Often in film, women become fulfilled and find their identity when they find their romantic interest, who is usually a man. Every aspect of their life begins to make sense, which in the case of a woman in cinema, has only two aspects: her romantic life and her work life. In recent years, there has been more of an attempt by filmmakers to explore female characters with a multifaceted approach that mirrors the real lives of contemporary women. As a result of this, three films have come out in the last 3 years that have changed how a woman’s identity is formed in film outside of being a romantic interest. Lady Bird’s Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), How to be Single’s Alice (Dakota Johnson) and Captain Marvel’s Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) are all women whose identities are formed as a result of the friendships that they have with other women, as opposed to their love interest.
As a coming of age film, Lady Bird immediately deals with themes of identity and how it can be formed as a result of your location, class and those who surround you. Although she believes that she will find herself only when she leaves Sacramento, she comes to realise that her identity cannot be forced and finds it in the most unexpected of places. She finds it in her relationship with her mother and in their relationship to Sacramento, a place she hated so much but, when she leaves, is the place that holds her heart. Most importantly, she finds her identity in the arms of her friend. Lady Bird abandons her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) so she can hang out with bad boy Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) and change her life so that it edges closer to the life she has always aspired to have. At the climax of the film, though, she realises that Julie is the love of her life who has always accepted her as she is and realises her identity is closely intertwined with their friendship. Yes, she has love interests and her college application is an intrinsic part of the plot, but when she finally finds herself it is when she is with Julie.
How to be Single’s Alice is older than Lady Bird but is still attempting to find herself through romantic love. In contrast to Lady Bird, How to be Single was marketed as a generic romantic studio film whose climax will inevitably lead to the female lead ending up with a male romantic partner. This was further cemented when we met her fun-loving single friend Robin (Rebel Wilson), whose character echoed back to best friends in past rom-coms. Instead, it became the story of four women of varying ages and, at different stages of their lives, whose lives mirrored the complex lives of contemporary women in New York City, more than they resembled the lives of Meg Ryan’s iconic rom-com heroines. The main character, Alice, spends the majority of the time chasing a romantic interest with the assumption that is the most important thing to do. At any time, she is either looking for her next romantic partner or currently with them. However, it is her perennially-single best friend Robin who teaches her that she does not have to be identified by the man that she is with. With each of her partners, Alice changes herself in order to match them as opposed to being herself. At the end of the film, Alice has reached the conclusion that the time that we have to be alone and truly get to know ourselves is probably the most cherished time of our lives; it’s when we truly learn who we are. The men in her life did help her reach this conclusion, but it’s Robin who allows her to open her eyes to her identity and the importance of finding yourself by yourself.
It is not only in the genre of traditionally romantic films that this new trend of female friendships can be seen. Captain Marvel’s entry into the Marvel universe was widely celebrated with its trailer and marketing campaign, emphasising Marvel’s championing of its first female-led film. Whilst much of the attention has gone to it crossing the $1 billion mark at the box office, there is another reason the film is so extraordinary. It is the first Marvel film in which a woman has not been introduced as a love interest or as a member of SHIELD who only interacts with men. The story follows Vers, who has no memory of her previous life, as she tries to rediscover her identity. Her journey eventually leads her to the home of Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), who helps her remember. Maria reminds Vers that she is Carol Danvers by naming her and reminds her of the strong, stubborn, funny, talented and ambitious woman that she is. The strength of their friendship allows Carol to draw together her past, along with her present identity, to become Captain Marvel. The friendship is a core part of her identity, both in her past and her present life, and is also shown to be her source of strength. This friendship is strengthened further through Carol’s role as ‘Auntie Carol’ to Maria’s daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar), who is integral to Carol finding her true identity. As opposed to the more subtle Lady Bird and How to be Single, Captain Marvel explicitly shows how important female friendships are to the identity of a female character, as opposed to the presence of a male love interest.
The women in mainstream films have had their female friendships relegated to the side-lines as, often, their friends will often be the quirky sidekick who can be used as a soundboard to analyse their lives. Additionally, the closer these women become to their romantic interest, the less interaction they have with their friends as they do not fit the identity that their love interest has forged for them. If Lady Bird followed the template of a generic film about a girl coming of age, she would have probably ended up with Kyle who would have profoundly changed her life and assigned her identity to her. She would never have been given the opportunity to realise that her past is as vital to her identity as the future that she has ahead of her. In a similar way to Alice in How to be Single, she would never have realised that romantic partners will come and go, but forging your own identity is the ultimate happily ever after. Their ability to do this and their strength comes from their Julie and Robin, respectively, who never ask for them to change or alter themselves, but simply accept them as they are so that they too can accept themselves. In the case of Carol Danvers, she felt lost without her identity and found it in her best friend, who reminded her of the great woman that she is. In all three films, the strength and loyalty of their female friends allow the three female leads to find their true identity without having to completely alter themselves for the sake of a romantic happily ever after.
Whilst the three supporting women in these films offer more to their female leads than the best friends before them, they are still largely underdeveloped characters whose own agency and journey is not explored adequately. There is no indication in any of the films what the women do when they are not directly in the lives of the main characters. Robin alludes to this when she accuses Alice of only spending time with her when she does not have a man. It is interesting that all the love interests in these films are male; there is no sign or hint that any of the female characters could develop into one. Although there has been rampant speculation online as to the nature of Carol and Maria’s relationship, Marvel has not officially confirmed whether there is a romantic aspect to it. In addition to this, it is also interesting that Maria is the only woman of colour out of the six women from these films. However, her story as an African-American woman trying to become a pilot in 90s America whilst raising her daughter alone is also never given the respect or attention it deserves.
Therefore, whilst there has been some progress in terms of improving the depiction of female relationships in film, there still needs to be more focus on the characters themselves, whether they are leading or supporting roles.
by Aleena Augustine
Aleena is a Classics graduate who splits her time between High Wycombe (just outside of London) and wherever the latest film or TV show she is bingeing is set. She enjoys watching rom-coms (they are not just a guilty pleasure), coming of age films (from John Hughes to Greta Gerwig), animated films (cries at every single one), comedies featuring a strong female ensemble (thank you, Bridesmaids) and psychological thrillers (BONUS if they’re directed by David Fincher). Her favourite films are Before Sunrise, Inside Out, Zodiac and When Harry Met Sally. You can also find her on her blog, That’s What She Said and as a contributor for the music blog, Music Bloggery.
Categories: Feminist Criticism