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The Teenage Female Gaze


Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank works equally well as a cerebral thought experiment and a brutal tearjerker.

Saved by her vision. Katie Jarvis as Mia.

There isn’t much in fifteen-year-old Mia’s life to desire.

She lives in a cramped apartment in one of England’s depressing council estates. Her mother is on the dole, drinks too much and is too absorbed by her frustrated desires to express much interest in her two daughters’ state of mind.

All Mia — in a remarkable performance by first-time actor Katie Jarvis — has to keep her sane is her portable CD player and the hip-hop dance routines she devises in a vacant flat. Only then can she transmute her rage into desire, her existential claustrophobia into a dream of a better life.

Things begin looking up when Connor, a handsome man played by Michael Fassbender, enters her mother’s life.

He has the self-assuredness of someone who isn’t worried about money. And a car, which he uses to take the family on a trip to the countryside.

However, Connor’s interest in Mia and her younger sister Tyler, as well as the words and gestures that communicate feelings their mother is too numb to express, disrupts the family’s fragile equilibrium.

We can see trouble coming closer with each passing scene.

Arnold – whose latest film Bird recently premiered to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival – wants us to experience Mia’s surprise, not to be surprised ourselves.

Fish Tank isn’t a simple tale of innocence spoiled, though.

Its protagonist is no Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

What sets Fish Tank apart from your average film about a young woman in crisis is its insistence that we acknowledge Mia’s agency.

Despite the resistance she faces, she still brings her will to bear on the world.

The film opens with someone breathing heavily over spare white-on-black titles. We then see Mia bent over, hands on knees.

She straightens up, puts her hands on her hips, and tilts her head upward, eyes closed.

When she lowers her head and opens her eyes, we get a strong impression that she is looking intently at something.

But she isn’t looking at us.

Her gaze is trained on something in the distance, well beyond where the camera must have been, the imaginary place we occupy as spectators.

The next shot shows Mia from behind, backlit by a large window. The view is expansive, looking down over single-family homes.

Her loose-fitting athletic attire makes it hard to classify her. It’s not until she pulls out her phone to call a friend and leaves a message apologising for some offence that we can be sure she comes from a working-class background.

Although the story that follows will make it abundantly clear how strongly Mia feels restricted by her circumstances, this opening sequence establishes that she isn’t just an object to be viewed with pity but a subject seeking a higher perspective.

The distance this location puts between her and the indignities of her daily existence gives her a sense of superiority.

To be sure, this sense is bound up with self-delusion. Like even the most privileged teenagers, she doesn’t have legal autonomy. And that lack of freedom is powerfully reinforced by her class and gender.

There is a massive gap between what Mia can see and what she can do with the insights her perspective provides her.

That gap inspires frustration. But that frustration functions, in turn, as a reservoir of potential energy, one which drives the story forward.

Mia may not be as mature as she thinks, but she is savvy enough to maintain a semblance of control in the most dire circumstances.

When two boys act as though they might be intending to rape her, she fights back furiously.

And when Connor carries Mia to her tiny bedroom after she passes out from drinking liquor stolen from her mother’s party downstairs, she opens her eyes just enough to make sure that his good intentions don’t go awry.

Arnold, who also wrote the screenplay, reinforces the impression that Mia is no victim.

When Connor lends her his video camera so she can make a DVD for a dance audition, she immediately turns it on him in a demonstration of insouciant voyeurism. Later in the film, after she hears her mother making love with him, she creeps down the hall and opens the door a crack to watch.

The spectacle disturbs her, as she indicates by slamming the door of her bedroom afterwards. Still, it also sets in motion a desire with potentially disastrous consequences, one she struggles to cope with even as she devotes herself to more chaste activities like drunken horseplay with the shy brother of one of her would-be attackers.

Again, we confront the tension between the power of sight and the structural impotence that people in Mia’s world contend with, particularly when their age and gender compound it.

In her mother’s pursuit of short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term security, we recognise a surrender that Mia, inflamed by teenage idealism, judges harshly.

The most remarkable thing about Fish Tank is its treatment of the teenage female gaze.

Teenage girls are the object of intense scrutiny in any society.

On the one hand, their desire for sex with an appropriate partner must be activated. Conversely, that desire must be constrained to prevent it from overflowing into places deemed inappropriate.

Most films about teenage girls reinforce the negative aspects of this scrutiny, subjecting fictional characters to the same treatment as their real-world counterparts.

We see them from a distance. And even when we are invited to feel sympathy for them, it assumes the condescending form corresponding to that distance.

More often than not, these films present a male perspective. And even among the remaining ones, the tendency is to show teenage girls as objects of an older woman’s scrutiny, equal parts nostalgic and disapproving.

Fish Tank is different.

Arnold’s film takes its teenage protagonist seriously, not only as an object of the camera’s scrutiny but as a stand-in for the camera itself.

In that opening scene, when Mia goes to the window to look down on her community, her perspective is ours.

And that remains the case throughout the film.

When Connor interacts with Mia’s family, we see him through her eyes, first as an annoying presence and then as an alluring one.

When she spies on her mother having sex with him, her voyeurism doubles for our own, both in the immediate context of this scene and for their council-estate life more generally.

Towards the film’s end, Mia discovers where Connor spends his time when he isn’t around. It turns out that he has a family and lives in a house in a comparatively well-off neighbourhood.

She feels completely betrayed.

Not simply because Connor has taken advantage of her family but because he has done so from a position of comparative privilege.

He has been playing the tourist in their world, deriving pleasure from the discrepancy between his existence and theirs.

Characteristically, Mia’s response to this discovery is to turn the tables on him as much as she can.

After breaking into Connor’s house, she takes a piss on his rug and watches home movies of his family on his camcorder.

Even if she can’t live the way he does, she can at least see how he lives.

Fish Tank also breaks sharply with the precedent set by most films about teenage girls in its depiction of a mother-daughter relationship.

Again and again, we see Mia watching her mother with a mixture of resentment and revulsion.

Even though the claustrophobic circumstances of their small apartment make it hard for them to preserve sufficient personal space, they still seem to watch each other from far away, as if their relationship is a surprising accident rather than the sort of natural bond we are conditioned to expect.

At the film’s end, after Connor is out of the picture and Mia has decided to leave home with her new boyfriend, she walks into the living room to say goodbye.

She stands in the doorway at first with her sister Tyler, watching her mother, whose back is turned, dance to a hip-hop song with a joint in her hand.

“I’m going then,” Mia declares, the emotional distance between them palpable.

Her mother turns around.

“It’s one of your CDs,” she tells Mia.

“Yeah.”

“It’s alright,” her mother replies.

“Yeah. It’s Nas. He’s good.” says Mia, her gaze softening.

Her mother’s eyes narrow, scrutinising her daughter.

“Go on, then. Fuck off. What are you waiting for?

We see Mia and Tyler still standing in the doorway as the first chorus of Nas’s song rings out: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

Then Mia enters the living room and starts to mirror her mother’s dance moves, their eyes locked together. Tyler comes up behind Mia and holds onto her waist, copying her steps from behind.

We sense, watching this scene, that this is as close as Mia and her mother have been in a long time and perhaps closer than they’ll ever be again.

The sight of this damaged family unit briefly brought together by a shared passion is incredibly moving.

We’ve seen enough to know that the brief truce will not last. But we also understand that this momentary rapprochement, underscored by the relaxed brutality of the song’s lyrics, is all the redemption their claustrophobic world can offer: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die; that’s why we get high. Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.”

This depressing analysis provides a decent summary of Fish Tank.

Although the story has moments of crisis, we are repeatedly reminded that the most difficult thing for Mia to deal with is not pain but its absence.

Early in the film, during her family’s brief trip to the countryside with Connor, she wades into a stream to help him catch a fish.

When she emerges from the mire, her foot is bleeding from a cut. But she almost seems pleased.

Even an unpleasant sensation can give a taste of freedom.

Fish Tank clearly follows in a distinguished tradition of British social realism.

The mother-daughter relationship recalls the one in Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey, the female equivalent to the “Angry Young Men” of the 1950s, while the looseness of the script pays homage to Mike Leigh’s work.

What sets Fish Tank apart from these illustrious predecessors are Arnold’s nods to less straightforward modes of storytelling.

Mia’s purposeful meandering conjures French director Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic Mouchette, while the prominence of hip-hop invokes American films like Menace II Society.

Like those dramas, Fish Tank is less interested in making a point than in exploring characters overwhelmed by a sense of pointlessness.

As bleak as that sounds, Film Tank does make room for hope.

The way Mia looks at the world — from her copying of dance moves she sees on the Internet to her experimentation with Connor’s video camera to the things she notices during the long walks she takes — implies that she has the potential to escape her surroundings.

That’s why her tightly wound personality doesn’t come off as a mere defence mechanism.

Mia may keep her distance because she doesn’t want to get hurt, but she can use it to turn her hurt into art.

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Screenshot courtesy of Andrea Arnold. All rights reserved.