(trigger warning: references to suicide)
“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl”, speaks Cecilia Lisbon at the beginning of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), a line that seemingly encapsulates Coppola’s directorial mission as she seeks to highlight female narratives and experiences. A pioneer of what has come to be known as the ‘sad girl aesthetic’, Coppola’s films explore the feelings of melancholy that everyone who has been a teenage girl will be oh so familiar with. Perhaps best recognised for the beauty of her films, which find themselves drenched in pastel colours and soft lighting, Coppola has a large cult female following. Her legacy seems to be well established in pop culture as exemplified by the multitude of Halloween 2023 costumes modelled after her depiction of Marie Antoinette in her 2006 film of the same name. The question is, what is it that makes Sofia Coppola’s films so special? And how has she managed to brand herself as being inherently for women, ‘for the girls’?
It can be easy to argue that it is simply the aesthetics of her films that are responsible for her praise and popularity with the use of soft lighting and pastels creating what could be considered a feminine aesthetic and therefore largely appealing to female audiences. However, to reduce Coppola’s films to mere aesthetics is to do both Coppola herself and her large female audience a disservice. Coppola’s films can be seen to offer nuanced and thoughtful depictions of the female experience, combining both stereotypical feminine aesthetics and dark subject matters. In the male dominated space of cinema, this combination of aesthetic and subject is not often seen. As an audience we are accustomed to seeing scenes of pain, assault and suicide accompanied by dark colours and lighting to indicate their serious nature, masculinising them as a result and putting them at odds with what we consider to be feminine. By doing so such subject matter can be perceived as being outside of the realm of female experience. Coppola moves to reconcile this notion by having her feminine aesthetics, her use of pastels and soft lighting, remain throughout the course of her films, not shying away from depictions of violence or pain, as she conveys the experience of being a woman.
A stark example of this can be seen in her film The Virgin Suicides (1999) in which we follow the story of five sisters who commit suicide. It is a film all about girlhood and female sorrow and its unwavering aesthetic communicates this to the audience. It is also a commentary on the male gaze and the romanticisation and objectification of girls. As the story unfolds it is narrated by a male voice, a boy who was amongst a group that were obsessed with the Lisbon sisters. To some this may detract from the film’s female driven narrative – how is it an empowering narrative about women if it is told by a male voice? But I believe this to be precisely the point. The discovery of the deaths of the four remaining Lisbon sisters is a deep shock to the young boys stuck in their white-knight fantasies, similarly to how the depiction of suicide draped in an aesthetic of florals and beiges is a shock to the audience. Coppola shatters the romanticised Lisbon sisters, replacing them with their real versions, the Lisbon sisters who were in pain, suffering, trapped, and in doing so exposes them in all their complexities, complexities that women are often perceived as not having.
Coppola’s focus on girlhood does not diminish the experiences of boyhood. She is not suggesting that the suffering of the female experience is more than the male experience and she is not suggesting that the male experience is without its own sufferings. Coppola is, however, highlighting the sufferings of the female experience that are so often overlooked in our patriarchal society where women in pain are so often dismissed as simply being hormonal and hysterical, or are romanticised beyond recognition of their struggles. Sofia Coppola is ‘for the girls’ not because it is only women who are allowed to enjoy her films, but because she works to highlight female narratives that are often brushed aside, especially in the male-dominated sphere of the cinema, and that she does so without sacrificing femininity is a refreshing feat. Coppola challenges the narrative that suffering is not feminine by reconciling the reality that under a patriarchal society to be a woman is to suffer in one way or another.
That is not to say that Coppola’s films are perfect, or that her depictions of female suffering are not without flaws. For one, the majority of Coppola’s films highlight the experiences of solely white women, and therefore in addressing the suffering of women they only truly address the suffering of white women, ignoring the challenges that women of colour face in society. Therefore, while Coppola’s films can be categorised as being ‘for the girls’, perhaps the more apt phrase would be ‘for the white girls’, or even ‘for the middle class white girls’ whose suffering it seems Coppola endeavours to portray above all else. While it is good to see female stories and experiences being amplified and enjoyed within the male-dominated space of cinema, it is important to recognise this lack of intersectional narratives. Sofia Coppola has made important headway in the space of female cinema, but hopefully in the future when we say ‘for the girls’, this can encompass all girls.