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The Mid-’90s Female Bildungsroman, Part 1: “Muriel’s Wedding” and the Poles of Female Embodiment

When I first saw the film “Matilda” with my family in 1998, my brothers insisted that I looked just like her. Though they meant it as a gendered taunt, I was all too happy to accept it–”maybe,” I thought, “that means I have powers, too.” Matilda became for me my first model of feminine power: as a young queer boy unsure of my place in the sexual social order, I considered her telekinesis to be a gift bestowed upon her, a manifestation of her hyper-intelligence coupled with a blatant disregard for the (gendered) status quo. Since then, I’ve continued to find myself in women’s stories.

Like most other queers I know, I have a soft spot for media that utilizes grand aesthetic, artifice and exaggeration: give me a strong look and a flashy dance number and I’m in. To me, it’s a refusal to play by patriarchy’s cultural game–what good are limiting notions of realism and reason when they’re aggressively masculine and heteronormative? When asked to list some of my favorite movies (whether it be for a class icebreaker or a dating site), I can quickly rattle them off : “Muriel’s Wedding,” “Party Girl,” “Clueless,” “The Craft,” “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion.” All comedy-dramas, all female protagonists, all brimming with women exhibiting themselves boldly. As with “Matilda,” I watch and see these characters dressing/expressing themselves in ways I wish I had the nerve to (silk blouse, faux leopard jacket and red hotpants? Sign. me. up.).

And rather than leave my own personal cultural touchstones well enough alone, I feel a need to make my queer predilections intellectually productive. So, here’s the first entry in a series of examinations of “the mid-’90s Female Bildungsroman”: films focused on young women and their journeys through/to some sort of self-actualization. It is important to note that these stories center overwhelmingly on white, cis, straight, able-bodied women, and by doing so, characterize the neutral “woman” as such. This characterization is terribly reductive (and has very real implications!), and yet, these stories still hold within them exemplifications of feminist thought.

from no thing to some thing

“Muriel’s Wedding” debuted in 1994, starring Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths, written and directed by P.J. Hogan. It follows Muriel, an ABBA-obsessed young woman on her search for self-actualization through marriage and the status it confers. Critics and reviewers labeled the film “an ugly duckling story,” but that grossly oversimplifies the film’s charting of the poles of female embodiment.

The first scenes of the film show Muriel in stasis: when she’s not trying in vain to tag along with the cool girls of Porpoise Spit (“You bring us down, Muriel.”), she passes her time in a fugue state, hypnotized by ABBA songs and bridal magazine images. We see her here as inert, affectless, almost disembodied. She has inherited the position of her mother Betty, negated over the years by the family patriarch Bill. That is, until she savvily extorts a blank check from her parents under the guise of taking a job as a makeup saleswoman. Instead of shilling, she books a trip to a beach resort where she runs into a friend from high school, Rhonda, a “liberated” woman.

Here, on Hibiscus Island (quite the yonic flower, no?), Muriel enjoys the fruits of female friendship for the first time. We see her self start to peek out, through wearing bright colors and a defiant attitude. She and Rhonda perform in the resort’s talent pageant, dancing in white lamé to ABBA’s “Waterloo”–at first Muriel moves her body reluctantly, then, emboldened by her female comrade, more joyously.

What was before the soundtrack to her disembodiment becomes the score for her ontological attunement–through dance, she confronts the edges, the limits and the possibilities of her body. She is no longer dis-embodied–instead, she claims her body through dance, asserting her physical subjecthood.

In the haze of victory, Muriel testifies to Rhonda: “Do you ever feel like nothing? Sometimes I feel like nothing.”  In this newly embodied state, Muriel recognizes its difference from the past: whereas she was once “no thing”, detached and disembodied, she is here “some thing”, a body, a presence, a subject.

to every thing

Galvanized by her experiences on Hibiscus Island, Muriel returns home only to swiftly move to Sydney with Rhonda. She gets a job, gets a flat, and gets a date, Brice. Discussing her paramour with Rhonda, Muriel states ”I’m a new person now – I’m changing my name, to Mariel.” Her newfound embodiment is so different for her that it necessitates a nominal change. She considers herself to be a new “self.”

Here we witness Muriel’s first sexual encounter and the apotheosis of her embodiment. After a night out, Rhonda and Muriel return to their flat with their respective beaus. Rhonda and her two dates get quickly down to business, and we clearly hear Rhonda’s yelps of pleasure, imbuing the space with a direct, confrontational sensuality. Brice turns on the television to cut the tension, and we see news coverage of Hibiscus Island (the site of “Mariel’s” genesis) destroyed by a storm. The news cuts to footage of Muriel’s father, Bill, imploring her to come home. Just as Brice attempts an overture with “Mariel,” her father calls out “Muriel.” The two men name her in different ways, calling forth her different selves at the same moment. Muriel asserts her “Mariel” self, thinking Brice made a mistake. Instead, she’s actually making her first clear assertion against the paternal order–her father attempts to insert himself into her space via the television, but she calls back and denies it. She quickly changes the channel again, this time to a pornographic program.

Provoked by the program, perhaps, Brice begins kissing Muriel, to which she responds with explosive excitement. Here she is not preoccupied with being sexy or demure–her embodiment is excessive, inappropriate and loud. Her joyful cries and laughter are in dialogue with Rhonda’s sexual vocalizations. Brice moves to unzip Muriel’s pants, but instead unzips the beanbag chair that hosts their liaison. Just as the hibiscus is a yonic signifier, here the zipper is definitively labial. Through sexual touch, Muriel comes “undone.” The beans of the bean bag spill forth, a physical representation of her sexual eruption. In trying to remove Muriel’s still-zipped pants, Brice falls backward, knocking over a birdcage and breaking the window. Punctuated by Muriel’s overwhelmed screams, the white beans fly up into the air, filling the room. Muriel has been turned inside-out, her embodiment has become explicitly external and all encompassing, saturating the room with a feminine sexuality.

The crash from the window prompts Rhonda’s lovers to run in–they cannot comprehend what is happening, as Muriel’s screams–her body talk–is incomprehensible to them. Thinking she’s being attacked, the two men take down Brice. The stimulus that prompted it effectively negated, Muriel’s embodiment is free to claim the entire space.  Here, she has completed her phenomenological ascent. Here, she is “every thing.”

Rhonda finally rushes in, similarly confused but nonetheless delighted by the tableau. She laughs along until she falls silent, slumping to the ground as she states “I can’t feel my legs,” ending the scene.

From here, we see Muriel revert to her old ways: she begins listening to ABBA again, spending her time visiting bridal shops and trying on dresses. Rhonda’s bodily trauma at the site of Muriel’s sexual experience codes it as violent and potentially dangerous to her. Afraid of the power of her embodiment, she indulges in the familiar self-negation to punish herself for precipitating her friend’s paralysis. Back on the road to “no thing”-ness, Muriel ends up marrying, but this is (of course), not all she expected–indeed, a victory in patriarchy’s game is a hollow one.

Fortunately, by the end we see Muriel self-actualize on her own terms, but I’ll leave you to enjoy it on your own. You can check out “Muriel’s Wedding” in our browsing collection here at Media Services.

Up next! “Party Girl”, also from 1994, starring Parker Posey and even MORE great clothes, seriously.


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