Performance, Class and Power

Sequences of performance: auditions, dance numbers, songs permeate cinemas of girlhood. They often reinforce the sense that a girl’s identity is staked upon her ability to embody social dreams of sexual desirability, fun and disciplined perfection, but equally such scenes provide the means to trouble this expectation. That ironic play with the dance number is both reinforced and parodied in popular comedy film as female stars subvert and appropriate its pleasures, from Abigail Breslin’s Olive in Little Miss Sunshine(Dayton & Faris, 2006), to Emma Stone’s Easy A(Gluck, 2010), to Amy Schumer in Trainwreck(Apatow, 2015). More radical attempts to address the pleasures, limits and dangers of that uneasy relationship between self-expression, testing and commodification have come in a number of recent European films, in which attention to a very specific social context underlines the limits and potential of empowered performance.

We might think, for example, of Andrea Arnold’s Fishtank (2009) in which Mia’s dance numbers see her strike out for autonomy when she finds an alternative to her girl gang’s overtly sexualized gyrations in her own private practice of hip hop routines that she’s watched in an internet café. Her use of dance tentatively to explore her own sexual desire, in an unforgettable dance sequence to ‘California Dreaming’, is wilfully misread by her abuser as seduction. Attempts to find professional recognition for her dance practice lead her to an audition for a sleazy strip club, but she walks away, and the film reaches its most moving sequence as she dances an impromptu farewell with her estranged mother and angry sister, in a moment of rare harmony.

In films of this kind, dance or song as performance for others’ eyes is experienced, and ultimately rejected. In the camerawork this translates in different ways. It might be, as in Sciamma’s Bande de filles (2014), an exasperation of those aesthetics that typically frame girls’ performance. In the celebrated central sequence of this film, in which the girls dance privately for themselves, to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’, the blue filter and pop video aesthetics question, as Isabel McNeill writes, to what extent the girls are able to appropriate the song. It also underlines how fragile the bubble of the hotel room they have hustled to pay for might be in the grey and misogynist reality of the Parisian suburb they inhabit.

Attention to girls’ bodies is inevitably highly political in this context. How can a film showthe ‘private’ spaces of girlhood performance without replicating the voyeuristic dynamics inherent in performance? Arnold’s solution is to frustrate the aesthetics that would keep the girl’s body at a performer’s distance, fully within the frame, instead keeping the camera close (‘like a loyal dog’ in Amber Jacobs’ words) to non-professional Katie Jarvis’s bodily experience, sometimes so close we can hear her breathe, which allows us to follow, often through dance, the very diverse ways in which girlhood might be lived, and might survive, through the body.

Edoardo De Angelis’ Indivisibili(2016) draws upon the rich hinterland of Naples and its baroque and macabre traditions to create a semi-fantastical body, casting identical twins, Angela and Marianna Fontana, to play conjoined twins, Daisy and Viola (the names a nod to real conjoined twins and Hollywood stars of the 1930s Daisy and Violet Hilton, stars of Freaks(Browning, 1932), whose lives were recounted in Bound by Flesh(Netflix, 2012)). This magical realist transformation of the singular girl’s body into two as one, as Cristina Jandelli has argued (One body in two), queers normative expectations of the girls’ bodies. The further baroque twist is that the girls’ father has them dress like silvery toga-clad Roman goddesses for their lucrative performances as Neomelodic singers. The girls love singing, but here too their performances expose them to sexual exploitation, from which they must flee. At one point they dramatically throw themselves off a yacht into the dark waters of the Mediterranean, only to wash up miraculously alive on its shores the following morning. Their love of song, however, persists and is what binds them together, even once they have willingly undergone an operation to separate. The film leaves them, now clothed in plain hospital gowns, singing, softly and brokenly, the notes of their favourite Janis Joplin song, gesturing towards the theme of music and girls’ voices as what persist in offering moments of connection between them and reflect the girls’ determination to shape their destiny, rather than be shaped by it.

These narratives, in one way and another, all speak to a precisely located vision of girlhood, in each case in a marginalized location, for reasons of class (Fishtank), race and class (Girlhood), or region and class (Indivisibili). For a film set in a fairy-tale location, which reflects symbolically on the links between girlhood development and performance, it is worth taking a look at Hadžihalilović’s Innocence, 2004. For reflections on how students respond to its attention to the disciplining of girlhood through dance and the metaphor of butterfly collection see Davina Quinlivan.

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Further Reading

  • Danielle Hipkins, ‘Underwater Girls: Fantasies of resistance and resilience in contemporary Italian cinema’ (draft chapter)
  • Sarah Projansky, ‘What is There to Talk About? Twenty-First-Century Girl Films’, in Spectacular Girls, 95-126
  • Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad, ‘The Amazing Bounce-Backable Woman: Resilience and the Psychological Turn in Neoliberalism’,Sociological Research Online, 2018
  • Fiona Handyside, ‘Emotion, Girlhood and Music in Naissance des pieuvres(Céline Sciamma, 2007) and Un amour de jeunesse(Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011)’ in Fiona Handyside and Kate Taylor-Jones (eds) International Cinema and the Girl: Local Issues, Transnational Contexts (New York: Palgrave, 2016), 121-134.
  • Valerie Walkerdine, ‘Putting Your Daughter on the Stage’, Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)
  • Lucy Bolton, ‘A Modern Girl for a Modern Britain? Mia in Fish Tank’, in Fiona Handyside and Kate Taylor-Jones (eds), International Cinema and the Girl(Palgrave, 2016).
  • Samantha Holland and Feona Attwood, ‘Keeping Fit in Six Inch Heels: The Mainstreaming of Pole Dancing’ in Attwood (ed.) Mainstreaming Sex, pp. 165-181.
  • Amber Jacobs, ‘On the Maternal ‘Creaturely’ Cinema of Andrea Arnold’, Journal of British Cinema and Television 1 (2016): 160–176
  • Iris Marion Young, ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality’, Human Studies 3 (1980), 137-156.
  • Angela McRobbie, ‘Dance narratives and fantasies of achievement’ in Feminism and Youth Culture: From Jackie to Just Seventeen(London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 189- 219, p. 217.
  • Laura Favaro, ‘Just be confident girls!’: Confidence chic as neoliberal governmentality’ in Elias, AS, Gill, R, Scharff, C (eds), Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 283–300.
  • Imogen Tyler and Bruce Bennett,‘ “Celebrity Chav”: Fame, femininity and social class’,European Journal of Cultural Studies, 13 (2010), 375-393 (p. 376-77).