thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Frances Ha: A Fresh Kind of Fairy Tale

In Film on August 19, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Sarah T.

I was walking through a parking lot about a year ago when I passed two women in their late 60s. One was telling the other about her plan to submit a book review to the Boston Globe. “Hopefully they’ll like it,” she said.

“It sounds perfect for them,” her friend said. She had tortoise-shell glasses that made her look at once sophisticated and slightly goggle-eyed.

“I hope so,” the first woman said, and broke into a short, hard sob. “I just feel like I’ve spent the last thirty years messing everything up.”

Her friend wrapped her into a hug and offered to go chat over drinks–a solid response and a capital pal. Meanwhile I hurried into my car, feeling stricken. I like to imagine that people naturally accumulate more confidence as they get older, like the interest they’re supposed to earn on their 401(k)s. It’s reassuring to think that all the worrying about career trajectories and romantic partners and weird things you say at parties fades away with age. But here was a woman in her golden years, still scared she’d leave a lifetime of regrets behind her. “It’s never over,” I muttered, channeling Jeff Buckley, fumbling for my keys.


At the other end of my personal heartening spectrum is Frances–the unaffected goof played by Greta Gerwig in the movie Frances Ha. When the film, which Gerwig co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach, came out this summer, some critics responded with predictable think-pieces about the merits and drawbacks of movies featuring unlikable female characters. But by my lights, Frances is enormously likable. Bumbling, ambitious, and impulsive, she wards off unwanted advances by making a noise like a wrong-answer game show buzzer. In one scene, she starts running down the sidewalk, book bag slapping at her back, because the joy of being young in New York City has just washed over her. Who hasn’t felt that way once in a while, or wanted to?

Frances somersaults through her 27th year over the course of the film, losing friends and apartments and jobs, bleeding money, sleeping in too late, frequently sticking her foot in her mouth. What makes the movie remarkable is that Frances never lets any of these bad turns get her down for long. The movie is a fairy tale for women, which I mean in the best possible sense.

So many stories about women are cautionary tales meant to keep us in line. Don’t have an affair or you’ll end up like Anna Karenina, scrawny and outcast and still on the tracks. Don’t wait too long to marry or you’ll become a poltergeist like Miss Havisham, swinging screechily from dust-coated chandeliers. We’re immersed in these everyday campfire scares. Don’t get a cat or you’ll be a crazy cat lady, don’t be too ambitious or you’ll wind up alone, don’t put off having kids or you’ll find yourself barren, don’t eat too much food or stand up to your boss or have sex before marriage or you’ll be unlovable and unemployed and pregnant with triplets to boot. Also dead.

Frances, on the other hand, is the kind of woman who will always be all right. We know it when her best friend Sophie ditches her for a Tribeca apartment and a dull boyfriend and a tonier crowd and Frances blurts out her resentment and hurt, yet keeps shining with affection for her erstwhile pal all the same.

“Sophie and I are like the same person with different hair,” Frances loves to tell people. It isn’t true, but it’s a story keeping her buoyant as they grow apart, the same way her breezy lies about her dancing career help stave off anyone who might feel sorry for her. Her temporary guy roommate–clearly secretly in love with her–tells her she’s undateable. Frances barely listens; the part of her that does hear him goes along with the joke. When she confesses at a snobby dinner party that it’s hard to explain what she does for a living, “because I don’t actually do it,” she takes a sly pleasure in her bluntness that makes her come out on top of the evening, no matter how many collective Parisian pied-à-terres the guests can tally between them. She’s delusional, is what I’m saying, but in ways that make her strong.

Frances has something better than genius or popularity or mystique. Our girl–play-fighting in Central Park, jumping and spinning before a group of near-strangers in a Chinatown apartment, shimmying messily in front of a fountain while wearing her office clothes–knows how to bounce back. She’s young, sure, but you get the sense that she’ll be the same way forty years down the road. Resilience is Frances’s watchword. Her story helps me remember: I can make it mine.

  1. What a joyful review! I want to see this so much now, Sarah–thank you.

  2. Oh goodness, I finally saw this film, and I loved it for so many of the reasons that you describe. I think that the whole concept of “unlikable female roles” is fascinating and really speaks to a meta-pressure I feel all the time: “Don’t be unlikable or all the bad things will happen.” Don’t be mean, don’t be opinionated, don’t admit to being hurt, don’t mess up. I love Frances’s story because she messes up so much and it doesn’t destroy her. It makes her grow. And her friends and family mess up too. Nobody gets automatically disqualified for messing up. I need as many reminders of that as I can get.

    • Yes! It’s so easy to slip into the mindset that every single mistake we make is occurring in a high-stakes game of Russian roulette. I love too that in the end it’s clear that Frances and Sophie still really love each other, even though things between them have changed and they’ve both acted terribly to one another at various times.

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