Support the Girls is a film all about female companionship. Of course, while this is still a relatively rare thing, it is not a great novelty with many other well known movies having a similar focus. If you look at the majority of these though they all play out in specifically female orientated space. Consider Steel Magnolias, Beeches, Bridesmaids, Girls Trip, Sex and the City, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Mystic Pizza or Waiting to Exhale and you’ll notice that these films are set in places like cafes, salons, homes, holidays and weddings. There are also those that challenge convention by putting women in typically male dominated scenarios such as armed robbery in Thelma & Louise and Set It Off, baseball in A League of Their Own, heists in Ocean’s 8 and Widows and ghostbusting In Ghostbusters. Support the Girls does something different though by setting its story in a place that is demonstrably a man’s world but one that has a dominant female presence. Support the Girls centres around a bawdy sports bar staffed by scantily clad waitresses and by concentrating on the ladies in this setting, the film examines the challenging dichotomy of an environment that belongs equally to both genders but in very different ways.
The first thing to examine here is the apparent power imbalance in a place where the women are there to be looked at and men are there to look. Clearly the women here are objectified, that is the entire point, but this doesn’t disempower them at all. If anything it is the other way round with their sexuality giving them a level of control over the pervy patrons. In fact, this conforms very much with the idea of sexually liberal feminism where sexual freedom and identity is an important component of gender equality (cinematic examples of which are explored in more detail here).
In some sense this plays on the sisterhood of whores trope seen in many Westerns but these women are not prostitutes or strippers so are not involved in giving up any aspect of their dignity for these men (although being such does not automatically mean they have belittled themselves; see my discussion of Pretty Woman). It is made very clear at the start that these women have an absolute zero tolerance policy on any kind of sexual assault or harassment. The one waitress who does choose to cross a line herself in terms of giving the punters a little more than they have come to expect does not have her behaviour endorsed. This is not what these ladies do.
Female beauty is an asset that they have control over and playing on their looks, pouting, showing a bit of cleavage and all the other business of being a model is just business model. It is significant that the name of the bar Double Whammies, while derogatory, centres on a female attribute unlike the corporate competition which is named The Man Cave. These women don’t own the business but it is theirs.
Crucially though, with all of this established, the film is not an obvious punch the air feminist parable. Clearly I love films like that; movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Captain Marvel, Revenge and The Villainess, but those that build these themes into realistic dramas such as Roma, Mustang and The Breadwinner sometimes have sweeter rewards. Support the Girls is a comedy drama and the narrative revolves around Lisa the bar manager, played brilliantly by Regina Hall. The nature of her job may not a problem but she does have problems. Around her are a number of junior staff but she is closest to Hayley Lu Richardson’s Maci and Shayna McHayle’s Danyelle. Maci is an infectiously optimistic live wire whose social life is as equally defined by her sexuality as her job but where she is lead to make compromises in a way she isn’t at work. Danyelle is a young mother approaching an age where she will be made to swap the waitress’ crop top for a manager’s polo shirt and not knowing which she really wants. Lisa herself is losing her family at home while fearlessly protecting her sisters at work so the bar is a haven of sorts for all of them. The comedy comes from their relationships with one another and the drama from their relationships with others. The film is subtly amusing and subtly moving but is definitely both.
Perhaps surprisingly Support the Girls is authored by man, writer/director Andrew Bujalski, but as far as this mail viewer is able to see his characters speak with a believable female voice. The male characters are not demonised either, at least only those whose attitudes mean they should be and certainly not just because they have turned up to this kind of establishment. I don’t believe that this is because Bujalski is a guy but a different director, of either gender could well have played this differently. What you actually get with Support the Girls is a film that presents the genders evenly, despite being set in a place where you’d not expect this to be the case. It is certainly first an foremost women’s story but if you define feminism as the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes then this is a truly feminist film.