Girls like Christine ‘Lady Bird’ Macpherson (Saoirse Ronan), of Greta Gerwig’s coming of age tale Lady Bird, often find themselves caught between a Kyle and a Julie. Yes, there is something inexplicably mesmerising and charming about Timothèe Chalamet and to kiss him beside a tanning bed to the soundtrack of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River,’ would be a most remarkable experience. Yet, when Lady Bird chose to go to the prom with her soft-spoken, best friend, Julie, over Chalamet’s unbothered Kyle, she made a decision we don’t often see available for women in film: she chose herself and asked for more than Kyle was willing to offer her. As an audience, we find ourselves dismissing obvious red flags and niggling feelings of doubt when it comes to the tasty, male love interest—mindlessly rooting for a girl like Lady Bird to compromise her goals for a typical, Hollywood happily ever after. In resistance, Gerwig rebels against the idea of a fairy-tale ending by allowing Christine to actualise herself independently from a male love interest and find a different version of happiness.
Gerwig is one of just a few film-makers whose work actually acknowledges female fulfilment outside of romance. From The Apartment and Pretty Woman to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, countless women – who despite showing stubbornness and determination to make it on their own – find everything they need in a romantic relationship with a man. Once we’ve dealt with the arguments, break-ups and misunderstandings, these women are free to be in love, and we, the audience, get to leave all real-world troubles behind under the guise that love is enough. After all, fairy-tale conclusions appease audiences. Yet, under further consideration, it seems anything but magical that the women in these movies never find anything more substantial or life-affirming than the love and protection of their male heartthrob: Lara Jean doesn’t find a supportive group of friends to support her through her grief or the absence of her sister, Fran Kubelik doesn’t find career success outside of the patriarchal capitalism of New York society; and Vivian Ward, who made grand plans to attend beauty school with her best friend, Kat, is instead whisked away by an ostentatiously rich prince charming. We sense a glimmer of hope and promise in the future for these women, but we certainly do not get to see their new lives play out.
It’s rare to see women on film escape the restrictive pigeonhole of their romantic entanglements. Even when they are allowed some wiggle-room, they are criticised for acting selfishly or unfeelingly by those around them. Take Tom’s vilification of Summer in Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer and his extreme reaction to Summer’s dumping, despite her warnings from day one that she wasn’t looking for anything serious. Or the alternative reading of The Devil Wears Prada, which sees Andy’s boyfriend Nate – with his relentless put-downs and career ruining jealousy – as the real villain of the piece. However, in recent explorations of the Rom-Com genre, we are seeing women fight back. La La Land uses the typical tropes of a romantic comedy – which are arguably overly exacerbated with the film being a Golden Age style musical that intermittently flickers back and forth between reality and fantasy – to trick us into believing we are watching a formulaic, good old fashioned, boy meets girl. It’s big musical numbers and heart-melting melodies lull the audience into a false sense of security; their comfortable familiarity promising a fairy-tale ending the film will not deliver.
United by their dreams of making it in Hollywood, Mia – who longs to be an actress – and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) – who dreams of owning a Jazz Club – are drawn to one another. They work tirelessly towards their individual fantasies while also aiming to maintain the spark of passion they see in one another, foolishly believing they could have it all. The lovers float dreamily around the Griffith Observatory, seemingly lost in the fantasy of their perfect romance, never once imagining the possibility that they will not end up together. However, unable to resist the delights Hollywood promises, Mia and Seb find themselves repeatedly interrupted: angry car horns remind the dancing drivers of the daily grind during ‘Another Day of Sun’, and a ringing iPhone distracts Mia and Seb from their Singing in the Rain style shenanigans during ‘A Lovely Night’. When they lean in to kiss for the first time whilst watching James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause – just before their lips can touch – the lights go up, the movie stops playing, and they are once again pulled out of the magic of their romance and pushed back into their real lives. Eventually, these distractions become obstacles, which comes to a head when Mia receives the opportunity to star in a Paris based movie. It’s an opportunity our typical on-screen heroine would turn down, having found everything she needs in her significant other. Mia, however, does not.
Five years later, while out on a date, Mia and her now-husband follow the sound of music into what turns out to be Seb’s Jazz Club. Seb takes the stage; his eyes find Mia’s in the crowd. The shared look sparks a montage of what could have been if Mia and Seb had chosen to maintain their relationship instead of chasing careers in the industry. In this alternative version of reality, we see the couple find moderate success and happiness with each other; it’s a good life, but it is not the life they truly wanted. When the montage ends, Mia and Seb share a parting glance and a quiet nod. Both now content with the consequences of Mia’s decision to choose her career over the safe – but unfulfilling – arms of her leading man.
Marriage Story shares similar themes. In their shared opening monologue, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and her husband Charlie (Adam Driver), list every reason why they love each other. Nicole tells us how she loves Charlie because he knows how to take her moods, enjoys the hard parts of being a Dad and because he cries at movies. Charlie loves Nicole because she knows how to play, she knows when to push him and because she’s an infectious dancer. The lists are profoundly careful, honest and reflective, perfectly illustrating the ways we all hope to one day be seen by another. Yet, despite this perfect sounding love, we watch as their marriage unravels and twists into a bitter and unmanageable, tit-for-tat game of point-scoring and resentment.
Throughout the process of their divorce, Baumbach gives voice to each character – extensively outlining how they have grown dissatisfied with married life. Nicole particularly takes the space to examine the feelings of unfulfillment and oppression she feels – finding that being only a wife and a mother isn’t enough for her. During a visit with a cut-throat divorce lawyer (Laura Dern), she articulately explores her frustrations with Charlie: revealing that she feels she has existed only to feed Charlie’s “aliveness” and by doing so has never come alive for herself. By uprooting her life from New York to LA to work on a TV pilot, Nicole aims to find a sense of herself which is separate from the success of her husband. Marriage Story is a love story that brings into question the fluctuating complexity of loving another person. It calls into question the entire notion of marriage by asking if it’s possible to entirely commit to another individual when we are still trying to actualise ourselves as individuals – a process, we could argue, never really ends.
Movies have conditioned heterosexual women into believing that their relationships with men define them; with many women choosing to stay in relationships with men when they know they are not working – fearing loss and the uncertainty of facing life alone. Such is the case with Ryan (Regina Hall) in Malcolm D Lee’s comedy, Girls Trip. With her “you can have it all” mantra, Ryan has achieved promising success as a lifestyle guru alongside her husband/ business partner, Stewart. Wanting to capitalise on the success of the ‘perfect couple,’ the chain store, Best Mark, offers the duo roles as spokespeople of the brand – a financially life-changing deal. It appears that Ryan and Stewart are living in perfect marital bliss. However, in reality – given Stewart’s infidelity – their relationship is crumbling. However, fearing that her career is dependent on her relationship with Stewart, Ryan buries her misery and carries on regardless. That is, until, the ‘Flosse Possy’ – Ryan’s group of lifelong friends – find out about Stewart’s continued cheating.
In Marriage Story, Nicole initially receives criticism from her family concerning her decision to leave Charlie: perhaps because they fear the uncertain direction her life has taken. In contrast, Ryan’s friends – able to see her misery – actively encourage her to leave her relationship. Their collective support enables Ryan to see how her continued participation in Stewart’s lies compromises her happiness. Although the truth jeopardises her career and financial stability, Ryan has the fierce love and support of her friends to fall back on. Girls Trip, like Lady Bird, illuminates the power of female friendship and speaks to the importance of maintaining loving relationships outside of romantic love. These relationships deconstruct the restrictive precedent Hollywood has set for women: demonstrating how female friendships are far more fulfilling and uplifting than romantic relationships with ill-suited men.
It’s not to say that romantic relationships with men are meaningless. It’s just, having been force-fed tidily-packaged romantic comedies since the dawn of cinema, it’s liberating to see women finally escape the shackles of expectation. By dumping the hotties who become obstacles to their happiness, these women reclaim their autonomy and open up a world of possibilities for women, that would otherwise, go unexplored, with them trapped in the tight embrace of some dumb guy.
Header image courtesy of A24