The Martyrdom Of The Lisbon Sisters in Sofia Coppola's THE VIRGIN SUICIDES
This motif of 'quest' features an internally driven 'rite of passage' which seems to reflect a fundamental struggle of human beings to try to locate themselves in their own community and in the universe. In the aftermath of such a quest, the hero or heroine is often able to return to his or her physical roots with a different perspective which may be described as a 'reborn self. For a hero, this may mean a task achieved; a riddle resolved; a truth upheld; a reward granted; Ithaca re-attained. For a heroine, however, it often refers to a different manifestation of 'fulfilment' or 'self modification': the promise of a happy marriage; a selfless act of personal sublimation through self-sacrifice leading to the attainment of an even greater reward of profound love; a fatal lesson learned; a lost treasure returned. The respective psychological profiles of male and female quest participants as well as the respective outcomes a typically presented in a significantly different way by literature throughout the ages. The quest motif seems to be dictated by a rather diverse discourse which in turn limits the scope and outcomes of the male and female 'rebirth' process resulting from the quest for individuation. Unlike the male rebirth journey which often celebrates the reaffirmation of a man's individuality as well as his active, and controlling, participation in life and society, female counterparts tend to embrace passive acceptance of or conforming oneself to the social 'reality'.
- Ann Wan-Lih Chang, “The Witch and the Damsel: The Female Quest for Individuation in Marilyn McLaughlin's 'Witchwoman'.”
“Ah! What pleasure it must be to a woman to suffer for the one she loves!”
- Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot
Feminism in the 1970s found itself in a state of crisis and transition. While women still fought and struggled to attain the freedom and rights that First Wave Feminism sought, new voices joined in and added to the conversation. Beginning with the Sexual Revolution, women expanded the scope of their struggle, demanding the same rights and freedoms as men.
Set in the 1970s, Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Virgin Suicides, adapted for film by Sofia Coppola in 1999, depicts this struggle in microcosm, through the lives and tragic deaths of The Lisbon Sisters. It shows the young women seeking their freedom and individuality in the face of brutal repression from all sides. On one hand, there's the over-the-top repression of their Catholic mother. Then there's the sexualization from the neighborhood boys, casting The Lisbon Sisters as symbols of their burgeoning sexuality, the representation of all that is "womanhood."
Ultimately, The Lisbon Sisters find themselves trapped between these two conflicting worldviews, still without agency or power. They take back their power in the only way they can - by ending their own lives.
The Lisbon Sisters - Cecilia (Hannah Hall), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (AJ Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman) - barely had one moment of actual agency in their brief, tragic lives. Instead, they are treated as passive objects, being buffeted by forces outside of their control from all sides. It's a story all-too-common with all kinds of adolescence, but it's taken to the extreme, we assume, due to the fact that they are all young, beautiful women.
Women's Lack Of Agency, Objectification, and Othering Under Patriarchy
Under patriarchy, women are usually ascribed one of the following gender roles:
Looking through this list, it becomes obvious that roles traditionally fulfilled by women are in service of others. There is no autonomy, no individuation - their SELF is meant to serve, to be eclipsed by anybody or anything.
The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy lists ten main aspects of women's objectification under patriarchy:
instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier's purposes;
denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.
The Martyrdom Of The Lisbon Sisters
The Virgin Suicides is an odd tale, in that it both is and isn't a Feminist film. The story is told entirely from the male gaze, as the neighborhood boys act as narrator, puzzling over the enigma of The Lisbon Sisters and, because of it, womanhood as a whole. The first time the boys were to set foot in the Lisbons' house, for Cecilia's party, they're surprised to note that the girls each have their own unique personality. They cease to be objects, individuating, becoming subjects in their own right. This opens the doorway for the boys to begin to truly understand the experience of young women. "We felt the imprisonment of being a girl," while the girls, themselves, "just want to live, if anyone would let us."
The plot of The Virgin Suicides, for those who may not be aware, revolves around the untimely death of The Lisbon Sisters - Cecilia, 13; Lux, 14; Bonnie, 15; Mary, 16; Therese, 17. The five sisters live in the affluent, white-bred suburbia of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, sometime in the '70s. The film begins with Cecilia's first suicide attempt by slashing her wrists. To help the girls integrate better into society, The Lisbon Sisters are allowed to throw an awkward, chaperoned party. As the tweens mix and mingle, Cecilia excuses herself, only to throw herself from the second story window, impaling herself on a spiked iron fence. Horrified and traumatized, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) double down on their overprotectiveness. Still, the remaining daughters return to school in the fall like all is normal.
Lux begins an illicit romance with school bad boy/heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). Trip convinces Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon to let him and some of the other football players take the daughters to the Homecoming Dance. While at the dance, Trip and Lux sneak off, where Trip takes Lux's virginity on the football field, then leaves her asleep on the 50-Yard Line. Lux misses her curfew, serving as the final straw for The Lisbon Girls' ultimate untimely end.
The Lisbon Sisters are removed from school, cloistered in their bedroom like modern day virginal saints. The girls begin to communicate with the neighborhood boys via a series of signals - lights, postcards, enigmatic phone calls. Finally, the girls signal they want the boys to come to their house at midnight. It's the final time the boys will set foot in the Lisbon household. The boys dream of helping them escape, of open roads and sunshine. They dream of a bright, open future with the girls, whom they have grown to love, huddling over shards and scraps of their mystery.
Lux greets the boys, smoking a cigarette, telling them to wait for the other sisters while she goes to start the car. Turns out The Lisbon Sisters had a different kind of escape in mind. The boys begin to explore the house, only to discover Bonnie hanging from the rafters. The girls had decided to find the freedom in death they had been denied in their short, tragic lives.
The Lisbon Sisters found themselves trapped between two worlds, both equally unnavigable, both involving a lifetime of servitude, of lack or agency. They would never be their own people, with their own hopes, dreams, fears, or desires. So they retreated into the final mystery, withdrawing into Death, the ultimate cloistered bedroom.
This polarity is made explicit throughout the film, with numerous symbols and metaphors to support the reading.
"A hurricane occurs when high pressure
and low pressure masses of air come in contact with one another.
There is often a significant difference in temperature between the two masses.
One mass is warm, while the other is cold.
The warmer air rises and the cooler air falls.
Likewise, the low pressure slides down
the sides of the high-pressure area
They swirl in and around one another,
creating the beginnings of the storm."
A martyr is someone who is killed for their beliefs. The Lisbon Sisters can be seen as both martyrs and anti-martyrs. They die for their belief in their own selves, their own agencies, their own personhood. They also die for their lack of belief that will ever change, that they will be offered any freedom in their own lives. So they sought the ultimate freedom in Death.
The Virgin Suicides ultimately breaks down the male gaze. While The Lisbon Sisters begin as objects and symbols for the neighborhood boys, they become actual people under their scrutiny, coming alive in their imagination, making them come alive to the experience and existence of girls and women.
“We had pieces of the puzzle, but however we put them together, gaps remained - oddly shaped emptiness, mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn't name.
What lingered after them was not life, but the most trivial list of mundane facts,
a clock ticking on the wall, a room dim at noon,
the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself.
We began the impossible process of trying to forget them.”
J Simpson lives in the interzone between criticism and creation. An independent music journalist, cultural critic, and academic writer, J peers into the darker realms of life, the strange, the looked over, specializing in the horror genre, the supernatural, and the occult. He lives and works in Portland, Or.