”Written byRaelee Seymour-Brown
”Sourced Images from:Openverse: "Somwhere" by sffoghorn; George R. Fry, Los Angeles Times
An Exploration of how Sophia Coppola has reshaped the narrative surrounding Girlhood through her films.
When it was announced in September of 2022 that Sofia Coppola’s next feature film would shed light on the often hidden story of Priscilla Presley, based on her 1985 memoir Elvis & Me, it seemed like an opportunity for the mystifying figure to finally be given her due diligence, as the announcement came at a time when Australian auteur Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic epic Elvis was already covered to death in mainstream media. The film, doused in the glitz and spectacle of Luhrmann’s signature style offered a retelling of the prolific artist’s career whereby the women, Prisicilla and his other host of lovers, are seen less as fully-fledged humans and more as avenues through which Elvis’ personal trauma is explored. This trope of traumatic female adolescence being used as a vehicle to advance their male counterparts’ success and personal growth is one we barely bat an eye at anymore.
Think pretty much any Marvel movie ever made (yes, even the ones with ‘strong female leads’), American Psycho, Pulp Fiction, Avatar, Forrest Gump, the list goes on. For the most part, women’s suffering has been strictly contained to the service of the male protagonist, creating a dangerous and inaccurate representation of the intricacies of female life. Thankfully, we now have an array of fiercely feminine voices in cinema, including the renowned Sophia Coppola that are beginning to shape new understandings of the feminine by intentionally crafting a more nuanced archive of girlhood. Using specifically curated sets, montages, outfits, and the showcasing of intimate vignettes, Coppola does not shy away from the feminine and instead uses a classically feminine aesthetic to explore girlhood in all its multiplicity.
“Thankfully, we now have an array of fiercely feminine voices in cinema, including the renowned Sophia Coppola that are beginning to shape new understandings of the feminine by intentionally crafting a more nuanced archive of girlhood. “
While filming was in progress Sofia Coppola ran into a few budget issues (Variety, 2023) which isn’t surprising considering the film’s bold premise: perhaps grown men should not date teenagers. After being courted by a member of Elvis’ entourage while her military family was based in Germany, Priscilla met Elvis Presley at the tender age of fourteen, with Presley being almost an entire decade her senior. It is through a series of Coppola’s signature dreamy montages – from the film beginning with a shot of Priscilla’s pink toes on the carpet, to her gently tracing a heart around her and Elvis Presley’s names, all classic snapshots that underscore her innocence, to observing her gracefully painting her nails a glossy red, perfectly applying her iconic winged eyeliner, and arranging her poufed hair with precision when she moves into the Graceland mansion – that we are taken on a journey oscillating between dreams and despair that characterized most of Priscilla’s lifetime, a tale that exposes the glamorized lures of love and belonging that infiltrated her girlhood, unfolding against the backdrop of Elvis Presley’s stardom.
Soon, however, the care she puts into presenting herself to Elvis becomes driven not by her own girlish desires but by a necessity borne out of Elvis’ control peaked by a Madonna-Whore complex he can’t seem to shake. There is a scene where the image of Priscilla in her pristine pink dress, perfectly centered in the doorframe of Graceland, bears an uncanny resemblance to a doll in a box. The lines between innocent and perverse presentations of girlhood become blurred as Elvis turns her into his own personal doll. This is evidenced not just through expertly crafted montage but also via Stacey Battat’s (head of costume design and a long-time Copolla collaborator, see The Bling Ring!) masterful use of fashion throughout the film. When we first meet Priscilla, she’s seen predominantly clad in her pastel scarf, a plaid school skirt, and messy fringe, all of which hint at her naiveté.
As the relationship between Priscilla and Elvis progresses, we see the development of the style that is now iconic: that over-the-top ‘60s liner, full lashes, and big, big hair that is instantly synonymous with Priscilla. However, these styling moments carry with them an intentionally prevailing sense of uncertainty, reflecting the character’s interior distress, which is where the most recently popular accessory of the girlies everywhere comes in: the bow. Throughout the film, Priscilla wears bows in innocent pastel hues, often comically large. She wears them in her school years, in Graceland, and she wears them as she’s pregnant. A clever inclusion from Coppola given fashion’s fascination with the humble bow? Absolutely, but Coppola uses the bow more as a clever motif: each bow that sits affixed to the dresses she’s wearing serves as a visual reminder that she’s just a girl.
The film emphasizes how, paradoxically, Priscilla never outgrows the concept of “girlhood,” instead clinging to it more and more as her relationship with Elvis becomes turbulent because at the end of the day, our girlhood is always the one thing we can consistently come back to ourselves with, it is always with us. After her water breaks, while others scurry around in haste, Priscilla carefully puts on her fake eyelashes before leaving, adhering faithfully to the look Elvis has created for her. Even as she becomes a mother, a usually definitive step away from girlhood, Coppola’s visual language argues she’s still ‘just a girl.’ As she is confined to the walls of Graceland so is her state of being – throughout the movie, she drinks Coca Cola from a straw exactly as she did the day Elvis’s friend took notice of her, as if the power Presley lords over their relationship froze her in time. “She goes through these transit moments that every girl goes through as you grow up — the first kiss, going to high school, and becoming a mother, so I felt like it was really relatable. But then [it was] in this very strange, exotic setting that was interesting to build a movie around, but at the heart of it was a relatable story of a girl growing up.” Madame director Coppola explains.
You see, Coppola has a talent for interrogating beguiling themes of loneliness and isolation as an inherently critical part of girlhood and at 25, Cailee Spaeny’s ability to believably jump around in age—playing a 14-year-old to a 28-year-old — was impressive yet uncomfortable. Jacob Elordi’s Elvis towered over Spaeny’s Priscilla and carried a sinister sense of foreboding that makes you appropriately recoil. But under the pastel, hazy veneer of the biopic lurks an empathetic look at the deep complexities of modern girlhood. As Spaeny herself says, “What’s so amazing about her films, and for me as a 14-year-old girl who found her movies, was that she gives young women permission to have a whole range of emotions and wants and needs — to feel deep sadness and to yearn for things,” the Venice Best Actress winner said. “They’re complicated people, often depicted wildly wrong in film and television.”
This is undoubtedly true with Coppola’s portfolio including The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette whereby Coppola vehemently challenges the often misogynistic “rules” Hollywood designs for female protagonists and their identities. Because the reality is, Girlhood is evolving. And although Coppola uses the feminine aesthetic to emphasize it, there’s no real aesthetic to fit into, no right way of doing it. It’s thoughtful and subjective. It’s the reinvention and coming home of ourselves, our lives, and the reclaiming of our narratives. In the trailer, we hear Priscilla utter the words: “I want a life of my own”. This is girlhood. Choosing our own lives, the freedom that so often gets lost. It’s choosing the girlhood we were told not to love, on our own terms, and celebrating it loudly.
The relatable displays of the fragile, intimate and often isolating experience of girlhood force the audience to reckon with a solely female perspective and thus, Coppola begins to build an alternative archive of girlhood to the one we know historically as entrapped and dictated by the male gaze. This skilful cinematising of girlhood and growing up allows parallels to be drawn to many of her other films, but most notably The Virgin Suicides.
The film follows the mysteriously intriguing lives of the Lisbon sisters solely through the memories and narrative of the boys who knew them, but unlike most films about female adolescence, Coppola does not treat feminine girlhood as something shallow and negative. Instead, The Virgin Suicide portrays it as something mystical and profound. In this film, girly girls are both fragile and assertive (Monden, 2013). In doing so, Coppola uses the same techniques applied in Priscilla to subvert the traditional archive – through placing immediately recognizable imagery that traditionally has uncritically positive associations within this tragedy it forces the viewer to look beyond them and examine them. In examining them, it shows exactly how shallow these representations are and places the girls within a larger societal context (Rogers, 2018). By viewing the sisters through this sinister imagery of well-established clichéd representations of femininity, it makes for a more in-depth and complex representation of female adolescence.
Aside from their hyper femininity being shown through clothing, color palette, lighting and specific cinematic effects, just as in Priscilla, a functioning archive is also built through the specific tactile objects that Coppola uses to communicate more about the sisters’ emotional state of mind. These are not just objects for objects sake, they are typically feminine coded objects: from tampons, makeup, diaries and jewelry, to tiny trinkets and collectibles, Coppola uses the 5 sisters’ bedrooms to create a museum of girlhood of all varieties. This outward display of the girls’ most intimate moments and things, the objects that can sometimes be seen but never touched, often kept in private conjures a tender response from especially female viewers that hear them say, “She’s just like me”, and with that, the archive of what it means to be a girl is expanded and re-designed into something new. This creation of an archive that centers nuanced, complex, and often harrowing displays of girlhood not only encourage more cinema to move away from their current ideals, but also give women autonomy over their own experiences and feelings, a critical and fundamental function of the archive.
Born from media like Prisicilla (and subsequently the resurgence of much of Coppola’s other work, namely The Virgin Suicides), the drive for female autonomy over our own lives has never been more apparent. In 2024, we see the centering of the archive in ways we never have before with the return to paper; the current trends of journaling and scrapbooking our lives over posting an instagram carousel has clear connotations. This intense compulsion to document and archive our own lives has even spilled into homes, with clustering becoming a huge interior design trend after recently blowing up on TikTok (@acnugs) and then Instagram with the Girls Who Cluster account. Inspired most obviously by Sophia Coppola films and your favorite nostalgic TV shows (Friends, Sex and The City, New Girl) the clustercore trend has women everywhere celebrating their most prized possessions as well as their most mundane ones as they proudly scatter their candles around their coffee table, fill multiple trinket dishes with rings and necklaces, and place books stacked on top of books on a bedside table, intimate records of their lives strewn intentionally around their homes so that whoever walks in understands the space as inherently theirs. By intentionally choosing to use the tchotchkes they already have, the space is infused with an authenticity that is not only unreplicable by any trend, but also promotes a mindset of conscious consumption, something we could all do more of. Furthermore, it encourages you to curate personal belongings in a way that feels purposeful and artful. This museum-like “exhibit” approach actually gives more attention and meaning to the items you do choose to display, actively creating and adding to your own archive as well as that of the female experience at large however you experience it.
Sophia Coppola’s Priscilla, as well as her earlier works like The Virgin Suicides expertly convey variations and versions of girlhood we have yet to see in Hollywood mainstream cinema. It is through her hyper-feminine approach to filmmaking that we see intricate vignettes of girlhood through the curated inclusion of specific costumes, objects, and cinematography that all serve to diversify the current flattened archive of female experience into something more accurate and duplicitous. This venture comes with portraying women in her films as less than perfect, idealised props for the male lead to exploit in the pursuit of his own end goals and instead as human beings with many confusing, often ‘unattractive’ emotions and behaviors in the endless quest of recording our girlhood in a more meaningful way. And because trends are always a reflection of the current culture, it is not surprising this push for autonomy can be seen everywhere from our wardrobe to our homes to our hobbies, in turn ever-expanding the archive of girlhood for the better in collectively saying: give us all of our girlhood, it was ours first.