What it means to be a girl in “Girlhood”

Girlhood (Bande de Filles) is a French coming of age drama directed by Celine Sciamma, who has made a name for herself in international cinema for her different takes within the genre (Bramowitz). This particular film follows the life of Marieme, a sixteen-year-old girl living in a low-income suburb of Paris as she attempts to overcome her home situation and reach a life she is proud of (Sciamma, Girlhood). The film flows in episodes that explore the many climaxes in the protagonist’s life as she makes both good and bad decisions, causing many situations and plot elements to be left unexplained and without any true resolution or conclusion (Sciamma, Girlhood). The eldest daughter in a family of four children, Marieme is responsible for her younger sisters while her mother works as a hotel maid and is verbal and physically abused by her elder brother (Sciamma, Girlhood). She finds solace in an all girl gang led by the fierce and confrontational Lady and features her friends Adiatou and Fily (Sciamma, Girlhood).. The girls rebaptize her as Vic, for Victoire, and she begins to alter her dress code as well as her quiet mannerisms in favour of a more aggressive attitude (Sciamma, Girlhood). Together the girls take on the neighbourhood, getting into physical altercations, stealing money, and partying in hotel rooms (Sciamma, Girlhood). However as Vic’s home life deteriorates, she chooses to leave in the hopes of making a newer and better life for herself, and must also leave behind her friends (Sciamma, Girlhood).

The atmosphere at Reelout was very hard to identify. When entering the theatre, the town and gown feeling was very present as two distinct age groups were present as university students, and baby boomers in about their fifties or sixties. However there appeared to be no animosity between the groups, with people interacting and discussing their expectations of the film. The space itself felt very appropriate for a small, niche festival in a local independent theatre and everyone appeared very comfortable in the slightly overfilled auditorium. During the film, the atmosphere changed from one of excitement to confusion very quickly. Sighs of exasperation and noises of disbelief slipped more than once. I believe this was due to the structure of the film. Much of my viewing time was spent attempting to put the pieces of the episodes together, however there were too many missing elements or no clear link between them. In fact as I left the theatre, I heard many people continue in their attempt even as they walked down the street, just to understand the exact point Sciamma was attempting to make. This almost created a continue sense of community as people began to listen to different groups and chime in with their own theories.
The film relies heavily on intersectional analysis in order to convey the narrative with focus lying primarily with class, gender, race, and sexuality. One of the topics most central to the story is Vic’s desire to reach a different life full of success that she cannot see in the place she lives. Early on Vic is seen facing an invisible school counselor begging to be allowed to repeat the year for the third time in the hopes of getting into high school rather than a vocational school (Sciamma, Girlhood). The suburb Vic resides in is predominantly working class and likely the majority went on to such institutions if they continued in education at all. It is revealed that although Vic wants to move forward, she has a number of oppressive forces against her such as her position in the working class and her female gender. No father figure is present in the film and Vic’s mother works long hours as a hotel maid, a career path Vic aggressively denies, and her character becomes almost obsolete due to her excessive working. Vic’s family appears to adhere to typical gender essentialism ideology that states men are not responsible for domestic duties such as child rearing, cleaning, and cooking but are more suited to working outside of the home to provide (Aulette, Wittner). Although Vic’s elder brother has no steady employment, these responsibilities are instead left to Vic, who cares for two younger sisters, the elder of the two is also forced to assist and eventually take over after Vic’s departure. It is clear that the duties that lie within the home where her family needs her and her education becomes an afterthought. Vic chooses not to attend vocational school and drops out all together along with her friends.
A subtler note Sciamma makes is in the social constructions, which are norms or beliefs created by media and culture and shape behaviors within society, associated with the girls’ hair related to their feminine expectations (Tolmie). The image of hair also has implications upon their race as women of colour. One of the most common manifestations of this in society is that of long, smooth, silky hair. This image is constructed by the typical hair type possessed by white women who the estimated majority female population in France (World Population Review). Upon meeting Lady, Adiatou, and Fily, Vic changes her entire appearance overnight (Sciamma, Girlhood). The most drastic of these changes is seen in that of her hair from dreadlocks to straight, smooth hair (Sciamma, Girlhood). As a woman of African origins, Vic’s hair is coarse and curly naturally, growing outwards rather than downwards and therefore not matching the white perpetuation of beauty. The majority of the girls in the film, including Vic’s small gang, all have been most likely either chemically treated their hair with a relaxer or appear to wear extensions or wigs in order for their hair to achieve a similar look. Shortly after her transformation, Vic’s unattainable crush Ismael suddenly becomes interested and strikes up a secret relationship (Sciamma, Girlhood). This focus on hair is also seen in another scene in which Lacy is beaten in a physical altercation with another girl posse (Sciamma, Girlhood). As punishment for the loss, Lady’s father cuts off all of her hair becoming a hot topic of gossip among the teenagers (Sciamma, Girlhood). In the aftermath, the boys Lady once considered her friends and equals call her, “[…] just a chick,” who is unable to fight and state that her hair makes her look unattractive yelling at her to leave (Sciamma, Girlhood). In both of these instances, Lady and Vic are attempting to meet not only the social constructions of beauty, but also that of exaggerated femininity (Kwiat). Exaggerated femininity is the idea that women must conform themselves into a woman possessing socially constructed perfect feminine qualities in order to satisfy male desires (Kwiat). Both girls are shown by the men in their lives that positive attention is given when possessing the long straight hair, and isolation is given to those who do not.
Vic’s relationship with Ismael comes under extreme strain throughout the last third of the film as a result of both her gender and its relation to her sexuality. After her first sexual experience with him, Vic is branded as the neighbourhood slut. This emphasizes the idea of the cult of the virgin, which identifies the societal belief that virginity is the most important virtue one possesses, particularly in women, and is clearly still strong in Vic’s community (Tolmie). Vic feels this as her community ostracizes her and her brother brutally beats her for bringing shame upon herself, the family, and most importantly him (Sciamma, Girlhood). In an attempt to assist, Ismael even offers to marry Vic stating it is the only way to improve her reputation, as his public image remains untarnished (Sciamma, Girlhood). One of the most key scenes in the film is between Ismael and Vic after she has left her home. Vic has cut her hair into a short style and has begun wearing larger clothing making her appear to look like the male figures surrounding her (Sciamma, Girlhood). As the couple begins to get intimate, Ismael removes her shirt to reveal Vic has begun bandaging her torso in an attempt to disguise her breasts (Sciamma, Girlhood). This is a typical technique used by female to male transgendered individuals who feel that although their genitalia are biologically female, they identify as a male (Gray). Ismael is horrified stating that it was just like her hair change and he becomes disgusted with her and leaves (Sciamma, Girlhood). This is another example of the exaggerated femininity that Ismael expects from Vic, which she has now refused to comply with, causing her to be left alone (Kwiat).
Girlhood as a film as fantastic to watch, particularly for the sake of analysis. Intersectionality appears to be at the forefront of the movie’s issues. Sciamma attempts to make the audience recognize that Vic’s struggles do not stem from one part of her being, but rather stem from the various forces of oppression that she is faced with. The audience predominantly sees the bridges between Vic’s gender, socio-economic class, and race, but due to the nature of the film’s many intentional plot holes, the viewer must look deeper in order to see the connections to her sexuality. The entire question of this is never truly addressed, and Vic never explicitly experiments with females or makes clear if her dress choices are now permanent. This was one of the main questions asked by the crowds gathered outside the theatre, and I can only hope that the other audience members were able to reflect and discover how sexuality intersected with the many other factors to determine Vic’s life.

Works Cited

Aulette, Judy Root., and Judith G. Wittner. Gendered Worlds. Third ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Bramowitz, Julie. “Céline Sciamma’s Newest Film, Girlhood, Changes the Face of the Coming-of-Age Story.” Vogue. Conde Nast, 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

Girlhood. Dir. Celine Sciamma. Perf. Karidja Toure, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Marietou Toure. Strand Releasing, 2014. Film.

Gray, Ira. “Chest Binding 101 – FTM Binder Guide | FTM Binding, Chest Binder, Breast Binders.” TransGuyscom. Trans Media Network, 06 Sept. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

Kwiat, Paulina. “Exaggerated Femininity.” Prezi.com. Prezi Inc., 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Tolmie, Jane, Dr. “Ads, Images, and Visual Culture.” Biosciences Auditorium, Kingston. 26 Jan. 2015. Lecture.

Tolmie, Jane, Dr. “Entertainment.” Biosciences Auditorium, Kingston. 12 Jan. 2015. Lecture.

World Population Review. “France Population 2014.” France Population 2014. World Population Review, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.


  1. curlyfrypoutine · February 22, 2015

    I really enjoyed reading your intersectional analysis of “Girlhood” and your discussion of how gender, race, class, and sexuality left Vic less privileged in society and desperate to overcome the prejudices associated with her labels. Your review also pointed out how even the people in Vic’s life that she should be able to trust, such as her family and Ismael, still oppress her in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

    What I found most interesting about your comments was the issue of hair and how something so simple can represent society’s obsession with exaggerated femininity. Even in watching the short trailer that you provided in this post, I quickly noticed that all of the girls looked relatively similar in their body type and hairstyle – the straight, smooth hair that you mentioned. Even though the camera simply panned left, showing the faces of the girls and not focusing on their bodies, it was quite clear that they were, for the most part, thin in body structure, and “physically attractive” by society’s standards. I would be interested to know why the creative team behind Girlhood decided to make that casting decision and whether it was intended to be a commentary on femininity and beauty expectations, or the typical mainstream Hollywood intentions of using pretty faces to attract viewers.

    You mentioned in your review that there was some confusion among the audience due to the choppy structure of the film. I would love to know at what parts the audience articulated exasperation and your theories as to why!


  2. thelazyriser · February 23, 2015

    I really enjoyed reading your review on Girl Hood! It sounds like a very interesting film that I would really enjoy watching. Your intersectional analysis was very well done and I particularly thought it was interesting when you mentioned how after her first sexual experience with a male she is branded a slut and subject to both physical and emotional abuse. This does not seem fair as I doubt that the male faced any criticism or ridicule when he was equally as involved. This can go back to how society views women and men differently. No one should be facing any sort of abuse at all, especially not for having a sexual encounter with another. That should be the individuals decision and it is no one else’s place to ridicule, especially not solely the woman.
    When Ishmael leaves Vic due to the bandages it is another example of the woman being blamed and the man not taking any responsibility. This is a serious issue within our culture where women are taking blame they do not deserve and men are not being help accountable.
    Overall this is a very interesting, well written, blog. I look forward to reading your next entree!


  3. lazybreakfast95 · February 23, 2015

    Much like the other two, i also enjoyed reading your post about the movie girlhood. The tittle, all though simple, makes it sound like it would be a rather interesting movie to watch. I really like how you posted the trailer to the movie because I can see how your observation on how the film relies a great deal on intersectionality. All though there is no words to the trailer, you can see how each female shown looks to differ in gender, race and class. I also find it rather interesting how it seems the movie focused largely on how hair type and race are related. Personally, I would never look at the connections they way they are stated above. It seems as though society has placed a large focus on the femininity of women based on their hair. My question for you, is do you believe that females are deemed “more feminine” if they have long, smooth and silky hair?

    Overall, a great review I really like how intersectionality is throughly involved in this film and film review!

    – Lazybreakfast95


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