is outmoded and replaced by a newer
medium. Then, it will assume the properties of a medial DNA swab
that contains the entire media history out of which it once emerged and
from whose further progression it has been severed, frozen at a certain
point in the media evolution whose indexical marker it has become. Like
fashion, hairstyles, or design, technological objects, too, are meaningful
visual markers of certain epochs and of course are often used as time-
specific props that create nostalgia or decorate a mise-en-scène set in a
bygone era.
It is not solely contemporary technological objects that are entangled
with the narrative, the characters, and the mise-en-scène in Dope, par-
ticularly visible in the establishing shot in Malcolm’s bedroom, the tra-
ditional site where a teen’s character is embodied spatially and through
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 153

Fig. 4.2 Geeky bricoleurs: Super Nintendo still life

objects.6 While Naughty by Nature’s song “Hip Hop Hooray” (a hit

in 1993) is playing, some of Malcolm’s belongings are introduced. The
arranged objects themselves as well as the way in which they are edited
together in a montage sequence of draped still lifes foreshadow how Mal-
colm and his friends, and Dope as a film, are bricoleurs who collect, com-
bine, and recombine7 (see Fig. 4.2). Among Malcolm’s objects is a stack
of VHS tapes labeled “YO MTV RAPS” (a show which ran from 1988
to 1995), a 7" vinyl single of EPMD’s 1988 hit “You Gots to Chill,”
posters of a young Dr. Dre and Eazy-E on the wall, and a cassette tape of
Dr. Dre’s compilation album released as N.W.A. and the Posse in 1987.
Prominently on display is a Nintendo SNES video game console, the
American SMS-001 model that was introduced to the US market in
1991. Next to it, there is a light-gun peripheral, which doubles as a dual
index for Dope’s youths-and-media as well as its youths-with-guns theme.

6The bedroom is according to Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber (1991), and as evidenced
by countless teen films, one of the single most important sites and one of the very few not
adult-defined spaces for adolescents—both for cinematic teens and for real teens. McRobbie
and Garber’s are concerned specifically with girls’ bedrooms as spaces of teen culture, but their
findings can be extended to the ways in which teen films make use of adolescent bedrooms
as settings that function as extension and embodiment of their adolescent inhabitants (which,
however, are indeed more often girls’ than boys bedrooms).
7 Referring to bricolage in the way Claude Lévi-Strauss uses the term (1966, 16–18, 33), as
assembled, improvised and constructed from the materials and actants at hand that are some-
times “misappropriated” for their use in contexts they weren’t originally intended for.
154 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

The single memory Malcolm has of his father, who went back to
Nigeria before he was born, is also object-bound and notably unsenti-
mental: In flashback, we see how Malcolm receives a VHS tape in the
mail as a birthday present from his father, his favorite movie, the 1972
Blaxploitation classic Super Fly by Gordon Parks, Jr. The Super Fly VHS
tape functions as a dual index for the absent father as well as for the
ghetto and drugs theme Super Fly is famous for, in which the cocaine
dealer Youngblood Priest wants to get out of the drug business by pulling
off one last huge deal that will supposedly make him enough money and
buy him the freedom to escape a culture of poverty and crime. The para-
doxical “committing one massive crime in order to no longer commit
crimes” foreshadows the bind Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy will soon find
themselves in.
On his way to school riding his BMX bike, Malcolm listens to music
with a classic Sony cassette Walkman, a WM-F10 model from 1984. All
these objects are neither random clutterings of class-specific discarded
old things and thrift shop items that signify poverty, or a “being back-
wards” in regard to technology’s progress and consumption; neither are
they time-specific decorations of the scenery signifying that the narrative
is set in the time with which they are associated. They don’t stand in
contrast to the present-day smartphones and computers that are also in
use; instead, they are carefully curated aesthetic objects that produce a
distinctive style and a stylistic distinction. Malcolm and his friends are
committed to late 1980s/early 1990s pop culture, they go hunting for
rare hip-hop vinyl in a record store, but not in a strictly retro way, and
instead in the form of postmodern appropriation, incorporating many,
sometimes contradictory, signs, codes, and objects in their identity pas-
tiche. When introducing the three friends walking across the school halls,
the voice-over narrator gives a list of “white shit” they are into—skate-
boards, manga comics, Donald Glover, Trash Talk, TV on the Radio,
getting good grades, applying to college—adding further (pop)cultural
and racial in-between positions to their already established adolescent
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 155

in-between-ness. While it is consensus that (mainstream) culture is asym-

metrical and hierarchic, the remark that they are ridiculed for not fulfill-
ing their assigned racial role is a reminder that sub- and countercultures
tend to follow the same logic and politics: They are just as much gen-
dered or racially divided as the dominant culture; it is only the content
that is different.8 Even more so than declaring activities such as skate-
boarding or comics subgenre such as manga as “white shit,” this nego-
tiation of the ways subculture is absorbed and appropriated is repeated
in listing the exemplary musicians Donald Glover, an African-American
performer and actor, the ethnically mixed hardcore punk rock band Trash
Talk, and TV on the Radio, a progressive rock band from Brooklyn
whose members are predominantly African-American. All three acts have
found success especially with white audiences, thereby, and from the per-
spective of the street-cred-minded peers of Malcolm and his friends, have
become appropriated by white culture. Even though Malcolm, Jib, and
Diggy are very active and adept appropriators of both black and white
pop culture themselves, they apparently draw the line when the appro-
priator is white, as for instance with the use of the n-word or their refusal
to play the “Harlem Shake.”9 Their eclectic collage of popcultural par-
ticles is no more random than their selection of objects and media and
becomes the surface on which their hybrid cultural identities oscillate
between eras, styles, ethnic ascriptions, and gender roles. Their band
Awreeoh is yet another expression of their postmodern identity practices:
It has the drums—bass guitar—guitar lineup of a traditional three-piece
rock band, but plays a mixture of punk rock and hip-hop, two distinct
music genres rooted in the early 1980s as articulations of youth culture

8 For a detailed study of how skateboarding as an alleged subculture actually reproduces the
mainstream see Butz (2012).
9The song by the Brooklyn musician Baauer caused some controversy after it became a hit in
2013 due to memes and viral videos. “The Harlem Shake” was criticized by some for having
no relation to the actual Harlem Shake, a dance that originated in Harlem in the early 1980s,
and thus for an exploitative cultural appropriation that is tantamount to white reclaiming of
African-American forms.
156 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

and associated with white and black adolescence, respectively.10 How-

ever, wide-ranging the influences, objects, styles, forms, and media are
that they draw together as black geek bricoleurs; their identity politics
are postmodern, but not post-racial.

Transferring Agency: Bitcoin | Etrade |

Along the lines of Latourian thought, the agency of non-human actants
has been foregrounded to recalibrate our vantage point. This is in itself
not necessarily a radical strategy to rethink human, non-human and
social relations, and rather a self-evident and natural move: “A social
dimension to technology? That’s not saying much. Let us rather admit
that no one has ever observed a human society that has not been built
with things” (Latour 2000, 10).
Technological and aesthetic objects are used as vehicles to negotiate
the black experience from Dope’s first scenes on. These featured objects
not only tap into a connotative or symbolic dimension; instead, tech-
nology and media assume the function of Serres-Latourian quasi-objects
that do something and have an impact. In the very first dialogue between
Malcolm and his mother during breakfast, in front of Malcolm is a cup
of coffee, a muffin, and his smartphone, he relates “that money as we
know it is dead. Soon the world is only gonna buy and sell products
using Bitcoins. It’s like a complicated math equation.” Mrs. White asks:
“So, one day we’re gonna buy things with numbers from a math equa-
tion?” and Malcolm happily affirms: “Dope, right?” The bitcoin is intro-
duced right away and along with it the default position of a division of
those who understand this “complicated math equation” that will rule

10 In an NPR interview, Rick Famuyiwa says: “As [Pharrell and I] talked about the music that
these kids would create, we started with hip-hop because obviously these kids were obsessed
with ’90s hip-hop. But we also felt how these kids would draw from many different things
because they’re of a culture that’s connected to the world through technology in a way that we
weren’t. Malcolm and his generation has access to all types of music at the touch of a screen.
And so hip-hop would be at the root but also punk and also grunge and a lot of other things
that these kids would have access to. And that became the jumping-off point for the band
Awreeoh that these kids created” (Famuyiwa 2015).
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 157

the future and those who do not, clearly coded into youths vs. adults.
The pattern is familiar from tech-centered teen films (also see the discus-
sion of The DUFF ), the generation gap is narrated here in the form of
adults’ and youths’ differing attitudes toward and literacy of technology
and social media. In Dope, this pattern will be reinforced multiple times,
for instance, when Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy set up their drug packing
and distributing enterprise in the school’s science lab, computer lab and
band room under the guise that they are working on a project for the
Google Science Fair. They can be certain that neither teachers, nor the
janitor or hall monitor will catch on: “Nobody’s going to suspect a thing.
We’re just geeks doing what geeks do.” When their operation is in full
progress, a press event with a local politician leads the adult entourage
through the school aisles: “Principal Harris tells me that there are three
young men who actually joined the Google Science Fair. Proof that the
public school system is still a ladder to success.” Besides the marginal
note that it is “three young men,” which shows that principal Harris as
another adult figure not only misreads the nature of the “science project,”
but also Diggy’s deviation from the heteronormative matrix, the mise-en-
scène underscores that the adults are lagging behind in every regard: They
are peeking through the window, smiling and giving the thumbs-up to
the three geeks busy packing drug shipments and genially reciprocating
the well-meant patronizing encouragement (see Figs. 4.3 and 4.4). The

Fig. 4.3 “Nobody‘s going to suspect a thing. We‘re just geeks doing what geeks
158 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 4.4 School as a space for science and crime

arrangement is reminiscent of Ree strolling through the school corridors

and peeking inside different classrooms in Winter’s Bone (see Fig. 3.5):
While Ree is looking in on something she is not a part of, the adults in
Dope are looking in on something they do not understand and realize.
High school architecture has its own divisions built in, embodied by the
see-through door that functions as a transparent, yet impermeable sep-
aration between the ins and the outs. The arrangement also emphasizes
how high school is here a space for both science/education and crime: It
is on the one hand the location where bullies earlier tried to rob Mal-
colm of his vintage sneakers and where he and his friends are running a
criminal operation, but which on the other hand they can only succeed
in because they actually make use of the educational offer of the school
system. Their being straight-A-students and academic achievers provides
them the skills and the resources they need for the undertaking and for
not getting caught. The coupling of crime and education as apparently
paradoxical, but actually mutually dependent opposites, plays itself out
in the heterogeneous uses of the school space here (other than cinematic
teens who leave school’s space and/or timetable to immerse themselves in
true life learning experiences such as Ferris Bueller [1986] or The Break-
fast Club’s [1985] members).
I addition to their status as geeks and the jester’s license that comes
with it—at least when using a science lab—they can also safely assume
that the adults’ lack of tech savvy will prevent them from even asking,
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 159

let alone figuring out the truth.11 Technology and media as the parting
line between youths and adults are even more decisive when Malcolm
has his Harvard alumnus interview with local businessman AJ Jacoby and
quickly deduces that the drugs that were hidden in his backpack actually
belong to Jacoby whose charitable “Boys Club” is a euphemism for the
drug ring he is running. Jacoby tries to convey his intent to Malcolm—
namely blackmailing him into selling the drugs and threatening him—
by trying to address him in what he thinks are young people’s terms
and comparing his operation to selling Macklemore or Rick Ross CDs
via (Malcolm: I would not order a Macklemore CD. That
wouldn’t happen. / AJ: All right. Who, then? / M: Casey Veggies.12 /
AJ: Casey Veggies? That’s—That’s an artist? / M: Yeah. / AJ: Yeah, okay.
All right. So, you order a Casey Veggies CD from Amazon, right? / M:
No, you don’t order a Casey Veggies CD. You just go online and you
download it).
Amazon as the epitome of electronic commerce and all its connota-
tions is used as a model to explain the workings of economy and an
economist’s responsibility toward customers. The subtext is the equa-
tion of Amazon and drug dealers, as both are traders that indiscrimi-
nately peddle any product their clientele wants, which either neutral-
izes drug dealing as the legitimate supplying of consumers’ demand, or

11 Accordingly, the threatening De’Andre (played by rap musician Tyga) is not only a menacing
figure as one of Malcolm’s antagonists because of his willingness to use violence, but also
because of his ability to use technology—which, as Latour reminds us is never neutral: When
he first calls the unassuming Malcolm on his phone, Malcolm asks: “How do you know where
I am?” and De’Andre answers: “Find an iPhone. Steve Jobs a motherfucking genius.” He uses
the same tracking technology to locate Malcolm and chase him through town, in one hand
an ipad, in the other a gun. Technology and their users redefine each other and “good” or
“bad” are not essential properties, but determined by use(r)-defined relations, as every object’s
script (or program of action) at the same time contains its opposite: “All devices that seek to
annul, destroy, subvert, circumvent a program of action are called anti-programmes. The thief
who wishes to get through the door, representatives of the opposite sex, are pursuing their
anti-programmes” (Latour 2000, 18).
12 Casey Veggies, who also has a small part in the film, was still a well-known, but underground-
ish figure from the Odd Future collective at the time Dope came out (his major label debut
was released in September 2015, shortly after). The artist actually went to Inglewood High
School and features the same landmarks and sites in his music videos that can also be seen in
Dope. In “Whip It” (2014), he is cruising the Inglewood streets together with two friends on
BMX bikes, reminiscent of Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy traversing their hood.
160 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

criminalizes Amazon (and by extension capitalism) as a faceless insti-

tution that solely works profit-driven, without regard to ethics beyond
the self-serving “responsibility” to satisfy the customer. On the textual
level, Jacoby’s analogy is built on the false assumption that he gets young
people and is hip to the music they listen to when in fact he is misin-
formed and outdated. The funny exchange when Malcolm, despite being
in shock over his discovery and its consequences that become apparent
now, still makes it his point to clarify that the artists Jacoby refers to are
of no interest to him, and that those who interest him work outside the
system Jacoby deems to be the way the world works, is a classic young-
vs.-old teen film moment. Casey Veggies’ model to offer his music for
free on the Internet may take place in the same medial sphere as Ama-
zon selling Rick Ross or Macklemore CDs, but cuts out all the middle-
men, using the Internet not to maximize profits, but to offer a prod-
uct democratically. Even though Malcolm actually is fond of physical
media as a collector of vinyl LPs and cassette tapes, the CD as the bridge
medium between such analog, physical music media and the internet as
digital, non-physical music medium, is overcome. The “analog” model
of drug dealing by using young hoodlums as intermediaries Jacoby still
adheres to is no longer needed, nor is a bridge model between analog
and digital that uses an intermediary such as Amazon, as the darknet is a
democratized marketplace that is just as free of an ethics as any capitalist
enterprise, but at least has no institution or other human or non-human
intermediaries on which blame and responsibility can be transferred, as
the actants of each trade, buyer and seller, invisible and anonymous as
they might be, are the only human actants in the equation.
The transfer of responsibility as a negotiation of ethics was already
at issue in an earlier scene: In the backroom of the club where Dom
celebrates his birthday and right before the violent ambush takes place,
one of Dom’s crew members shows the others actual footage of drone
warfare on his smartphone. The aerial images from the drone strike are
shown full-screen, one of the instances where the film not only pho-
tographs technological objects and media, but lets them actively co-
design the visual architecture of the film (see Fig. 4.5). Watching drone
strikes on YouTube on a smartphone first of all is in itself a highly
mediated sequence. Besides illustrating the relationship of adolescents
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 161

Fig. 4.5 Hybrid visual architecture: the drone footage

and their media and devices, it brings to the fore the drone as the
epitome of de-personalized agency. In the drone example, the agency,
which could hardly have graver implications, is seemingly dissolved into
machinic, non-human actants—and with its moral concepts such as guilt
or responsibility. Agency (and power, as the drone is a representative of
political institutions—or state apparatuses) is rendered invisible, not only
on the material level, as a drone striking from high above is never seen
coming, but also by passing on the agency to actually execute the deed
to these extensions, thus granting them an independent life as prox-
ies, obscuring the actual shooter and freeing them from ethics. While
the crew member’s moral compass is clearly delineated along the bina-
rism “Americans vs. terrorists” as a simplistic and essentialist “good vs.
evil” (reminiscent of the rhetoric especially of authoritarian political fig-
ures such as Reagan, both Bushes, or Trump), Dom realizes that these
demarcations do not refer to essential traits of humans, but are merely
semantics. Whoever is in the position to allocate who exactly is a ter-
rorist is able to shift the arbitrary demarcation line at will. The drone is
an executive machine of the same power of which language is a legisla-
tive function. Knowing that as a drug-dealing gang they operate outside
the dominant social order comparable to “the terrorists” who are also
by definition outside of that order, Dom remarks: “before you know it,
162 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

they’ll start saying that we’re the terrorists” and thereby raises the foun-
dational question: Who is an American? In this situation, the question is
negotiated along blurry lines, as “American” and “terrorist” cannot really
be discussed under the same categories. In terms of nationality or eth-
nicity, it is impossible (even though it hasn’t stopped people trying to
construct and perpetuate these terms as racially determined). In terms of
“deviation from the dominant social order of the USA,” it would move
the dealer crew closer to “the terrorists” than to “the Americans.” But
the question who is American, who belongs, can be extended to other
juxtapositions that are negotiated in Dope: rich | poor, educated | unedu-
cated, and black | white. That these profound questions about blackness
belonging are folded into the drone footage illustrates how the smart-
phone, the drone, and language are quasi-objects around which powerful
material, discursive, and indeed socio-technological networks form in this
scene—networks in which the quasi-subjects are redefined by their rela-
tions and entanglements, be it the human actant who “pulls the trigger”
of the drone, be it Dom and his crew whose positions are defined by
their relation to the drone.
The Internet as the rhizomatic connection that links the shooter to
the drone, and Dom’s crew to the video hosting site to which the footage
has been uploaded, situates the Dope ecology within a wider media ecol-
ogy which also comprises the bitcoin and the darknet as related quasi-
objects around which heterogeneous socio-technological networks form.
After Malcolm’s visit with AJ Jacoby and inspired by the Amazon anal-
ogy, he and his friends set up their Molly trade in the school’s science lab
and pretty much become their own Amazon. They team up with their
acquaintance William, a college student and computer hacker who func-
tions as their complement: Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy are black, disenfran-
chised, innocent, yet ambitious kids from the wrong part of town who
are into “white shit,” William is a white, gifted upper-class trust fund
kid who is also an anarchistic slacker displaying a fetishistic exotism (he
is into “black shit,” so to say) and the missing puzzle piece in their plan.
William is as much immersed in the world of drug-fueled partying as
he is in anti-establishment hacking. Together, they set up a dependable
business model to get rid of the backpack full of Molly without leav-
ing any traces. William also comes up with the idea to implement their
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 163

product with a unique selling proposition: Using the footage of Lily, AJ

Jacoby’s daughter, who over-indulged on the stash in Malcolm’s back-
pack, euphorically lost all self-control and obliviously urinated in public
(which of course was witnessed and filmed by bystanders) they re-brand
the drug as “Lily” (see Figs. 4.6 and 4.7). William organizes a party where
a collegiate crowd of tastemakers is introduced to the drug while Awreeoh
is playing, and the drug successfully begins to take on a life of its own.

Fig. 4.6 Proliferation of images in an attention economy

Fig. 4.7 The all-seeing human and non-human eye/i: iphone panopticism
164 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

A fast-paced montage that adopts the look of social media and its meme
culture visualizes the spread of the videos and memes going viral while
Malcolm and his friends are soberly administering the logistics of the
enterprise: receiving orders, printing labels, portioning drugs into pill
capsules, dropping off the shipment at a mailbox. The simultaneity of
events is illustrated by the overlapping pictures, which do not develop as
a causal or temporal succession of events, but as a concurrence, unlike
the cinematic medium, which by its nature follows a temporal sequence.
Even though the widely ramified dissemination of the drug began in
the black community, the drug is marketed to a white clientele. Fac-
ing the necessity to become their own Amazon and already starting to
slip into the interim roles of true capitalists they start to think like busi-
ness people and identify the most potent customers: white hedonistic
millennials as well as their preferred grounds for excess. (“We’re talking
about Molly, Jib, not fucking heroin. All we gotta do is find the white
people. Go to Coachella, Lollapalooza…. We can backpack and hitch-
hike and sing Mumford and Sons songs and all that faux fucking shit.”)
The memes perpetuated on the Internet show people (mis)behaving in a
euphoric and erratic, yet harmless way, with the tagline “People on Lily
be like” superimposed (see Fig. 4.8). “Lily” is marketed by purposefully
targeting the Id of the white consumerist middle class, who all too easily
buy into “that faux fucking shit,” be it the music of Mumford & Sons, a

Fig. 4.8 Excess, exhibitionism, narcissim and voyeurism: meme culture

4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 165

rehash of American folk music by a British group, be it “Lily,” a rehash

of MDMA marketed by a trio of clean black teenagers.
The friction of the darknet operation derives as much from the obvi-
ous criminal implications of the illegal narcotics these teens are ped-
dling, as from their advantage over the intradiegetic adult figures and
the audience. They have more knowledge about these “complicated math
equations” to which Malcolm compared the bitcoin economy, and thus
are at least one step ahead of most spectators and of the law enforce-
ment officers who are trying to get behind their encrypted scheme. The
drugs and their being sold via darknet channels work here like a classic
MacGuffin,13 and the dope in Dope is like the Maltese Falcon in The
Maltese Falcon (1941): Eventually, they do not matter as objects in them-
selves, but as random quasi-objects whose content is of no importance,
whose function as connective entity however is crucial.
The nomenclature of the dark web/darknet—they use a fictional site
named “Black Market,” reminiscent of “Silk Road” or “Atlantis”—to sell
the drugs subtly adds to Dope’s reflection on the division between black
and white embedded in language and discourse in an allegedly post-
racial USA under the first African-American president, Barack Obama
(who is mentioned numerous times, situating Dope temporally and dis-
cursively). The traditional, yet not unproblematic connotations of black
as evil and white as pure (as for instance “white hat” and “black hat” in
Western films and computer hacker vernacular, see also Etulain 1996,
29ff.), are deeply entrenched in the lexicon of a racially biased culture
whose inside and outside are color-coded in every sense of the word. The
“Black Market” site has nothing to do with skin color, it does however
echo the black–white binarism of language as a hegemonic system that
co-produces power dynamics, and thus it resonates with Dope’s explicit
and implicit negotiation of the black experience. Dope’s “Black Market”
is at the same time a black market in the sense of a shadow economy, as
well as in the sense of a marketplace for black marketeers. Besides these
cultural and linguistic connotations of the darknet, its entire principle
illustrates the rhizomatic Internet and its infinite complexity: Beyond the
incommensurably intertwined Internet organism resides another hidden

13 Also see Alfred Hitchcock (interviewed by François Truffaut) on the MacGuffin, p. 138ff.
166 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

organism. The darknet becomes an example for Latourian multiplicity—

every black box contains more black boxes14 —and points to the prover-
bial two sides of the same (bit)coin: Criminal capitalism doesn’t follow
a different logic as legal capitalism, but exactly the same. Amazon repre-
sents “the internet,” the “Black Market” site “the darknet,” but both are
essentially the same principle, the same technology, only the content—or
the product—is different.
The stash of Molly is not only a MacGuffin that opposing parties are
chasing for their respective, yet identical, purposes. As in Michel Serres’
example of money as a quasi-object, even the bitcoins oscillate between
virtual and actual and are a quasi-object with fluid status that needs
mediations and translations in order to become effective and assume
worth. The bitcoins become files on a hard drive, which then becomes
actual money/tender, a succession of form becoming matter becoming
form familiar from the Latourian circulating reference. The whole pro-
cess is made visible by the movement and mediations of the quasi-object
and makes visible the symbolic and material dimension of money as an
intrinsically valueless quasi-object that enables networks to form. Latour
points out that social scientists tend to denounce the belief of “ordi-
nary people” who “imagine that the power of gods, the objectivity of
money, the attraction of fashion, the beauty of art, come from some
objective properties intrinsic to the nature of things” (Latour 1993, 51)
and instead posits that “Gods, money, fashion and art offer only a surface
for the projection of our social needs and interests” (Latour 1993, 52).
However, “objects are not the shapeless receptacles of social categories”
(1993, 55) and neither position acknowledges that the flows between
objects and subjects are not unilateral, but an association. The entire bit-
coin thread in Dope illustrates the interdependent relation in which the

14 Black boxes/processes of blackboxing help to make infinite multiplicity approachable

(cf. 1999, 304) and must be seen in connection to what Latour calls plasma: “I call this
background plasma, namely that which is not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet social-
ized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or
subjectified. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited
so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all
its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards” (2005, 344). The plasma
is not-yet-actualized agency that is bracketed or cut out, because it presents a difference that
is not relevant for a respective investigation, however is necessary for the functioning of the
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 167

object-subject divide is rendered obsolete by the dynamic between quasi-

objects and quasi-subjects and their blurred demarcation lines: “The
symbolic is there; it is divided and is not divided. What is the symbol?
A stereospecificity? It is also a quasi-object. The quasi-object itself is a
subject. The subject can be a quasi-object” (Serres 1982, 233).
Fidel, the middleman who can turn bitcoins into American dollars,
is by profession a producer of counterfeit handbags, a trickster figure at
the boundaries of the social order. He tests Malcolm by asking him what
or who he is, and whether he is “real” in an analogy to his handbags,
one of several instances he is posed this teen-film-(arche)typical question
about individualism that forms Dope’s undercurrent. Malcolm’s guidance
counselor when discussing his college application essay earlier accused
him of being arrogant and asked him: “Who do you think you are?” as
did Jacoby when discussing responsibility, and as the college application
itself does. The identity question hovers above the film and is explic-
itly revisited in the end, when Malcolm hands in his essay. Right after
Fidel has exchanged the hard drive full of non-fiat currency for a coun-
terfeit handbag full of fiat dollars, the question is further pursued non-
verbally, on the plane of another technological object in one of the film’s
key scenes. The school bullies who earlier attempted to rob Malcolm’s
collectible sneakers waylay the three black geeks, beat Malcolm and take
away the money-filled bag. Malcolm pulls the gun that had been hidden
in backpack with the stash of Molly and with an unsteady, quivering
grip; he holds the assailants at gunpoint, threatening them while desper-
ately pleading: “Please, just give me the bag.” The gang backs off, visibly
horrified that their level of semi-serious bullying violence has been esca-
lated by Malcolm to a very real, lethal threat. The shell-shocked Mal-
colm, still trembling, remains frozen in his gunpoint pose, visibly trau-
matized, and Jib and Diggy calm and comfort him. The gravitas of the
situation is underscored by the soundtrack and the editing: The scene is
quite slow and quiet, unlike most of the otherwise fast-paced and loud
film, and not at all staged as an exciting action scene in the style of a
standoff. The soundtrack is a collage of reverberated synth, string layers
and some guitar swells combined with relatively loud ambient sounds;
the almost too audible sound of crickets or the zipping-up of the bag
168 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

before it is returned amplifies how suddenly everything is still and petri-

fied, after only moments before the ebullience and yelling of the attack-
ing gang and traffic noise produced a much louder and more agitated
soundscape. The sonic design also illustrates Malcolm’s altered state of
mind, his heightened perception in this mental state of emergency. That
this situation really was an identity-defining, identity-altering traumatic
moment becomes all the more clear when the next picture shows Mal-
colm, still accompanied by the same music which sonically ties the scenes
together as causally related, at his computer and starting to write the
essay in which he will ultimately sum up who he is and has become dur-
ing the (re-)defining process he had to go through after coincidentally
entering into a collective of humans and non-humans with the drugs
and the weapon.
The gun scene in its own right is a Latourian tableau par excellence, as
Latour uses the gun as an example for a non-human actant that decisively
impacts human behavior (1999, 176ff.). His starting point is debating
the well-known arguments of those opposing the unrestricted sales of
guns and the gun-supporting NRA: “Guns kill people” vs. “Guns don’t
kill people; people kill people.” Both positions are flawed, as they (at
least rhetorically) identify agency in an asymmetric way on either side,
but do not include the relations that result from the scripts (or programs
of action) and propositions (“what an actor offers to other actors,” ibid.,
309) at play:

Which of them, then, the gun or the citizen, is the actor in this situa-
tion? Someone else (a citizen-gun, a gun-citizen). If we try to comprehend
techniques while assuming that the psychological capacity of humans is
forever fixed, we will not succeed in understanding how techniques are
created nor even how they are used. You are a different person with the
gun in your band…. If I define you by what you have (the gun), and by
the series of associations that you enter into when you use what you have
(when you fire the gun), then you are modified by the gun … You are
different with a gun in your band; the gun is different with you holding
it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another
object because it has entered into a relationship with you. The gun is no
longer the gun-in-the-armory or the gun-in-the-drawer or the gun-in-the
pocket, but the gun-in-your-hand, aimed at someone who is screaming.
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 169

What is true of the subject, of the gunman, is as true of the object, of

the gun that is held … The twin mistake of the materialists and the soci-
ologists is to start with essences, those of subjects or those of objects, …
that starting point renders impossible our measurement of the mediating
role of techniques as well as those of science. If we study the gun and the
citizen as propositions, however, we realize that neither subject nor object
(nor their goals) is fixed. When the propositions are articulated, they join
into a new proposition. They become someone, something else. (Latour
1999, 179–180)

In direct succession, the gun scene and Malcolm processing the traumatic
and catalytic experience by writing about it is of course not the single
event that has lead to him having become “someone, something else.”
However, Malcolm’s coming-of-age has not only been mainly narrated
on the plane of inter-human interactions like we’re accustomed to from
teen films and that we also have in Dope, such as romance and sexuality
as rites of initiation, furthermore his liminal experience has been signifi-
cantly altered by non-human actants and the ways in which quasi-objects
and quasi-subjects have continuously redefined each other become inter-
twined and fluid.

Hybrid Aesthetics | Hybrid Identities

The way in which the Dope characters employ technological objects and
what they do with them is one significant element that expands the film
from a perfectly generic teen text organized around the expectable ingre-
dients such as individualism, romance, or social status, into something
different—even though it is a teen film that deliberately includes all these
conventional generic tropes. To connect the previous and the ongoing
interrogation of the hybridity that arises from the human–non-human
associations in Dope’s machinic milieus, their inseparability and mutual
influence needs to remain a central axis:

Consider things, and you will have humans. Consider humans, and you
are by that very act interested in things. Bring your attention to beat on
170 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

hard things, and see them become gentle, soft or human. Turn your atten-
tion to humans, and see them become electric circuits, automatic gears or
softwares. We cannot even define precisely what makes some human and
others technical, whereas we are able to document precisely their modi-
fications and replacements, their rearrangements and their alliances, their
delegations and representations. Do technology, and you are now a soci-
ologist. Do sociology, and now you are obliged to be a technologist …
this obligation, this connection, this consequence, this pursuit, … is now
(and has been for two or three million years) inscribed in the nature of
things. (Latour 2000, 20)

The inclusion of technological objects is an indispensable prerequisite to

achieve time-specificity in a movie, as the intrusion into reality always
takes place where the historical marker of technology sits. However, a
story does not become up to date by merely including a computer or
a smartphone as a word or a prop, but only through the way in which
the narrative makes use of these devices, how it describes them and how
it depicts their complexities. As words or images are not these objects
and the signifier is not the signified, the yardstick is not only how these
objects are described, but also what effects they cause.
Congruence of form and content in this regard for instance can be
seen in the scenes in which Dom’s crew watches the drone footage or the
montage that visualizes how the memes and videos about Lily (the per-
son and the drug) go viral, similar to The DUFF ’s moment in which the
screen dissolves into a mosaic-like multitude of screens. Dope’s mise-en-
scène from the exposition on is shaped by technological objects, as props,
as diegetic quasi-objects, but also as media with their own aesthetics. The
sheer amount of screens of different sizes that is present in The DUFF
and Dope, especially in comparison with their absence in Winter’s Bone
already indicates that the characters move through an almost entirely
mediated ecology, interspersed with image-producing devices, only one
of which is the cinematic apparatus from which the film will emerge.
These different media run parallel to each other, overlap and bleed into
each other, sometimes illustrated via split screens, sometimes by incor-
porating (or imitating) the look of other media, such as the drone, the
newscast about Lily’s incident (see Fig. 4.7 on page 163), or the social
media channels where they circulate. Their simultaneity causes numerous
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 171

short disruptions in the linearity of the narrative. When for instance Mal-
colm, lacking the audience’s knowledge of the previous events, wonders:
“What the fuck?,” the lyrics of the song that is playing (“Scenario” by
A Tribe Called Quest) in the next instant go: “Heel up, wheel up, bring
it back, come rewind,” and the scene does rewind, the car chase, Mal-
colm wondering “?kcuf eht tahW,” and the events in which his friends
were involved that led up to this point. This layering and the quick edits
display a clear kinship to the look and editing of music videos, but it
also abandons the notion of the one master camera. This mode is quite
common in postmodern cinema and can be seen as the cinematographic
equivalent to the Lyotardian collapse of the metanarrative (1979). The
dissolving of the grand/master narrative, embodied by the one centered
camera, into a multitude of tiny, localized narratives, in Dope is as much
a postmodern narrative strategy as it is a way of coming to terms with
the overabundance of images of present media ecologies by incorporating
them. Steven Shaviro addresses this cinematographic paradigm shift that
“new forms and new technical devices imply new possibilities of expres-
sion” in his essay about what he calls post-continuity (including a wink to
Latour’s opinion on being “modern”):

In recent action blockbusters … there no longer seems to be any con-

cern for delineating the geography of action, by clearly anchoring it in
time and space…. The sequence becomes a jagged collage of fragments of
explosions, crashes, physical lunges, and violently accelerated motions….
all that matters is delivering a continual series of shocks to the audience
… Even if we’ve discovered today that ‘we have never been modern,’
this discovery is itself a product of modernity…. it is not that continuity
rules are always being violated or ignored; nor are the films made in their
absence simply chaotic. Rather, we are in a ‘post-continuity‘ situation
when continuity has ceased to be important … Post-continuity stylistics
are expressive both of technological changes (i.e. the rise of digital and
Internet-based media) and of more general social, economic, and polit-
ical conditions (i.e. globalized neoliberal capitalism, and the intensified
financialization associated with it). (Shaviro 2012)

The ubiquity of screens and cameras is visualized by showing the peo-

ple and their devices who take all these images, as well as the images,
172 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 4.9 Post-continuity stylistics

thus attaining an aesthetic that is the stylistic articulation not merely of

technology, but of technology’s associations (see Fig. 4.9). Reflecting on
Simondon’s studies of technological objects, Latour states that “it isn’t
the mode of existence of the technological object that we must address
but the mode of existence of technology, of technological beings them-
selves” (Latour and Woolgar 2013, 218) in order to account for the ways
in which technology not merely transports, but always translates and re-
/deforms information. Dope’s aesthetic in that sense is not a collage of
different styles, but a visualization of the entangled coexistence with tech-
nological objects and the mediations and transformations they take part

Ethnicity | Language | Education | Agency

The negotiation of race in Dope is inseparable from the identity question
that serves as the film’s bracket. Malcolm has to write a college applica-
tion essay, the first version however is rejected by his counselor Mr. Bai-
ley, a paper titled “A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube’s Good Day”
(referring to Ice Cube’s 1993 hit “It was a Good Day”):

Mr. B: I suggest you go in a different direction. Write something personal

about you. Your family, your life.
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 173

M: I mean, I could write about the typical “I’m from a poor, crime-filled
neighborhood, raised by a single mother, don’t know my dad” blah-
blah. It’s cliché. This here, this–this is–this is creative. This shows that
I’m different. This is the kind of essay that Harvard wants from their
Mr. B: Malcolm, I’m gonna be honest with you. You’re pretty damn arro-
gant. You think you’re gonna get into Harvard? Who do you think you
are? Hmm? You go to high school in Inglewood. To the admissions
committee, your straight A’s, they don’t mean shit. If you’re really seri-
ous about this exercise and you’re not just wasting my time, or yours,
then it’s gonna be about your personal statement, your SAT scores, your
recommendations and most importantly your alumni interview tomor-

While Malcolm definitely wants to engage with his African-American

identity on the plane of the black culture he loves and defines himself
by, he resists the conventional images of African-American life. Mr. Bai-
ley advises him to cater to the expectations of the dominant white cul-
ture, and engage with his racial identity in a stereotypical way, and by
exploiting clichés. Even though these clichés really do apply to Malcolm’s
situation, this gaze is not one he wants to be subdued by, as he doesn’t
view himself as determined by any form of social stratification such as
ethnicity, class, or trauma: Indebted both to his nerdiness and his per-
petual attempts at assuming agency, he would rather be defined by his
cultural interests than by whitewashing his biography by exploiting his
status as victim of circumstances and marginalized black adolescent from
the wrong part of town.
Racial identities in Dope have a linguistic dimension, prominently
worked through in the three geeks’ discussions with William about his
desire to be allowed to use the word “nigga” and who is entitled to use
the n-word, which is always attached to self-image and self-allocation.

William: You want to talk principle. What about Jib here, man? This
dude isn’t African-American. He’s like fucking Latino or
Moroccan or some shit. Technically, he shouldn’t be able to
say the word. Why can he use it?
174 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Jib: Okay. Because I’m 14% African. I am 14% African. Ances-

“Blackness” apparently, at least in the matrix of, is measur-

able and quantifiable with exactitude. From William’s outside perspec-
tive, blackness is a screen on which he, as deviant from his own white
upper-class background, projects his desire for subcultural distinction, a
cultural capital with the in-built possibility to speak an anti-language and
thus claim a counter position to the dominant social order (to which he
belongs by birth) by assuming that order’s racial counter position. From
Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy’s inside perspective, the question mainly is an
administering of blackness and black culture in the form of adminis-
tering an archive of African-American artifacts and their carrier media.
Either way, it is not possible to be black without being attached to an
entire black history: being black = being overdetermined. In that regard,
Malcolm’s name is already overdetermined and attaches him to a dis-
tinct black history for whom Malcolm X stands. That black does not
equal black as it maybe does from William’s outside perspective but that
there are degrees of blackness15 is shown by the high school students
not merely adopting the conventional teen (film) taxonomy, and instead
frame it in terms of blackness. When the bullies try to rob Malcolm’s
sneakers, one of them says: “This nigga’s speaking African or some shit,
like he don’t speak what we speak.” In a predominantly white teen film
school, the otherness on which the bully is picking would have been
more likely expressed by classist or homophobic slurs, such as geek, nerd,
or fag.
At the same time, the characters in Dope also have incorporated the
white canon through their citation systems: They refer to Molly Ring-
wald, the epitome of the John Hughes film cycle, to Justin Bieber (“He’s

15 When they first spend time together after escaping the escalated birthday party, Malcolm
and Nakia begin their debate on identity as both racial and racially ghettoized identity: Nikia:
Thanks for helping me. Most of those niggas just saw me and stepped over me. / Malcolm:
Luckily for you, I’m not one of those niggas. / N: Oh, really? What are you, then? / M: I
don’t know. I’m just, I’m black as fuck, right? Uh, I guess I’m just used to hearing that, uh,
niggas don’t listen to this, niggas don’t do that, niggas don’t go to college unless they play ball
or whatever. It’s just time to accept it. I’m just not one of those niggas. / N: Well, me neither
then. ’Cause I’m going to college. Just gotta get my GED first.
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 175

a very pretty nigga,” admits the lesbian Diggy), to Back to the Future
(1985) (Dom calls Malcolm “McFly” and referring to his retro style com-
ments: “I be seein’ you and your little friends with y’all flattops and MC
Hammer pants, riding around in this shit, looking like y’all came out of a
DeLorean or some shit”), and upon learning that the tomboyish Diggy is
a girl, the club doorman says to his colleague: “This little nigga’s a bitch!
Like Boys Don’t Cry.” In this simultaneity of a black and white canon,
Dope becomes the missing link between the white suburban Hughes-
inspired teen film and the black urban hood films as polar teen film
positions, modulating either’s preoccupations and biases to find a new
position. This in-between-ness deconstructs the demarcations between
the black and white teen film as yet another layer on which Dope nego-
tiates racial identity.
Mr. Bailey’s question “You think you’re gonna get into Harvard? Who
do you think you are?” in that regard doubles as asking Malcolm the
identity question—who are you?—and as a rhetorical question, as both
know about the restrictions for people on the class and race margins.
Harvard as Malcolm’s college of choice is significant and for Malcolm has
become something like a promise of salvation, as then-President Obama
and his Kenyan father before him famously studied there (when Mr. Bai-
ley announces to Malcolm: “I just found out you’re interviewing with
Austin Jacoby. He’s from Inglewood too, so he’ll be able to relate to your
circumstances,” Malcolm is clearly underwhelmed: “Jacoby Check Cash-
ing? Harvard? Really?” Mr. Bailey replies, more to Malcolm’s projection
than to his disappointment about the less prestigious local businessman:
“I’m sorry. They don’t all go on to be president”). Education might be
a viable strategy to overcome the culture of poverty (Jib says: “Look, I
don’t want to go to jail. I want to go to fucking college. I want to get a
good job. I want to help my mom!”), but it is difficult to access. Door
openers, as Mr. Bailey sees it, are neither Malcolm’s actual performance
nor his essential qualities, but nepotism. And, as the further course of
the film will show, crime. When Malcolm in the end delivers his essay
and receives a letter from the Harvard admissions, it remains unanswered
whether his essay satisfied the committee or his ability as a fast learner
to quickly have mastered playing the game and convince-slash-blackmail
Jacoby. His essay reads:
176 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Let me tell you about two students. Student “A” is a straight-A student
who lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He plays in a punk band with
his best friends. He loves to skateboard and ride on his BMX bike. His
favorite TV show is Game of Thrones and his favorite band is The Ther-
mals. He’s a ’90s hip-hop geek. Student “B” goes to an underfunded
school where teachers who would rather not be there teach kids who
really don’t care. He lives with a single mother, doesn’t know his father
and has sold dope. Now close your eyes. Picture each of these kids and
tell me what you see. Be honest. No one’s going to judge you. Now open
your eyes. So, am I student “A” or student “B”? Am I a geek or a menace?
For most of my life, I’ve been caught in between who I really am and how
I’m perceived, in between categories and definition. I don’t fit in. And I
used to think that that was a curse, but now I’m slowly starting to see
maybe it’s a blessing. See, when you don’t fit in, you’re forced to see the
world from many different angles and points of view. You gain knowl-
edge, life lessons from disparate people and places. And those lessons, for
better or worse, have shaped me. So, who am I? Allow me to reintroduce
myself. My name is Malcolm Adekanbi. I’m a straight-A student with
nearly perfect SAT scores. I taught myself how to play guitar and read
music. I have stellar recommendations and diverse extracurricular activi-
ties. I am a Google Science Fair participant, and in three weeks, I helped
make over $100,000 for an online business. So, why do I want to attend
Harvard? If I was white, would you even have to ask me that question?

Malcolm’s binarism-defying in-between-ness, as he is neither A nor B

but of course both, revisits teen film’s quest for autonomy and Ameri-
can individualism from the perspective of ethnicity: At least for a black
kid, identity is always and necessarily also a racial identity, as the bag-
gage of a white gaze and a black history are an indelible undercurrent.
Malcolm’s desire for a higher education becomes a metaphor for his dual
liminality as an intersectional teen: his desire to overcome the culture of
poverty and the boundaries of race, but also to overcome adolescence.
The romance subplot is interlocked with the education subplot: He
tutors Nakia to help her prepare for her GED, they study together and
open up new possibilities for themselves and each other, academic as well
as romantic. When at the end Malcolm invites Nakia to the senior prom
but waits in vain, the film does not provide the conventional romantic
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 177

quasi-marriage ending as The DUFF or the restored order of the fam-

ily unit as Winter’s Bone. Instead, Nakia asks him to go to a Six Flags
amusement park the next day and Malcolm finds the Harvard letter on
his pillow while the programmatic Awreeoh song “It’s my turn now” is
playing: It ends with an outlook, to a date and a higher education, and
with a possibility. After the bracket had been opened in the first bedroom
scene that showed Malcolm doing his hair in the style of the late 80s rap-
pers he loves, the bracket closes when he cuts his hair in one of the last
scenes: He has assumed agency and made choices in order to no longer
be determined by external forces, be they vintage black styles, bullying,
coercion by competing criminals, fatalism and determinism of a life in
certain areas, or the self-positioning a white admissions committee sup-
posedly expects. He has finally answered the often-asked question who he
is or thinks he is by making the choice not to choose between A and B.
While his essay raises the question of whether (American) identity is nec-
essarily a racial identity (especially for non-whites) and implies that most
likely this is so, it simultaneously and actively tries to deconstruct binary
racial identities. In his summary of what he calls “the African-American
crime cycle,” in the early to mid-90s, Shary concludes:

The rules to be learned from the African-American teen crime films were
plainly clear by this point. Broken families cannot be unified by crime;
crime is not lucrative, at least not for long; crimes perpetrated against
other blacks only reinforce the racist social system; youth do not have the
moral grasp to appreciate the repercussions of their crimes. The eventual
outcome of a crime-based life, as Hollywood has told audiences for years,
is prison or death, unless the character has the enlightenment to leave
town … This cycle of films did not deny the potent temptation of crime,
especially given their action-packed violence, nor did they deny race as a
factor in the difficulties their young characters face. Rather, these films all
suggested that the greatest menace is the city itself, where crime, racism
and death are pervasive and constant. (Shary 2005, 86)

The position of Dope in relation to the cycle to whose history it explic-

itly and implicitly attaches itself—and to whose history it is automati-
cally attached by the spectator just like Malcolm and his peers can never
separate themselves from their connotations—is partially revisiting and
178 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

renewing, but also rewriting. On the level of content and aesthetically,

the entanglement is redefined, most apparently by the use and reflec-
tion of language, drugs, and technological objects. All of these quasi-
objects form a connective tissue from which the film itself along with its
intradiegetic discourses emerges, and that produces resonances and links
with other films from the—black and white—teen film canon. Dope
is neither a blackening of white teen films, nor a whitening of black
teen films, it is the product of, and negotiates a different mode of (co-
)existence, of human and non-human actants, objects and subjects, and
teen film subgenres and thus suggests hybridity and multiplicity as an
inevitable given, albeit one that still needs to be acknowledged, regard-
less whether when granting non-human actants agency to overcome the
subject-object, nature-society, or modern-nonmodern divide, or in an
ideally post-racial USA, which in reality is still stuck in old binarisms.

Dope’s novelty as a technology-centered teen film is in its incorporation
of machines to the effect of generating machinic milieus and aesthetics,
as it enables us to grant more agency to technological objects (something
that is more self-evident in gadget-laden, techno-centric genres such as
science fiction or action movies).16 As an African-American teen film,
Dope reintroduces positions on “Blackness” and identity that are clearly
rooted in the work of black writers, foremost the experience of a split
that W.E.B. Du Bois writes about in his foundational work on the “dou-
ble consciousness” (“one ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro;
two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” [2007, xiii]). This
double consciousness is an undercurrent of the film, revisited overtly by
Malcolm in his college application essay, as are Frantz Fanon’s (1952)

16 One of teen film’s most adaptable subgenres has started branching out into new subgenres
that rely heavily on the use and aesthetics of certain media and interfaces from which arose
a new strand of teen horror movies. Their machinic milieus exploit the impact of technology
and social media on everyday life, especially those of teenagers, and present them in style
mixes that incorporate “found footage” or computer screen/desktop film’ modes (e.g., by using
webcams or video chats), such as Cyberbu// y (2011), Unfriended (2014), Face 2 Face (2016),
and Unfriended: Dark Web (2018).
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 179

thoughts on how Blackness is constructed (among other factors through

language). The legacy of both theorists is palpable in Dope as is bell
hooks’ writing about marginality (1984) and the concept of intersection-
ality that was developed by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1989).17 Both
hooks and Crenshaw have a pronounced feminist core in their analysis
of intersecting (minority) identities, which while not foregrounded in
Dope, is suggested here by the spectrum of female potentialities hinted at
through the diverse and progressive portrayals of Nikia, Diggy, Lily, and
Malcolm’s mother. Furthermore, intersectionality is clearly the basis by
which Dope explores how social stratification in various forms produces
particular social and cultural effects both for Malcolm and his diverse
group of ethnically, sexually, or otherwise marginalized friends (and foes).
Dope ends ambiguously and doesn’t provide moral or punishment,
tragedy or deliverance; it resists the naïve and dangerous convention
to suggest that an individual’s resolve, determination, and an American
work ethic suffice to overcome adversity, crime, and systemic injustice.
We neither learn for sure whether Malcolm escapes into an Ivy League
future nor if he keeps dealing drugs for AJ Jacoby in the Bottoms. Ulti-
mately, the determinism negotiated here is more complex, too deeply
embedded structurally, historically, and psychologically to be countered
by a clever ruse using the darknet to (re-)integrate into a safe middle-class
normalcy. Dope’s success is this very ambiguity, and at the same time a
reminder that in a “black” film, “blackness as content” is often a given in
a culture that offers little modulation between problematizing blackness
or whitewashing it. However, this treatment of the every day in which
blackness and race are always “text” is an accurate reflection of a lived
experience in which people are not afforded much opportunity to forget
their blackness in the way whites forget their whiteness to the point that
it feels “normal.” Tellingly, most canonic teen films address whiteness
almost exclusively in their subtext, if at all, or in their negligence—even
the famously class-conscious John Hughes films blank out ethnicity as

17 Also see Hill-Collins and Bilge’s overview Intersectionality (2016).

180 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

constitutive for teen identities.18 The fact that hardly any “mundane”
black teen film exists whose extraordinary achievement it would be to
make black lives ordinary while retaining the complexity ordinary life
unfolds when treated seriously reveals that Hollywood’s oftentimes exclu-
sionary gaze is not only predominantly male, but also white. An indica-
tion that alternatives can be realized is suggested by Stefani Saintonge’s
short film Seventh Grade (2014), one of a small number of coming-of-age
narratives by a female director that also center on an African-American
female protagonist. In this regard, Seventh Grade belongs to the same
trajectory as Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992)19 but where Leslie
Harris’ Just Another Girl investigated the hood from a non-male van-
tage point, Seventh Grade leaves this environment—either as setting, as
stylistic, generic, or narrative blueprint, and as the defining factor for
its protagonists. Seventh Grade’s opening scene shows the main charac-
ter Yanka cheekily playing with her Barbie dolls (black Josie and white
Billy) and simulating them having intercourse (see Fig. 4.10). Teased by
her sister for being too old to play with these toys, she eventually discards
them in front of her suburban home, where another younger girl comes
by and picks them up in the film’s final scene. The Barbie scenes function
as a metacommentary on the agency of the filmmaker and, by extension,
the cinematic apparatus: It is Yanka as the “director” who constellates
the actors and controls the visible gazes involved (even in the closeup of
Josie and Billy, we see Yanka’s hands orchestrating the dolls’ romance).
As a cinematographic object, the Barbie doll has its own set of conno-
tations, a legacy of toy politics and normativity, but is shown here as

18 “White youth are not the only young people to appear in media, nor are they the only young
people to consume and produce media. Yet analyses of them dominate youth media studies to
a degree far greater than their demographic numbers would suggest. Why this has happened
has everything to do with the racial politics that inform our field and academia, politics that
keep the majority of youth media scholars focused on the normative individuals at the center
of the frame” (Kearney 2017, 119).
19There are more coming-of-age films and TV shows centering on (or at least including)
multilayered female protagonists (e.g., Our Song, 2000; Crooklyn, 1994; Dear White People,
2014; Precious, 2009; or the French movie Girlhood, 2014), however the overlap with films
that furthermore were directed by females, let alone African-American women, is extremely
small. When—in the context of this discussion of intersectionality—adding the deviation from
heteronormativity, Dee Rees’ 2011 film Pariah might currently be the only example, as the
critically and commercially more successful black LGBTQ-related coming-of-age film—Barry
Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016)—foregrounds a male experience.
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 181

Fig. 4.10 The Barbie dolls as cinematographic objects in Seventh Grade

an object that does not solely prescribe a rigid script/program of action,

and instead can be utilized flexibly—in this case, for cinematic experi-
mentation with sexuality and interracial (or even post-racial) relations.
The circulation of the object, being passed on to another person (or
generation), emphasizes this flexibility: The doll becomes a quasi-object
around which new networks and new associations will form, depending
on the involved actants. Saintonge’s strategy—leaving the hood, showing
how her protagonists assume agency—actualizes a move “from margin
to center.” Seventh Grade thus accomplishes a narrative and visual lan-
guage that modulates between both positions: Neither margin nor center
determines the style or content of the film, as the gazes contained and
suggested by Seventh Grade are more specifically tied to the respective
protagonists. Based on the promise of this short, I look forward to see-
ing what the director could do with a full-length feature.
Race has become a more prominent topic again in teen films after
Dope, including Moonlight (2016), Kicks (2016), The Transfiguration
(2016), The Hate U Give (2018), Skate Kitchen (2018), To All the Boys
I’ve Loved Before (2018), Ma (2019), and Brian Banks (2019). Still,
intersectional filmmaking in front of and behind the camera need not
only be approached with regard to the dynamics of black|white positions
182 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

or non-heteronormative sexualities, but can also be extended to other

positions from the margins and how they might find adequate represen-
tation within the entire cinematic apparatus (also see the postscriptum
to Chapter 2 and The Miseducation of Cameron Post ’s [2018] treatment
of indigenous positions and disability). After all, as Kearney emphasizes
in her plea for an intersectional analysis of youth media,

many people conflate intersectional analysis with attention to race and,

more specifically, racial minorities. Yet all people have intersectional iden-
tities. The ultimate goal of such work is to understand how our inter-
sected identities have an impact on our relations to power so that effective
strategies for eliminating oppression and maximizing equality are devel-
oped and enacted. With regard to youth media studies, this means careful
consideration of the interlocking identities of media characters, produc-
ers, and consumers so as to create more respectful and democratic media
for, about, and by young people. (2017, 119–120)

Teen film, as a hybrid, mutable genre organized around individuation,

has a tremendous capacity to interrogate cultural hegemony and subvert,
rewrite, or even simply ignore it by proposing plots, styles, and characters
whose quests for autonomy and singularity are actually autonomous and
singular, and not just reiterations of pre-existing conventions, codes, and
formulas. The premise of these narratives in which someone becomes
a freshly formed version of themselves is often depicted in a prescrip-
tive manner, suggesting conventional routes through which to individ-
uate. In actuality, a person’s becoming might just as well be narrated as
a becoming-more, or a becoming-hybrid, a becoming-complex/singular
rather than a becoming-less-complex/conforming (echoed by the primal
fear of The Breakfast Club’s “My God, are we gonna be like our par-
ents?”). Just as we need to see greater diversity in front of and behind the
camera we also need to see greater diversity in terms of how these narra-
tives are constructed and how they serve their protagonists. We also need
more texts, particularly in feature-length films, where a character’s black-
ness is incidental and not tied to its own restrictive tropes, in addition to
those that already define the genre. Multiplicity is a crucial element of the
project of democracy and it can be (and has been) tested and enacted in
films about prom night, high school cafeterias, virginity, nerds and jocks;
4 Quasi-Object | Quasi-Subject … 183

coming-of-age narratives have the potential to evoke normative interpel-

lations, but just as much, they can be turned into a form of resistance
while being as goofy, dramatic, serious, and entertaining as the normative
formula variants.

Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis, Universal Pictures, USA, 1985.
Boys Don’t Cry, Kimberly Peirce, Fox Searchlight Pictures, USA, 1999.
Boyz N The Hood, John Singleton, Columbia Pictures, USA, 1991.
The Breakfast Club, John Hughes, Universal Pictures, USA, 1985.
Brian Banks, Tom Shaydac, Bleecker Street Media, USA, 2018.
Crooklyn, Spike Lee, Universal Pictures, USA, 1994.
Cyberbu// y, Teena Booth, Muse Entertainment, USA, 2011.
Dear White People, Justin Simien, Lionsgate, USA, 2014.
Dope, Rick Famuyiwa, Open Road Films, USA, 2015.
The DUFF, Ari Sandel, CBS Films, USA, 2015.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Stephen Spielberg, Universal Pictures, USA, 1982.
Face 2 Face, Matthew Toronto, Green Step Productions, USA, 2016.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, John Hughes, Paramount Pictures, USA, 1986.
Girlhood, Céline Sciamma, Hold Up Films, France, 2014.
Gummo, Harmony Korine, Fine Line Features, USA, 1997.
The Hate U Give, Georg Tillman Jr., 20th Century Fox, USA, 2018.
It, Andy Muschietti, New Line Cinema, USA, 2017.
Juice, Ernest R. Dickerson, Paramount Pictures, USA, 1992.
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., Leslie Harris, Miramax Films, USA, 1992.
Kicks, Justin Tipping, Focus World, USA, 2016.
Kids, Larry Clark, Killer Films, USA, 1995.
Ma, Tate Taylor, Blumhouse Productions, USA, 2019.
The Maltese Falcon, John Huston, Warner Brothers, USA, 1941.
Menace II Society, The Hughes Brothers, New Line Cinema, USA, 1993.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Desiree Akhavan, FilmRise, UK/USA, 2018.
Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, A24, USA, 2016.
Our Song, Jim McKay, IFC, USA, 2000.
Pariah, Dee Rees, Focus Features, USA, 2011.
The Plastic Age, Wesley Ruggles, Preferred Pictures, USA, 1925.
184 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Precious, Lee Daniels, Lee Daniels Entertainment, USA, 2009.

Reefer Madness, Louis Gasnier, George A. Hirliman Productions, USA, 1936.
Scenes from the Suburbs, Spike Jonze, USA, 2011.
Seventh Grade, Stefani Saintonge, USA, 2014.
Sixteen Candles, John Hughes, Universal Pictures, USA, 1984.
Skate Kitchen, Crystal Moselle, Magnolia Pictures, USA, 2018.
Stand by Me, Rob Reiner, Columbia Pictures, USA, 1986.
Stephen King’s IT, Lawrence D. Cohen, Warner Brothers Television, 1990.
Stranger Things, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Netflix, USA, 2016.
Summer of 84, Francos Simard, Gunpowder & Sky, Canada/USA, 2018.
Super Fly, Gordon Parks Jr., Warner Brothers Pictures, USA, 1972.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Susan Johnson, Netflix, USA, 2018.
The Transfiguration, Michael O’Shea, Strand Releasing, USA, 2017.
Unfriended, Leo Gabriadze, Universal Pictures, USA, 2014.
Unfriended: Dark Web, Stephen Susco, OTL Releasing, USA, 2018.
Whip It (Official Music Video), Zack Warren, USA, 2014.
Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik, Roadside Attractions, USA, 2010.
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Visualization, Images and Inscriptions

Images and Inscriptions: Visual Hybridity

as Meta-Commentary in The Diary
of a Teenage Girl
From a Latourian position, it is not only the written word that con-
stitutes inscriptions, but also visualizations of different sorts do, such
as images, graphs, or diagrams (in and as inscriptions). Both film as
a Latourian inscription, and the apparatuses from which film emerges
as inscription devices have been discussed here along with the material
and semiotic dimension of concrete images. The DUFF (2015) and
Dope (2015) incorporate the look of social media platforms, ubiqui-
tous screens, and cameras such as phone cameras, newscasts, or drone
footage as a visualization of the media ecology in which they are set and
the altered relationship of humans and technology. Both films are for-
mally hybrid, consistent with their particular media ecologies and their
human-machine protagonists. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) is a
formal hybrid, too, but in a different fashion. The movie adaptation
of Phoebe Gloeckner’s eponymous quasi-autobiographical novel/graphic

© The Author(s) 2020 187

B. Sonnenberg-Schrank, Actor-Network Theory at the Movies,
188 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

novel (2002) is a mixed-mode film that incorporates cartoons and ani-

mation into its live-action. This mixing of modes causes a disruption in
the “optical consistency” of the film that on the one hand defines its
unique aesthetic, and on the other makes its own artifice visible. While
The DUFF and Dope are similarly revealing of their mediatic milieus,
the mode-mixing in Diary emphasizes that a sizable chain of transfor-
mations is being produced by various inscription devices: a life story
being transformed into written words and images, which are then trans-
formed again into film. This is important for Diary’s narrative and polit-
ical project: the images not only contain the film’s action and aesthetics,
they also contain a reminder that they are being actively produced and
assembled by someone and/or something. By consciously laying bare the
being-made, the being-assembled of the film, it also lays bare that every-
thing it suggests—or subverts, for that matter—is not the image of an
allegedly objective reality, but a construction of facts, gazes, types, pat-
terns. The images are the construction, but contrary to the majority of
mainstream cinema, they also constantly remind the spectator of their
status as being constructed and manipulated and thus will function as a
meta-commentary on the nature of (moving) images—and any kind of
fact, by extension—and reveal the actual subjectivity of any inscription.
Female sexuality and the way it is depicted as central themes in Diary
as well as the way in which conventional scopic regimes are displaced
by alternative ones, cannot be separated from the film’s specific modes
of visualization: the subversion of conventional scopic regimes here is
achieved visually.

Case Study: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Diary is a film that consists of, and is about cascades of visual inscrip-
tions. Visualization provides as a significant perspective to approach a
text that is so concerned with image-making at the content level, and
with self-writing, self-imaging, mirror images, and different modes of
visualizations, and that at the formal level centers on the construction
and disruption of images and image-making techniques. Marielle Heller
had already adapted Gloeckner’s 2002 book for the stage in 2010 prior
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 189

to developing it into a feature film as her directorial debut. In this regard,

the chain of transformations from which the film emerges is already
an example for circulating reference and a multitude of visual inscrip-
tions/visualizations. The narrative follows 15-year-old Minnie Goetze
(played by Bel Powley, 22 years old at the time of filming) coming of age
in 1976 San Francisco, while experiencing and experimenting with sexu-
ality, relationships, art, music, and drugs. Minnie lives with her younger
sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) and her single, 34-year-old mother Char-
lotte Worthington (Kristen Wiig), making this four for four in terms
of the films discussed and their depiction of a father who is (mostly)
absent. Minnie’s mother is experimenting with drugs, hedonism, inde-
pendence, relationships, and coming to terms with her roles as woman,
mother, and individual. Both Minnie and her mother are navigating lim-
inal personal spaces in a wider transitional moment in the USA after the
Vietnam War, depicted here as a nation in mid-change. During this era
of social and sexual revolution, the renegotiation of social contracts is
primarily narrated through the changing roles and increased empower-
ment of women (and the difficulty of tackling these shifts), markers of
second wave feminism, but also by changing subcultures and musical
movements such as punk rock or glam rock as embodiments of shifting
zeitgeist. At the center of Minnie’s coming-of-age are her sexual encoun-
ters, especially her affair with Monroe Rutherford (Alexander Skarsgård),
her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend, which oscillates between the sexual
self-determination and agency of a young woman and the abuse of a
minor by an irresponsible adult. Besides the physical and sexual dimen-
sion of her maturation, Minnie also comes of age as an artist, as she
starts to draw, inspired by the art of Aline Kominsky and Robert Crumb,
San Francisco-based protagonists of the contemporaneous underground
comix counterculture movement. Maturation in The Diary is intercon-
nected with self-expression, Minnie’s I-formation does not solely take
place on the level of her psyche and her body, but on the plane of writ-
ing, voicing, and visualizing the self.
190 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Teen Films and Female Sexuality

Sexuality as the epitome of adolescent rites of passage is self-evidently
one of the more important, if not the single most important, trope of
teen films. The modes in which sexuality is addressed in mainstream
cinema and teen film can be subject to constant and oftentimes radical
change. Teen film genre historians such as Considine, Shary, Doherty,
and Driscoll give accounts of how these changes correspond to larger
cultural shifts, such as the constant renegotiations of taboos and the
boundaries of censorship. Generally, teen film’s modes of depicting
awakening sexuality have gradually moved from addressing sexuality
implicitly and by innuendo to an increasing frankness, always navigating
not only the societal taboos for sexual, erotic, or pornographic content in
general, but additionally the boundary between what is acceptable.1 The
growing permissiveness in narrating adolescent sexuality however follows
a discernible gender separation. Female sexuality is primarily used as a
projection screen for male fantasies, if female desire plays a role at all, it is
commonly staged in a way that is intended to be titillating for a hetero-
sexual male spectator’s gaze (also see Sonnenberg-Schrank [2016]). The
sexuality and sexual deviancy in teen films purports a predominantly
male, heteronormative perspective with the tendency to depict male
sexuality in a more lighthearted manner, as an important transformative
experience that can even turn nerds into “real men” (see also Giroux
1991, 131) with the potential for hilarity, and female sexuality in a
less playful and often more grave tone.2 There are numerous examples

1This also goes for the depiction of (male) homosexuality, which for a long time was, and had
to be, due to the Production Code’s regulations, mainly addressed on the subtextual level and
in these narratives inevitably led to dire consequences: “This preoccupation with masculinity
played an important role in the screen’s depiction not only of heterosexuality, but also of
homosexuality. Sal Mineo was killed off at the end of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) because
his needs were suspect” (Considine 1985, 235).
2 In her discussion of American Pie as a late-90s update of the 1980s sex comedy Driscoll
says: “Gender differentiations around sex in American Pie are nevertheless clear cut. The film
opens with the sound of a pornographic film Jim is using as a masturbation tool before he is
quickly caught by his mother. In the second scene, Vicky excitedly learns of her acceptance to
college. Together, these establish that girls are more mature than boys and do not require sexual
experience for successful psychosocial development. But the reasons for this difference remain
as mysterious as everything else about girl sexuality” (Driscoll 2011, 74–75).
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 191

we can look to for depictions of female sexuality (however, only few

that aren’t framed by heterosexual norms) and even though there some
films about teenage girls’ sexuality that show female self-determination
(Easy A [2010], Pariah [2011], The To Do List [2013], and The Edge of
Seventeen [2016]), most teen films when dealing with the topic rely on
sexist clichés clearly catering to the male gaze, from “sexy” shower room
scenes in sex romps such as Porky’s (1981) to the male policing of female
desire and virginity we see for instance in Twilight (2008–2012).3
The perspective shift in Diary toward exploring adolescent sexuality
from a female perspective is realized directly with the opening low-angle
close-up of Minnie’s behind and legs moving in slow-motion against the
scenery of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Park, backlit by the afternoon
sun. We then cut to a close-up of her face and in voice-over, 14 seconds
into the exposition, we hear her first sentence as an inner monologue: “I
had sex today. Holy Shit!” Minnie and her sexuality as the theme around
which the film will be organized, and as the storyteller who will orga-
nize it, are installed right away. Diary’s director Marielle Heller, born in
1979, came of age at a time of teen film’s proliferation, and states in an
interview that a strong impetus to pursue the project was rooted in the
limited scope teen films have offered to female viewers:

As a teen girl, I never felt represented in films and books. Girls were
always the object. Boys wanted sex, and girls had to protect their virginity.
No one talks about being the girl that wants to have sex. If you are
that girl (and most people are), you end up feeling like something is
wrong with you because you don’t see that presented as normal anywhere.
(Grigg-Spall 2015)

Female adolescent sexuality is by no means excluded from teen films,

there are examples of (sexual) agency of female teenagers, however they
are often highly problematic: The bad and rebellious chicks from the
1950s juvenile delinquency films are coded delinquent not by violence
or criminal activity (as are their male counterparts) but by being “easy”
or even promiscuous. The allegorical sexual awakening in The Exorcist

3 Also see Sonnenberg-Schrank (2013) and Platt (2010).

192 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

(1973) or Carrie (1976) endow the prepubescent Regan and the adoles-
cent Carrie with new powers and desires, but these narratives simultane-
ously condemn the newly awakened and sexualized powers of the girls
by equating them with demonic possession, witchcraft, manipulation,
and the goal of hurting others—especially men.4 Female homosexual-
ity, female deviancy, and the desire of the female-to-male transgender
protagonist inevitably leads, in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), to tragedy, vio-
lent punishment, and ultimately death. Even Sofia Coppola’s adaptation
of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides (1999) acknowledges the
complexities and limitations of the male gaze without necessarily offering
a progressive way through it (other than death).
In the majority of cases, female sexuality is the plane on which male
desire is played out, either fulfilling those desires, or alternately, as the
plane on which male anxiety is played out, denying their fulfillment.
Shary observes that “[s]exual pleasure for girls in teen films remains far
more problematic than it is for boys, most likely because the majority
of teen films are made under the patriarchal standards of Hollywood”
(2005, 107). Building his argument on Laura Mulvey’s analysis of Holly-
wood’s/visual culture’s “male gaze,” he addresses teen film’s gender asym-
metry in the depiction of sexuality in a side note:

Few of these films could be called feminist, however, and are more often
sexist in their portrayals of young women’s exploitation by young men,
or at least their formal imaging of girls’ bodies, which are held up for
voyeuristic pleasure by the male gaze in much greater proportion than the
number of boys who are photographed for the opposite purpose. Many
youth love/sex films tell young women to resist their image as sexual
objects but in their telling objectify them all the same. (Shary 2002, 214)

Mulvey’s analysis of the common mode of depicting women in Holly-

wood cinema quickly became a staple of feminist film criticism and it
maintains an eminent position—a testament both to its strength, and to
the continuing state of affairs regarding mainstream cinema and televi-
sion’s depiction of men and women—its influence can be felt for instance

4 Also see Barbara’s Creed’s conceptualization of The Monstrous Feminine (1993, 31–42, 73–85).
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 193

in the popularity of the so-called Bechdel Test,5 a popcultural extension

of Mulvey’s concept.
Mulvey has called her own premise “limited and polemical” (Mulvey
2009, xvi), but I would argue that both the limitations and polemics are
necessary to produce the political insinuations of her analysis as well as
the impact it had in deciphering the “‘language’ of woman as spectacle
to both visualize and secure sexual difference” (ibid.)—and the demand
for alternative ways of representing women (and men) on the screen with
a “a new language of desire” (Mulvey 2009, 16). 6 Mulvey built explic-
itly on the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan—namely Freud’s notion
of scopophilia (the pleasure in looking and being looked at) and Lacan’s
mirror stage as explanation for the innate human need to identify with
external images—and implicitly on the libidinous relation between spec-
tator and screen Baudry and Metz develop following Lacanian termi-
nology. By proposing that “the magic of the Hollywood style at its best
(and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose
… from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure” (ibid.,
16), she points to a simple and basic truth: films cater to their audiences’
desire to see (and not necessarily in an erotic way). However, “the fan-
tasy world of the screen is subject to the law which produces it” (ibid.,
19), which means that it “reflect[s] the psychical obsessions of the soci-
ety which produced it” (ibid., 16). Thus, a cinema that emerges from a
patriarchal order is prone to echo and perpetuate said order. The gaze of
the camera, the audience, and the characters on the screen in that sense
all result from very real biases and asymmetries beyond the screen and
contribute to their reproduction—they “visualize and secure.” Mobiliz-
ing Latour’s conceptualization of visualization and Mulvey’s evaluation of
Hollywood’s scopic regimes, I will discuss how Diary avoids the scopic

5 In a 1985 story embedded in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (1983–2008), Alison
Bechdel has a character suggest three questions to ask a film in order to determine whether it
offers a depiction of women that follows a logic other than the patriarchal order manifested
in the male gaze: “I have this rule, see… I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic
requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it… who, two, talk to each other
about, three, something besides a man.”
6This is not relegated to cinematic media, but goes for other media as well—after all Mulvey
started developing her notion of a “male unconscious” reflecting on the sculptural work of
British artist Allen Jones in 1972.
194 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

regime of the male gaze and establishes a “new language of desire” by

closely intertwining desire and visuality.

Latour’s engagement with visual culture and visualizations is a recurring
theme in his oeuvre. In his ZKM exhibition Iconoclash, he asked: “Why
do images trigger so much passion?” (2002, 14) as a lead-into a nego-
tiation of three different kinds of images—religious imagery, art, and
scientific inscriptions—and the way they are perceived differently, even
though they are not essentially different, as they all emerge from medi-
ations and translations and therefore are always human-made. Even the
scientific image with its perceived built-in objectivity is no less fabri-
cated than other visualizations where the fabrication will seem more self-
evident. The relation between a text and the object or reality it refers to
is always indirect and only functions when reference circulates stably and
the translations are done well—the number and quality of the mediations
will determine the truth value, not the representation as such.7 The visual
display as “the most powerful tool” (Latour and Woolgar 2013, 67–68)
is essential to recognize such processes, to represent them, and thus, to
ultimately generate knowledge and displace8 (or translate) it. The inscrip-
tion device then is a case-specific apparatus and can be pretty much “any
set-up, no matter what its size, nature and cost” (ibid.).
Even though visualization in itself is neutral, it is linked to domina-
tion, as visual (and other) inscriptions make it possible to exert power

7 “To begin with, for most people, they [scientific inscriptions/images] are not even images,
but the world itself. There is nothing to say about them except learning their message. To
call them image, inscription, representation, to have them exposed in an exhibition side by
side with religious icons, is already an iconoclastic gesture. ‘If those are mere representations of
galaxies, atoms, light, genes, then one could say indignantly, they are not real, they have been
fabricated.’ And yet, … it slowly becomes clearer that without huge and costly instruments,
large groups of scientists, vast amounts of money, long training, nothing would be visible in
those images. It is because of so many mediations that they are able to be so objectively true
… In science‚ there is no such a thing as ‘mere representation’” (Latour 2002, 19).
8 “Like Michel Serres, I use translation to mean displacement, drift, invention, mediation, the
creation of a link that did not exist before and that to some degree modifies two elements or
agents” (Latour 1991, 32, also see Latour 1999, 179).
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 195

from afar by being able to study, command, or scrutinize an object with-

out having to be in its presence, as maps allow to overlook an area, or
probes to study a specimen from a remote location: “It is not at the cog-
nitive differences that we should marvel, but at this general mobilization
of the world that endows a few scientists in frock coats, somewhere in
Kew Gardens, with the ability to visually dominate all the plants of the
earth” (1986, 225). Information and inscriptions are bundled in what
Latour calls centers of calculation, the sites where knowledge is generated
by aligning inscriptions (or “superimposing” them), a milieu where “the
obsession for graphism” (1986, 16) and “two dimensional images which
have been made less confusing” (ibid.) has become more important than
the represented thing in itself.

What is so important in the images and in the inscriptions scientists and

engineers are busy obtaining, drawing, inspecting, calculating and dis-
cussing? It is, first of all, the unique advantage they give in the rhetorical
or polemical situation. “You doubt of what I say? I’ll show you.” And,
without moving more than a few inches, I unfold in front of your eyes
figures, diagrams, plates, texts, silhouettes, and then and there present
things that are far away and with which some sort of two-way connec-
tion has now been established. I do not think the importance of this
simple mechanism can be overestimated. (1986, 13)

Once acknowledged that images are fabrications, their degree of objec-

tivity or subjectivity becomes less crucial, and instead the focus can shift
to the ways in which they are fabricated, the processes and participants
that generate them. If there is no “mere representation,” an image never
merely refers to its sujet, but to a more complex interplay of an entire
dispositif or actor-network. The entanglement comprises the apparatus
from which the image emerges and that circulates it, as well as the con-
tent of the image, and the spectators—no inscriptions without inscrip-
tion devices. A photograph refers to light, chemicals, or lenses, a news-
paper refers to paper and a printing press, and a film to cameras, pro-
ducers, editors, and actors. As mentioned before, it is also the concern
of apparatus theory to identify not necessarily the machines in them-
selves, but the manifold steps where both affirmative and subversive ide-
ologies inscribe themselves into a film via its human and non-human
196 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

participants. However, our eyes are used to seeing films and are there-
fore able to disconnect them from their apparatuses and from reality and
grant them their own realities. Other than the storied spectators of early
cinema who attacked the screen or fled from “oncoming” trains in the
Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat (1895), we
are aware of the machines that generate the filmic image—and thus we
are able to blackbox them, which we unconsciously do in order to endow
films with coherence and what Latour calls optical consistency (“The main
quality of the new space is not to be ‘objective’ as a naïve definition of
realism often claims, but rather to have optical consistency” [1986, 10]).
As movie audience, we do not necessarily assume that a film depicts an
objective reality: we know the difference between fiction and documen-
tary, we are aware that actors whom we possibly have already seen in
other roles are not, but only play a part, but as long as the film retains its
optical consistency, we are able to maintain our blackboxing and uphold
the filmic illusion, which is also why we can accept an animation film
as something that has no relation to “reality” but has narrative coher-
ence and optical consistency. But if the optical consistency is disrupted,
the apparatus becomes visible.9 The image’s artifice and subjectivity are
revealed, the hand that manipulates and actively constructs the image,
the presence of the apparatus that provides the image to begin with.

Teenage Inscriptions: Voicing and Visualizing

the Self
The diary writing indicated by the film’s title is the premise of and
the device that will structure both the narrative and Minnie’s identity-
forming introspective self-reflection. Besides establishing the theme of

9The narrative/illusional consistency can also be disrupted, as for instance in Brecht’s conception
of an “epic theatre,” the breaking of the fourth wall, or with cinematic techniques such as voice-
overs, perspective shifts, nonlinearity, self-referentiality, and the self-revelation of the apparatus,
which Christian Metz refers to as énonciation; along with enoncé, the context-free “what” is said,
the term énonciation (which denotes the act of saying it, per definition tied to a context) was
appropriated from linguistics by film theoreticians and especially Metz as a means to distinguish
what André Bazin coined a “transparent” cinema (Metz 2016, 68) that “covers its tracks” from
a mode of filmmaking which makes its being-made visible.
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 197

self-documentation (also see the discussion of The DUFF ) the informa-

tion provided by a caption that the diegesis is set in 1976 San Francisco
establishes an a priori position of diary writing (which by definition is
always retrospective) creating a temporal displacement and turning the
film into a period piece. This is on the one hand indebted to Phoebe
Gloeckner’s book and its specific historical context; on the other hand,
the temporal displacement mitigates the voyeuristic invasion of the diary
format’s intimacy, and the explicitness of the film’s content and language.
Locating the narrative in “the past” assumes a filter function that in the
graphic novel is provided by varied levels of mediation,10 as both drawing
and writing are generally perceived as more mediated and filtered than
the supposedly more immediate and naturalistic photography. Visually,
the narrative is located in the 1970s and coded by its mise-en-scène,
as sets, props, costumes, hairstyles, and music are easily decipherable in
their time-specificity.11 Diary was shot on a Red Epic, similar to the cam-
era used for Winter’s Bone, with Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses
(a series introduced in 1968) that are known for their slightly grainy, “or-
ganic,” less modern, and less sterile pictures. For the most part, Diary was
filmed with a handheld camera, which, also comparable to Winter’s Bone,
leads to a different movement, stability, and light, more reminiscent of
documentary than present-day Hollywood cinema, especially in combi-
nation with the anamorphic format that is typically associated with the
look of 35 mm films from the 1970s. Camera operator Brandon Trost
says in an interview with American Cinematographer that “the movie
should feel like you’re flipping through a photo album of old Polaroids—
the color palette, the way it faded, the softness of it” (Stasukevich 2015).
The photography is characterized by the strong presence of yellow tones

10 Another filter is the nota bene included in the book’s imprint that despite Gloeckner’s self-
avowed autobiographical content of the narrative states: “This account is entirely fictional and
if you think you recognize any of the characters as an actual person, living or dead, you are
mistaken” (2002, x). The idiosyncratic variation of a standard legal clause for books and films
simultaneously doubles as a claiming of authorship and fictionality, blurring the boundaries
between author and work.
11The film stock (or more so the camera and lenses used) contributes strongly to a “1970s
look,” other than in period teen films such as Grease (1978) which is set in 1959, but whose
film stock looks clearly like the late 70s film it actually is, or Detroit Rock City (1999), which
is set in 1978, but unmistakably looks like a late 90s film.
198 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

and its desaturated color palette and additionally shifts the film’s action
to a bygone era, providing a “safe” distance from which the film’s uncom-
mon perspective on female desire can be experimentally explored.
The first time we hear Minnie’s voice—“I had sex today.”—leads
quickly to her strategy to deal with her sexuality and her self: after her
slow-motion stroll through the park and upon arriving at her house, she
gets out a tape cassette recorder from the closet, sits down cross-legged
amid a layered cascade of visual inscriptions that includes bedroom walls
filled with Iggy Pop and Janis Joplin posters as well as her own drawings
and starts dictating into the microphone: “My name is Minnie Goetze.
I am a fifteen-year-old girl living in San Francisco California, recording
this onto a cassette tape because my life has gotten really crazy of late,
and I need to tell someone about it. If you’re listening to this without
my permission, please stop right now. Just, really. Stop. Okay?”
Recording herself becomes the first of many inscriptions Minnie con-
ducts. For the dramaturgy, it is a convenient device to have the character
introduce herself to the audience and simultaneously negotiate the nature
of the inscription: “I need to tell someone about it.” The choice of aux-
iliary verb is decisive here: Her self-documentation stems neither from
narcissism nor from a feeling that she is obliged to disclose her intimate
sphere it stems from a wish to make her life more tangible by literally
turning it into a flat inscription. This inscription also stems from desire:
not only the sexual desire of which she is about to give an account, but
a desire to document.
Minnie goes on, dictating that she does not remember being born or
having been an ugly child, the camera pans over several of her drawings
before resting on the depiction of a woman that suddenly becomes ani-
mated, opens her thighs and has an oversized baby’s head emerging from
her vagina. Through the film, animations that materialize or emerge from
drawings often appear at moments when the sexual content is explicit,
simultaneously defusing and emphasizing it. In this early diary-dictation
scene, Minnie recounts how her own illicit relationship with Monroe was
initiated and led to the present point, the “I just had sex” she refers to,
a path she traces it back to him touching her breast apparently inciden-
tally while watching TV: “I know it seems weird, but I had this strangely
calming feeling that even if he touched my tit on purpose it’s probably
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 199

all right because he’s one of our best friends and he’s a good guy and he
knows how it goes and I don’t … But I wonder if my breast felt small?”
Minnie, wearing pajamas, looks at a drawing she made of Monroe,
tenderly touching the portrait’s crotch and asks: “Oh Monroe. Pitter pat.
You touched my tit. How was that?” The drawing then becomes ani-
mated, Monroe’s face morphs into live action, surrounded by psychedelic
floral ornaments while he bashfully says: “Can I just say… touching
your breasts—I can’t, I can’t say it. They’re really great. Fantastic breasts,
Minnie. Just perfect.” Minnie’s thoughts, memories, and her dreaming
become a drawing which becomes an animation which transforms back
into live action: The fluidity of different medial forms visualizes the flu-
idity of the different layers of consciousness bleeding into each other.
The second image shows Minnie’s sexualized daydreaming, commented
by her voice-over narration: “Maybe I should just ignore everything. But
I like sex. I want to get laid right now. I really like getting fucked. Does
everyone think about fucking as much as I do? Am I a sexed-up freak or
something?” Attaching a wagging cartoon penis to a boy, she sees liter-
ally turns him into a projection screen of her active and objectifying gaze.
Language seems to be Minnie’s testing ground for finding an approach to
sexuality in a tough, quasi-pornographic manner (“I hate men but I fuck
them hard hard hard and thoughtlessly because I hate them so much. I
hear myself and it sounds so stupid.”), however the colorful animations
correspond to another level of her emotional landscape, while simultane-
ously creating a visual estrangement and a liminal space between modes
of visualization (Fig. 5.1a and b).
Minnie’s insecurities about her transitioning adolescent body, won-
dering whether her breasts are adequate in the eyes of an experienced
man and fabricating an imaginary conversation to reassure herself, allude
to an internalized male gaze. Already in the Yerba Buena Park expo-
sition scene, she checked out a jogging woman’s bouncing breasts and
then looked down on her own comparing their figures, where the gaze
was emphasized by photography and editing choices that more bla-
tantly fetishized the jogger’s physique. Accordingly, Minnie mirrors her-
self in what she assumes to be other people’s perception of her. Her
mother contributes strongly to the scopic regime Minnie moves through:
Even though Charlotte tries to redefine herself as a liberated progressive
200 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 5.1a and b Birthing and wagging penis animation: defusing and empha-
sizing sexual content

woman, she continuously regresses into objectifying herself and other

females when she reduces them to their bodies and their to-be-looked-at-
ness. We see this for instance when she repeatedly talks about how attrac-
tive she was at Minnie’s age, comments on the looks of Minnie’s best
friend Kimmie, and on what she perceives as Minnie’s self-objectifying
failures: “It wouldn’t kill you to wear something with a waist.” For Char-
lotte, empowerment, and sexual empowerment specifically, is necessarily
defined by male desire, but not by any female desire uncoupled from
male desire: “You know, you aren’t always going to have that body, Min.
I know it’s not exactly feminist to say, but I think you’d be happier if
you put yourself out there a bit—a little make-up, a skirt every once in
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 201

a while, Jesus. Get a little attention. You have a kind of power, you just
don’t know it yet.”
Minnie is thus constantly confronted with the perception others have
of her, the way she perceives herself, and the images she makes of her-
self as a function of how she thinks others perceive her. The negotia-
tion of internal and external images, internalized and externalized gazes
is conducted via the actual material and mental images Minnie creates
and imagines—and the cinematography corresponds to these cascades
of images by superimposing the different types of image. The perspec-
tive on all these perspectives however is always Minnie’s. The audience
is focalized through Minnie, both by her voice-over narration as diarist,
as well as by the inscriptions she produces, and by her presence: She is
present in every scene, either as an active participant or as an observer,
but it is always clear that the story is not only about but also by Minnie,
that the perspective is on and that of Minnie. All the gazes are Minnie’s
gazes, even though in the beginning her gaze is still that of an inter-
nalized male gaze that only gradually becomes determined by her own
desire, and enabled through the practice of image-making. That Minnie
is, in Mulvey’s terminology, the active “bearer of the look” and not the
passive woman-as-image and the object of a male gaze, is a decisive differ-
ence to other representations of adolescent female sexuality, for instance
that which we see in Lolita (both Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel and
Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 movie adaptation) and its negotiation of an illicit
relationship between an adult and a pubescent girl. The scopic regime
in Lolita is ruled by Humbert Humbert as the narrator through whom
we are focalized in both incarnations of the narrative, this makes the
202 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 5.2 Mirror scene in the cluttered boudoir

evaluation of agency and victimization different than in the illicit rela-

tionship between Minnie and Monroe.12 Diary’s scopic regime is con-
trolled by Minnie’s gaze—even the one time we see her naked in front
of her bedroom mirror, the mise-en-scène (especially the lighting, spatial
arrangement, and camera perspective) carefully evades turning Minnie
into an object of male desire by avoiding to frame the scene as erotic
(Fig. 5.2). The mere fact that Minnie has agency and is not simply Mon-
roe’s victim does however not blank the problematic asymmetry in their
relations, it instead makes the question more ambiguous and Monroe
a more complex character instead of a type. He is not constructed as
a one-dimensional depraved pedophile, but certainly as an irresponsible
adult, emotionally hardly more mature than Minnie and her peers. In
Gloeckner’s book, Minnie enters in her diary:

12 Even though Lolita is not read unambiguously this way, as Georg Seeßlen observes: “Indeed,
Nabokov articulates her anguish and revulsion very clearly, and it is obviously not so much a
matter of the text, as it is a matter of what a society reads into it, that it has been understood
as the tragedy of a lewd old man, and not as the tragedy of an abused child” (Seeßlen and Jung
1999, 120, my translation). In her NY Times article about The Diary (the film), Manohla Dargis
points out that the constellation of Minnie and Monroe is orchestrated and contextualized in a
way that defies an all-too-clear binarism of identifying a victim or victimizer in either: “[Monroe
is] Charlotte’s boyfriend when the movie opens, and he’s also sleeping with the very willing,
all-too-eager Minnie, although calling him her lover doesn’t seem quite right—but neither does
predator. What you call Monroe, other than an expletive, depends on what you call a man
having sex with a 15-year-old girl. The Diary of a Teenage Girl takes place in 1976, when the
age of consent in California was 18 (it still is), but it unfolds in an anything-goes milieu in
which Monroe might be branded more of an opportunist than a creep” (Dargis 2015).
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 203

It’s just not right that we have to hide our affection. Do you think it’s
right? Or do you think that Monroe is just some old lecher who is taking
advantage of me? And if he’s not taking advantage of me, do you think
it’s a horrible sin all the same? I wish Monroe had a diary so you could
read both sides of the situation and tell me what’s what. (Gloeckner 2002,

Besides pondering the lover-or-lecher question, it is characteristic that

Minnie wishes there were inscriptions by Monroe as it reinforces the
notion that inscriptions have the capability to make a deeper truth (the
unconscious maybe), or an objective reality, visible that cannot be other-
wise accessed. By a dialectic superimposition of (subjective) inscriptions,
Minnie assumes it will be possible to determine “what’s what.” Conse-
quently, the diary in the way she uses and understands it, is an immutable
mobile 13 par excellence, an inscription that can be transported or hidden
and has the capability to store volatile data that would neither be repre-
sentable, and perhaps get lost without inscriptions:

I keep my diary, which is a black loose-leaf binder, under my mattress. I

don’t think that’s a very safe place to hide it. I also have a little Hello Kitty
diary that I keep in my backpack but I don’t use it that much because I
prefer typing. I have a feeling that they will be found eventually … I’ll
never destroy it. How else can you remember your life? (Gloeckner 2002,

The diary as Minnie describes it in the book—and Gloeckner’s book in

its own right as the next step in the diary’s chain of transformation—have
at least eight of the aforementioned nine advantages Latour ascribes to

13 Immutable mobiles are inscriptions such as printed matter that can be easily transported
and circulated without any loss, as the information and the contained knowledge is mass-
reproducible (and thus becomes immutable), which he sums up into “nine advantages:” besides
being mobile and immutable, they are flat, the scale of the inscriptions may be modified at
will, they can be reproduced and spread, they can be reshuffled and recombined, it is possible
to superimpose several images of different origins and scales and they can be made part of a
written text. The example of a map illustrates the process how a visualization is generated and
how power is linked to visualizations, to exerting domination with the eyes, the pencil, and
then materially and politically. Building on Svetlana Alpers retracing of an ever-changing “visual
culture” (1983), Latour shifts the discourse of power to visualization and visibility, to “how a
culture sees the world, and makes it visible” (Latour 1986, 11).
204 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

such inscriptions: They are mobile, immutable, flat, their scale is modi-
fiable, they are reproducible and spreadable, they can be reshuffled and
recombined, they are superimposable, and they can be made part of a
written text—which all applies to the hybrid book into which the diary
turns and the hybrid film into which it then turns again. In this way, the
thing and its representation as fiction are connected and share a “common
place” from which “complete hybrids” emerge:

Fiction—even the wildest or the most sacred—and things of nature—

even the lowliest have a meeting ground, a common place, because they all
benefit from the same “optical consistency”. Not only can you displace
cities, landscapes, or natives and go back and forth to and from them
along avenues through space, but you can also reach saints, gods, heavens,
palaces, or dreams with the same two-way avenues and look at them
through the same “windowpane” on the same two-dimensional surface
… Impossible palaces can be drawn realistically, but it is also possible
to draw possible objects as if they were utopian ones … At this stage,
on paper, hybrids can be created that mix drawings from many sources.
Perspective is not interesting because it provides realistic pictures; on the
other hand, it is interesting because it creates complete hybrids: nature
seen as fiction, and fiction seen as nature, with all the elements made so
homogeneous in space that it is now possible to reshuffle them like a pack
of cards. (Latour 1986, 21)

The layered, collaged, multi-mode mise-en-scène of The Diary embodies

and visualizes (and embodies by visualization) not only the in-between-
ness of Minnie and other characters or settings in liminal spaces, the
fluid state of becoming, but also the very in-between-ness of these visual
inscriptions and the fluidity of their mediations and translations.

Une Ecriture Feminine, Une Ecriture

Adolescente: Writing the Body, Writing
the Self
The duality of internal and external images in the form of the interplay of
Minnie’s bodily reality and body images is repeatedly addressed in Diary.
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 205

After losing her virginity to Monroe and in post-coital bliss, Monroe

says to her: “You look good, you know? Nice.” Minnie gets a polaroid
camera from her bag, tries to resume the exact position on which Monroe
had just commented and asks him: “Will you take my picture? Please?
I just want to see.” Not only is Minnie an almost compulsive image-
maker, furthermore as an artist and someone concerned with the relation
of images to the conscious and the unconscious realms of perception, she
wonders whether sexual identity inscribes itself on the body. Already, in
the first tape recording scene after her deflowering, Minnie grabs her
cat and cuddles him, whispering: “Hey, Domino. Do I look different
than I did yesterday?” A while later, after her affair with Monroe has
been going on for some time, she dictates onto her cassette diary while
also riding a cable car full of other passengers, this is another form of
coming-out, leaving the privacy of the bedroom and embracing her new
sexually awakened persona publicly and without shame “Monroe is a
good lay from what I know in my limited knowledge. He is very tall and
strong and he has two strong muscular thighs and a big hairy chest. As
for myself, I’m not particularly attractive at all. But I do think I look
different now—probably my aura. And I think people are noticing.”
In order to determine whether she “looks different now” and whether
her body has become a visual inscription of her assumedly changed aura
(in her first cassette diary entry, Minnie had already posited her loss
of virginity as an “official” liminal rite of passage: “That was about an
hour ago and I can’t believe I’ve now actually said it out loud. I’m pretty
sure this makes me officially an adult. Right?”), Minnie studies the post-
defloration polaroid, copies it as a drawing and attaches it to the mirror
in her room. Later, she will stand naked in front of this mirror, compar-
ing her body to its specular image and to the polaroid she tried to re-
enact while also pondering her own teen angst and longing: “What’s the
point of living if nobody loves you? Nobody sees you? Nobody touches
you? I want someone to be so totally in love with me that they would
feel like they would die if I were gone. Maybe Monroe could love me like
that? I am so warm. I want a body with mine. I need a man” (Fig. 5.3).
The multiplication of her image doubles the position of the spectator,
who watches Minnie framed by the screen in the same way she watches
herself framed by the polaroid image and the mirror. The scene is not
206 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 5.3 Cascades of images: reenacting the polaroid

staged as titillating and it is again Minnie’s gaze that directs the spectator’s
gaze and not vice versa. The agency she is starting to assume is a scopic
agency, visualized by the directionality of her gaze and her active practice
of producing inscriptions and making images.
Accordingly, when Minnie is angered by Monroe’s avoiding her, she
sits down at a typewriter and writes him an offended and spiteful note,
again choosing a cultural practice to mediate her inner turmoil, assum-
ing agency by producing inscriptions (later, she will let Ricky give her a
hickey, a physical inscription of her body, and flaunt it in front of Mon-
roe to make him jealous). In Gloeckner’s book, a formally and temporally
hybrid collage of her actual diary entries, contemporaneous photographs,
more recent illustrations, and comic strips, she addresses the differences
of inscription devices. Her entry from Saturday, May 15, 1976 reads:

The only reason this is in my handwriting and not typewritten is because

I’m not allowed to make any noise so I can’t type. My mother is asleep,
Monroe is napping on the couch, Gretel is quietly puttering around and
I am sitting peacefully upon my bed … Gretel says she wants to use the
typewriter. She wants to take it into her room, and use it for exactly as
long as I have. That ruins me sometimes, you know. It ruins the spon-
taneity of writing things down as I am moved to do so. And then I forget
things. When I can’t use the typewriter, I sometimes use a pencil or other
such thing, but it doesn’t work as well. With a pencil, I can’t write as fast
as I think. Then, because I have the time, I begin to think about how
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 207

I’m writing, not just what I’m writing. And that’s where I get screwed up.
(Gloeckner 2002, 72–73)

The film implies this “automatic writing” aspect through Minnie’s ham-
mering on the typewriter’s keyboard with her two index fingers, the
immediacy and affect it enables as an inscription device made visible
by having the agitated Minnie storm into her room, throw her bag in a
corner and type away without hesitation or reflection. Similarly, her mis-
sion statement on immediacy-of-mediation is seen when dictating the
first entry of her tape diary: “I’m going to continue recording this diary
with the intention of making entries each and every day as honestly and
as sincerely as is possible for me to do” (Fig. 5.4).
The most obvious inscriptions Minnie actively produces though are
her drawings and comics, as a language she starts to learn and will
develop further throughout the film. While she has been drawing from
the beginning, drawing comic strips is a different project as they are not
merely about an isolated expression of a single event or feeling, but about
turning these into a cohesive narrative. They become a form of self-
writing, being so undisguisedly autobiographical. For Wilhelm Dilthey, a
significant function of the “Selbstbiographie” (self-biography) is to give
an external form to a life’s singular parts whose inner relation we can
now perceive due to the “unity of consciousness” (Dilthey 1927, 195),
but whose external relation or greater sense is not evident. Self-writing
in that sense is a means to translate memory and perception into a nar-
rative from which meaning and coherence can be derived, to translate
unity of consciousness into unity of narration.14 Foucault attests the
same function to various forms of self-writing as “a matter of unifying
these heterogeneous fragments through their subjectivaton in the exer-
cise of personal writing” (Foucault 1997, 213). Dilthey’s exemplary texts
are the autobiographies of “important” male writers such as Rousseau

14 “Only the category of meaning is capable to overcome the mere side-by-side, the mere
subordering of life’s parts. And just like history is memory and the category of meaning belongs
to that memory, meaning is the most genuine category of historic thinking. Meaning now has
most of all to be developed in its gradual formation” (Dilthey 1927, 202, my translation).
208 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 5.4 The immediacy of the inscription device: a page from the book where
Gloeckner/Minnie tests automatic-machinic typing as opposed to consciously
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 209

or Goethe, while Foucault develops the four functions of self-writing—

Self-cultivation, Self-disclosure, Self-affirming, Self-effacing—by analyz-
ing practices of notebook- or letter writing. Both address practices of text
production, but their findings apply to Minnie’s graphic self-writing as
an extended notion of text in the sense of Derrida’s écriture (1988) or
Latourian inscriptions: The visual inscriptions she produces are a practi-
cal strategy in the constitution of the self.
It is after Minnie discovers Aline Kominsky (“I’ve decided Aline
Kominsky is my favorite cartoonist.”), one of the first and few female
protagonists of the underground comix movement and also one of the
first comic artists to produce clearly autobiographical comics, that she
starts drawing comics, studying the art first by tracing Kominsky’s and
writing a letter to her idol in which she asks about the types of paper
and ink she uses. Minnie’s own first strip is a one-page comic called
“A Walk through the City” that shows her graphic alter ego travers-
ing San Francisco. In the film, live-action Minnie morphs into her car-
toon counterpart, while her voice-over reads a letter to Aline Komin-
sky, merging diegetic levels to generate visual hybridity by superimposing
visual inscriptions of different sorts. The perspectives of Minnie’s draw-
ings are distorted and deliberately un-naturalistic, strongly reminiscent
of Robert Crumb’s (Aline Kominsky’s partner in life and art) exaggerated
and elaborate quasi-three-dimensional depictions of female bodies with
oversized thighs and behinds, and Kominsky’s figures with equally dis-
torted physiques and completely flat two-dimensionality. Both Crumb’s
and Kominsky’s aesthetics and narratives, as dissimilar as they are, are
characterized by their frankness and deviant erotics. Their use of propor-
tion and perspective fetishizes especially the female body and at the same
time satirizes this same fetishization, again by making visible the under-
lying gazes as a function of male desire. They both use visual inscriptions
to decipher, reveal, and dismantle the language of desire (Fig. 5.5).
Minnie’s distorted perspectives attach her then in the first instance to
an artistic tradition, secondly they negotiate the scopic regimes of visual
culture by literalizing gender asymmetry visually, and thirdly they illus-
trate her processual in-between-ness as someone in a constant state of
becoming. Despite their erotic content, they do not cater to the male
gaze, on the contrary, they subvert it and are unsettling for Monroe’s
210 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 5.5 Becoming hybrid: Minnie morphing into her cartoon counterpart

viewing habits: When he looks at some of Minnie’s drawings in her note-

book, he remarks: “You shouldn’t really show these to people. I mean, it’s
just gonna weird people out. It’s so freaky. Are they supposed to be sexy?”
He is neither aroused, nor offended, he is instead confused because he is
unable to read them as legible because they do not adhere to any scopic
regime he is used to: These inscriptions are not visualizations of his desire
(and therefore they are deviant).
All of Minnie’s inscriptions, her letters, cassette diary, and especially
those inscriptions of a visual nature, retrace her process of not only
coming-of-age (and agency), but also coming-of-femininity, coming-of-
art, and coming-of-self. Her trajectory as an artist echoes her psycholog-
ical and physical development: She finds her own voice by first imitating
another woman’s art as a starting point toward artistic liberation, and she
finds her own desire by gradually outgrowing and actively displacing the
dominance of a patriarchal scopic regime. In her own way, she has found
an écriture feminine like Hélène Cixous posits (1976) in her manifesto-
like rhetoric as she pleads for female self-representation: “I write woman:
woman must write woman. And man, man” (1976, 4). Cixous explicitly
connects the claiming of female authorship to the claiming of the female
body and—even if mainly for rhetoric reasons—the liberation of female
sexuality, masturbation, and orgasms to female self-writing.15 Minnie’s

15 “And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours,
take it. I know why you haven’t written.… Because writing is at once too high, too great for
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 211

form of self-writing is “taking up the challenge of speech which has been

governed by the phallus,” (ibid., 881) and is a claiming of agency, both as
a female as well as an adolescent, an intersectional position from which
she breaks free on the level of visuality. Her contributions to establish
an écriture feminine by narrating her Self, her own story and biography,
and her own, teenage, female desire via voice-over, drawing and writing
are just as well une écriture adolescente, a multi-medial, hybrid diary of
a teenage girl that manages to suggest one of the very few progressive
positions on female sexuality amid the totality of teen film.

“Everybody Wants to Be Touched.”

Victimization vs. Agency, Male and Female
Minnie’s coming-of-age is, as in most teen narratives, a negotiation of
agency and autonomy, even though her quest for self-actualization is not
played out on the more traditional objectives such as “getting the guy,”
graduating, getting the scholarship, winning the competition, escaping
social class or a culture of poverty, or freeing herself from the labels of
the various teen film taxonomies. Already her relationship as a minor
with an adult man and the resulting question of victimization vs. agency
works toward Diary’s negotiation of agency as a redefinition of female
All the characters Minnie encounters will prove to be catalysts for
her development; the most important figure beside herself however is

you, it’s reserved for the great—that is, for ‘great men;’ and it’s “silly.” Besides, you’ve written
a little, but in secret.… as when we would masturbate in secret … And then as soon as we
come, we go and make ourselves feel guilty—so as to be forgiven; or to forget, to bury it
until the next time. Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the
imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers
of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; and
not yourself. Smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of
women—female-sexed texts. That kind scares them … By writing her self, woman will return
to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the
uncanny stranger on display … Write your self. Your body must be heard” (Cixous 1976,
876–877, 880).
212 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

her mother. The single mothers in The DUFF, Winter’s Bone (2010),
and Dope are all more or less important figures in different ways: The
DUFF ’s Bianca has a close and eye-to-eye relationship with her mother
and both women ultimately go through a comparable transition, Winter’s
Bone’s Ree has a quasi-autistic mother whose mental state forces her to
assume responsibility and agency, the relationship of Dope’s Malcolm to
his mother is convivial, however her screen time totals less than a minute,
rendering her mostly important by being so absent—the Charlie Brown
Effect. The relationship of Minnie and Charlotte is an especially interest-
ing relationship in this sample as Charlotte is the mother figure here to
whom the highest degree of complexity is granted, further emphasizing
the progressive and feminist stance of Diary as a teen film that also takes
non-teens seriously and not merely using them to generate a young-vs.-
old juxtaposition.
One of the defining questions in regards to Minnie’s sexual coming-of-
age—namely agency vs. victimization—is doubled through Charlotte’s
parallel attempts at defining herself, and her femininity. Charlotte is pre-
sented as self-absorbed, and as a mother figure she is neither constructed
along the lines of the clichéd nurturing mommy, nor as an uncaring ego-
tist without regard to the well-being of her children. Just like Monroe is
not reduced to a simplified type, Charlotte, too, is a layered character
in an in-between space. She has a hard time holding down a job or any
other form of conventional structure of adult life, she regularly drinks,
uses drugs and parties, and she even allows Minnie to partake. Extend-
ing Minnie’s perspective, the film does not evaluate this behavior as the
personal failure to be a responsible adult, but shows Charlotte’s struggle
for independence as a state of profound confusion. She tries to manage
her female desire in a male-dominated culture at a time when the legal
situation for women had started to shift toward equality, and the models
of the disenfranchised Victorian Woman or 1950s housewife, who was
supposed to be content as a de-sexualized, desire-less mother and assis-
tant to her husband, had theoretically been outmoded, but most actual
lived experiences were still defined by restrictive and outdated roles for
women. Charlotte longs for independence, but she cannot fully break
free from being stuck in an order she tries to overcome without being
able to locate a stable counter position and the attempts to free herself
from patterns she continuously falls back into corresponds with Minnie’s
agency/victimization ambiguity—and again, visualizations make these
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 213

conflicts visible. The first time we are introduced to Charlotte and Gretel
for example, they are both watching TV news coverage of Patty Hearst’s
trial. The following dialogue staged like a dialogue between the all-female
family and the male-dominated media and experts commenting on the

TV anchor: Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heiress whose story has riveted the
world, appeared in court again today. She was described as pallid, dull
in complexion and lacking in energy. One court reporter described her
demeanor as “zombie-like”. When Ms. Hearst was asked to describe the
closet that her captors held her in…
Charlotte: Oh Minnie. Come watch with us.
Gretel: Yeah. It’s history in the making.
TV: Prosecutors brought in Dr. Harry L. Kozol, an expert on sex-offenders
and mentally ill criminals…
Minnie: No thanks.
C (addressing the TV): She’s not mentally ill! Fuck this guy. Just because
she ran away from her bourgeois family and started over. I know how
you feel, Patty! (toasting the TV with her gin and tonic)
M: What kind of person falls in love with the people who kidnap and
torture them?

The male “experts” who are trying to make sense of Patty Hearst’s Stock-
holm Syndrome victimize Hearst—symptomatic of the patriarchal cul-
ture to which Charlotte, too, is trying to find an alternative and which
is furthermore played out in Minnie’s falling in love with and delivering
herself to Monroe. Later on, Patty Hearst’s sentencing is covered by the
TV news, Charlotte switches her position without being aware of it and
adopts the standpoint of victimization instead of empowerment, thereby
also adopting a male gaze that strips the female off of agency:

Charlotte: I just think it’s barbaric that she was found guilty! Even if she
knew what she was doing in that bank—she was still a prisoner. Kid-
napped, raped! Come on. She’s a victim!
Monroe: I don’t know. I guess it does seem kinda counter-progressive or
C: It’s bullshit. It’s fascist, misogynistic bullshit. You need to pay more
attention to this stuff. Read the paper every once in a while.
214 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

The mise-en-scène of the Patty Hearst TV moments with the specta-

tors lounging on a couch and looking in from a safe distance on the
personal tragedy and traumatic experience of a woman in a violent situa-
tion, oscillating between victim, empowered individual and violent bank
robber, uses the TV screen as another inscription device that produces
and circulates a visual display, and ultimately a panoptic domination.
Whether Patty Hearst is a brainwashed victim of the Symbionese Libera-
tion Army whom she joined after being abducted by them, or an empow-
ered woman who supports their cause out of free will is a moot point, but
she certainly is victimized by a judgmental and invasive media violence
that literally puts her on display as a spectacle to be gazed at, turning her
into an object of voyeurism by visualization. Through the incorporation
of the original footage of the Patty Hearst TV coverage whose staging so
clearly constructs Mrs. Hearst as femme fatale-like “beautiful terrorist”
Tania (her SLA nom du guerre), it becomes evident that these images
contain residues of eroticism that serve as a reminder that the victim-
ization/agency debate is not relegated to the dimension of choice and
personal interaction, but that to some extent, it is a debate of power and
domination that also has a visual component.
Heller’s decision to include the Patty Hearst theme and footage,
besides anchoring the diegesis in a particular cultural moment, works
to define a problem central to the female experience that unites Patty
Hearst, Minnie, and Charlotte: The boundaries of where their actions,
desire, and agency are self-determined or male-dominated are constantly
disputed (and watched) by others. When Minnie tells her best friend
Kimmie about losing her virginity to Monroe, Kimmie is—legiti-
mately—skeptical: “Don’t you kinda feel like he’s taking advantage of
you or something? I mean, you’re so much younger than him.” And even
though Pascal, Charlotte’s former husband and Minnie’s step-father, is
no longer part of their day-to-day lives, it is him who has determined the
relationship between Minnie and Charlotte (“My mother was married
for a long time to my step-dad Pascal. He is a science-y guy, a PhD. He
has a lot of ideas about how the world works—doesn’t think women
should drink or smoke”). Voice-over Minnie recalls at one point: “My
mother doesn’t touch me much if she can avoid it. She used to touch
me a lot, in a motherly way, when I was little. But then…”—and
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 215

via flashback we are taken back to a childhood memory of Minnie in

which Pascal mansplains to Charlotte: “There’s something sexual about
Minnie’s need for physical affection from you. It’s not natural.” It is the
father who has suspended the mother-daughter bond: that he deems
the physical closeness between Charlotte and Minnie “sexual” says more
about his gaze and the resulting desire to police the infant’s polymor-
phous perversity in order to channel it into a heteronormative sexuality,
than it says about the degree of how sexual or libidinous the tenderness
between Minnie and Charlotte is. Again, it is his, the (step-)father’s
gaze that determines the sexuality of the women, the nom du père that
regulates normative behavior.
In addition to the adult male gazes (from both males and females),
Minnie is confronted with and that are either classifying, policing, objec-
tifying, or confused by her, her peers also adhere to the same scopic
and sexual regimes, as her high school classmate Ricky Wasserman dis-
plays the same internalized controlling of her behavior. Once her sex-
uality is awakened, Minnie starts exploring and has relationships with
various partners male and female, her affair with Ricky becomes the ani-
mated cartoon “The Making of a Harlot,” in which an oversized Min-
nie alter ego roams the San Francisco vista in the fashion of King Kong
or Godzilla (Fig. 5.6). The scene cuts back and forth between the car-
toon and Minnie and Ricky making out in his car until he stops them

Fig. 5.6 King Kong and the white boy: Minnie’s comic strip “The Making of a
216 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

and says: “You’re just so … intense.” Already when they first have inter-
course and Minnie switches from the missionary position and gets on top
of Ricky, ecstatically moving and panting, Ricky is visibly uncomfort-
able, foreshadowing his calling out of Minnie’s initiative taking and lack
of submission as intense.16 Minnie is shamed, the giant cartoon Min-
nie heartbrokenly drops the tiny victim-Ricky—the distorted perspective
mirroring the asymmetry resulting from Minnie assuming agency, which
entirely disrupts Ricky’s sense of protocol. What in Ricky’s eyes is an “in-
tense” female is visualized in its absurdity by an inflated Minnie cartoon,
once more interrogating gender organization via a visual inscription and
literalizing a discourse of inequality not only on the level of dialogue,
but through visual exaggeration, thus turning not only Minnie’s diary
into a cartoon, but also the patriarchal order that has allotted positions
to females other than the ones Minnie assumes. For Latour, the signif-
icant ability of visualizations lies in “the unique advantage they give in
the rhetorical or polemical situation—‘You doubt of what I say? I’ll show
you’” (1986, 13). In this regard, Minnie’s cartoon becomes not only a
self-expression, but also a polemical satire of an entire regime: “I’ll show
The insecurity that arises from Minnie not subordinating her female
desire to male desire and which is either perceived as “being taken advan-
tage of ” or “being too intense” is worked through with the support of
an imaginary, animated Aline Kominsky, taking a walk with live-action

Minnie: Dear Diary. I did not go to school today. I didn’t want to see
superficial Ricky Wasserman. I feel so awkward and ugly and naive and
Animated Aline Kominsky: I know how you feel.

16 In the “polemic preface” to her feminist critique/analysis of the “ideology of pornography,”

Angela Carter regards the missionary position as an embodied power dynamic: “The missionary
position has another great asset, from the mythic point of view; it implies a system of relations
between the partners that equates the woman to the passive receptivity of the soil, to the richness
and fecundity of the earth. A whole range of images poeticises, kitschifies, departicularises
intercourse‚ such as wind beating down corn, rain driving against bending trees, towers falling,
all tributes to the freedom and strength of the roving, fecundating, irresistible male principle
and the heavy, downward, equally irresistible gravity of the receptive soil” (Carter 2001, 8).
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 217

M: And I have no friends. I don’t want to go to school ever again. Nobody

loves me. Maybe I should kill myself.
A: Nah, alienation is good for your art.
M: Maybe I should paint a picture. I should paint a picture.
A: It doesn’t matter what kind of art you do. It will be intense and expres-
sive. Just do it.
M: I want to discipline myself to draw every day. That’s what I have to
do, right? (Aline nods.)
M: I get distracted sometimes. Overwhelmed by my all-consuming
thoughts about sex and men. I always want to be touched. I don’t know
what’s wrong with me…
A: I don’t know either. Maybe you’re a nympho. (laughs) I’m fucking with
you. Nothing’s wrong with you. Everybody wants to be touched.

The emotional connection Minnie cannot establish with her mother is

relocated to the artistic connection she enters with an imaginary Aline
Kominsky (the actual Aline will reply to her letter in the end, informing
her about the Indian ink she uses and encouraging her to keep producing
art). Charlotte conveys a progressive femininity that she confuses with an
extended adolescence characterized by a hollow hedonism and the inabil-
ity to assume responsibility. She is not yet capable of defining herself as
an independent individual and adheres instead to the hegemony of the
male gaze, which constitutes Diary’s engagement with the teen film trope
of generational conflict: The paradigms for female identity have changed
significantly in the 19 years since Charlotte was Minnie’s age and the
starting point from which Minnie can develop her identity and sexuality
is different from her mother’s. The maternal super-Ego friend Minnie
constructs for herself however in an imaginary Aline Kominsky as fairy
Godmother is able to counsel her in art, life, and sex-related issues by
reassuring her that her alienation is not failure but a potential asset, and
that her desire is not a perversion but a basic human need for warmth
and companionship. Accordingly, Minnie’s conciliatory conclusion at the
end of the film is that “I always thought I wanted to be exactly like my
mom. But she thinks she needs a man to be happy. I don’t.”
Right before this insight with which Minnie might not absolve her
mother, but shows understanding and empathy for her, she has a last
encounter with Monroe who was banished after Charlotte found out
218 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

about his and Minnie’s relationship by invading Minnie’s privacy and

listening to her tape diary. While this last meeting is awkward for both,
Minnie realizes that her attachment to Monroe is overcome, he has been
deprived of his mystique since the moment they took LSD together
which led to Minnie being at ease, self-contented, and literally high,
illustrated by her flying to the room ceiling with animated golden wings,
Monroe however experiencing the drug trip as utter emotional break-
down (Fig. 5.7). Only then, he is able to profess his, and even beg for
Minnie’s love and she realizes: “He was afraid and weak. I felt distant
and confused. A kind of perverse pleasure. Because I’d finally got what
I’d wanted from Monroe, but now I had no desire for it.” By actively
and desperately demanding Minnie’s love, he can no longer function as
a projection screen, which changes the relationship dynamic and demys-
tifies him. Minnie moves on and reattaches her desire when she begins a
homosexual relationship with a lesbian girl named Tabatha and together
with her descends deeper into drug experimentation and for a short
time runs away from home. Different from Gloeckner’s book, the film
omits the vignettes concerning rape and hard drugs and mainly narrates
Minnie’s finding and losing herself and finding herself again along her
relationships with her mother, Monroe, Ricky, random men in front
of whom she and Kimmie pretend to be prostitutes, or her stepfather.
The chance meeting with Monroe marks Minnie’s crossing of a liminal
boundary: The ideal she has built up is deflated, not because the ideal

Fig. 5.7 Literalization of the metaphor: Minnie is high on LSD

5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 219

has changed, but because it is no longer needed. Characteristically, they

meet while Minnie is at the beach with Gretel, selling her drawings and
self-printed zines. The drawing of a transvestite Minnie gives Monroe,
and which he apparently doesn’t like very much, embodies the ambigu-
ous in-between spaces she feels drawn to—which is once more attached
to a visual inscription that characterizes both of them individually as well
as their estrangement.
Together with narrator-Minnie’s sendoff before the final credits roll,
closes the bracket around the diary-bound narrative: “This is for all
the girls when they have grown. Signing off, trusty Diary. Love, Min-
nie Goetze”—Diary reinforces its not necessarily didactic, but certainly
political project. The dedication, which also precedes the book, turns
Minnie’s experience into the offer to generalize it as a universal female
coming-of-age experience, as Gloeckner intends the book to be read. In
her preface to the revised 2015 edition, she adds: “Although I am the
source of Minnie, she cannot be me—for the book to have real mean-
ing, she must be all girls, anyone … factual truth has little significance in
the pursuit of emotional truth. It’s not my story. It’s our story” (XV). The
renouncing of personal authorship in the sense of congruence between
author and protagonist together with the claiming of authorship in the
sense of an écriture feminine corresponds to the Latourian inscriptions.
It is not the specific story about one specific teenage girl that is deci-
sive, but the movement that derives from the chain of transformation it

[I]nscriptions are not interesting per se but only because they increase
either the mobility or the immutability of traces … Again, the precise
focus should be carefully set, because it is not the inscription by itself
that should carry the burden of explaining the power of science; it is the
inscription as the fine edge and the final stage of a whole process of mobi-
lization, that modifies the scale of the rhetoric. Without the displacement,
the inscription is worthless; without the inscription the displacement is
wasted. (Latour 1986, 10, 16)
220 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Elaine Showalter proposes a feminist criticism that works “in relation

to what women actually write, not in relation to a theoretical, polit-
ical, metaphoric, or visionary ideal of what women ought to write”
(Showalter 1981, 205). This in order to establish a women’s writing
that not only works in terms of deconstructing notions of gender, but
one that “is not the serenely undifferentiated universality of texts but
the tumultuous and intriguing wilderness of difference itself ” (ibid.).
Diary then is a twofold form of écriture feminine, of “inscription of the
female body and female difference in language and text” (ibid., 185):
Minnie produces visual and textual inscriptions, and the film is in itself
a visual inscription that emerges from an apparatus whose percentage
of female participants enables an écriture feminine that works toward a
“wilderness of difference.” In her overview of modes of feminist literary
criticism, Showalter summarizes:

What we need, Mary Jacobus has proposed, is a women’s writing that

works within “male” discourse but works “ceaselessly to deconstruct it:
to write what cannot be written,” and according to Shoshana Felman,
“the challenge facing the woman today is nothing less than to ‘reinvent’
language, … to speak not only against, but outside of the specular phal-
logocentric structure, to establish a discourse the status of which would
no longer be defined by the phallacy of masculine meaning.” (Showalter
1981, 191)

While Diary does “ceaselessly deconstruct” male discourse, and does

acknowledge a male-dominated discursive and visual culture, its modes
of visualization, the composition of its imagery and of its cinematic
apparatus,17 culminate in the proposition of a language of difference.

17 Bel Powley comments in an interview on the composition of the film crew as not male by
the majority and how that informed the filmmaking process: “One of the things that attracted
me is that it’s a film about women, for women, by women. I think if a man had directed
it, it would be weird … A man hasn’t had the experience of what it is like to be a teenage
girl—that’s what it comes down to. If a guy had directed it and said, “Bel, I think you should
do this, or have sex in this position or whatever,” I wouldn’t feel so trusting of him because
he hasn’t gone through that. He doesn’t know what that feels like, whereas we have both been
teenage girls … It’s always weird, but it wasn’t bad weird. We had a closed set: the first AD was
gay, our gaffer was a woman, the DP and his assistant were husband and wife” (Grigg-Spall
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 221

Voice-over Minnie says: “I know nothing’s changed, but everything

looks totally different to me now.” Minnie’s coming-of-age reaches a
resolution at the film’s end, but not in the form of closure. She neither
enters into a heteronormative quasi-marriage, nor repairs the family, nor
moves on to another town and life stage such as college or a career—her
coming-of-age is concluded as a successful coming-of-difference, forever
processual. Accordingly, her sexual identity is a queer one, liberated from
the binary protocols of “the two sexes,” and an ambiguous expression
of an ambiguous character. The prominent use of close-ups in the film
contributes to this ambiguity, as they produce an intimacy and specificity
by allowing us to “get close” to Minnie and the other protagonists—in
correspondence to us seeing and hearing her very private inscriptions.
Simultaneously, the close-ups defragment the characters’ bodies, thus
defy a (reductive and less specific) visual totality of these bodies and,
by extension, of their selves. They stay fluid and hybrid. Consequently,
the hybridity that defines the film’s mise-en-scène and all its stages of
inscription results in a hybrid gaze instead of a more clearly gendered
gaze. Even though director Marielle Heller states in an interview: “We
were playing with the female gaze and making it from a girl’s point of
view. That affected all of our choices in the movie—the way we shot
the sex scenes, the way we looked at other characters, down to the
choice of underwear—it’s all from a female perspective” (Grigg-Spall
2015). The Diary’s achievement then is that there has been no simple
reversal of gazes and the attached conventional roles, which would only
change the relations within the order, but not the order itself. Instead
of countering the male gaze with a female gaze, a different gaze—more
specific, localized, and singular—is configured through the assuming of
agency. As a strategy, this displacement of traditional scopic regimes is
necessary to establish a “new language of desire” from Minnie’s, or by
extension, a more generalized female perspective, but after all also from
a male perspective, as the male gaze is just as prescriptive in the way it
222 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

organizes male desire in limiting ways.18 Eventually, this gaze of differ-

ence put forward and tested in The Diary emerges from visualizations of
difference, the film’s aesthetics becoming its politics.

POSTSCRIPTUM—The Laboratory of the Self

An echo of Diary’s politics can be felt in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut
Lady Bird from 2017—or rather an interest in doing similar things with
a coming-of-age narrative. In an interview, Greta Gerwig mentions Diary
and Pariah having “meant a lot to me … I, for one, selfishly am so
pleased that these movies are being made because I’m interested in young
women occupying personhood” (Harris 2017). The critical acclaim and
commercial success of Lady Bird and its all-age appeal elevated it into
discourses different from those of many of its predecessors, yet Gerwig
openly embraced the specific teen film legacy to which the film also
belongs. In Pamela Hutchinson’s Sight & Sound article, Gerwig speaks
about a conscious choice to remain true to the format, but with an inten-
tion to offer a different kind of narrative: “So often, what stories we give
to women and tell them are worth it are stories of ‘will she get the one
guy?’ … there’s always meaning conferred to a female character choosing
the right mate and having that mate choose her. And that’s a really dan-
gerous thing to tell ladies, that that’s where they get their power from or
that’s where they get their meaning from” (2018, 20).

18 A related project can be found in Mike Mills 20th Century Women from 2016, incidentally,
featuring Greta Gerwig as one of the titular women the 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann)
grows up with. The film obviously centers on the lives and experiences of women, but also
contains the coming-of-age story of Dorothea’s (Annette Bening) son. Regardless whether read
as a “neo woman’s film” as Molly Haskell does or as a feminist teen film, Mills achieves to
dissolve the limitations of the male gaze and suggests a different set of gazes in and by the film,
emphasizing that a film’s politics and scopic regimes are never essentially determined by the
gender of their filmmakers, but by their respective choices and agencies. Haskell: “There are
movies about women by men who lust after them, and by men who love them, and many even
convey—often thanks to the actresses themselves—a woman’s point of view. But how rare is the
director who is truly, genuinely, passionately interested in a woman’s perspective, in women’s
minds as well as their bodies, and is still interested in those minds and bodies as years and
experience pile up, and they are no longer in their camera-ready sensual prime” (2017, 26).
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 223

Lady Bird is extremely class-conscious and overtly revisits Pretty in

Pink’s (1986) wrong side of the tracks’ motif when interrogating social
status. However, foregrounding Lady Bird ’s class discourse shouldn’t
eclipse its many other achievements including its depiction of homosex-
uality, which is at once parenthetical and dramatic (with Lucas Hedges
from Boy Erased (2018) and Mid90s (2018) reappearing here in the role
of a closeted teen): Christine/Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) interrupts her
well-to-do boyfriend with a male lover, yet the conflict and hurt is not
hers as cheated protagonist, but his own fear of being socially humili-
ated. His breakdown in a back alley pleading Lady Bird not to out him
adds a variant of an on-screen depiction of gayness that is not charac-
terized either by fatalism or by a relaxed and/or courageous “owning it.”
This is already part of the film’s feminist project, which overall is not
exclusively anchored by Lady Bird’s sexual identity, even though it is a
central theme and Christine, comparable to Diary’s Minnie, is keen to
experience, and experiment with sexuality (like Minnie, she also makes
it a point to experience her first intercourse on top). Instead, Gerwig
puts but an emphasis on relationships that are non-romantic love rela-
tionships. When Christine and her best friend Julie, both students at a
Sacramento Catholic school, are lying on the floor and eating commu-
nion wafers, framed upside down with their legs against the wall, Lady
Bird adds one of the most unusual and memorable images to the teen
film archive, an at once effective reminder that teenagers aren’t only tan-
gled up in romantic pursuit, but enmeshed in relationship experiments
and many further incarnations of love and friendship, previously a depic-
tion that was mostly limited to male platonic relationships (Fig. 5.8). The
depiction of adult figures is similarly differentiated, providing the film
with another narrative engine in its fraught but tender mother–daughter
Aesthetically, Lady Bird is characterized by a pacing, color palette, and
editing style that is clearly informed by Gerwig’s body of work rooted in
less mainstreamed mumblecore/indie/arthouse contexts, especially visi-
ble in the vignette-like storytelling which contains some abrupt cuts that
don’t necessarily segue into the next section of the dramatic arc but are
far more episodic, an attempt to not repeat a teen film “master language”
and to instead come up with new modes through which to explore new
224 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

Fig. 5.8 Holy sisterhood: snacking on communion wafers in Lady Bird

sensitivities, or even an écriture feminine of sorts not unlike what we see

in Diary. In that regard, it is only consequent that Lady Bird like Diary
is also intradiegetically concerned with the theme of writing, self-writing,
naming, and renaming. Assembling her person in a figurative laboratory
of the self, Christine calls herself Lady Bird (“Is that your given name?”
/ “Well, I gave it to myself. It’s given to me, by me.”), alters clothing,
makes up a false persona to impress a rich friend, or, after jumping out
of a driving car during a fight with her mother and injuring her arm,
scribbles “FUCK YOU MOM” on the cast. Her mother writes letters to
her and discards them, the desire to express oneself and feeling unable to
do so not relegated here to angsty teens, but part of the human condi-
tion. Albeit not as overtly as Diary, Lady Bird still is organized around
inscriptions and practices of inscribing.
Nostalgia as a traditionally (and increasingly) important element of
teen films is woven into the fabric of most of the films from the past
chapters; in The DUFF, nostalgia is a metadiegetic device that trans-
forms canonic texts, in Dope it appears as an intradiegetic preoccupa-
tion of Malcolm and his friends as late-80s/early-90s aficionados, and in
Diary it functions as a device that creates the temporal displacement of
a period piece. These different utilizations of looking backward indicate
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 225

that being teen and making teen films is to some extent about reinven-
tion, appropriation, reclaiming, and rewriting—as regards the respective
characters as well as the filmmakers. As a “revisionist teen film” Lady
Bird occupies an peculiar position, engaging with genre history and
cultural history, evincing how coming-of-age narratives rely on strate-
gies to address multiple cohorts. Teen film is traditionally often engaged
with the past, both reflecting the socialization of the filmmakers, their
intended audiences, as well as cyclical cultural preoccupations with par-
ticular revivals of styles, or subcultural affiliations from past eras, oscillat-
ing between regress and critical interrogation.19 These re-imagined eras
are in constant flux, as not all teen films project into the same cultural
moment and the same teen film image repertoire. Where American Graf-
fiti (1973) saw George Lucas reimagining his 1960s adolescence, or Paul
Feig and Judd Apatow’s TV series Freaks and Geeks (1999) revisited the
early eighties, Lady Bird sees Greta Gerwig retracing the time of her
youth and situates the narrative in the odd cultural moment after 9-11
when the nineties crystallized into the 2000s. The early 2000s are not
only an object of nostalgia in itself but also mark a transition, an era that
at this point is still consolidating and finding new paradigms, a liminal
historical space.
Another significant element in Lady Bird that is entangled with its
nostalgic mode and its particular diegetic present in the early 2000s is
performing—and not only in the Butlerian sense: like in The DUFF, the
idea of performance is centrally embedded, but moreover, it is visible.
Certainly, already Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause or the members of
The Breakfast Club (1985) are concerned with the roles they (have to)
perform with the objective to accumulate social capital. However, the
performative acts as such, the malleability of the roles, and the necessity
to learn how to perform them, only started to become visible and
self-awarely reflected in the nineties, the era of the camcorder. Laney in
She’s All That (1999) takes her love interest along to her improv theater
group’s stage performance, back then still intended as indexical of the
artist type’s weirdness, but the idea of performing something and/or

19 Also
see Smith’s discussion of “the complex politics of the nostalgic teen movie,” how (and
which kind of ) the past is constructed, by which devices and with which outcome (2017,
226 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

documenting it recurs in texts as different as The DUFF, Dope (the gang

with a YouTube channel, the viral clips), Diary, the short-lived 2018
Netflix series Everything Sucks! (where the A/V club runs an in-school
TV channel, cooperates with the drama club to produce and screen their
own feature film—inscriptions in the making!), Easy A (the protagonist
using a webcam/vlog to tell her version of events), Me and Earl and the
Dying Girl (2015; auteur filmmaking and parodying arthouse cinema),
or Mid90s (which incorporates the filming and the aesthetics of 1990s
skate videos to generate a specific subcultural milieu).20 Lady Bird ’s
Christine also has a “performative streak” and joins the drama club
of her Catholic school in beautifully stylized auditioning scenes. The
theater becomes a literal and metaphorical space for the extreme force
and rawness of the emotions (and the performance thereof ) all the par-
ticipants of a high school ecology are exposed to. All of these instances
employ the device of performance/film differently—not all of them are
“meta,” “behind the scenes,” or film-in-film—but the sheer number of
texts that show teens acting, producing, staging, directing, and making
films all to some extent address their own status as well as their audi-
ence’s media competence, symptomatic of how teen film aesthetics and
narratives change in accordance with their particular media ecologies.
Eventually, there is resolve when Lady Bird ends—after moving
to New York to study, Lady Bird reappraises her given name and
becomes Christine again, also embracing Sacramento, the origin she once
despised. Yet, this reconnection doesn’t convey that her journey has now
come full circle, nor that it is just about to begin, but rather that it is

20 As an eminent articulation of adolescent boredom, infrastructural improvisation, appropriation

of adult-defined (and capital-ruled) spaces, and mobility, the position of skateboarding in youth
culture was only occasionally echoed by its position in teen films, as for instance when Michael
J. Fox as Marty McFly casually skates through Hill Valley in Back to the Future (1985), young
Christian Slater as Brian Kelly through the investigation of his adopted brother’s death in
Gleaming the Cube (1989) or Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s Kids (1995) as yet another
expression of their ennui and debauchery. Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen (2018) and Jonah
Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s (2018) were released almost simultaneously and both used
skateboarding as the central vehicle for their respective site-, era-,and gender-specific coming-
of-age narrative. While Skate Kitchen portrays a group of skateboarding girls in present-day
New York, Mid90s as another current revisionist teen film conjures up the 1990s and situates
its characters in the Los Angeles skateboard subculture through the plot, sonically, and visually,
for instance by opting for the 4:3 aspect ratio, and an imagery that is clearly indebted to
mumblecore films and skating videos.
5 Visualization, Images and Inscriptions 227

an ongoing process, constant movement, perpetual change. The major-

ity of American teen films suggest that there is an outcome to the ado-
lescent transition, which is sometimes disruptive (the cautionary tale),
but preferably positive as a variant of narrating American individualism.
However, being a teenager is not an end in itself and doesn’t necessar-
ily lead up to something, it’s a vignette-like station whose dramatic arc
often only becomes visible much later, as suggested by Lady Bird ’s edit-
ing: excitement, boredom, movement, and stasis are all equal parts in
an individual’s becoming, a constant flux, always same, always different.
Opting for processuality in content and form ultimately is what gives the
film its edge: the beauty and productivity of inconclusiveness.

20th Century Women, Mike Mills, A24, USA, 2016.
American Graffiti, George Lucas, Universal Pictures, USA, 1973.
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Boys Don’t Cry, Kimberly Peirce, Fox Searchlight Pictures, USA, 1999.
The Breakfast Club, John Hughes, Universal Pictures, USA, 1985.
Carrie, Brian De Palma, United Artists, USA, 1976.
Detroit Rock City, Adam Rifkin, New Line Cinema, USA, 1999.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller, Sony Pictures Classics, USA, 2015.
DOPE, Rick Famuyiwa, Open Road Films, USA, 2015.
The DUFF, Ari Sandel, CBS Films, USA, 2015.
Easy A, Will Gluck, Screen Gems, USA, 2010.
The Edge of Seventeen, Kelly Fremon Craig, Sony Pictures, USA/China, 2016.
Everything Sucks!, Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan, Netflix, USA, 2018.
The Exorcist, William Friedkin, Warner Brothers, USA, 1973.
Freaks And Geeks, Paul Feig, Paramount Worldwide Television Distribution,
USA, 1999.
Gleaming the Cube, Graeme Clifford, 20th Century Fox, USA, 1989.
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228 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

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The To Do List, Maggie Carey, CBS Films, USA, 2013.
Twilight Saga, Summit Entertainment, USA, 2008–2012.
The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola, Paramount Classics, USA, 1999.
Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik, Roadside Attractions, USA, 2010.

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Looking Back to the Future: Conclusion

and Outlook

I don’t think you can ever read too much into a film.
(Nadine Boljkovac)

I started this book by speaking about the increasing diversification and

complexity of the American teen film genre, the proliferation of new or
other modes, styles, and voices. However, this book isn’t a celebration
of how great everything is, but a plea to look for these new voices. As a
lifelong consumer and fan (and longtime scholar) of the teen film, I expe-
rience each new movie, series, film cycle, or wave with approximately the
same amount of excitement and frustration. When for instance Netflix
started distributing and producing more and more of their own con-
tent, they didn’t overlook the teenage demographic and from early on
bought or commissioned many teen-oriented shows and films. Some of
the results were satisfying insofar as they helped the genre progress into
new forms, expanding and reimagining it. One case may illustrate the
point: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson 2018) adheres to generic
© The Author(s) 2020 233
B. Sonnenberg-Schrank, Actor-Network Theory at the Movies,
234 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

conventions in almost every regard, however its novelty is that it is the

first American teen film to be organized around an Asian-American pro-
tagonist—but at the same time, it doesn’t treat Lara Jean’s ethnicity as
something that defines her identity and experiences. However, each such
instance of the genre progressing or diversifying brings with it several
instances of stagnation or regress that serve as reminder that neither the
medium nor the genre carries within it a guarantee of novelty or quality
(among the texts on Netflix specifically working within the domain of
teen film that can be seen as stagnant or regressive are for instance SPF-
18 [2017], The Kissing Booth [2018], Dude [2018], Sierra Burgess Is a
Loser [2018], Teenage Cocktail [2017], You Get Me [2017], The Perfect
Date [2019]). Still, it is a fact that these other, innovative, or even pro-
gressive articulations increasingly exist within the teen film genre, and
that they are being noticed—of course also outside of VOD channels
many films in the recent years added new facets to the canon, or inten-
sified, changed, and complexified the portrayal of particular themes and
tropes (as for instance male homosexuality in Love, Simon [2018] or Call
Me by Your Name [2017]).
A similar development as regards proliferation and diversification can
be found in teen film scholarship, which at this point is a full-fledged
field, no longer a niche. A large share traditionally consists of the con-
tributions of the genre historians, the eminent studies coming from
Considine, Doherty, and Shary, whose meticulous teen film historiog-
raphy is unsurpassed in accuracy and breadth. They have retraced film
histories, identified thematic clusters, and framed teen films in relation-
ship to economy, technology, politics, and other social factors in order to
define teen film as a genre that functions according to a set of noticeable
principles. If The Breakfast Club (1985) is the Citizen Kane (1941) of
the teen film genre, then the contributions of the genre historians ful-
fill a similar function in teen film scholarship: a foundation on which
we can build to explore further avenues. There is not much need to
retrace the typology and taxonomies of the teen film anew, as Shary,
Kaveney, Driscoll, and others have done that work—so we might as
well move on and unturn new stones. Especially since these studies are
essential groundwork, but concerning the individual films, they can also
be reductive and oftentimes do not identify how specific mechanisms
6 Conclusion 235

and material-semiotic regimes, such as ideology, are constructed—even

though these factors have canonically led to specific readings, effects, and
Echoing the increasing complexity of the films, the past years’ schol-
arship has begun to accommodate the changes, consistencies, and novel-
ties of the genre. Catherine Driscoll has introduced concepts from crit-
ical theory or psychoanalysis to expand the methodologies of teen film
scholarship, which Frances Smith has recently advanced further. As one
of the foremost teen film scholars besides jan jagodzinski (2008) to apply
psychoanalytical theory and critical theory to an engagement with teen
narratives, Driscoll unfolds readings that consider teen identity, cultural
context, and media ecologies but that also pay close attention to the films
in their own right and not mainly as epistemic expressions of a certain
zeitgeist (she is also one of the first scholars to address teen films from
non-American cultures in a transcultural comparison).
I addressed films that have not been covered broadly by other scholars
while introducing Latourian philosophy to provide new critical registers
with which to read these films. The Latourian position I suggest is a tool-
box that can be filled depending on what each text demands; it is not a
theory in itself but a flexible practice that doesn’t give priority to a cer-
tain methodology over the artifact in question. The neutrality of Actor-
Network Theory and related concepts as pre-theoretical approaches into
which theories can be inserted that then become useful for each respec-
tive account is by no means a despecified “anything goes” and “everything
is everything.” On the contrary: The slow and thorough modus operandi
of such a Latourian film semiotics may not be the ideal method when the
goal is to develop a broad, or more general overview of the genre, subgen-
res, cycles, or other clusterings within them, but a very helpful one when
the goal is to take each text serious as a source of knowledge. Instead of
applying or affirming beliefs and theories, we can now grant each film
a way to “let it speak.” It is evident that teen films produce and circu-
late influential patterns, construct, subvert, and redefine roles and ideals,
and the ANT position enables us to identify how these narratives are
able to do so by identifying the actants and agencies from whose inter-
actions they emerge. The ANT approach thus puts description before
commentary and explanation, which I implemented in my discussion of
236 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

films by not solely addressing characters or plots, but their entire compo-
sition, the apparatus/dispositif/collective/actor-network from which they
emerge, observing the multiplicity of human and non-human, discursive
and material, visible and invisible actants. And yes: At the end of the day,
this isn’t a textbook, but a work of free-range criticism and these analyses
can be seen as close readings or thick descriptions—however, addressing
the garbage, animals or light in Winter’s Bone (2010), or the technolog-
ical objects in DOPE (2015) provides different positions that generate
different insight—including, but not restricted to the probing of movies
as sociological and historical artifacts.
I didn’t provide a transnational/transcultural perspective on other
coming-of-age-cinemas outside the USA, simply not to lose sight of the
project to be as specific as possible in the engagement with each respec-
tive text. Even though Hollywood is still the dominant global force in
terms of (teen) film production, my focus on American cinema is not at
all an acknowledgment that it is the only or best one. Other teen cine-
mas exist, of course, just as much as other voices within the American
teen film genre exist, but I wouldn’t have been able to do them (or the
American texts) justice by embedding them in a generalized overview
and therefore opted for zooming in on examples that are related by their
temporal and national origin.1 I compiled the films at the center of each
chapter in accordance with the increasing complexity and diversity of
the teen film: One of the four films was produced by a major studio and
three by independent companies, two are directed by women, one by an
African American filmmaker. One plays in a suburban setting, two in an
urban setting, one in rural America. Three of the main protagonists are
girls, one is a boy. Their ethnicities, sexualities, and class differ strongly.
The fact that a large portion of my sample is not the “usual suspects” does
not contain an evaluation—of course, the well-known and most success-
ful narratives from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to The Breakfast Club to
Twilight (2008–2012) have, at least, the same capability to touch, enter-
tain, represent, influence, challenge, change, bore, offend, and make their
audience pay as any independent film, as sophistication and complexity

1 Alsosee Shary and Seibel’s edited volume on Youth Culture in Global Cinema (2006) for a
broad range of perspectives or Fox’s monograph on Coming-of-Age Cinema in New Zealand
(2017) as one exemplary study of non-Hollywood teen film.
6 Conclusion 237

are not essential traits bound to the mode of production. But on the one
hand, there is already ample scholarship on the “big” teen films, on the
other hand it is important to acknowledge the heterogeneity of teen film
in general and the increase thereof in recent years.
These four central films and the connections and associations they
enter into cover a wide array of typical teen film tropes, elements, set-
tings, eras, types, and rites of passage, and each of them corresponds to
the canon in specific ways, repeats, references, varies, or deviates from it.
In order to identify each film’s theme(s), I suggested perspectives build-
ing on Latourian philosophy that help to make visible what each film
does, how it achieves this by going “back to the thing itself,” and only
then moved on to an analysis. The methodology of my ANT-inspired
Latourian film semiotics is by no means restricted to an engagement with
teen films, it can be transferred, and thus also served as a litmus test to
determine whether the ANT position generates new questions for film
The disassembling of cinematic artifacts and the reshuffling of agency
mainly took place by approaching a film as an actor-network and iden-
tifying its actants and flows. Each film however is also an actant in its
own right and enters into an intricate choreography with its audience.
Like any object, films, too contain scripts/programs of action, making
propositions for how they can be used. Teen films as artifacts provided
by adults for adolescents are especially prone to having a didactic quality
and assuming some socializing function, or depending on the viewpoint
even a function of discipline, coercion, and indoctrination. Attributing
such qualities to the films’ scripts contains the danger of becoming an
ideological project in itself when film’s agency is treated as a force field
governed by the invisible powers of the Hollywood behemoth instead of
in terms of relations. The agency of film and cinema’s relationship with
the spectators have been investigated, among many others, by Frankfurt
school philosophers who acknowledge the potential and the dangers of
cinema as a manipulative institution of power, by psychoanalytical film
theoreticians who identify a libidinous spectator-screen relation that runs
on desire, or by adherents of affect theory who approach the complex
238 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

interaction of spectator and film from a quasi-neurological perspective.2

Generalizing the scripts/programs of action of films tends to separate
film and spectator, attesting either side too little or too much agency.
Ultimately, it is not possible to seriously and conclusively identify what
(teen) films make us do, believe, and assume about ourselves and others,
they do not have an essence from which their scripts ensue. Since a film’s
one, unified agency is unaccountable and incommensurable, it is possible
(as well as necessary and productive) to attribute it with dialectic, some-
times even contradicting meanings: Twilight can be read as thoroughly
patriarchal neo-conservative propaganda, and it can be read as progres-
sive and empowering. No film, let alone an entire genre or body of films,
pushes a single ideology, which makes a monolithic reading of the teen
film dangerous as well as impossible. But: Through disassembling a film’s
composition by looking closely and moving slowly, we can at least iden-
tify where, by whom and by which means in the process of its assem-
bling invisible agencies such as ideology enter the picture. ANT with its
material-semiotic approach and its focus on the relations that make up
any assemblage allows for a film semiotics that does not pretend to be
objective or brackets out personal viewpoints, but is careful not to favor
the semiotics over the material. The emphasis on the material and the
description before commentary as a way to “follow the actants” and let
them speak does not mean that we only talk about stones or the color
yellow, on the contrary. The identification of actants and accounting for
their relations provides a foundation on which to talk about concepts.
Actually, it would be negligent not to talk about capitalism, neoliber-
alism, sexism, racism, classism, ageism, or other hierarchies and power
dynamics when engaging with teen films, and the ANT position pro-
vides a film semiotics in which an allegorical reading emerges from a
thorough descriptive account. Following this M.O., the reassembled film
in each chapter was analyzed in its own right and through the lens of
the American teen film as a specific strand of film (or even genre), in

2 For the eminent Frankfurt school reflections on film and popular culture see Benjamin,
Horkheimer and Adorno, or Marcuse; for psychoanalytical film theory and apparatus theory
see Baudry, Metz, or Mulvey, for affect theory see Deleuze (Cinema 1 and 2), Shaviro (2010),
Boljkovac (2013), Kennedy (2002), Doane (1985) or Sobchack (1992).
6 Conclusion 239

order to account for the high degree at which these artifacts are cultur-
ally engaged: The DUFF (2015) unfolded a discussion of, among other
aspects, the makeover film, Winter’s Bone a discussion of the teen film for
adults, DOPE a discussion of teen films and their depictions of black-
ness, technology, and drugs, and The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) a
discussion of teen film’s depictions of female sexuality.
As teenagers by definition outgrow their teen existence quite soon,
the ways, formats, and media in which the film industry addresses and
appeals to them are subject to constant and quick successions of shifts
and renewals. The diversification of the modes of existence of cinematic
teen narratives in recent years has not led to dilution, even as certain
cycles or subgenres continuously exhaust themselves, as is their nature.
Teen film remains consistent and dynamic, and while a big portion of
new production is indeed reselling formulaic patterns, teen film has
also increasingly become an arena for aesthetically and politically pro-
gressive, experimental, heterogeneous, and complex films. A Latourian,
ANT-inspired film semiotics accommodates this development as its cen-
tral project is embracing and accounting for multiplicity.

Teenagers will remain, and possibly even become more important in the
future. Not only due to their purchasing powers or sheer numbers, as
a market and as a statistic, as they were often evaluated in the past. It’s
part of the innumerable absurdities of Trump’s America (and beyond)
that “30 percent of the population—old, rural, and white—controls the
destiny of a new and diverse generation of Americans” (Taplin 2018, 35).
One of many instances in which such imbalances of power and represen-
tation were publicly addressed was the aftermath of 2018s horrid Stone-
man Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida with ensuing
mass protests and political demands of teenagers regarding gun laws.
The Parkland student activists and “March for Our Lives” organizers
around Emma González—famously featured on the cover of TIME Mag-
azine with the superimposed headline “ENOUGH”—embody a new
240 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

type of self-empowerment of teens questioning the status quo. Differ-

ent from the culturally allotted types as in-between individuals “figuring
it out” or teen film’s lone adolescent rebels, they entered the discourse
as a self-organized bigger collective; the “Fridays For Future” movement
and its figurehead Greta Thunberg represent further cultural moments in
which teenagers make themselves seen and heard—not only in the pleas-
ant, marketable, and adult-driven ways as the traditional teen pop stars
from David Cassidy to Michael Jackson to Justin Bieber. New medial
environments may produce filter bubbles, “alternative facts,” and give
rise to new forms of manipulation and abuse of power; however, they
also seem to have a potential to make teen film’s promise come true:
that there might be a media-savvy cohort of kids who no longer need
adult gatekeepers to find (self-)representation, who are capable of access-
ing their own channels, and who see through the corruption, lies, and
hypocrisy of adult authorities. When the British glam rock band The
Sweet set their era’s youth revolt to music in 1973 by envisioning the
“Teenage Rampage,” they notably weren’t just singing about a revolu-
tion, moreover, they framed it with juridical terms in the proclamation
of “teenage legislation” and a constitution (“Imagine the sensation / Of
teenage occupation / Imagine the formation / Of teenage legislation /
So come join the revolution / Get yourself a constitution / And recog-
nize your age it’s a teenage rampage. Now!”). In hindsight, their sloga-
neering seems naïve, or at least premature, given the status of teenagers
back then and the means available to them to actually make demands,
form up, or achieve self-representation—after all, the song’s teenage rev-
olution was also rather adult-determined, considering that the songwrit-
ers and performers were all in their late twenties. But in the almost five
decades since, the media ecologies in which teenagers are embedded and
their scope of action has changed significantly (for the better and for
the worse, if we regard the violent and very real teenage rampages car-
ried out by teenagers in a growing number of devastating school shoot-
ings). Time will tell if The Breakfast Club’s forecast is true that “when
you grow up, your heart dies,” but for now the visibility and indeed
the agency of teens is something worth observing. We’ll see how and
where the teen film genre, always adult-defined, but always adaptable and
quick to react to real-life teen interests and discourses (and also always
6 Conclusion 241

a potential projection screen for both the optimistic idealism as well as

the fears adults feel toward teenagers), will find its position(s). In the
third season of Stranger Things (2019) as another teen-centered Netflix
show, some of these recent developments were already worked through
allegorically: a monster, purely Id, that literally consists of human scum
and infested innocent bystanders, dissolved into amorphous slime, which
is then reassembled into a lethal swarm intelligence (and brought into
power with the help of Russian infiltrators in the first place—it’s hard to
not read this as a Trump analogy) may have subdued and contaminated
many people including, of course, the elderly, the political caste, and the
chauvinist media representatives. However, it will ultimately be overpow-
ered by the solidarity and resourcefulness of a heterogeneous group of
teens and children and the few sympathetic adults left; not the one girl
with superhuman telekinetic abilities will prevail as the lone American
hero that beats the monster, but the cohesion of the teen-led group of
nerdy bricoleurs. Regardless whether these characters and plot points are
interpreted as an echo of Trumpism, of Greta, and of teens getting in for-
mation, or whether they are simply used as contemporary teen-centered
entertainment (nostalgic in its 1980s setting, modern in its medial-
ity): It’s evident that watching teens—and watching teen narratives—is
relevant, more future-oriented and more political than ever. Teens mat-
ter, as matters of fact and matters of concern. So do teen films.

Do we really know that little? We know even less.

(Latour 2005, 345)

The Breakfast Club, John Hughes, Universal Pictures, USA, 1985.
Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino, Sony Pictures Classics, USA, 2017.
Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, RKO Radio Pictures, USA, 1941.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller, Sony Pictures Classics, USA, 2015.
DOPE, Rick Famuyiwa, Open Road Films, USA, 2015.
Dude, Olivia Milch, Netflix, USA, 2018.
242 B. Sonnenberg-Schrank

The DUFF, Ari Sandel, CBS Films, USA, 2015.

The Kissing Booth, Vince Marcello, Netflix, USA, 2018.
Love, Simon, Greg Berlanti, 20th Century Fox, USA, 2018.
The Perfect Date, Chris Nelson, Netflix, USA, 2019.
Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray, Warner Brothers, USA, 1955.
Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, Ian Samuels, Netflix, USA, 2018.
SPF-18, Alex Isreal, Netflix, USA, 2017.
Stranger Things Season 3, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Netflix, USA, 2019.
Teenage Cocktail, John Carchietta, Netflix, USA, 2017.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Susan Johnson, Netflix, USA, 2018.
Twilight Saga, Summit Entertainment, USA, 2008–2012.
Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik, Roadside Attractions, USA, 2010.
You Get Me, Brent Bonacorso, Netflix, USA, 2017.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. 1976. “The Apparatus.” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Fem-
inism and Film Theory 1: 104–129.
———. 1985. “The Ideological Effects of the Cinematographic Apparatus.” In
Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols, 531–543. Lon-
don: University of California Press.
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A matters of concern, matters of

abject, the (Julia Kristeva) 92, 94 fact, 11
absence 97, 106, 111–113, 117, network, rhizome, dispositif, 13,
118, 124, 125, 131, 138, 147, 236
170, 171 participation, 89
Actor-Network Theory (ANT) plasma, 166
actors | actants 9, 18–20, 23, 24, politics, morality, intentionality,
88, 90, 235 13
ANT account, 18, 20 reassembling, 17, 22
black box, blackboxing, 166, 196 theory, ANT as non- or
circulating reference, 90 pre-theory, 18, 19, 90, 235
a collective of human and translation, transformation, chain
non-humans, 17, 89, 110, of transformation, 13, 18, 23,
141, 168 34, 90
follow the actors, 16, 18, 90 Adorno, Theodor W. 113, 114, 238
human and non-human actors, Affect theory 237, 238
16, 88, 90 Agee, James 96, 129
inscription, 18 agency
laboratory studies, 12 agential shift, agency of spectator
material-semiotic, 16, 238 8

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive 245
license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020
B. Sonnenberg-Schrank, Actor-Network Theory at the Movies,
246 Index

distribution of, 15 B
of objects, 21–23, 178 Back to the Future 175, 183, 226,
reshuffling of, 7, 237 227
TeenAgency, 7 Barthes, Roland 8
Akhavan, Desiree 75, 78–80 cars as projections of the ego, 97
Akrich, Madeleine 13, 18, 140 connotation and denotation,
Alpers, Svetlana 203 9, 40, 48, 57, 64, 66, 143,
Althusser, Louis 17, 40, 63 145–147, 159, 165, 177, 180
Altman, Rick 53 reality effect, 106
Amazon 36, 159, 160, 162, 164, Batman 47, 48
166 Baudrillard, Jean 10, 147
American Graffiti 4, 24, 225, 227 Baudry, Jean-Louis 17, 193, 238
American Honey 128, 132 Bazin, André 196
American impressionism 108 Beach Rats 128, 132
(American) individualism as ideology Bechdel test 193
41, 238 bedroom culture 152, 153, 177,
American Karate Tiger 50, 80 198, 202, 205
American Pie 190 Benjamin, Walter 130, 238
animals 17, 105, 110, 123–126, Berressem, Hanjo 108
129, 131, 236 Beverly Hills 90210 3, 24
animation 24, 188, 196, 198, 199 Bildungsroman 2, 87, 116
anthropological teen film 72 Bildungszitat 43
anthropology shot 72, 96, 119, 148 bitcoin 143, 156, 162, 165–167
anti-essentialist genre theory 53, 90 blackness
apparatus 4, 7, 13, 17, 24, 44, 55, black culture 173, 174
60, 63, 69, 90, 128, 161, 170, black identity politics, 156
180, 182, 187, 194–196, 220, blackness as content, 21, 179
236 black stereotypes, 145, 173
apparatus theory 17, 195, 238 construction of, 146, 179
Appropriation 3, 8, 154, 155, 225, degrees of blackness, 174
226 double consciousness, 178
A$AP Rocky 142 intersectionality, 179
auteur 6, 13, 16, 17, 226 marginality, 179
autonomy 7, 39, 41, 48, 49, 52, Blaxploitation 154
53, 60–62, 87, 112, 122, 127, Boljkovac, Nadine 238
131, 176, 182, 211 Bolter, Jay D. 3
Bourdieu, Pierre 33, 63
Boy Erased 75–80, 223, 227
Boyhood 128, 132
Index 247

Boys Don’t Cry 77, 80, 175, 183, cinema verité 107, 129
192, 227 cinematographic object 16, 148, 180
Boyz n the Hood 138, 143, 144, 183 circulating reference 23, 35, 74, 90,
brainwashing 43, 75, 214 166, 189
Brando, Marlon 35 Cixous, Hélène 210, 211
The Breakfast Club 8, 24, 33, 43, 48, Clark, Larry 226
50, 66, 72, 80, 115, 117, 132, Class 21, 23, 32, 33, 40, 42–44, 51,
158, 182, 183, 225, 227, 234, 55, 57, 61–63, 66, 72, 87, 88,
236, 240, 241 91, 94, 119, 121, 122, 127,
Brecht, Bertolt 196 128, 138, 143, 144, 146, 148,
Brian Banks 181, 183 162, 164, 173–175, 179, 211,
bricolage 153 223, 236
But I’m a Cheerleader 75, 80 Class Act 50, 80
A Clockwork Orange 75, 80
Clueless 33, 41, 49, 72, 80
C coexistence 125, 130, 149, 172
Caldwell, John T. 15 collective of human and nonhumans
Call Me By Your Name 234, 241 16, 17, 89, 110, 141, 151, 168
Callon, Michel 13, 18, 44 college 77, 121, 131, 139, 142, 154,
camera 162, 167, 172, 174, 175, 178,
camcorder 225 190, 220
camera lenses, 106, 195, 197 comics 3, 5, 24, 50, 65, 68, 139,
cameras, 107, 140, 171, 187, 195 150, 154, 155, 193, 206, 207,
camera techniques, 107 209
camera types, 39 convergence culture 7
Can’t Buy Me Love 50, 80 conversion therapy 74–76
capitalism 51, 94, 112, 114, 144, Crenshaw, Kimberlé 179
145, 160, 166, 171, 238 Crooklyn 180, 183
capital, social and cultural 66, 179 Crumb, Robert 189, 209
Carrie 192, 227 cultural and social capital 33, 52
Carter, Angela 215 culture of poverty 98, 120, 121, 143,
changes 144, 146, 154, 175, 176, 211
changes in media ecologies 22, Cyberbu//y 178, 183
226 cyberbullying 39, 55, 71, 143
changes in modes of spectatorship,
Charlie Brown Effect 68, 212 D
Christine 50, 80 Dawson’s Creek 8, 24
Chronicle 128, 132 Deal of a Lifetime 50, 80
248 Index

Dean, James 35 Dude 234, 241

Dear White People 180, 183 The DUFF 22–24, 31, 33, 34, 37,
degrees of blackness 174 39–41, 43, 44, 46, 47, 51, 53,
Deleuze, Gilles 13, 89, 238 55, 56, 59, 61, 63–65, 68,
Derrida, Jacques 209 70–72, 74, 80, 93, 98, 107,
desire 132, 137, 143, 145, 157, 170,
homosexuality and desire 192, 177, 183, 187, 188, 197, 212,
218 224–227, 239, 242
male and female desire, 190, 191,
198, 200, 211, 212, 216
object of desire, 24, 46, 56, 202 E
Detention 9, 24 Easy A 191, 226, 227
Detroit Rock City 197, 227 Easy Rider 97, 132
The Diary of a Teenage Girl 22, 24, ecocriticism 131
187, 188, 202, 227, 239, 241 ecology 11, 12, 14, 89, 92–94, 97,
diary writing 196, 197 100, 102, 106, 107, 109, 110,
Dilthey, Wilhelm 207 114, 115, 119–121, 125, 126,
direct cinema 107 128, 130, 131, 142, 147, 162,
discipline 14, 39, 40, 44, 54, 60, 69, 170, 226
237 economy and shadow economy 165
dispositif 13, 120, 195, 236 Eco, Umberto 7, 8
distributed agency 16 écriture feminine 210, 211, 219,
The Divergent Series: Insurgent 24 220, 224
Dope 22–24, 93, 132, 137–139, The Edge of Seventeen 191, 227
142–148, 150–153, 156–159, Edgerton, Joel 75
162, 165–167, 169–175, Education 40, 43, 63, 71, 98, 118,
177–179, 181, 183, 187, 188, 120, 121, 144, 158, 175–177
212, 224, 226, 227, 236, 239, empiricist film philosophy 23
241 Engels, Friedrich 144
double consciousness 178 énonciation 196
Driscoll, Catherine 1, 2, 33, 35, 61, environment 33, 38, 75, 76, 89,
63, 88, 139, 148, 190, 234, 91, 94, 96, 100, 106, 111,
235 127–130, 143, 152, 180, 240
drugs 85, 92, 98, 112–115, 117, epic theatre 196
119, 120, 122–124, 137–139, etrade 156
142, 146, 150, 151, 154, 157, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 148, 183
159–161, 163–165, 168, 170, Evans, Walker 96, 128, 129
178, 179, 189, 212, 218, 239 Everything Sucks! 226, 227
Du Bois, W.E.B. 178 The Exorcist 191, 227
Index 249

F Gloeckner, Phoebe 24, 187, 188,

family, the American family 95, 124 197, 202, 203, 206, 207, 218
Famuyiwa, Rick 142, 156 Gordon, C. (Calvin) Wayne 37
Fanon, Frantz 178 Granik, Debra 95, 128–131
fatalism 77, 115, 122, 127, 177, 223 The Grapes of Wrath 94, 97, 112,
The Fault in Our Stars 118, 132 113, 132
feminism 189 Gray, Mary L. 77
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 111, 132, Grease 33, 50, 80, 197, 227
183 Greek mythology 87, 123
fetishization 54, 55, 209 Grusin, Richard 3
film stock 23, 105, 197 Guattari, Felix 13, 89
Foucault, Michel 13, 40, 44, 60, 63,
207, 209
dispositif, 13 H
panopticism, 44 Hall, G. Stanley 2
power, 40, 60 Halloween 10, 25
Freaks and Geeks 225, 227 Haraway, Donna 125
Freud, Sigmund 193 cyborg, 151
Fridays for Future 240 response-ability, 125
FSA photography 96 hashtag 34, 46, 69
The Hate U Give 181, 183
Hearst, Patty 213, 214
G Hedges, Lucas 223
Garber, Jenny 153 Heller, Marielle 188, 191, 214, 221
gaze theory hermeneutis and materialism 19, 21,
female gaze 215, 221 23, 92
hybrid gaze, 24, 221 heroism 122–124, 127
male gaze, 45, 51, 54, 55, 180, Hick 128, 132
190–194, 199, 201, 209, 213, high school 9, 11, 22, 32, 33,
215, 217, 221, 222 37–40, 42, 44, 47, 48, 50, 54,
urban gaze, 95, 106 55, 62–64, 66, 77, 87, 100,
white gaze, 176, 180 119, 121, 142, 143, 146, 158,
gender performativity 45 159, 174, 182, 215, 226
genre 2, 7–9, 21, 35, 37, 43, 50, 53, Hill, Jonah 226
65, 73, 80, 86, 127, 128, 131, hip-hop 142, 153–155
148, 155, 178, 182, 190, 225, hood film 23, 137, 138, 143, 144,
233–236, 238, 240 146, 175
Gerwig, Greta 222, 223, 225 hooks, bell 179
Gleaming the Cube 226, 227 Horkheimer, Max 113, 114, 238
250 Index

horror 8, 37, 65, 69, 76, 98, 101, It’s Kind of a Funny Story 118, 132
118, 178
housing bubble 103, 104
Hughes, John 3, 62, 79, 118, 174, J
175, 179 jagodzinski, jan 8, 235
human and nonhuman actants 12, Janney, Allison 64
16, 17, 22, 23, 88, 90, 91, Jawbreaker 33, 80
101, 139–141, 156, 161, 162, Jenkins, Henry 7
169, 178, 236 Johnson, Susan 233
human bodies and corpses 92, junk 92, 95, 97, 102, 110
101–103, 123, 124, 126 Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. 180,
The Hunger Games 6, 25, 51, 80, 183
128, 132 juvenile delinquent 2, 50, 117, 191
hybrid aesthetics 169
hybrid gaze 24, 221
hyperreality 10, 147 K
Karate Kid 50, 80
Kaveney, Roz 72, 234
I Kicks 181, 183
idealization of the child 115, 116 Kids 11, 132, 139, 183, 226, 227
ideological state apparatus (ISA) 40 Kindchenschema 115
images 9, 15, 42, 46, 59, 71, 78, 96, The Kings of Summer 128, 132
98, 99, 101, 103, 105–107, Kittler, Friedrich 70
113, 138, 149, 151, 160, 170, Kominsky, Aline 189, 209, 216, 217
171, 173, 187, 188, 193–195, Kristeva, Julia 92, 94, 102
201, 203–206, 214, 215, 223 Kubrick, Stanley 55, 75, 201
immutable mobiles 203, 204
inscription 10, 18, 23, 24, 36, 43,
90, 116, 140, 187–189, 194, L
195, 198, 201, 203–207, 209, Lacan, Jacques
210, 216, 218–221, 224, 226 mirror stage 59, 193
inscription device 140, 187, 188, nom-du-père/Name-of-the-father,
194, 195, 206, 207, 214 48, 63
internet and darknet 142, 143, 160, the Symbolic, 48, 59
162, 165, 166, 179 Lady Bird 34, 80, 118, 132,
interpellation 32, 40, 183 222–227
intersectionality 176, 179, 180, 182, language
211 desire, language of 75, 78, 193,
intertextuality 43, 57 194, 209, 221
Index 251

ecological language, 128, 130 M

Lakotan language, 78, 79 Ma 181, 183
Latour’s cinematic language, 11 MacGuffin 165, 166
linguistic relativity, 48, 79, 146, machinic milieus 71, 169, 178
165 makeover 23, 31–34, 38, 41, 44,
logocentric teen film, 47 49–51, 54–56, 60–63, 66, 67,
neologism, 145 74, 143, 239
normative language, 48, 79 male gaze 45, 51, 54, 191–194, 199,
quasi-object, language as, 141, 201, 209, 213, 215, 217, 221,
145, 150 222
slang as counter-language, 146 The Maltese Falcon 165, 183
visual language, 47, 181, 194, mapping 36, 72, 116, 146, 148–150
209, 220 March for Our Lives 239
word class, 32, 146 martial arts film 50
Latour, Bruno 11–14, 16, 18–22, Marx, Karl 114, 144
35, 36, 63, 74, 89–91, 95, Marx, Leo 110
125, 139–141, 150, 152, 156, material objects 104, 105
159, 166, 168–172, 193–196, The Maze Runner 6, 25, 51, 128,
203, 204, 216, 219 132
Law, John 12, 13 McLuhan, Marshall 69, 70
Lawrence, Jennifer 85 McRobbie, Angela 49, 153
Leave No Trace 129–132 Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 72,
lenses 106, 107, 195, 197, 238 118, 132, 226, 228
Lévi-Strauss, Claude 153 Mean Girls 33, 64, 65, 72, 81
LGBTIQ 76, 77 media ecologies 22, 71, 162, 171,
light 23, 105, 107–109, 111, 194, 187, 226, 235, 240
195, 197, 236 medial shift 3, 5–7
localization 13, 107, 171, 221 mediation 9, 16, 37, 71, 112, 140,
local color, local color fiction, 95, 166, 172, 194, 197, 204, 207
106, 108, 125 media use 5, 67, 69, 71, 151
local light, 107–109, 130 Menace II Society 144, 183
logocentrism 47 Metz, Christian 17, 193, 196, 238
Lolita 55, 81, 201, 202, 227 Mid90s 128, 132, 223, 226, 228
losers on bikes 148 mimesis 35, 36
Love, Simon 234, 242 mirror stage 59, 193
Lumpenproletariat 144 The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Lyotard, Jean-François 171 75, 77–81, 182, 183
mixed-mode movie 24, 188
Mol, Annemarie 13, 19
252 Index

Moonlight 180, 181, 183 Peeping Tom 55, 81

Moonrise Kingdom 128, 132 The Perfect Date 234, 242
movement 21, 23, 36, 39, 53, 78, The Perks of Being a Wallflower 65,
79, 90, 96, 103, 106, 107, 81
116, 119, 147, 148, 166, 189, The Plastic Age 33, 61, 81, 139, 183
197, 209, 219, 227, 240 Porky’s Bob Clark 191, 228
Mulvey, Laura 51, 192, 193, 201, pornography 190, 199, 215
238 post-cinema 5, 22
post-continuity 10, 171
post-irony 10
N postmodernism 3, 8, 10, 22, 40,
name-of-the-father (nom-du-père) 154, 155, 171
48, 63 post-racial USA 156, 165, 178, 181
Napoleon Dynamite 128, 132 Powley, Bel 189, 220
Neale, Steve 37, 53 Precious 180, 184
neoliberalism 52, 144, 238 Pretty in Pink 33, 34, 39, 51, 62,
Never Back Down 50, 81 66, 81, 87, 88, 132, 223, 228
Nietzsche, Friedrich 115, 116 The Princess Diaries 33, 81
nostalgia 4, 7, 8, 152, 224, 225 production of knowledge 14
Not Another Teen Movie 54, 66, 81 production studies 16
Nuderscher, Frank 108, 110 prom dance 63
Psycho 55, 81
obsolescence 91–93, 95
Once Bitten 50, 81 Q
opioid crisis 112, 117, 131 Quasi-Object and Quasi-Subject 23,
optical consistency 188, 196, 204 139–141, 152, 162, 167, 169
optical unconscious 130
Our Song 180, 183

P Rambo: First Blood 131, 132
panopticism 44 real estate 103, 105, 120, 131
Paper Towns 128, 132 reality and representation 9, 10, 35,
parents 94
Carlie Brown Effect 68, 212 reality effect 106
single parent, 87 (re-) assembling 22
participation 7, 89, 101, 118, 119, Rebel Without a Cause 4, 25, 190,
125, 141, 144 225, 228, 236, 242
Index 253

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical (self-) referentiality 7, 8, 10, 196

138, 184 (self-) surveillance 44
Referentiality 3, 7, 9, 10, 35 self-writing/autobiography 46, 188,
remediation 3, 6, 7, 10 207, 209, 210, 224
reshuffling of agency 7, 237 seriality studies 7
responsibility and response-ability Serres, Michel 89, 139, 141, 156,
11, 87, 111, 118, 122, 166, 167, 194
124–127, 159–161, 167, 212, Seventh Grade 180, 181, 184
217 sexuality
rethinking material-semiotic relations heteronormativity 24, 190, 215
16 virginity, 31, 191
the rhizome 13 Shary, Timothy 1, 50, 67, 68, 71,
Ringwald, Molly 3, 66, 142, 174 114, 128, 138, 177, 190, 192,
Risky Business 111, 132 234, 236
Riverdale 3, 4, 7, 25 Shaviro, Steven 8–10, 171, 238
Ronan, Saoirse 223 She’s All That 33, 39, 51, 54, 55, 64,
rubbish theory 98 66, 81, 88, 133, 225, 228
rural America 23, 77, 95, 96, 98, She’s The Man 33, 81
106, 112, 113, 117, 236 Shift 3, 5–8, 11, 17, 36, 59, 129,
rural high schools 88 161, 171, 189–191, 195, 196,
198, 203, 212, 239
shopping mall 9, 54, 57, 98
S Showalter, Elaine 219, 220
Saintonge, Stefani 180, 181 Sidekicks 50, 81
Sandel, Ari 64 Sierra Burgess Is a Loser 234, 242
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark 128, Simondon, Gilbert 140, 172
132 The Simpsons 52, 69, 81
Scenes from the Suburbs 148, 184 single parent 87
scopic regime 45, 188, 193, 199, Sisco, Marideth 105
201, 209, 210, 221, 222 site-specificity 148, 150
scopophilia 193 Sixteen Candles 66, 81, 138, 184
Scream 8, 10, 25 Skarsgård, Alexander 189
screens 2, 4, 15, 22, 42, 47, 58, 66, Skate Kitchen 181, 184, 226, 228
68, 69, 72, 73, 78, 103, 145, skateboarding 96, 103, 148, 154,
151, 156, 170, 171, 174, 178, 155, 176, 226
187, 190, 193, 196, 199, 212, Smith, Frances 1, 32, 41, 51, 56, 63,
214, 226, 241 225, 235
script and program of action 19,
140, 159, 181
254 Index

social media 5, 34, 46, 47, 60, 64, T

69–71, 73, 143, 157, 164, taxonomy 8, 32–34, 43, 174, 211,
170, 178, 187 234
Some Kind of Wonderful 33, 34, 62, Technicolor 110, 111
81 technology
Sontag, Susan 21 machinic milieu 71, 178
Souriau, Étienne 15 technological objects and media,
speech act 47–49 140, 152, 160, 167, 169, 170,
SPF-18 234, 242 172, 178
Spider-Man 50, 81 teen tech, 67, 71
Stand by Me 148, 184 teen film for adults 2, 7, 22, 68,
Standing Up 128, 133 111, 112, 117, 157, 237, 239,
state institutions 161 240
Steinbeck, John 94 teen film lexicon 142
Stephen King’s IT 184 Teenage Cocktail 234, 242
stereotypes TeenAgency 7, 122, 239
bully 34, 48, 71, 167, 174 10 Things I Hate About You 33, 80
cheerleader, princess, 9, 32, 42, Thompson, Michael 98
48 Thoreau, Henry David 110
geek, nerd, 32, 42, 146, 174 Thorne, Bella 65
jock, 32, 42, 48, 57, 67 Thunberg, Greta 240
Stockholm syndrome 213 To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 181,
Stoneman Douglas High School 184, 233, 242
shooting 239 The To Do List 191, 228
Stranger Things 148, 184, 241, 242 The Transfiguration 181, 184
Strasser, Susan 92, 93, 97 translation and transformation 23,
Stray Dog 129, 131, 133 34, 36, 37, 43, 53, 90
subjectification 13, 55, 62, 96 transportation, modes of 148
the sublime 110, 125 trash 92–95, 97, 98, 101, 102
Summer of 84 148, 184 A Tribe Called Quest (band) 171
Super Dark Times 128, 133, 148 Trump presidency 86, 131, 161,
Super Fly 154, 184 239, 241
Sweet, the (band) 240 20 th Century Women 222, 227
the Symbolic 23, 40, 48, 59, 62, 88, Twilight Saga 6, 25, 81, 228, 242
91, 94, 101, 102, 145, 152, typology 8, 32–34, 43, 234
156, 166, 167

Unfriended 178, 184
Index 255

Unfriended: Dark Web 178, 184 What’s Eating Gilbert Grape 77, 81,
urban gaze 95, 106 87, 88, 133
urban high school 22, 143 Whitaker, Forest 142, 143
white gaze 176
white trash 93, 94, 102, 117
Whitman, Mae 54, 64, 65
Wiig, Kristen 189
victimization vs. agency 202,
Winter’s Bone 25, 88, 116, 118, 121,
122, 128, 131, 133, 184, 228,
violence 50, 76, 87, 97, 98, 113,
114, 123, 144, 159, 167, 177,
The Wizard of Oz 77, 81
191, 214
Wood, Robin 87
The Virgin Suicides 192, 228
Woodrell, Daniel 85, 86
Virilio, Paul 145
Woolgar, Steve 12, 90, 140, 172,
visualization and visuality 110, 125,
172, 187–189, 193, 194, 199,
Wray, Matt 93, 94
203, 204, 210–212, 214, 216,
220, 222
voyeurism 55, 214
You Get Me 234, 242
youth problem film 114, 139
W YouTube 55, 57, 68–71, 150, 151,
WarGames 68, 81 160, 226