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The Politics of Girlhood in Film – A study of Stealing Beauty, The Virgin Suicides, and Lady Bird

In this article, Marilena Papalamprou analyzes several films that touch upon different aspects of the era before womanhood


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Feminine movies have traditionally been excessively aestheticized. It is rare to come across a film “for girls” and not characterize it as “pretty”. Of course, this has been the norm due to the reign of the male gaze in cinema, where the depiction of women is through a masculine, heterosexual perspective, representing them as objects for the visual and sexual pleasure of men. In Hollywood in particular, a historically sexist industry, the avoidance of depicting the diversity of women’s situations and behaviours is compliant with the expectations of the mainstream audience. Its goal, after all, is to sell, and not to educate. But in the vast sea of popular productions, we may occasionally find some films which, albeit largely successful and undoubtedly beautiful in a conforming way, do challenge the normative depiction of women, offering very interesting analyses of girlhood. They illustrate, in other words, the maturity towards womanhood through a fresh female gaze.

The 1996 Bertolucci film Stealing Beauty centers on 15-year-old Lucy’s summer in Tuscany, in the town where she had once kissed a boy and her recently deceased-by-suicide mother used to charm the male population. Lucy has many hopes and desires; she wants to better understand her mother, is determined to find herself, but most importantly is resolved on losing her virginity with that childhood flame of hers. Virginity is the central point of the plot, which is cleverly combined and contrasted with themes of family love, loss, grief, and the crossing from adolescence to maturity. In the ‘90s, the theme of virginity was central to many coming-of-age films. In a particularly conservative and sexually restrictive climate, mainstream Hollywood movies were promoting shame in girls, illustrating virginity as a deified value, a loss of which was a turning point to every girl’s life and, due to its psychological and emotional impact, ought to be preserved for “the one”. But Stealing Beauty treats the subject in a subtly, yet strongly, liberating manner. Lucy is by all means thinking about her virginity, but there is no sense of guilt in her. She does not ascribe any profound meaning to it and wishes to have sex for her own pleasure. Even though virginity is at the center of the plot, it is presented in a very district, natural manner, as if saying “it ain’t a big deal”. And because Lucy is a realistic depiction of a girl, being naive, creative, anxious, aloof, sad, excited, ambitious, romantic, feisty, sexual, unapologetic, fun-loving, in short being a multifaceted person, not a glorified, one-sided idea of “a girl”, her attitude towards her sexuality is also genuine. The film illustrates the complexity and uncertainty of girlhood, without altering it into a male fantasy.

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Sofia Coppola’s 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 debut novel The Virgin Suicides deals with something rarely depicted on film, and that is the dark side of girlhood. Female adolescence is predominantly represented as sweet, pink, and cotton-candy innocent, but the truth is that for many girls it is a bleak and hopeless time, one they frequently prefer not to recall. Studios have so often opted not to illustrate this reality for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, the desire to conform with the patriarchal fantasy of female simplicity and innocence in order to appeal to a wider audience, and due to the lack of women directors and scriptwriters in Hollywood. But Sofia Coppola is a woman with a strong voice and a characteristic aesthetic. The story of the four Lisbon sisters, dreaming of romance, fun, and freedom in 1970s suburban America, is tainted by their unfortunate, twisted fates. Through the eyes of the neighbourhood’s boys, we witness first the romanticized idea of them, while we are gradually being immersed into the cynical reality of their young lives. Themes of depression, betrayal, repression, terror, and longing, are intertwined with the beautiful, yet fake, illustration of female adolescence as hopeful, merry, romantic, and pure. Coppola uses conventionally feminine cinematography, meaning pastel colours, flower imagery, blonde pretty girls in white dresses, orange skies, and glitter, to disguise the darkness of the girls’ private lives. It is a distressing, eye-opening film, which, with a touch of feminine sensitivity, points out that the public cannot pretend to know about girlhood if “[they] have never been a 13-year-old girl”.

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Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut with the 2017 movie Lady Bird was an immediate commercial success and has acquired passionately devoted fans worldwide. It is a sensitive indie coming of age film, with an aesthetic somewhere between grunge and childhood nostalgia. The plot can be characterized as fairly cliché; a girl in her senior year in high school is trying to understand who she is and what she is meant to become while experiencing the ups and downs of adolescence. Amidst comedic instances, such as an innocently rebellious prank on some teacher-nuns, and dramatic situations, like the bitter realization of the actuality of racism, lies a heartwarming narrative about the reality of mother-daughter relationships. The centrality of this specific theme is what makes this movie qualitative in terms of cinematic depictions of girlhood. Gerwig is bluntly honest, presenting this crucial relationship for many women’s lives as it is actually experienced by a significant number of teenage girls in the western world. There is love between mother and daughter, but there is no sugar-coating; this love occurs alongside extreme tensions, disagreements, powerplays, and a sense of antagonism. There is a fear of being emotionally vulnerable felt by both sides, as well as a candidly impulsive retreat to one another for support and acceptance. The viewer becomes a witness of the usually silenced irritability and nervousness which govern mother-daughter relationships and realizes the strong impact the first and most immediate female role-model has on a young girl’s growth towards womanhood. Gerwig has stated that Lady Bird reflects her own relationship with her mother, and this frankness and willingness to lay her emotions bare really do shine through. The appeal of the film to women and girls is natural; it reminds us of both the beauty and the complexity of this crucial bond.

What is girlhood comprised of? Is it made of pinks, candies, dance, and romance, or is it better described as gloomy, sensitive, painful, cruel, and lonesome? Is it maybe a combination of all the above? All the films analyzed touch upon different aspects of the era before womanhood: Stealing Beauty considers virginity through the eyes of an adolescent girl, The Virgin Suicides illustrates the so often silenced sombre reality of young girls, and Lady Bird highlights the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. Girlhood is not a certainty or an answer; it is not defined, and certainly, it has not been satisfactorily represented in mainstream media. Girlhood is intricate and unique for every woman, and even though Hollywood has a long way to go before we can confidently say that its depiction has been sufficient, with a little willingness to analyze even some of the most popular films can reveal their intrinsically challenging gender politics.


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