The Politics of “Girl, Interrupted.”

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I watched “Girl, Interrupted” for the first-time last weekend.  I did not know what to expect having never read any synopses of the movie or the book upon which it is based.  While I knew Angela Jolie and Winona Ryder were in the movie, I was not aware of who else made up the ensemble.  So, it was an additional treat watching the work of Whoopie Goldberg, Elisabeth Moss, Clea Duvall, Brittany Murphy, and Vanessa Redgrave.

Two things stood out for me regarding the story.  First, I found it to be the antithesis of “The Matrix”, another movie that was also released in 1999.  In “The Matrix”, Keanu Reeves’ character, ‘Neo’, after finding out his life is a lie, declares war on the programming of his artificial society.  He spends the rest of his life not only trying to destroy it, but protecting the last enclave of humans, Zion.

Winona Ryder’s character, ‘Susanna’, pushes back violently also against the establishment of what she deems her artificial world, but the pushback is mostly on herself, with an attempted suicide being the final straw that puts her in an institution for the mentally ill.

Both characters fighting an establishment.  Both achieving some self-awareness and acknowledgment of what the artificial world is.  But the two take divergent paths.  ‘Neo’ continues his battle against the programming, saving his small city of humans in the process. 

‘Susanna’, on the other hand, decided to leave her enclave.  Aware of what the programming entailed and required, she preferred to take a chance navigating it with her new self-awareness as a map versus staying in the institution with her friends.  ‘Susanna’ traded in being ‘Neo’ for ‘Cypher’.

Susanna’s journey had me asking, how many of us are pushing back against a system that we did not create and where is the push back getting us?  Are we afraid to navigate the system? Are we “lazy”, as Kurtwood Smith’s ‘Dr Crumble’ put it?

Or do we want to avoid seeing in the mirror a reflection of the consensus attitudes that most of society opts for? A passing up of individuality?

The last question is a crude segue to my second observation.  1968 (and in some ways 1999, the year the movie was released) represents to a number of Americans a milestone in attitudinal changes.  This thought hit me when I saw a Bobby Kennedy yard sign in front of Susanna’s house.  Seeing the sign led me to conclude that the story took place between March and June 1968.  And a scene depicting the news around the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr confirmed my thought.

For me, 1968 was a pivotal year as a child.  My mother, sister, and I moved back from St. Kitts, West Indies to the U.S. Virgin Islands.  The Black Power movement was still mostly confined to the mainland and the television for many of us, but its energy would reach us soon enough.  The first season of “Hawaii-Five O” could only distract me for so long from the images of Vietnam on the television. 

I was not a personal witness to the white male testosterone era seen on television’s “Mad Men.” However, I could see where having Whoopie Goldberg’s ‘Nurse Valerie’ shown as a black woman is symbolic of the period’s waning WASP culture if not dominance in society.

Again, pleasantly surprised and always cool when a flick can engender insights.

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Alton Drew 6 June 2022    

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