In Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial début, The Fits, the maturing female body is the site of illness. Isolated in a recreation center in Cincinnati’s West End, an unexplained outbreak of epileptic seizures (fits) strikes a group of young female dancers, setting off a twitching disquietude among the community members. When the knee-jerk explanation (maybe-it’s-something-in-the-water) doesn’t pan out, the illness becomes increasingly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced an episode firsthand. Contrasted with the regimented violence of the male boxers who share the rec center, the seizing female bodies appear illogical, monstrous, and, as they are described repeatedly in the film, “crazy.”
The fits come as the film’s protagonist, an eleven-year-old tomboy named Toni, begins her transition from boxer to dancer. As Toni’s conversion progresses alongside the outbreak, fear and anticipation breed until her own initiation into the female-only illness punctuates her transformation. Taken in conversation with other recent female-centric psychological films like The Witch and The Babadook—both of which portray shifting female sexuality as diseased—the film is suggestive of a pervasive anxiety surrounding female maturation and power.
The film opens on Toni methodically working through a set of sit-ups. Each rep more difficult than the last, Toni pulls herself up to stare directly into the camera. The gesture, a challenge to observe her body as something that she molds, marks a cadence that Toni carries with her as she trains to stay in her brother’s boxing ring and later to join the dance team. Despite the obvious stress that the boxing exercises and equipment put on her body, Toni moves through the stations with determined stoicism. It’s only when she begins to practice with the all-female dance team that she begins to outwardly demonstrate difficulty.
During this process, Toni occupies a liminal space. As a prepubescent girl, who maintains a sexless kinship with her male peers but also lingers in the bathroom stall eavesdropping on the older girls, she slides between both worlds. Visually, the film mimics this division: the first time Toni sees the dance team is through the gym-door window. While she’s physically separated from the rest of the girls, as she pulls away she observes that her forefingers are now covered in glitter, and thus boundaries begin to leak. Literalizing the bridge between one phase and the other, an overpass hosts Toni’s three-act transformation from boxer to dancer. Even the boxing ring and its ropes represent Toni’s slips between inclusion and exclusion.
Toni’s drifting, however, does not jive with the assimilation required by the dance team. Drill, defined by its militaristic precision of group movement, gains prestige by the members’ ability to create a single undulating form. “You are not an individual,” warns the captain on the first day of practice. While Toni quickly translates the work ethic she acquired from boxing to learning the required dance routine (which she moves through awkwardly at the beginning, save for the choreographed punches), she finds difficulty conforming to the external markers of the team. At first, she wears her own clothes under her uniform. She peels off the team’s temporary tattoo, the nail polish. She removes her earrings that she and another girl used to pierce her ears in the bathroom (“They were infected.”). But, as with the needle pricks of fairy tales, the skin piercing indicates a fundamental change, a penetration that sets her in forward motion.
The anxiety that builds around Toni’s hesitance to conform reaches fever pitch when, in a startling moment, her best friend on the team, Bianca, snaps, “what do you know about it?” in reply to Toni asking if she felt better after a fit. Whether a reaction to an environmental stimulus, a mass hysteria outbreak triggered by the team captain’s pregnancy scare, or repressed sexual anxiety, the fits come to build a narrative of exclusivity: to be female is to be sick.
In contrast to the carefully planned movements of dance and boxing, the fits, like puberty, come unexpectedly. In this sense, the female body is out of control. The uncertainty of when and whom it will strike feeds doubly into the fear of disease and sexuality. As the fits only affect the girls, the boys have no way of relating to the attacks, and in turn they do not map onto their logical perception of the world. The illness becomes either something to fear or to dismiss as psychic dissonance.
The rhetoric surrounding the fits—questions of if it hurts, does it only happen once, when will my time come—mimic the conversations that young girls have in hushed corners of the bathroom. Have you gotten your period yet? Are you a woman? How does it feel? The anticipation of maturing mixes with fear and manifests itself as the painful fits. This Burkian logic transference of fear into pain allows for the expression of the anxiety surrounding female maturation. Though the actual pain of adolescence signifies a coming into age for both male and female, in a patriarchal society the young girl, unlike the male (as seen in a beautiful montage of men being bloodied in the ring), must hide her fluids and any sign of pain that they cause. Like the drill, all must be clean, crisp, effortless. The fits, however, are a subversive and public way of announcing this arrival into sexuality.
Taken as an attempt to witness their own subjectivity (as described by one team member, the fits of floating above oneself), the illness takes on the form of self-creation. To this point, the young female actors—all actual members of the Q-Kidz dance team in Cincinnati—choreographed their own fits individually and in isolation, giving the fact that they all take on a somewhat similar gasping and flailing quality an eerie effect. The fits become a poetic expression of the girls’ individuality, or their own suffering and alienation in patriarchal structures. Collectively, those who experience the episodes know the feeling, though it is different for all. In this way, illness becomes liberation, and Toni’s final conversion becomes a brave act of accepting her own sexuality.
Just before Toni’s fit, the camera follows her feet through the hall as they float above the ground, lending the transition a magical quality. In perhaps the film’s only fall into overt didacticism, the song announces that we only choose to obey gravity (read: we only choose to obey society’s rules) and when she lands (now with glitter in her hair), she flails back and forth in front of the wide-eyed dance troupe. A momentary escape from the anxiety surrounding her sexuality, the fit feels like a victory. Smiling and in uniform, she joins the rest of the girls in a parade, and they are all that exist.
This image finds its double in the final scene of Robert Eggers’s The Witch, further highlighting the connection between female sexuality and fear. Covered in the blood of her mother, Thomasin, the film’s own maturing female, denounces Puritanism and signs over, literally, to Satanism. While she’s only trading one power structure for another (much like Toni’s switch from boxing to dance), Thomasin experiences a “delicious” liberation as she comes upon a coven of witches dancing naked in the woods. As she joins them, she floats high into the air in uncontainable rapture.
As in The Fits, Thomasin’s sexuality manifests itself as disease rather than possession. Once she has her period (the traditional point in time when a witch comes into her powers) her new fertility clashes starkly with the sterile land. Her sexual ability to replace her aging mother, who lost who would probably be her last child, creates an infectious fear that incubates inside of her mother to the point of hysterics. Thomasin’s final decision to join the coven—the film’s literal embodiment of the sexual female—echoes Toni’s choice to succumb to what she fears in order to liberate herself.
However, while this imagery of liberation is in itself gratifying, it is impossible to remain in a perpetual state of transcendent rupture. For this reason, both The Fits and The Witch leave the viewer with a distinct sense of unease. What now? For Thomasin, the answer is frightening, but predictable: she will do everything that we witnessed the witch of the woods do (rub salve made of babies on herself, for instance), and she will exist outside of society. For Toni, it’s a little unclear. Unlike Thomasin, Toni doesn’t completely relegate herself to the margins, as the dance troupe still functions as a sub-group within society. Perhaps, then, as the final image of Toni stepping in line with the other girls in the parade suggests, the price for escaping her own fear of her sexuality is to write herself into a new type of entrapment.
The Fits opens June 3 at the Metrograph.
BRITTANY STIGLER is a New York City-based writer and short film curator for REEL 13.