Disenfranchised Youth and the Suburban Wasteland in ‘Ghost World’

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Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film Ghost World encapsulates the life of the disillusioned teen. Based on Dan Clowes graphic novel of the same name, the cult classic is a sardonic insight into late-adolescence ennui, as seen through the eyes of its ‘too cool for school’ protagonist Enid (Thora Birch) and featuring her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Though joined at the hip in their cynicism, the two girls’ relationship deteriorates during the course of the film, spurred mainly by Enid’s newfound obsession with the geeky Seymour (Steve Buscemi). This separation creates juxtaposition of the two central female characters to emphasise the dichotomy of the hegemonic societal norm and the hedonistic rejection of conformity. Ghost World is a film that delves into the disenchantment at what the youth have been offered in life and presents this attitude via Enid’s cynical, acerbic perspective. The mise-en-scene works to present this perspective via use of space, editing and shot composition, whilst also using a level of irony to further highlight Enid’s detachment from the norm. The unnamed city in which we find our protagonists harbours an eerie sheen of falsity, aesthetically mixing the repetitive mundanity of consumer culture with the absurd. It’s the perfect setting for a tale of ultimate pessimism – and ultimately, pathos. 

Modern young people are disenfranchised in a variety of ways, economically, politically, culturally, and so on. As systems of power usually work to benefit those in charge, who in turn tend to be of an older generation, the interests of the youth are generally left out. Systems of control are intertwined; the educational system has close relations to the prison system, particularly in America. Those that suffer the brunt of the effects of these systems are more often than not lower-income minorities, who thus become trapped in a cycle of economic and political disenfranchisement. Enid, as a white, middle-class teenager has an easier chance to escape this system of repression, but she chooses entrapment. She limits her own potential in the name of nihilism, irony and cynicism, foregoing further education or the freedom of her own apartment in favour of her niche and somewhat childish obsession for the weird. But, concurrently, she attempts to separate herself from hegemonic systems and the societal norm via her affinity for the ironic. The notion of irony suggests a hierarchy of intelligence, being bound up with cultural capital – Enid views herself as the initiated and she sees herself on a higher level intellectually and culturally than those around her. Her irony is expressed via snark and sarcasm and she looks down upon her fellow classmates who exuberantly move on to the next chapter of their lives after highschool graduation. She feels that she knows more than school could ever teach her; her cynicism seemingly makes her far more intelligent than her peers. 

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Enid purposefully presents herself as an outcast, intentionally rebelling against her own privilege. She believes that this self-aware choice puts her above the rest. But it is evident from the film that she herself doesn’t really know where she stands in life.The constant misdirection of Enid’s own perspective of her place in life exemplifies an instability of character and thus a sort of self-consciousness. Enid becomes victim of her own ridicule, her satire working against her to alienate her from any chance of a life at all. As she is told by later on, if she really wants to ‘fuck up the system’ she needs to do it from the inside by going to college and getting a high-paying job. Ghost World ultimately tells us that this is a story of being lost and of being trapped in the limbo of adolescence. It vouches for the uncertainty of life and the absurdity of resigning yourself to a certain system as a mere teenager. She doesn’t know what she wants, so she chooses a life of disenfranchisement, therefore having something to blame for her futile existence. For a narrative full of wit and dark humour, at the heart of the film lies tragedy. 

Enid presents herself as the poster-girl for teenage counterculture and alienated youth, with her punk aesthetic and hatred of institutional regulation. During the course of the film, Enid and Rebecca are increasingly juxtaposed to emphasise the former’s loss of place in the world. Beginning as cloned cynics, the two girls begin to differ in terms of attitude, clothing and aspiration as the narrative progresses. To start with, the girls aesthetically present themselves in similar ways; their outfits of choice usually feature short, black skirts and a garishly bright t-shirt. They are quirky, but not in a way that shows they’re trying too hard. A turning point in the girls’ relationship is offered visually after Enid dyes her hair green. She swaps the mini-skirts for black skinny jeans and a leather jacket. Rebecca still dons their classic uniform and admits that she didn’t get Enid’s “1977 original punk rock look”. 

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Enid reverts back to her original quirky style, but as Rebecca gets her first job and moves into an apartment of her own, we see her style shift. She starts to present herself in a more mature way, putting her hair up and swapping cartoonish colours for neutrals. She is assimilating into a socially accepted lifestyle. In one scene, as the two girls browse a homeware store, the frame focuses on rows and rows of the same glassware and bowls. They are mass produced and homogenous. Rebecca, entrapped by the haze of consumerism, exclaims that they are the ‘greatest’. This is another example of Enid becoming further alienated from those around her. As seen from her clothing and bedroom, Enid’s aesthetic is much more disorganised, gauche and random – she clashes colours, patterns, eras and styles but Rebecca is literally buying into a deindividualized, pre-made aesthetic and completely happy about it.

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Ghost World is adapted from a graphic novel and the aesthetic of the comic book is translated into the film to fortify an unsettling landscape of superficiality. This unnamed city reeks of consumerism; neon signs advertising fast-food chains and off-brand mini-marts loom tall over the characters and very little of the story takes place in settings that you can’t spend money at. Behind the neon signs and flashy store-fronts lies a monotonous, concrete-covered cityscape. It’s unassuming, bland and entirely unremarkable – but purposely so, not only to create a juxtaposition between itself and the characters who inhabit it but also to highlight the alienating effect of monotonous suburbia on the teen and those who fall victim to consumer culture. One major aspect of the comic book aesthetic, that is utilised to full effect in the film, is the use of space. There is a stillness to each frame, emulating the static flatness of a pane in a comic strip. Shots feature few extras, opting to focus solely on one or two characters and thus presenting a literal ‘ghost world’ and further amplifying the tone of alienation. The framing of characters is reminiscent of that in comic strips; people are framed against solid backgrounds, in medium-close ups and the characters are often over-stylised ‘oddballs’ – caricatures almost. The comic book aesthetic is used to create a glossy, sheen over real life – much like the purpose of advertisement. Enid and Rebecca’s bright-eyed classmates are totally under the hypnotic guise of this false sense of being in control and success. This sheen, contrasting against the mundanity of a suburban cityscape, feels sickly and disorientating. It’s easy to become swallowed up by a space that is utterly depersonalised. 

The city becomes a maze of strip malls and crass, themed diners. Multiple long takes capture characters walking down the street against the backdrop of a blank wall that seems to continue endlessly. They repetitively walk between the commercial spaces of the city and images of consumerism are seared into your brain. What appears at surface level cheerful and full of colour actually harbours something otherworldly and sinister. Keeping its ironic and self-aware tone, the film has a secondary character explicitly comment on the homogeneity and repetitiveness of commercialism by saying of the fake 50s diner: “Aren’t there a million places like this?”. This once again aligns the film’s perspective with that of Enid’s. Making a case for an identity dictated by consumption, the film has Seymour utter the line “you can’t connect with other people so you fill your life with stuff”. 

Scenes frequently change by fading in and out – far more languid than a sharp cut whilst adding to the sense of entrapment. Shots linger on the visual characteristics of the protagonists – Enid’s blunt black bob and thick-rimmed glasses or Seymour’s sullen face and bulging eyes – keeping them within the confines of the frame, as if in the panel of a comic strip, but also visually insisting upon their quirks. The film interestingly uses green as a frequent colour in costuming, usually in a garish tone. This is a stark contrast against the dull, concrete jungle of the cityscape and enhances the air of superficiality due to its association with greenery and nature.

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There is much in modern life to be disillusioned by, especially as a teen. Ghost World is, on the outside, a portrait of the wry, bitchy adolescent. But peel back its layers of sardonic wit and you will uncover a complex exploration of being trapped in the cycle of life and forging your own path. Maybe we’re all, like Norman the old man, just waiting for a bus that never comes.

To quote the valedictorian’s speech at graduation, “High school is like the training wheels of the bicycle that is life”, but Enid would prefer to take the bus.

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