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Opinion: ‘Girlhood’ allows foreign race and gender insights

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Girlhood provides a much needed gaze into the intersecting worlds of class, race, and gender.  As a part of the Athena’s international film festival, Girlhood is meant to provide a window, framed by the filmmaker, for viewing a more inclusive, worldly human experience. While it accomplishes this goal—viewers can expect a glimpse of inner-city life in France—it also generates considerable room for political discussion about issues at home in the United States. Upon looking out, or into, Director Céline Sciamma’s window, Girlhood, one can expect an unusually realistic depiction of adolescent existentialism from the perspective of Marieme, a black 16-year-old French girl with poor grades.

Marieme is a wonderful character to watch develop and unfold before the camera.  She is quiet and able to blend in with the white French society, yet eager to embrace her youthful, black, and sexual sides. As she is systematically excluded from “normal white” life through her upbringing (abusive brother and work-absorbed parenting), she begins to give up on the path the “system” lays out for her. Instead of attending vocational school after failing out of general education, Marieme joins a group of girls like herself—out on the streets.

The story stays away from the cliché of viewing Marieme’s transition to the “streets” as a descent or fall as if she were Eve in the garden. Such a view would make the audience, more broadly speaking, the watchful moral eye of society; her life as a protagonist would be to satisfy our ideas of the “good” as she rebounds from a descent into a life of sin. Instead, the gaze of the film places us within the context of Marieme’s life, and society broadly-speaking is a sort of antagonist that seeks to suppress her sexuality, race, and class-based life trajectories.

Her blackness does not wreck her life, as many white filmmakers often depict it. Instead, Marieme gets her crew—a strong support network of friends. Her story as a protagonist is not bound up in her ability to remove herself from her black life, like in movies such as The Blindside.  Thankfully, Girlhood is not another great white-hope movie. In fact, Marieme’s story is still about overcoming the beginning scene where she is denied the opportunity to general education—but the story is about moving away from the general life in favor of one that is typically looked down upon.  In this way, Céline Sciamma gives recognition to the legitimacy of life choices that are not approved by white society.

Marieme’s life is a feminine life. This does not mean her dresses must not be pants and that they must be pink. It means—as much as it realistically can in a society that embraces masculine hegemony—that her life must be defined by herself, and not by a man or men.  A memorable scene is saved for the end when Marieme refuses a marriage proposal offered by her lover.  Her lover says, explicitly, that everything will be “fixed” that is wrong if they were married (i.e. she would no longer be shamed for being a “slut,” but they could still sleep together). She says no, but must later face down a pimp-type who attempts to define her as his property, and intends to use her as a sexual property. His “my house, my rules” mentality breaks down everything that a woman will likely have to face in Marieme’s and probably every other woman’s position in Western society.  Marieme rejects the idea that she might only ever live in someone else’s house. Unlike the refusal to a proposal, her reaction this time must be more violent and physical.

The viewer of Girlhood gets to experience Marieme’s life for a year—instead of just merely watching her actions be weighed on society’s great moral scales; it’s a show put on by a director.  Class, race, and gender help Marieme define her own life, even though they clearly have an effect on her destiny as she journeys through adolescence. She masters the things that define her life by fully embracing them in her own way. This gives a little hope, a little sense of autonomy for Marieme, even if it is not our conventional sense of autonomy.  Viewing Girlhood certainly presents a foreign cinematic experience for common Athenians, but the issues of class, race and gender sit uncomfortably in the theater with us, and perhaps provoke critical thinking about the people we sit next to at the Athens International Film Festival. Céline Sciamma’s work is formidable both in creating a strong narrative with a likable lead and in leaving room for meaningful political discussion.

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