Revisiting 'Girlfriends': A Forgotten Film of Second-Wave Feminism

Stanley Kubrick was right. Girlfriends is one of the finest American films of the ‘70s.


Director: Claudia Weill
Year: 1978

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 which 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 which 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, 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 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 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 a 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 onscreen 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 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 films of the ‘70s. Surely, enough time has passed for critics and cinephiles to give credit where credit is due.






Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.