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How Cinema’s Girls Trips Explore Female Identity and Independence

Updated: Mar 11, 2022

Everyone loves the feeling of going on holiday – the bliss of a freshly poured cocktail, and the sound of aeroplane wheels hitting a runway. But for female characters, these journeys hold a special significance.

At home women can end up trapped in a routine focused on other people. Societal convention often demands ladies spend their days catering to children or a partner, and don’t get the time to think about their own desires. Thelma & Louise, Lost in Translation, Wild, The Woman Who Ran, Nomadland, and The Lost Daughter are part of a history of films spanning thirty years which showcase the possibility for freedom that is created by escaping a familiar environment.

The Lost Daughter recently was nominated for Academy Awards, while asking the same age old question as Thelma & Louise – when women go on holiday, what are they escaping from?

I spoke to Professor Alan Marcus, a film practitioner and Member of the Director's Guild of America, to understand how going on holiday opens an opportunity for female performers to take a hero’s journey.

“We’re looking at exploring a reaction to dissatisfaction with the status quo, their place in relation to men in their life or societal restrictions or whatever box they’re in. The vehicle of the holiday provides a natural journey, that then becomes a metaphorical journey for them, and facilitates a rite of passage. The holiday makes it permissible to conduct a journey and a rite of passage. Whereas if you’re just stuck at home all the time, nothing is changing.”

As International Women’s Day takes place on March 8th 2022, it’s encouraging to see how women in films have gone from having no option of returning to a better life after a journey, to being able to decide their own destinies.

Thelma & Louise (1991)

This much-loved classic from the 1990s shows two women going on a road trip together – for better or for worse. The partners in crime leave behind men who have victimised them, showing an alternative reality where women take care of each other instead. They find freedom in supporting each other even when it seems they are up against the rest of the world. However, there is no happy ending possible for these women.

Alan Marcus said: “In Thelma & Louise, it feels like they’ve found a sense of conviction, even if it takes them over the cliff. There is a sense of being true to themselves, of not having to compromise to the needs of men. But there is no reintegration available to them. Whereas in these more recent movies, there is a way that they can still operate within society. They can still find meaning.”

Lost in Translation (2003)

In this film Sofia Coppola portrays the isolation that comes with being on holiday from routine. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a lonely woman exploring Tokyo as her husband leaves her behind during a work trip.

The mesmerising soundtrack creates a moving atmosphere as Charlotte sits and stares out of her hotel window at the blinking lights of the city or walks around temple gardens. Away from her husband and his focus on corporate responsibilities, she realises how unhappy she is. She finds a connection with a lonely older man who is also passing through, and they are able to create a special bond despite the age and gender gaps. She has a glimpse of happiness and freedom, but the film finishes with the holiday ending and her disappearing into a crowd, her future unknown.

Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon braves the Oregon desert in this film, based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl goes on a 1,100-mile journey to deal with the grief of losing her mother and husband. According to the director in the Wild Featurette, Witherspoon went without makeup and hiked with a real 75-pound backpack to focus on displaying the emotional journey involved in this role.

Although there are many difficult moments during Cheryl’s hike, especially as she faces physical challenges, she gets a fresh start and arrives at her destination having learned she is brave enough to cope with her circumstances.

The Woman Who Ran (2020)

This calming Korean drama features Gam-hee, a woman going to the countryside outside of Seoul to visit old friends as her husband is away on a business trip. While she makes no complaints about him, it is obvious that her life has revolved around him during their five years of marriage. When asked how their relationship is going, she responds: “We’re always together. We’ve never been apart. Not once, not for a single day.”

The character, played by Kim Min-hee (famous for her role in The Handmaiden), appears to have little autonomy. She has not seen her friends for a while, and has spent her time focusing on managing to have good moments with her spouse every day. Even though her activities while on holiday are simple, such as cooking a barbecue or going to the cinema, the distance from her husband allows her to enjoy alone time and the companionship of other women.

Nomadland (2020)

Also based on a non-fiction book, this narrative follows a widow, Fern, who decides to begin traveling in a trailer after losing her job. Academy Award winner Frances McDormand portrays the strong spirit of a woman who turns her back on traditional ways of living, choosing to find happiness on the open road.

In an interview with the New York Times, McDormand admitted that the character represented someone she could have been in another life. She said that after reaching her 60s she had often fantasised about giving up on her acting career, changing her name, and setting off in a camper van. That kindred spirit shines through McDormand’s performance, as she shows Fern discovering her curiosity and resilience through her nomadic existence.

The Lost Daughter (2021)

The bold directorial debut by Maggie Gyllenhaal has a woman reflecting on what motherhood means to her at the Greek seaside. Time elongates as the protagonist, played by Olivia Colman, holidays alone, left free to do whatever she likes without the pressure of children underfoot. Leda sweats in the sticky heat but wraps up to cover her tummy at the beach. She panics after discovering an insect on her pillow, and flirts with an older man at a bar only to get nervous and leave in a rush.

Every action she takes, and the consequences of those decisions, lie solely with her. There are no young children making demands on her time. It becomes apparent through flashbacks that she chose to leave motherhood behind. She is not on a family holiday because she became estranged from her daughters after leaving them with their father. Parental abandonment is a complex subject, but as she explores the Greek island on her own, it’s clear that although it has affected her, Leda’s choice has left her feeling free.

In my discussion with Alan Marcus about these films, we agreed that the process of going on a journey allows these women to find self-actualisation. These stories redefine heroism as an act of self-discovery.

In earlier years, society had not developed enough for there to be a permanent resolution for women to return home to. While they could temporarily escape from their responsibilities towards husbands or children and find themselves, a return to reality would mean another loss of freedom.

Now the world has changed and every woman on holiday has the option to keep on going forever, spending the rest of her life discovering her own desires.

Anita Markoff is a journalist and published poet, who is currently living in the blustery centre of Scotland. Any fragments of free time are spent watching lesbian films or horror films or even better, a mix of both. Her favourite films all seem to include a club sequence where people are dancing and laughing to indescribably sad music (Victoria, Water Lilies, Nina, Thelma). She can be found tweeting obscure film jokes at @rozaem17 .

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