On Watching White Girls

Winona Ryder as Charlotte Flax in Mermaids (1990) dir. Richard Benjamin. Orion Pictures.

by Sara Hashemi | March 6, 2021

Coming-of-age films are an integral part of popular culture. Films like The Breakfast Club (1985), Stand By Me (1986), Almost Famous (2000),and Superbad (2007) have defined generations of teenagers. Many films within the genre focus on girls: Pretty in Pink (1986), Mermaids (1990), Juno (2007). And yet, while these movies pretend to present different facets of the teenage girl experience, their protagonists are all white — a fact that distanced me from fully relating to their characters, but never stopped me from watching.

I would watch these movies religiously as a teenager — living vicariously through the characters on screen. I would see these American kids go to parties, yell at their parents, sneak out, and mess up in ways that I never could. In my own Canadian adolescence, my Iranian mother would not let me come home past 8pm, go to sleepovers, or have a Facebook account. I felt alienated from my group of white friends who, I assumed, were having the experiences I so badly wanted to be a part of. In a way, my relationship with those girls was similar to the one I had with the movies I watched: I wanted in but was constantly left out. Even as I watch coming-of-age films now, at 22-years old, I can’t help but feel like everyone is in on something I don’t know about, that there’s some universal teen experience I’ve missed out on.

Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles (1984)

Molly Ringwald is the bonafide queen of coming-of-age movies, with her iconic roles in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986). Her characters in these films are unpopular but conventionally attractive, and they go through the typical motions of a teenager in the genre; she wants to go to the big dance, she’s preoccupied with social cliques, and has a crush on a guy more popular than she is. Nothing really happens to her, but she feels as though everything is happening to her. However, I was most taken by Winona Ryder, who played the foil to Ringwald’s more palatable, All-American characters in movies like Beetlejuice (1988), Heathers (1989), and Mermaids (1990). Her roles were often edgier — she played slightly neurotic, dark teenagers. That drew me in. “My whole life is a dark room,” she solemnly declares behind a black veil as Lydia Deetz. Ryder was the perpetual outsider, and for that, I felt a sort of kinship towards her. 

I was struck by Ryder’s portrayal of Charlotte in Mermaids when I first watched it at 15 — the melodramatic voice-over, the black collared outfits, the constant guilt. I was so attracted to this vision of Charlotte. It’s how I wanted to see myself. It’s as though the complete lack of diversity in film predisposed me to identifying with any character with dark hair. 

white girls body image
Winona Ryder and Cher in Mermaids (1990).

That’s the thing about coming-of-age movies. They’re meant to be relatable, perhaps more so than any other genre. The audience is supposed to look at the protagonist and recognize a part of themselves—either because they’re currently having the same experiences, or because of nostalgia for when they were—and feel comforted. Their whiteness is supposedly universal, and through it the audience is reminded that high school is miserable, their crush won’t pay attention to them, and their parents don’t understand them. They get to feel less alone. 

These negative experiences are still wrapped up inside the benefits of the leading characters’ whiteness — everything is coated in a privilege that is never addressed, and alienates non-white viewers. When you aren’t white and you’re looking to see yourself in these movies, watching them is like staring into a broken mirror. I’m searching for a reflection, but it can never be accurate. It’s not that high school wasn’t miserable, it’s that many of the reasons it was came from feeling othered by my white friends. They got to be the protagonists, and I was the token character who ate lunch with them; I wasn’t allowed to do much else. As Zoé Zamudzi writes, “[i]t’s almost as if characters like Lady Bird and Juno were created to prepare me for a life of subordination to the trials, yearnings, and humanities of white women.” 

I was a side character in my own story.

Clearly, I thought, there was something wrong with my life, and that’s why these things weren’t happening to me. I still do. When the lives you see in film are supposed to be “relatable,” it’s hard not to feel inadequate when they don’t match up with your own. My experiences aren’t given the same attention as those of white protagonists, even though I can recognize now that they are valuable. I love being Iranian, speaking Farsi, and eating Persian food. They’re all a part of how I was raised, and they make me who I am, but they seldom are reflected on screen in a nuanced, respectful way.

My reality was entirely different from Charlotte’s, just as it was from Ringwald’s characters, and just as it was from most other female protagonists. But I kept watching these movies, because if anything, they gave me a window into the teenage experiences I felt I was missing out on. I couldn’t fully relate to their narratives, but they helped me relate to the world.

Even in a time when diversity in capital-F Film is a hot topic, all of the major, critically acclaimed female coming-of-age movies I can name from the last five years feature a white protagonist. There’s Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), and more recently, Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (2019). But however varied their personalities, the protagonists all share a specific brand of indie-girl whiteness. Which isn’t to say I didn’t relate to them — their white “universality” leaves enough of a blank slate for me to project onto. 

white girls body image 2
Lady Bird (2017) dir. Greta Gerwig. A24.

Like the titular Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), I went to a Catholic-adjacent all-girls high school (most of the nuns had retired and we only had mass four times a year). I have an intense and often fraught relationship with my mother. I want to go to New York! At the same time, there’s a lot that separates me from Lady Bird. I’m Muslim, instead of Catholic; I’m Middle Eastern, not white; I grew up in Montreal instead of Sacramento. I also considered myself an outsider in my high school friend group for entirely different reasons than Lady Bird. Still, in a way, I felt connected to her — maybe that’s the point. In her review of the film, Aditi Kini writes that “white mediocrity is the lowest common denominator for experience.” Whiteness is seen as neutral, despite its very real — and often violent — social and political implications. People of colour aren’t afforded that same privilege.

My relationship to female protagonists today is a complicated one. Despite my love for these films, I’m simply too aware of the differences between us. Jia Tolentino articulates this feeling in her essay Pure Heroines: “My hesitation, as an adult, to find myself within the heroine universe has been rooted in a suspicion that that identification would never truly be reciprocal: I would see myself in Jo March, but the world’s Jo Marches would rarely, if ever, be expected or able to see themselves in me.” Ryder, who notably played Jo March in the 1994 adaptation of Little Women, embodies a figure far removed from my reality. She’s a wealthy middle-aged white woman. I’ve spent years latching onto Ryder and her characters, desperate to recognize a part of myself somewhere, but people like her have never needed to find themselves in me. Our relationship is entirely one-sided. 

There are, of course, many female coming-of-age films that do not centre a white character. Hearts Beat Loud (2018), Jezebel (2019), and The Half of It (2020) are just a few of the movies featuring young girls of colour, each of them tackling different themes. It’s not productive to say that these movies aren’t out there. As Nijla Mu’min states in a piece about Black coming-of-age films, “when we make definitive statements about the total lack of coming of age films about Black girls, we might actually aid in the erasure of the narratives that do exist, and that will exist.” Popular culture relegates these movies to the margins. 

Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud (2018) dir. Bretty Haley

People of colour are told, again and again, that their stories aren’t as valuable as those of white people. It can be disheartening, especially as a teenager, when the things you most relate to, the ones that make you feel the most seen, are sidelined in favour of more of the same. Movies shape the world we live in, and they shape us. They’ve shaped me. They’ve brought me comfort, and they’ve made me insecure. They played a huge part in conditioning my perception of the world, but also of myself. Coming-of-age films made me feel as though my own story was not enough—that I should want to be more like the friends who made me feel like I did not belong. I don’t want to feel like that anymore. Kids of colour shouldn’t have to settle — they need to see more than just white kids growing up on screen. They deserve to know their coming-of-age experiences are meaningful. Our stories matter, too.

Sara Hashemi is a writer and editor from Tio’ta:ke (Montreal). You can find her buying statement earrings on Etsy, or on Twitter @sara_wtv.

Finding Your Person: Platonic Soulmates in the Films of Greta Gerwig

Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird and Julie in Lady Bird, dir. Greta Gerwig. A24.

By Claire White | February 23, 2021

I may not have seen every episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but I know Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey, and the phrase “you’re my person.A connection so strong that ‘best friend’ doesn’t even cover it. If someone is your person, they are it for you, they were put on this earth for you. Sure, this term can be used by romantic couples, but Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey made it about friendship. Female friendship has been depicted on screen for a long time, but rarely have I seen the deep connection and fulfilment female friendship can provide as the words “you’re my person.”

This intensity of friendship is something I believe Greta Gerwig knows well. Across three of her films as director, screenwriter and star — Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), Lady Bird (Gerwig, 2017) and Little Women (Gerwig, 2019)— Gerwig focuses her love and attention on exploring the relationships between young women. In particular, friendships: deep and fulfilling connections that make you wonder if maybe the love of your life might be your best friend.

Similar to Christina and Meredith, in their book, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman find the term ‘best friends’ to describe their years-long friendship too limiting, not meaningful enough. They instead use the term Big Friendship, “because it’s one of the most affirming — and most complicated — relationships that a human life can hold.” They lament the lack of exploration of how friendship can be just as meaningful as a romantic relationship. After all, they are based on the same principles of attraction and connection, and like any long-term relationship, they take work to maintain. The friendships in each of Gerwig’s films go through a stage of break and disconnect. This narrative of bliss – break – reunion is typical of any romantic narrative seen on screen, but like Sow and Friedman’s own relationship, is also typical of friendships. By putting platonic love at the same level as romantic relationships, Gerwig likewise argues the case for the romance of friendship.

Frances Ha, co-written by and starring Gerwig, is a story about Frances (Gerwig), who considers herself only half an adult, still coming of age. As much as she spends the film trying to find her place in the world, it is also a breaking apart of Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumners). The film opens with a montage of their friendship. It’s happy, domesticated: scenes of romantic bliss. However, when Sophie moves out of their shared apartment and in with her boyfriend, the two become distant, and descend into hurt, much like a break-up. Frances floats from one living situation to another, mourning the loss of her best friend, describing Sophie moving out as “Sophie dumped me.” However, she continues to exercise devotion, clinging to the memory of the one she loves by continually bringing her up in every conversation (even to people she’s just met): Sophie is “the best person I know,” Sophie is her other half.

Sumners and Gerwig in Frances Ha. IFC Films.

When describing feelings of friendship, one usually uses the term ‘platonic,’ which derives from the philosopher Plato. In his book The Nature of Love, Irving Singer describes Plato’s theory of love as a state outside of sex where there is a “yearning for one’s other half.” He believed that in prehistoric times, humans were split into two, destined to roam the earth forever in search of their soulmate to make them whole again. 

Throughout the separation, Frances not only longs for her best friend, but searches for her place in the world, a chance to feel whole again. Although she dabbles in other friendships and romantic relationships with men on her journey, these relationships are found to be unfulfilling. 

At one point during their time apart, Frances describes what true love is to her:

“It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it, but it’s a party and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes, but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual, but because that is your person in this life.” 

This definition of love is epitomised in one of the final scenes of the film. At a party after Frances’ debut choreography performance, Frances is talking to her old boss when she looks up across the room, and meets Sophie’s eye. Sophie smiles at her and laughs. Although eventually Frances was able to find the strength and courage to take her career as a dancer into her own hands and produce her own work, with Sophie back in her life she is stronger. Sophie is her person in this life.

The idea of platonic soulmates is something I have been passionate about for a long time. I haven’t dated very much, but I have felt the deep connection between friends, a recognition of myself in them, that makes me wonder “where have you been all my life?” I have no hesitancy to say my friends are the loves of my life, my soulmates, to call a friend my person. This is one of the main reasons why I connect so deeply to Gerwig as a filmmaker. While Frances Ha undoubtedly carries Gerwig’s mark, in her directorial debut, Lady Bird (which she also wrote), she clearly demonstrates how important these ideas of grand romance between friends are to her as a filmmaker.

Lady Bird’s Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), are no doubtedly two halves of the same whole. There is symmetry in the way they dress (matching purple nail polish, backpacks, and friendship bracelets), and they are always by each other’s side for life’s mundane moments (in class, flipping through magazines at the supermarket), as well as the Big ones (homecoming, heartbreak). When they audition for the school musical, they sit so closely together, Julie’s body overlapping Lady Bird’s, it’s like they have merged into one person. 

Julie and Lady Bird, two halves of a whole in Lady Bird. A24.

Best friends are not uncommon in girlhood films, more often than not, these friendships can be toxic (Mean Girls), fatal (Jawbreaker) or center around the pursuit of a boy (most of everything else). To be fair, throughout the narrative of the film, Lady Bird pursues relationships with two boys, sweet Danny (Lucas Hedges) and cool Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and it is during her pursuit of the latter that Lady Bird and Julie go through their own friend breakup. 

But, the relationship with Kyle was never going to last. Not only once she realised how unfulfilling it was, but also because in order to be a part of his world, she had pretended to be someone else. It is undeniable that Lady Bird (her self-given name) is going through a process of identity formation and transformation into her ideal self, but with Kyle, she is surrounded by people who do not understand her. 

This is best encapsulated the night of senior prom. In the car with Kyle and popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), Lady Bird’s dreams are dashed when the popular kids decide to skip prom. Lady Bird’s disappointment is visible, but she concedes. She might have gone through with their plan and lived with this disappointment had ‘Crash Into Me’ by Dave Matthews Band not begun to play on the car radio. It’s the same song that Lady Bird and Julie sang along to while sitting in an empty car, holding hands and crying over Danny earlier in the film, an intimate moment of shared heartbreak. Unlike Kyle, Julie is someone who understands Lady Bird, and feels what she feels. Someone she can feel complete with. 

Instead of a grand declaration of heterosexual romantic bliss, as is typical in the genre, the major romantic reunion in Lady Bird is not between her and a boy, but between Lady Bird and her best friend. Rejecting Kyle’s opinions and declaring she actually wants to go to Prom, when she tells Jenna that Julie is her best friend, it is filled with the same reverence, and sounds a lot like “she’s my person.”

Lady Bird reunites with Julie and takes her to the prom. ‘Crash Into Me’ continues to play as they dance among the other couples on the dance floor, get their pictures taken in the typical prom-couple pose, and cling to each other all night. Their happiness from being together again is palpable. With this reunion, Gerwig once again shows us that romantic moments don’t always have to be sought after with a guy. They can be found with your best friend. 

Frances and Lady Bird both go through a break with their best friends, but it is in reuniting with Sophie and Julie that they are able to become the best versions of themselves, demonstrating how, as Sow and Freidman write, friends “grow in response to each other.” This is equally true of Jo and Laurie in Little Women, albeit their journey is a little different.

Jo and Laurie in Little Women. Sony Pictures.

Even Jo (Ronan) and Laurie’s (Chalamet), friendship represents a wholeness. Not only in the immediate way their energies match as they dance wildly in secret at the ball where they first meet (in a manner most improper, but suiting to them both) but also in the way they share clothes, swapping waistcoats and hats so that in many ways, it is hard to see where Jo ends and Laurie begins. Unfortunately, like Frances and Lady Bird, they also go through their own break, as a result of a rejected proposal, and Laurie escaping, heartbroken, to Europe. During this break, the emptiness Jo feels without her best friend is felt in a letter Jo writes to ultimately accept his proposal, because “the worst fate is to live my life without you in it.” During the time Little Women was set (Civil War-Era America), there were few examples of the way attachments between a man and woman could be expressed, beyond marriage. But, that is not the only way love can manifest. Jo and Laurie eventually reconnect, as Laurie realises the love he feels for Jo is different to the love he feels for her sister Amy (Florence Pugh), who he marries, which he may never have realised if Jo did not stand her ground and refuse his proposal, knowing that marriage is not the way they are meant to love each other.

It is important to have these films such as Frances Ha and Lady Bird focusing on loving-friendships and platonic soulmates, because they offer an example, and recognition, to audiences that Jo and Laurie lacked. Too many times I have witnessed my friends (and myself) in tears over how hard and demeaning dating can be, and it breaks my heart, because being in a romantic relationship shouldn’t be the only way we gain value. 

Often, when I’m with my friends, I sit back and think about how lucky I am to have them, to love them. These beautiful, bright, shining people. It has taken work, but I have never been so happy as when our instant connection is solidified by dancing in a circle, our arms wrapped around each other on the dance floor; passing the mundane hours away by dancing to early-2000’s hits around our bookshop, until we are interrupted by a customer; sending each other flowers; going on dinner-and-a-movie dates; hiding upstairs at a party with a plate of cupcakes between us; or laughing around a dinner table. By consistently bringing attention to these deep and meaningful relationships, Gerwig’s films show us that these close friendships are just as, if not more, important and worthy of attention. We learn that it is possible to find love, romance and fulfillment outside of romantic-sexual love. That no matter what happens, if a person breaks your heart, if you can’t find a date, as long as you have your friends beside you, there is love.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She is a Co-Founder of Grow Up, a founding member of online film journal Rough Cut, and Greta Gerwig Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.