I’m powerless over a lot of things. Things like my love for women, the way I am represented, and the fact it doesn’t rain as often as I’d like.
I’m powerless over the fact that I am an addict.
And I’m powerless over the effect Gia just had on me.
Powerlessness is the fundamental undercurrent to addiction and, in my experience, the staple of tragedy. There’s no question in my mind that Gia is a tragedy, just as there’s no question that it is also a love story.
Told through the words of the people that knew her as well as words from her own journal, Gia (1998) is the biographical film of real-life supermodel Gia Marie Carangie (played by Angelina Jolie). It follows her story as a young woman – and lesbian – from Philadelphia, who moves to New York to become a model and soon finds fame, love, and notoriety. Despite falling fast for Linda, a make-up-artist she meets on a shoot, this world of fashion does not savour people like Gia; it devours them. So begins the maelstrom of love, loss, and her descent into addiction.
Whenever I think of what I want from representation, as a lesbian, it always comes back to honesty and parity. When I say parity, I mean that I won’t be satisfied until I can see myself in as many mediocre romcoms and low budget thrillers as straight people can. I want gays in space and in westerns and in every place straight characters are allowed to exist without justification. Indie and art-house films have done a lot for queer cinema, but I want more than political statements and niche films that have to be considered of the highest calibre to be of any importance.
For so long, the window into LGBTQ people’s lives through film has been underpinned by tragedy. Queer films are defined by it, and in turn it defines us as a whole. Until Gia, I wanted more than tragedy, and I still do. But Gia, as painful as it is, feels like it isn’t tragic because it revolves around the love of two women. The fact these women are in a relationship under very trying circumstances but their relationship isn’t why they suffer makes everything resonate so much more, with none of the resentment, and without the inference of retribution. The result is so completely cathartic. Finding decent stories about being gay or being an addict is usually something of a chore, finding something where they converge is practically impossible.
So many ideas about addiction, in real life and in fiction, are based on stereotypical misconceptions that fail to acknowledge that addiction is a disease: one that impacts every aspect of your life and behaviour and extends far beyond the singular act of taking drugs. These ideas tend to manifest in the addict character being someone who is weak, who is bad, who doesn’t care enough; someone selfish and solely out for themselves and lacking all semblance of humanity. These characters are your villains, your scapegoats. All too often these people are regarded as disposable. Us addicts are told we love too little and lie too much, and that our ailment is entirely self-inflicted. Except it isn’t.
Addiction does not discriminate, although statistically LGBTQ people are around two to three times more likely than average to develop it. Gia’s spiral into addiction is rightly framed as the most catastrophic of coping mechanisms, it’s never suggested she’s suffering from this as a result of her sexuality, and both statistics stay truthfully reflected. Throughout the film it is clear that the things that drive her to react the way she does are not about an innate defect in her character, which is so often the default approach to an addict’s struggles. As for all her fire and attitude, she is still only a seventeen-year-old entering an industry that underneath all the glamour does little more than chew her up and spit her back out.
There’s a line in the opening of the film that states, “Fashion is not art … Fashion isn’t even culture. Fashion is advertising.” It is this that strips away so much of Gia Carangie’s autonomy and identity, presenting us with the marketable concept of Gia. This is a construct that exists to appease the insatiable thirst for the more commonplace vices of society – sex, lust, fantasy; Gia is a drug for the masses. There is never enough Gia to go around, but still they demand it. This, combined with her issues of abandonment and desperation for her mother’s approval, become the driving force for her substance abuse.
So much about addiction relies on an unrelenting need for escapism, and this is perfectly elucidated in the psychological toll Gia’s work has on her, particularly her monologue about not letting it be about her. She says: “You have to separate from what’s happening, and you have to be somewhere else. But I don’t know where that somewhere else is.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything capture the interiority of an addict’s mind in such a truthful, non-demonising way.
Eventually, her work and her abuse of drugs become entirely inextricable; she returns to work after getting clean and ends up using on the first day. She can’t exist in that world without numbing herself to it.
A non-addict watching Gia could understandably see it as over-dramatised. You hear stories of so-called “rock bottoms” but no one really has their couture dress ripped open by another addict in a filthy squat so they can inject you with heroin, right? That’s not just the first of many nadirs? This depiction perfectly it encapsulates the lengths and depths and raw animalistic nature of active addiction, without glamorising it, romanticising it, or punishing the addict out of this false idea that the consequences of addiction are the sufferer’s rightful comeuppance: that it’s what they “deserve.” Too often, people fail to understand that abusing drugs is just the ugliest symptom of a much more insidious and farther-reaching illness, and this results in almost every portrayal devaluing an addict’s life because they’ve apparently brought all their suffering upon themselves.
It is so refreshing to see the honest pain without the mindless punishment.
The consequences of Gia’s addiction, for me, feel like they exist in this neutral space that is a harsh reality but not a penalty. Not for a second is she worth less because of it, nor is she innately bad for having made bad choices that resulted in bad outcomes. It’s also rare to see a spiral into addiction that’s so illustrative of the gradual progression of losing more and more of your humanity and then slowly trying to claw it back, or not being able to claw it back at all. Even some of the better representation leans into presenting this dichotomy of an addict as clean or using, thus good or bad respectively, with little in between. There are moments in the story which so often devolve into tired stereotypes about addiction, but there are subtle differences that breathe a level of verisimilitude into the narrative that in my experience is pretty much unparalleled.
A good example of this is Linda giving Gia an ultimatum; her or the drugs. Any addict can tell you these ultimatums can only ever do more harm than good: that if you’re deep enough in that place it’s not even a case of choice anymore, it’s just the case of someone who’s incredibly ill, ill in a way that takes you so far outside of yourself that no amount of love or rationality can really touch you. Personally, I think they capture that without ever implying that Gia is weak or bad, but while managing to quantify the right amount of accountability that can actually be placed on an addict. On someone who’s very, very sick.
More so, the timing of Gia becoming terminally ill as a result of her addiction doesn’t feel any more an unfair punishment than a familiar reality. She has started to clean up and adopt the humility that is essential to the process of recovery before she learns it is too late. One in ten addicts make it through recovery, I’ve known the other nine. They, like Gia, weren’t just ‘not trying hard enough’. It is not, and never will be, that simple.
This alone was enough to make the story unique for me, but layered with Gia’s love for – and relationship with – another woman was what made it so powerful. “I’d argue the love between two women is the highest form of divinity, actually” is what I texted my friend just before I started this film. I don’t think I was wrong. Again, this exists as something that isn’t regarded as a punishable offence and isn’t the main source of Gia’s or Linda’s pain. Rare enough as it is, in a story already so full of suffering it is almost unheard of. If anything this love is the one thing exalting her; it is something that manages to tread the tenuous line between the fact that one person can’t be the one who saves you, and that love in the midst of pain is what saves a story like this from becoming nothing but a voyeuristic window into a gay woman’s suffering.
Linda and Gia see each other, they’re soft with each other, nothing about the feelings these women have for each other is one-dimensional. They’re allowed a gentle kind of intimacy that is rare to see exist so apolitically between two women onscreen. There’s a moment when, having gone to visit Gia’s mother, they are looking at old photos of her as a child and reading from one of her old journals, and Linda asks if she can see. This seemingly small moment feels like something much more significant: for this person who’s entire being is taken over and spread everywhere for material gain to be given the option to refuse; for someone to want to see where she came from, not just what she can give them. Consistently Linda acknowledges the parts of Gia everyone else wishes to dismiss. This lays the foundation for a type of love that feels somewhat unique in its completeness, both in the specifics of this story and others with similar themes.
Despite the volatility in their on-off relationship, caused by Gia’s work and inability to cope with it, their final exchange remains hopeful; we know at this point what Linda does not: that Gia is going to die, and, for all its poignancy, they are allowed to reconnect in a place free from punishment. Gia tells Linda she was always “the one”, and there’s no room for us to believe that the love of an addict, or of one woman for another, is any lesser. For me this is something sacred. Divine. Amidst powerlessness and tragedy, this is a love story, and it is worth it.
Ultimately what is so striking about Gia is that, unlike many depictions of sapphic women and unlike many depictions of addicts, these fundamentals of her character don’t feel like the main source of her pain and never feel like a punishment. The film ends with a line from Gia’s journal, saying all her decisions, painful or otherwise, have been worth it for allowing her to walk where she’s walked, “…which was to hell on earth, heaven on earth, back again, into, under, far in between, through it, in it, and above.”
How we walked it with her.
Written by Anonymous