Defining My Girlhood

[TW: Abuse]

 My childhood was destroyed and turned into something that damaged me by a patriarchal societal upbringing that intersected with transphobic views that smothered my reality and my possibility to find myself in a haze of physical, psychological and emotional abuse from parents and others. I never had a childhood for these reasons, much less a girlhood, but I’m relearning that it’s not too late to reconfigure and claim my own girlhood and define my childhood on my own terms.

My own sense of self had been muted for so long that my only outlet for expressing how I felt was through the vicarious nature of art, and specifically television, movies and music. Little tremors of power coursed through me in the images of Sailor Scouts because they stood up for themselves, which wasn’t something I had the voice or know how to do against a father who routinely made sure I evaded all things feminine or face his wrath in the form of a beating. My father thought he was beating femininity out of me and masculinity into me, but what he was doing was completely eliminating my sense of self and setting me up for later bouts of depression, submissiveness and PTSD.

I recently viewed childhood favourite Labyrinth in a cinema, and while I was always struck by how much I saw myself in the lead character Sarah one scene had slipped out of my mind, but came flooding back in torrents during this viewing. I was already crying a good deal throughout, because fellow gender weirdo David Bowie had passed away recently (he’d mean something to me much later in life), but one line of dialogue made a memory come back to me that I had forgotten. The memory was that of a young version of myself re-enacting Labyrinth in my backyard saying “You have no power over me” over and over again. Those words are a deliberate statement of reclamation. I wish I had the strength to say those words to my father when I was that young, but I never began to put those words into sentences until almost twenty years later. “You have no power over me”.

Fast-forward about ten years from that childhood memory and I’m listening to Bikini Kill, and finding a saviour in the words of Kathleen Hanna. I’m scribbling the words “Feels Blind” in bathroom stalls in the high-school I dreaded going to every day and on my bedroom wall as a kind of motto of my own sense of self. The bridge of the song features Kathleen singing her fucking lungs out, screaming the words “Women are well acquainted with thirst, How does it feel? It feels blind”. The muted nature of my life in my teenage years was an endpoint that I thought at the time would end in suicide, but getting into Bikini Kill was like a curtain being pulled down, and I finally had a voice of my own to speak and scream that I wasn’t satisfied. Kathleen’s voice was like a flurry, a kick, a shot of confidence. Bikini Kill pulled me down a rabbit-hole that got me into feminism and queercore bands like Team Dresch along with other all girl rock bands like Sleater-Kinney.. The all-girl part was really important to me, because I didn’t need a masculine voice to comfort me.. I needed reconciliation and support in knowing that I wouldn’t be alone in feeling the way I did from another woman, and Kathleen was that person for the longest time. Today, I have “Feels Blind” tattooed on my wrist, because I wouldn’t be alive without Bikini Kill.

When I finally moved away from my parents in the Summer of 2014 I told them I was going to Philadelphia to make movies. They knew I had contacts in Philadelphia who were making films of their own so I told them a lie to free myself. I went to Target after a 14 hour drive up the country (soundtracked by various Riot Grrrl acts) and bought some tops and jeans I could be comfortable in. I shed the oversized, masculine clothing on my body, and stepped into my own skin for the first time in my life. That was truly the first step in redefining my own girlhood, but I still lacked the language or the know how to get by on my own as a woman. I wasn’t socialized to know these things. I was an on-looker with all my best girlfriends while growing up, but now it was my time to learn what I wanted to, and what kind of person I would be. I’d be carving out my own journey and figuring out my own sense of self.

I’ve been struggling for a very long time trying to reconcile why my childhood turned out the way that it did, but the short answer to the question is that it’s the default considering how violent our society is towards transgender people. Today, I’m making a statement to free myself again from the burden of a broken childhood and the absence of my own girlhood while growing up. I am a girl, and I’m finding things out about myself every day. I’m turning into myself. I had a neglected girlhood, but I know it was present, because I could feel it, and I had a reckoning when I lived vicariously through other girls I looked up to in art. That my own girlhood was attempted to be stamped out by my own father’s ideas of patriarchal upbringing doesn’t matter anymore. I’m going to take the moments I can remember and cherish them, even if they were just in movies, and I’m going to hold onto them. They were the moments that eventually sculpted me into the woman I am today. My girlhood was observation. Looking into a window of a house I always wanted to enter. I’m finally here, and everything I ever wanted is now in practice. Everything I do makes me the woman that I am. That is my girlhood. That is my truth.

Female Filmmaker Project: Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)

Girlhood. The very title is more than any movie could handle, and being brandished with such a huge name would speak to the very complexities that girls go through as they reach womanhood, and the difficulties of portraying that in a film. The idea of a universal girlhood is a misnomer as no such thing exists. Girlhood is then chiseled down into something singular. Girlhood is what you make it. Girlhood is a film about one teenage girl growing up, but the connotations of her narrative speak to the type of movie that isn’t as easy to pin down as an exhibition of sisterhood, as Vic’s tale is more important than the relationship she has with her friends along the way. Bande de Filles is then a misleading title as Bande de Filles turns into the story of Vic, but it was always only about her, even with diamonds by her side through much of it.

Celine Sciamma’s film is a portrait of a young girl fumbling through adolescence without a lot of options. Marieme (soon to be redubbed Vic by her friends) is refused the chance to retry the last year of schooling she failed, her home life is constricting to her internal sense of freedom, and she doesn’t appear to have any sort of connection with anyone except her younger sisters, and a rocky relationship with her brother. That all changes when she befriends a group of girls who give her life a spark, and some sort of meaning. She gains confidence through the group’s overall strength and eventually starts to find her footing. It isn’t perfect, but then what life is? The group engages in petty crime and sometimes fighting, but it’s all through the guise of youth. These tools have always been extensions of films about white characters, but in the hands of characters who aren’t white there’s often this sense of concern trolling over where their lives are headed (in Hollywood this often means the inclusion of a white saviour, even though the white saviours kids participate in the same kind of victimless crime, look to Dazied and Confused and Boyhood for similar instances of Adolescent Crime), and it’s refreshing to see Sciamma giver Vic the space to explore her age and her choices.

In one transcendent scene Vic reaches the apex of her teenage years, and finds an identity through her friends and a song. That song is “Diamonds” by Rhianna. Sciamma frames the sequence in close up shots of her friends respectively, and doused in shimmering blue (the films colour palette is extremely strong). They begin lip singing to the track in the dresses they just took from a department store. In this one moment the entire world takes a back seat to a singular emotion and the film itself also becomes secondary to the song that it cuts a hole through everything, movie included. It’s the sort of thing that sounds regular on paper….”And then the girls sing a song together”, but when treated as the single most happy moment of growing up it becomes something else entirely. In a moment of finality Sciamma takes the close up angle away from her friends and onto Vic’s face as she contemplates letting herself go completely and singing along to Rhianna with her friends. She decides to join in, and in doing so closed one chapter of her life and opened another. When the moment ends the film struggles to gain back that momentum, but it speaks to the importance of seemingly small moments being the most memorable in growing up.

Girlhood‘s narrative feels so fresh, and Sciamma’s confident filmmaking are joys to watch, but despite remaining fascinating throughout Girlhood struggles to maintain consistency When the film takes a steep right turn in act three and becomes a narrative of personhood and choice after she sheds her gang of friends to move forward with her life the movie seems to be confused of where to go. This could partially be seen as an unsureness on Vic’s part, but I think it has more to do with Sciamma having 2 parts of 2 separate films. On it’s own the third act, which cycles back into Sciamma’s queering of gender (See chest binding above & which relates to gendered presentation in Tomboy) is strong, but within the context of the first two acts there’s a real struggle to find it’s footing once more. That isn’t to say that the final 20 minutes aren’t worthwhile, because they absolutely are, but there’s an aimlessness that makes the final third feel more plodding than it should. Which is a shame, because Sciamma is entering into  Fassbinder territory by way of her own applications of gender that are really interesting. Vic’s hyperfemininity in her new job, the rejection of said hyper-femininity in favour of masculine presentation in her home life, and the possibly queer relationship between her and another girl are all threads left stranded that could have been made more interesting if she gets to this segment of the film a little quicker.

More cinema like this should exist, because it’s unfair to be burdened with the weight of an entire group of people to deliver something resonant. We don’t often ask that question of films about White, Straight, Cis Men, because they’ve been given the chance to be everything they could possibly be in cinema. Those same opportunities haven’t been granted to other kinds of people. Girlhood isn’t a perfect movie. It’s far too shaky in it’s delivery to be given the highest of accolades, but it’s very good. If cinema is to reach it’s truest heights then Girlhood needs to be bested time and time again. Cinema humanizes in a way that is like none other. It makes the different relatable, and gives life to those without a voice, but those voices must first be heard. Hopefully Girlhood will be the first in a trend instead of an outlier in a sea of adolescent pictures of white boys. Who knows, maybe even one of those hypothetical films about a black girl will have her become a boring photographer heading off to college, and we’ll all call it a universal masterpiece. I hope cinema gets there.