“Good morning, winner.”
“You’ve worked harder than everyone.”
“Stand atop the mountain of your success and look down on everyone who’s ever doubted you.”
This is how Booksmart’s lead character, Molly, begins her day, listening to a tape of aggressive affirmations in a room filled with symbols of female empowerment and her own personal success: pictures of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a “We Should All Be Feminists” print, a valedictorian sash already hanging on a graduation gown. She is smart, assertive, and driven, and Booksmart makes it clear from the beginning that she is unashamed about it.
We are experiencing a much-needed wave of female empowerment storytelling: everything from physical and supernatural strength in superhero films (Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Captain Marvel) to intelligence and tenacity in more activist roles (On the Basis of Sex, Knock Down the House) to the coming-of-age stories of gifted or courageous girls (Stranger Things, Wrinkle in Time, or slightly older stories like grown•ish or The Bold Type).Yet the more radical vision of flourishing for women would strike harder at the heart of the film’s concept: what if Molly’s real mistake was in her ultimate goal of power and success?
Booksmart tells the story of two high school seniors—Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever)—who are smart, driven, and have spent their entire high school careers focusing on academics and forsaking partying. Their assumption, bolstered by messages like Molly’s fairly vengeful morning affirmations, is that everyone else is wasting their lives with raucous fun, while they are focusing on what really matters: getting into good colleges in order to pursue successful careers. When Molly learns (in a graffitied school bathroom, naturally) that most of the kids who partied have also gotten into good schools, her world falls apart. Her entire worldview, the logic undergirding her actions and decisions, was based on the premise that she was better than everyone else because she worked harder and achieved more—and it was wrong.
Molly and Amy spend the rest of the film trying to pack in as much partying as they can the night before graduation (well, that’s mostly Molly’s goal, but Amy’s along for the ride). They approach their new goal with as much determination and intensity as they devoted to school, as if it is another opportunity to prove that they really are superior to their classmates. Just before a classic “getting ready” sequence begins, Molly asserts, “What took them four years we are doing in one night!”
Booksmart is hilarious, blending high-school-movie-raunchy moments with smart analysis of current teenage challenges. Feldstein is particularly captivating, bringing to life a character that many driven, assertive teenage girls will find comfort seeing on screen. She knows what she wants (she gives a fast-paced speech outlining her five-year plan that culminates in becoming the “youngest justice” ever), her drive is often met with derision (the principle of the school shuts his office door on her when she tries to go over the student council budget on the last day of school), and she bears the marks of strong female leadership (her “Class President” parking spot has the c and l crossed out). Molly represents the women who feel like “too much,” who face sexist misunderstandings for the personality traits that would be celebrated in men: confidence, assertiveness, ambition.
Molly’s drive and determination, however, are not merely misrepresented by her peers as “too much,” she really does cross the line repeatedly. Her aggressive morning affirmations are only an early sign that she has deeply ingrained ideas about success, work ethic, and human flourishing that are damaging to her and to others. When her and Amy’s differences eventually culminate in an all-out fight, the central crux of the disagreement is that Molly has a tendency to bulldoze over Amy’s desires and feelings and take charge of any situation. When she gets in a spat with a drama kid, Molly retorts that “some of us know how to win.” She tells Amy that only “weaker people” succumb to silly crushes, whereas her superior intellect knows better than to get entangled with high school jocks.
While Molly’s experience resonated deeply with me (a friend kept elbowing me in the theatre and saying, “That is so you!”), her unfettered determination to succeed at life reminded me of the unfortunate reality that a great deal of “women’s empowerment” only saddles women with the same harmful messages we give men. Instead of merely getting rid of the destructive stereotypes we feed women about how our value is tied up in our appearance, that our only acceptable role is in motherhood, or that we need to be quiet and submissive in all contexts, we have a tendency to replace them with another set of damaging ideas about human flourishing. Instead of affirming the value of work and family, of seeking relational and vocational flourishing, we often resort to the only other set of messages we know of: the ones we feed men, about finding their value in their vocational success, climbing the corporate ladder, and fighting for and winning material prosperity or power.
Booksmart gets so close to making this very argument—the central conflict of the film is Molly’s realization that maybe her narrow ideas of how to “win” at life are wrong, that maybe there’s value in building relationships with people who are different than her. Yet there’s no doubt that her initial pursuit is rooted in “winning” at something else: when Amy suggests they go home after a somewhat failed experience at one party, Molly persists, “We are A+ people, and we are going to an A+ party!”
Both director Olivia Wilde and stars Feldstein and Dever have spoken about the power of a high school film that centers on two “smart girls.” The film does an incredible job at portraying two female friends whose lives aren’t centered around a guy—or competition. They are two smart girls who aren’t portrayed as competing or comparing in any meaningful way, even though a careful viewer will notice that Molly wears a valedictorian sash and Amy wears the salutatorian one. Where many films only have room for one “smart girl” or play on the cutthroat woman trope, Booksmart makes these two intelligent and ambitious women natural friends. All of these elements are significant in advancing a better vision of flourishing for women: the girls are intelligent, they have a strong relationship, and their lives are more nuanced than wanting a boyfriend. Yet the more radical vision of flourishing for women would strike harder at the heart of the film’s concept: what if Molly’s real mistake was in her ultimate goal of power and success? What if, instead of making this destructive message an equal opportunity employer, we abolished it altogether?
During a recent Bible study, a group of women and I were discussing the first chapter of James. I asked what part of verse 19 (“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”) they found the hardest to obey. A brilliant woman chimed in that while she knew she needed to learn to be slower to speak and quicker to listen, she didn’t know what that looked like in her corporate context where women’s voices are routinely ignored or silenced. “I want to obey these words, but what does being slow to speak look like when I have to fight to be heard at all?”
Untangling these messages will take a lot of work—how do we avoid giving women the same harmful messages we give men about success and power, without reinforcing the stereotype that good leadership traits and healthy ambition are unfeminine? In spite of its flaws, Booksmart has moments that could begin to push us in the right direction. At one party, a friend of Molly’s says to her, “You try hard at everything. That’s what I like about you.” She’s clearly uncomfortable with both the blatant compliment from a guy who’s interested in her and the assertion that she tries hard (cardinal high school sin). But “trying hard” doesn’t have to be caught up in a narrative about power-mongering, it can be a way for men to affirm the gifts and drive of women in their life, a recognition that they too have been given a commission to steward and cultivate God’s creation. After Amy and Molly’s big fight, Molly admits, “I know women apologize too much, but I really am sorry.” It’s one of the rare moments in the film that strikes this balance: she recognizes a consequence of sexist expectations for women but also knows that apologies haven’t lost all value.
Booksmart is a fun, intelligent take on young desire, fear of rejection, the instability of young adulthood, and the weird and messy way we all find our own people and passions. It also lives up to its promise of a modern, empowering story about female friendship between two “smart girls.” The greatest opportunity it misses is to be even more radical than it thinks it is, by upending the very notion of success and power as the pinnacle of human flourishing. As Molly says in her graduation speech, “We have a lot more to learn.”