Powerful Lessons from Vada Sultenfuss
“I was born jaundiced. Once I sat on a toilet seat at a truck stop and caught hemorrhoids. I’ve learned to live with a chicken bone lodged in my throat for three years. So I knew Dad would be devastated when he learned my latest affliction.”
“Dad, I don’t want to upset you, but my left breast is developing at a significantly faster rate than my right.”
These are the opening lines to my favorite movie, which I have watched at least 47 times since I was five years old. Set in the 1970s, this 1991 “coming of age” film follows 11-year-old Vada Sultenfuss, daughter of a widowed middle-aged man who runs a funeral parlor from their home. As with many coming of age films for girls, the transition into the early stages of womanhood is a period of internal turmoil and confusion that is reconciled by the end of the film presumably when the protagonist learns to accept her femininity and establishes a confirmed gender identity. She learns what it means “to be a girl.”
On the surface, My Girl, which will be the focus here, fits the criteria quite nicely. Interestingly, if I ever mention that this is my favorite movie to anyone who has ever seen it, most will comment on how heavy the movie is, referring to the death of Vada’s best friend, Thomas Jay, not about how Vada gets her period. Unlike other coming of age films like Now and Then, My Girl is not simply that. It encompasses extraordinarily important issues beyond the biological and socially constructed facets of femininity and womanliness.
Referring back to conversations about my favorite movie, I should add that I am usually asked WHY? Specifically, what is it about My Girl that makes you want to watch it over and over again, out of all the movies you have ever seen? It was not until last year that I ever deeply considered this question. Typically, I might answer that I identified with Vada. Aside from the physicality of her, with blue eyes, blonde hair and gaps in her teeth, Vada fascinated me. She asked big questions. She was brutally honest. She aspired to be a writer. She stood up for herself. She stood up for her friends. Did I love Vada and My Girl because maybe it was feminist? Was it was a precursor to my own definition of feminism?
Elizabeth Kiy would argue against that, concluding her article on My Girl and Now and Then with finality:
“these tomboy characters emerge at the end of their respective films with more submissive feminine gender identities, the experience of their first love, and close female friends or role models. Due to this, the young girl viewer is meant to assume they fit comfortably into society and are no longer outsiders or ostracized. As such, she is give[n] the message that she too, can only grow up straight and feminine.”
With a carefully constructed argument, Kiy does a wonderful job of calling attention to problematic features of the film. Indeed, after Thomas Jay’s death, Vada does find her first female friend and seems to close the door on her previous tomboy demeanor as the film ends with her riding her bike in a dress as the song “My Girl” begins playing, indicating she has found her place in “feminine adulthood.” Yet, I want to make a case for why this film is important and maybe even feminist. Certainly, a 1991 mainstream film has its issues (there is no diversity at all). But as we think critically about representations children are exposed to about gender, coming of age, and a whole host of other issues, I want to rewind back to what some of us 20 somethings were exposed to and reconceptualize the black-and-white nature into which important films like My Girl have been classified.
Specifically I want to complicate the notion that all “feminist-friendly” children’s films need to have strong female protagonists who resist societal constraints about sexuality and gender expectations.
In the same way that the princess narrative is constricting and encourages young girls to focus only on their appearance and ability to secure a husband, overly strong, independent protagonists who seem to “have it together,” can also be unsettling for young girls going through puberty who are experiencing all kinds of changes. Instead, Vada Sultenfuss is, I would argue, multidimensional; furthermore, My Girl does the duty of covering much more than adolescence, making for a complex, meaningful narrative.
Growing up in a funeral parlor and learning that her mother died during childbirth left Vada confused about death and overdiagnosing herself with various ailments. While she was sometimes sad, she used her confusion to propel herself to ask important questions, usually on her own. In one scene, she and Thomas Jay are getting her bike from her garage and he asks about the purpose of a model of a human head he spots in storage. She explains to him how people once thought they could tell about one’s personality by touching their scalp and feeling for certain identifiers, which she then enacts by performing a test on his scalp.
While this seems like simple child’s play, I love this scene because it shows her inquisitive nature and indicates that she asked or found out for herself its purpose. At the very least, if she made the whole thing up, it shows her sense of imagination and creativity, something we rarely see young girls praised for, much less enacting, in films. She also has memorable lines that come at pivotal points in the film. After a group of girls bully Vada while she and Thomas Jay are playing cards on her front porch, Vada seems visibly frustrated and upset; yet, she then seems to find comfort in saying, “I only surround myself with people I find intellectually stimulating.” Continuing the earlier trend I point to, this was an impactful moment for me because while the other girls were boasting about getting to watch all the free movies they wanted at the theater, Vada enjoys “intellectual” conversations. Indeed, in the final scene of the film, Vada delivers a eulogy of sorts to the adult creative writing class in which she enrolled for the summer that clearly shows intellectual progress even from the first writing session. This indicates a fiercely imaginative, smart mind behind her wispy blonde strands of hair.
I never watched My Girl and thought it pushed me a heteronormative, feminine agenda – not even after identifying myself as feminist and learning to critically analyze media.
While as the case may be for any critical analysis of a text that if you can point to three pieces of evidence, you can make a claim, and some have claimed this film does that, my observations should be just as valid. Vada is fascinating, but not for all the reasons most female protagonists are in adolescent movies. At the same time that Vada has a crush on her teacher, she also plays basketball and climbs trees. While she cries profusely over Thomas Jay’s death, she is also mouthy at an adult who asks What kind of name is Vada Sultenfuss? to which she responds I like my name. She is angry at Shelly when she learns her dad proposed to her, but she also tender towards Thomas Jay’s mother and assures her he is safe with her own mom “in heaven.” Vada is dynamic. She truly develops as a protagonist and shows young girls a more authentic depiction of adolescence. While films like Now and Then may have included a range of one-dimensional characters in a friend group, Vada seems to embrace a little bit of all kinds of characters, making her not exceptional, but more real.
While pointing to problems in the film might be useful for thinking about how, 24 years later, we might produce even more productive, progressive coming of age films for girls, as it exists, I still find My Girl praiseworthy for the things it did well. Vada was my own role model. I loved the way she talked, the questions she asked, and the way the film embraced her intelligence. Watching her read her own poem in front of an entire classroom of adults at the end of the film with such confidence left a lasting impression on me, particularly since I was typically shy and uncertain. So rather than focus simply on what could be improved, it is still important to remark on the powerful message My Girl left little girls like me: what you think matters, and what you have to say is important.