Ryder on the Gay Storm: How Girl, Interrupted Made You Gay
Updated: Oct 19, 2018
There are some very vivid sensorial associations I have with being a child in the 90s.
The jarring slap of wallet chains against Paco jeans as I hid behind the wall of chokers in Claire’s that smelled too much of soft pretzels and not enough of the antiseptic they were allegedly using after piercing eleven-year old’s ears.
Smoke of Virginia Slims violating my olfactory as my babysitter and I sped down the autumnal dappled backroads of Virginia in her 1988 Volvo Station wagon while “Ramblin’ Man” twanged on, only to realize that smell was actually the backseat on fire because the wind had whipped a lit cigarette back and OH NO THE SEATS ARE CLOTH AND OH NO YOU CAN’T GET THE WINDOWS DOWN FAST ENOUGH BECAUSE THEY’RE CRANK WINDOWS AND YOU’RE A FAT KID AND THIS IS IT, THIS IS HOW IT ALL ENDS.
Pizza rolls, and their infinite capacity for cruel punishment, managing to reach the same temperature as the center of the fucking earth after a routine spin in the microwave.
The sizzle of my ear foreskin after fecklessly convincing myself that I knew how to use a flatiron.
And the tingling rupture in my gut—somewhere near my pelvis, really—whenever I would manage to watch, read, or collaging (y’all, if you had a lot of gay feelings and, say, you were a girl who had a lot of t-shirts of a lot of different soccer teams, and you DIDN’T collage about them, they weren’t actually gay feelings) about the movie Girl, Interrupted.
It’s unclear if any one of those things made me queer (but I will say there is undeniably a correlation between the amount of pizza rolls I consumed and the extent of my manifest queerness—I don’t know if some university wants to help me research this, but I am certain SHOCKING and DEFINITIVE results will be found). But with unequivocal certainty I can attest that the 1999 psychological dramatic adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir about her time spent in a psychiatric hospital in the 60s (which sounds like the pinnacle of FUN and FREE and SAFE) solidified my queerness and perhaps manufactured it entirely. Which is a big claim and probably an honor that the makers of the film are too humble to accept, but they should.
There’s quite a bit that makes Girl, Interrupted unreasonably gay, aside from that very melodramatic title, which honestly is something every gay or bisexual gal probably HAUGHTILY scribbled in her diary after a frustratingly arousing field hockey practice. For those unfamiliar with the film (who, I imagine, must be preteens, people who do not have depression or personality disorders, or people who did not **experiment with masturbation in the early 00s**--none of whom must find reading this very relatable or enjoyable), let’s check out a quick synopsis from one of the devoted and steadfast IMDB users:
“Unable to cope with reality and the difficulty that comes with it, 18 year old Susanna, is admitted to a mental institution in order to overcome her disorder. However, she has trouble understanding her disorder, and therefore finds it difficult to tame, especially when she meets the suggestive and unpredictable Lisa.”
Wow, good job on a succinct and direct summary of the film (that only suffered from a few rogue commas), Toni from IMDB! What about that doesn’t scream gay? Susanna “has trouble understanding her disorder??” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? IT DOESN’T MATTER, EVERY QUEER GAL HAS FELT IT AND KNOWS IT ON A VISCERAL LEVEL. Oh, and Susanna meets the a strange, sapphic (I’m reading into that, not just because her name is Lisa, but mostly because her name is Lisa) woman while figuring out her “reality” and that therein complicates everything? I mean! Wasn’t that everybody’s high school/college/current office life situation???
IMDB plot aside, Girl Interrupted boasted a cast that, well—I never want to say any one factor or any one thing has the potential to make someone gay because that’s not really how it works and that sort of rhetoric is really insidiously harmful. WITH THAT VERY PROMINENTLY IN MIND, any single member of the cast of Girl, Interrupted had the potential to make a whole schoolyard full of folks (mostly gals) very, very queer-leaning. The cast as a whole is a proverbial gay tsunami that could wipe out entire towns of unsuspecting (but ravenously waiting, let’s not kid ourselves) folks. On the supporting end of things, you’ve got some top-notch GIRLs (Gay In Real Lifers)—Jillian Armenante and RED FUCKING ALERT, PRECIOUS LITTLE BABY CLEA DUVALL, THE SAME YEAR SHE BROKE EVERYONE’S BIG GAY HEART IN BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER—and some heart-stopping, “you’re dating men, and that’s so nice but also you are my gay wife and that’s that” women—a very pre-Handmaid’s Tale Elizabeth Moss and my sweet, tragically departed Brittany Murphy, in one of her best roles. And as for the leads, you’re dealing with the incomprehensibly queer power duo that the casting director should be given some sort of award for, because if you put Winona Ryder (as the our main bitch, Susanna) and Angelina Jolie (as that ambiguous and abundantly sapphic Lisa) together, and they’re virtuously bellowing about the unjust scrutiny and castigation lashed upon women suffering from mental health issues all while wearing twee as fuck 60s clothes (you know the queers fucking lose their marbles over vintage threads), then you deserve some kind of award. Also, Girl, Interrupted a formidable and always marvelous Whoopi Goldberg. Who, you know, by all accounts is very hetero, but just feels so indomitably GAY. Much like Jamie Lee Curtis, she’s one of those people who just make the occasion infinitely gayer with her presence. Her casting in Lion King was the catalyst for so many gay origin stories in my age group (well, that, and how much of a catch Nala was AMIRITE??).
Let’s say you can get past the cast (you cannot, though; it’s a big, gay porridge that just wants to start your gay day off right, DON’T FIGHT THAT, EAT THAT FUCKING PORRIDGE, YOU BIG GAYMO) and the endless joys of queering hetero actresses. **(And as an aside, it is of course bleakly disheartening that queer visibility—particularly cis and trans* queer female visible and gender non-binary visibility—both in the form of fictional characters and the actual actors and actresses getting work is so unreasonably paltry, even with strides that have been made of late. But there is something incredibly gratifying and enthralling about queering the women and media that you grow up watching, something deeply special about projecting your mythos and desires onto an entirely different reality. As I’ve said before, I desperately depended on this kind of queering, and I know countless others who did as well.)** There’s another aspect entirely of Girl, Interrupted that was and is so uniquely enrapturing; that is profoundly metaphorically relatable to being queer (and being queer and female-identifying).
It feels potentially problematic to say that the elements of mental health in the film were so intrinsically queer, because doing so invokes that indelible reviling feeling of so many people conflating queerness—queer sexuality, gender-queerness, etc.—with a psychological dysfunction or some behavioral aberration. But that’s certainly not what I mean. What I mean, in far less eloquent and articulate terms, is something very similar to what Ann Cvetkovich means when, in Archive of Feelings she speaks about the inextricability of sexual identity (particularly lesbian and trans* female identity) to trauma and traumatic memory. What I mean is that so much queer origin story and my awareness of and contending with the severity of my psychological issues were contemporaneous phenomenon, almost twins that I birthed, in some sense. My understanding of what it meant to live with manic depression, to live with bipolar disorder, burgeoned with my understanding of what my sexuality was. My sexuality was not a function of my psychology; rather, my psychology and my sexuality were intertwining resonances.
And as such, Girl, Interrupted became this almost mythical entity to me, some sacred text that not only would unlock the secrets of my loins (look, I abhor that, but that is, depressingly, the best thing I could come up with), but connect me to some world of women and mental illness that was otherwise inaccessible to me. Girl, Interrupted was my connection to depictions of mental health—specifically mental health only pertaining to women, from a woman’s perspective—that didn’t feel ghettoizing or dehumanizing, in spite of the patriarchal vexations towards mental health and mental illness in the film. Susanna’s psychological state and mental health in the film, and her time spent in the psychiatric hospital (under the nurturing, Gay Godmother protection of Mama Whoopi) are intimately and intensely her own. As tempestuous as it is, her time in the psychiatric hospital is a refuge, and solidifies her identity, in part because of the women who surround her. Before entering the psychiatric hospital and understanding both her psychology and the relational possibilities of mental health, Susanna’s depression and the vicissitudes of her psychological state were reasons for heteronormative society to discard, marginalize or fetishize her. Once she becomes ingratiated and integrated into the fabric of the hospital and the lives of the other women, Susanna discovers a surprising sort of solace and strength in her and the mutuality it affords. Embracing and understanding one’s own psychology becomes a way of resisting and rallying against heteronormativity in such a way that, for me, resembles the blissful (if not complicated) resilience and resistance that comes from being queer.
Girl, Interrupted is a sapphic palisade imbedded in a sapphic palisade. As an eleven/twelve-year-old, the film let explore and revel in the idea that mental health could be accepted; that I could have a community. But, maybe more importantly (and certainly more important to my pubescent self who was actively discovering and pioneering innovative ways I could discretely, shall we say, manually entertain myself when I was trapped in detention), Girl, Interrupted allowed me to be very, very, very GaAaaAaaAAAAaaaaYY. Winona Ryder had already thoroughly gayed me out in my late single digits (if my mother hadn’t been tipped off to some nascent queerness by how utterly enraptured I was with Princess Di, then she certainly was when, as an eight-year-old, I started hoarding Winona Ryder unauthorized biographies just for the picture sections), and Girl, Interrupted pretty much put me over the gay edge. I saw that there could be communities of exclusively women, and not only could those spaces allow infinitely complex identities to flourish, but they could be alternatives to the profoundly dreary and repressive structure that heteronormativity enforced. And, on a tacky level, I saw some hot ladies who made me feel better when I was isolated and depressed as a kid. And you know what? There’s a lot to be said for that when you were growing up queer in the early 00s.
Girl, Interrupted may have not made everyone gay, but there is a certain demographic of women my age who had that one Angelina Jolie picture plastered on their wall or locker (YOU KNOW WHICH ONE) and rolled their eyes when everyone all of a sudden proclaimed Winona Ryder was the tits in the Stranger Things craze who never stood a chance when they found out about Girl, Interrupted. And we are eternally indebted to the film for that.