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Creating Spaces of Agency Through the Reimagination of Black Female Identity in Girlhood

In this essay, I aim to locate the film Girlhood (Bande de Filles, 2014) within a tradition of European postcolonial cinema and to look at the ways in which it challenges notions of black female identity through conceptualisations of the gaze and the oppositional gaze. I argue that the film creates exciting new spaces of agency through the use of music, framing and camera movement, and challenges both gender and racial stereotypes.

According to an article published in The Guardian, there are more than 12 million first- and second-generation immigrants in France, many of them from former French colonies. Yet, people of colour remain fairly absent from French cinema. When Céline Sciamma’s film Girlhood hit cinemas five years ago, the all-black female cast stirred a debate on representation in French film, in it being one of a few of its kind. So how do we categorise Sciamma’s film? Sciamma herself is a white, French woman, wherefore the film does not count as immigrant cinema according to the distinction made by Sandra Ponzanesi and Verena Berger. The characters of the film are supposedly second-generation immigrants – they appear to be well integrated in their community, with no signs of other languages spoken at home. The film does however position itself as postcolonial European cinema. Ponzanesi and Berger argue that the broad concept encompasses notions of identity and socio-political formations in former colonial powers and looks at the ways in which the colonial legacy is reproduced. Through the uplifting of alternative or marginalised narratives, postcolonial European cinema reshapes the way that we think about contemporary Europe.

The French-Tunisian thinker and essayist Albert Memmi coined the term “mark of the plural” in mapping out the dynamics between the coloniser and the colonised; a term descriptive of a dehumanising approach to the colonised subject that deprives him or her of individuality. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam elaborate on, this approach makes any form of representation of said group an object of generalisation. Though assumedly not in explicit dialogue with Memmi, it seems that Girlhood deconstructs such an approach through the nuanced portraits of Marieme and her friends in the film. The film centers around a group of four, but in the second half of the film the group has grown to include over a dozen girls. In one scene the camera simply lingers on every individual for a while before moving on to the next: a compelling tracking shot reclaiming the right to individuality.

One exciting way in which the film reimagines notions of black female identity is in its play with the gaze. Through her experience as a black female spectator, bell hooks toys around with the concept and locates the black (cinematic) gaze within a history of oppressed gazes, tracing it to the slave/owner relation where slaves were forbidden to look their owners in the eyes. There is a scene in Girlhood mirroring this notion where the pimp Abou is enraged with Marieme and orders her direct her gaze to the floor. Elaborating on this power dynamics, hooks sees the development of the television – a viewing context in which the black community was allowed to gaze at white people all they wanted – as liberating in a sense. Even though television culture reproduced a white hegemonic worldview, it formed a passage to a critical gaze, or what hooks calls the oppositional gaze. The oppositional gaze enables spaces of agency. With Laura Mulvey’s famous text about the male gaze in mind, hooks brings an interesting perspective to the debate, namely turning what Mulvey sees as an oppressing male gaze into an enabling black gaze.

Black, yes – but male nonetheless. In the words of Anne Friedberg: “Identification can only be made through recognition, and all recognition is itself an implicit confirmation of the ideology of the status quo”. Since cinema reproduces a western, white, male perspective, a black female perspective is often missing (hooks writes her text in 1992, and I believe her argument to be relevant still although a lot has changed over the past 27 years). While the repressed gaze had been liberated in one sense by cinema and television culture, hooks returns to Mulvey’s line of reason when problematising the objects of the gaze and the identification or lack of identification it causes. In her famous formulation, the male becomes the bearer of the look and the female the object of desire. Recognising the power of the gaze, hooks suggests that without any subjects to identify with on screen, the black female spectator is often forced to resist identification and look the other way or to “not look too deep”, ignoring racism and sexism. hooks stresses that shaping an oppositional gaze is still possible for a black, female audience, however – and necessary – as a force of resistance. This oppositional gaze will pave way for a new cinema.

hooks ends her article with a description of a scene from the film Passion of Remembrance (Isaac Julien, Maureen Blackwood, 1986) which offers new points of recognition for a black female audience. Two female characters, Louise and Maggie, dress up to go dancing and are portrayed in a non-voyeuristic way that emphasises their subjectivity as black women. There are striking similarities between this scene and one of the pivotal scenes in Girlhood. The girls have rented a hotel room and filled it with booze, snacks and shoplifted dresses. They laugh, take bubble baths, smoke, dress up, drink, dance and fall asleep in a pile. The last part of the scene is built up like a music video to the diegetic beats of Rihanna’s song “Diamonds”: the girls look straight in the camera, mime and dance. But more than resembling an actual music video, what the scene mostly resembles is teenage girls’ attempts at resembling music videos aesthetics, something I believe many spectators recognise from their own youth. In contrast to a music video that aims at selling, this scene captures the pure joy of dancing for no one’s sake but your own.

The dancing scene has become famous for a reason; I believe it illustrates the transformation of the black female spectator to that from an outsider to that of an insider. Marieme initially sits on the bed, looking at the other three dancing. Her eyes glitter – it is as if she as spectator finally identifies with what she is looking at, paving the way for an oppositional gaze. Recognising in that moment herself through looking at others, the identification enables her to crawl up from the bed and join the dance. On a narrative level, this identification tells us about the self-discovery of a teenage girl, and on a symbolic level, it tells us about the long sought-after self-discovery of a black, female audience. Just as Marieme is invited to join the dancing, a black female audience is invited to recognise themselves and to rejoice in the celebration of black female sisterhood, emphasised by Marieme’s gaze straight into the camera.

Narrative conventions suggest that the building up of this scene would have it ending with some sort of involvement with boys, but it does not. The girls do not even leave the hotel room. The dancing and dressing up is done for the sole purpose of their own enjoyment. This refusal to adapt to an oppressing gaze is emphasised in the mise-en-scène (the hotel room as an enclosed environment), in the dialogue (Lady forcing Marieme to say: “I do what I want”), and in the lyrics of the song (“We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky”, “I chose to be happy”). The naive notion of choosing happiness has an empowering quality in this specific context, not least since it contrasts to the harsh reality in which it is not as simple as choosing happiness. Marieme is weighed down by domestic responsibilities; taking care of her younger sisters under the harsh rule of her older brother, having to compromise with her own space, getting punished for not answering her phone when she gets back home.

Though she is never portrayed as a victim, Marieme’s life is shaped by patriarchal and racist structures and it is fair to assume that her story reflects many people’s realities in modern-day France. If the city of Paris symbolises white hegemony, it is foreign land to Marieme who lives in the suburb. The white shop assistant looks suspiciously at her when she enters a Parisian store and the only time we get a panoramic shot of the glittering city is from a high rise that Marieme helps her mother clean. The distance from the city is illustrated in the hilarious mini golf scene where one of the courses are shaped as the Eiffel tower. In my reading, this scene suggests that the girls form a new (city) center, a world evolving around them, inviting the audience to a new subjectivity and new notions of black femininity. It effectively emphasises the marginal perspective that characterises European postcolonial cinema: replacing the real Eiffel tower that has historically been the focal point of French cinema to an alternative one.

”Girlhood: The Film that Busts the Myth of Conventional French Femininity”. The Guardian. 4/5 2015.

hooks, bell. Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.

Mulvey, Laura. ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. In Critical Vision in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, Meta Mazaj. Boston and New York: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2011: 713-725.

Ponzanesi, Sandra and Verena Berger. “Introduction: Genres and Tropes in Postcolonial Cinema(s) in Europe”. Transnational Cinemas. Vol. 7, No. 2 (2016): 111-117.

Shohat, Robert and Ella Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.


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