13 Going on 30 is a strange film. Its central conceit of a young girl, making a wish to be ’30, flirty and thriving’ is by no means original. Certainly, this manner of body swapping and time travel has been done many times before. But what makes 13 Going on 30 rather notable, is the power dynamics that are at play.
Presented, ostensibly, as a romantic comedy, the film follows Jenna, who embarrassed by the various social tribulations of being a thirteen-year-old, wishes to be a mature, successful thirty-year-old woman. Upon waking, she finds that her thirty-year-old incarnation, while successful as a magazine editor, is, as another character bluntly states, ‘a bitch’. She has retained a friendship with the popular girl in school, and together the pair work for the magazine Jenna so admired when younger. Her best friend, Matty, has fallen by the wayside, no longer deemed suitable company for the ambitious and determined Jenna.
What makes 13 Going on 30 questionable is the rather crudely belied message that it posits to its viewer. The women in the film are, entirely simplistic, either good or bad. Rather like Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, the women in Jenna’s world are either wholly good or wholly bad: angel or whore. Jenna, in her adult manifestation, is bad. She has affairs with co-worker’s husbands, treats her employees with disdain, and has isolated childhood friends due to her behaviour. When bad, Jenna is afforded little respect by either the characters in the film or indeed, the audience themselves. We are clearly, and rather unsubtly, told to abhor this version of Jenna. Jenna only regains the respect of Matty, her assistant, and the audience, when she reneges on her previous behaviour.
Thus, the audience is treated to several cringe-worthy scenes in which Jenna, compelled to present her own conception for the progress of the magazine she so adores, pontificates on the importance of returning to childhood, to innocence and to fun. Carrying in her homemade mood board, complete with balloons and ribbons, Jenna meditates her voice, becoming almost child-like herself. This desire to return to childhood is presented in direct contrast to her rival’s ideas, which, in their purported edginess and futuristic appeal, are clearly intended to be perceived as almost sinister, without heart or meaning.
What then, is 13 Going on 30, attempting to suggest to its audience? Its narrative, with its hackneyed and awkward central romance, clearly indicates that in order to be happy and successful both personally and professionally, women have to be the embodiment of good. Jenna is only able to embark on her relationship with her beloved Matty when she becomes good. Notably, this version of goodness seems to be a term that is transferable with childlike, or innocent. Jenna, in the body swapping narrative, is, despite her outward appearance, still the thirteen-year-old at the start of the narrative. Is this to suggest then, that it is this that Matty finds so appealing?
Her goodness is utterly saccharine. An incomplete idyll of congeniality and niceness. Her Jenna does not possess the ability to have shades of personality within her, rather she is without fault in this ideal state. Interestingly, it is only in this state that her career, hitherto stalling, begins to progress. Similarly, her personal relationships, which up to the start of the narrative have been largely been borne out of infidelity, is, with Matty, pure. This purity is not only entirely unrealistic but rather damaging in its conceit. Women are not simply good or bad, and to represent them as such is entirely reductive.
Of course, once Jenna achieves peak virtuousness, she is rewarded. Transported back to her life as a thirteen-year-old, afforded the opportunity to correct her mistakes, she marries the similarly perfect Matty. Thus, those who are wholesome are presented with what they desire, while those who do not embody such characteristics are found wanting.