Perhaps my favorite scene in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood is the one where the protagonist, Marieme (Karidja Touré), strides slowly and purposefully by the windows of the darkened office high-rise that her mom cleans at night. Her gaze confidently combs the lights of Paris’s business district. As the city twinkles back at her, there is a sense of intense and thrilling possibility. Although Marieme is only sixteen years old, she has already decided to cut her own path in life. It’s not the subservient future envisioned by her school, her brother, or her mom. Girlhood tells the story of how a young girl finds her individual will in the space uniquely afforded by a group of girls. This lands her on a hurtling track that she has to work hard to keep control of. Propelled by a cerebral, pulsing soundtrack and perfectly minimalist scenes, Marieme uses the fluidity of identity as a tool for both control and discovery.
When we first meet Marieme, she’s already with a group of girls, but they’re not central to her everyday life. What concerns her more is her little sisters, her controlling brother, and an academic record that has locked her out of high school. Soon enough, however, she meets the group. Fily, Adiatou, and their natural leader, Lady, usher Marieme into their close-knit fold. The girls are characterized by a cool brazenness. They dress in leather jackets, command the respect of the neighborhood boys and resolutely take crap from no one. When a salesperson in a clothing store trails the newly inducted Marieme, suspecting she will steal something, Lady powerfully confronts the woman for her racism. In solidarity, the other girls close ranks and stride dismissively past the salesperson. Once they exit the shop, however, they collapse into a fit of giggles, comically reenacting the encounter. The four are able to create a shield around themselves: they are fierce to the harsh world outside and permissive to each other.
It’s within this shield that Marieme finds her will. “Say it: You do what you want,” Lady instructs her. When Marieme repeats back the words, her commitment to autonomy reaches beyond the comfort of the group, into the core of her self. From that point on, as she slips from one costume to the next, she never lets out of sight that promise: to do what she wants.
Of course, in a world organized by and for men, that is the least easy thing a young girl can set out to do. Indeed, Marieme’s full immersion into independence quickly comes up against man-made roadblocks. In her quest to remain in the driver’s seat, she steers around this by assuming male characteristics. Whether thanks to her malleable youth or because humans are capable of—even interested in—living outside the narrow gender confines dealt to them at birth, this isn’t particularly uncomfortable to her.
Yet a conversation with her roommate plainly confronts Marieme’s choice of identity:
“Think you’re not a bitch?” poses the roommate.
“Exactly,” replies Marieme
“You’re his bitch.”
“Playing the guy doesn’t mean you’re not a bitch. At least I live with it.”
And this is true. Even her well-fitting costume can’t sheath Marieme from the gender roles assigned by those in positions of power. After all, those men call the shots. Being a girl within her group of girlfriends is of high value: it’s a role imbued with respect, wit, camaraderie, and courage. But being a girl outside this microcosm, in a world where most countries have few female leaders, where as of 2015, 9 out of 10 world leaders are in fact male, is a whole different story. In this world, Marieme’s costume briefly confuses, allowing both males and females to interact with her as if she is neither. She’s given status and friendship from both sexes. When the leader decides to yank away her assumed identity, to bring her back down to just a gender, she insists on retaining the dignity that comes with looking like a boy. It’s the same dignity that she has among the group of girls, and it is this that she continues to look for.
There is a resonating message in Sciamma’s stunning movie. Girlhood is not easy, not for any girl. It’s even less easy for Marieme, who lives on the periphery, where neither film nor public policy cares to reach. But even there, she succeeds in doing what she wants to do. It is profoundly lonely and heartbreakingly difficult, but she does it.