by Christina Fisanick
For 160 years the women of Mount De Chantal Visitation Academy were known for their poise, intellect, and independence. And, in addition to science and math, their artistic talents were heavily nurtured as well. In fact, many Mount grads have gone on to have careers in music, theater, panting, and more. Some of them, like Michelle Yahn, used those talents cultivated in the halls of their alma mater to shine a light on the school that made them the women they became.
Yahn, a 1981 Mount grad, now lives in California, but she returned to Wheeling often to visit and sometimes support her school, including producing and starring in a revue to raise funds for the now defunct girls’ academy. Born and raised in Wheeling, Yahn has felt the Friendly City’s call throughout her career, and in 1997 she insisted that Whatever, an award-winning movie which she co-produced, was shot right here in good old Wheeling, West Virginia. I had a chance to talk with Yahn one April morning, and she filled me in on the story of how the movie came to Wheeling and how it almost never came to be.
If you’ve ever meant Michelle Yahn, you know that she has a deep throaty laugh and a smart, amusing outlook on life. When I asked her why she encouraged her co-producers to bring the movie to Wheeling, she said, “Can you think of a better place in the world to shoot a movie about teenage girls than the Mount?” Unfortunately, her hopes of using the school as the setting for the film, a coming-of-age story that focuses on the last month of the protagonist’s senior year of high school, were dashed after the script was shared with Mount higher ups.
“Well, the wrong people got ahold of the script before we began production and made it out to be pornography, but there’s not a single bit of nudity in it! Not one bit!” she exclaimed, obviously still perturbed by the board’s decision.
She’s not wrong, though.
In the 112-minute film, only two scenes could be described as “nude scenes”: a model perched upon a dais in an art studio and Anna (the protagonist) lying in a fetal position on the beach towards the end of the film. While there are many sex scenes throughout the movie, the tight camera focus and intentional storytelling reveals little more than bras, panties, and boxer shorts.
A more careful reading of the script would have revealed a gritty, hard-hitting critique of misogynistic culture that uses women’s sexuality to prop up its own agenda. It is, in effect, the opposite of pornography, which seeks to exploit women’s bodies for the sole purpose of audience titillation. While the sex scenes in this movie might encourage viewers to recall their own adolescent yearnings, nothing about it uses young women to reify or feed the male gaze. On the contrary, Whatever complicates women’s power and vulnerability in both visceral and theoretical ways and is far more likely to make viewers wince than wax nostalgic.
Despite its lack of X-rated qualities, “All the men in Hollywood agreed with the Mount board and tried to give it an x-rating,” said Yahn, “but we fought it.”
Yahn chalks up their dogged determination to unfairly rate the movie, which would have radically limited its release, to misogyny and frail masculinity. Yet despite these obstacles the movie was made and was shown at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
But if the Mount said no, then how did a film about teenage girls get made in Wheeling? Stay tuned for part two in which we learn how “the spirit of Wheeling” once again saves the day.
Christina Fisanick, PhD is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches expository writing, creative nonfiction, and digital storytelling. She is the author of more than 30 books, including the memoir, The Optimist Food Addict (MSI Press, 2016) and the guide, Public History as Digital Storytelling (Routledge Press, 2020). She is also the author of dozens of articles, essays, and poems, including nearly sixty pieces about Wheeling history, which have appeared at Archiving Wheeling, Weelunk, InWheeling
magazine, and The Intelligencer. Christina lives in Wheeling with her son and two cats. She can be found online at https://christinafisanick.com/