Céline Sciamma’s film Girlhood is a coming-of-age film about a sixteen-year-old girl named Marieme (Karidja Touré) who is lost, stuck in an abusive household and unsure of what her academic future holds. She finds solace in others throughout the film by changing aspects of herself to fit in with her peers. It is not until the very end of the film that we see Marieme free herself from the chains of what everyone else wants her to be.
We are introduced to Marieme as she walks home with the other girls. She lives in a poor neighborhood with her sisters: Bébé (Simina Soumare), who takes care of their youngest, Mini (Chance N’Guessan), as well as their older brother, Djibril (Cyril Mendy). Their mother is at work most of the time, leaving the young girls at the mercy of Djibril. There is a scene where Marieme notices Bébé’s wearing a bra, and comments, “has Djibril seen?” to which Bébé replies, “I don’t think so.” Marieme instructs her to just wear baggy clothes instead of letting him or their mom notice, an indication that not even their bodies are their own in that house.
Marieme only knows how to survive; she does not appear to have a group of supportive friends, and she has failing grades. When she finds out she will not be able to continue on to high school, she seems to reach a breaking point. “It’s not my fault,” she says. Marieme is told that if she goes to vocational school, she will be able to find a job and leave home. However, she is convinced that leaving home is not an option for her. All she wants is a normal life, to be like her classmates. She wants to fit in, but we get a sense that her overwhelming life at home has negatively affected the rest of her life.
Upon leaving school, she is confronted by a group of other young girls who ask her to join them on a trip to Paris. The gang is made up of: Lady (Assa Sylla), their leader, Fily (Mariétou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh). Marieme turns them down, initially turned off by their abrasiveness, until she sees her brother’s friend, Ismael (Idrissa Diabate), and a group of his friends approach them. Marieme sees this as an opportunity to get closer to Ismael, with whom she has a crush on, and agrees to join them.
During their first outing to Paris, Marieme finds out immediately the loyalty they have for one another. On the train, they share a moment listening to the song ‘Wop’ by J. Dash, where Marieme and Lady dance together. We witness a true moment of happiness for Marieme, her first real taste of what life could be like. It is no longer just about Ismael, it is about escape. Marieme quickly transforms into one of the girls. Her hair is no longer in her braids, but now mimics Lady’s signature hairstyle, and she rocks a leather-jacket like them. This is not just an aesthetic change, however. Marieme even begins to intimidate others to get what she wants, in one instance she demands money from another girl to give to Lady. Marieme acts tough, but we can see the regret written all over her face the moment the girl rushes away. This is not who she is, but she wants badly for it to be.
The money Marieme stole is a contribution toward a hotel room so they can party. In the room, Marieme escapes to the bathroom to answer a phone call from her brother. Lady lounges in the bathtub and she tells Marieme not to answer the call, making her repeat the phrase, “I do what I want.” Lady then gifts Marieme with a necklace that says the word ‘Vic’ for ‘victory.’ Vic becomes her new persona, where she will prove to herself and everyone else that she can win against the hardships she faces.
The girls drink, do drugs, and adorn themselves in dresses that they stole. There is a beautiful scene that follows where the girls sing and dance to the song ‘Diamonds’ by Rihanna. The bond these girls share with one another is fierce and supportive. Marieme fully embraces the role of Vic when she joins in their dancing. Like most sixteen-year-olds, Marieme still does not know who she is, yet it is clear she is not satisfied. She associates herself, Marieme, as a girl who is failing school, who is running from an abusive brother and living in an unhappy household with a seemingly hopeless future. She sees Vic as someone she could be, someone who is strong and can fight for herself just like Lady. Someone who is even cool enough to catch the attention of Ismael.
After Lady badly loses a fight with a girl from a rival group, getting her shirt torn from her body in front of everyone, she faces public humiliation. Vic decides to face the girl in a rematch against Lady’s wishes and wins. Vic rips the shirt off the girl and takes it even further by cutting the girl’s bra off using her switchblade, holding it up in front of everyone as a trophy. She is victorious for the first time in her life. Afterwards, Vic tells Lady she did this for her, but Lady knowingly calls her out, saying “you did this for yourself.” Vic knows this is true. She fought the girl to prove to herself her own strength. Nonetheless, Lady hugs her, proud of her.
At the same time, Vic gets closer with Ismael. They keep their relationship under wraps, as they both know that if it is revealed they are seeing each other, it will put Vic and Ismael at risk of Djibril. After she wins the fight, Vic goes to Ismael’s house in the middle of the night and initiates sex with him, commanding him to undress. In this instance, she feels confident after her win and wishes to explore her sexuality, taking on the more dominant role.
On another outing, Vic sees Bébé with a group of girls who are all ganging up on someone. This enrages Vic, and she says that Bébé should not be hanging out with those girls. Bébé is quick to point out that Vic is there too. It is as if Vic was finally able to look into the mirror into what she was becoming, as she looked upon Bébé turning into someone she else too. They realize they are both facing the terrifying experience of growing up.
When Djibril finds out that Vic and Ismael slept together, he chokes her and calls her degrading names. All he is worried about is how her actions will reflect on him and the family, fully confirming the fact that she does not have autonomy there. Vic realizes she can no longer stay in their home, and leaves. She meets a man named Abou at a restaurant who seems intrigued by her in her weakened state.
Vic decides to run away, finally leaving home for good, something she thought would be impossible. Abou entices Vic to work for him selling drugs, offering her protection from her brother in return. When Lady, Fily and Adiatou warn her against this, Vic asks them desperately, “what else can I do?” The girls comfort her and they all share an emotional farewell. Vic even finds out that Lady’s real name is Sophie, and it feels as if Lady is as much of a persona as Vic is for Marieme, where maybe they are all running from themselves. Vic believes this the only chance she has to leave her neighborhood with the hopes that she will find something better. However, in order to work for Abou, Vic transforms yet again into someone else. Around the people she works with, she binds her breasts and wears loose fitting clothing in order to hide her sexuality from them, seemingly following her own advice to Bébé at the beginning of the film.
One night Ismael visits her, and he comments that he does not like where she’s living. “It’s mine. That’s what matters” she says. All she wants is to have a space that is just hers. When they start to get intimate, Ismael finds out that she has been binding her breasts and gets angry with her. “Wanna look like a guy?” he asks. He does not like that she is hiding herself, but it is as if he has more of an issue of her not fitting into what he wants her to be, rather than a concern for how she feels. It becomes obvious that Ismael likes her for who she was portraying herself to be, as Vic, and when she fails to meet this expectation of what he wants, it angers him.
After Abou tries to kiss Vic at a party, she storms out and rushes to Ismael’s apartment, claiming that she is finally done with Abou. Ismael apologizes for getting angry with her and offers her a chance to live there with him. He wants her to move in with him, then get married. Ismael claims that any issue of them living together will go away if they marry. “You’re a decent girl if we marry” he says.
She realizes that she does not want that, and does not simply want to be his “little wife.” This is the first decision she has made just for her own preservation rather than proving herself to anyone. She becomes aware that she may not have the life that she wants yet, but she knows that she is tired of being what everyone else wants. At the end of the film, Marieme tries to go home, but cannot bring herself to. She has not yet found herself, but she is finally free to. All her experiences along the way have made her stronger, so although Girlhood ends on an ambiguous note, the viewer is a lot more confident that Marieme will now be free to find out who she really is.
by Alysha Prasad
Alysha Prasad (she/her) is an aspiring freelance writer who is going to be pursuing her Master’s Degree in Film and Television at DePaul University in Chicago. Her favorite films include: Call Me By Your Name, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Before Sunset. You can find her on Twitter at @leeshprasad.
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