Flashdance: Why Alex became an icon for teen girls
Carina Chocano's new book, 'You Play The Girl,' analyzes the 'girls' of pop culture across the decades
In Carina Chocano’s whip-smart new book You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages, she analyzes the “girls” of pop culture across the decades, from Bewitched to contestants on The Bachelor (and its fictional counterpart, UnREAL) to the princesses of Frozen.
Through cultural commentary mixed with personal reflections, Chocano explores the ways on-screen women have influenced her life and the way she sees the world. To get a taste of the book, EW can exclusively share an excerpt about the 1983 classic Flashdance — and how Jennifer Beals‘ Alex became a symbol of feminism, rebelliousness, and artistic genius to a generation of young girls.
You Play The Girl hits shelves Aug. 8.
What a Feeling
Excerpted from You Play The Girl by Carina Chocano
I’m fifteen and new in town, a freshman at a Catholic school. Why I’m at a Catholic school, I have no idea. My parents panicked. They got me to a nunnery. I have one friend. She seems a little bewildered, too. And miserable. We are both miserable. We are so miserable.
We go see Flashdance over Christmas break. Then we see it again. And again. And again. Our moms drive us to the mall without comment, and I’m grateful. The movie is our Star Wars. We watch like we’re trying to absorb it, merge with it, organize our lives and build our identities around it. If my friend and I ever discuss this, I have no recollection of what we say. It’s not the sort of thing you talk about. It’s not even the kind of movie you talk about. There isn’t anything to discuss. We just commune with it in silence. One gray and freezing Sunday afternoon, my mom drops us off at the crappy mall, where the movie has washed up after ending its run at the fancy mall. My naked longing to see this movie again makes me feel self-conscious. Standing in the empty parking lot on this dreary and windy day, I’m not quite Jane Eyre; maybe more like Cathy in the Pat Benatar version of Kate Bush’s tribute to Wuthering Heights. All at once, I’m overcome with a shame so bilious I think I’ll dissolve into the asphalt. I’m fifteen, but I’m not stupid. I know this is a terrible movie. I know it’s a lie from start to finish. But it’s a lie I very badly want to believe in. Because what other lie is there for me to believe in—I mean, that I can get really behind?
Puberty is a disturbance. You change, like a werewolf. It causes upheaval, perturbation—in your own body, yes, but also (mostly, when you are a girl) in others’ bodies and words and attitudes. It transmutes the world. It’s not that you lose control of your body so much as that you lose control over the way your body is interpreted. Your body becomes an alien body, a question rather than a statement. The same culture that once hijacked it as a symbol of its own inviolable purity and innocence now finds this transformation unbearable, and blames you for defiling it, for allowing it to happen. Who else? The girl is always burdened with impossible standards. She is made to pay for the loss of innocence with more loss—of love, respect, protection. In the story, she is given one way out, a single path to validation. The story says: Don’t get dirty. Don’t break. Don’t think you can escape the narrative. To think you can escape the narrative is the definition of crazy.
In the male coming-of-age story, the boy creates himself. In the female coming-of-age story, the girl is created by forces around her. In the feminist coming-of-age story, the girl resists the forces and becomes herself. Movies about teenage girls in edgy, aestheticized peril are everywhere. Brooke Shields, Jodie Foster, and Tatum O’Neal grow up so fast it threatens to kill or ruin them, or kill or ruin those around them. In Foxes (directed by Adrian Lyne, who would go on to direct Flashdance three years later), The Blue Lagoon, Pretty Baby, Endless Love, Taxi Driver, Carrie, The Exorcist, and Christiane F., girls don’t get into trouble, they turn into trouble. The danger comes from inside. It’s mutative, transgressive. It made them uncontrollable. “At 12, it was angel dust,” read the tagline for Christiane F. “At 13, it was heroin. Then she took to the streets.” Maturity and experience were gateways to the most dangerous substance of all: unsupervised freedom. Why is a girl’s leaving childhood and venturing out into the world always the go-to symbol for everything that can, and absolutely will, go wrong?
Jennifer Beals in Flashdance is not very many years older than we are. She’s a freshman at Yale, which is in the general ballpark of where we also hope to be at her age. She graduated from the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago—my friend Anna knows people who know people who know her. It’s almost like she could be us. We could never be her. Jennifer Beals is ideal feminine beauty circa 1983. She is the standard. We can bask in the proximal thrill of it all.
Her character’s name is Alexandra Owens, but she goes by Alex. The boy’s name implies she’s cool and you can trust her. Alex works as an arc welder in a steel mill by day, but at night she gets on stage at a bar called Mawby’s and dances. To say her dancing is flashy does not come close to describing it. It’s like strip-club kabuki theater staged, costumed, set-designed, and shot for a 1980s music video. Actually, it’s not like that; that is precisely what it is. At Mawby’s, the salt-of-the-earth clientele has a surprisingly high tolerance for experimental performance art, so Alex can really express who she is—with her clothes mostly on.
Ultimately, though, it is not Alex’s dream to dump bucketfuls of water over herself every night in front of a bunch of steelworkers. She wants to be a ballerina and dreams of training at a prestigious dance conservatory. It’s part of the story of how she’s not an average girl. Alex is exceptional. She’s so exceptional that she can start training as a ballerina at the age of eighteen. She’s so exceptional that she has a boy’s name, and a man’s job, and holds her own in an all-male environment. She lives all alone in a cavernous warehouse space off a dark alley with only her pit bull—the preferred breed of toxic masculinity—Grunt, for company. She has the temperament of an angsty suburban teenager but the life of a landed eighteenth-century poet or bohemian, garret-dwelling genius in 1920s Paris. Her warehouse is decorated in a kind of high-bordello style—Pretty Baby meets Blade Runner. She is so free, so unselfconscious, so impervious to norms and conventions and her effect on others, namely, men, that she’ll remove her bra from under her shirt in front of her boss while maintaining a kind of inquisitive Bambi look on her face the whole time. In Alex, all the things that should be “girl things” are reversed except the ones that count. She is the antithesis of a lady, a portrait of a non-lady. She’s a twelve-year-old boy in a young woman’s body.
Nominally based on a true story, or a composite of true stories, Flashdance is as divorced from reality as it is possible to be without being of a different planet. Inexplicably free of the gender, social, and financial constraints that fetter the rest of humanity, Alex is free to be a genius. And we know she’s a genius because, like (the idealized image of) most geniuses (who are male), she is moody, impulsive, reckless, entitled, and rude, and it makes people fall in love with her and realize the error of their stuffy, mannerly, and classically trained ways. She is represented not like a girl in a romance so much as like a romantic hero. She’s Byronic in her tempestuousness and effrontery. She tosses her hair over her shoulder like a cape before stalking off in search of sublime Alpine vistas—or the Pittsburgh equivalent. One night, Nick, the owner of the steel mill, notices her dancing at Mawby’s and asks his buddy who she is. His buddy laughs and yells him her social security number—works for him. The next day, at the mill, Nick invites Alex to dinner at a fancy restaurant. There, he tries gamely to make conversation while she performs oral sex on her entrée and simultaneously rubs his groin with her stockinged foot. Her appetites are lusty, and she chews with her mouth open—I can’t decide which is more rebellious. Nick’s ex-wife happens to be there, and she approaches their table. She looks down her nose at Alex and sneers. Did Nick take her to his favorite spot by the tracks, the same place he takes all the girls? Alex peels off her tuxedo jacket in response, revealing only a dickey, possibly made of paper, underneath. She informs Nick’s ex that she did in fact f— Nick’s brains out, as Nick smiles sheepishly. This is how she signals to the ex-wife that she’s won. We think this is amazing. We think, You tell that stuck-up bitch.
But what sort of gauntlet-throwing one-upmanship is this, really? What does it mean to me, a girl whose father spends meal times relentlessly correcting her manners? It looks like freedom, I guess. Like self-assertion, or punk rebellion, or some kind of corrective power. Also, and this is important, it’s the first time I’ve seen a girl whose artistic genius does not get her frog-marched directly to a course of electroshock treatments and long-term institutionalization.
Of course, the blissful, naughty transgression can’t last, and worlds will collide. Alex is a feral princess: she’ll resist domestication until after she’s proven she can make it on her own. Driving home from dinner one night, Nick lets slip that he made a call and helped Alex get her audition at the prestigious dance conservatory. Alex freaks out. She desperately needs to believe in a level playing field. She wants to do it all on her own. It’s meaningless otherwise. She wants to be recognized and validated by the establishment in the most punk-rock, antiestablishment way possible. If not, she’ll take her ball and go home. In fact, she jumps out of Nick’s moving Porsche in a tunnel, dismissing the high potentiality that a pileup could quickly turn into a blazing death trap for hundreds of people.
We get it. We’re fifteen, and we have big, vague dreams. We need to believe in a level playing field, too. We think Nick indulges her outbursts because he totally “gets” how passionate she is—not because he’s paternalistic, not because he owns her. For a girl whose destiny is determined entirely by her body—as a dancer and the future wife of the rich prince—she is blissfully oblivious to her material conditions. With her blue-collar job, her tough-girl dog, her uncontrollable emotions, and her atrocious manners, Alex is an archetype that I’ve never encountered before. She’s a teen-girl übermensch, an übermadchen, a maniac. She’s utterly, implausibly, ahistorically free. Alex’s confidence and unflappability are disconcerting, bordering on delusional, but it is rather fascinating to watch this girl not much older than us enact this particular romantic fantasy. “Man becomes that which he wills to become, his willing precedes his existence,” Nietzsche says, and I guess Alex says so, too. Her rebellion is like a superpower, an invisible shield against reality. The limitations of her embodied existence are no match for her grit, her determination, her bizarre ability to enjoy all the perks of living in the body of a teenage girl with none of the drawbacks. Because there are both, but media tends to misrepresent the perks and rarely talks about the drawbacks.