At the beginning of Girlhood, Marieme (Karidja Touré) is timid and self-conscious. She takes care of her younger sister at home, their mother working long hours and absent throughout most of the film, and she shields her younger sister from their abusive older brother who has taken charge over the household. Girlhood tells Marieme’s coming-of-age story as she invents and reinvents herself, and comes to define who she is. Transformation is the most prominent theme throughout Girlhood though socioeconomic and racial factors bear a strong presence – Marieme is Black and lives in a poor Paris suburb, and her circumstances greatly inform her process of transformation.
Marieme is a student who struggles at school. Because of her low grades, she is told by an off-screen guidance counselor to attend vocational school. The school is away from her home, and she cannot attend since she takes care of her sister. Nor does she have interest in attending vocational school or being ‘different’ from the other students with higher grades who wouldn’t be encouraged to attend. This scene plots the course of Marieme’s path away from academics and opportunity, and into a job as a cleaning lady. Marieme doesn’t smile much at the start of Girlhood, and she is weary from disappointment and hardships.
Things take a turn however when she crosses paths with Lady (Assa Sylla) and her two friends. The trio project standoffishness and while Marieme is initially dismissive of the tough-looking group, she changes her mind when she sees a group of boys approach the trio, including Ismaël (Idrissa Diabate), a friend of her brother’s that Marieme has a crush on. Lady and her friends are the cool girls, and Marieme sees within them, for the first time in a while, opportunity. The girls have straightened hair and are dressed in denim and leather, portraying both the feminine and masculine in appearance. Their sense of fashion contrasts with Marieme’s as does their hair, Marieme’s hair in braids.
We come to learn that Marieme is taking the place of a fourth member of Lady’s group, though Marieme couldn’t be more different than Lady. Nonetheless, Lady takes a liking to Marieme and we can tell that Marieme admires and envies Lady, and Lady’s projection of strength and freedom. Marieme soon straightens and lets down her hair to mimic Lady, though as we see Lady and her friends steal, intimidate, and drink, we know that Marieme should have reservations about being swept away by her new friends.
Though initially aloof and noticeably new to the group, Marieme quickly becomes close to her new friends through experiencing racial profiling at a clothing store and dancing on the train. Marieme finds Lady and her friends exciting, her curiosity relishing as Lady and her friends engage in trash talk with a fellow group of girls they cross on the train.
The most striking scene within Girlhood comes when the girls spend the night in a hotel room. Lit in blue, the girls sing and dance to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ wearing dresses they stole. The masculine facade of their wardrobe is no more, and the girls – just for a moment – are without concern. Their walls can come down. School, family, and societal stressors are non-existent in their hotel room, for one night, the girls are able to enjoy their adolescence as they should. They’re not adults yet, but have otherwise been forced into adulthood through circumstance. This scene is of tremendous importance to Girlhood and is where the film really ‘clicks’ for audiences. Marieme is hesitant to join the girls in song and dance, but she sees how happy, how beautiful they are and she can’t resist. She joins them. It’s a metamorphosis. After Marieme joins in, Rihanna’s voice is replaced by the girls’, allowing the scene to sustain its power and representing the girls making the lyrics of the song their own. Director Céline Sciamma made a bold choice in shooting a full length music video within Girlhood, but the choice pays off in magnitudes. It would be criminal to shorten ‘Diamonds’ here – Sciamma captures the euphoria that the song representDs and allows Marieme to be drawn in fully and just for a moment forget about her brother and the troubles of the next day.
When the song ends, Sciamma shows the girls curled up in the hotel bed asleep, almost suggesting that the girls’ night was a dream. Despite the joy of the scene, it’s also a tragic scene. Their happiness is temporary, the dresses were stolen (they can’t buy what had brought them joy), and the act of dressing up is, at the end of the day, an act of make believe.
Sciamma brings the girls back down to earth, harshly, when Lady loses a street fight. Lady’s father cuts off her hair after the fight, ‘efeminizing’ her and diminishing her resolve. Marieme decides to avenge her role model through fighting the girl who had defeated Lady, but when she talks with Lady following her victory, Lady points out that Marieme fought not on Lady’s behalf, but out of Marieme’s own pride. Marieme is no longer satisfied with trying to fit in – she wants to stand out, just as Lady did. And for the first time in Girlhood, Marieme’s brother respects Marieme upon hearing of the fight and offers her a video game controller to play FIFA with him. Marieme chooses to play as France, feeling strong and courageous. A sharp contrast with the Marieme of the past.
This illusion does not last, however. Marieme notices her sister with a group of girls similar to Lady and her friends, and Marieme becomes protective. She realizes that her own group of friends is not a positive influence – the theft, the street fights, the false ‘tough girl’ persona – and she can no longer justify her friendships. Marieme doesn’t want to see her sister going down the same path as her, and they return home together, uncertain.
Girlhood begins its third act here, and Marieme is more lost than ever. After sleeping with Ismaël, Marieme’s brother finds out and assaults her. She can no longer stay at home. Discontent with her dead-end cleaning lady job, Marieme decides to work for Abou (Djibril Gueye), a drug dealer and pimp, who promised her she would only be involved with distributing drugs. Abou, it turns out, kept his promise, but he attempts to force Marieme to kiss him at a party. Fleeing the party scared, Marieme arrives at Ismaël’s. She has lost her job and can’t return to her family. Ismaël has had reservations about Marieme due to her involvement with Abou, but that her “problem” goes away if she were to marry him. While Marieme is flattered for a moment that Ismaël would marry her, she ultimately knows that she would not be content as his wife. Marieme, for the first time, does not allow herself to feel forced into making a disadvantageous decision, and she can start anew.
As a coming-of-age story, Girlhood has few parallels. The events of the film seem to occur naturally rather than by conscious decisions of a writer, yet clearly showcase character change and cause-and-effect relationships that guide Marieme to self-actualization. The result is a stunning film that is both subtle, yet strongly feminist. Marieme’s identity is carefully constructed and deconstructed until Marieme realizes that she and only herself should be in control of her life, not others. It’s fitting the film ends when it does – it’s where Marieme begins.