“Toe to Toe,” Emily Abt’s independent feminist feature film premiering this week in New York, is one of the most painfully, beautifully accurate looks at being a high school girl I’ve seen in years. (Watch the trailer here). It tells the complex story of a fraught interracial friendship forged on the lacrosse field — a place where women can use their bodies to be strong — between an overachieving, driven young African-American woman and her feckless, neglected but privileged white teammate. Tosha is all coiled, tense, purpose. Her disadvantaged economic circumstances, her daily walk past neighborhood bullies on the way to a school where no one understands her, all sharpen her resolve to get into Princeton and move on. Jesse, on the other hand, is the only daughter of a jetsetting, do-gooder mom. She finds refuge from her loneliness in an aimless life of partying and hooking up with boys.
Jesse and Tosha represent a fundamental truth about teens, one we speak of frequently at RH Reality Check; rarely do social, intellectual and emotional maturity all happen at the same rate. Both Jess and Tosha are old beyond their years in some ways, hopelessly young in others. Tosha has the work ethic most lifetimes can’t build, the ability to clearly identify and follow the steps she needs to take to achieve her goals, but she’s scared to open herself up emotionally in a fast-paced, cliquey, moneyed social world at school. Meanwhile Jess can navigate social situations with ease, acting the part of the ingenue with perfection, moving with a sophisticated swagger, doggedly pursuing sexual conquests. But she is unable to fully comprehend the connection between her actions — coming late to practice, neglecting her work, even having unprotected sex — and their inevitable consequences.
“I do think teenagers blossom in different ways at different times,” said Abt over the phone recently. “Tosha seemingly has it all together but she’s dealing with her own heavy stuff. I wanted to make their lives parallel in terms of the difficulties they were facing.”
The two girls are attracted by their differences, of course. But they have in common homes with absent fathers and emotionally distant moms (though Tosha has an extremely involved grandmother), and neither truly fits in at their school. Tosha hangs out with a clique of black girls, but most of them are wealthy and don’t really get her situation. Jesse is shunned by other young women because of her reputation for promiscuity, and rumors that she’s been kicked out of previous schools.
They bond, briefly but meaningfully, but then both girls develop an interest in the same guy — Rashid, a Muslim teen torn between his own burgeoning sexual desires and his conservative upbringing — and their tenuous bond is tested by suspicion, rivalry, and the specter of race and class.
Sex and the high school girl
This movie’s depiction of a sexually active teen girl in emotional peril is thought-provoking in a feminist context. In the course of our feminist activism, we’re often caught playing defense against a right-wing culture that demonizes the entire spectrum of teen sexuality, using sweeping stereotypes and fear-mongering to paint all teenage boys as slaves to their hormones and girls as either valiant defenders of their chastity or fallen women. Writers like Jessica Valenti tell the crucial truth that these fears are overblown, that sexually active teens just are as likely as anyone else end up as happy, fulfilled adults.
And yet Jesse is a sexually active teen and it’s hurting her, and she’s an incredibly real character who will doubtless recall a girl every viewer knew in high school. However, Jesse needs feminism more than anyone. Jesse’s issue isn’t her promiscuity, per se, but the fact that she sees her sexuality as her only worth — the flip side of the abstinence-only philosophy which posits that a girl’s virginity is her only worth. For a person like Jesse, comprehensive sex education, in the clinical sense, wouldn’t help much. She already knows about safe sex and she ignores it. What she doesn‘t know is what a feminist-minded sex ed class could teach her — how to retain her strong voice when she’s around men, how to tell her partners to use protection without being scared they’ll abandon her, how to say “no” when she wants to. She needs a dose of real self-acceptance, not the Pussycat Dolls pseudo-empowerment she embraces.
Abt wrote Jesse’s character for very specific reasons: to put a face on the one in four teen girls with an STD, to show the human face of our sexually-confused culture. “We very much let conservatives dominate the discussion around abstinence,” says Abt, who interestingly believes in a reclaiming a feminist model of abstinence, one not unlike the recent Jemmott study, which would encourage teenagers to resist pressure to have sex — not until marriage, but rather until they’re ready or with a partner they truly trust. “Her story tries to raise questions about what I see as the rampant sexualization of teenage girls,” says Abt.
High school, with its rigid social hierarchies, can be an intensified microcosm of every wider sexist trend in existence from date rape and dating violence to social coercion and slut-shaming. Girls with low self esteem like Jesse are caught in the meshes of this world. Abt’s film depicts teenage boys and girls who take advantage of each other but she does it humanely, illuminating the social pressure and inner conflict faced by each character, including Rashid, the DJ whom both girls are interested in.
The film’s unflinching depiction of Jesse’s being ostracized in school, Abt says, and the fact that her playful freedom begins to spiral into truly dangerous territory as that exclusion worsens, shows that demonizing, ignoring or dismissing sexually active women can lead them into self-destructive behavior. “I hope people see the film and reach out to the Jesses in their circles, because there’s a lot of them,” she says.
Race, strength, perfectionism
“Toe to Toe” isn’t just about teen sexuality. Tosha’s story is about the cult of perfectionism high school girls face, the alone-ness they feel with huge burdens on their shoulders. And the friendship between the girls, is a very different take on race than you’ll usually see in Hollywood. “The film also seeks to interrogate the status quo of race relations on a micro level,” says Abt. “It’s about messy, more subtle forms of racial tension which usually get overlooked by the mainstream media. By the time you hit high school many kids self-segregating and this film asks why and how that starts to happen.”
To Abt, the gulf that grows between the two girls isn’t created by their racial difference, but rather by their opposite approaches to work, to sex, to boys, to the high school gauntlet. But once that conflict begins, “it’s amplified by the fact that they’re from different backgrounds.”
Still, she says, we can learn a lot from their friendship, difficult though its. She believes that fear of a racial dimension to everyday disputes that occur in friendships prevents young people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds from forming meaningful relationships which last (one statistic she cites is that for 87 percent of American teens, interracial friendships end by age 14).
“Politeness is a barrier. If you can’t fight with someone you can’t be that close,” she says. “The process of working through conflict to create a solution is what creates real relationships.”
By the end of the film, Tosha and Jesse have worked through their rivalries and disagreements in entirely surprising, non-Hollywood ways. There’s hope, at least, that each girl will be able to develop other sides to her personality away from the toxic atmosphere of high school. “Because they’re authentic with each other and they don’t shy away from each other there’s a beauty to their relationship and it carries forward to the extent that they’re willing to sacrifice a lot for each other,” says Abt.
“Toe to Toe” premieres in New York Friday, February 26. Tickets can be reserved at for an opening night screening followed by a Q&A or for tickets later in the week. Like all independent films, the fate of “Toe to Toe” rests largely on opening weekend sales.