Melissa Baumgart / January 22, 2019
Resistance to Trump has been led by women in various forms: protesting, volunteering, donating, contacting elected officials, and becoming elected officials. As I’ve observed and participated in these activities, I’ve frequently wished that more people had the opportunity to appreciate All I Wanna Do, a 1998 film that subverts ‘80s sex comedy tropes through a distinctly female lens, conceived as “Animal House or Porky’s, only for teenage girls, so they could have their very own horny bad-behavior movie.” Based on writer-director Sarah Kernochan’s boarding school experience and executive produced by Nora Ephron, the opening credit sequence celebrates collaboration and sisterhood, declaring it “A Film by Everyone Who Worked On It” over vintage schoolgirl photos and an all-girls chorus. Given what we now know about Harvey Weinstein, who bought the film, then refused to release it in theaters, it’s unsurprising that he failed to grasp this movie’s appeal. Disney put it on DVD, where I discovered it and have loved it ever since.
Two events upset the cloistered utopia of Miss Godard’s Preparatory School for Girls in January 1963. The first is Odette’s (Gaby Hoffmann) arrival under duress, a punishment for buying a diaphragm to have safe sex with her boyfriend, Dennis (Matthew Lawrence). Odette initially shuns her new roommates, Verena (Kirsten Dunst) and Tinka (Monica Keena), but they bond when her oratorical skills prove useful against Abby (Rachael Leigh Cook), Verena’s nemesis. The second is Tweety’s (Heather Matarazzo) discovery that the cash-strapped Miss Godard’s plans to go co-ed by merging with the less academically rigorous boys’ school, Saint Ambrose. As Headmistress Miss McVane (Lynn Redgrave) explains, “Men give generously to their schools. It’s a good investment. They’re ensuring that a steady supply of the nation’s leaders will be men.” Verena compares the threat of boys at Miss Godard’s to the Cuban Missile Crisis: they’ll be living “in the shadow of the hairy bird.” Girls will spend time primping rather than studying, and why study when they won’t get called on in class, anyway?
Verena and her friends call themselves the D.A.R.: Daughters of the American Ravioli—a play on Daughters of the American Revolution, the women’s group limited to direct descendents of those who assisted the cause for independence—named for the canned pasta they eat. Sworn to help each other attain their dreams beyond the expected marriage, kids, and Colonial house, their rallying cry is “No more little white gloves!” But Odette’s goal of losing her virginity as previously planned, combined with the news of co-education, splits the group into two opposing factions. Verena asks, “Your great ambition is to lay with your legs up in the air like a bug?” Scientist Momo (Merritt Wever) sides with Verena, fearing male classmates will threaten her admittance to MIT. Odette, having attended a co-ed school, is in favor, as is Tweety. And Tinka declares boys at Miss Godard’s to be “the best thing to happen since Midol!”
Verena and Momo plot to sabotage their upcoming dance and concert with Saint Ambrose. Yet they uphold their promise to help Odette coordinate a “randy-vous” with Dennis, disguising him as a Saint Ambrose boy. Meanwhile, a Beat-esque townie named Snake (Vincent Kartheiser) courts Tinka, eventually showing her that a fancy education doesn’t necessarily produce superior men. Kartheiser would later reiterate this point in another 1960s-set role: Mad Men’s weaselly adman Pete Campbell.
Tinka and Tweety return to the fold after Tweety is the victim of a cruel prank by Saint Ambrose boys, whom Snake and his friends beat up in order to steal their uniforms and sneak into the dance. That Dennis, Snake, and Snake’s friends are all able to pass, at least for a while, as Saint Ambrose boys merely by wearing their uniforms, emphasizes the interchangeability of these young white men, and how much power they have just from the assumption of respectability.
While the girls scheme, Miss McVane’s frustration seeps out in sarcastic one-liners. “The master race has arrived,” she announces when the boys’ school bus pulls up. Describing how lack of financial support from Miss Godard’s alumnae has put them in this situation, she cracks, “It won’t be the first time women have married for money.” But underneath the jokes is her fear that the girls she’s devoted her life to teaching physics and government will be diminished by their male peers. She wonders if women don’t give because “deep down, you know it’s useless”—not that their daughters are any less intelligent or capable than their sons, but that rigid gender roles and the society that upholds them will prevent them from reaching similar success.
When Miss McVane snaps, telling the Saint Ambrose headmaster that his institution is “a bottom of the heap school for boys who are too lazy or unruly” to succeed elsewhere, her unvarnished honesty is jarring. Telling a man the truth instead of flattering his ego is still fraught with consequences for women, professionally and personally. The male headmaster extracts an apology, threatening to tell the board of trustees they’re unable to work together. “Wouldn’t you be happier?” to retire, he asks, not without sympathy. But Miss McVane can’t. “Miss Godard’s is my home,” she says, echoing Verena’s words earlier in the film. When Verena says it, though, Miss McVane corrects her: “No, dear, it’s not.” But what options does Miss McVane, a single, middle-aged woman, have in 1963? She must apologize so that she may stay. And she must stay to protect her girls, as no one else will.
Odette’s evolution in a few months at Miss Godard’s, despite her initial resistance to an all-girls’ school, demonstrates what Miss McVane is protecting—not virginity, but self-worth. Though Odette reassures him, “I’m the same,” when Dennis wonders if she’s grown taller during their time apart, it’s clear how much Miss Godard’s has changed what she expects from a partner. Odette’s desire wanes as she learns Dennis has ignored her instructions to bring condoms, showing up instead with contraceptive foam—”it’s new,” he tells her, “the girl puts it in.” She grills him about his politics and why he would marry her if she got pregnant. Protection was literally the one part of the plan Dennis had to handle, and he blows it, literally, when the foam explodes in his face, a fair comeuppance and a nice ejaculation joke. Odette’s apprehension is validated moments later. When the predatory teacher, Mr. Dewey, discovers the couple, Dennis runs away.
I have some ambivalence about the resolution of Mr. Dewey’s story. His clothes are stolen and replaced with a sailor dress, and he’s left to be found by Miss McVane and his wife. Declaring cross-dressing as “the last straw” for Mrs. Dewey, rather than her husband’s preying on students, reads slightly glib today. It’s depressing that the girls recognize that marking him as sexually deviant—they’ve already framed him with S&M catalogs—is their best hope to remove him from his power as an educator, especially a male one, who’s considered to be lowering himself by teaching at an all-girls school. Yet one can see why they go that route when watching the brave women of US Gymnastics speak out at the sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar, about the years he got away with abusing them, facilitated by employees of Michigan State and the US Gymnastics organization. Watching Mr. Dewey get fired and dumped is some consolation, given the systems that keep abusers in power remain in place, even at Miss Godard’s.
There’s one more plot point to consider as we reevaluate ideas about consent post-#MeToo. Verena’s plan involves getting the boys drunk and then making them throw up on stage at the school concert (using bulimic Tweety’s Ipecac syrup, which they trick the boys into believing is a hangover cure). She also targets one, Frosty (The Sandlot’s Thomas Guiry)—because his grandfather is on the Board of Trustees—to leave passed out in her nemesis Abby’s room, naked. But Verena connects with Frosty. He, too, is a prankster who doesn’t crave the same boring success markers his classmates seek. When Frosty passes out, she plants him in Abby’s room and starts removing his clothes, according to plan, only for him to wake up and kiss her. Verena surprises herself by kissing him back, until they’re found by Odette and Abby, who’s exuberant about catching Verena in an expulsion-worthy act. Verena is sober. If the genders were reversed, we’d be talking about Frosty taking advantage of a drunk girl. So, to quote that other Vincent Kartheiser character, it’s “Not great, Bob!”—even though Frosty reappears at the end of the film as Verena’s boyfriend.
And the schools are still merging, in spite of Verena’s efforts. Miss McVane stuns the teenager, hurling a teacup at the fireplace in her office and lamenting, “Twenty-eight years, just to lick some headmaster’s ass!” She acknowledges Verena’s reaction to her outburst with a call to action:
You’re right to be afraid. Because after the men plant their flag in the school, they’ll bury us. It’ll be subtle and insidious, as it is in real life. I may be at the end of the road here, but you’re young, and you have the talent and power to lead. Don’t stop the fight. Wherever you go, Verena, don’t give up. I’m counting on you.
Throughout the film, Miss McVane expresses a grudging respect for the cleverness of Verena’s pranks, despite the havoc they cause. And it is the expelled Verena’s influence that inspires Odette to lead a strike to elect a student representative to the Board of Trustees. Locking themselves in a dormitory until their demands are met, Miss Godard’s Girls use the tools at their privileged disposal: wielding field hockey sticks to fend off intruders, equestrians blocking the entrances, and calling their newspaper-owning dads to alert the press.
Anti-segregation sit-ins started in 1960, at a Woolworth’s in North Carolina. While Miss Godard’s girls are clearly politically aware, it can feel a bit like Marty McFly “inventing” rock ‘n’ roll to watch upper-class white girls adopting tactics of African-American protest in a movie with one Black character, a Saint Ambrose boy who appears only in a sight gag highlighting racism at elite boarding schools. Tweety’s last name is Goldberg, but she is not identified nor ostracized as Jewish. Of course, this is a comedy, not the 1950s-set School Ties, where Brendan Fraser conceals his Judaism from his prep school classmates due to anti-Semitism. A closer parallel is perhaps suffragettes, who had their own whitewashing issues. But the whiteness here is part of the story.
This is a movie about the rise of second-wave feminism, which has been criticized for its focus on white middle-to-upper-class women. Early 1963 was when Gloria Steinem went undercover at Playboy, exposing sexual harassment and racism (neither term had come into popular usage yet). Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in February. Co-education was a battleground, though it was often about women wanting admittance to male-only schools. Months before JFK’s assassination, a year from the Civil Rights Act, and two years before the American ground war in Vietnam and the Voting Rights Act, societal upheaval is imminent. But it is that combination of whiteness, youth, wealth, and femininity that allows them to rage safely. An elderly male security guard won’t use force because “they’re just little girls.” Abby’s mother, head of the Board of Trustees and an alumna herself, corrects him: “They’re not just little girls, they’re Miss Godard’s girls, and they’re organized.”
I love how the movie uses gender. Underestimation of girls creates this situation, but can also be weaponized to overcome it. Rebecca Traister writes, “Perhaps the reason that women’s anger is so broadly denigrated—treated as so ugly, so alienating, and so irrational—is because we have known all along that with it came the explosive power to upturn the very systems that have sought to contain it.”
Samantha Bee had a bit on her show featuring actress Amber Tamblyn discussing the #MeToo movement, describing women as “angranized.” Emily’s List, whose mission is to “ignite change by getting more pro-choice women to run for office,” reports that more than 30,000 women have signed up to run since November 8, 2016, and more than 8,000 have signed up to help them. A record number were elected in 2018, many first-time candidates. Multiple books about the power of female anger were published in 2018: Dr. Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage (specifically about Black female anger), Traister’s Good and Mad, and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her. Hundreds of women showed up at the Senate to protest Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s credible accusation that he sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers. He repeatedly denied the claim, in part on the basis of his elite education at the all-male Georgetown Prep and Yale University (which did not admit women to its undergrad college until 1969), making him (according to Kavanaugh) obviously incapable of such behavior.
But, as All I Wanna Do depicts, it is often those privileged white boys who get away with the most abhorrent acts, and white women who stand up to this behavior risk ostracization as “class traitors.” It’s Saint Ambrose boys who take topless pictures of Tweety without her consent. Their headmaster forces Miss McVane to apologize for her honesty to save her job. Dennis abandons Odette, despite her plea for him to stay. The townies Tinka initially looks down on are the ones who rescue Odette and break the camera holding Tweety’s pictures. And it’s the girls who look out for each other.
The movie ends on a high note. An allusion to the 1962-set Animal House, we learn where the characters end up. Odette is a Congresswoman fighting Big Tobacco (a perfect ‘90s choice—now it’d be the NRA or climate change). Tweety is an adolescent psychologist specializing in eating disorders. Momo is developing a male contraceptive. Verena has her dream women’s magazine. Tinka is a successful actress, who has come out as a lesbian. And Miss Godard’s remains a single-sex institution.
In real life, Kernochan’s school went co-ed. Brett Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed to the Supreme Court and eighty-three ethics complaints against him were dropped. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has yet to return to her home, due to threats on her life.
All I Wanna Do may be a title imposed on the movie by Disney (its original title was Strike!), but it works. Miss Godard’s girls debate the merits of boys at their school, but the film doesn’t judge them for wanting to have both careers and love lives. Verena softens her stance on boys, and Odette embraces the benefits of her all-female education. The film closes with a song, “Girlfriends for Life,” written by Kernochan and performed by Darlene Love, the former backup singer whose story was chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Love knows from experience what it’s like to be expected to come second to people whose talent your own eclipses.
All I Wanna Do is about being fiercely protective of a safe space where girls’ minds and ambitions are celebrated—and their anger taken seriously. Above all, it’s a movie about how women can reach our full potential through supporting each other and lifting one another up as we go. It seems to be a lesson more people are learning and acting on these days, but I wish it would have happened much sooner.
Melissa Baumgart writes and teaches creative writing to children in New York City. She studied Radio/TV/Film and History at Northwestern University and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was recently named the 2018 winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize by Hunger Mountain Journal for the Arts.