Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Thelma and Louise, and the need for female solidarity.

(This was originally published November 2, 2008 but I am changing the publish date to June 8, 2009 as part of a series of “reruns.”)

So, I’ve been thinking more about Breakfast at Tiffany’s and how the ending is kind of like that of Thelma and Louise. And I think the key to the difference between the endings is the fact that Holly doesn’t have any female friends.

Now, the end of Thelma and Louise isn’t exactly “happy,” but as I said in my first post on the topic, “their suicide– choosing a glorious, defiant death over the slow soul-killing death of trial and jail and blame and society’s tiny boxes– their choice to just go, to just keep going is probably not a “good choice,” but it is triumphant.”

The end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, on the other hand, is something of a settlepocalypse. Holly spent most of the movie afraid and alone, and just as she’s got her life going in a direction that she thinks will make her happy, it falls apart, leaving her even more afraid and more alone. While she’s vulnerable, Paul tells her she’s been struggling not because the patriarchy allows women very few routes to true independence, but because she’s a silly woman who won’t just settle. And so Holly just settles.

The difference is that while Thelma and Louise had each other to turn to when they were struggling to find independence, the only person Holly had was Paul, and he did not (and perhaps could not) understand what she was struggling with. So while Thelma and Louise could bolster each other, all Paul could do is reinforce Holly’s self-doubts.

I think it is impossible to break out of the patriarchal mindset as one woman, even in the destructive way that Thelma and Louise manage. Our society practically screams at women about how they should be (pretty, pleasant, and above all else, passive). Even in my own life, I have trouble sometimes fighting off its influence, and I am a self-assured feminist with a support system of countless other feminists. So for Holly to, on her own, reject its message even in small ways is an impressive feat. For her to completely reject the system, however, is nearly impossible.

I keep returning to this quote:

Paul Varjak: You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.” You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.

The thing is, he’s right, but only in the details. That cage does follow Holly everywhere she goes, but it’s not built by Holly herself, it’s built by the society she lives in. In a universe where Paul feels justified in saying, “I love you, that means you belong to me!” romantic relationships really can be cages. Holly refuses to sacrifice her independence, which means she spends all her time pushing at the limits of what society will allow, and never finding a comfortable balance.

Even if Paul had been different, and less creepily focused on how Holly belonged to him, I don’t think he could really have helped her escape these limits. Men, no matter what great allies they are, do not have to deal with the same barrage of expectations that can overwhelm even me. If it ever becomes overwhelming, a man can just stop thinking about, whereas a woman, like Holly, is completely trapped.

I think glimpses of this dynamic are visible in the sequence where Holly, after seeing off Doc Golightly, goes to get terribly drunk with Paul. She’s just sent away a man who loves her, and for whom she cares a great deal, in order to preserve her autonomy. The consequences are severe– she cannot benefit from his house or his money, her brother no longer has a place to stay, and she has hurt, perhaps permanently, a family that she cares for. Doc Golightly simply cannot understand why she even left in the first place, saying that she had no reason not to be happy with him. But she decides the sacrifice is necessary in order to maintain her autonomy, and so she stays in New York.

However, everything our wonderful society says about women suggests that this is a terrible, selfish, unacceptable thing to do. And she clearly feels awful. Yet Paul refuses to help her. At first he is sympathetic, and buys her some drinks, but when they return to her apartment and she starts trying to think how she can possibly support herself and her brother, he is of no help to her at all. She forms the plan of marrying a very rich man; it’s a compromise, as she would be selling her physical person, but maintaining her independence; Rusty Trawler, at least, will not expect her to love him deeply. I’ve often said that I have a lot of sympathy for so-called “gold-diggers” who use ambitious marriages to acquire independence in societies in which personal ambition wouldn’t be a plausible support. But all Paul does is disapproves. Actually, make that Disapproves with a capital D. He absolutely refuses to understand her situation. Which, of course, only makes Holly feel worse. On the plus side, she sends him packing with a fantastic line:

Holly Golightly: It should take you exactly four seconds to cross from here to that door. I’ll give you two.

But if Holly had had a Thelma, instead of Paul, how differently that scene would have gone! Well, it may still have started with getting terribly drunk at a strip club, but it wouldn’t have ended in such despair. Honestly, it would have made such a different movie I can hardly picture it. Maybe she would have calmed Holly down and found her place that feels like Tiffany’s. Or maybe they would have started robbing Holly’s “rats” (and especially the “super rats”) and become criminals on the lam. Probably nothing in between; you can’t half-transcend something.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter — this post isn’t really about movies. It’s about the importance of solidarity between women. (Please note: I’m using a really broad definition of womanhood. If you’ve ever gotten the short end of the sexism stick, I’m talking about you.) I’d say “and allies,” but fundamentally, even those allies who struggle with their own oppressions cannot personally relate to women’s struggles. The most important thing women can do for each other is share those experiences that are unique to womanhood. One woman getting catcalled is a personal annoyance, but a hundred women with the same experience represent a political problem. I always love those threads online that encourage women to share their experiences with catcalling, with menstruation, with rape, with job interviews, with anything. Because the common themes become readily apparent, and suddenly “personal annoyances” are revealed to be widespread political problems. It’s a paradigm shift that can only be provided by women who share with each other.

And it could have helped Holly Golightly find a real happy ending.

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2 Responses to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Thelma and Louise, and the need for female solidarity.

  1. Crowfoot says:

    This is a really grand post, and it needs much more commentary than I can give it right now. But it’s been bugging me leaving no comment here at all!

    I completely agree with you on this; sisterhood is invaluable to help women deal with/escape and even see the patriarchy. Particularly all-woman environments (done with consciousness) can be really helpful to see then shed the shackles of oppressive habits, thoughts, patterns of behaviour, etc. There’s a lot I want to say about this – it needs some more thinking though!

    awesome post, awesome break-down of the movie 🙂

  2. What a great post! I don’t even know where to begin with all of the wonderful things I could say about it. Sisterhood is so important and I think you’ve done an excellent job of illustrating that here.

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