by Rebecca A. Baum
Cut, no. 20, May 1979, p. 3
GIRLFRIENDS is a film which, by its title, raises hopes of a celebration of female bonding. While the film treats individual women with affection and respect, it seriously invalidates the way in which women care for each other. GIRLFRIENDS is the center and index of a trend the politics of which, I believe, can only be understood within an exploration of bonding in our culture.
Sexist society is, by definition, one in which the power of men and women is unequal. A product of that inequity is the difficulty of intimacy between men and women. Truly vulnerable, to-the-guts intimacy is notably impossible between equals. Men have, historically, turned to each other for intimacy. Their bonding is institutionalized from the military and prep school to the bowling league and the inebriated introspection of the local bar. It is men that men turn to with self-revelation. I can think of astonishingly few examples in our culture of the combination of sexuality and multidimensional, self-revelatory intimacy. Maybe the combination of the two is too incredibly explosive. Maybe that is one basis of sexism, the deliberate separation of the two.
Male-dominated culture reveals the male sphere. Relationships with women are seen as biological drudgery or, alternatively, irrational passion, senseless whether elevating or destructive. Popular and classical culture are replete with the connection of women with death, danger, and descent into the hell of irrationality. Women are larger or smaller than life (or sometimes both, usually with a disproportionately important sexuality and truncated sensitivity and intellect). Women are archetype, stereotype — the madonna or the whore, the overpowering witch/bitch or sexual plaything. The Rock group the Eagles carries on a long tradition when it sings,
Ah, the cosmic frustration of it all.
Culture is awash with images of male bonding; the male buddy movies are only the most recent and ccessible examples. For men, the human is man — "I must be a man" means I must be a person. For the human bond, men look to humans, to men. The male bond is the underpinning of survival — Butch dies with Sundance; Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo lived only by their each other; the warmth is palpable as Hutch falls, saved, into the arms of Starsky. Women are incidental to the love of M*A*S*H's Hawkeye for Trapper; they are the butt of the jokes, the sexual divertissements. Imagine any of these pairs in bed and you quickly sense a dimension rarely seen — intimacy and sex combined.
What's threatening to the sexist setup is — you guessed it — feminism. Women surviving and getting their identities from women. If women could look to women for sense of self, why would they settle for relationships with men in which they are often seen archetypically or stereotypically? Feminist homosexuality is the ultimate threat, breaking the patriarchal power imbalance and the inherent separation of sex and intimacy.
Which brings me to GIRLFRIENDS and female bonding in popular imagery which, with the exception of Laverne and Shirley, is practically nonexistent. The culture does not allow women to look to women for identity and sense of self.
GIRLFRIENDS is a major departure from the traditional movie images of women. GIRLFRIENDS's Susan and Ann are life-sized; they are not great beauties or superwomen. Melanie Mayron is a special actress with a sloppy, sweet, and Jewish face, a touchable woman without slickness or posing. The characters struggle to be intimate and assertive with men. This is a film by people who really know and like women. It is a major step in defining ourselves.
But it is not a film by people who love women, are defined by women, live or die on their bond with women. Rather than exploring female friendship, GIRLFRIENDS in fact exploits it. GIRLFRIENDS's audience is drawn to see "girl friendship" but the film shows little of the very powerful intimacy of women.
What connotes intimacy in film? The appearance of characters together in a frame or the strong connective cutting between them. The way they touch, the length and intensity of eye contact, secrets, in-jokes, language specific to the pair, the incredibly electric wink between Newman and Redford in THE STING. The attention to those things that are held in common, those things that make up the bond.
The "girlfriends" Susan and Ann rarely appear in a frame together. In fact, they have relatively few scenes together. When they do, the focus of the scenes is not on what binds them but what pulls them apart. Ann announces to Susan first that she likes Martin, then that she will marry him and later that she is pregnant. The two women are only minimally supportive of each other's art and aspirations. Ann regards Susan's aggressive pursuit of career with near disinterest, and there are a number of scenes in which the women criticize each other. It is shocking to realize that in a film about "girl friendship" the only time these women touch, the only time they embrace, is to congratulate each other on evolving relationships with men. The film has no real sense of the dissolution of the relationship or the reconstitution of it — there really is no sharing established.
There are some inklings in the end of Ann's very special need for Susan even though Ann has married away from her. But just when they seem to really start to share, they are interrupted by Martin. Ann responds immediately to the priority of this man, and the last shot of the film is of Susan, alone.
Lesbianism is handled interestingly in the film. Ciel, a lesbian woman, is portrayed against stereotype in a role analagous to Sidney Poitier's in GUESS WHO'S CONING TO DINNER? Against the myth of shiftlessness, Poitier is a world-renowned doctor. Against the myth of bull dyke, Ciel is a lesbian waif. A tad irresponsible, a bit spacey, but likeable. Ciel's relationship to Susan is, I feel, indicative of how liberal feminism sees lesbianism. Susan isn't freaked or repulsed by Ciel's sexual overtures; she simply says no. Straight feminism accepts lesbianism but doesn't see it as significantly different or representing a real alternative. Nor do straight feminists acknowledge the effect of gay life on hetero-feminist realities. There was nothing about Ciel that made her distinctly lesbian. There was nothing about the life she led that said anything particularly positive to Susan.
There is another scene that shows the filmmaker's subtler, more subconscious attitudes towards lesbianism. Susan is seen at a party, talking with her lover-to-be, Eric. He has just asked her to go home with him and she has refused. Over Susan's shoulder, in the background, we can see a couple kissing. It is not totally clear that they are two women — they are in shadow. But they are of equal height and certainly they are not clearly a man and a woman. Susan turns, looks over her shoulder and sees the couple. A look of disgust (?), jealousy (?), passes across her face and she now asks Eric to go home with her. The subtlety of the scene itself is insidious. The couple is not clear. The filmmakers would probably respond to being accused of homophobia by saying that the couple is a man and a woman. Yet they could easily be two women. The scene allows a person to project his/her homophobia onto it and yet remain unaware of it. The scene undercuts the liberal "tolerance" of homosexuality stated in the film.
Ultimately, regardless of the title, the female bond in GIRLFRIENDS is not the central or most significant focus. GIRLFRIENDS is about real women, one real woman in particular. I liked her very much; I liked her story. But GIRLFRIENDS is not about women's unique togetherness, about women's living by that togetherness. GIRLFRIENDS Is a pleasant movie. But it doesn't undermine the sexist, heterosexist setup where men are intimate with men and sexual with women and where women are taught to strive for both sex and intimacy with men, putting women second, discounting the bond of women, and remaining isolated in their frustration.