Before Lena Dunham’s Girls, there was Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978), a coming-of-age story about a young single woman in New York City. In 1980, legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick described Girlfriends as “one of the most interesting American films that I’ve seen in a long time”, but it failed to catch on with audiences. To this day, it remains a rare cinematic gem that few people have seen.
Dunham’s HBO series is undoubtedly a work of her own, but it has much in common with feminist films of the ‘70s like Girlfriends, which were influenced by the second wave of feminism led by Gloria Steinem. Second-wave feminism was a movement for white middle-class Americans who rejected marriage and motherhood for careerism. They demanded equality in the workplace, and a society that would allow them to pursue their professional dreams, even if those dreams transcended traditional “women’s work”.
Second-wave feminism was incomplete, which is why there was a third wave in the ‘90s, and now there’s a fourth movement in the new millennium that defies strict labels and rigid categorization. The philosophy of Dunham’s show, like most young feminists today, is that women deserve equal rights, but beyond that, they can do whatever they want with their lives and their bodies. Today’s young feminists welcome the elites of the second and third waves, as well as working-class women of color and transwomen who have historically been shunned by the second and third waves. It honors women who want to stay home and raise their children, as well as women who want to climb up the professional ladder.
Despite the differences in approach, all feminist movements fought for gender equality, which is why Girlfriends, a product of second-wave feminism, has much in common with Girls, a product of today’s feminism. (For more on this, check out Monika Bartyzel’s informative essay, “Girls on Film: Girlfriends, the most influential film about female friendship you’ve never heard of”, The Week.com, 25 April 2014.)
As films like The Apartment (1960) remind us, there have always been women like Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) who defied the norm. However, Girlfriends was released at a time when many young women across the United States were aching to break free from the constraints of traditional womanhood. Inspired by the radical New Left of the ‘60s, these women didn’t settle down and marry like their parents. Instead, they moved into big American cities and struggled to make it on their own.
Girlfriends opens as Susan Weinblatt’s (Melanie Mayron) best friend and roommate Anne (Anita Skinner) announces that she is getting married and moving out of the apartment they shared for years. The rest of the film follows Susan as she copes with the separation.
Susan is an aspiring photographer, and she makes her money from weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. She dreams of presenting her work in a gallery but hasn’t caught her big break yet. The future of her career provides some drama, but for the most part, this is a plotless film that presents brief snippets of Susan’s life. Seemingly random, these snippets say a lot about gender in ‘70s-era America.
Shot like a documentary, Weill’s film adopts the realist aesthetic of ‘70s American independent cinema, popularized by directors like John Cassavetes. The goal is to capture life as it is being lived and to make a drama out of small, intimate moments. This may be the norm now, but in the ‘70s, American filmmakers were experimenting with this for the first time. Auteurs like Weill and Cassavetes abandoned Hollywood’s classical mode of storytelling for Europe’s art film approach, which favored complex character development, atmosphere, and ambiguity.
Weill’s film responds to the sexual revolution and all of its complexities. For example, in one troubling scene, Susan is sexually harassed by a taxi driver. What begins as an uncomfortable flirtation from a much older stranger soon turns into a threatening exchange, and we get a sense that this is routine. In this scene, Weill demonstrates the dangers of being an independent woman in New York City. With sexual freedom comes vigilance, and as other ‘70s films like Klute (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976) show, women often had to protect and defend themselves against the psychopathic city dwellers in the dark.
In addition, the film explores Susan’s approach to romance through her relationships with two different men. In an early scene, she meets Eric (Christopher Guest) at a party and casually hooks up with him. We understand that she has done this before. As she gets dressed in the morning, it’s clear that she has no intention of seeing him again. Weill doesn’t make Susan’s relationship with Eric the central storyline. Eric shows up at her doorstep a few days later and eventually they start seeing each other, but Weill treats the relationship as an aside.
This is a clever way to convey Susan’s ambivalent feelings about marriage and motherhood. She enjoys spending time with Eric, but she doesn’t want to settle down. She’s focused on her career and doesn’t plan to follow Anne’s more traditional path. Weill doesn’t judge the different paths that Anne and Susan take. Instead, she allows her female characters to make decisions on their own terms.
Susan’s relationship with Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallach), a much older acquaintance, is similarly complex. At first, the Rabbi is Susan’s most trusted employer. As a freelance photographer, she can always count on him to hire her for a gig. They have a friendly connection, and their warm conversations are enjoyable to watch.
However, toward the end of the film, something unexpected happens. As the scene below shows, their mentor-mentee relationship turns romantic when Rabbi Gold, a married man with children, kisses Susan. Rather than reject the advance, Susan embraces it. Weill and Mayron deserve credit for putting Susan in a situation that might make viewers uncomfortable.
I’m reminded of the Girls episode “One Man’s Trash”, in which Hannah (Dunham) has an affair with a much older man played by Patrick Wilson. There’s no rational reason why she does it, other than because she can.
Despite the different men in Susan’s life, the real love story is between Susan and Anne. At first, Susan struggles with Anne’s absence, and she accuses Anne of abandoning her for her husband and children. It takes a while, but eventually, Susan learns to respect Anne’s decision, and they make amends. The final scene is a touching reconciliation, in which they both learn to appreciate their friendship.
Susan and Anne’s friendship sends a simple but profound message: women can rely on one another and themselves and don’t need men to define their lives. It’s a refreshing ode to independence and survival, and it honors the many young women who came of age after the sexual revolution, and who embraced alternatives to marriage and motherhood. Today, with the exception of films like Frances Ha (2012), female characters in cinema are largely defined by or dependent upon men. It’s nice to know that there are films like Girlfriends that imagine different possibilities for female characters.
Just as Girlfriends presents a progressive perspective on relationships, it was way ahead of the curve when it comes to on-screen nudity. Like Dunham in Girls, Mayron is not afraid to get naked in front of the camera. The film’s nude scene is not as graphic as anything we see on Girls, but it serves Weill’s realist aesthetic, and it makes a strong statement about female sexuality. Mayron, like Dunham, doesn’t look like your typical movie star, but she flaunts her body for all to see. In the ‘70s, it was a radical act for American filmmakers to experiment with nudity.
Girlfriends is the work of a woman director, and that matters. Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1971) and Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street (1975) are important films, and there’s no denying the influence of Elaine May in comedy and Barbara Kopple in the documentary. For the most part, however, ‘70s American cinema was dominated by men, and it was European auteurs like Lina Wertmüller and Chantal Akerman who garnered the attention of feminist film scholars.
Most of the prominent “women’s pictures” of the ‘70s were actually directed by men, such as Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978). This doesn’t make these films any less significant, but it shows that it was much easier for women to succeed in front of the camera than behind the camera. This is why Weill’s film was so revolutionary. It’s not just that Susan is a complex female character; it’s that a female director was given the opportunity to tell Susan’s story.
Twenty-five years after Kubrick praised Girlfriends, it remains a largely unseen masterpiece. Weill deserves credit for depicting an independent young woman’s defiance of marriage and motherhood without judgment, and for focusing on female friendship as opposed to heterosexual romance. In retrospect, Kubrick was right. Girlfriends is one of the finest American feminist films of the ‘70s. Surely, enough time has passed for critics and cinephiles to give credit where credit is due.