‘Girlhood’: Coming of Age in France’s Projects

The tough African-French girls living in the projects in Girlhood have been abused and pushed out of the system. While they don’t have much, they have each other.

11.25.14 10:45 AM ET

This summer we had the film, Boyhood, a coming-of-age story about a young boy who becomes a young man over the course of three hours. Girlhood, which screened November 5 at the Virginia Film Festival, suggests that this is also a coming-of-age story about girls. It’s not, because this film’s female protagonists are already adults.

Directed by the French director, Céline Sciamma (Tomboy and Water Lilies), the film takes place in the French projects, known as the banlieues, which is also the French word for trashand follows the life of Mariame, a 16-year-old African-French girl who is physically abused by her older brother and neglected by her mother, but who lovingly cares for her two little sisters as she flunks out of school. The father is never seen.

In the beginning of the film, Mariame is told she will not advance to high school. Instead, she is left with the option to go to vocational school, or what is referred to as lycée professionnel in France. But Mariame wants to stay in school. She begs the guidance counselor to let her advance to high school. In this scene, we never see the counselor’s face, and instead, we only hear an unsympathetic voice, “No, Mariame. You will not go to high school. You failed this year, and failed the year before. There is nothing I can do.” Mariame protests, and tells the guidance counselor that she does not understand. “I want to go to high school. I want to be normal,” says Mariame. The faceless voice replies, “You will never be normal.”

Mariame storms out of school, and runs into Lady, Adiatou, and Fily, who have nose and chin piercings, styled hair, and are all sporting bomber leather jackets. It is clear that they did not go on to high school either. The apparent leader of this girl gang Lady, says, “You look angry, and I am intrigued.” She convinces a hesitant Mariame to go with them to Paris.

They go to Paris, but never leave the underground metro station, where they stalk the metro mall shops. A French sales clerk hovers over Mariame, as if assuming she is shoplifting because she is black and from the projects. Her new friends jump to her defense and loudly tell the clerk to back off. Later, waiting for the subway home the girls encounter a rival girl gang and a shouting match of insults ensures, but nothing really happens.  They laugh off their confrontations, feeling victorious, and exuberantly dance and sing to loud music from their iPods on the ride home. Mariame is hooked, and in the days that follow appears dressed like her newfound friends, clad in a bomber jacket and fancy sneakers, her newly unbeaded hair smoothed and shiny. No more school. She’s now hustling former classmates for cash.

Sciamma’s film effectively captures the painful realities of young African-French girls living in the French projects who are marginalized by society, mistreated by their families, and preyed upon by unscrupulous characters. The girls only have each other, and it is their banded friendship that empowers them, gives them the security they crave while also giving them a safe place to remain young.

During the film, we expect that at any moment Mariame will get jumped and raped, begin prostituting, or marry her young lover to be safe. The banlieue setting is rough and rife with violence and drug trafficking. Adults are rarely, if ever seen. In the beginning of the film, we see a group of girls, Mariame included, walking home from football practice. They walk closely together, tense, and alert in their movements. Soon, people begin to go in different directions and the group grows smaller, until our heroine, Mariame, is alone, walking home in the dark, past boys and presumable drug dealers sitting on benches. Girls like Mariame know how vulnerable they are. And we as viewers sense it, too. But nothing happens and soon Mariame is home, eating dinner with her two little sisters, laughing and acting silly. Similar scenarios play out during the film, and it’s evident that Sciamma is more interested in defying viewers’ expectations (and smashing stereotypes along the way) rather than fulfilling them.

This allows her to present an honest portrait of “girlhood,” for girls like Mariame who feel peripheral, while still carrying the themes of generic coming-age-films, where a young girl dreams of a better life elsewhere. In Mariame’s case, she wants to belong and to be normal. She even wants a boyfriend, and gets one. But, her dreams of a better life never seem indulgent. Instead, they seem necessary. She must leave the banlieue, just as she insists to the school counselor, that she must go to high school.

The original French title, Bande de Filles (girl gang) was translated to Girlhood in order to appeal more to American audiences. Girlhood sounds gentler, and assures us, as viewers, that we will see a film about transition from childhood to adulthood for women, and the disappointments and challenges that come with it. This theme is present in Sciamma’s film, but its role is secondary. Instead, questions of race, identity, and power lead the film, with its bande des filles whose actions stem from these very issues.

Sciamma’s version of female friendship is more than a tale of sisterhood and why women should stick together. Instead, she’s asking us as viewers to consider why these girls band together, pick fights, or say they will fight other girls, and act so tough? What lies beneath their fierce facade? There are times in the film when their actions seem juvenile and even dangerous from yelling in cafes for no reason to threatening to fight other girls. Lady eventually does engage in a street fight, and loses, which surprises and horrifies Mariame and the gang. Lady, the fearless leader, goes quiet. Her father cuts her hair, and she shuts herself off from the others. No longer the fierce foursome, the three girls glumly later sit in a café, drinking cokes and eating French fries, while another group of girls chides them for being so loud and always acting so tough. They’re furious, but the point is made.

It’s not over though, and Mariame secretly challenges Lady’s opponent to a fight, and she wins. She even pulls out a knife, only to cut off her opponent’s bra. She celebrates with Fily and Adiatou on the banlieue rooftops, splashing in puddles, laughing, and swinging the torn bra in the air. Lady returns, and the group is healed. Sciamma still wants to remind us that they are still children. They are lost at times, confused, and make mistakes. They are driven by a need to feel powerful and protected. And so, they act tough.

The most moving scene in the film is when the girls rent a hotel room (with the cash they’ve hustled). They dress up in fancy dresses, drink, and smoke. They act silly, and for a moment we see how gentle and innocent they are. They sing and dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds (in the Sky).” Cocooned in a hotel room, they can be themselves. And like the song’s lyrics suggest, “They have chosen to be happy,” and as Lady tells Mariame, who she nicknames, “Vic,” short for Victoire, “you have to do what you want.” Mariame does do what she wants, and eventually leaves the projects.

Sciamma, herself, has done what she wants with this film, upending the traditional narrative about girls becoming women—and the western expectations that come with such a title. Instead, we are given a gang of girls, or a pretend gang, who have been abused and pushed out of the system, who have not had the luxury of a real girlhood. But they are striving “to shine bright like a diamond” and be happy, and we love them for it.