*CONTENT WARNING: grooming, mentions of fatphobia, mentions of pedophilia*
No matter how you slice it, the definition of femininity is devious. The way it’s societally applied to exclude trans women and women of colour is sinister enough regardless of how many girlboss infographics are made. This is due to the inextricable connection between the ideal feminine and the male gaze; all the stringent, unspoken guidelines applied to women for the sole purpose of pleasing a man visually, behaviorally, and sexually. From childhood people socialised as women are taught to think about when men will think of them first and foremost.
À Ma Sœur (released as Fat Girl in the US) follows two teenage sisters navigating the labyrinth of sexuality on a vacation to the French coast. While many critics have called Catherine Breilliat’s choice to show teenage sexuality — the good, the bad, and the incredibly ugly — unfettered “exploitative”, it’s incredibly accurate in the discussions and descriptions of how the conditioning of young girls to please men really is. What stuck most with me was how it highlights and centres the high price for virginity, how men want women that radiate innocence, yet are perceived as promiscuous. The conditions for women being desirable remain balanced on a tenuous distinction between being demure and yet pliable to the will of a man.
The crux of the film focuses on the cultural obsession with virginity: why men covet it and what’s the ideal way for a woman to lose it. Elder sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) maintains the ideal way to be deflowered is by someone who loves her, while Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) would rather it be with a stranger in a swift encounter. The way that each sister wants to lose their virginities is tied heavily with their appearances and their respective desirability. Anaïs is the titular “fat girl” and is aware that her weight makes her immediately less desirable. She’s reminded regularly that she is lesser because she is fat, not only verbally by her mother but in the way she’s treated when she’s near her sister. Conversely, Elena is the picture of femininity: waif thin, doll-like features, and an air of both mystique and innocence. She fits the picture of the “nymphet”: a term first attributed to the titular character in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The reasoning why the young Elena is the centre of multiple men’s attention during the film calls into question why so many criteria for “ideal femininity” correlate with looking barely legal. Being hairless, being shorter, and having a higher pitched voice — all qualities that young children have — are what draw men to Elena and repel them from Anaïs (in combination with obvious fatphobia). The way both girls frame their bodies show that they’re both painfully aware of how they’re seen by men and their thought processes and behaviours are molded accordingly.
Alongside the fixation with dating young, innocent, “feminine” girls comes the discussion of grooming. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert sees Lolita as a sex object which is concerning at minimum considering she’s a young teen and he’s her tutor. Throughout the novel Humbert continually abuses his power to take advantage of Lolita to satisfy his pedophilic urges all while convincing Lolita that she’s retained some power in the arrangement (she hasn’t). The same scenario exists in Fat Girl: Elena enters a relationship with Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), a man close to a decade older, because he appreciates her beauty. He butters her up with praise, assuring her that they’re on equal ground when they’re most certainly not. Despite Elena obviously being in her teens, Fernando pressures Elena into a more sexual relationship; at first she’s into it because she believes that she holds some power and, because Fernando is paying her amazing amounts of attention, she naively thinks it’s love. She’s wrong on every account, Anaïs knows this and is completely unable to convince her sister otherwise. So she sits and watches as Fernando lulls Elena into a sense of security, woos her with a steamy illicit encounter (with Anaïs in the room), and then witnesses the inevitable power trip Fernando unleashes. This guy uses every trick in the book after Elena politely backs out on her first time: blue balls, threatening to cheat on her, and the tried and true “you don’t really love me, do you?” Eventually Elena feels pressured and Fernando offers the “back door method” as a compromise for the night — and once again Anaïs is in the same room hearing her sister get violated. Anaïs knows when she’s seeing someone get violated, even herself, but because her sister notices that she’s pleasing a man that says he loves her Elena ignores all her warning signs which leads to her untimely fate.
À Ma Sœur is an exercise in deconstructing femininity through the male gaze. It shows every disgusting aspect of how women are shaped to cater to men and the consequences of doing so. Anaïs is forced to take the voyeur position in watching her sister get manipulated further into becoming a commodity for an older man that doesn’t see her as a human, but instead a conquest. The obsession with purity and deflowering those seen as desirable is not just a subtle commentary but instead the front and centre of the discomfort. It is impossible to escape how pervasive the male gaze is, and why certain women are seen as desirable, for the duration of the film. The conditions of desirability lie in the hands of men, and their results are never pretty.
Red (they/them) is an English literature student based out of the swamp that is Florida. Their bread and butter is horror movies — the cheesier the better — but if someone puts on a Wes Anderson or Hayao Miyazaki movie they won’t complain. Their favourite movies are The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dogtooth, Sorry to Bother You, and The Muppet Movie.