Sofia Coppola’s movie easily transports you to somewhere with lots of flowers, clawfoot bathtubs, gauzy nightgowns, and adolescent longings. Her world is a fantasy, and a favorite fantasy of many others at that ― frilly, soft, glowy, ethereal... And devoid of people of color. Yet, although Coppola now talks liberally about “empowering women” and feminism anytime it suits the PR of her next upcoming movie, she escapes criticism most of the times thanks to her adoring fans. “I felt like I had to give these women a voice,” she quips during an interview with Film School Rejects, while the reporter touts her new movie as a groundbreaking feat of feminism.
I have explored in my previous writing the irony of “celebrity feminism,” arguing that it is an oxymoron; a carefully crafted image. Similarly, it is not a coincidence that nearly all of Coppola’s cast in her movies throughout her 10-year film career has been entirely white. As a Hollywood royalty(progeny of Francis Ford Coppola, with numerous successful ventures in filmmaking, hotels, and wines, one even featuring Sofia’s name), she is someone who can singlehandedly get OK’ed to film at Versailles, someone who has her pick of celebrities(including Emma Watson, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst, as well as Paris Hilton, who eagerly lent her house to Coppola for The Bling Ring) as a cast. Coppola, then, clearly enjoys the privilege of filmmaking that not many other directors share. But Coppola seems to insist somehow, that unless the cast is entirely white, it doesn’t fit her “story” or “mood.”
When asked about this issue during the promo of her latest film, The Beguiled(which is again, 100% white in its cast), Coppola deftly sidesteps the question about white feminism saying that “It hasn’t worked for these storylines, but maybe in the future.” Of course, there were many instances in her films that there was room for people of color, but it “didn’t work” for her. Therefore the character of Hallie, a black girl, got left out of The Beguiled “because she didn’t want to gloss over them.”
Instead, she glossed over slavery and the existence of any non-white human beings within the film. Diana Tamayo, a Mexican immigrant in the original gang of The Bling Ring who struggled to fit into the whitewashed background of spoiled Calabasas teens, was also conveniently left out from the glitzy storyline in Coppola’s reiteration. Even the gang leader, Rachel Lee, was chosen to be played by the more “white” looking half-Asian girl, possibly to fit this “storyline” again. So, introducing non-white people is not a fitting choice for her beautiful world, but maybe in the future, she “might” include them.
Similarly and unfortunately, Coppola’s cult favorite film Lost in Translation, featured in Tokyo, Japan, also ends up fetishizing Japan and Japanese people altogether. Although Coppola claims to be familiar with Tokyo and has travelled there many times since she was a child, the view of the film remains as an awestruck, mouth-agape, fetishizing gaze of a white person, looking at how “exotic,” “different,” and “weird” all these “other” people are in Tokyo. While making fun of the Japanese pronunciation of English in the film, Coppola argues in an interview that she is not a racist because “this actually happened to her.” Her very privileged and insular life approaches different cultures and societies without much education or grace, and rather with a wide-eyed awe: “I’ve always loved the women in the south and the south in general; it’s so exotic and different.” she quipped about the background of The Beguiled in a wartime south, much like how she approached the women in Tokyo.
The critics, however, are slowly catching up after the celebration of her decade-long career; seemingly exhausted by the notion that her movie is a “celebration of feminism.” Nary a black woman to be seen in an era so strongly defined by slavery, singer Amerie on Twitter criticizes the film by saying “You don’t avoid race by making everyone white. It’s white. You made a film about white Confederate women. Fine. Just say that.” Slate Magazine also pokes fun at her glorification of erasure: “‘Exotic’ is a word Coppola used again in an interview with Vanity Fair, and it signals her aesthetic interest in the story. The chance to film the remnants of the antebellum South, with its grand houses, stately furnishings, and beautiful dresses must have been an alluring prospect for a director so visually minded and so interested in the lives of the wealthy. But aesthetics are not apolitical, and those grand houses and beautiful dresses didn’t emerge out of a vacuum.” Buzzfeed muses that Coppola has “devoted most of her… filmmaking career to exploring the existence of the advantaged (if not always happy) white women… The Beguiled is no different.” They also sharply retort about “a point she’s missing — which is that slavery already exists in the film, whether she chooses to put it on screen directly or not. Slave labor kept the school running and underlies the wealth from which the school’s students come; it’s the ability to continue to practice slavery that’s spurred the war their fathers are off fighting.” The Mary Sue echoes the sentiment: “Erasing people of color in favor of white female narratives is neither empowering nor feminist. This feels like a common misstep we’re seeing often nowadays, in the ways that Hollywood will cast a white woman in a role that’s traditionally played by a woman of color and cry female empowerment, or whitewash a character because they don’t want to somehow repeat racist tropes. The truth of the matter is, this practice does little to nothing for women of color… The pastel eeriness of the girlhood home in the American South is [not] separate from the history of slavery.”
In an array of interviews, Coppola seems to be eager to use the new “trend” of feminism to her advantage, but entirely unsure and uneducated about the topic; she constantly uses the words “feminine” and “masculine” to describe patriarchal ideals without realizing that they cater and reinforce exactly what she describes that she was trying to fight against: stereotyping. She jokes about making a male finally an object of desire and dabbles on the buzzword of the male gaze, while seemingly unconscious about the depth of the subject, excitedly dedicating this film to her “gay friends.” She emphasizes that she wanted to focus on “gender dynamics” this time rather than “the racial ones,” without much knowledge on how these two go hand in hand; gender dynamics and feminism without the consideration of race and intersectionality, is not feminism, as it erases out a whole section of women ― women of color.
Frankly, what is the point of using “feminism” as her guide if she has no story to tell, no knowledge or the willingness to educate herself on the topic she is pushing, no point in introducing such concepts other than just for “fun”? The topic of empowerment remains unexplored throughout her interviews, other than revealing that she wanted to show that frilly-dressing wearing white women were empowered by the situation where they could pacify this man when he didn’t return their desperate affection.
Indeed, empowerment is a favorite Hollywood trope these days, pushed vigorously by “Hollywood feminists” while they maintain their chummy relationships with abusive directors and actors with rape and domestic violence charges, vehemently defending them in some instances, all the while still outraged about Trump’s rape, sexism, and racism in Instagram posts, as it seems to be the safe trend now. The world did not suddenly become tolerant of abusers when Trump took the presidency; it has always been extremely lenient towards them but kept it under the radar. The dabbling in the notion of empowerment, à la Coppola, only shows that these women could afford to be blissfully ignorant of such issues unless it serves a purpose that proves to be “fun and interesting” for them, while many women, namely women of color, cannot do so.
On a similar line of imagery, a blogger-turned-actress Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Magazine is a fan-favorite among a clan of tight-knit “celebrity feminists” that boast a 99.9% white cast ― Lorde, Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, Karlie Kloss, Jaime King, etc. Although started as a one-person thing by Tavi, the magazine soon grew as a celebrity favorite, interviews featuring directors, actresses, and models that Tavi has personally met, sharing their bonding anecdotes. Rookie Magazine, incidentally, is now reminiscent of a cool insider’s club that “normal” gals cannot enter. And as written in my previous article, Rookie Magazine has a questionable past of editing out certain parts of my comment to protect Maude Apatow and Lena Dunham in their interview, right after Dunham’s controversial autobiography brought into light her racist essay about Tokyo and strings of insensitive tweets into the light. Rookie, like Coppola’s movies, has been accused before of being non-intersectional and offering the image of virgin-suicide and Coppola-esque images of tween girls, who are ethereal, virginal, and clad in frilly clothes, which coincides with the image that Coppola seems to be pushing in her movies as the picture of adolescence.
Interestingly, Tavi has interviewed Coppola before on Rookie. And although Tavi gained attention when she spoke out about Terry Richardson and the industry’s double-standards against women before, she curiously deleted all the posts she made about Terry Richardson after Rookie became famous, and refused to answer questions about such a choice, gaining speculation that it is a PR move on Rookie’s part to avoid controversy. Maybe it has become more important for Rookie to protect their “celebrity friends,” than to speak up about the industry’s double-standards against women; because now her friends are the industry.
A similar imagery can also be found in the famous photographer Petra Collins’s “female gaze.” The view she offers to the stylized photography world is surely valuable, but her work still perpetuates the idea of the flowery, hazy, anemic and frilly pastel world of the white female adolescents. Being a white female herself, maybe this is unavoidable; as it is natural for people to express themselves first and foremost through art. One could say, however, that it goes against her goal of gender equality to portray adolescent teens as some sort of dreamy, manic dream pixie girl, through what one could argue to be a much-fetishized lens, albeit not a male lens, and the danger of such being seen as the “symbol of feminism.” Not coincidentally, Collins was Tavi’s roommate when she first moved to New York; Collins’s work also gained traction through being introduced on Rookie Magazine.
Coppola, Gevinson, and Collins’ work have several elements in common. The white adolescent is viewed as pretty, flowery, ethereal, and the essence of “the feminine,” no matter how patriarchal such ideals are, or how dangerous when often assigned to teen girls. The girls seen through their dreamy lenses seem hazy and unsure.
One might ask, however ― what really is the danger in that? They’re just expressing how they see girls, and how could that be not empowering?
The issue is that such whitewashed ideals of teenage “empowerment” and “feminism” that they offer seem to be the only dialogue available in the industry as the “future of feminism.”
The flowery, fresh, pre-pubescent, entirely whitewashed beauty of Sofia Coppola, Rookie Magazine, and Petra Collins takes away from the reality that non-intersectional feminism is not feminism, and that many women cannot enjoy the privilege of selectively ignoring certain aspects of the society, industry, and culture without being the direct target of its oppression. Being a cult-favorite excuses them even from the usually sharp critics on Tumblr, because they are, in essence, really pretty.
But it is a double-edged knife that this ethereal director wields, as someone who can afford to be staunchly whitewashed and ignorant for the rest of her life without ever being affected by any of the consequences. Her best friend, Marc Jacobs would vouch for it. To many in Hollywood, intersectional feminism is an option that they can choose to dabble in and out of. To a woman of color, not so much unless they want to deny their everyday existence, the everyday reality we live in where black people are getting killed left and right, where Asian people are treated as the invisible butt end of a joke. Coppola’s films are an exploration in luxury indeed ― a luxury that only white, wealthy, and famous women can afford. Empowerment is a fun sport for white women of power that they can switch on and off, without regard or much thought about the matrix of oppression that surrounds their work. Many of us are not so lucky.