Girlfriends: Fantastic Light

Essays

Nov 10, 2020

<i>Girlfriends:</i> Fantastic Light
Actor Melanie Mayron with director Claudia Weill in 1978

Girlfriends: Fantastic Light

Essays

Nov 10, 2020

In the half-light of the opening shot of Girlfriends, a woman asks, “What are you doing?” and another responds, “Go back to sleep.” You could dismiss this as a bit of passing dialogue—or you could see in it a larger question, one that, if anything, feels more urgent in the present moment than it did in 1978. Claudia Weill shot her film after the dawn of second-wave feminism, and, among the many things women were asking themselves and one another, a key question was: What are you doing? And, more to the point, What are you doing to counter a culture contingent on women’s silence?

I am reminded of the opening of The Tempest, one of William Shakespeare’s late plays, in which Miranda questions Prospero, her father. What are you doing, she wants to know, and he responds by telling her his story, a long saga of trials and tribulations. She listens, but then, when she repeats her question (“For still ’tis beating in my mind—your reason for raising this sea storm”), he tells her, in effect, to go back to sleep: “Here cease more questions. Thou art inclined to sleep. ’Tis a good dullness, and give it way.”

In Weill’s film, the interchange is not between a daughter and her father or, for that matter, a wife and her husband. It is not the patriarch who is being questioned. Instead, the exchange is between girlfriends. Anne was awakened by the click of Susan’s camera shutter; Susan had been photographing Anne in her sleep. When the clicks continue, Anne repeats her question: “What are you doing? It’s still dark in here.” Susan responds, “No, it’s not—this light is fantastic.” The same can be said about this film.

In Girlfriends, Weill shines a brilliant light on what may well be the most subversive relationship within patriarchy. Because women’s complicity is essential to maintaining a patriarchal order, girls becoming women come under pressure to align themselves with men and submit to the voice of male authority. Girlfriends, then, is a film about resistance.

“Weill stakes out her terrain: these are two aspiring artists and, as such, women for whom having a voice and room of one’s own is especially essential.”

“Weill was tapping into bedrock: the struggle a creative woman faces within a patriarchal order, what it takes for her to hold on to her honest voice and to be truly a friend.”

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