Showcasing female sexuality in adolescence has been a film trend for decades. But in 2016, at least three films have looked at the terrifying transition from child to adult: Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon and Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits. For the last, not only does the film deal with African-American teen girls going about their daily routine, it also presents sexuality itself as simultaneously a medical issue “affecting” young girls and a rite of passage, with the agency both in and out of the girls’ control. In placing The Fits alongside Eggers’ The Witch, specifically, the film is a challenging exploration of the yearnings all girls have, but dread coming to pass.
The Fits follows an 11-year-old tomboy named Toni (Royalty Hightower), who joins a dance team. When each of the girls in the team are taken out with mysterious “fits,” the younger girls fear, and anxiously wait, for the fits to hit them.
One of the many ways in which The Fits is unique is in its presentation of real girls. Unlike Eggers and Refn’s preternaturally beautiful blonde vestel virgins, Hightower’s Toni is an average, unassuming girl, quiet and reserved. She spends most of her days in the gym with her older brother working out and boxing, learning how to defend herself against real horrors of the world. Toni is drawn to the dance team filled with curvy older girls able to hold their own against other women, their dancing representing a competition to see who is cockier and more accomplished. These gender binaries leave Toni in a liminal state.
Her brother and the gym are gearing her up to face life, and in a world where sexual assault is far too-common, Toni is, subliminally, learning how to prevent reality from impinging on her. Yet the façade of confident sexuality the team puts out lowers Toni’s guard, and it places her in a new world, one where her greatest enemy could be her best friend. As “the fits” start taking out each girl, Toni’s increasing desire to be cool enough for affliction, possibly a precursor to the attack proper, sees her butting heads with her best friend Beezy (Alexis Nesbitt), who, when she is brought down with a case of the fits, finds Toni weak and uncool because it hasn’t happened to her.
One of many elements “the fits” represent is this notion of burgeoning sexuality and how young women respond to the loss of virginity. Toni wants to be a sexual creature, and the dance team is her gateway towards experiencing sexuality in a safe space amongst other young girls on the cusp. (Note that the older girls, who have acknowledged having boyfriends, are the first to be taken ill.) Yet, once each girl is afflicted, nothing changes physically, but an unspoken shift in perspective from both the unaffected and the “ill” happens; Toni and Beezy cannot have same innocent friendship they once had after Beezy gets the fits. Toni, as she was before joining the team, is the outsider lacking life experience.
Each girl’s attack is different, as are most sexual encounters, but all involve a loss of control and allusions to orgasm. Each of the girls who witnesses the attacks are mystified, with many recording it on their phones for future documentation. Toni and Beezy are desperate to learn “what it’s like,” asking those afflicted what it felt like in the moment. Much like sex itself, Toni and Beezy yearn for information about what to expect and how to prepare for what’s to come. What originally starts out as an illness to avoid becomes a rite of passage that the group dreams of without understanding the implications, only thinking it’s cool. At one point, Toni even says she believes she wants it to happen — both to look superior to her friends and because, subliminally, she actually has interest in being a sexual person.
And, like anything involving teenagers and danger, the adults are completely inept at how to combat the supposed contagion. Those at the school and rec center question each girl, looking for common denominators, some method of weeding out those prone to this scourge. But, they come up empty-handed. Do the girls necessarily desire a cure? As evidenced by their reaction and yearning, no. Outside of their race, gender and participation in the dance team, each girl is different. The only thing that unifies them is their desire to be women — confident, sexual and outspoken women.
It is evident of the strength of the group (or clique) that makes these young girls (all under the age of 15) so desperate for something presumably bad to happen to them. When Toni first appears, she is a quiet blip of invisibility amongst the loud, rambunctious girls of the team. The audience soon sees the dance team like a modern-day coven of witches, who spend their days practicing routines and chanting. Even the adults’ treatment of the attacks leads one to assume mass hysteria or other similarities to the Salem Witch trials. The team’s final dance sequence acts as both the final “spell” of their power, as well as the final induction for Toni’s transition from girl to woman.
The Fits is the first feature in awhile to look at the passionate wanting of sexuality. Toni and her friends are akin to most young girls who dream of hitting various plateaus on their path to womanhood, whether it’s the fascination with getting their period or the final plunge of having sex. And the final frames of Toni’s “transformation” leave the audience unsure of her fate. Will she survive this attack? Will it change who she is forever? These are questions all women have and still seek answers to.
Kristen Lopez (@Journeys_Film) is a freelance writer from Sacramento with a Masters in English. In her free time, she runs a classic film website and podcast where she’s had an opportunity to work with TCM. Kristen has been published at Flavorwire, Film School Rejects, The Playlist and Awards Circuit.