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Girlhood in Sofia Coppola’s Films

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at SLU chapter.

Pinboards covered in colorful memorabilia, pop culture magazines scattered aimlessly on the plush pink carpets, love letters written in cursive and tiny porcelain trinkets covering every surface: all hallmarks of girlhood, and reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s cinematography. 

Sofia Coppola is one of the most prominent female directors of our time, known for her films which often focus on coming of age, femininity and adolescence. Her most recent film, “Priscilla,” is an adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me.” Notably, Coppola depicts Priscilla first and foremost as a naive and ordinary girl who falls in love, and does not romanticize or glamorize the tumultuous and at-times caustic relationship between Priscilla and Elvis.

This is a trademark of Coppola’s previous work. In films like “Marie Antoinette” (2006) and “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), Coppola presents young women in various periods and life circumstances, ultimately humanizing and authenticating the different experiences of girlhood. 

“Marie Antoinette” barely mentions the politics of the French Revolution at all, and instead focuses on Antoinette, played by Kirsten Dunst, an extravagant and silly girl who wants to do nothing but spend her money, throw lavish parties and drink non-stop. After all, Antoinette was only 14-years-old when she was shipped to France to marry the dauphin on her way to becoming the Queen of France. As the French become increasingly restless with the royalty’s frivolous use of money and failure to feed their people properly, Antoinette is in her own world decorated with champagne towers, endless amounts of jewels and a life of constant entertainment. Beneath the new wave and punk soundtrack of Bow Wow Wow, The Cure and more, Coppola manages to create a girl living in the 1700s who would feel right at home in the twenty-first century. 

By highlighting her innocence, Coppola removes the blame Antoinette later receives when she is beheaded for treason: she was never the one making the political decisions, anyway. Moreover, Coppola never claimed that the movie was historically accurate, saying, “It is not a lesson of history. It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.” It is not Coppola’s purpose to depict an honest historical image of Antoinette before her death, but rather, she seeks to highlight the girlhood within Antoinette, who as Dunst portrays, dabbled in frivolity, had an addiction to shoe-shopping and at the end of the day, probably just wanted to have fun since there was little else for her to do.

While Antoinette is the star of her own movie, “The Virgin Suicides” offers a glimpse of girlhood through the lens of teenage boys. The film, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, was Coppola’s directorial debut, signifying that from the beginning, she had a strong ability to harness an honest coming of age picture. The story of the Lisbon sisters is portrayed through the perspective of their teenage male neighbors, who grow up fascinated by them and their strictly religious household. The Lisbon sisters are the perfect depiction of rebellious girlhood and young women’s desires to get out of the house and do something fun with their lives. Even though the boys romanticize them, they are really just normal girls with typical interests, who delight in music, dream about going to school dances and want to experience teenage love. 

However, through the peeping and borderline stalking–done by the horny and intrigued neighbor boys, who secretly look through the girls’ pictures and personal diaries and more explicitly sit directly in front of their house hoping for a glimpse of them, Coppola ultimately comments on society’s male gaze, which often has a specific focus on young girls who are experiencing puberty and thus more innocent. Moreover, following the film’s tragic end, in which all of the girls die in a suicide pact, the boys are still left thinking about them, suggesting that girlhood is still fetishized even after death. 

In a twist, “Priscilla,” offers an alternate look from the male gaze by examining Priscilla as she has never been seen before: separated from her husband’s career. Compared to Baz Luhrmann’s theatrical spectacle “Elvis” (2022), “Priscilla” is not about Elvis at all and instead focuses on the woman who fell in love with him at 14-years-old. Intentionally, most of the nearly 2-hour film focuses on Priscilla’s early years with Elvis and abruptly ends with her decision to leave him. Through portraying her youngest years with Elvis, Coppola wants the viewer’s attention to be on the fact that she was a young girl when she fell in love, and all of the pieces of girlhood that she lost as a result. 

Whisked away from her quiet family life, Priscilla finished her high school education in Memphis while residing at Graceland to be near Elvis. Isolated from her peers at school because of her boyfriend’s fame, her charming pink childhood bedroom is replaced by a sterile house full of Elvis memorabilia but no real companions that a girl needs growing up. Her early years are heavily defined by Elvis, who manipulates her emotionally as well as shapes her physical appearance, encouraging her to dye her hair black and wear certain colors. Coppola’s Priscilla is a woman who survives a relationship that takes away her remaining childhood girlhood, forcing her to forge an identity and agency for herself by leaving him and reclaiming the innocence she lost.

In these films, Coppola highlights the nuanced experiences of girlhood, from petulantly spoiled queens to depressed teenage girls and repressed and unhappy housewives. These different dynamics allow Coppola to ultimately reflect on the fragile, fleeting and culturally romantic nature of girlhood.

I current serve as the Co Editor-in-Chief for the Her Campus SLU chapter! I love Nora Ephron movies, cups of tea, and trips to the library! When I'm not writing, you can find me playing the New York Times mini games or listening to my favorite podcasts.