As a curtain-raiser to the Girlhood season of films at the Exeter Phoenix Professor Danielle Hipkins and Professor Fiona Handyside present an introduction. We caught up with them to find out what to expect and what makes girlhood such an important issue for films to explore
You’re introducing the Girlhood season at the Exeter Phoenix with an informal lecture. What can you tell us about the issues you’ll be raising?
We’re planning to speak about the increased visibility of girlhood in contemporary media culture, which involves both celebration and intense scrutiny. Girls are celebrated as figures of strength and resilience (if we think of a series like The Hunger Games) and also of appealing sparkle, such as Elsa in Frozen with her magic ice-creating powers or JoJo Siwa’s outsize sparkly bows.
Looking towards some of the films that are included in the season we consider what techniques and themes films from outside the mainstream bring to this picture. In some ways they might reinforce it but they also broaden the kinds of girl we might see.
One way in which they do this is through an emphasis on authenticity, particularly in their choice of performers, such as films like La Mif or Rocks, which cast girls from the area or situation of the narrative. Another way is to challenge the ideal of the can-do girl that tends to dominate popular culture, by emphasizing the possible limits that she faces, such as the tension between a family involved in the Calabrian mafia and the judicial system that the heroine of A’ Chiara has to negotiate. These films still draw on some of those feel-good ideas about how girls find support from (possibly) unconventional families and from their friends and siblings, and celebrate their survival, but they also complicate the picture and make more difficult and problematic elements visible too.
How has the image of girlhood on film changed over time?
The first thing we might say is that it’s become more central, particularly in terms of moving away from ideas of the girl as an object of desire and/or in need of protection, the Lolita figure we might say. So often the figure of the girl has stood in for something else, fear of an increasing sexualized society, for example. More recently, however, particularly through the involvement of female directors in cinema, from Sofia Coppola to Céline Sciamma, demands that we try to see things from the girls’ perspective. It’s probably important to acknowledge that girls on film have always been popular – the first ten years of cinema saw no fewer than six adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, for example. Representing girls is a great shortcut to thinking about what our aspirations and hopes are for the future, and how we think society might react to changing ideas about gender, identity, and what’s suitable or possible for girls and women.
How important is it to have an accurate and varied representation of girlhood in film?
We’ve both been involved with projects that talk to girls about their experience of film, and it is very common for them to be sensitive to, and complain about, absences in representation. Is their race, body shape, religion, sexuality represented in the stories they get to watch? Or is the focus still on the slim, conventionally pretty white girl? Increasingly we are seeing a much greater range of representation, but it is not enough simply to have these different figures appear – their stories need to be engaging, and that is still just as important as diversity. Viewers of all ages will see through a kind of ‘plastic diversity’. At the same time, it’s also important to think about how audiences can and want to engage with fantastical experiences, with experiences also very different to their own, in which accuracy might not be the most important factor. There isn’t any singular girls’ or women’s perspective: the greater range of films, and filmmakers we have, with different ideas, the better.
What are your formative films?
DH: I didn’t see much cinema growing up. Maybe that’s why I’m obsessed with it now! I did have an uncle who loved the Hollywood classics, so occasionally we would watch The African Queen on a Sunday afternoon and I remember being a bit baffled about the appeal of Humphrey Bogart. Probably the first film I remember watching with other girls for fun was Pretty Woman, so in my late teens, when Prince Charming was still around, but in an ironic way, with a credit card. So, I don’t remember many films with girl protagonists. Much more recent films that have influenced me are made by female directors, like the British Fish Tank or American Honey by Andrea Arnold, because they show how girls can experience vulnerability and survive, possibly.
FH: I grew up in Torbay where there was rather a dearth of decent cinema in the 1980s – although I have fond memories of going to see Gérard Depardieu’s barnstorming Cyrano de Bergerac with my best friend at the Paignton Picture House. That was the first film I owned on VHS! I only really discovered film when I lived in Paris when I was 20. It was a complete revelation to me in terms of the range and depth of films one can see in Paris – it has more screens per head of the population than any other city in the world. I became a complete cinéphile. I now combine that love of arthouse cinema with a quite eclectic range.
What can you tell us about the films that are part of the season?
At the heart of La Mif is a creative collaboration between director and cast, in which the young actresses were heavily involved in the development of their characters and stories – an approach not dissimilar to that taken by Sarah Gavron in the British film Rocks. All the films in the season put girls at the centre of the narrative, and they offer a snapshot of growing up in different corners of the globe. They are all about girls facing immense challenges of one kind or another, from abandonment to organized crime. They are also interested in the bonds that sustain girls, whether with friends or family, and how those bonds can be both support and constraint. Where else do the girls of these films find escape or even growth? Sometimes in new or unexpected spaces, such as the circus in Nevia, which seems to call for us to think about new ways to imagine girls’ futures.
What is the role of film in society?
For the adolescents that we’ve been working with in Italy recently, who’ve just been through the COVID-19 pandemic, film has played an incredibly important role. It’s been friend, distraction, entertainer, educator, and a way of exploring how to grow when real-life experience has been put on hold. It’s not necessarily kept young people apart either – they often tell us how they connected, sometimes watching films at the same time, from their separate rooms, as if to replicate the cinema experience. It’s been incredibly moving to hear.
Where can we find out more, follow you, and all that sort of thing?
- Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood (I.B. Tauris, 2017)
- International Cinema and the Girl: Local Issues, Transnational Contexts co-edited with Kate Taylor-Jones (Palgrave, 2015)
Website: A Girls’ Eye View (exeter.ac.uk)
A Season of Girlhood (on screen) runs from 5 March – 27 April 2022 | EXETER PHOENIX