Revisiting ‘Frances Ha’ –The Actual Gerwig-Baumbach Feminist Masterpiece?

"The film poignantly captures a different, often overlooked coming-of-age experience for women: the painful replacement of close female friendships with societal expectations of heterosexual relationships and success."

Amid the grand acclaim last year for the Barbie movie as a landmark in feminist cinema, it’s worth revisiting another feminist screenplay that celebrated its 10th anniversary: Frances Ha. While Barbie explicitly addresses feminist themes within an androcentric industry and effectively communicates them to younger audiences, Frances Ha surpasses it with a more nuanced exploration of feminist ideology.

Classifying Frances Ha as a simple coming-of-age film, like other Greta Gerwig works such as Lady Bird or Little Women, is reductive. Frances Halladay, the protagonist, is in her late twenties, facing not just the transition to adulthood but the profound impact of losing her best friend, Sophie. This ‘breakup’ is central to the narrative, initiating Frances’s journey of self-discovery. The film poignantly captures a different, often overlooked coming-of-age experience for women: the painful replacement of close female friendships with societal expectations of heterosexual relationships and success. Much of what Sophie begins to idealise and work towards, be it a stable romantic relationship, a successful career, a better house or children, aren’t particularly patriarchal in and of themselves but become that way in her prioritisation of these ideals over her relationship with Frances. 

Frances Ha delves deeply into the dynamics of female friendship, portraying it with a complexity rarely seen in mainstream cinema. Frances and Sophie’s relationship is crafted to resemble a romantic partnership, not in a sexual sense, but in its depth and domesticity. Their bond, characterized by shared dreams and intimate moments, challenges the conventional portrayal of female friendships in Hollywood, often relegated to the sidelines of the protagonist’s romantic endeavors. Female friendships are either rarely ever depicted  or are depicted as being extremely two dimensional where the best friend is either secondary to the protagonist’s romantic partner or a placeholder for the romantic lead until she finds the actual love of her life. The scene where Frances and Sophie envision their future together, discussing how they will “take over the world,” exemplifies their unique connection. They dream of a life filled with mutual support and success, not constrained by traditional romantic or familial roles. This vision contrasts sharply with the societal norms that Sophie eventually gravitates toward, prioritising her relationship with Patch over her friendship with Frances. “We’ll co-own a vacation home in Paris. And we’ll have lovers and no children and we’ll speak at college graduations and honorary degrees,” she says. 

This occurs often, as the two women envision their future together, the way that couples in long term romantic relationships often do, blurring the lines between friendship and romantic relationships. The story itself consists of the two spending their lives together and in contrast, romance only features temporarily and peripherally as unnamed “lovers” hinting at a life spent outside of matrimony. This can also be seen in other conversations between Sophie and Frances, for example when they make jokes at their boyfriends’ expense or when on one occasion, Sophie refers to her boyfriend Patch as “for today”. In fact, at the very beginning of the film, Frances breaks up with her boyfriend Dan upon being asked to move in with him. She gently declines because she doesn’t want to stop living with Sophie. This is technically the first break up that Frances goes through in the film and yet both she, and consequently the audience, view it as nothing more than a blip, something sudden and insignificant. This stands in stark contrast to  to the heartbreak she experiences when Sophie moves out and eventually distances herself in order to solidify her relationship with Patch,  

However, this  trajectory which the story takes is sad not just for Frances, but ultimately for Sophie as well. Critic Sophie Mayer notes that Sophie’s arc tracks “the shift from a rich homosocial lifestyle, associated with artistic freedom and hedonism, to unsatisfactory, exclusory heterosexual pair bonding, associated with loss and compromise.” And even if Patch did make Sophie truly happy, as she appeared to be around the time of their engagement, there still was a unique chemistry shared by Frances and Sophie, something that was either lost or became increasingly diluted. One drunken night, Frances apologises to Sophie for not being supportive of her and Patch and admits sadly, “It’s just that if something funny happens on the way to the deli, you’ll only tell one person about it and that’ll be Patch and I’ll never hear about it.”

 The film still manages to end on a slightly hopeful note, both for Frances as an individual, as well as for her relationship with Sophie. Frances evolves into a more mature version of herself towards the end, but her portrayal never develops into a performance of conventional femininity and adulthood. She manages to retain a kind of clumsiness and curiosity. Most significantly however, she never ends up in a relationship with her friend Benji, whose storyline with her was set up as an  obvious tying up of Frances’ loose ends. It was satisfying to see that Gerwig and Baumbach had allowed her to stay true to her nature and not act out of character for the sake of a feel-good happy ending. 

The film’s most touching conclusion lies in its affirmation of the deep bond between Frances and Sophie. At a dinner party, Frances’s passionate monologue about the ideal relationship—one defined by mutual recognition and shared joy, even amid others—foreshadows the penultimate scene.

“When you’re with someone and you love them and they know it and they love you and you know it. But it’s a party. And you’re both talking to other people and laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes but not because you’re possessive or its precisely sexual. But because that is your person in this life.”

Although nothing in this scene indicates that the monologue is about anything other than romantic love, it shows Sophie and Frances in an act that perfectly actualises Frances’ description. Thereby proving again, for one last time, that what she wants from a relationship, she already shares, with her best friend Sophie. In Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach craft a narrative that resonates deeply with anyone navigating the complexities of female friendships and societal expectations. It offers a refreshing take on what it means to find one’s place in the world, celebrating the unassuming yet profound joys of authentic relationships over conventional success.

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Zara Flavia Dmello
Zara Flavia Dmello
Zara Flavia Dmello like to write about media, culture, entertainment and politics