Strange Little Girls

One day you see a strange little girl look at you
One day you see a strange little girl feeling blue
She’d run to the town one day
Leaving home and the country fair
Just beware when you’re there, strange little girl
She didn’t know how to live in a town that was rough
It didn’t take long before she knew she had enough
Walking home in her wrapped up world
She survived but she’s feeling old
‘Cos she found all things cold

Strange little girl where are you going?

This wonderful song by The Stranglers from 1982 came to my head the other day as I was working on a painting for an upcoming exhibition and for a comic I am creating. The story is loosely based on my childhood memories of me and my grandmother and so the main character, who is also the narrator, is a little girl.

The Stranglers’ song has always touched me deeply, probably because I can very much relate to the lyrics. I was a strange little girl myself, often locked in the world of weird dreams and fantasies, and finding it difficult to make friends. From early on, I was mostly interested in things that were inappropriate for my age; I repeatedly stole my over-a-decade-older sister’s books and I found her friends far more interesting to talk to than children my age, who often perceived me as nerdy and uncool. Therefore, I have a lot of sympathy for strange little girls and whilst I’m on the trip down the memory lane, I thought I might present here some of my favourite characters from books, film and art which certainly fall into the “strange girls” category.

I’ll begin with Jeliza-Rose from Terry Gilliam’s film Tideland (2005), which I had the pleasure of watching again a couple of weeks ago. In an introduction to the film, Gilliam says: “Many of you are not going to like this film (…) I shall explain: This film is seen through the eyes of a child. If it’s shocking, it’s because it’s innocent.(…) I was 64 years old when I made this film. I think I finally discovered the child within me. It turned out to be a little girl.”

Tideland is an adaptation of a cult novel by American author Mitch Cullin, which is a nightmarish story about a little girl living with two entirely useless parents who are both heroin addicts. As part of a daily routine, Jeliza-Rose assists her father in his  frequent “vacation” trips by heating up the drug intake in a spoon, and later removing the hypodermic once he’s “departed”. When her mother overdoses, Jeliza-Rose is taken by her father to her grandma’s ruined farmhouse in the middle of a cornfield. Here she is left to her own devices with no company but a copy of Alice in Wonderland and four dismembered Barbie doll heads which she often wears on her fingertips: Mystique, Sateen Lips, Baby Blonde and Glitter Gal. Acting as a ventriloquist, the girl uses each of the heads to communicate her own often contradictory desires and fears, and to translate the perplexing world she is witnessing. She is not mad, like some film reviewers say. She is merely escaping the hunger, loneliness, and lack of security by transforming herself into a character from an adventure story. Imagination is the only place to escape to in the absence of love, warmth and security. Gilliam says: “Remember, children are strong, they’re resilient, they’re designed to survive. When you drop them, they tend to bounce.” Jeliza-Rose bounces in the most fascinating, often hilarious and frightening but enviably powerful way.

She conquers her fears and often acts arrogantly, just like her favourite book character, Alice. Jan Svankmajer’s vision of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which combines very surreal stop motion animation with live action, brings out the sense of menace and aggression that is present in the book but omitted in many adaptations. In an interview for The Electric Sheep Magazine, Svankmajer says that his film keeps the original idea of a dream which, as opposed to a good-overcomes-evil fairy-tale, “as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure.” Strange little girls can have very strange dreams, and I like authors who embrace that fact and are not trying to tame children by turning their minds towards infantile stimuli.

A girl who is by no means an innocent and ignorant child is Mathilda Lando from Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994). This twelve-year-old girl from a dysfunctional family returns one day from shopping to find all members of the family murdered by a corrupt DEA agents. Mathilda finds shelter in the home of Leone “Léon” Montana, a professional hitman, and the two outcasts quickly develop a deep friendship. Mathilda smokes, learns to use a gun, and sets herself a goal of avenging the murder of her four-year-old brother. Quirky, vulnerable and brave, she is adorable.

Less adorable, yet very moving, is Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “Mistress Mary quite contrary” is a 10-year old girl who, like Mathilda Lando, becomes an orphan when her wealthy British parents die of cholera in India, where the family are living. Mary is then sent to Yorkshire, England to live with her uncle Archibald Craven at his home called Misselthwaite Manor, which is located in the middle of heather fields. There she undergoes a magical transformation. Initially lonely, apathetic and “disagreeable”, she becomes enthusiastic and passionate – about an abandoned garden which she finds amidst the many gardens of Misselthwaite Manor, and about helping her frail cousin whom she finds locked in one of the rooms. Mary is a very unique girl who preserves her quirkiness all throughout the book. She is not unhappy about her solitude, for what she actually misses is having something to care about. “I like you,” she says to a peasant boy Dickon whom she shares the garden secret with, “and you make the fifth person. I never thought I should like five people.” When I was a child, Mary’s calm attitude and focus on her own hobby would reinforce my scepticism towards wanting to be popular, which most children derive self-esteem from.

Moving away from film and literature into the world of oil and digital painting, there are two fantastic artists who have been keen portrayers of strange little girls – contemporary artist Ray Caesar and one of major 20th century painters, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, a.k.a. Balthus.

Balthus, known for rejecting art trends and conventions, and for a telegram he sent to the Tate Gallery before the 1968 retrospective exhibition of his works (“NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.”), was, like Svankamajer and Gilliam, a big Lewis Carroll fan. Many of his paintings, described as “disturbing”, featured young girls with their nascent sexuality and quirkiness. A young girl looking into a hand mirror in The Golden Days painting reminds me of the characters described earlier in this post. There is a great sense of ease and confidence she emulates, and while she is perfectly lovely and charming, she is not exactly a nice girl who sits modestly and speaks only when asked. Another painting, Salon I, depicts two nubile girls, one reading and one reclining. The Digital Journal website we read that  the painting offers “a vision of children at ease, comfortable with themselves and their environments, daring the viewer to impose something else — desire, discomfort, derision — on their benign activities.”

Ray Caesar is a visual surreal artist and digital painter residing in Toronto, who creates surreal landscapes and models with detailed photographic textures, using a 3D modeling software called Maya. Many of the characters in his paintings are little girls, though he says that: “People think I paint pictures of children… I don’t! I paint pictures of the human soul… that alluring image of the hidden part of ourselves… some call them ghosts or spirits but I see them as the image of who we truly are, made manifest with all the objects and bruises that filled the story of each life.” Caesar spent 17 years working in the Art and Photography department of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where he documented various child afflictions in sketches. In an interview for Arrested Motion, he says that those years helped him revisit his own childhood and embrace the traumas he went through then. As a child, he used pictures “as a way of hiding feelings and emotions I wanted to protect in situations that were extremely dangerous. If I experienced something that overwhelmed me, that I couldn’t deal with, or had emotions I wasn’t allowed to display, I used to draw it into a picture. Those pictures became a doorway to a happier, safer place – and sometimes a dangerous place for others because it was MY place.” Caesar’s girls are like Jeliza-Rose’s Barbie heads, which on one hand work as a medium for the artist to come to terms with his sub-consciousness and the way he experiences the world around him, and on the other – they resurrect the image of a strange little girl in the eyes of a viewer.

Let the girls be what they like, for that strangeness, when embraced, can be a wonderful creative force – or a shameful burden to carry when suppressed.