Director: Céline Sciamma
Genre: Drama, Coming-of-Age
“Girlhood” (or “Bande de Filles”) follows a group of young women over the course of a year in the Paris suburbs. The audience watches protagonist Marieme (an excellent Karidia Touré), as they navigate growing up as a young women. Marieme struggles to find their place in their community; they conflict with other gangs, face domestic violence at home, and fight to keep their family financially viable. Towards the end of the film, Marieme takes a job dealing drugs in another suburb and begins to experiment with gender identity. When the film ends, their future remains uncertain.
The film rejects many of mainstreams media’s expectations. First, the cast is entirely black. Black actors rarely are featured in significant roles in mainstream films. When black characters are present, they are often used to further the story of white characters, as is frequent in white-savior narratives (Serrano and Hyden). In “Girlhood”, however, black women are the central actors. Their presence does not serve some instrumental purpose; their truth is treated as an end in itself. However, after researching the film, I discovered the director is a white Parisian woman. This made me question whether perhaps the stories of black women were being used to the material advantage of a white woman after all; “Girlhood” has performed well at festivals and has received numerous accolades. This realization reminded me that films cannot be analyzed as a piece of art in a “vacuum”- outside factors must be considered as well.
In addition, “Girlhood” is notable for its examination of trans issues and rejection of the heterosexual matrix or the “standard story”(Aulette and Wittner 20). Marieme spends the large majority of the film gender performing as a woman (Aulette and Wittner 65). However, once they are freed from the constraints of their suburb, they begin to present as both a man and a woman. Marieme faces resistance from her friends at home, such as her boyfriend, who reacts with disgust when he discovers Marieme binding their breasts. A greatly under-represented identity, it was refreshing to see a genuine exploration of gender fluidity. This story reminded me to be conscious of my own essentialism of gender- although Marieme was female-bodied, that did not mean their gender would correspond with the one they were assigned at birth (Aulette and Wittner 48).
The most memorable scene of the film takes place at the beginning. Following an all-girl American football match, a gang of women walk through a housing project together, boisterously teasing and joking with one another. As they enter a complex with male bodies present, they drop completely into silence. The difference is both stark and profound. It perfectly illustrates the naturalizing of inequalities (Aulette and Wittner 287). Women are perceived to be naturally submissive so their actions are policed and socialized to reflect that, further reinforcing the passive/active dichotomy. The film simultaneously illuminates this pattern, while commenting on its ludicrousness. It demonstrates that women are not quiet or passive whatsoever, rather, it deliberately begins with a scene that illustrates their aggressiveness.
The film was screened at Reel Out Film Festival. The audience was markedly different that the typical demographics of Queen’s University. The audience was largely made up of people of colour and members of the queer community. This was encouraging to me, as I felt it presented an excellent forum for people to forge connections that are hard to make in the context of the broader Kingston community. Moreover, it was an excellent opportunity to engage with the community outside the so-called “Queen’s bubble”. While I recognized many students and professors at the film screening, I also had the chance to interact with local Kingstonians. This served as an excellent reminder that the community is shared amoung various groups and that student-centered programming can be exclusionary. I believe Reel Out did an excellent job of engaging with the entire community in an inclusive way.
In conclusion, “Girlhood” is a sincere examination of race and gender identity in today’s society. Brilliantly acted, the film showcases unknown young actors, allowing the stories of black queer women to decenter whiteness and straightness. A clever critique of the inequalities young people face, “Girlhood” forces the audience to consider their own conceptions of identity politics and face their own internalized oppression (for me, it was the assumed alignment of gender and biology until proven otherwise). I would recommend both the film “Girlhood”, and the Reel Out film festival, without reservation.
Aulette, Judy Root, and Judith G. Wittner. Gendered Worlds. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Serrono, Shea, and Steven Hyden. “A Conversation About Great White Saviors in Movies.” Grantland. 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2015. <http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/a-conversation-about-great-white-saviors-in-movies/>.