Fair warning: contains references to the ending that may enable the canny rom com connoisseurs out there to deduce spoilers
All Jenna (Christa B. Allen) really wants for her thirteenth birthday is to shed her geeky image, get in with the popular girls at school (known as the ‘Six Chicks’) and hopefully get a kiss from her crush. When she invites them all to her party, along with best friend and neighbour Matty (Sean Marquette), things don’t go well, and the girls leave her in the wardrobe to go and find some booze. Those wild eighties kids.
When Matty tries to help, Jenna is furious, pushing him away and wishing she was ‘thirty, flirty and thriving’ like the women in glamorous magazine Poise. Suddenly, thanks to some magic dust (no, that’s not a drug reference), she finds herself transported into the body and life of her thirty year old self (Jennifer Garner). Just go with it.
Once accustomed to novelties like mobile phones, boobs and cocktails, Jenna loves her stylish and fun new life as editor of Poise. It turns out that ‘Tom-Tom’, who was the leader of the Six Chicks when they were thirteen, has changed her name back to the far more sensible Lucy (Judy Greer), and is now Jenna’s best friend and co-editor. While Jenna is thrilled to find that she actually became a member of the group, upon tracking down Matt (Mark Ruffalo she learns that they fell out after her thirteenth birthday party, and that he is now engaged.
As time passes, Jenna realises that for all the perks that come with being an adult (such as limitless junk food and credit cards), she barely recognises the mean person she’s become, and that maybe her thirteen year old self’s priorities were somewhat out of whack. Behind the daft plot lies an endearing story about appreciating what you have, being yourself and not growing up too quickly.
Jennifer Garner shines as Jenna in her thirty-year-old form, nailing the mixture of naivety, blissful ignorance and sweetness that make the character so likeable in spite of her superficial teenage ambitions. Judy Greer is funny and hateable as sycophantic and conniving Lucy, while Kathy Baker appears as Jenna’s mother, dispensing support and pearls of wisdom from time to time.
How are women represented?
Fortunately, this film generally avoids the obvious problems that could accompany a plot where adults are interacting with a thirteen year old who appears to be a fully grown woman. Much of the joy of the film comes from Jenna’s wide-eyed and innocent perspective on adult life, which is a refreshing reminder of the fun and hard sides of being grown up. This young perspective makes for a rom com that is endearing rather than sleazy and which carries a strong message about personal growth and understanding.
However, the film’s portrayal of women draws on cultural ideas that offer some mixed messages. Furthermore, despite its moral of self-fulfilment and self-confidence, by the end it has given in to the usual trappings of the rom com genre, in that end the heroine’s romance is portrayed as the most important element of her life.
A quick look at how the female characters behave reveals some disturbing stereotypes. Lucy and the Six Chicks manipulate Jenna into doing their homework for them, and then humiliate her by tricking her into sitting alone and blindfolded in the wardrobe, waiting for her crush to kiss her. Let’s address how disturbing the concept of ‘Seven Minutes in Heaven’ is. The girl goes and waits, blindfolded, in a confined space, and then a boy she can’t see comes in and is ‘allowed to do anything he wants to you’. Not only is this incredibly creepy, but it defines women as the passive object in male-female relationships. To return to portrayal of women, Tom-Tom/Lucy grows up to be a conniving and two-faced double crosser, who tries to jeopardise the friendship between Jenna and Matt out of jealousy over Jenna’s career. Not such a great image of women. Then there’s Jenna’s initial response to her adult life, which is to go shopping, throw on a ton of make-up, moon over boys, and watch sappy films while eating junk food. There’s nothing innately wrong with any of this, but it is a revealing look at what popular culture believes teenage girls want and think about, and what they would do when put in charge of their own lives.
Despite Lucy’s dubious qualities as a friend, the film certainly portrays relationships between women as enriching and supportive. Although she already has Matt, young Jenna aspires to belong to a group of girls; although this is partly to do with their popularity, it recognises that there is something about female friendships that is particularly desirable. As a thirty year old, Jenna turns to Becky and her friends for support, and the sleepover scene where they dance together in their pyjamas while singing ‘Love is a Battlefield’ into hairbrushes (because that’s what girls do when we get together) again shows female friendships as places where individuals find affection, enjoyment and support. Jenna’s relationship with her mother, which appears sporadically throughout the film, also emphasises a particular understanding between women; having just arrived in her new older body, Jenna is desperate to speak to her mother, and she turns to her for advice after recognising that she’s royally screwed up.
This referential view of the bonds between women draws on a perspective that has replaced more traditional and outspoken notions of feminism among some women. While they are not comfortable with describing themselves as feminists, believing this to refer to man-hating, bra-burning spinsters, these women, including famous names like Jennifer Lopez, Charlene Spiterri and Janet Street Porter, identify their friendships with other women as integral sources of comfort and fulfilment. From this comes an understanding as to how to behave towards other women: Jenna is horrified when she finds that she has slept with a colleague’s husband because of the hurt she has done to another woman, even though she has no personal relationship (that she can remember) with the injured wife.
Although this message of female solidarity is ostensibly positive, since it recognises that women are capable of offering each other support and kindness, it is also reductive, prescribing all women with the stereotypical nurturing and emotive personality traits. Furthermore, it doesn’t suggest how a woman might behave and be seen in a relationship with a man, thereby permitting the continued promotion of stereotypical gender roles. It is therefore not surprising that the film ultimately reduces Jenna to the role of typical rom com heroine; she chooses Matty rather than the girls, suggesting that an audience should care more about how her romance fares than her friendship.
This dynamic also plays out in her professional life at Poise, which Jenna is shown to enjoy: we see her working long hours, trying to improve her skills, and giving a passionate presentation about her new ideas for the magazine. However, when the film reveals how Jenna’s life turned out, this element is totally ignored, and we are only shown the details of her love life, implying that this is all the audience really wants to know about. Despite the film’s emphasis on a young woman’s personal development, by the end it is identifying as a love story. While everyone loves a love story, and this is a particularly sincere and believable example, it’s a shame that a film which offered such an endearing and well-developed protagonist ultimately chooses to focus on her as a love interest rather than an interesting personality in her own right.
By examining the adult world from the perspective of a thirteen year old, 13 Going On 30 offers a fresh look at the dilemmas and perks that come with being a grown up. While this concept could have been disastrous, the plot generally avoids being creepy, and makes for a sweet romance and a memorable heroine. The emphasis on Jenna’s female relationships identifies women as a vital source of support, advice and friendship for each other. Jenna is portrayed throughout as someone who, despite some poor judgements, is caring and sensitive, but also capable, hard-working and intelligent. However, despite the initial focus on Jenna’s learning curve, the film ultimately centres on the romance plot. This is fine, but disappointing in a rom com that seemed to promise a personal development plot. Furthermore, the female friendships Jenna seeks turn out to be less fulfilling than her relationship with Matt, and Lucy becomes a jealous, back-stabbing stereotype. 13 Going On 30 offers a fresh new premise but fails to live up to its potential. Gather some friends, bring on the junk food and enjoy, but take the representation of women as a work in progress.
How did you perceive Jenna’s female friendships? What are your views on this new ‘alternative’ to feminism? Did you think women in the film were reduced to stereotypes? How badly did you want your own dream house? Seriously, the cotton wool bath bubbles blew my mind. If you have a response to these or any other points raised, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments section.
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