Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s new comedy Sisters does not tell you many things about what it is actually like to be a woman. In the movie, two sisters, reckless Kate (Fey) and responsible Maura (Poehler), decide to host one last blowout rager in their childhood home before their parents sell the house. It’s a surprisingly retrograde pratfall bonanza, a lot of butt jokes and unconvincing flirtations and pantsless Bobby Moynihan. It makes adult womanhood seem just as wracked by the forces of coming-of-age—hormones, hangovers, mean girls—as teenagehood is, with equally little self-awareness. Sisters is so confident in the brute force of its leading ladies’ charisma that it forgets to build an interesting or credible story around them. That is, with one key exception: the scene where Kate and Maura read each other their teenage diaries.
The female diary is a favorite plot point in movies and TV because it’s an easy narrative propeller and a neat vehicle for character development. Laura Palmer’s diary becomes a major engine of suspense in Twin Peaks; Charlie and Marnie break up after he sees an insulting passage from Hannah’s journal in Girls. Diary-reading gets framed as the ultimate emotional intrusion—when killer Paul Spector, for instance, breaks into detective Gibson’s room and pores over her dream journal in The Fall. Danny’s discovery of Mindy’s diary in The Mindy Project stokes his commitment-phobia, but the entries are also so airheaded and literal (“I was so excited that I didn’t even finish watching Beverly Hills Chihuahua”) that the whole joke is the idea that she’d need to keep a journal at all. In general, in both dramas and comedy, diaries tend to be cast as authentic emissaries from female inner lives, the damning transcripts of their private dramas left to be unearthed by male snooping.
But Sisters flips this trope on its head. Maura and Kate unearth their own diaries decades later, and chortle over their old exploits while sipping wine from a toy tea cup set. “Here are drawings of all the penises I’ve seen,” Kate reads. Her diary chronicles crushes and make-outs and curfew-breaking; meanwhile Maura, the prudish sister, reads her own equally braggy entries about “taking a deaf friend to see Sheila E” and her prom date who wore a brace to keep his “vertebrae from melting.” The scene, inspired by the actual diaries of writer Paula Pell and her sister, is one of the movie’s funniest moments, but it also feels the most true-to-life. The one big diary-catalyzed plot pivot is that Maura is reminded of just how much time she spent cultivating her rock garden in high school and decides she is due to cut loose.
Here’s the thing about diaries: There may be no more mortifying audience for them than your own eyeballs a few decades later. Cruelly enough, of course, this is the exact audience that they were originally intended for. My own adolescent diary was less an exercise in studying the landscape of my psychological life than in play-acting identity, projecting myself into the shape of the person that I imagined I’d eventually want to be.
There’s plenty of drama to be wrung from the relationship between women and their own diaries. And some writers, of course, have already played with this idea in canny ways—just look at Gone Girl, with Amy’s fake diary as a vehicle for devious self-construction. But pop culture is generally still so insistent on exploiting diaries for their full dramatic potential that they have become a weirdly gendered symbol, something that mostly exists to fluster or recalibrate the worldviews of men. So in Sisters, it’s nice to see the diary portrayed as something closer to what it often actually is: at once momentous and banal, not so much a Scoop on Your Private Thoughts as a performance for your future self.