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Sofia Coppola’s Room of Pinks: The Isolation of Femininity

By: Oshi Agarwal

Abstract– Critically acclaimed director Sofia Coppola has brought to screen the most sacred place of all– the room of a girl. But behind the pale pinks and gleams of trinkets, she places a world full of dissociation, loneliness and isolation. This article discusses three films by Coppola that materialised these buried aspects of girlhood.

Girlhood can be brought down to a few common elements that were the universal experience of every girl at some point. Of course, saying “every girl” here does not actually entail the myriad of experiences that girlhood can consist of. But we have a habit of confining the imagination of being a girl to some restricting images. And it is often looked at through rose-coloured glasses, both literally and metaphorically.

Enter Sofia Coppola, the dream for the Tumblr film kids and the nightmare for sexist male critics. What started out with stains of tomatoes labelled as “Nepo-baby”, Sofia’s career as a director is painted using a palette full of pastels and pale pinks. Her take on the creation of a narrative that majorly surrounds the lives of girls and women gives us a look into a hidden room. Although she uses the same rose-coloured glasses to create her films, she does not leave out the complexities of living in a society like ours with the identity of a girl or a woman. This article will discuss her films and the isolation of femininity she focuses on through pre-existing narratives, making them her own through her revised perspective. 

Highschool, Versailles and Civil War

Discovering Sofia’s films was almost like a rite of passage for me as a 16-year-old girl. Watching The Virgin Suicides (1999) for the first time can be considered a milestone that separates me into a before and after. This is quite similar to how most teenage people react to her films. Most of her work has been a revision of pre-existing texts. The Virgin Suicides is based on a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, the same as The Beguiled by Thomas P. Cullinan. Her other most critically acclaimed (and criticised) film was Marie Antoinette, based on a biography by Antonia Fraser. While being from different periods and consisting of varying themes, they all share the similarity of women or young girls in isolation. 

After reading the novel and watching the movie, it is quite apparent how differently Eugenides and Coppola viewed the lives of Lisbon girls. While both the texts can’t really be fairly compared, Coppola’s added peeks into the suffocation of living in a girl’s body could very clearly be seen. It is interesting to see the added “female gaze” to a story that is narrated by men and originally written by a man. The girls are quite literally confined by their conservative Catholic parents to their rooms. The room became both a cage and a sanctuary which we will unpack further in this article. Similarly, in Marie Antoinette, Sofia, like many other modern feminists, sympathises with the French dauphine. And rightfully so. To a large extent, the movie takes the perspective of the innocent, teenage girl Maria Antonia who is thrown into the French court in a flurry of corsets, parties and politics. Doing what she does best, Sofia creates a soft narrative around Antoinette, focusing on the wants and emotions of any other girl. She focuses on the familial and political pressure on Marie of giving an heir to the family, including a wonderful scene of her breaking down when it gets all too much for her. The details are present in the mundane elements of the daily life she went through: of being a lost young girl, of being a wife in a loveless marriage, of having lovers and several affairs. 

The Beguiled, although belonging to a similar unofficial Coppola theme, is somewhat different from the former two films. Set amidst the American Civil War in Virginia, the film follows a group of women and girls made to stay confined in a school for girls. The film’s palette is full of rather darker hues, given the setting of the ongoing war. The comfortable dynamic between the women gets disturbed by the intervention of a Union Army officer who is taken in by them to be treated and kept safe from the Confederacy. Sofia’s “take” here is a fixation on the tension between the women and how their relationship fluctuates because of the man. The original text by Cullinan is from the perspective of the officer, McBurney. The Beguiled is set in the limited space of the school and its yard area. The suffocation of the characters can be felt through the screen, in more ways than one. But in the case of McBurney, you can see him feeling a certain sense of power in that limited space, despite being a guest there, that too wounded. The two women, the school owner Martha and her assistant Edwina along with the teenage student Alicia, grow to have a subtle but quite obvious rivalry between them as soon as McBurney enters the school. 

A Room of Their Own?

A common link in Sofia’s storytelling is her exploration of the Girl’s Room i.e., the confinement of a girl to one place. The politics of space in the films discussed above is quite two-sided. In The Virgin Suicides, the oppressive forces of religion and gender come together to hold the Lisbon sisters down in their cluttered room. In one scene, Lux, the rebellious Lisbon sister and “the last one to go”, is made to throw her rock records in the fireplace by her mother as she cries and begs. The scene resonates with me to this day. From even the most trivial experiences, having uniform codes in school much stricter than what they had for the “other” gender, to significant ones like the Lisbons putting the girls under house arrest. What the Lisbons did is not unrealistic, especially if we look at it from the experiences of women of colour.

In Marie Antoinette, the case is different since she is royalty and of course, holds more power than any other woman. The dauphine is known to have loved giving and attending extravagant parties of her many friends. But as a girl, when she was yet to settle in the French court, we see her smallness, for the lack of a better word, in the colossal Versailles. Sofia’s shots make sure to cover the frame less with Kirsten Dunst who played Antoinette and more with the towering walls of the palace. As almost a mockery of the French royal family, the gaudy situation of Marie’s room, full of pastries, dresses and shoes, does not give her salon or bedroom a look of comfort. She never got to have privacy, constantly surrounded by court ladies and servants. 

A larger argument can be made about women in The Beguiled being confined due to the state of war as well. A “safer” space they had made out for them in the confinement of the school is infiltrated by McBurney. Living such isolated lives from the outside world left them confused and frustrated by the addition of a stranger to the dynamic as well. But here I would like to bring more attention to confinement in one’s body instead. Dunst, Sofia Coppola’s very own muse, does two very similar scenes in two different films. A dinner scene with all the people present with a man or boy. This respectively happened in The Beguiled and The Virgin Suicides. In both scenes, as Edwina and Lux, she is asked to cover her exposed shoulders by Martha and Mrs Lisbon. It is implied she was dressed so because the said man/boy was present. Clothing is, if not the primary, significant way of expressing gender. As Masafumi Monden has written in “Contemplating in a dream-like room”, which fits all three of these films, Sofia makes costumes very central to her characters, especially the female characters. It serves as a way to juxtapose the women she is telling the story of. The women in the school are mostly seen wearing white or pale-coloured clothing which adds to the thriller aspect of the film, specifically when Martha has her white nightdress covered in stains of blood red. But we also see them dressing up in a manner that would please the officer. I find Martha’s character especially interesting since she is the “matriarch” of the school and does challenging labour on a daily basis. She holds onto femininity when she has to, well, present herself in front of McBurney. 

In TVS on the other hand, girliness and femininity are treated both like a secret for the excited pubescent boys of the neighbourhood and as a state of loneliness and eventually, death. The femininity of the Lisbon sisters becomes a lifeless, grim state, devoid of the spark with which the girls are first introduced in the movie through the eyes of the neighbourhood boys. 

The whiteness of Girlhood in the Films
As a full circle, this article concludes with some criticism of Sofia Coppola’s work. This has been the standing critique of her films which her fans, including myself, can only hope will change through her future works. Coppola’s universe of girls, laces and pinks has not yet had a space for a woman of colour. What she has till now worked with has only been white girlhood and femininity. Even with an original text that had multiple black women (The Beguiled) which was also central to the state of civil unrest, she made major changes to the text by writing off both the women of colour. She responded to the many criticisms she faced by essentially saying it would have been insensitive of her, as a white woman, to treat the character of a slave as not the primary focus of a film. Her response does not exactly help her case as hardly any of her films have had people of colour cast in them. She clearly struggles to create a narrative around marginal identities and understand them. Sofia still seems open to taking these criticisms seriously. So, while this remains a valid and important criticism of her work, we cannot deny how she, as a woman herself, has been able to bring to the screen her mastery. The kaleidoscopes that are her films give us beautifully haunting glimpses of femininity and girlhood.

Author’s Bio- Oshi is in her third year at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, majoring in Literary Studies. Her interests include film and visual media studies, queer studies and learning languages.

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