In an early scene in Elizabeth Wood’s movie White Girl, 21-year-old intern Leah (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor) is invited by her sleazy indie-magazine boss Kelly (Justin Bartha) into his office, where he offers her some lines of cocaine. Leah, a reckless hedonist with no impulse control, eagerly accepts his offer. He begins to kiss her, and she initially reciprocates. Then he flips her roughly against the wall and pulls up her skirt. We see her expression change; she struggles and makes sounds indicating discomfort before freeing herself from his grip. It’s not clear exactly what happens next, whether he pushes her down or whether she goes down on him of her own volition (or simply to avoid having sex), but in the next shot, we see him roughly thrusting her head into his crotch. Watching the scene, I felt like I was witnessing something violating and inappropriate, an encounter somewhere in the gray area between consent and complicity that many women know all too well.
Other critics responded differently to the scene. This is the New York Times: “With hardly a second thought, she rewards him with oral sex.” The Wrap: “He lays out a couple of lines on his desk, and less than a minute later, they’re having sex.” And Variety: “Leah wastes even less time before hooking up with her boss.”
It’s true, we never know exactly what Leah is thinking and feeling in the moment, nor throughout much of the film. I also think there can be a generational and gender gap when it comes to receiving scenes like this, and that some young female viewers might have a more nuanced understanding of what consent looks like than their older male counterparts. But it’s interesting to me how these reviewers chose to fill in the gaps that Wood purposefully left blank; that most of their descriptions of this difficult, uncomfortable scene centered upon the speed with which it happened, holding it up as yet another illustration of Leah’s bad behavior. Yes, throughout the film, Leah frequently has sex willingly and quickly. She’s also repeatedly preyed upon and assaulted. As most women know, you can be a willing participant in some kinds of sex, at some times, and unwilling in others, and neither of these erases the other.
A certain brand of moral panic tends to arise any time a film depicts the lives of young people, particularly young women, in an honest way, and White Girl is no exception. Director Elizabeth Wood has spoken out about the controversy surrounding the film, saying that it has been largely white men who have chosen to focus on the film’s “shocking” or “unbelievable” sexual elements instead of its other themes; basically, that the response to the film is swept up in the very same forces it indicts. “As women, our idea of what is ‘normal’ — how men can approach you, the weird and upsetting and fucked up shit that goes on — men will tell you does not exist, that you’re being dramatic. I have not heard a woman tell me that she thought it was unrealistic. They’re the ones that have understood the best,” Wood tells Vice. “Women go through some crazy shit that we don’t really talk about, and that no one is supposed to know about — strange moments that are hard to ever share or articulate.”
Based on Wood’s own experiences, White Girl stars Homeland’s Morgan Saylor as Leah, a college student with unkempt bleach-blonde hair and wide eyes, ready to soak up New York for everything it has to offer (mostly, baggies upon baggies of “White Girl,” which we learn is slang for cocaine). It’s the summer before sophomore year, and she moves with her roommate, Katie (India Menuez), to an ungentrified area of Ridgewood, Queens, where she sparks up a relationship with a gentle-hearted Puerto Rican drug dealer named Blue (Brian Marc) who works the corner near her apartment. Blue says early on that he doesn’t do drugs himself, and he never sells in Manhattan, because he knows how easy it is to get caught — how easy it is for a young nonwhite man to find himself trapped within a racist criminal-justice system. Leah, who has no such worries, just wants to get fucked up and have a good time in the drug-fueled white girl’s playground that is New York City. In part because of Leah’s recklessness, Blue gets arrested, and Leah finds herself in possession of Blue’s large drug stash. She hatches a plan to sell it, in order to get Blue a good lawyer (Sex and the City’s Chris Noth), all the while being pursued by the nasty dealer who sold it to him.
Suffice to say, Leah’s not a very systematic saleswoman; her tactics involve going clubbing at Le Baron (who among us?), dancing topless, having threesomes, waving bags of coke around on the dance floor with zero discretion, and getting very high on her own supply, as the drug increasingly consumes her life and sends her into a devastating self-destructive spiral. Still, while I found Leah’s trajectory upsetting, it was hardly unrealistic or surprising. If you went to college in New York or lived here in your teens or 20s, chances are you’ve crossed paths with people like Leah — reckless, privileged, oblivious, thrill-seeking, unable or unwilling to pump the brakes when things get hairy — and I sympathized with Leah’s situation while feeling discomfort at what that identification said about me. It’s hard to not watch White Girl and think about your own position in society, so concerned is the film with the complex dynamics of privilege, and how gender and race, as well as age and wealth, determine the snap judgments that people make about you. The film is a complicated, ambiguous tangle of power dynamics; while Leah is often a victim of the predatory men who surround her, she is also a reckless agent of destruction, complicit in her own debasement, simultaneously aware of how to use her objectification to her advantage and unaware of how her blithe entitlement can cause terrible harm for those without her white skin.
And yet even with all that to chew over, the narrative around the film has largely come to revolve around its “controversial” sexual content, with a few scandalized reviews drowning out the many thoughtful ones. “It can be exhausting watching an emerging actress like Saylor permit herself to be abused in so many different ways for so long, even if the white powder is just vitamin C and the recurring sodomy and rape scenes are all pretend,” wrote Variety’s Peter Debruge during Sundance, lamenting the film’s “reprehensible behavior” and “wall-to-wall drugs and depravity, offered up as proof that white girls can be as ‘hard’ as the best of them.” “Sadly, White Girl is hardly the lone example of a director — guy or girl, white or otherwise — dredging up the most sordid conceivable material in an effort to penetrate the hypercompetitive, male-dominated film industry,” he concludes.
“Is there anything less shocking than a movie that thinks it’s shocking?” muses Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers. “See White Girl if only for the all-stops-out performance of Morgan Saylor as a college student on the yellow brick road to cocaine and near-constant sexual debasement. The character is based partly on the exploits of Elizabeth Wood, the film’s writer and director, so art really is imitating life — though neither is immediately recognizable as such.”
White Girl’s sex scenes are certainly titillating, yes — “Had White Girl been directed by a man, it would probably be accused of misogyny,” writes Stephen Holden in the Times — but they are also deliberately designed to make us uncomfortable, to question what it means to be titillated by what we’re seeing. It’s hard not to read the “controversy” surrounding the film as a prudish way of setting boundaries over what sort of female behavior should be displayed onscreen. To call something shocking or controversial is often just a neat way to dismiss it, to ignore the real and important questions the film is putting forward.
White Girl is the rare film, written and directed by a woman, that shows a young woman’s sex life in its many shades, which acknowledges that sexual agency can be both a blessing and curse. Sex gives Leah pleasure, and it also serves as a bargaining chip in desperate times. It’s given with love and affection, as in her nascent relationship with Blue, and it is forced upon her, in a horrific rape scene near the end of the film. After her first sexual encounter with Kelly, she continues to hook up with him; sometimes because she needs his help, but also at times because she seems to enjoy it. These dynamics are complicated, and complexity can be hard to reckon with. It’s much easier to dismiss them as cheap sensationalism.