Content Warnings: Sexual Assault; content that may not be suitable for younger readers.
Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (Sarah Jacobsen, 1996) opens with the titular character losing her virginity. In doing this, it positions itself as not just a film for women nor just a film about women, but a film about understanding the sexual coming-of-age of anyone who has a vagina. Jacobson’s first feature film gives weird, curious teenagers everywhere a heroine: Mary Jane, a teenage girl who thinks that having sex will transform her into a more sophisticated version of herself. However, Mary Jane’s first time proves to be a dissatisfying, uncomfortable experience that is more tedious than exciting. Really, you don’t need to have a vagina to learn from this film. The viewer learns alongside Mary Jane as her friends confide in her about their embarrassing first sexual experiences, their trauma of being sexually assaulted, and masturbation. The film emphasizes that root of Mary Jane’s problem of uncomfortable sex and lack of pleasure is not her, but a Patriarchal, one-sided understanding of sexual gratification. Mary Jane may not be aspirational, but she is relatable. As Mary Jane, Lisa Gerstein perfectly portrays the thoughts and actions of a teenage girl who is unsure of herself and unsure of the world she lives in.
Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin is rooted in small-town punk scenes, DIY culture, and the feminism of the early nineteen-nineties. Amidst a reluctance to address racism and classism within its chapters, the Riot Grrrl movement had become counterproductive and thus dissolved by the time of the film’s release. However, Jacobson brought dilemmas about sexual activity and notions of virginity expressed by teenage girls and young women in feminist zines to the big screen. Jacobson mixes this with radical second-wave feminism. It appeared to me that themes of this film can be interpreted as influenced by the novelists Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, and Angela Carter — although I could not find any interview in which Jacobson cites any of the three as an influence. Like those writers, Jacobson truly creates a radically open-minded space with this film that invites viewers to take outdated concepts like virginity less seriously and to take themselves less seriously. It articulates the discomfort and misogyny that young people from marginalized genders often face in countercultures. It debunks myths of virginity without the spectacle of the afterschool special. Although I would not consider this a comfort film by a longshot, I imagine that viewing this film in the dark on a solo cinema trip could be soothing and reassuring for so many young people.
Jacobsen’s other most renowned work is her debut film I Was a Teenager Serial Killer, a feminist horror-satire which was included in Spin magazine’s ‘Top 25 Underground Films of All Time’. Supported by friend Jake Fogelnest, Jacobson campaigned to win Lou Adler’s 1982 cult film Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains an official release and even directed a documentary about the making of the film. Admirers of Jacobson’s work included film critic Roger Ebert and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. Jacobson was also a major figure in the American DIY scene of the 1990s. Inspired by the punk music scene, she and her mother-producer Ruth Ellen Jacobson used handmade posters, stickers, and the Internet to promote Mary Jane Is Not a Virgin. They also travelled the country in a station wagon to promote the film, a move that Variety magazine likened to a punk rock band promoting its tour. Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore premiered at Chicago Underground Film Festival in 1996 and was shown at a sold-out screening at Sundance Film Festival in 1997. The themes and filmmaking style of Jacobson’s films can be seen in the short films of Sofia Coppola and Miranda July several years later.
Sadly, Jacobson died of endometrial cancer in 2004 at just thirty-two years old. It is difficult to find the right words to express how much of a loss Jacobson was to independent cinema and women’s filmmaking. The films of Jacobson were revolutionary for the nineteen-nineties and it would not be hyperbolic to suggest that a film like Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore would still be considered subversive in 2021. Like her female counterparts of nineteen-nineties indie filmmaking, such as Julie Davis and Leslie Harris, Jacobson’s impact on independent cinema has not received the same widespread acclaim as her male counterparts.
Sarah Jacobson. Google her! Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore. Go digging through the Internet for an upload of it! I promise you won’t be disappointed!