Why Film 'Ghost World' is a Doctrine For Disaffected Youths

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We explore the codes of style and conduct documented in the 2001 paean to teenage angst and painstaking cool

What were you like as a teenager? If you watched Ghost World, and loved it, like so much, you were probably deeply miserable. "Accentuate the Negative" this was the tagline to the film, a 2001 paean to disaffected youth adapted from the cult comic book by Terry Zwigoff. Thora Birch (remember her?) and Scarlett Johansson play Enid and Rebecca, bored teens stuck in middle America who’d really like to be more interesting. Enid is simply desperate to be more interesting, with her vintage glasses, kilt, Doc Martens, baby barrettes and eventual blue-green hair. Rebecca is gorgeous, because she is Scarlett Johansson, and thus is allowed to be less interesting but more cute, in an array of pastels. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it defined the look for 'alternative' types for a good decade or more.

Enid and Rebecca are bored, so they reply to a missed connections ad, placed by Steve Buscemi. They ask him on a date, and then watch and laugh. From here starts a series of ever more mundanely disastrous events – Ghost World isn’t the sort of film where anyone gets murdered with a frying pan, or any stupid stuff like that, people just get very hurt feelings. This is perhaps why it’s so painful to watch Buscemi’s eventual humiliation at the hands of Enid, Rebecca’s acceptance of normal teen things, and Enid’s total meltdown. How many tiny humiliations did we inflict on ourselves and others between the ages of 13 and 20 (and beyond)? It makes one wince just thinking of it. Here are some of the lessons we learnt from Ghost World.

1. Hate everyone
“Sometimes I feel like I might be going crazy from sexual frustration” sighs Enid to Rebecca, wearing what can only be described as a faux-naive sailor’s jacket. “That’s because you hate every guy on the face of the planet,” says Rebecca. “That’s not true. I just hate all these extroverted pseudo-bohemian losers.” This so perfectly sums up the feeling of teenage ennui: almost everyone is a pseud when they’re a teenager, authenticity is a foreign concept (witness my Miss E Misdemeanor Elliott phase). Enid is sent into a resentful tailspin by her dreadful art teacher who wants her to find deeper meaning in her work and hates her drawings, which will sound familiar to anyone who wasted their money on art school. Hating everyone is an essential step to personal growth and will help you develop the necessary armour for navigating life.

2. But look cool whilst doing it
Let’s be real here: Ghost World is kind of without upbeat lessons. Nothing really happens, at least not in a saving the world or losing your virginity way. Enid humiliates Steve Buscemi and is then humiliated herself. Rebecca normalises. Enid then leaves town. There’s a much-debated school of thought that says the comic and film are an allegory for suicide (nothing like leaving on a bus to show the world you’re checking out). But it’s what the film looks like that’s ensured it cult status. Thora Birch has the most perfect bored delivery and exceptionally ‘I’m bored’ hair-do, anchored in place with baby barrettes and framing her vintage eye wear. In fact, if her look could be summed up, it would be ‘vintage’: her band T-shirts and leather jacket, the iconic combo of dinosaur T-shirt and kilt, her cat mask, her lurid plaids… the shirt that has a bin on and says ‘recycled youth’.

One of the best moments in the film is where Enid dyes her hair green, slips her little feet into some creepers and calls herself punk. This feels so achingly familiar to any teen who’s wanted to be someone else, and the moment of transformation usually presents itself so – a packet of hair dye and some new shoes crafting a whole new identity. Essentially: dress for who you want to become.

3. Life doesn’t have to be that hard
When Enid’s art gets taken down from the school show, because essentially it’s racist, she loses her art scholarship and it turns out this isn’t going to be that sort of movie – you know, one where you walk away feeling good about anyone. Irony only goes so far, especially when appropriating 50s sentiments about race. Suddenly, Scarlett Johansson’s character seems all the more appealing.

On the surface, Rebecca’s choices seem, well, basic. She works in a coffee shop now, where people are horrid to her, and the Enid asks how she can stand to wait upon all these assholes. “Some people are OK, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody,” she replies. Enid seizes upon the fact that there’s an entertaining guy in a wheelchair who doesn’t even need a wheelchair – fuck the system! That rules, she declares! “No, it really doesn’t,” Rebecca sighs. “You’ll see, you get totally sick of all the creeps and losers and weirdos.” Enid’s reply that these are their people is met with a resounding shrug.

Rebecca has realised something cheesy along the lines of, guess what, loser, we’re all just human. Or maybe, we’re all human, and some people are assholes! Or that we’re all assholes?! Going through life identifying as a perpetual outsider is fun for about 10 minutes – how much easier and more rewarding to forgive the ‘basics’ and realise you’re one of them at times too. Which leads to…

4. Punk rock is over!
Ghost World was definitely the nail in the coffin of punk rock, so brilliantly does it skewer modern appropriation culture. Enid marches into the comic book shop full of her new punk attitude, and is promptly told by the turtle-necked John Ellis “OMG didn’t they tell you, punk rock is over.” I know it’s over, asshole, she snarls, to be told “You want to fuck up the system? Go to business school.” Enid’s bleats that it’s an original 1977 look and that everyone’s too stupid is met with Rebecca’s “I didn’t really get it either.”

The lesson then. Be an Enid Coleslaw for a while. Dish pithy bon mots and cultivate an evil, disaffected black heart! And wear shirts with bins on. But for a happy life it’s probably easier, and more fun, to be a Rebecca. I mean, look at where it got Scarlett Johansson.