Puberty always bites the big one, but, it bites especially hard when you’re a teenage girl.
It’s not the fact that your body is changing at a pace you can’t seem to control (what’s this new hair … down there?), or that you have to start worrying about red goo staining your white jeans for months — nay, decades — to come. It’s not even that you’re starting to feel things that you might have seemed utterly icky to you just a year prior (*blushes* at any given sex scene, especially if it co-stars Margot Robbie). It’s that — because you’re a girl (not yet a woman) — these changes are constantly being observed, commented on and/or judged by the world, even the ones you love.
The titillating, yet terrifying prospect of “becoming a woman” under the watchful eye of the patriarchy is explored in gruesome detail in Ginger Snaps (2000). Directed by Orphan Black co-creator John Fawcett and written by Karen Walton, the Canadian cult fave follows the Fitzgerald sisters — 16-year-old Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and 15-year-old Brigitte (Emily Perkins) — as they cope with the consequences of their developing bodies/urges while also trying to navigate the suburban hell that is the fictional town Bailey Downs (really, the Greater Toronto Area).
Ginger Snaps isn’t your traditional suburban coming-of-age tale as it comes with, well, a tail. You see, Ginger‘s transformation isn’t just triggered by regular ol’ hormones, but also by a bite from a werewolf who has been slaughtering many local pets. What starts as raging cramps and sudden horniness slowly becomes something much more sinister as Ginger begins to crave more than just a good one-night-stand (or better yet, the touch of her hand). As she explains while hunched over a bloody toilet, Ginger has “this ache” to “tear everything to pieces.”
Although Ginger Snaps is undoubtedly supernatural in nature (see: the incredible practical werewolf effects by Paul Jones), I find it to be one of the more realistic portrayals of the horror that is going through puberty as a young woman. Much of this realism comes from Walton’s stellar script, which is performed with gutting honesty by both Isabelle and Perkins. But the film also owes a lot to Lea Carlson (the 2015 adaptation of Room and, more recently, Netflix’s The Silence), who clearly took much care and thought in dressing (and undressing) the film’s death-obsessed protagonists.
Much like its candy-coloured younger cousin Jennifer’s Body (2009), Ginger Snaps uses its costumes to comment on the expectations and limitations placed on teenage girls. Before we watch Ginger turn from Goth Girl to Werewoman, we get to see her navigating her world with Brigitte, her partner in faux-crime (seriously, the two like to stage death scenes in their spare time). At the start of the film, we get a clear sense of how close Ginger and Brigitte really are, the two of them sharing a bedroom, suicidal ideations (“Out by sixteen or dead on the scene”), and a penchant for wearing things at least two sizes too big.
Ginger and Brigitte‘s wardrobes are nearly identical at the start of Ginger Snaps, with the defiant duo donning matching bird skull necklaces and hiding their respective burgeoning bodies behind oversized cardigans, baggy tees, midi skirts and high socks in dark, dank greys, blacks and greens. They also seem to take pride in not giving a fuck about Western beauty standards, eschewing any and all makeup and wearing their unbrushed hair — Ginger‘s a coppery red, Brigitte‘s a dark brown — down and often in front of their pale faces.
Like many other young people, Ginger and Brigitte have limited control over their day-to-day lives, so they have to find other, often superficial, ways to assert their independence. While really not that outrageous in their clothing and cosmetic choices (hey, I didn’t wear makeup until my latter years of college), Ginger and Brigitte are definitely much more alternative than their peers, not to mention their chipper, kitschy sweater-obsessed mother (a scenery-chewing Mimi Rogers). Sadly, despite dressing to try to remain unseen, the Fitzgerald sisters still manage to attract attention, especially from men.
Before she starts wolfing out, Ginger is catcalled by a couple of male peers while wearing… a too-big gym shirt, two sweaters and shorts layered over leggings. Although Ginger escapes mainly unscathed from this gross interaction, it’s a moment that reminds us that despite sexist arguments to the contrary, it ultimately doesn’t matter what a young woman wears. Whether she’s covered up or showing off, girls can and will be subject to horny, prying eyes.
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A little later, Ginger and Brigitte take an evening stroll in their neighbourhood in hopes of kidnapping a popular girl’s dog as part of a minor revenge plot. In this scene, Ginger is — much like her younger sister — is seen wearing another midi skirt, this time paired with an old, shapeless coat and chunky scarf. Despite covering nearly every inch of her body except for her calves, Ginger still attracts the attention of a heinous dog. This time, the slobbering sophomores are replaced by the Beast of Bailey Downs, a.k.a. that pesky, aforementioned werewolf.
It is that fateful night that Ginger finally gets The Curse. After finally being paid a visit from everyone’s favourite Aunt Flo, Ginger triggers the bloodlust of the wolf and gets a lovebite that she’ll never quite be able to get over. While literally framed as a standard attack by a mythical monster, it’s hard not to read the scene as a metaphor for rape culture and how many still can’t seem to grasp the concept of consent (not to mention age of consent).
After surviving the wolf attack, Ginger quickly sheds her former skin, both literally and figuratively. She bares parts of herself that neither we, nor her sister, have ever seen before, dressing and acting in ways that might cause raging misogynists — and even well-meaning siblings — to suggest she’s been “asking for it.”
In one truly iconic scene (a precursor to a nearly identical scene in Jennifer’s Body and a descendant of that much-gifed moment in 1996’s The Craft), Ginger struts down her high school hallway in a low-cut blue blouse and tight green velvet skirt. She not only looks great, but seems more confident than ever before, even managing to successful rock two grey streaks in her hair (how Nancy Thompson of her!).
While the boys of Bailey Downs are delighted to see Ginger embrace her right to bare arms (and lower stomach and chest and thighs), Brigitte is more suspicious. She tries everything she can to bring her sister — her supposed soulmate — back, giving Ginger a silver belly button piercing in an attempt to stop the transformation process (kinda ingenious if you ask me) and teaming up with a local drug dealer (Kris Lemche as Sam) to attain monkshood extract. Throughout it all, Brigitte keeps to the chaste silhouettes that were once her and Ginger‘s staple, draping herself in the tattered touchstones of their past in hopes of securing their joint future.
In some ways, you sympathize with Brigitte in the latter part of the film, especially as you watch Ginger start to destroy more than just the town gossip mill. But also, Brigitte‘s concern doesn’t only come from watching Ginger slowly become a beast — it also comes from seeing her other half come into her own as a person, and a highly sexualized one at that. You have to wonder if she would still be as worried if Ginger wasn’t destined for darkness and just wanted to fuck around and look cute doing it.
“[Ginger Snaps] owes a lot to Lea Carlson […] who clearly took much care and thought in dressing (and undressing) the film’s death-obsessed protagonists.“
In the end, no matter of natural protectiveness or problematic possessiveness can stop Ginger from letting her inner “monster” take her, body and soul. As she develops more and more inhuman traits — from weird hair, to a tail, to fangs — Ginger loses more and more clothes. In the film’s climax, a now-blonde Ginger attends a Halloween party in a crushed velvet crop top and matching short skirt, the former of which she tears open as she attempts to seduce Sam.
Finally, Ginger succumbs to her doomed fate, fully transforming into a white wolf in the film’s finale before dying in the room she and Brigitte once made their suicide pact. The film ends with a distraught Brigitte lying next to Ginger‘s wolf corpse, with audience left to wonder whether the younger Fitzgerald will also be taken by the curse (this of course is confirmed in the sequel, Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed, which co-stars Tatiana Maslany).
While not all young women turn into werewolves at That Time of the Month, it’s no secret that girls and femmes are still demonized, especially in terms of they ways they choose to present themselves physically. We see it in the ways we judge artists like Billie Eilish whether she purposefully chooses to cover up, or walks around in a comfy tank top. We see it the ways many people — yes, including women — still continue to shame women of all ages for embracing their bodies and their sexuality openly, both online and IRL. We see it in the way girl-powered monster movies are often dismissed if they dare to be both gory and girly.
By attacking these contradictory issues head on, Ginger Snaps continues to attract genre fans around the world, inspiring countless panels, editorials and even TV adaptations. After two decades, the film remains a remarkably effective werewolf tale and a timeless allegory for how difficult it still is to be a grown — and still growing — woman.
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