The nineties saw a huge shift for female representation in pop culture. The rise of third wave feminism was reflected in the riot grrrl movement and in beloved fictional characters such as Daria Morgendorffer. Wealth porn was shoved down the throats of teens and adults alike thanks to Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995) and Sex and the City (1998 – 2004) and cinema momentarily moved away from the slasher in favour of the thriller. Largely due to the success of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987), a new kind of femme fatale took over our screen. On the surface, this nineties femme fatale was sexually charged and hell-bent on claiming what she felt was rightfully hers, but as always things are more complex than simply dismissing this as a two-dimensional cinematic archetype.
Sociology Professor, Carol Thompson coined the phrase “psycho-femme” when discussing this particular sub-genre of cinema, suggesting what unites these films is, “a female lead who is in social or psychological conflict with other film characters, who are usually women. The conflicts emanate from the female lead and focus on her behaviour and social relationships” (207). The psycho-femme thriller was a mainstay on our screens throughout the nineties with notable titles such as Single White Female (Barbet Schroeder, 1992), The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson, 1992) and Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992). While these all focus on adult psycho-femmes, the sub-genre’s exploration of teenage psycho-femmes allowed teenage anxieties, obsessions, sexuality and the struggle of forging identity to be examined on the screen in a raw and honest way.
Poison Ivy (Katt Shea, 1992), Fun (Rafal Zielinski, 1994) and Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994) each focus on the teenage psycho-femme. While Fun and Heavenly Creatures are based on real life crimes, Poison Ivy mimics events that occurred in the early nineties. Fun’s inspiration came from 14-year-old Shirley Wolfe and 15-year-old Cindy Collier, who stabbed 85-year-old Anna Brackett to death after she had invited them in to use her phone. The teenagers had been friends less than twenty-four hours and had never met Brackett before they made the decision to kill someone. An entry found in Wolfe’s diary stated, “Today, Cindy and I ran away and killed an old lady. It was lots of fun” (McCall). Hence the title of the film.
Heavenly Creatures is based on the notorious crime committed by 16-year-old Pauline Parker and 15-year-old Juliet Hulme during 1954 in Christchurch, New Zealand. Parker and Hulme bludgeoned Parker’s mother, Honorah, to death with a brick in a stocking. Parker and Hulme’s relationship was also the basis for the wonderful French horror film, Don’t Deliver Us From Evil (Joël Seria, 1971).
While Poison Ivy isn’t based on real life incidents, it heavily parallels what was perhaps 1992’s biggest media frenzy, the case of Amy Fisher. 16-year-old Fisher shot and wounded Mary-Jo Buttafuoco, who was the wife of her lover Joey Buttafuoco. Coincidentally, Drew Barrymore played the role of Amy Fisher in the 1993 made for TV movie, The Amy Fisher Story (Andy Tennant).
What makes psycho-femme teens a unique entity is at the core of these films is friendship. Not simply using friendship to reach their goal, like Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay) in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, but genuine, heartfelt friendship. Each of these friendships is destroyed by murder, however the character’s journey before this point beautifully comments on the difficulties of trying to forge a sense of identity and the obsessiveness of female teenage friendship. Each of the key friendships in these films begins with one of the girls not meeting with the expected social norms of how a female should act. Heavenly Creatures’ Juliette (Kate Winslet) unabashedly corrects her teacher’s French and Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is completely enamoured with her. Cooper (Sara Gilbert) sees the film’s namesake, Ivy (Drew Barrymore), swinging carelessly from a rope swing and desperately wants Ivy to be her friend. While Fun’s Hillary (Renee Humphrey) and Bonnie (Alicia Witt) meet at a bus stop where Bonnie is running away to meet her boyfriend. From the outset, each of these women has established themselves as a misfit and has the potential to offer the other liberation from normalcy.
Their bonding experiences all revolve around past trauma, further confirming their outsider status and cementing their friendships. Unable to participate in physical education class, Juliette and Pauline discover they both have medical conditions, osteomyelitis and tuberculosis. Juliette proclaims, “all the best people have bad chests and bone diseases”, and with the knowledge that they will never have to sit alone on a bench during physical education again, their friendship intensifies. While Juliette and Pauline’s bonding experience is an honest interaction, the same can’t be said for Hillary and Bonnie or Cooper and Ivy. Hillary has just left a counselling session when she meets Bonnie at the bus stop. She confides in Bonnie about years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father and expresses to her how good it feels to talk to someone her own age about her trauma. Bonnie tells Hillary she isn’t alone in this and graphically details the time her brother sexually assaulted her. Ivy and Cooper bond over family issues, Ivy tells of her experience of being raised by a mother who is an addict, Cooper tells Ivy that her father (Tom Skerritt) isn’t her real father and she has previously attempted suicide. Fun and Poison Ivy reveal that both Bonnie and Cooper’s past traumas are complete falsities, created to impress their new found best friend. However, the revelation of this information fails to deter Hillary or Ivy. With the knowledge that someone wants to be a part of their life so desperately, they would lie to gain approval, the friendships are solidified.
The struggle to form your own unique identity is a universal teenage experience, which is a key focus of these three films. Each character experiences a rebirth of sorts that has only been made possible through the blossoming of their friendships. Carol Thompson (212-216) discussed the importance of assuming a new identity in psycho-femme films such as Single White Female and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle to hide secrets of their past. When looking at the creation of a new identity for the teenage psycho-femme, the intent is not to hide what has come before, but to experience the liberating feeling of something new. The assumption of new identity in Heavenly Creatures is particularly interesting, as Juliet and Pauline not only create new identities, they swap genders and create an entirely new world. Both keen writers, Juliet and Pauline create a story about a fantasy kingdom called Borovnia, where saints in the form of Mario Lanza reside. While struggling another bout of rejection from her parents, Juliet becomes convinced she can enter “the Fourth World” and in turn convinces Pauline she can do the same. Once they have access to the Fourth World, Juliet assumes the identity of the Queen of Borovnia, Deborah, and Pauline takes on the role of the King, Charles. They begin to correspond with each other Charles and Deborah, dish out cruel punishments to whomever they please in Borovnia, and because they are royalty, they are completely untouchable. However, in the real world they are still having to deal with the seemingly endless complications in their lives, which they all relate back to their parents. One of these complications being concern that Juliet and Pauline’s friendship is becoming sexual. Their friendship does in fact become a sexual relationship and it could be argued that Pauline has taken on the identity of Charles to remove the guilt and stigma associated with having a same sex relationship in the 1950s.
Bonnie and Hillary’s identities exist because of each other. Unlike Juliet and Pauline, we are given very little insight into their lives before they knew each other. Like their real-life counterparts, Fun’s Bonnie and Hillary became friends fast. In the short 24 hours that they spend together they convey a manic happiness that they can finally be themselves, completely free of judgement and rules. Hillary describes their meeting as, “a door opening. First I was alone, then Bonnie came in.” Bonnie and Hillary gave each other completion. While they don’t go to the lengths of creating their own world, they share the same sense of invincibility that Juliet and Pauline encompass. For Bonnie and Hillary, this intense friendship develops into romantic love and this love only seems to deepen once they are put behind bars. Unlike Heavenly Creatures, the love between Bonnie and Hillary isn’t explored sexually, however the sexual tension between the two when they share a bed is all consuming. The way teenage sexuality is explored in Fun and Heavenly Creatures feels very authentic. The characters are not homosexual, Pauline has consensual sex with the current boarder at her home, John (Jed Brophy), much to her parents and Juliet’s disapproval. Bonnie’s many stories about her sexual exploits with her boyfriend turn out to be fabricated, but she certainly expresses a desire for intimacy with the opposite sex. However, they aren’t presented as heterosexual or bisexual either. Their sexuality and sexual experiences simply feel like a necessary step in their development of identity.
The development of identity operates differently in Poison Ivy, as does Ivy and Coopers friendship. Ivy’s real identity is never revealed, she is given a new identity by Cooper. The two meet in the principal’s office of their elite high school. The class divide between Ivy and Cooper is instantly apparent, she looks different to Cooper and informs her she is there on a scholarship. When Ivy asks Cooper’s father for a ride home, Cooper quickly tells him her friend’s name is Ivy, after glancing at the fake tattoo of ivy wrapped around a crucifix on her leg. Without even realising it, Cooper has given Ivy a new identity and a new life. It’s easy to assume that Ivy was always out for her own gain, as audiences have grown accustomed to this trope in psycho-femme thrillers, however Ivy and Coopers friendship does feel genuine. Ivy helps Cooper become comfortable with her awkward teenage self and in turn Cooper provides Ivy with a home environment that she has never had the privilege of experiencing. Like many relationships, Ivy and Cooper’s friendship begins to deteriorate. They become jealous of each other over petty things, they fight, they make up, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. It’s only when Ivy feels she may lose Cooper’s friendship and all the perks that come along with it, that things take a drastic turn. Ivy becomes hell-bent on replacing Cooper’s dying mother (Cheryl Ladd) to secure her place in the home. She begins wearing her clothes, seduces her husband and eventually kills her. Once again, we see this desire to obtain a new identity, as the identity of Ivy was created as Cooper’s best friend. Now that she no longer occupies this role, the identity of Ivy created by Cooper is obsolete.
Poison Ivy, Fun and Heavenly Creatures all result in death and shattered bonds. Death to regain control, death for fun and death out of fear of separation. While we watch these films with full knowledge blood will be spilled, the lasting impact is not the death, it’s the broken bonds between these girls. Looking at psycho-femme films with adult protagonists, we see women who don’t fit into society’s norms. They are misfits and not by choice, they have been placed on the fringes of society because of past trauma. While teen psycho-femme films also focus on outcasts, they have no desire to conform to normalcy, they have found acceptance through friendship. The exploration of female teenage obsession, sexuality and the search for identity was captured with the intensity it deserves in this unique cinematic moment.
McCall, Cheryl. “A Grandmother is murdered, two teenage girls are convicted – there the questions begin.” People, 29 August. 1983, http://people.com/archive/a-grandmother-is-murdered-two-teenage-girls-are-convicted-there-the-questions-begin-vol-20-no-9/. Accessed 25 April 2018.
Thompson, Carol. “The psycho-femme: Identity norm violations and the interactional dynamics of assignment.” Deviant Behaviour: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 19, 1998, pp. 207-226, doi: 10.1080/01639625.1998.9968086.