What If ‘Boyhood’ Were ‘Girlhood’? A Thought Experiment


“Fuck Boyhood, where’s Girlhood?” Critical responses to Richard Linklater’s new film have been rhapsodic, to the extent that The Guardian recently ran a piece analyzing its perfect Rotten Tomatoes rating (which has since slipped to 99 percent, along with the deeply flawed likes of The Godfather, Part II). And yet, both on social media and in private conversations, I’ve heard versions of this question posed seriously and jokingly and in ways best described as “kidding/not kidding.” I’ve even said something like it once or twice myself, mostly poking fun at my own tendencies toward feminist bean-counting.

Then I watched Boyhood, was even more awed by it than the reviews prepared me to be, and left the theater ashamed of even kidding that the movie should have been any different. In the days that followed, though, I found myself wondering something slightly different: what if Boyhood actually had been fundamentally the same exemplary film, but from the perspective of a girl growing up? Would it be anywhere near as successful? Would we be having the same conversations about it — which is to say, would there be virtually no disagreement as to its value or greatness?

Critical responses to Boyhood have been a case study in Simone de Beauvoir’s famous observation that “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him.” It’s an important point — depictions of male experiences are often gender neutral, while depictions of female experience are all about gender. From its premise — shot in yearly increments between 2002 and 2014, the film follows the life of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to 18 — to its title, Boyhood is a project full of gendered signifiers. Yet reviews of the film rarely engage with it as an explicitly male coming-of-age story. In fact, the word I’ve most often seen both male and female critics attach to Boyhood is “universal.”

It isn’t that I disagree with this description; clearly, the movie spoke to me too. And as Linklater has said in interviews, largely in response to “What about Girlhood?”-style questions, it really isn’t just about Mason. “To me, Boyhood was a limited title,” he told the Village Voice. “It’s very much [the boy’s] point of view, but it could be Girlhood or Motherhood or Familyhood.” I wouldn’t go that far — while Mason’s sister, Samantha (Linklater’s real-life daughter, Lorelei), is often in the frame, her rites of passage mostly take place off-screen. But to its great credit, Boyhood is as much a portrait of the kids’ mother (Patricia Arquette), a woman who struggles thanklessly to make a life and a family for her kids, as it is of her son.

Yes, Boyhood is a universal story — one that will resonate with anyone who has ever grown up, which is all of us, and that I imagine will feel even more precious to parents. Its profound commentary on time and memory and mortality isn’t just a theme; it’s in the film’s very DNA. As a woman, I’ve learned to pretty much assume I’ll feel excluded from the inevitably male stories everyone is supposed to relate to, and was surprised to find that Boyhood didn’t alienate me at all.

I don’t think any of this would matter if Boyhood were Girlhood, though. Because when does any movie about women’s experiences — or even any movie starring, written by, and/or directed by women — ever get to be just a great movie? Bridesmaids couldn’t simply be the year’s best comedy; it had to be proof that, hey, women can be funny, who knew? Every new film by Nicole Holofcener, whose name should be mentioned alongside the greatest auteurs of our time, becomes the subject of some kind of See Movies by Women campaign.

Looking at the broader film landscape, why do most female directors who are household names seem to specialize in romances (Nancy Meyers, Catherine Hardwicke, even the late Nora Ephron)? Among the few American women who are allowed to make prestige cinema, why do critics and the industry trivialize Sofia Coppola’s films about women but then pat themselves on the back for rewarding Kathryn Bigelow, whose movies are set in male spaces like the military? And why aren’t women of color well represented enough in Hollywood to even enter into conversations like these? I don’t feel great reproducing this list of grievances, which you’ll see in just about any lament about women in film, but they go a long way towards explaining why I’m convinced Girlhood would be treated like a niche concern.

Sure, if it were as beautifully and movingly and groundbreakingly constructed as Boyhood, it would get plenty of positive reviews, and not just from female critics. I can’t see Girlhood‘s Tomatometer rating rising above 80, though. For one thing, as Katie Roiphe recently pointed out in a piece arguing that the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard wouldn’t be so successful if he were female, the public at large seems happy to embrace men’s stories about their daily lives but tends to reject women’s as “banal and egoistic.”

Girlhood would also, I’m sure, ignite the same kinds of controversies that have followed Girls for three seasons but that, strangely, haven’t touched Boyhood: Why give your film a title that promises to represent a whole gender when you’re only portraying a straight, white subset of that gender? The thing is, these are the kinds of fights that take place within and among groups that aren’t well represented in pop culture. When your subject is the human default, he doesn’t have to answer for everyone else who checks the same box on the census form.

Finally, there’s the question of who would actually see Girlhood. I can envision it doing as well as Boyhood at the box office, since it would inevitably become a feminist cause célèbre — the kind of movie that many women (and, yes, some men) would feel obligated to see precisely because it spoke to “the female experience.” I don’t think there would be anything approaching gender parity in the audience for Girlhood, though. The screening of Boyhood I caught, in a large theater with several hundred people, drew a pretty even mix of men and women. If anything, women were the majority; I even spotted a few girls’-night-out groups sitting eight or ten to a row. But at a time when Hollywood is terrified not to cater to the young, straight, white male demographic, I can’t imagine the average non-cinephile man making time for Girlhood, whose deviation from the norm would so clearly code it as the rare film that was not for him. And the idea of a whole row of such dudes, spending a night learning about “the female experience”? Unthinkable.

None of this is Richard Linklater’s fault, and blaming him for any of it would be missing the point. He made the film that resonated with his point of view, and even managed to build in a character or two that pushed Boyhood far beyond it, into, yes, the realm of the universal. Everyone should see it — and I hope someday we’ll have a Girlhood-like film that critics will say that about, too.