Girlfriends: Fantastic Light
The coming-of-age drama is generally thought of as portraying adolescence—the sexual awakening, the high-school cliques, the angst about the future. At least that’s the assumption on which Hollywood has profitably based its avalanche of teen pics for lo these many years. But the truly critical age, I would argue—where women are concerned, at any rate—is often our twenties. Once upon a time, marriage and a home over which to preside were a woman’s primary destiny; it was just a matter of who, when, and where. This was reinforced by popular culture. But with the sea change wrought by modern feminism, choice entered the picture; we were no longer set quite so firmly (or exclusively) on the path to matrimony, no longer expecting men to define us. Women might have vocations, interests, professional positions; initiate love affairs; marry without having children; postpone marriage; or not marry at all.
The turmoil and excitement, the fear and longing surrounding both ambition and love have rarely been captured with such vivid immediacy and emotional subtlety as in Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978). With its low-budget production values and scruffy setting—the bohemian milieu of a now-vanished New York; the bell-bottoms, Afros, cheap apartments; the plonk wine at parties; a bit of weed here and there—the movie is a postcard from a specific era and place. At the same time, Weill’s narrative feature debut seems surprisingly fresh and undated. Which is to say that the goals and relationship quandaries navigated by the film’s two roommates, played by Melanie Mayron and Anita Skinner, are still on the front burner for many women; if anything, the vexations surrounding our emotional, professional, and domestic lives are more urgent now than ever. The pressure not just to have children, for example, but to devote a great deal of time and energy to nurturing them is far greater than it was in the seventies and eighties. Which explains why the conflicting demands of home and work, the attempts to sort out the strands of identity and resolve the simplest questions as to where one’s obligations lie, are the stuff of contemporary editorials, blog posts, and social-media salvos. If women have made strides as artists, executives, politicians, media stars, and athletes, many of the old conflicts remain, accompanied by new ones . . . or perhaps complications and elaborations of the old ones. After all, part of the autonomy gained by women over the past few decades has been the license to reckon openly with long-suppressed rage and anger, and to fess up to wayward fantasies.
By comparison, the feminism of the seventies was about presenting a united front in the push for things such as the legalization of abortion, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and pay parity at work. There were outliers, of course, like the anti-porn and anti-sex feminists, but there was an overall sense of cohesion, a proud solidarity, that occasionally glossed over divisions, within both the women’s movement and our private selves. Since then, it seems, we’ve gone through several cycles of desiring, then resisting, stark independence. Or reexamining just what that independence has come to look like, how compromised it actually is. But in fact, there was always a certain amount of ambivalence. We demanded our rights, rooms of our own, self-definition, yet some part of many of us still harbored secret and antithetical yearnings for a man who would fill the space we were claiming, close the gap, smother us. In Girlfriends, Weill explores the complexity of these dynamics.
The film appeared in what we can now recognize as a thrilling moment for women directors, as well as for the actresses for whom those directors created complex and central roles. The era may be best known for the maverick auteurs—almost all male—who were seizing the opportunity in a changing Hollywood to make personal films, in which they tended not to feel any obligation to create juicy roles for women. But off to the sides, a great deal was happening for women filmmakers, who, like Weill, often took as their subject matter, explicitly or obliquely, the plight of (predominantly white) women under the influence of the old order: in Europe, Margarethe von Trotta, Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Lina Wertmüller. In America, Barbara Loden, Elaine May, Joan Micklin Silver, Stephanie Rothman. These filmmakers didn’t tend to give their male characters the same short shrift male directors so often give their female ones, and indeed, in Girlfriends, Weill affords the husband, rabbi, and boyfriend characters as much empathy and humanity as she does the girlfriends.
“Girlfriends is, in the conditions of its making as well as in its story, a time capsule from an era of unbridled hope hedged by large doses of struggle, and it represents a pivotal moment in the culture.”
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