Last week, I treated myself to a double cinema visit: George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (Bande de Filles). Both films have caused quite a stir, both before and after their release. The Mad Max uproar was quite predictably about the ‘feminist message’ of the film – the scandal of women struggling against their object status. But there were also justified critiques of the overwhelming whiteness in the film – did non-white Australians once again manage to stay out of deranged neo-Viking society? Girlhood, on the other hand, was badly received by feminist critics who felt that life in the banlieue was portrayed in a stereotypical fashion and lacked controversy – reflected, for many, in its selection by a European Parliament jury. There is, however, one issue for me that seemed to get lost in the calamity over both films – to do with the plot rather than the production choices of the films (although the two are, of course, related): the question of what you can do when you face limited choices.
In Mad Max, people live in the aftermath of a nuclear war, in which livable places are not only few but shrinking. Apart from a few scattered bands in the desert and the mountains, most people seem to live in a place called the Citadel, which is controlled by a tyrant called Immortan Joe. The Immortan is powerful, because he controls access to water and has fashioned a powerful ideology that gives genetically and morally devastated humans a sense of purpose. While some people are part of the society by coercion (abduction, imprisonment), most people appear to be there by ‘choice’. The choice is between an unsupported and dangerous existence in a hostile environment, or an arguably equally dangerous ritualistic and hierarchical society (albeit one supportive of disabilities, according to Guardian writer Catherine Shoard – let’s hope we don’t need a nuclear apocalypse for a better appreciation of ‘disabled’ people).
In Girlhood, the main character, Marieme, has just been told that her grades are not good enough to go to high school, her only hope to escape a future of menial jobs. On top of that, she is terrorised by an overprotective brother who has put her on ‘slut watch’ (both the school selection and the ‘slut’ shaming are explained by the actresses in this interview). In her angry state, she is recruited by a girl gang who are ‘interested’ in her problems. Initially starting off as a shy person, Marieme gradually becomes more assertive under the tutelage of the gang’s leader, Lady. Rather than requesting obedience, Lady tells Marieme that she needs to do whatever she does for herself and gives her the name ‘Vic’ for Victory. Despite the supportive environment of the gang, Vic realises that society presents her with two main options: to become a disposable worker or to become a ‘no future’ stay-at-home delinquent. Later, a third option is presented to her – marriage – but she dismisses it as just another unacceptable dependency.
The dilemma that is being portrayed in both films reminded me of Victor Shklovsky’s book ‘Knight’s Move’. The ‘knight’s move’ takes place under very specific conditions: the existence of conventions, against which the move appears unconventional, and, more pessimistically, the unfreedom ‘to take the straight road’. In ‘Another Freedom‘, Svetlana Boym notes that Shklovsky once ‘wrote that the Soviet writer of the 1920s ha[d] two choices: to write for the desk drawer or to write on state demand. ‘There is no third alternative. Yet that is precisely the one that must be chosen.” In the context of the two films, the question that remains is: what is the third alternative and how do we find it in spite of the incredible forces of normativity? Here, both films suggest not just different pathways, but that any alternative pathway is an experiment.
In Mad Max, the initial choice that is presented is escape to a better place. Imperator Furiosa, a former sex-slave who fought her way up to warlord status after being found barren, makes off with the Immortan’s inner circle of ‘breeders’ – five ‘immaculate’ women whom he hopes will give him healthy offspring. Furiosa has already messed with her destined script once by becoming something other than an incubator or human junk (the people at the bottom of the food chain that are occasionally graced with a splash of water from above). A fearsome fighter with a shaved head and a mechanical arm, she is the pet warrior (and petrol looter) of the Immortan. But this achievement is only a means to another end: a better position for revenge. As for the women she abducts, it appears as if they willingly followed her (there are some painfully didactic slogans scrawled on the floor), although some of them begin to question their choice after being exposed to the harsh consequences it entails.
When the initial ‘better place’ turns out as a non-option, Furiosa is presented with two more alternatives: keep looking for this elusive place or go back and fight for changes in the existing place. Furiosa chooses the latter and, backed by an additional gang of women who don’t fit the present narrative (fierce old ladies on motorbikes) and by Max who once again unsuccessfully boycotts the hero narrative, she turns her desire for revenge to more broadly beneficial ends. Those women who do not die in the assault on the Citadel also end up exploring new pathways, such as becoming farmers or more generally agents for the restoration of more habitable environments. The viewer does not learn how these experiments develop, but there is a sense that a new narrative is wanted not only by the brutalised women, but also by many of the Citadel’s population.
Meanwhile, Girlhood’s Vic comes to an unusual conclusion. She secretly leaves home and the girl gang to become a drug dealer in a ‘proper’ gang. While everyone warns her that ‘there is only one job for women’ in male gangs (that of a prostitute), Vic insists that she can have a different role. The film shows her working as a drug courier, and a job which allows her to have her own money and place, and arguably better working conditions than your average shopping mall. It is interesting that crime is once again shown as a better pathway to autonomy than standard societal provision. However, Vic again hits social boundaries, both in the crime world and outside. For instance, for her job, she is seen shifting between masculine and feminine appearances, which disturbs her boyfriend. The gang leader also becomes dissatisfied with her lack of obedience and her lack of interest in him.
Vic comes across as having always been aware of this eventual limitation, but having nothing better to work with for the moment, she stays until the limitations start outweighing the benefits. At the point where she leaves the gang, she still does not seem to know what exactly is next for her. The last scene shifts from a moment of vulnerability and despair to a look of determinacy: she will continue looking for the ‘third’ path, no matter what obstacles are put in her way. In contrast with the movement in Mad Max – from lone attempt to public support – Vic seems to end up alone. She feels that she can neither turn to her family, nor to her former girl gang friends, nor to her boyfriend who tries to help her by offering marriage. This time, there is not even a life line such as those offered by the two gangs – she has to start again from a blank slate. While this may seem like a bleak ending, is not necessarily a negative one. An extraordinary path may be lonely at times and can easily lead to an even worse place than the one you were hoping to escape from, but it may also lead to the opposite: to your own, non-prescribed life. Read against Mad Max, Girlhood seems to ask: how much do you need the support of wider society to lead a different and/or more fulfilled life?
This opens up a whole lot of other questions about the necessity and absence of social infrastructures, from educational opportunities to the wider valuing of difference. At present, it seems as if, in the ‘real world’, more and more such infrastructures are being withdrawn despite abundant affirmations of support and despite more abundant resources. Girlhood (and the interviews with the actors and director about their choices) more than hints at the this issue. Girlhood shows that, when choices are taken away, other structures come into existence or play to fill this void. As mentioned earlier, these structures are not simply portrayed as bad (e.g. because they are criminalised), but as containing different possibilities – different freedoms of expression, room for experimentation, experience of structural independence. Of course, these ‘alternative spaces’ have their own limits, as clearly portrayed in the film (violence, imprisonment etc), but they also highlight the destructiveness of the ‘legal’ options. Maybe here it is time to go back to Shklovsky’s comment about the regulation of art. He writes: ‘we regulate art without knowing what it is’. One could say that Girlhood’s version would read: ‘we regulate life as without knowing what it is’. As odd as it sounds, both films ended up making me think about how thinking about life (or lives) does not take enough space in shaping contemporary choices… and what possibilities does ‘the third alternative’ hold?