My Secret: I Was a Teenage Serial Killer

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Image credit: Station Wagon Productions

In Bikini Kill’s 1992 punk anthem “White Boy”, lead singer Kathleen Hanna screams during the chorus: “White boy. Don’t laugh. Don’t cry. Just die.” The song is a release of the pent-up female wrath that stems from dealing with day-to-day sexism, both casual and severe. Hanna was not calling for the death of all men in reality, of course, but she had a willingness to say how she felt no matter the consequences or who she may upset through her art.

And at the time, Hanna wasn’t alone—she and Bikini Kill were Riot Grrrls. This underground feminist punk movement rose to prominence in Olympia, Washington in the early 1990s and was built around the circulation of homemade ‘zines and the music of punk rock bands like Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile. It was a movement that found its genesis in the hearts of teenage girls and young twentysomethings who were fed up and didn’t find the second wave feminism of the 1970s to be relatable to their problems. Riot Grrrl, at its best, was an open activism that offered the promise of inclusivity and accessibility to girls and women. You didn’t need to read feminist theory to be a riot grrrl, because every girl understood what sexism looked and felt like. Riot Grrrl wouldn’t last due to infighting, fatigue, and a lack of intersectionality but the art that came from these young women has lived on as transgressive, powerful statements on the continued problems that women face to this very day.

[Mary] has every right to be angry with the circumstances of an oftentimes violent patriarchal society, and in a cinematic world where the rules can be subverted, she has every right to take revenge.

Sarah Jacobson’s 1993 film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer shares the uncompromising attitude of the Riot Grrrl movement. Jacobson shot the film in black-and-white 16mm film, imbuing it with a grimy texture that feels like it blew in from somewhere off the streets. The protagonist, Mary (Kristin Calabrese), is introduced in the throes of committing a murder. The first kill is a blistering audio-visual collage that shows Mary’s death dance, à la Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—but instead of flinging a chainsaw she has a tube of lipstick. In a graceful motion, the camera glides over the corpse of the man she has just killed, a body adorned in only boxer shorts, boots and blood. An audio recording can be heard of a news broadcaster discussing the budget cuts proposed by Congress, which have given rise to protests from women’s groups around the country (an unintended portent of our current political climate). A hiss of feedback from an electric guitar ties all of this imagery and sound together with a slight hum, as a group of women can be heard on the soundtrack repeating the phrase: “This is something you can’t understand. How I can just kill a man”. Mary hovers over her kill for a moment before Jacobson cuts to a medium shot, which reveals Mary’s face as she perfectly applies lipstick. The words “I Was a Teenage Serial Killer” appear behind her. She is an iconic figure of both infinite cool and female heroism born out of vengeance.

The fantasies of laying waste to (hetero, cis) men who harass women wouldn’t be resonant without the reality that is mixed with fiction. For all the fantastical amounts of blood spilled by Mary, there are still frustratingly relatable real world consequences: Mary can’t exist on the streets alone without some creep telling her she has a nice ass or provoking her into discussing why she might be angry or upset. Even the men who seem to be allies eventually reveal themselves as scumbags. One of the more humorous elements of the film shows Mary falling in love with a fellow serial killer (Corey) who wants to destroy straight men because he fears he’s too much like them. Mary falls for him simply because he thinks beyond his dick, but their Bonnie and Clyde story was never meant to be: it falls apart during their riotous dual murder spree when he suggests they kill a woman for making out with a man. It’s a simplistic idea that all men are only after one thing, but this overemphasized half-truth gives credence to the struggles women face when this side of a man reveals itself, even after giving him the benefit of the doubt. By pointing out the relative villainy of some men, Jacobson gives her hero a clear trajectory and mission.

Image credit: Station Wagon Productions

By the end, the characters in I Was a Teenage Serial Killer are whittled down into base reactions and emotions. But in the final sequence, Mary’s reasoning for her actions reveals a stark authenticity within the film. When Mary recounts her childhood history of abuse to a stranger (Ed), she exhibits deep grief on her face (Calabrese’s expressive reactions are at their most powerful during this scene). She tilts her head away from this stranger to avoid eye contact when she tells her story and she mumbles a few words about it not being her fault.

To become a serial killer because of how shitty men are is the fantasy, but Jacobson inverts that narrative with real horror and tragedy. Mary’s breakdown in front of the stranger is a potent statement on the reality that many women face. And being one of many women, Mary refuses to be docile, passive or quiet about what happened to her. She has every right to be angry with the circumstances of an oftentimes violent patriarchal society, and in a cinematic world where the rules can be subverted, she has every right to take revenge.

Any woman who has experienced Mary’s horror can find resonance and reassurance in every slice of her blade. She can be our Angel of Life by being an Angel of Death for men. After Mary expresses her wrath, the film acknowledges and validates her once more, as Heavens to Betsy’s “My Secret” plays over the credits with frontwoman Corin Tucker wailing that she wants an unnamed abuser to die. The moment points to what the Riot Grrrl movement, at its best, created space for: unleashing oneself from the burdens of being female by pulling the curtain back on the reality of femininity without holding anything back. It was freedom and healing by way of expression—at the highest possible volume.

Willow Maclay is a feminist film critic whose main interest lies in how issues relating to gender and movies intersect.

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Willow Maclay is a feminist film critic whose main interest lies in how issues relating to gender and movies intersect.