“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young queer woman explores an LGBTQ cultural artifact in furtherance of her queer education. Think of it as your syllabus for Queer Culture 101.
The year was 1999. Female “hysteria”—an antiquated catchall mental health diagnosis for “everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in women,” according to historians at McGill University—had been formally removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 19 years before this, but the discourse surrounding women and mental illness was still very much alive. In fact, it was the subject of writer Susanna Kaysen’s best-selling 1993 memoir, Girl, Interrupted, her candid and witty account of her 18-month stay at a psychiatric facility in the 1960s.
Now it was the end of the 20th century, and Kaysen’s story was a feature film directed by James Mangold (much to her eventual frustration). This onscreen adaptation of Girl, Interrupted boasted an all-star cast of supporting actors (Whoopi Goldberg, Brittany Murphy, Clea DuVall, and Jared Leto, to name a few), with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie as its leads.
It also came fully stocked with sapphic undertones—so much so that, 20 years after its premiere, Girl, Interrupted is considered by many to be a queer film, or, for more cynical viewers, an example of queer-baiting that may or may not conflate queerness with mental illness.
Ryder portrays a dramatized Kaysen, the anxious brainiac daughter of wealthy suburban Boston WASPs whose half-hearted suicide attempt lands her in Claymoore, a fictional in-patient psychiatric facility. Susanna voluntarily signs off on staying at Claymoore, a move she doesn’t realize renders her unable to leave freely until it’s too late. Meanwhile, Jolie plays the enigmatic Lisa, a diagnosed sociopath and Claymoore’s resident troublemaker who captivates Susanna with her sudden outbursts, selective coyness, and undeniable charisma.
In 1999, Girl, Interrupted was not a huge stylistic departure for Ryder, whom I (and many others before me) came to love for her iconic role as teenage murderess Veronica in the 1988 cult classic Heathers, which I first saw as a teenager. Jolie’s casting wasn’t a stretch either—a year earlier the actress had played the troubled Gia Carangi in a biopic about the drug-addicted queer model’s meteoric rise to and fall from fame. That role had snagged her a Golden Globe, and her portrayal of Lisa would go on to win her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and a SAG Award.
As a 23-year-old, my cultural touchstones for Jolie are her roles in the Lara Croft flicks, her marriage to fellow Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt, and the former couple’s sprawling brood. But the Jolie I know is not the Jolie who skyrocketed to international stardom in the late ’90s. Decades before becoming a mother of six, Jolie—the doe-eyed daughter of Hollywood household names Jon Voight and Marcheline Bertrand—was a gothy, tatted sexpot. She was already openly bisexual then, and she was never shy about her fondness for BDSM. She’s always had an air of danger about her. Hell, a biologist even named a gnarly-looking spider that pounces on and poisons its prey after her.
As Rolling Stone noted in 2000, an interviewer once told a young Jolie that she was the actress most straight women wanted to have sex with. Her response? She was the actress most likely to actually have sex with them.
Ryder’s Susanna and Jolie’s Lisa become fast friends during Susanna’s stay at Claymoore. Suggestions of a more-than-friends connection between the two permeate Girl, Interrupted: Susanna and Lisa share a handful of tender, emotionally vulnerable moments, and subtleties in both characters’ appearances—Susanna’s close-cropped haircut and boyish styling; Lisa’s ragged, bleach-blonde hair and propensity for white tees and wife-beaters—accentuate those vibes. Jolie’s casting as Lisa was not insignificant, either.
A steady undercurrent of feminism is apparent, too. Susanna passionately critiques the psychiatrist who diagnoses her with borderline personality disorder and labels her “promiscuous.” Claymoore’s strict orderlies, and a particularly heated exchange between Susanna and nurse Valerie (Goldberg), suggest she’s trapped in a biased medical establishment on a power trip, one that hurts rather than helps the vulnerable people in its care (comparisons to the 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, also based on a book, are inevitable).
As she and Lisa grow closer, Susanna feels increasingly torn between the friends she’s made at Claymoore—most of whom, like Lisa, will probably be in the facility’s care indefinitely—and the “real world” waiting for her on the outside. And after an incident of insubordination causes the wardens to separate her from her friend, Lisa goes to great lengths to reunite them, orchestrating a joint escape from Claymoore (she’s already run away from the facility on her own in the past). She and Susanna share a kiss in the back of a van as they hitchhike with some hippies. The kiss is so brief, it’s easy to miss, and the scene serves as Susanna and Lisa’s last real moment of intimacy before the film’s dramatic climax.
Does Girl, Interrupted queer-bait its audience? It’s easy to see why some LGBTQ viewers expecting Susanna and Lisa to hook up would feel misled after the sparks between them ultimately fizzle. In the end, Susanna comes to a “they’re insane, not me” realization, escaping the confines of Claymoore in a disappointing conclusion that “deprives the film of the kind of subterranean energy that fueled [Cuckoo’s Nest],” as Robert Ebert opined in January 2000, after it hit theaters. She and Lisa’s “relationship,” if you can call it that, never moves beyond that one chaste kiss they share on the lam.
Neither character addresses her sexual orientation, and they never discuss their attraction to one another, let alone name it for what it appears to be: a budding queer relationship. In fact, it’s possible to watch Girl, Interrupted without reading Susanna and Lisa’s relationship as queer—especially if one considers the blow job Susanna gives to her high school boyfriend (Leto) when he visits Claymoore to be a sign of her heterosexuality.
Given that it’s a movie from the ’90s taking place in the ’60s that was adapted from a writer’s real-life stint in a mental institution, it’s difficult to definitively say whether the film constitutes as queer representation or queer-baiting. But categorizing Girl, Interrupted as a piece of “queer cinema” certainly wouldn’t be novel—in 2012, it got a shout-out on Autostraddle, who declared it a “good book-to-movie adaptation.” Lesbian bloggers have written at length about how Ryder’s Susanna and Jolie’s Lisa made them gay. As recently as 2017, DigitalSpy ranked Girl, Interrupted 24th on its list of the 30 best LGBTQ films of all time.
To me, the more important question is this: Does Girl, Interrupted play a part in the longstanding conflation of homosexuality with mental illness? Homosexuality was only formally declassified as a mental health disorder in 1973, a fact that was not lost on the real Susanna Kaysen, who noted that in the film’s source text. Susanna’s tight but ambiguous bond with Lisa coincides with her time at Claymoore. Their close ties actually prolong Susanna’s stay, incentivizing her to continue forging connections before she decides she isn’t crazy—at least not like Lisa. Susanna is explicitly labeled as “promiscuous,” sure, but Lisa’s flirty, crass interactions with almost everybody at Claymoore leave the link between her sexuality and her mental illness open to interpretation.
It’s not a leap to interpret Susanna’s undefined fling with Lisa as a symptom of her diagnosis or her loss of contact with the world beyond the confines of Claymoore, especially because she is otherwise presented as heterosexual—not to mention the fact that the story takes place at a time when queerness was literally considered a mental illness and of itself. Likewise, Lisa’s sociopathy is clearly established. Viewers could read her “attraction” to Susanna as a form of manipulation—her way of fashioning the Claymoore newbie to fit her needs—or as a symptom of an illness that entails a lack of empathy. Perhaps Lisa doesn’t care that an illicit, “taboo” relationship could endanger Susanna or herself because she’s not capable of it.
I don’t have the answer, but I do know this: Ryder and Jolie have dynamite chemistry. For that alone, Girl, Interrupted is worth a 20th-anniversary watch.