Reclaiming girlishness. Images of young women in contemporary American cinema

Master's Thesis, 2018

77 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The worlds of Ату Heckerling and Sofia Coppola

3. The postfeminist context
3.1. Girl culture on the rise
3.2. Postfeminist theory
3.3. Postfeminist heroines
3.3.1. c her Horowitz
3.3.2. The Lisbon sisters
3.3.3. Charlotte
3.3.4. Marie Antoinette

4. Telling the girl’s story
4.1. Narrators and points of view
4.1.1. Gazing with Cher
4.1.2. Withstanding the boys’ voice
4.1.3. Speaking in silence
4.1.4. Claiming the story back
4.2. Speech and silence
4.2.1. “We’ve got to work on your accent and vocabulary”
4.2.2. Loud silences
4.3. Seen it before: Intertextuality, pastiche and parody

5. Dress to express: Costume, fashion and masquerade
5.1. Iam what I wear: Cher
5.2. A masquerade ball of powers

6. Feminine cinema and feminine aesthetics
6.1. Irigaray and female interiority
6.2. Visual pleasure and postfeminist problems

7. Conclusion

8. Sources
8.1. Primary
8.2. Secondary

1. Introduction

“We didn’t want to shy away from being girly.”[1] This quote by Mona May, a renowned Hollywood costume designer, is a convenient point to begin a discussion of the connotations of girlishness. Why would a director and their team shy away from it to begin with, and what does it mean when they don’t? Upon consultation, the Oxford English Dictionary suggest the word ‘girlish’ as synonymous with ‘youthful’ and ‘childlike’, but ‘childish’ and ‘immature’, as well. The example given for a contextual use of the word is ‘girlish giggles’. What is more, the word ‘girly’, which is also listed as synonymous with ‘girlish’ is declared a derogatory term and defined as “characteristic of or appropriate to a girl or young woman”, giving examples for girly notions, objects or activities such as the colour pink, make-up and picking flowers. The only other context given are men’s magazines that feature nude young women in erotic poses, that are sometimes called girly magazines. The implications are therefore quite upfront: girlishness means something that is not to be taken seriously, something naïve, superficial and fleeting as well as something to be looked at and enjoyed by boys and men.

Considering the above, it is understandable that directors might refrain from girlish visuals or girlish characters in their films in order not to jeopardise their work as something that is lacking depth. However, by doing just that - focusing on young girls, allowing them to look pretty and revel in traditionally girlish pleasures - two directors in particular succeeded to explore the figure of the girly girl in a manner that subverted stereotypes and created a space for female agency, but also shone a light on the pains and contradictions surrounding girlhood: Amy Heckerling and Sofia Coppola. While it might seem that their approaches to their young female heroines and their ways of filmmaking are vastly different, there are many similarities in attitude and, on closer examination, in style that point towards a profound understanding of what it means to grow up female. The four films that will be the subject of this thesis - Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost In Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2005) - have made an impact on youth and media culture upon their respective releases, but also stood the test of time. By artfully merging style and substance, Heckerling and Coppola have created visions of girlhood that up to this day continue to speak to girls and young women. Visions of Cher Horowitz and Dionne Davenport from Clueless keep re-emerging in blogs, fashion collections, advertisements and music videos every couple of years despite being over 20 years old; the latest efforts being the We 're Kids in America Spring/Summer 2013 collection by the American clothing brand Wildfox and Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s meticulous recreation of scenes from Beverly Hills High for the video to her song “Fancy”, which was released in 2014. Equally, the memory of girls in flowing white dresses reminiscent of the Lisbon sisters from Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides keeps haunting the mediascape, returning in more than one Marc Jacobs perfume commercial, or in many a music video. Of all Coppola girls, the exuberant figure of Marie Antoinette from the eponymous film in particular has left the most enduring dent in the world of female-centred fashion and lifestyle, spawning fashion editorials and collections in the years after the film’s release, but steadily coming back into circulation whenever the late French queen is referenced. A recent example is a 2015 commercial for energy drink brand Hype that features prominent reality TV personality Kim Kardashian clad in a pastel coloured, lacy gown and made up in white powder with Marie’s signature pouf as she sleeps on a chaise longue next a champagne glass and a pink soda can - the ad recreates a scene from the Coppola film in almost full detail, and incorporates the energy drink as an anachronistic prop, something the film is well known for.

These examples show that the films are relevant and popular enough to be referenced in marketing contexts as well as in the creative sector, but most importantly, they still seem to engage young female audiences, gathering new fans with each passing year. With the internet as a site of cultural production, Clueless and the three films by Sofia Coppola are frequently brought back up by young women as films that they relate to, that they feel empowered and inspired by, and that they try to emulate and make part of their lives in one way or another. Rookie, an immensely popular online magazine made by teenage girls for teenage girls, frequently features culture, lifestyle and fashion articles referring to those films, as the magazine’s young contributors keep the heroines and their aesthetics and attitudes in their negotiation of their own identities and lives. The fact that all four films are unapologetically feminine in style does not seem to take away from their messages, their power and their influence.

This thesis will be an exploration of the images of young women that Clueless, The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette provide, to shine a light on what makes them stand out against other films of this type, and why they continue to appeal so intensely to female audiences. To provide the context in which their films were created and to explore their impact, the first part shall give a brief introduction to the backgrounds and styles of both directors. In extension, attention will be paid to the cultural, postfeminist context of the four films as part of a discussion in how far a postfeminist mindset provides new possibilities for female characters, while simultaneously upholding old patriarchal patterns and rules that prevent a true liberation of girls and women, and how Heckerling and Coppola treat this ambiguity in their works. Since the focus lies on female subjectivity and agency of the girlish young woman and how it is portrayed in cinema, most of this thesis is dedicated to an examination of the films’ storytelling and visuals - investigating and comparing the points of view in the films, how they are set up and how the camera work supports that; the use of voiceover narrators, dialogue and silences as means to interrogate the position of the girls within the framework of power dynamics in their respective stories; intertextual references, as well as instances of parody or pastiche and how they create subtext that sometimes amplifies straightforward messages of a film, and sometimes questions it; and, ultimately, costumes, and the role of fashion and clothes in feminine expression, as well as the recovery of female agency against the backdrop of the specularisation of women in cinema. Finally, the last part will pay attention to where the four films by Coppola and Heckerling fit within current discourses of what constitutes feminine aesthetics and feminine cinema, as well as feminist film studies per se, with a special focus on Luce Irigaray as an innovator of the ways how women in cultural texts are read and constructed. Hopefully, by the end it will be shown that Clueless, The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette are all coined by a longing for transformation of current cultural conditions, illuminating the figure of the contemporary girl, her pains and pleasures, and allowing her to take shape on screen as a rounded, active character with own desires, powers and ambiguities within.

2. The worlds of Amy Heckerling and Sofia Coppola

For an understanding of why the works of Amy Heckerling and Sofia Coppola attract attention for reshaping the female cinematic presence and pushing it forward, it is useful to take a look at the origins and styles of both directors. Apart from being women who have made it in Hollywood, they do not appear to be sharing many commonalities at first sight.

Amy Heckerling is most well known for her fast-paced, witty comedy films. She started her career as a director with her debut feature Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982. Apart from being commercially successful, the film was, over the years, acknowledged for offering a fresh perspective on female characters in coming of age films, and is thus a first testimony of Heckerling’s preoccupation with the depiction of girls in cinema and the gaping lack of instances where their views and experiences are given the same platform as their male counterparts. Mary G. Hurd states that Heckerling’s establishment of equal opportunities for both male and female teenagers to explore sexuality is not achieved by “skewing the narrative, but by her explicit shots of girls eying boys as boys eye girls, and shots such as the row of rears clad in tight jeans scanned by the camera that turn out to be boys’ rears” (Hurd 2007: 23) Moreover, in Fast Times Heckerling humorously disassembles male fantasies about the female characters right on screen, when a boy is interrupted masturbating in a bathroom by the object of his desire, who, in turn, is none too thrilled to have caught him in the act. He is, obviously, neither criticised nor punished for his indulgence, but definitely called out to the audience, as the seductive girl from his imagination is contrasted with the real-life girl, making her way to the bathroom and minding her own business. As a mainstream comedy film director, Heckerling does not privilege one gender over another, but her portrayals of girls strike the spectator as uncommon because of their divergence from the images they are usually confronted with on screen. As Frances Smith and Timothy Shary compare Heckerling’s Fast Times girls to the female characters of the 1980s’ most prominent teen film creator John Hughes, they find that “Heckerling’s portrayal of teen femininity differs starkly from Hughes’s portrayal of virtuous, vulnerable girlhood so memorably incarnated by Molly Ringwald.” (Smith/Shary 2016: 4) Even in the earliest Heckerling film, issues like abortion or sexual desires of female teenagers are addressed matter-of-factly; the spectator is not meant to judge, just to understand and to partake in the journey of the teen girl they are watching. Lesley Speed writes that “[bjeneath their surface frivolity, the films of Amy Heckerling use humour to explore such fundamental themes as gender, parenthood, aging, sexual relationships, and the idiosyncrasies of social life in a changing society.” (Speed 2016: 218)

First and foremost, however, “Heckerling places gender - particularly the construction of femininity - centre stage” (Smith/Shary 2016: 3) which is why Clueless, her most successful feature, is the most important one to look at in terms of depictions of girlhood, as it revolves completely around the heroine Cher and her girlfriends, their views, desires and lives. Heckerling seems to be acutely aware of both the joys and the sorrows of contemporary girlhood, as Speed points out: “While postfeminist girlhood is often portrayed optimistically, however, some established theorists of youth culture take a more pessimistic view. [...] Heckerling’s work combines the optimism of postfeminist humor, consumerism and youth with acknowledgement of the continuing relevance of earlier feminist principles.” (Speed 2016: 226) That she is actively conveying her own visions and views, is emphasized by the fact that her films retain a signature style, despite being results of a collective effort, and that “her work appears centrally concerned with transitional periods in life” (Smith/Shary 2016: 3), which will gain significance later in the analysis. It almost suggests her awareness of a necessity of transformation of girls’ and women’s roles both on and off screen. Speed quotes Rachel Abramowitz, who observed that “the one genre permitted to female directors” in Hollywood was teen comedy, “because it was cheap and relatively commercial, and it didn’t require stars. Teens were not considered quite full people in Holly wood... and neither were women.” (cf. Speed 2016: 221)[2] The signal, then, was unmistakable when Clueless, essentially a feminine utopia, became a multimedia brand, after starting out as a low-budget comedy, (cf. Hunting 2016: 145) When asked about whether she had a comment on only five per cent of movies being directed by women in an interview in 2012, Heckerling’s reply was:

It's a disgusting industry. I don't know what else to say. Especially now. I can't stomach most of the movies about women. I just saw a movie last night. I don't want to say the name - but again with the fucking wedding and the only time women say anything is about men.[3]

The fact that Clueless ends with a joke at the expense of Hollywood’s obsession with weddings whenever the film in question is supposed to address a female audience, and that Cher does not pursue any romance at all for most of the film is telling - the director skilfully avoids stereotypical, flat teen girl characters but, at the same, does not strip them from traditionally girly aspects to their personalities and lives that are often criticised by feminists, simply because they are also part of girls’ lives in current culture, for better or worse. Heckerling’s young women are not stopped from exploring and wielding their powers by their love for taking trips to the mall.

Just like Heckerling’s, Sofia Coppola’s films are unapologetically feminine in appearance and preoccupied with a female point of view, but harder to categorise in terms of style, or to place within a particular genre. They skim along the lines of independent and mainstream filmmaking, taking into consideration past feminist concerns with the male gaze and postmodern consumption, and lead half of the audience to believe that they are subversive and rebellious, and the other half that they are simply shallow and inconsequential. There is an idiosyncratic air to them: On one hand, Coppola pays much attention to the surface, but on the other hand, everything significant happens strictly beneath it, which is the main reason why her work receives very mixed reviews. As Todd Kennedy writes, “[i]n spite of (or perhaps because of) a body of work that stands as a direct assault on Hollywood’s status quo, the source of attack, for those who wish to attack her, has routinely focused on a perceived lack of depth.” (Kennedy 2010: 38) He observes that often, critics seem to not be able to handle the very nature of Coppola’s films:

[T]he implication that a unique visual style lacks meaning because it is, essentially, pretty speaks toward the manner in which the critics seem unprepared to evaluate Coppola's films on their own terms. [... ] I в |ccausc she refuses to make the type of movie Hollywood expects her to make, they assume that she is simply ‘limited' in her ability. (Kennedy 2010: 38)

The muted, soft colour palette in her visuals, the minimalistic dialogue, a modern soundtrack and luminous images of girls and young women are what sets the tone in Sofia Coppola’s filmmaking. Just like Amy Heckerling, Sofia Coppola does not create outwardly political films that actively seek out a destruction of patriarchal principles. Rather, as Amy Woodworth writes, “women directors like Coppola may show both scholars and spectators how female characters can be portrayed respectfully and their experiences treated aesthetically without the burden of all of cinema history weighing on every decision they make.” (Woodworth 2008: 142)

Many scholars commit to calling Sofia Coppola an auteur for her unconventional and clever ways of doing exactly what she wants to do while still creating films that appeal to a mainstream audience, which is commendable insofar as directors with a broader audience spectrum are more likely to contribute to mainstream cinema’s transformation, and departure from the old, purely patriarchal ways. Kennedy notes that Coppola’s auteurist tendencies expose Hollywood’s insecurities towards unapologetic and uninstrumentalised femininity: “Such critique of Coppola for self-indulgent filmmaking is especially ironic when one considers her father’s status as a forerunner of American auteur cinema.” (Kennedy 2010: 39) He writes that while French nouvelle vague filmmakers were lauded for making films “personal”, Coppola’s films are often discarded for this very reason, one reviewer going as far as saying that “cinema for Coppola is a mirror in which she looks at herself, not a mirror she holds to the world.” (cf. Kennedy 2010: 39) In fact, however, it is her overtly personal cinema that readjusts the angle from which the spectator views the - at first sight - unremarkable, mostly conventionally girly heroines. As Fiona Handyside elaborates, Coppola uses combination funding for her films to retain maximum control and simultaneously expand the budget from that of a low-budget independent film to a hybrid production located somewhere in between (cf. Handyside 2017: 22).

This approach appears to serve as a prerequisite for the director to create her very private visions of teen girls and young women that keep leaving such a lasting impression on actual girls. Handyside writes that “[...] Coppola’s films express femininity as a series of thorny paradoxes: simultaneously privileged and oppressed, private and public, materialistic and engaged, desiring and blocked” (Handyside 2017: 36) In Sofia Coppola’s interview with the editor in chief of the aforementioned from-girls-for-girls online magazine Rookie, Tavi Gevinson, the exceptionality of these new images of girlhood becomes quite apparent, as Gevinson talks about how The Virgin Suicides is a lasting favourite among the teen girl audience of the website: “Oh my gosh - girls WORSHIP [emphasis in original] it.”[4] Sofia Coppola also mentions to her that she found out about the film’s still rising popularity through the teen daughter of a friend, and that it was a pleasant surprise to her. It seems that the director’s departure from glossing over contradictions in the depictions of girls in cinema, and teen films in particular, is what draws the teen girl audience to her, while it continues to confuse first and foremost adult male critics, as mentioned above. In the Rookie interview, she states the following:

You know, I loved John Hughes's movies, and I connected to those movies. But a lot of the movies that were made for teenagers were really, um, dorky and unsophisticated. And I feel like kids are more sophisticated and thoughtful than the [movie] studios give them credit for. I remember them worrying about The Virgin Suicides, like, girls are going to see it and they'll kill themselves. They didn't understand that teenagers's a time when you're just focused on thinking about things, you're not distracted by your career, family, you know— it's a thoughtful time.[5]

Coppola’s girls can be naïve, light-hearted, indulgent and very girly, just as in the definition given in the introduction, but they’re also very much aware of their gilded cages, the privilege of the men around them and their own struggle for an identity that is fulfilling, and that is not completely imposed on them by their surroundings. Ambiguity is a key element here - their feminine girlishness is at once light and darkness, hopeful and doomed, and as protagonists in Coppola’s films they try to navigate their lives within its confines.

Considering all of the above, the two directors share several common denominators, despite obvious differences in form and content. Both of them have expressed their dissatisfaction with prevalent images of girlhood in cinema, and both have encountered obstacles within the industry that stem directly from their treatment of femininity on screen. Their willingness to embrace girlishness leads them to different results, but both Heckerling and Coppola retain a sense of cautiousness with regards to sometimes inevitable, sometimes possible consequences of said girlishness - their films are not uncritical, even though this is often attributed to them, but their critique manifests in forms that are different from an outright denunciation of everything pretty and enjoyable. The departure from the docile John Hughes girl who swoons over an either popular or bad boy, who, in turn, reveals himself to

be not that bad, appears to be what girls have long anticipated and wished for to happen on the silver screens. Judging by the ardent worship of Clueless, and The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette and Lost in Translation, young women have been ready to see protagonists just like these films’ heroines head in new directions.

3. The postfeminist context

3.1. Girl culture on the rise

Angela McRobbie observes that “young womanhood currently exists within the realm of public debate as a topic of fascination, enthusiasm, concern, anxiety and titillation.” (McRobbie 2008: 57) She writes that the volume of attention it gets is neither ascribable to the expansion of social and quality media, nor to the growth of a female audience for such media, nor with the involvement of what she calls “cycles of moral panic, which periodically fix upon and demonise a seemingly dangerous sector of the population, so as to permit an intensification of social control, usually along some new axis of anxiety.” (McRobbie 2008: ibid.) Instead, “the meanings which converge around the figure of the girl or young woman, are more weighted towards capacity, success, attainment, enjoyment, entitlement, social mobility and participation.” (McRobbie 2008: ibid.) Anita Harris also notes that “in a time of dramatic social, cultural and political transition, young women are being constructed as a vanguard of new subjectivity,” but that such an interest is “not just celebratory, but is, in part, regulatory as well.” (Harris 2004: 1) In a sense, feminism has paved the road for women to lead better lives, but, nevertheless, lead them in a world that, for any progress made, provides new systems of oppression. What enables the transformation of feminine identities that we can see in Heckerling’s and Coppola’s work is, as Mißler poses it, the new level of validation and acceptance of feminist values especially in the 1990s, when they suddenly became common sense (cf. Mißler 2017: 18). She quotes Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, who wrote about the third wave of feminism: “For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it - it’s simply in the water.”[6] On this basis, popular culture and feminism became intertwined, giving rise to new possibilities for empowerment, but also new problems and paradoxes. One of those problems is a disjuncture between academic perspectives on feminism and the experiences of women, as Andrea L. Press notes (cf. Press 2013: 101); well reflected in the relatively low scholarly interest and a blasé, dismissive attitude towards films centring around overtly feminine characters and topics, which is of interest for this thesis.

Female-centred, girlish films are frequently discarded by and face criticism from both men and feminist women. As mentioned earlier, in our Western, hegemonically male­dominated culture, every cultural product that invokes traditional girlishness always comes with the attachment of carefreeness, of being unserious, superficial and removed from the real substance of life. The traditional feminist view on girlishness is that it is a symptom of male dominance, of oppressed girls and women retreating to mindless activities, uninterested in politics and with no influence on them, infantilised and lethargic in their existence. In the 1990s, third wave feminism, among the Riot grrrl movement and a stronger focus on intersectional feminism, spawned a movement by girls and women embracing femininity, female sexuality and feminine forms of self-expression not to comply with, but to oppose their objectification. The idea was to allow women to make autonomous choices about their self-expression, disregarding both patriarchal rules and restrictions, as well as second wave feminism’s conviction that acting and dressing like a feminine girl reinforces the old gender norms, and that sexually charged sartorial choices enforce pornography culture, which promotes violence against women. Against this backdrop, an autonomous choice would then constitute an act of empowerment, rather than show the extent of internalised oppression. The problematic aspect here is the potential discrepancy between what is subjectively perceived as personal empowerment and agency, and the level of power that is objectively verifiable in the outside world. Moreover, the freedom of choice in various lifestyle sectors sometimes serves as the basis for competition and rivalry, instead of solidarity among women. As Andrea L. Press and Francesca Tripodi have found in an empirical study, there is, among girls, a general awareness of certain feminist rules sometimes being circumvented, noticing that “they [the girls] couldn’t afford to be critical of a system in which they were trying to excel.” (cf. Press/Tripodi 2014: 548) All in all, the simultaneous elevation and deprecation of female adolescence positions it as “a desirable commodity and undesirable identity.” (Farrimond 2011: 85) As this sentiment is echoed in both the perception of the films analysed in this thesis as well as the topics they treat and the journeys their heroines embark on, a closer look at the notion of postfeminism is a productive way to approach the cultural context of the four films.

3.2. Postfeminist theory

Postfeminism incorporates the aforementioned ‘girly’ aspect of third wave feminism, but is not simply synonymous with it. In fact, the term, as well as what it stands for are controversial and as of yet, there is no agreement on one commonly accepted definition. While some argue that postfeminism implies an ideological departure from feminism or its obsolescence, others simply see it as a continuation of the women’s movement on the new terms of a postmodern society that has already been transformed to a certain extent by feminism. McRobbie expresses her concerns over the rise of postfeminism as she interprets it, as follows:

[... ] a situation which is marked by a new kind of anti-feminist sentiment which is different from simply being a question of backlash against the seeming gains made by feminist activities and campaigns in an earlier period [...]. I argue that something quite unexpected has happened. Elements of feminism have been taken into account, and have been absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life. Drawing on vocabulary that includes words like ‘empowerment' and ‘choice', these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse, and they are deployed in this new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state, as a kind of substitute for feminism. (McRobbie 2008: 1)

To her understanding, feminism is undermined by means of young women being given a notional form of equality: education and employment, the participation in consumer culture and civil society, (cf. McRobbie 2008: 2) She says that the feminist concern with understanding “dynamics of power and constraint gave way to celebratory connections with the ordinary women, or indeed girls, who created their own, now seemingly autonomous pleasures and rituals of enjoyable femininity from the goods made available by consumer culture.” (McRobbie 2008: 3) Most of all, she criticises that choice is subverted to be a modality of constraint: those who make the ‘wrong’ choices or who fail to succeed in life are held accountable and their failure falls under their personal responsibility - the struggle becomes individual and within patriarchal frames, instead of unified in a movement against them. (McRobbie 2008: 19) This, in turn, is bound to spark competition and new injustices, since blame once again falls onto the individual instead of the flawed system. Rosalind Gill also notes how feminist ideas are increasingly taken for granted while old sexist tropes continue to persist, (cf. Gill 2007: 2) With respect to the empowerment vs. self­objectification discussion, she points out that the argument that women just dress up to please themselves is insufficient because beauty standards remain similar to those set up ‘for men’, and that it avoids questions of how socially constructed ideals of beauty are internalised, (cf. Gill 2007: 92f)

However, Gill does not discredit the entirety of postfeminism to be a harmful regress from the radicality of second wave feminism. She mentions the unproductive nature of analysing contemporary cultural texts with 1970s feminist theory - they can only be considered lacking or void of radical potential, whereas postfeminism allows for a more flexible analysis and advocates for the movement as “dynamic, negotiated and in a process of ongoing transformation.” (Gill 2007: 251) Even though she remains critical of the fact that postfeminism’s endless flexibility has the potential to reduce feminism to a lifestyle, instead of something with political weight (cf. Gill 2007: 255) and that the third wave is at risk of remaining trapped in discourses of choice, freedom and empowerment that are complicii with neoliberalism, and thus with an aggressive, capitalist individualism (cf. Gill/Scharff 2011: 7), the adequacy of postfeminism remains crucial to her in terms of analysis of contemporary cultural texts. She has provided a description of postfeminism that is vastly considered the most apt:

I want to argue that postfeminism is best understood not as an epistemological perspective, nor as a historical shift, and not (simply) as a backlash, in which its meanings are pre­specified. Rather, postfeminism should be conceived of as a sensibility, and postfeminist media culture should be our critical object: the phenomenon which analysts must inquire into and interrogate. This approach does not require a static notion of authentic feminism as a comparison point, but instead is informed by postmodernist and constructionist perspectives and seeks to examine what is distinctive about contemporary articulations in the media. (Gill 2007: 254f)

Furthermore, according to Gill, there are several themes and tropes recurring in postfeminist media:

the notion that femininity is a bodily property; the shift from objectification to subjectification; the emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring and discipline; a focus upon individualism, choice and empowerment; the dominance of a makeover paradigm; the articulation or entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist ideas; a resurgence in ideas of natural sexual difference; a marked sexualization of our culture; and an emphasis upon consumerism and the commodification of difference. (Gill 2007: 255)

As mentioned earlier, all these aspects emerge in one way or another in Amy Heckerling’s and Sofia Coppola’s films. Generally, the girls featured in them are smart and feminine; indulging in lifestyle items, in travel or in parties; negotiating relationships with boys and men around them; all the while seizing as much autonomy as their circumstances allow them. These circumstances are often either commented on by the film characters themselves, or emphasised for the spectator by the way the action develops on screen. Moreover, as opposed to most films that fall under the postfeminist umbrella and have been discussed in detail by McRobbie, Gill and many other scholars, Clueless, The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette lay far more weight on sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek criticism of the conditions in which young women are expected to succeed, and of postfeminist practises themselves, showing how delusional and ultimately ineffective they sometimes are. For example, McRobbie comments on Bridget Jones ’s Diary, saying that the “burden of self-management [is] very apparent” in this film that opens with the protagonist worrying about her life as a single. Bridget, who is considered the postfeminist poster child by many scholars interested in girl culture, harbours anxieties such as “a fear of loneliness, the stigma of remaining single [...].” (McRobbie 2008: 20) Despite her job, her prestigious life and her freedoms, she fantasizes about romance and marriage, and, as McRobbie observes, these fantasies are presented to the audience as if both, audience and protagonist, are partners in the crime of enjoying something that feminism told them they should not (cf. McRobbie 2008: 20f) In a sense, the film shows how the gains made from the feminist movement are appreciated and welcome, but not enough for a woman’s fulfilment and happiness, and the traditional goal of the lasting heterosexual romance remains. The films discussed in this thesis, however, take another route while still complying with most of postfeminism’s guiding principles.

3.3. Postfeminist heroines 3.3.1. Cher Horowitz

Clueless, per its nature being that of a romantic comedy, is the film most similar to Bridget Jones ’s Diary. The typical postfeminist traits are ever present: Cher loves to shop, owns a computerised wardrobe full of beautiful, stylish clothes and takes great pleasure in actively performing her femininity. However, the “burden of self-management”, as McRobbie calls it, is nowhere to be seen with Cher. She relishes seizing power and being in charge, moulding the world in a way that fits her ideas. On the contrary, when she gets graded below her expectations in her debate class and cannot convince her teacher to a change of mind, she words her failure in curious manner: “I felt impotent and out of control, which I really hate.” Heckerling deliberately invokes the notion of potency to describe Cher’s usual state of capability, and throughout the course of the film, Cher does not have to learn the lesson that surrendering a little bit of control to a male partner - let him be the potent one - makes her life easier. Since Clueless is a coming of age story, Cher does undergo a transformation, but that transformation mainly focuses on her “having a little bit of direction” in her life, as her father poses it during a dinner conversation. Her lesson is one of introspection, not of renouncing any part of her nature but looking deeper inside herself to fully realise who she is and what she wants. In line with Heckerling’s opinion on the majority of films for girls and young women that has been quoted earlier, Clueless never ceases to be about Cher’s subjectivity: despite the film’s romantic comedy status, romance neither catalyses her evolution nor dictates it, her ways of dressing or her enjoyment of trivialities are in no way challenged or altered in order to benefit her relationship with her love interest Josh, who, moreover, assumes this role only in the last fifteen minutes of the film. As Stefania Marghitu and Lindsey Alexander note, Cher’s journey does feature a love interest, but mostly revolves around “friendships, family, cultural pursuits, self-improvement, and personal happiness” and that she does not “lose her personal style, but she becomes less vapid and more interested in becoming a self-conscious contributing member of society, while still maintaining her femininity and confidence.” (Marghitu/ Al exander 2016: 177) Of course, the postfeminist aspect of self-improvement is strongly emphasised in this film, but in Cher’s case, this self­improvement comes to involve some sort of healthy balance between shopping for the hippest clothes and devoting time to a natural disaster relief campaign - Cher’s sense of solidarity with others is more profound at the end of the film than at the beginning, which is a development very much in spirit with traditional feminist values. The argument that postfeminism cancels out female empowerment by endorsing competition between girls through excessive individualism has also been addressed, and somewhat undermined by Heckerling, as Cher and her protégé-turned-friend Tai overcome a fallout caused by Tai’s popularity surpassing Cher’s own. From a disarmingly naïve but sweet girl, Tai, as she follows Cher’s teachings, turns into a selfish, pretentious and charmless one. Her and Cher’s lesson at the end of the film, then, is one of the importance of friendship and of finding a healthy balance between staying true to yourself and personal growth.

Of the four films in question, Clueless is the most hopeful, positive example of a postfeminist scenario, and even though Heckerling does mock Cher’s and her friends’ views and behaviour by means of irony and exaggeration, her treatment of the characters remains affectionate, and the ending of the film re-establishes Cher as the headstrong, clever and confident girl the audience got to know at the beginning of the film. In contrast to Heckerling’s film, Coppola’s films instil a lingering sense of doom explicitly linked to girlhood. While the world of Clueless is a utopian girl’s world, the girls and women in The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette feel the confines that society has imposed on their lives more intensely than Cher ever does, being rich and relatively unrestricted. Even though Sofia Coppola does feature many humorous and light-hearted moments in the three of her films that are analysed in this thesis, the mood in them is generally more sombre and the empowerment that comes with postfeminist practises such as dressing up, partying relentlessly or travelling is often stifled before it can reach any kind of durable, transformative potential. As Handyside writes, Coppola’s films are characterised by their “sympathetic engagement with the experiences, dilemmas, fantasies and desires of girls and young women” (Handyside 2017: 6).

3.3.2. The Lisbon sisters

In Coppola’s debut The Virgin Suicides, the Lisbon sisters are, in their girlish beauty and playfulness, the objects of desire of a group of boys who watch them and tell the story of the girl’s suicides in retrospect, two decades after the events. This film is an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides eponymous novel, in which the author explores the problematic nature of historiography: he begins it with the instalment of a narrator the reader is supposed to believe, and gradually strips the credibility off them by exposing deficiencies and narcissism in their retelling of the Lisbon sister’s story. Using a different medium to tell the same story, Coppola choses a slightly different path, to ultimately end up very near Eugenides’ intention to uncover the fundamental and naive subjectivity of the boy’s perspective, but mostly to actually focus on the girls. Where Eugenides leaves the boys and the reader with an enigma, more interested in the girls as a means to expose the flawed, self-referred perception of the male onlookers, Coppola provides images of actual teenage girls who, despite their circumstances, struggle for subjectivity, tragically finding it in suicide. The postfeminist elements are all present in the world of the Lisbon sisters: Cecilia’s choice to wear her vintage wedding dress at all times as a form of self-expression, and her girly diary where she chronicles mundane events and thoughts; the girl’s bedrooms that they decorate to their liking in order to create personalised spaces; their excitement for the school dance and the entire process of getting ready, which echoes makeover sequences in other postfeminist stories; Lux’s love for rock music and her collection of vinyl records; the girl’s growing collection of lifestyle, fashion and travel magazines they start ordering when their parents confine them to the house. In the story of the Lisbon sisters, these elements are the only trajectory where they can experience, and sometimes even just pretend to experience freedom, agency or subjectivity.

The outside world is unmistakeably shown to be the source of restrictions - the authority of the girl’s parents, the suburban neighbourhood with all its rules and regulations, and watchful neighbours providing constant surveillance, and of course the teenage boys who, literally, have an observation post with a telescope in the room of whoever of them it is that lives closest to the girls. The discrepancy, then, between postfeminist, girlish freedoms and the true freedom and the self-expression that the girls strive for - as Therese says at one point, “we just want to live, if anyone would let us” - is all too obvious in Coppola’s film: Lux’s records burn in the family chimney, no matter how much she cries and pleads with her mother; the magazines, no matter how romanticised by the neighbourhood boys, remain a mere distraction and a sad reminder that there is no escape for the girls from the confines of their home; and Cecilia’s colourful bauble bracelets cannot cover her wrist bandages and fix the damage that has been done. The Lisbon sisters make the audience acutely aware of the limits of choice, and demonstrate how these limits turns their less significant, postfeminist choices in clothes, décor and leisure time into a breath of air, that, as opposed to McRobbie’s and Gill’s concerns, does not distract them from the real oppression at all. As Heike Mißler writes, “[wjhereas the second wave feared that this shift would lead to a depoliticization and individualisation of the movement, the third wave has always had a strong focus on popular culture and the negotiations of feminism within it.” (Mißler 2017: 17) In this sense, Coppola continues her investigation of what happens to young women in the circumstances of neoliberal cultural norms, as well as where choice empowers them, and where it does not, in Lost in Translation, her second film.

3.3.3. Charlotte

Charlotte, the heroine of Lost in Translation, is a curious character when regarded from a postfeminist point of view. Although she fulfils many criteria for a typical postfeminist heroine, such as being pretty, independent and confused about her life, her crisis differs from the classic case of having the wrong partner or the wrong job, just as her personality is very different from a typical romantic comedy heroine. Charlotte is a 25-year-old Yale alumnus with a degree in philosophy, who travels to Tokyo alongside her hip celebrity photographer husband and is left to wait around in their hotel room while he goes on to do his assignments for the magazine he works for. Charlotte, who only just finished her studies, does not have a job yet and questions her marriage, in which she is disillusioned. Despite her doubts, she moves around with quiet confidence and harbours a strong aversion to superficial, loud and narcissistic people, such as the actress she and her husband meet at the hotel, which she does not hesitate to show. In spite of these deviations, her story could easily be turned into one of the ‘girly’ narratives provided by what Handyside calls Conglomerate Hollywood (cf. Handyside 2017: 12): Charlotte might have gone on a self-discovery mission in Tokyo, returned to the Park Hyatt Hotel with newfound insights and dreams and left her husband for someone new, who appreciates her and propels her to new heights in terms of her career and happiness. However, this film does not take the easiest of the postfeminist routes. The audience watches Charlotte exercise her freedoms and make her choices, try out cosmetics and a pink wig in a karaoke bar, go to a strip club, get to know someone new, watch traditional Japanese ceremonies from afar and have the world be her oyster - a postfeminist dream. But instead of finding solutions to her problems, or discovering which choices were wrong ones, Charlotte’s train of thought and her conclusion towards the end of the film remain vague - she utters sentences such as Tm stuck” and “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be, you know?”, and does not get the expected revelation experience from visiting a shrine: “I went to this shrine today. And, urn, there were these monks and they were chanting. And I didn't feel anything. You know?” Again, the superficial, neoliberal freedoms are just a way to get by, and potentially come up with a solution, but Charlotte does not find one for herself within them. If anything, excess, which is technically encouraged in postfeminism, proves overwhelming and is one of the sources of the character’s alienation: the excess of Western culture in an Eastern country, combined with the still highly visible local culture, an excess of sexualisation - as seen in the strip club and the escort ordered for Bob - as well as incredibly crowded streets, loud people and an abundance of neon lights form a stream in which Charlotte floats along, taking everything in but barely ever actively participating.

The narrative closure that has, for example, been provided - albeit in a very open and sarcastic form - in Clueless, does not exist in Lost in Translation. The audience is left with an inkling of a hopeful note for Charlotte’s future by means of her walking out of the picture with a determined, confident expression on her face after saying a bittersweet goodbye to Bob, but it is difficult to pinpoint what could constitute it - we do not learn whether she re­evaluates her marriage, her professional life, her views on herself, or anything at all. Throughout the film, the spectator watches her solemnly try to figure out herself, observe her surroundings and reflect on all of it mostly in silence. Although with Bob Harris, the aging actor with a midlife crisis, the subject of romance is present in the film, it does not claim sovereignty over Charlotte’s development. As Lucy Bolton writes, “the cliché of the May-to-September romance is subverted in order to throw light on a female character that departs radically from the stereotype” (Bolton 2011: 111) Of the two lost loners, Bob is the more clueless one of the two, especially because his position as the older male character suggests his more profound understanding of what is going on in his life, and this is what the audience expects, but never gets. Where Charlotte’s solo scenes convey feelings and notions of emotional exploration of self or the world, “Bob’s scenes are generally used for comedy and we get more emotional information from him when he speaks to others than when alone.” (Woodworth 2008: 149) Additionally, Charlotte navigates social situations far better than Bob, getting up and walking away from a table with the aforementioned actress and her boyfriend where she simply does not want to stay, whereas Bob almost accidentally lands himself a one-night stand with the hotel bar’s jazz singer that he is ultimately just very embarrassed about. Thus, Lost in Translation has its true focus on Charlotte, a feminine character whose development is more subtle and introspective than that of Cher Horowitz, or even the Lisbon girls. Her subjectivity in this film is posed as non-negotiable, whether it is conveyed to the audience in moments of insecurity and fragility, or in moments of confidence and nonchalance.

3.3.4. Marie Antoinette

This subjectivity is taken by Coppolato a next level mMarie Antoinette. The aforementioned “perceived lack of depth” was applied most ardently by critics to this particular film, as it is the one that showcases the most ostentatious set decorations and costumes, features the most excessive scenes of consumption and introduces a completely unapologetic, lavishly feminine character, the young dauphine of France. To make her the subject of a film, in the way Coppola does, falls in line with the previously explained bold decisions made by the two directors examined in this thesis: to make the rich, popular high school girl the point of identification instead of the anticipated antagonist in Clueless; to bear company with a group of suicidal teenage girls on their journey towards their end without any judgement towards them in The Virgin Suicides; and to dedicate extensive screen time to a young woman silently watching the world around her in Lost in Translation. In Marie Antoinette, we do not watch the historical woman-myth ascend to power and be rightfully overthrown by the revolutionaries after spending years wasting state resources - we watch the journey of a fourteen-year-old girl being inserted into the machinery of European aristocracy as a token exchanged between two countries, who tries to claim agency by the means available to her, but ultimately contributes to stirring up processes that undermine monarchy and lead to her demise. Her story is told in a way that separates her as an individual from the history and the politics of her time, while historiography has mostly shown interest in her as a figure on the side of the French monarchy during the beginnings of the revolution - as Anna Backman Rogers poses, the film “attempts to salvage the figure of Marie Antoinette from a historical legacy that has served to perpetuate her status as a figurehead of hatred.” (Backman Rogers 2012: 81) In Coppola’s version of Marie Antoinette’s story, we are confronted with a multifaceted girl, who is joyful, lonely, naïve, self-absorbed, caring, bored - the list of humane traits that are bestowed on her character is long. Interestingly, most of the backlash on this film stems from the absence of a political context, completely disregarding the service done to a female character on screen. Wholly in the spirit of contemporary postfeminism, the girlishness of Marie Antoinette has been reclaimed by herself, instead of being exploited by external forces to be a symbol for the monarchic order.

The postfeminist elements in Marie Antoinette manifest, to a great extent, in the intricate designs of interiors, dresses, shoes, hairstyles and pastries - all of these consumer goods are shown to be unabashedly enjoyed by the young queen and her court ladies, while, for example, the exasperated Austrian diplomat, advisor to Marie Antoinette, tries to fill her in on current political affairs. Excess itself, a key element of neoliberal postfeminist culture, is coded as feminine, which is why, at first sight, it seems so at odds with traditional feminist values, and in line with McRobbie’s criticism of the postfeminist, consumerist attitude, devoid of a political agenda. Nevertheless, excess in Marie Antoinette is presented as a disruptive force that shakes up the stiff rules of the court and grants Marie Antoinette a chance to reclaim her subjectivity by making extravagant choices regarding her exterior and her leisure time. With regards to this, Todd Kennedy argues that excess, and especially excess of the feminine, in Coppola’s films is her “way of indicting the idea of ‘excess’ as feminine in a postfeminist environment where one can only be empowered through ‘female’ consumption.” (Kennedy 2010: 46) The dauphine bears her first time at Versailles being moved around according to etiquette, as well as watched and scrutinised by the courtiers at quite literally every moment of her existence. The moment she begins to usurp the pompousness and the wealth of the court, she begins fashioning herself a persona and life outside of what her life as the wife of the king has in store for her. Her situation offers a powerful way to explore why self-expression through consumption and fashion has become a core feature of postfeminism. As Diana Diamond writes, “the teen queen used fashion as a route to political influence, female bonding, and empowerment”, which is why the film “epitomizes what has come to be called ‘the third wave of feminism’, in which politics was subsumed by culture, and feminism reclaimed fashion, consumption, material girls [...] as spheres of female empowerment.” (Diamond 2011: 208)

The fact that Sofia Coppola ensured Marie Antoinette’s relatability, and created her as a character that could just as well be a contemporary one, is indicative of her goal to comment on the universal joys and pains of female existence, drawing attention to how much and, at the same time, how little has changed in the experience of girlhood and womanhood. In fact, some critics have criticised her portrayal of the queen as an American valley girl (cf. Diamond 2011: 207), which links US back to the character of Cher Horowitz. In an essay about Marie Antoinette and contemporary chick culture, Suzanne Ferris and Mallory Young suggest that the haplessness of the real queen’s apparent self-confidence and self-staging was merely a result of her living in the wrong time:

Unfortunately for the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, however, the Age of Revolution provided a disastrously inappropriate setting for her performance. In our Age of Consumption, refashioned in popular culture as a well-intentioned but misunderstood young wife and mother, she has found a more appreciative third-wave audience, who clearly would not condemn her for having a great sense of style and the means to pull it off. (Ferris/Young 2010:112)

This is the exact situation we have with Cher, a literal valley girl who is the ‘queen’ of her social sphere, has “a great sense of style and the means to pull it off’, as well as a non-hostile environment to execute her self-expressional endeavours. Moreover, what is stressed and elaborated on in Marie Antoinette is her role not so much as a mother or wife, but merely as a girl or woman, which we see progressing from a self-fashioned, artificial spectacle to an ethereal being in close touch with nature, as she loosens up in her private chateau Petit Trianon, designing her bohemian days and free-flowing clothes to her liking. Just as with Cher, the audience enters the film’s realm through Marie Antoinette’s perspective, and her perspective only. Men, whether the king or Count Fersen, are merely in the peripheral vision, a distraction or pleasure just like any other, from parties to clothes, to intricate drinks and food. In a sense, Marie Antoinette is the beginning of a girlish utopia, exactly like the world of Clueless, where everything revolves around the girl’s views, hopes and desires, but also ignores or downplays any issues that gender equality, female empowerment and outward celebration of the feminine cannot transcend, such as race or class. However, the utopia does not take to the next stage as there is no room for it in revolutionary France. By letting Marie Antoinette transcend history, making her as close to a modem heroine as possible, Coppola questions the contemporary culture of consumption, suggesting the possibility of a downfall despite all apparent freedoms and pleasures, because the problem of female agency cannot be solved simply by an excessive amount of girlishness and feminine energy. Then again, as Lost in Translation demonstrates, an abstinence, or a withdrawal from excess does not guarantee a resolution, either. In the current cultural climate, the young female character finds herself at an impasse more often than not. Consequently, many film critics and scholars, and later Coppola herself, have suggested a reading of The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette as a trilogy of sorts, with there being a “spiritual kinship shared by the young women found throughout these three films” (Woodworth 2008: 139) and Coppola calling Marie Antoinette “the next step of a girl’s evolution” (Handyside 2017: 24).


[1] Bastanmehr, Vice. Web.

[2] Abramowitz, Rachel (2000) Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women's experience of Power in Hollywood. New York: Random House. 144.

[3] Silverstein, Indiewire. Web.

[4] Gevinson, Rookie. Web.

[5] Gevinson, Rookie. Web.

[6] Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Jennifer Baumgardner/Amy Richards 2000. P.17

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Reclaiming girlishness. Images of young women in contemporary American cinema
University of Cologne  (Anglistik)
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Sofia Coppola, film studies, Amy Heckerling, feminism, postfeminism, Feminismus, Postfeminismus, girl studies, Amerikanistik, american studies, english studies, anglistik, media studies, Medienwissenschaften, Marie Antoinette, Clueless, Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, female gaze, girl culture
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Kira Schneider (Author), 2018, Reclaiming girlishness. Images of young women in contemporary American cinema, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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