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Girlfriends is a 1978 American comedy drama film directed by Claudia Weill, addressing the issue of the place of women in the society of 1970s. The film narrates the story of a talented photographer, Susan, and her friend, a beginning writer, Ann. These female characters choose an active life position and decide to combine multiple roles of devoted girlfriends and professionals. By following the destinies of these girls and initiating spectators into the women’s inner lives, Weill revealed her unique understanding of the concept of feminism and emancipation. Instead of demanding equal rights, Susan and Ann, who are undoubtedly emancipated, search for their personal identities and happiness, and their active positions become a part of their personal identities. In the film Girlfriends, Claudia Weill created a realistic portrayal of the emancipated women, Susan, Ann and their acquaintances, by using the emancipation discourse, motifs of loneliness and search for personal identity and moral support and a variety of realist film techniques.
The Emancipation Discourse in the Film
Whereas the gender roles and position of women in society are among the main themes raised in the film, Weill used the emancipation discourse, constructed of symbolic details and motifs.
The issue of society’s expectations from women is viewed from different perspectives. On the one hand, the male characters in the film attempt to protect their dominant position. On the other hand, the shift in gender roles can be seen in particular scenes. Importantly, in the two episodes, male characters cook and lay the table, though women are not busy. When Susan comes to see her friend Ann and her husband Martin, Martin lays the table, while the girls do nothing. In another episode, Eric, Susan’s boyfriend cooks, while Susan is standing by his side and giving him an advice (Girlfriends). Furthermore, there is a scene in which Martin takes care of a baby, while Ann is working. Therefore, without communicating this position directly, Weill depicted the emancipated society, in which the place of a woman is neither at home nor in the kitchen. All-female characters in the film have an active life position; they build a career and combine multiple roles.
By contrast to the depicted realities, the male characters still speak of women as helpless creatures (Nash, The Women’s Film). Martin jokingly attacks Ann and says that he likes to attack helpless blondes. The taxi driver asks Susan is she has learnt karate and why she is not afraid of going home on her own late at night. Another episode when the issue of gender roles is addressed directly is the scene in which Susan watches a TV program, and the invisible speaker asks an invisible interviewee how he would react if a woman makes the first step in a relationship (Girlfriends). These questions are voiced but left without answers. However, Weill’s response becomes clear after the analysis of particular details and plot lines. Importantly, the answer to the question concerning their place in society is so obvious to the women that they do not need to voice it in the form of protests. Weill pointed out at the social change by depicting sensitive and mindful women who do not demand equal rights but simply want to be happy (Lahiji, Portrayal of Women in Iranian Cinema).
Though the depicted women are emancipated, they need support and care of others. Since 1960s, most Hollywood films depicted women as helpless victims (Horton, Women in Movies and TV). Therefore, Weill’s interpretation of feminism is touching and standing out from the crowd for her time. In one of the opening episodes of the film, Ann says that she is going to marry Martin because she wants him to take care of her. However, later on, Ann goes back to college and successfully combines her work, motherhood and study (Butler 37). Therefore, despite her marriage, Ann is an emancipated woman. Moreover, she has an abortion without her husband’s permission at the end of the film, which clearly demonstrates her independence. Thus, whereas the voiced questions concerning the women’s position in society are left without answers, Weill’s response is clearly seen from the emancipation discourse constructed of numerous symbols and elements of the plot.
The Motif of Loneliness and the Searches for Moral Support
Weill’s interpretation of the concept of emancipation is uniquely interesting and deeply bound to the issue of personal relations between the characters. The film Girlfriends is recognized by most critics as overtly feministic (New Women’s Cinema and the Buddy Movie). However, the female characters are depicted as morally strong and independent, but still accepting the fact that they need the moral support of friends, men and family.
Though the characters hypocritically try to discuss the advantages of living alone, nobody of them truly enjoys loneliness. Susan lives alone after Ann’s marriage and says that she likes it, but later invites a dancer Cecilia to stay at her house. Even though Susan asks Cecilia to leave her later, the fact that she has invited an unknown girl to her flat clearly demonstrates not only Susan’s unselfishness but also her attempts to build bridges to others. Susan reproaches Ann that she has never spent more than ten minutes alone and cannot understand her. No matter how strong the female characters are, they look for the support of others. Although her career is extremely important to Susan, in one of the final episodes, she forgets about her exhibition, because she is overwhelmed with emotions after her quarrels with Ann and Eric.
Therefore, the professional and personal dimensions of a woman’s life are depicted as equally important. Furthermore, during her professional triumph, as she has been dreaming of this exhibition for so long, Susan is happy because her family and Eric are there to share her happiness. The audience can hear only a few brief remarks of praise for Susan’s photos. The main emphasis, however, is put upon the emotional support of her dear and near. The exhibition is the only scene, in which Susan’s mother and stepfather appear. It clearly demonstrates the importance of this moment. Eric presents Susan with a small duck, and she is glad to receive this symbolical gift. During the exhibition, the main emphasis is put upon Susan’s sincere emotions and the people who come to support her.
The motif of loneliness is interrelated with the theme of Susan’s searches for her personal identity. At the beginning of the film, the girl tries to convince herself that she enjoys loneliness and escapes from Eric’s house late at night because she is afraid of psychological attachment. When Eric asks Susan to live with him, Susan still hesitates if she is ready to lose her freedom. Susan views marriage as a significant turning point in a person’s personality. Her position can be clearly seen from the phrase she said to Ann: “You are not the same person. You are married.” (Girlfriends). However, the final episodes of the film, in which Susan realizes that the moral support of others is extremely important to her, her quest for personal identity is successfully completed (Tibbetts 142). The evolution of this character does not change her feminist views. Importantly, Susan manages to balance her active life position and her quest for moral support, finding her personal way to happiness.
Speaking as a Powerful Method of Communication
One of the most powerful tools used by Susan and Ann in their searches for personal identities is speaking. The implied message about the importance of speaking with others is communicated since one of the opening scenes of the film in which Susan says that her parents divorced because they never spoke to each other, even though they never quarreled.
The characters of the film suffer from the lack of communication and find solutions to their problems only after discussing them in detail. From the scenes, depicting Ann’s conversations with her husband, the audience can draw a conclusion that there is no spiritual connection between these spouses. Martin agrees with Ann’s every word and seems not to listen to her. When Ann says about her decision to come back to college, her main argument is that she has nobody to speak to. Cecilia, a dancer whom Susan meets by chance, says that she has not spoken to anybody for three days already. Perhaps, Cecilia is also cold and hungry, but the thirst for communication is the only challenge that is emphasized by the girl. In another scene, Susan confesses that when she has nobody to talk to, she speaks to God and hopes that her prayer is heard. Therefore, the motif of characters’ willingness to speak to others and to be heard is repeated throughout the film and plays a significant role in the development of the plot lines. Importantly, the thirst for communication is depicted as an important characteristic of strong women. This motif is an integral element of Weill’s original interpretation of the theme of emancipation in the film.
Only by speaking, the main characters resolve their inner and interpersonal conflicts and manage to obtain happiness at the end of the film. Notably, in one of the final episodes, Susan and Ann save their friendship by means of effective communication. Only after expressing their personal concerns, the characters understand each other, forget about their troubles and receive the moral support they have been looking for. Thus, Weill used speaking and various types of dialogue for depicting different relations between the characters. Furthermore, the value of constructive dialogues and effective communication is one of the most important moral messages revealed in the film.
The Variety of Realistic Film Techniques
To portray the women of 1970s in a realistic key, Weill used a variety of realist film techniques. Weill was recognized as one of the pioneers in the realistic portrayal of women in the films (Hyman and Moore 446; Erens, Film Industry in the United States). In this film, the audience is initiated into the inner world and the secrets of the female characters and feels empathy towards them.
Weill did not make attempts to idealize her characters or their surroundings, and this realistic key intensified the impression produced by the film, assisting the film director in revealing her interpretation of emancipation and women’s position in society. The preceding improvements in the film industry allowed Weill to include the private scenes into the film (Newton 271). The close shots depicting the characters’ facial expressions and the details of the interior make the episodes believable. Weill’s outstanding knowledge of women’s psychology was successfully supplemented by innovative solutions in the field of filmmaking. In addition, the excellent performance of Melanie Mayron (Susan), as well as other characters, contributed greatly to the success of the film (Anderson, “Girlfriends: A Candid, Refreshing, Realistic Film”). The credibility of Hollywood films was measured by the spectators’ ability to identify themselves with the main characters (Kuhn 133). In that regard, the film Girlfriends is successful in appealing to the feelings of both male and female spectators. Notably, Weill does not show the direct confrontation between the genders to reduce the negative criticism of male critics (Rosa, “Realistic” Portrayals of Women in Media)
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The inner conflict and depression in Susan start after Ann’s marriage. Notably, the girl decides to paint the walls in her flat in red. This unusual choice of color clearly demonstrates the inner conflict in the girl’s soul and her search for contradiction. When during a party, Eric tries to establish contact with her for the first time, she answers negatively to most of his questions. She refuses to dance and offers to go to Eric’s flat instead. This offer astonishes Eric because it is unthinkable for a girl living in 1970s. In several episodes, Susan is depicted alone, and therefore she does not need to hide her emotions. After the girl hears a question about whether a girl can make the first step in a relationship, she bursts into tears. It is obvious that the girl, who has difficulties with finding a job and stays alone after her friend’s marriage, has a nervous breakdown. In the next episode, Susan comes to a hairdresser and wants to change her hairstyle, though in fact the girl wants to change her life. This symbolic decision would be understandable for the majority of women for whom the changes in appearance are frequently interrelated with the events in real life. Another episode depicting a female character alone is a scene in which Ann is speaking to her baby. Surely, the baby cannot understand Ann’s words, and this monologue is meant mainly to show the character’s thoughts. Ann’s nervous breakdown, when she starts yelling at Susan because she comes to see them late, is an important element of the realistic portrayal of women’s realities. On one hand, this quarrel initiated by Ann can seem unexpected. On the other hand, spectators can assume that the main causes of this breakdown included the lack of husband’s moral support and the pressure of combining work, study and motherhood.
The details of the poor interior and unusual or embarrassing situations are essential to realistic portrayal of women in the film. The bricks in Eric’s bathroom and a few elements of furniture in Susan’s flat clearly demonstrate poverty of the main characters. Furthermore, Cecilia who lives with Susan brings some fabric and says that she is going to make curtains from it. This detail reveals not only Susan’s poverty, but also her reluctance to make her household comfortable. Cecilia also takes the basin, which Susan usually uses for her photographs, to do her laundry. This detail of doing the laundry is insignificant for the development of the main plot lines, but makes the depiction of the girls’ household more realistic. Furthermore, this detail creates a comic situation. The humor plays an important role in the film, revealing the characters’ views of certain concepts or hidden sarcasm of the film director. For example, when at the beginning of the film, Susan uses humor to tell about Ann’s marriage. Susan says that she caught a bouquet, but then adds that she also dropped it. This joke clearly shows the girl’s and authors’ views of the concept of marriage.
Thus, the plot lines, actors’ performance and realistic film techniques were critical to Weill’s realistic portrayal of emancipated women. The elements of the style chosen by the film director were revolutionary for her time and implemented the latest innovations in realistic filmmaking at the same time.
Claudia Weill revisions the traditional views of gender roles and emancipation in her 1978 film Girlfriends. Weill shows instead of telling, and uses the emancipation discourse to reveal her messages about feminism and the shifts in gender roles. Importantly, Weill, who is recognized as a pioneer in the field of feminist films, presented her unique interpretation of emancipation, based upon the characters’ searches for happiness and personal identity instead of outright demands of equal rights. The actors’ talented performance, variety of realistic film techniques and detailed psychological portraits of characters contributed to the realistic portrayal of the emancipated women in the film.
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