Exploring the Missing Legacy of ‘All I Wanna Do’ and other All-Girls School Movies

By Remy Solomon | September 21, 2020

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) calls to mind images of gauzy white dresses, nubile teens, and a humming undercurrent of latent sexual repression. Within the niche of movies set at all-girls schools, this storytelling style and visual aesthetic ripples through the genre; in these hazy fantasies, the teen girls’ sexualities are terrifying and mind-warping (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [1969]), their manipulations are exacting (The Children’s Hour [1961]), their friendships pickled through with jealousy and self-sabotage (Heavenly Creatures [1994] and the original The Beguiled [1971]).

These movies have become the critical darlings of all-girls school films, and by extension, accepted canonical representations of girlhood: because they’re stylish, because they’re sexy, and because they are, above all else, serious. They also have a unifying vision not just on the screen, but behind it: they were all directed by men.

Picnic at Hanging Rock all girls body image
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) dir. Peter Weir

And they’re not bad films unto themselves—in fact, they’re largely heralded as the work of genius auteurs—but when viewed in totality, a clear message emerges: girls are inscrutable sirens to be admired from afar. Any closer, the directors allege, and the audience might drown in their watery, alluring eyes. These movies don’t argue the might of girls’ power, but rather, the inherent predation of young women coming into their own. They are fundamentally scared of their subjects. The teachers’ sexualities, however present, are never portrayed as being quite so…threatening. Most of the films rely on this diffusive presence of teachers to keep the otherwise combustible sexuality in check. It’s this enhanced neutrality that seems to spur many of the films in the genre to make the teachers the focus of the films, as opposed to the students. 

But if we turn our attention to a less classically lauded film in this niche, we find something far more interesting: a movie that posits daring new ideas about the generative power, both emotionally and politically, of female friendships.

Enter All I Wanna Do (1998), also known as Strike! and The Hairy Bird, is the directorial debut of writer and director Sarah Kernochan. Set at an all-girls boarding school in 1963, it follows a group of smart, competitive young women who discover that their administration intends to merge their school with a neighboring all boys school. What follows next is an absolute romp as the girls plot increasingly outlandish schemes to sabotage the merger. It’s like Ocean’s 8 if Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett donned penny loafers.

Unlike some films in the all-girls school genre that use young girls as plot engines but never fully accesses their desires — preferring instead to locate character agency onto the adult characters — All I Wanna Do gets up close and personal with its leads, who take center stage. Although there are teachers present (including a staple figure in all-girls school movies, the leering male English teacher, also seen in Miss Brodie and Tanner Hall [2009]), the girls are firmly the star of the show. And boy, are they stars: the cast includes young Kirsten Dunst, Merritt Wever and Gaby Hoffman, all giving spectacular comedic performances. Kernochan also made the excellent decision to cast leads who look the age of the characters they’re portraying, something that happens so rarely in teen movies it’s almost laughable. Best of all, their performances don’t happen in a vacuum. As with realistic female friendships, the girls grow in and around one another, adopting elements of each other’s performance to link their characters.

All I Wanna Do is aesthetically removed from its historical counterparts in immediately obvious and powerful ways. The film is frenetic and fast-paced, the dialogue and camera moving a mile a minute, always accompanied by a kicky soundtrack. There’s rarely a quiet moment in the ceaselessly energetic editing. The film doesn’t make itself overly accessible; it expects the viewer to learn the language (both visually and literally) via immersion. The movie operates almost like a teenage girl: constantly evolving, with rapidly shifting emotions that leave you with the best kind of heart-wrenching whiplash. Gone are the gauzy white dresses; in their place are usually practical, unbecoming uniforms. The girls only change out of these dowdy duds when they know boys are coming ‘round. In this way, Kernochan carefully delineates the impact of the male gaze, as if to say, here are girls when men are watching, and here are girls when they’re alone. 

Beyond the style, the story itself is expressly political. Our leads are brought together in a club called the D.A.R., which stands for Daughters of the American Ravioli, (a sly pun on the conservative organization Daughters of the American Revolution). In the D.A.R., the girls pass around a can of cold ravioli as they commiserate on how to avoid the “finish” of a finishing school: namely, the inevitable relegation of most alumni to lives of housewifery. They share their hopes and dreams and vow to help one another buck the yoke of patriarchy. From the jump, our characters are cognizant of misogyny in a way that belies the external primness of the 60s. They talk about misogyny as something hovering on the edges of their campus, always threatening to encroach. It’s already infiltrated their administration through teachers and admin who enforce the norms. The girls know that if the school goes co-ed, they’ll be forced to reckon with the male gaze 24/7 and sublimate their own academic goals in favor of the men’s ambitions. This is the underlying tension of the film — the constant, aching knowledge that, once they leave the school, they’ll be incessantly subjugated by the men around them (especially given the era). They’ll be, yuck, housewives. Though the film walks and talks like a comedy, it’s the fragility of this moment in the girls’ lives that threads through all the elements of a tragedy. That’s how Kernochan best captures a theme that so many directors have tackled: the impermanence of childhood, warped further through the lens of girls coming of age in an oppressive patriarchy.

But Kernochan doesn’t stop at tragedy, and that’s where All I Wanna Do truly transforms from a shining pinnacle of 90s teen comedies into a relevant operating theory for our times. She carefully lays out all of the systems that are broken — in this case, the failing institution of the all-girls school, which is both administratively and financially disintegrating, and the influx of patriarchy that its collapse could entail. This movie could have easily been subsumed by pessimism and resignation, two familiar spectres in the political landscape that always threaten to put the kibosh on revolutionary fervor. Instead, Kernochan bucks that narrative, and choses a far more thrilling path: in order to change the systems in which they operate, the girls organize.

At first, their initiatives seem like silly, Home Alone-style antics — spiking the punch, crawling through ceilings, etc. The usual shenanigans. But as the girls increasingly discover their power, growing ever closer as an individual friend group and as a broader student body, they move beyond isolated disruption tactics, and into explicit political action. When the school finalizes the merger through its board of trustees, the whole student body takes over a dormitory and demands a seat on the board to be filled by a student representative. When that doesn’t happen, they refuse to go back to school until they’re granted representation. Autonomous zone? Check. Specific political action items? Check. A goddamn general strike? Check, check, check. The movie tricks the audience with the aesthetics of a teen comedy, and then suddenly, we’re in a badass leftist manifesto.

Kernochan essentially asserts that the trust and reliance on female friendship that can be created within all-girls schools is a radical political force unto itself. Where previous male filmmakers saw all-girls school as hotbeds for unhemmed sexuality and conniving feminine wiles, Kernochan sees them as the key to the revolution. Amidst an oppressive society, she asserts a distinctive, enervating hopefulness; the only disappointment here is that she localizes the revolution in white, wealthy women. 

But just as the film itself doesn’t shy away from explicit discussion of patriarchy and sexual assault, so too was its release hampered by those same forces. It was distributed by Harvey Weinstein’s company, Miramax Films. He forced the title to be changed from its original The Hairy Bird (slang for ‘penis’) to All I Wanna Do, feeling that the former was too offensive, and in 2019, Kernochan came forward with allegations about what went down behind the scenes with Weinstein. According to Kernochan, Weinstein was affronted by her unwillingness to change her vision to accommodate his, and thus barely publicized the film. He promised to screen it in 2,000 theaters in the U.S.; it ended up being shown in only 133, and those mostly in Canada. Even to this day, it’s only available on one streaming platform. And, because of the confusion over the title — it aired as Strike! in Canada and other countries, and as All I Wanna Do in the U.S.— the film’s digital legacy and its resulting scholarship has been segmented. It’s referred to as Strike! on the industry-standard IMDb, but called All I Wanna Do on Wikipedia. An SEO nightmare. Most horrifying of all, Kernochan says that Weinstein acquired the film not because he intended to make it a box office smash, but because he wanted unfettered access to the cast of young women.

All I wanna do body image
All I Wanna Do (1998).

The movie fell prey to the very forces it sought to critique and dismantle. Kernochan’s career wasn’t entirely derailed by Weinstein’s machinations; she went on to receive two Academy Awards for her documentary work. But besides her work on Thoth (2001), for which she won one of her Oscars, she never directed again. It’s something of a bitter pill to consider what her place in the media landscape might be now, were it not for the kneecapping of her directorial debut by a man.

Perhaps it’s just an interesting piece of trivia that Hanging Rock, Miss Brodie and The Children’s Hour are all based on books or plays written by women who attended all-girls schools — Joan Lindsay, Muriel Spark, and Lillian Hellman, respectively — and Heavenly Creatures was co-written by Fran Walsh, another all-girls school alumna. Kernochan also attended an all-girls school (in a touching move of behind-the-camera solidarity, a group of her former classmates, including one Glenn Close sang during the film’s credit). But the commonality of their experience resonates; even in eras where women didn’t have much creative control on screen, their involvement was necessitated by their unique access to the film’s setting. It’s almost an ironic twist on All I Wanna Do’s anxieties: by attending all-girls schools, these women weren’t relegated to lives in the private sphere, but rather, used those experiences as launchpads for their own careers. 

This holds true in more contemporary films in the niche as well; Tanner Hall, Cracks (2009), and the luminous Wild Child (2008) were all written and/or directed by all-girls school alumni. Though it was released around the same time as Tanner Hall and Cracks, which are far more in line with the classical vein of all-girls school movies and boast arguably more “name brand” cast members, Wild Child is the most creatively and financially successful of these ventures. Its zany tone draws almost explicitly from All I Wanna Do, and there’s more than a little narrative overlap. But, like its predecessor, Wild Child has never vaulted into the pantheon of critical darlings. Even though, anecdotally, it’s beloved by those who came of age in the late 2000s—especially young women. At the box office Wild Child, compared to its contemporaries, there was a clear hunger for more stories that upheld All I Wanna Do’s legacy of centering young women and female friendship, especially in an environment that elevates girls. 

All I Wanna Do is more than just a standalone powerhouse: it’s in direct narrative conversation with the all-girls school films that came before it, and serves as a wondrous corrective to male visions of women-dominated environments.

Remy Solomon is a writer based out of Los Angeles and Vancouver. For more of her work, visit remy-solomon.com and you can follow her on Twitter @remysolomon

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