If I had to explain the concept of a guilty pleasure to someone, I would invite them to a screening of Whip It. The experience of watching it is at times so toe-curlingly cringy, and yet every single time the credits roll, my instinct is to watch it all over again, immediately. However whenever I recommend it to someone, I tell them in advance not to judge me.
Whip It tells the story of teenage Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a pageant competitor in the Texas town of Bodeen who finds her true passion in the local roller derby team, the Hurl Scouts. Her mother however lives another dream, eager to make her the next beauty queen. Tensions rise as Bliss struggles to balance her various hidden lives and relationships, forced to choose between making her mother proud and being herself.
The story of conflicting traditional family expectations with newfound independence is not necessarily an original one - it is in fact the whole foundation of the coming-of-age story. And in many ways, Whip It’s cringe-worthy quality is a direct result of its narrative being a bit trite: we’ve already seen the ‘witty’ comeback, the ‘romantic’ declarations of love, and the melodramatic family arguments. Or maybe we even remember saying these things ourselves as teenagers. Either way, the whole dialogue appears as an ironic pastiche of earlier films, only in this case the characters are unaware of their own irony.
However, what makes Whip It so different from other coming-of-age films is its attention to female relationships. While women are traditionally portrayed as competitive and cruel to one another, Whip It’s characters ultimately have a deep respect for each other, even if they express it in ways that are not always obvious to the other characters.
The most beautiful of these relationships is between Bliss and her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). Because we only perceive Brooke through Bliss’ eyes, she is initially portrayed as the pushy pageant mum, whose ultimate goal is to make her daughter the pageant queen she could never be. However, Brooke’s frank conversations with Bliss about the difficulty of raising a daughter who tells her she’s doing everything wrong throws her into a new light. Suddenly, pageantry is not so much Brooke living through Bliss as it is a desire to keep her daughter safe and set her up for a good life. Both women brush off each other’s sincere attempts to connect under the assumption that the other is being sarcastic – and yet both parent and daughter are allowed to make mistakes without either of them being written off as entirely bad people.
Unsurprisingly, female relationships dominate the film. Bliss’ romantic subplot with a musician named Oliver (Landon Pigg) is very much secondary to her attempts to maintain and repair her relationships with other women. Several friends have actually sworn to me that they don’t remember a male love interest at all. According to them, Bliss and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) are the ones who end up together. When she ends things with Oliver for instance, the stakes don’t feel nearly as high as when Pash is arrested for underage drinking at a derby game, threatening her friendship with Bliss.
Another highlight that sets Whip It apart from other teenage movies is how it treats female bodies. It seems obvious that a film about an all-female sports team would feature this prominently and yet it never feels objectifying. We don’t just see them as beautiful, or passive. Women in Whip It sweat, bleed, vomit, fight, hug and skate. Women don’t panic about their looks. They brag about how many bruises they got from the hours they’ve spent training.
Ultimately, it is this unwillingness to paint women in a singular dimension (pageant queens or athletes, old and bitter or young and rebellious) which makes Whip It a film that merits repeat viewing. Underneath the veneer of a paint-by-numbers teen movie actually lies a tender and nuanced story about negotiating and defying gendered expectations. It just takes a lot of clunky dialogue to get there.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor