Girlhood: the expiration of safe spaces once a ‘perfect moment’ is over

Girlhood (2014), directed by Céline Sciamma, follows the turbulent coming of age story of an Afro-French teenager, Marieme. The film is divided into distinct periods in which Marieme explores and discovers different parts of her identity. These periods are punctuated by the expiration of spaces that no longer feel safe or viable to her. Marieme migrates between social spaces in hopes to find a safe space to claim for herself in Paris, France.

Marieme’s adolescent anxiety is intensified by the socio-political and socio-economic symbolism of her race and heritage as a black African girl in France. Significantly, it is the harsh ejection from school as a safe space that catapults Marieme’s journey into action as her childhood expires. She is refused academic promotion to the next grade because her marks are sub-standard. A faceless principal proceeds to judge Marieme for her disappointing performance and coerces her, through academic rejection, to pursue a technical school and learn a practical skill for a minimum wage job. This swift channeling, without an offer for academic assistance, alludes to how African children in the black diaspora are taught enough to be useful but not enough to achieve upward social mobility.

The original title, Bande de Filles, directly translates to mean Band of Girls and it is in exactly this formation with other black girls, that the first ‘perfect moment’ is offered to the audience. Girlhood’s opening scene illustrates an evening game of American football between two all black and all female teams. Traditionally, this sport is known as a ‘man’s game’ but the athletically impressive performance by the players subverts the tradition of gendered exclusion. For the duration of the game, the black girls are free to be strong and healthily aggressive without judgement. Viewers are spurred on to invest themselves in the game by the electric-rock music that builds up to the burst of euphoric energy when someone scores a touchdown. All manner of competition falls away and there is a ‘perfect moment’ of collective celebration. All the girls jump and scream a victorious war-cry. This camaraderie evokes a sense of ‘if one wins, they all win’.

In the subsequent scene, the euphoria is undercut by the threatening male gaze. After the game, the girls walk home as a large group and the threat of violence associated with the night time is reminiscent of the warning that young girls are given like “there is safety in numbers” and “never walk alone at night”. The men/boys are cast in shadowed silhouette, few in number and speak in hushed tones but this is enough to intimidate the once boisterous band of girls. Their subdued silence becomes suspenseful as the group slowly splits up, losing two or three girls at a time, because they head home to different apartment blocks.The girls once proud with heads held up high are kept low, their hands dive into their pockets and their walk is deliberately faster. They adopt docility as a defense mechanism. The minimisation of the group, in both number and confidence, is punctuated by a decidedly nonchalant “salut”. Marieme once co-habited a safe space with the strength of the other girls to draw on but it rapidly shrinks with the disappearance of each girl until she is alone and the ‘perfect moment’ has expired.

The film interrogates the effects of the male gaze on the experience of female adolescence. Hostility begins to characterise the female-to-female social dynamics. Marieme and her friends are one of many girl gangs in the area. The rival girl gangs regularly meet up to fight for ‘street cred’ and the entertainment of a mostly male audience. According to Campbell’s  “A Few Good Men: Evolutionary Psychology and Female Adolescent Aggression”, an explanation for adolescent female aggression relates to psychological sexual selection. Campbell surveyed adolescent British girls and found that girls exhibited physical aggression for one of two reasons: to protect personal integrity from accusations of promiscuity or to prove a sense of loyalty which includes protecting the personal integrity of a female relation (a friend, a sister or mother).

Marieme’s closest friend, Lady, participates in one of these girl-on-girl fights and loses. She is humiliated by the winner and is stripped of her shirt in public, her father cuts her hair and she is forced to endure shameful mockery from the boys who she once considered friends. These boys discredit her and say that she is like all the other girls. Therefore, the fights are seen as a means of validating gendered exceptionalism. It is a process of proving to be better than her peers, a sense of upward social mobility by transcending gender. When Marieme avenges Lady’s honor by entering into battle with the same girl who shamed Lady in a fight. She uses a knife to slice her opponent’s shirt and bra.

Marieme is congratulated by her brother and offered an opportunity to be his equal, worthy enough to play a game of FIFA with him on his Xbox. He asks her if she wants to be a certain country and she smugly responds that she wants to be France. Marieme claims France as her own despite the reality that France is a ultimately a white man’s space and she cannot wholly and convincingly assimilate into whiteness. But she can claim a place of power, and ultimately safety, by ‘acting’ like a man. She internalises and perpetuates patriarchy. Later the audience watches her transform and adopt masculinity as self-preservation through desexualisation. She denouncing all forms of what might be perceived as femininity: she wears a cornrow braids hairstyle, binds her breasts and dresses in menswear. Marieme works in a drug ring for a man, Abu, who makes several sexual advances toward her. She discovers that her adoption of masculinity is not a sustainable safe space as Abu forces himself on her regardless of the precautions she takes.

Girlhood claims sisterhood is a safe space for ‘perfect moments’. This bond is illustrated as both blood-related (by Marieme and her younger sisters) and as non-familial (by the girl gang that Marieme joins). Marieme speaks about a ‘perfect moment’ that she shares with her friends where she feels safe enough to love and be loved without conditions and fear of punishment for being vulnerable. The girls bully Marieme’s school friends for money which they use to rent a hotel room and according to Lady ‘party’ in. Sciamma allows the audience to assume the stereotypical worst of the ‘black youths’ as the girls engage in underage drinking, drug use and parade around the room in stolen dresses.

The scene’s moments of tenderness humanise the stereotypical behaviour of this girl gang. Marieme receives an alarming number of calls from her brother, Djibril, because she has stayed out later than usual without his permission. She is worried and confides in Lady who encourages her to switch off her phone. At the time Lady sits in a bubble bath and Marieme sits close to her on the floor and this shows how their friendship has developed to the point of comfortable intimacy. Lady encourages her friend to be strong and commit to what she wants. She gives Marieme a necklace and explains that the letters ‘Vic’ on the chain stand for victory. It is in this moment that Marieme’s alter-ego Vic is born. She realises the power of her autonomy.She realises inherent right to choose her destiny without want of external permission.

The girls’ inhibitions are thrown to the wind, partly because they are inebriated but there is an undeniable force of happiness originating from friendship that energises them. They dance and lip sync to “Diamonds” by Rihanna. The magnetic blue of the hotel room while they enjoy each others’ company represents the type of bond these girls share as they draw close, like magnets, to each other in an embrace. This scene illustrates the power female relationships have to validate and uplift all women as opposed to the girl gang fights where one girl must be degraded in order for another girl to be uplifted.

Marieme is disillusioned with the brief moments of security she feels in her newly formed friendship when she realises the cyclic futility of the girl gang. When sitting in a diner, a girl approaches the group with a baby on her hip and greets them like a long lost friend. Lady is missing from the group as she is still nursing her bruised ego from losing the fight and so Marieme has assumed the ‘leader’ position. After her friends quickly catch up and the nameless girl leaves, Marieme asks who she is and the girls answer that she is the group member that Marieme replaced. This knowledge changes Marieme’s perception that the bond she shares with these girls is special. Marieme realises that this safe space is something that can be easily replicated. The rival girl groups that they fight are exactly like them: they all wear wigs, dress tough and misplace their anger about their circumstances by targeting each other.

Marieme does not have intricately planned goals or a clear path to success but she has a vague vision for her future that motivates her to leave when the space no longer provides what she needs. She uses her agency and autonomy throughout the film. Marieme chooses not to attend a school for practical skills training, she chooses not to accept a stable job as a maid at a hotel, she chooses to reject her boyfriend’s marriage proposal as she aspires to be more than a wife and mother, she chooses to have sex despite her violent brother’s punishment, she chooses to leave home and her friends, and join a local drug ring.

These decisions may be regrettable but there’s something respectable about the development of her  . With each transition Marieme discovers herself and personally develops a safe space that originates from within herself. It is important to note that Marieme not only moves from space to space but she moves forward, closer to the person she wants to be.

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