If there exists a movie that so perfectly sums up our patriarchal society, Girlhood (Bande de filles) is it. It follows the transformation of teenaged Marieme (Karidja Touré) who goes from oppressed tomboy to liberated woman thanks to the help of a group of free-spirited girls. Taking place in the projects of Paris, the film shows what it’s like for a woman living in a man’s world with such scary accuracy that you can’t help but be depressed. But that’s not to say that the movie relies on crushing its audience’s faith in humanity; instead it brings to light the various battles girls face on a daily basis.
From the beginning of the film, we’re shown the stark polarity of how girls act when they’re amongst themselves versus when they’re among men. The loud, joyful almost obnoxious chatter of the girls is suddenly muted as soon as the group enters their block of buildings which is littered with pockets of guys just hanging out in the dark. The girls walk silently, speaking up only to wish each other goodbye as they split away to their own homes and immediately the audience is shown something that every woman has experienced, but very few have ever expressed out loud. The expectancy of how a woman “must be”: silent, subservient and secondary to men. The juxtaposition of the girls being their natural rowdy selves and then reverting to the quiet beings they are trained to be is chilling.
A running theme in the movie is the fact that women needs to support each other in order to survive and dismantle a patriarchal society. Though Marieme’s gang of girls are often pitted against other girls in the neighbourhood, the director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma, makes sure to show us that it’s always girls who give Marieme the support she desperately needs. First it’s the gang of girls, led by the beautiful and confident Lady (Assa Sylla), who accept her and help her begin to establish an identity for herself; later it’s a prostitute with whom Marieme develops an intimate friendship who supports and comforts her.
It also doesn’t shy away from showing the increasing problem with women who war against their own gender. In a crucial scene, Lady loses a fight to a rival gang leader who removes Lady’s shirt, leaving her humiliated on the ground. This loss and the highly negative impact it has on Lady’s self conscious greatly effects Marieme who becomes obsessed and eventually challenges the girl to a rematch. This time, Marieme is the winner, but instead of winning graciously she goes one step forward and further humiliates the girl by not only removing her shirt, but also cutting off her bra in front of the mixed crowd of cheering spectators.
It’s interesting to note that it is only after this particular victory that Marieme receives the praise and affection of her physically abusive elder brother, which implies that fighting against their own gender is how they are accepted by men. That’s not enough, though, and as the months go on, Marieme manages to escape her neighbourhood to work for the morally questionable Abou, who deals drugs and women alike. During this time she changes her appearance to hide any signs of her femininity and spends more of her time hanging with and acting like the guys, including encouraging and partaking in their catcalling and terrorizing of other women. It’s as if she’s concluded that the easiest way to be a woman in this world is by becoming a man.
There’s no solid resolution to Marieme’s ongoing problems because her problem is not her, but rather the world in which she is born. She know being female is not easy and fighting against ingrained misogyny is extremely difficult, but she realizes it’s a necessary battle. We need to help the world see that girls are humans first and foremost and that the bullshit they are raised to believe they should or shouldn’t do is just that: shit.
Girlhood opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, February 27.