Burn Book: On “Priscilla” and Sofia Coppola’s White Girls
By Lori MarsoJanuary 20, 2024
The mood is set. Readers, most likely also viewers of Coppola films, are ready to indulge feelings of nostalgia, power, longing, and consumption. A fancy “scrapbook” of sorts, Archive is a collection of memorabilia from Coppola’s films as well as images from the films themselves. Transformed by the act of collection, it is a stylistic, specifically white, iteration of the vast and diverse archive of the girl and her childhood world.
Published by MACK, this luxurious object is 488 pages, measures 8.5 inches by 11 inches, and features a plain pink cover with black block lettering. The book is structured chronologically, with a section dedicated to each of Coppola’s features from 1999 (The Virgin Suicides) to 2023 (Priscilla). The book’s size and aesthetically simple cover signal a high-culture coffee-table book, but the pages are filled with small, intimate, minor ephemera.
Coppola’s girly aesthetic replicates the Burn Book of Mean Girls (2004), where “The Plastics,” the aptly named popular clique, record and invent malicious gossip. Coppola’s book is full of plastic too, but while there is plenty of gossip, it is not malicious or ironic. It is lit by a pink nostalgic glow. The book’s images—sensual, luxe, dreamy, decorative, gilded, and awash in femme shades—promise sugar, bubbles, and scented candles. They also invite us into worlds of travel, wealth, creativity, and a particularly feminine iteration of artistic vision and passion.
Photos of Coppola on her film sets, sometimes with the actors, sometimes alone, are included alongside her drawings, notes, correspondence, bits of screenplays, and even items from her childhood bedroom. Blank pink pages separate one film’s archive from the next, with Coppola providing personalized written introductions for each film. “I spent a lot of time in Tokyo in my twenties,” begins the section on Lost in Translation (2003). “[Tokyo] seemed to be a place where girl culture was dominant,” she continues, “I felt so free there and full of discovery.” Or for Somewhere (2010): “I was thinking about the isolation that comes from success, and also about becoming a parent.” And The Bling Ring (2013): “I always like a story about a kid trying to fit in with a glamorous crowd.”
As they scream privileged white girl fantasy and indulgence, whom do these pages beckon?
James Baldwin found solace and company with white girls on Hollywood’s big screen. In The Devil Finds Work (1976), Baldwin remembers seeing his own “frog-eyes,” which his stepfather called “ugly,” in the face of a white girl. “So, here, now, was Bette Davis, on that Saturday afternoon, in close-up, over a champagne glass, pop-eyes popping. I was astounded.” How could he be ugly when she was called beautiful? It was, to Baldwin, a revelation. Critic Hilton Als embraces his own queer identification with, and desire for, white girls in his essay collection of the same name. Obsessed with Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939), Als writes, “I would have made her forget that I was colored and that she could lynch me if she wanted to because I knew I could make her love me.” Including Truman Capote and Michael Jackson as white girls too, Als forgoes identity to cast white girl as an aesthetic.
But Old Hollywood white girl beauty is not enough white girl for Coppola. She piles on the decorative and the sumptuous with hearts, fonts, color, texture, and soundtracks that accompany her white girl heroines trapped in gilded cages. In one of Coppola’s “vision board” pages in Sofia Coppola Archive, hand-drawn puffy cloud block letters announce: “The Virgin Suicides!” Coppola doesn’t comment on the juxtaposition of suicide with puffy clouds, other than including a doodle of tears streaming from a heavily lashed eye. Also on the page: other adolescent fonts of her title; doodles of unicorns, hearts, suns, long-stemmed roses; an especially fat caterpillar.
The Marie Antoinette (2006) section of Sofia Coppola Archive includes magazine cutouts inspired by the New Romantics, John Galliano fashions, and period clothing from the Costume Institute at the Met. In Coppola’s American retelling of the story on film, the queen is a white girl surrounded by the stuff of her dreams: beautiful clothing, lavish balls, closets full of Manolo Blahnik shoes in every color and style, drawers full of makeup. The “I Want Candy” scene features Kirsten Dunst indulging every fleeting impulse for gluttony and excess. “It’s not too much, is it?” she happily squeals to her hairdresser, eyeing her two-foot-high hairdo. We know the ending of Marie Antoinette’s story, though Coppola’s camera stops rolling before her head does.
When pressed, Coppola expresses little curiosity or regret about the racial specificity of her archive. Responding to the controversy over her choice to eliminate the only Black character, Mattie, in her Civil War remake The Beguiled (2017), Coppola says that “to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting” and that “not including Mattie in the film comes from respect.” But in trying to avoid trivializing Black girls, she elevates white ones. Coppola herself never admits that (one recent deviation aside) her girls are always white. In the interview that opens Sofia Coppola Archive, Coppola says, simply, “Across all my films, there is a common quality: there is always a world and there is always a girl trying to navigate it. That’s the story that will always intrigue me.”
Coppola is intrigued by another of the most difficult white girls in the historical archive, authoring the foreword for Penguin’s new paperback edition of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913). Undine Spragg is a middle-class girl laser-focused on bettering her social status by marriage. Coppola quotes Wharton’s description of Undine: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” Watching Undine navigate the high-culture social worlds of New York and Paris feels both icky and irresistible on the page and would likely look gorgeous on film. Dreaming of this project, Coppola writes, “I can’t wait to see all of her gowns and balls realized on-screen.”
In the history of feminist thought, the questions of what to think about the way girls like Coppola’s are represented and of what they represent remain unsettled. Penning her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, just before Marie Antoinette was beheaded, Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women should have the rights of citizenship but must be educated to be worthy of these rights. Defined as a set of behaviors, habits, and accoutrements, femininity’s aesthetic was, for Wollstonecraft, marked by triviality, acquisitiveness, and consumption, all of which strained against wisdom and virtue.
Simone de Beauvoir also had a vexed relationship to the ornate and object-worshipping aspects of femininity. In The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir is very critical in her description of how girls tend to dress and act, homing in on culture’s mandate for girls to become femininity’s ideal women and replicate what she calls the “eternal feminine.” Lauren Berlant updates these insights in The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008), lamenting that “women’s culture” is rife with commodified genres and objects that feel intimate but traffic in cheap sentimentality.
Mortality may elevate the sentimental and the decorative in Coppola’s archive. Indeed, critic Alice Bolin notices that the only thing more attractive than a white girl is a dead white girl, an aesthetic that Bolin condemns but Coppola is willing to circulate. But if so, there is a price. “I want to be a spoiled rich white girl,” croons biracial transgender performer Venus Xtravaganza to Jennie Livingston’s camera in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. Were it not so shabby, Xtravaganza’s bedroom could be that of the Lisbon girls in The Virgin Suicides, or Priscilla Beaulieu’s in Priscilla (2023). Like Priscilla, Xtravaganza wants the bedroom, the roses, the attention, and especially the romance. Over the course of the documentary, she almost achieves her “femme realism” illusion, but then is killed for the “almost” and the “illusion.”
Not surprisingly in light of her gravitation toward dead girls, feminist viewers of Coppola’s films are divided. Rosalind Galt notices that “Coppola’s revisionism” in Marie Antoinette “strikingly refuses to blame the woman for her out-of-control consumption.” Meanwhile, Emily Yoshida worries over the image of the “sad girl” that dominates Coppola’s films, calling attention to several prominent “girl in tub” scenes across her oeuvre. Calling it “irresistible fodder to be digested and disseminated and canonized in the culture at large,” Yoshida thinks Coppola’s aesthetic glorifies passivity.
Indeed, unlike some other girls in the archives of the girl, Coppola’s young women are rarely rebels in the conventional sense of the term. Lux, Charlotte, Nicki—not one of these girls is high-minded like Sophocles’s Antigone, or courageous like our contemporary Antigone, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games (2012). Ariella Garmaise’s insight, that a “poor-little-rich-girl magnetism” courses through Coppola’s films, speaks to the confusing mix of sympathy, blame, and disgust that Coppola’s girls generate in viewers.
In this context, it’s a relief that Cailee Spaeny’s Priscilla Presley is allowed a little room to grow. As Priscilla opens, we see small, girly, perfectly pedicured toes sink into a pink shag carpet. Fake eyelashes, nail paint, hairspray, and lipstick are skillfully applied, and the feet slip into gorgeous heels. Coppola favors isolated still images that establish mood, moment, and place: a bouquet of flowers, the RCA logo on an album, glass peacock and pearl elephant figurines on the mantel, swirls of velvet blue curtains, headlights of a lovely green Cadillac Coupe de Ville, letters addressed to Elvis in curvaceous penmanship piled on a side table, an elaborate crystal chandelier.
Welcome to Graceland.
The next scene moves back in time: Germany, 1959, the “Eagle Club” on a US Air Force base. “Oh, Venus!” sings teen idol Frankie Avalon from the jukebox. “Venus, if you will, / Please send a little girl for me to thrill.” We see the back of Priscilla’s head, Coca-Cola bottle with straw sitting empty on the bar, homework spread out. A male voice says, “Hi,” and the head turns. Priscilla, a naive-looking 14-year-old, is approached by one of Elvis’s associates who has “see[n] [her] coming here a lot.” She is invited to one of the gatherings that Elvis hosts, one of many, we later learn, populated by American guests to allay Elvis’s homesickness while stationed abroad.
And so it begins. After some manly talk between military men, Priscilla’s father agrees to Elvis’s plan. Seventeen-year-old Priscilla will drop out of high school, complete her education in a Catholic girls’ school in Memphis, and live in Graceland. An object in the exchange and circulation of women, Priscilla’s identity changes from collector to collected.
Highlights from the Priscilla section of Sofia Coppola Archive cast both Priscilla and Coppola as collectors. Included are reference photos of real-life Elvis and Priscilla; a page of notes labeled “Priscilla questions,” which include “Were wives nice?” and “What would she do on her own?”; a photo of a torn-out page from a notebook filled with penciled doodles of “Elvis, Elvis, Elvis,” “Priscilla Presley,” and “Elvis + Priscilla,”—hearts dotting the i’s, a half sun shining in the corner, stars and hearts (broken and whole) generously sprinkled over all of it.
The film presents Priscilla’s pink-filled bedroom to viewers much like Coppola’s own scrapbook of romance, light, and sunshine. There are soft, small, pink roses on the wallpaper; a pink bedspread; a diary on the desk; a miniature tea set; pearls draped over a “Sweet 16” birthday card; a spinning ballerina in the jewelry box. Elvis’s presence in this room is safely contained, limited to images from magazines, and “Love Me Tender,” and “I Love Elvis” buttons pinned to a bulletin board.
But when Priscilla arrives at Graceland, Elvis is everywhere, and she is erased. The camera pans Elvis’s bedroom as Priscilla, standing alone, takes in its dark masculinity: several chandeliers, green velvet curtains, deep gold bedspread, three-foot-long tiger statue sitting in an alcove, a statue of Jesus perched on a pedestal. Coppola’s auteurist propensity for collecting, her attraction to elevating the fantasies and favored objects of white girls, begins to look much more radical as we witness Priscilla withering in the shadow of Elvis.
It is not just Priscilla’s environs that change. Priscilla herself becomes the canvas and Elvis the painter. Elvis soon determines the look of Priscilla’s hair (jet-black, piled high on her head) to emphasize her eyes, the style of her clothing (“You gotta keep away from the prints, baby!”), and the relationships she is allowed (her only companion is a small white pooch, a gift from Elvis). Older men’s needs, emotions, and interests—those of Elvis, Elvis’s friends and associates, Elvis’s father, and Priscilla’s father—will almost completely control Priscilla’s life from this point forward, fulfilling a destiny that enters and then envelops Priscilla’s life like magic, a dream come true.
Or a nightmare, though it takes Priscilla some time to notice. After all, what kind of girl willingly returns to her high school, and her boring parents, after being plucked like a flower by the King of Rock and Roll and replanted in the lush garden of Graceland? “You just keep your little ass there, and keep the home fires burning,” Elvis says over the phone to a lonely 17-year-old Priscilla waiting for her prince in the castle. Elvis is away on a Hollywood set. Priscilla wanly walks the halls of her new Catholic high school and is reprimanded when she plays with her little dog on the front lawn. “Oh, honey! You can’t be out here making a public display of yourself,” scolds Elvis’s stepmother. An expert in the rules of patriarchy, she passes them down to Priscilla.
After enduring years of pills (offered on the first date), sexual abstinence (“Hold on, baby,” he purrs, “just not yet!”), bad boy misbehavior (guns, golf carts, fireworks), Jesus worship, fan worship, reports of affairs and liaisons in tabloids, and effectively single motherhood, Priscilla calmly announces to Elvis that she is leaving the marriage. The frayed edges of the union have been observed throughout the film, but Elvis is still surprised. “What are you doing?” he bellows. “You have everything a woman could want!”
We don’t know what happens to Priscilla after she leaves the marriage in the film bearing her name. All we know is that, in the last frame, Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” sounds as Priscilla drives away alone, out the iron doors of Graceland.
Priscilla may always love Elvis, but she is no longer his doll, his baby, his little girl trapped by time and Graceland. Her hair is not black and not high; her face is not caked with makeup; she doesn’t even have their child in the car.
I read Priscilla as a bit of an outlier in Coppola’s oeuvre. She is able to carve a little space for Priscilla by showing her journey out of her bedroom, into a famous man’s castle (more Bluebeard than Prince Charming), and then out into the world. By basing the film on Priscilla Presley’s own 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, maybe Coppola was pushed beyond nostalgia to confront the dangers and traps of a white girl aesthetic, rather than repeat it.
Nevertheless, the notorious pleasure of losing yourself in objects, much like the beautiful object that is Sofia Coppola Archive, still beckons. Can the white girl aesthetic be pried open? To move beyond it, must we burn it?
In an academic monograph discussing the films of Coppola, film theorist Anna Backman Rogers writes that “Coppola’s feminist politics lies in her offering to the viewer a dispositif in which the multifaceted construction of the eternal feminine is revealed as a new form of feminist counter-cinema.” I ponder this insight alongside Galt’s attention to the surface decoration of the “pretty” in cinema history as offering a specifically feminine, even queer, alternative to masculine imagery.
For her part, Beauvoir offers no certain way out. In The Second Sex, she devotes one chapter each to condemning the behavior of “The Narcissist,” “The Woman in Love,” and “The Mystic.” Beauvoir’s “types,” each dependent on an object (mirror, man, god), anticipate Coppola’s white girls. Like Beauvoir’s types, Coppola’s girls are trapped by their own reflections, which, much too pretty, tend to amplify a loneliness, a desire for attention, and an unceasing will to accumulate and circulate in ever more beautiful dresses and settings.
I imagine that some of Coppola’s readers and viewers get lost in nostalgia for a dead and deadening white life, one of many possible takeaways from an aesthetic that glamorizes former worlds promising beauty and (false) power. If Coppola’s images teach us anything, it is that the aesthetic of the white girl way too readily leads down these dead-end streets. Entangled in, but pointing beyond, this aesthetic, Priscilla drives out of the gates.
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