Flipping through the pages of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, you’ll find a juxtaposition of damaging coming-of-age experiences with innocent relics of girlhood. Illustrations of a typical 1970s girl’s world—a bedroom strewn with clothes and records, doodles of French vocab words, and sketches of candy—sit alongside an adolescent girl shooting meth and sleeping with a much older man. Using a form that’s long associated with young women scrawling their most intimate thoughts and secrets in bubbly cursive, Gloeckner’s Diary reveals a complex, multidimensional view of girlhood that’s rarely seen in mainstream media.
Drawing largely from Gloeckner’s own diary from her youth, the book centers on 15-year-old Minnie Goetze, a perceptive narrator whose observations about her life and the world around her range from endearingly adolescent (“I’ve just realized that I’ve had breasts for a full three years”) to strikingly profound (“Maybe everyone is secretly satisfied the second they die”). Minnie enters into an affair with Monroe, her alcoholic mother’s boyfriend, a storyline that could be presented as a straightforward narrative of victimization. Instead, Gloeckner depicts the story as much more complicated and murky; Minnie’s character depth and sexual agency turn the Lolita prototype on its head. A new film adaptation of The Diary of a Teenage Girl from director Marielle Heller—which stars newcomer Bel Powley alongside Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård—will be released in select cities this August. A new edition of the book came out this past July.
Raised in San Francisco, Gloeckner draws her artistic influence from many of the prominent cartoonists of the 1970s Underground Comix movement—Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Robert Crumb, Justin Green, and Diane Noomin, to name a few. Drawing from her background as a medical illustrator, her work has a finely detailed quality and portrays the human body with a kind of grotesque matter-of-factness. Part of a larger autobiographical trend in 1990s women’s comics, Gloeckner’s stories stand out for their potent and often devastating mix of stark trauma with the openness and wonder of childhood. Diary along with her first collection, A Child’s Life and Other Stories, depict the most intimate, painful moments in one girl’s life—sexual abuse, family neglect, drug use—with shocking honesty. (Read Andi Zeisler's 1999 Bitch interview with Gloeckner here.) Gloeckner’s comics, illustrations, and short stories have been published and anthologized widely, and she teaches at the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design. I spoke with Gloeckner on the phone while she was traveling near the U.S.-Mexico border, where she’s currently at work on a hybrid novel highlighting the mass murder of women in Ciudad Juárez.
MARISA CRAWFORD: What was the film-adaptation process like for The Diary of a Teenage Girl?
PHOEBE GLOECKNER: When the book first came out, there were several directors who approached me about doing a film, and for one reason or another I rejected the idea of working with each of them. I didn’t think much more about it until Marielle Heller came to me asking if she could make a play adaptation of the book, and at the time it just seemed so far-fetched that I just said, “Yeah, knock yourself out, try it and see what happens.” So she did, and I liked the play, and then later Marielle asked if she could do a movie, and I just had to say yes.
I wasn’t incredibly involved in the making of the film. I could have been a lot more involved, and I considered it. I met with Marielle a bunch of times and showed her all my papers and photographs from the time period that Diary is based on, and she showed me all the iterations of the script, and I was present at the shooting of many of the scenes. But when it came to me making comments about it, I realized that Marielle’s interpretation of my book—and her appreciation of it—had much more to do with her than it did with me. So unless I stepped back and just let her do what she could do, I would’ve been in there [making comments] a hundred times. I would read the script and be like, “Minnie wouldn’t say that!” But in Marielle’s head, Minnie would say that—it was her bringing herself into it. So I had to just let her make the movie.
Does the film feel true to your book overall? Is there anything about it that surprised you?
I think it’s true to the spirit of Minnie. I think the book is more difficult to read than the film is to watch. In the book, the things that happen to Minnie [and the thoughts she has] are more disturbing. But the film ends on an upbeat moment, with Minnie thinking about how her mom needs men and she doesn’t. That to me seemed not completely true to the spirit of the book—I don’t think the book has a conclusion in that same sense, but I think that in order to give the film a sense of closure, it was necessary for Marielle to do that.
I also think the Minnie of the book doesn’t have the same agency that the Minnie of the movie seems to. There’s a scene in the beginning of the film where she’s sucking Monroe’s finger in a bar. To me, that’s not something Minnie would have done. She let things happen and responded to them, but wasn’t seductive in that way. That scene just seemed almost to declare that Minnie was not a victim, because she performed this act. It almost bothered me, because it seemed a little too Lolita-like.
That said, though, I really love the movie; I think it’s great. It may have a different message or tell the story differently at times, but I think those changes were necessary. I mean, if I had made the film, no one ever would have bought it, it would have been so dark. But I think Marielle was clever and interpreted the story in a way that stayed true to the spirit of the book—and would [ensure that it] see the light of day.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl, along with much of your other work, explores the line between sexual agency and sexual abuse. Can you talk about how you’ve navigated this?
I think this “line” is really a shifting gray area that’s difficult to track. I’ve navigated this area passively, letting the story take me where it would.
It’s rare to see a teen-girl character so openly talk about and engage with her sexual desire. And even though her story is very complicated, Minnie does come across as a sexual agent. Were you hoping to make a statement about teen-girl sexuality, or about girlhood in general, with this book?
I shy away from having any specific aim in writing a book, because then you’re poisoning the book by having it be led by that goal. If anything, I wanted it to show that teen girls are sexual, period. It’s dumbfounding that people commenting on the movie are remarking that Minnie seems to be “embracing” her sexuality by expressing it and acting on it. I’d say that she was “experiencing” it. What’s shocking is that we as a society have rarely acknowledged the sexuality of girls and young women as the complex, overwhelming force it can be. Girls talk about sex all the time, but in movies, it’s kind of divorced from the real experience. It’s looked at as more salacious—“Those girls, they want the D.”
Girls are often depicted as objects of fantasy whose agency is limited to the power to entice, tease, seduce, or deny; sexy little moppets who have learned to manipulate men. I’ve not met many girls capable of or interested in acting this way. That kind of depiction has nothing to do with the girl’s experience. It’s more objectified through a man’s eyes, and it’s not put in the context of a girl’s life. I think maybe it’s threatening to put a girl’s sexuality in the context of a life, because then it’s harder to objectify. But I wanted Minnie to be a full person.
The film incorporates animation inspired by your illustrations. What do you think of how the film maintained the multilayered visual effect of the graphic novel?
Well, two things: In real life and in the book, the diary was written, but in the film Minnie records her diary entries on a tape recorder. And in the book, the drawings were drawn as single images rather than as animation, but for the film, the recordings and the animation are devices that worked well. I think the drawings in the film don’t work in the same way as they do in the book. The animations are reflecting Minnie’s fantasy life—so, like, you see Minnie flying or things like this—whereas in the book they’re actually scenes that tell the narrative and work with the text.
What books, movies, or other media about girlhood are your favorites?
Jane Eyre. Babe Gordon, which was written by Mae West and was a thinly disguised account of her years as a prostitute. When I was a kid I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and Go Ask Alice too. But so many of the books that I read were often about boys.
The dedication in The Diary of a Teenage Girl reads, “For all the girls when they have grown.” I love this dedication so much. And I got chills when I watched the movie trailer and heard that line read aloud. What does this dedication mean to you?
I was thinking and feeling a hundred things when I wrote that. The statement was directed to me, as a girl, as if I could send a message back through time to comfort the self I was then. It was also for my daughters, who were very young [at the time]. I wasn’t sure that they should ever read the book, me being their mother. But something in me wanted them to know me as I was when I was young, because I’ve always loved them, even before they were born. And last, it was for all the girls; and for them, I was as honest and true to the voice of Minnie as I was able to be. I believed that Minnie could be, and was, any and all of them, past, present, and future. I hadn’t found in literature many voices that reflected the breadth, intensity, and complexity of growing up female.
You’re currently at work on a multimedia novel that highlights the mass murder of women in Juárez, Mexico. Can you talk more about it?
The project began when I was asked by Amnesty International to write a story for a book called I Live Here. I went to Juárez and had difficulty making a story about it because I was so overwhelmed by the depth of despair of all the people that I’d talked to. I felt like my work there was unfinished; there were so many things that I didn’t understand and there were so many problems in terms of me as an outsider going there and trying to build connections with people. So I’ve since returned there a lot over the past eight to ten years and have gotten to know really well the family of one girl who was murdered. I’ve watched the evolution of this specific murder case, as well as that of the family and the neighborhood where they live, so the process has been really investigative as well as experiential. I’ve built replicas of people’s houses and models of the people involved, which the hybrid novel will incorporate as dioramic photos and animations. The project is about the border, but also about the nature of borders themselves; places where residence is often transitory, to which those who belong nowhere are often drawn.
In a 2004 interview in The Comics Journal, you talk about resenting how you’re often seen as a “female cartoonist” instead of just a cartoonist. How have you experienced this in your career? Has it changed over time?
I’m afraid I still feel like it is a somewhat marginalized position. I mean, Alison Bechdel is obviously incredibly successful, and it’s well deserved, and there are plenty of other [successful women cartoonists] too, like Lynda Barry, for example. But there are so many other women cartoonists who have remained more or less in obscurity. I think men are taken more seriously and with greater immediacy than women.
How did you experience that marginalization when you were first starting out as a cartoonist?
There’s often this pressure for women, at least when we’re young, to feel like we have to be cute for people to like us. So you adopt a persona that’s kind of kittenish or something to get in, so that people will take you seriously eventually, you hope. There are all these kind of mind fucks that women go through. I think that women tend to have a greater need to be liked initially, and that a lot of us as girls have a great deal of self-consciousness. It’s a complex territory, and not all of it is under our control. Robert Crumb is one of the cartoonists I knew when I was really young; he was around my mother’s age and I really respected him, and he was never inappropriate at all when I was a teenager. And I saw him as an example of what an artist could be—they could be out in the world, they could be taken seriously. But later on, he wrote me this letter, and he wrote this in the introduction to [my book] A Child’s Life too, about how he lusted after me…and, I don’t know, it’s just so weird for me to think that, because I never got any inkling of that. And I thought I was pretty damn ugly too, so it was kind of doubly confusing. But I think that men do judge you on your appearance, and that’s so irritating. I think the most important thing is to take yourself seriously, no matter what.
You said that there are a lot of great women cartoonists who aren’t getting the attention that they deserve. Are there any in particular that you’re thinking of?
Diane Noomin has always been in that category and, indeed, Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Still, when I talk to people about her work, they always remember her as kind of an appendage of [her husband] Robert Crumb. And although she has been in recent years recognized for her own work, I still think that without him by her side people wouldn’t have paid so much attention.
Do you have any advice for young women who are interested in becoming cartoonists or artists?
Lose your self-consciousness, at least when you’re working. When I say that I don’t have a goal or some kind of message that I want to impart when I’m making a book, I think that a message will come out no matter what you do if your work is honest—and I don’t mean literally the truth, but emotionally honest. So don’t censor yourself, don’t imagine what people would think if you wrote this or that. Copy other people’s styles all you want, but do it with the aim of finding your own vision and your own voice. Don’t worry too much about the world, because it’ll always get into your brain and fuck up your work. I always tell my students that. Self-censorship is the most dangerous thing to any writer, and I consider cartoonists writers. Basically, you just have to say fuck the world and give yourself the space to express what you need to express.