Diana (Michelle Rodriguez) is angry at girls her age who seem to care about nothing but makeup, clothes, and boys. She's angry that her father denigrates her younger brother's desire to go to art school.
Written and directed by Karyn Kusama
Reviewed by Michael P. Aanavi, Ph.D.
Michael P. Aanavi, Ph.D.
P.O. Box 12983
Berkeley, California 94712
Diana Guzman is angry.
Diana (Michelle Rodriguez) is angry at girls her age who seem to care about nothing but makeup, clothes, and boys. She's angry that her father denigrates her younger brother's desire to go to art school. She's angry that her father's abuse drove her mother to take her own life. She's angry that the world in which she lives refuses to accept her as she is. In the first shot of the film Girlfight we see Diana's rage smoldering. Diana explodes, attacking a classmate; we find out that this is her fourth fight this semester-one more and she'll be expelled. Later, her father, Sandro Guzman (Paul Calderon), gives her money with which to pay for her brother Tiny's (Ray Santiago) boxing lessons; Diana goes to the boxing gym and is enthralled. She punches another boxer for taking a cheap shot at her brother. She is unafraid, unrepentant.
Diana returns to the gym and asks to be taught to box. She is turned down, but argues her way into boxing, steals money from her father to pay for her lessons, sells a locket left to her by her mother so that she can continue. Her father finds out about her theft-a father whom we never see except as an ineffectual man, drinking beer in the kitchen and squelching his children's autonomous strivings. Her brother offers to give up his lessons so that Diana can secretly take his place. Catalyzed by Diana's pursuit of individuation, Tiny pursues his own and develops his artistic inclination.
Diana is a dedicated boxer. And as her skills improve, she wins her way into the hearts of her reluctant trainer, Hector (Jaime Tirelli), and her soon-to-be lover, Adrian (Santiago Douglas). Adrian knows that his attraction to another girl, his "sometimes" girlfriend, is hollow; Diana engages him-and us-with her honesty, her unconventional beauty, her poise. And as Diana progresses in her boxing, she progresses in her life. She comes home with a black eye; her father doesn't know about her boxing, and he assumes her boyfriend has hit her, but Diana refuses to defend herself or Adrian. Instead, she confronts her father's hypocrisy, throwing his abuse of her mother in his face. And when Sandro finally sees his daughter box, he's disgusted. Neither of his children are who he wishes them to be, and he leaves the gym before the end of the fight-a fight which Diana wins.
Diana is fighting for more than resolution of anger, more than competition, more than herself. She's fighting for every girl who doesn't fit the "girly girl" role. She's fighting for every woman-for every person-who fulfills the collective expectation even if it kills her. And when her father, drunk, pushes her too far, she assaults him; she kicks his ass. She has him on the floor, helpless, and is restrained only by her brother's pleas for her to stop. But she has overcome her father-and her father complex-and she can finally come to terms with the loss of her mother.
Diana is devastated when Adrian shows up at a party with the other girl. Sparring with him the next day, Diana clinches with Adrian and tells him she loves him-then she pulls away and catches him with a left hook to the head. She's willing to engage with him. She's willing to love him, and to acknowledge her love. But she's not willing to sacrifice her identity, her autonomy, her self-respect. She and Adrian find each other once more, after he breaks up with the other girl, and, as fate would have it, the two lovers are pitted against each other in a final fight. He asks her to withdraw from the fight so that he can protect his amateur record. She refuses; she stands up for herself, and in so doing allows him too to let go of his conceptions of who he is supposed to be. Diana and Adrian battle, and she knocks him to the ground. The judges' unanimous decision: Diana wins. And in winning she reclaims her mother and herself; she remains true to the tension of opposites that resides within her, and she finds that femininity and autonomy, womanhood and strength, love and aggression can coexist-that they do not negate each other. His pride wounded, Adrian asks her if she's satisfied now; he's embarrassed, afraid, on uncertain ground. But for Diana, this is a new beginning, and she has a new father, for Hector kisses her forehead and tells her he's never been so proud.
Diana and Adrian talk the next day. They are still together, and he has moved toward letting go of his wounds. He has realized that his loss didn't destroy him-it destroyed his identification with an aspect of his persona which was better let go. He has, perhaps, realized that relationship is more important than pride; he has relinquished the position of the man who demands that his woman sacrifice herself for him, and although he is disoriented, he is also relieved.
Boxing is the process by which Diana's anger shifts from an explosive, dangerous, self-destructive force to a transformative encounter-the process by which she learns to relate to her animus rather than being possessed by it. Her relationship with Hector is the container for this process, and like a good psychotherapist, Hector sets limits with fees; he treats Diana with firm, gentle respect; he accepts her for who she is; and, when he sees that she is serious, committed, he meets her half way with encouragement and praise. Negative father is a constant threat, but she uses guile and trickery to wrest from him the resources to fuel her transformation-a transformation which finally allows her to defeat him, to elude the destructive forces within and without. Before the final fight with Adrian, in an allusion to Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Hector asks Diana if she knows her opponent and if she knows herself. She says she does, and, the "good" father, Hector tells her this is all she needs. She has truly entered the process of becoming conscious.
In Girlfight, her first feature film, writer/director Karyn Kusama plays with language and concept: Diana carries with her the specter of her mythological namesake; Tiny, like Billy Elliot (2000; directed by Stephen Daldry; written by Lee Hall), abandons his father's need for him to be a boxer and pursues the arts instead; and Adrian, a mechanic from the housing projects in Gowanus, finds that love and manhood are not incompatible. But this film is about more than gender and gender roles; it is about identity, differentiation, transformation. This tale of individuation illustrates for us the battle to free oneself from collective life-from the inner complexes and external critics which perpetuate ideas of femininity and masculinity, subjugation and sacrifice, persona and pride. Paolo Freire said, in essence, that the task of the oppressed is to liberate themselves, and that through this process the oppressors too will be liberated. Girlfight is a film about liberation in the truest, Freirean sense of the term, for just as Diana finds freedom through her relationship with boxing, so too do Hector, Tiny, and Adrian find deliverance through their relationships with the indomitable Diana.
Aanavi, M.P. (2003). Girlfight [Review of the film Girlfight]. Psychological Perspectives, 45, 185-188.