Last night, I finally saw the movie of the summer, a black-and-white pic about an anti-heroic, sterotypically-unfeminine woman in her late twenties, living basically hand-to-mouth in New York City (but not abstaining from $14-packs of American Spirit) while pursuing her artistic dream, to be a professional modern dancer.
No, it’s not “GIRLS: The Movie,” although at first glance one is struck by the parallels between the world of Frances, the aforementioned protagonist, and Hannah Horvath of Lena Dunham’s “GIRLS”: both are frumpy but somehow quite homely, both are talented yet not sure how to achieve success, both are obsessively reliant on one or more female best friends for camraderie and security, and both seem relatively indifferent to normative ideas of middle-class American romance such as steady relationships or marriage and parenthood. Rather, these women more or less stumble through life, operating on a short-term basis instead of a five-year plan, and magically making a good impression on people despite their essential lack of social graces or nepotistic connections.
And yet, in “Frances Ha,” as opposed to in “GIRLS,” we have a character whose stoicism is remarkable: she is unemotional almost to the point where she seems stereotypically masculine rather than feminine; not once in the film does Frances weep, break down, or consult a therapist when the going gets really, really tough. Nor does she, as does Hannah Horvath, beg her parents for money–in fact, her pride prohibits her from admitting to them, or her best friend, when her career has hit the gutter and nothing seems to be going right in life, at all. And very unlike Hannah, Frances does not once grab the nearest decent-looking man and drag him into bed (perhaps because, at points in the film, she doesn’t actually have a place to live). In other words, Frances is slightly more grown-up, stronger, more adept than Hannah.
But these differences are rather slight; what is important is the similar territory they cover–young women from undistinguished backgrounds and of imperfect character, trying to make it as artists in the big city–and the novelty of this subject matter appearing in mainstream cultural production. And I would piggy-back on recent writing by Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker‘s television critic, which points out the huge impact made by the HBO series “Sex and the City,” by saying that that show opened up space for this new, incredibly important genre of young women who unapologetically pursue their individual visions of a successful life, whatever that may be and by whatever means. Throughout “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw wrestles with changing career goals and romantic needs in a way that no previous female character had. In fact, the only work coming to mind that, prior to “SATC” addressed these issues is “Annie Hall,” in which Diane Keaton is a woman motivated by writing and effectively unconvinced of the need to devote herself to a male partner, to Woody Allen’s character’s dismay. (As a side note, my film-viewing partner and I last night both noticed Allen’s influence in Noah Baumbach’s directing style, with approval.) But “Annie Hall” depicts this kind of femininity ultimately from a male perspective, whereas now we have women writing (the actress who played Frances co-wrote the film), directing, and producing these shows and movies.
It’s infinitely invaluable to young women to have these cultural products, whether or not we find them to be “accurate” representations of our lives (notably, the criticisms abound that the women portrayed in these instances are white and middle-class or upper-middle-class, or living in “privileged poverty”). They are fodder for self-analysis and critical discussion, as I have written before about “GIRLS.” And they also prod us, as writer Kate Mooney has done excellently for Brokelyn, to examine the numerous success stories that come out of this post-third-wave-feminist ethos of pursuing art and career goals at any cost. In Frances, Hannah, and Carrie, we see the challenges and mistakes that appear in our own personal and professional lives, and we can’t help but use these reflections to become stronger, better versions of ourselves–and we become writers of our own series, crafting our imperfect yet admirable selves into the protagonists we really want to be.