“I’m not going to live in the shadow of the hairy bird!” shrieks Kirsten Dunst’s character Verena von Stefan in the cult 1998 film about a group of teens protesting against their all girl prep school going co-ed. As she spits out a monologue about the pressure to dress up and ‘look pretty’ and presentable for said boys, her teenage rage against the patriarchy’s hold on women to perform a certain type of womanhood is palpable.
(If it’s not clear, ‘the hairy bird’ is slang for a penis; it was also the film’s original title before it was changed to Strike! and All I Wanna Do because the original was considered ‘vulgar’…)
Two decades later, as the broken Rose Gordon in Jane Campion’s outstanding The Power of the Dog, Dunst mutters another line that almost echoes that sentiment in much more bitter terms: “He’s just a man”.
Both lines could in part define Dunst’s career and the reason for her longstanding appeal to a certain type of whimsical but droll girl, aka me: a rejection of the male gaze, and an unapologetic embrace of roles that celebrate the weird complexities of girlhood and womanhood.
Since The Power of the Dog was released last month there has been a strong ‘we were all sleeping on Kirsten Dunst’ narrative across all her press, with talk of a career reinvention and potential for finally receiving an Oscar (she’s never been nominated, despite her illustrious filmography).
It’s all deserved, but let us not forget what many mid to late 30-year-olds have known since their teens: Kirsten Dunst has always been great. Her ‘serious’ roles may have garnered her award buzz from film critics, but those so-called silly/frivolous ones from her early days are just as significant.
The actor has always nailed a specific type of a manically sunny blonde with a simmering darkness underneath, from her role as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Torrance Shipman, in Bring It On to the plain mean Regan Crawford in 2012’s Bachelorette, and the surrealist digital campaign for the LA brand Entireworld alongside a big green furry monster.
Her early roles used that perkiness as a weapon. In 1999 comedy Dick, her flighty character Betsy Jobs, alongside Michelle Williams, was easily dismissed despite being the Deep Throat that brought down Washington.
In Drop Dead Gorgeous, a hilariously dark black comedy that would absolutely not be able to be made today, she’s kindhearted but headstrong Amber Atkins, entering a beauty pageant for the first time and dealing with some pretty heavy shit, always with a smile on her face. The film is one of writer Jia Tolentino’s favourites, describing it as “a venerated artifact of Y2K-era camp” that nails the deranged reality of being a teenage girl.
The era in which many of Dunst’s most popular early movies came out is key. Between 1998 to 2001 she starred in an astonishing number of movies that were seminal for a certain generation including The Hairy Bird, Drop Dead Gorgeous, The Virgin Suicides, Dick, Bring it On, Get Over It and Crazy/Beautiful (okay the last two were not great, but they were still very much of their time). This renewed appreciation of her talents and career also relates, I think, to the wider nostalgia for the noughties.
And though I would like to cancel dream girl culture (credit to a friend for tweeting that years ago), Dunst has been a key player in its history. In 2007 she guest-edited the unapologetically whimsical Lula magazine, with a shoot describing her as its “dream girl come true”; a microcosm of her unapologetically girlish niche. And through their long-standing friendship and. creative collaboration - The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, The Beguiled - Dunst is woman incarnate of the whimsical Sofia Coppola dream girl.
It’s easy for some to dismiss that (and many have), but that’s actually the opposite of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ - a stock character, usually female and usually white, who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures” (funnily enough, Kirsten’s character in Elizabethtown, not a Coppola film, literally sparked the phrase ‘manic pixie dream girl’). The two are simply the female vs. male gaze in obvious form.
As well as manic, Dunst does a good line in melancholy; something she has embraced further as her career has progressed, with her roles in Melancholia, Hidden Figures, The Beguiled, On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Fargo and yes, The Power of the Dog. In September the New York Times described the actor as a “chronicler of despair”, with Dunst offering them a quote that managed to represent both the characters she has chosen to play throughout her career and the duality of being a woman: “‘I was so high on the experience, with crippling exhaustion inside’”.