The Women Men Don’t See: On Mai Zetterling’s The Girls

| Courtney Kowalke |

A crowd of women dressed in 60s era clothing stare at an unseen figure off camera.

The Girls plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, September 3rd, through Tuesday, September 5th. Visit for tickets and more information.

“Women are taught to see their bodies in parts, and to evaluate each part separately. Breasts, feet, hips, waistline, neck, eyes, nose, complexion, hair, and so on—each in turn is submitted to an anxious, fretful, often despairing scrutiny. Even if some pass muster, some will always be found wanting. Nothing less than perfection will do.”

I have been thinking about this quote from Susan Sontag’s 1975 essay “A Woman’s Beauty—A Put Down or Power Source” on a weekly basis since 2011. It was on my mind especially while watching Mai Zetterling’s The Girls, a film composed of distinct parts that make up a complete body. The Girls focuses on three actresses—Liz Lindstrand (Bibi Andersson), Marianne (Harriet Andersson), and Gunilla (Gunnel Lindblom)—but occasionally veers off to the side, exploring what other actors in their troupe or local theatre patrons are thinking and feeling. There’s a straightforward plot of a touring theatre group putting on a production of Lysistrata, but the movie also features many flashbacks and fantasy sequences, and some scenes that blur the lines of reality. The Trylon’s own blurb for the film notes that it is “[d]erided as overambitious,” and it’s easy to see why. There is a lot going on. It’s easy to picture the men of the hour telling Zetterling where and what to cut.

A white woman with short brown hair inspects her face in a circular mirror.

Zetterling was probably familiar with suggestions to focus on one, singular part of her career. Having acted for twenty years before going into directing, her first short film as director–1963’s The War Game–was nominated for and won awards. However, her 1964 feature-length debut, Loving Couples, was banned at the Cannes Film Festival. The negative critical reception of 1968’s The Girls led Zetterling to avoid directing another film in her homeland for the next eighteen years (she contributed to a handful of American, Canadian, and British productions in the interim). “You should have stuck to acting” was a sentiment Zetterling probably heard more than once in her day.

Speaking of “her day,” let’s take a look at the specific place and time in which Zetterling made The Girls. The film was originally released in September 1968. The year up to that point had been eventful, to say the least. The Cold War was in full swing, and while Sweden was technically a neutral country, the U.S. had nuclear submarines stationed on the west coast of the country; there was general unrest across the globe, with major protests in many countries; the Tet Offensive was launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army against the South Vietnamese Army and the United States in January of that year. The Båstad riots also occurred in Sweden that May, when police got violent with people protesting the inclusion of apartheid countries Rhodesia and South Africa in an international tennis competition. 

Those last two historical events explicitly come up in The Girls. At the end of one show, Liz tries desperately to get the audience to engage in a conversation about politics. The audience is uninterested in this discussion, and Liz gets increasingly unhinged, lobbing some borderline-insulting comments at the theater-goers. After hearing about the incident, a group of reporters descends on her, one of whom asks Liz if “the world situation” is what made her so agitated. When Liz simply replies “Yes,” he presses for an explanation, asking “Vietnam, South Africa, or what?”

“Or what,” indeed?

It makes sense that The Girls’ subject matter is all over the map because the world at large was grappling with a maelstrom of political, ethical, and sexual revolutions. The second wave of the feminist movement was also in full swing by 1968. A militant feminist organization called Group 8 formed that spring in Sweden, which was ahead of the gender-equality curve compared to the US at the time. While not fully equal, nondiscrimination hiring policies were already in place, and women could conduct business of their own. Still, Group 8 wanted better rights for women, including equal pay, more daycare centers for children, and shorter workdays. Both on and off Zetterling’s screen, women wanted their needs to be met by the Swedish government. So, when the Athenian Magistrate in the film sneers, “Why do you women come prying and meddling in matters of state touching war-time and peace?” at the show-within-the-show, the parallel between fiction and reality burns bright on the screen.

A white, blonde woman sits in the middle of a bus with one woman and one man seated on either side behind her.

The delimitation of gender roles is an obvious theme in The Girls. A documentary on the making of the film released in 1996 was given the English title Lines From the Heart, but its original Swedish title, i rollerna tre, translates literally to “in the roles of three.” You have the inherent meta-trickery of real actresses playing fictional actresses playing fictional characters. And it would be easy to look at the cast and think the (fictional) actresses are just like the parts they play on stage—Liz is Lysistrata, Marianne is Myrrhine, and Gunilla is Calonice. But it isn’t that clear-cut. For example, Ollie—a friend of Liz’s husband, Carl—implores Liz to return home midway through her production’s tour. According to Ollie, Carl isn’t the same man without Liz, an argument given nearly verbatim by Kinesias to his wife, Myrrhine. Myrrhine comes the closest of any woman in Lysistrata to breaking the vow of chastity (that we see), yet Marianne seems to struggle the least with resisting the men in her life, spurning her lover early on in the film and later threatening to beat the face in on a man who won’t take “no” for an answer. You can’t put one person in a single box. You can’t expect one woman to have only one thing going on in her life at any given time.

Society doesn’t like that. Society–both in the real world and in The Girls–really, really wants women to be small and manageable. When trying to start a dialogue, Liz tells her audience, “I know it’s unusual for an actress to say anything apart from the play. But I was watching you tonight, and I suddenly thought that if only you had the chance, you’d want to talk to us about what you’d seen. I mean, discuss how you perceived the play.” They don’t want that. None of them speak up. They want what they paid for and nothing more. One of her fellow actors ends the ‘discussion’ by acting like it’s all part of the show, simply “another revolt among the women” like Aristophanes wrote. Liz’s role as Lysistrata is that of an agitator, of someone who sparks a revolution. Liz’s role in real life is not. Liz is there to say her lines and look pretty.

Liz’s acting is soundly dismissed by Ollie and Carl. Carl wants Liz at home to support his career, and when Liz asks about her career, Carl counters, “Do you really think that’s important?” Carl tells her acting is nothing to take seriously, which I found ironic because the film implies Carl is a stockbroker. His gambling with money that may or may not exist for companies based on trends seems as fantastical as Liz dressing up and pretending to be other people.

Women being taught to see themselves in parts rather than as a whole makes it easier to highlight their failures. Liz wanting to focus on her career is framed as wrong by the men in her life. She needs to focus on being better in other areas. Liz should be who they want her to be. You were cast in this role. You are this role. You cannot be more than this role. You are Mother. You are Daughter. You are Sister or Wife. That’s it, forever. You are a woman, therefore you have a designated role in somebody else’s life.

A white, blonde woman wearing a black bra and panties stands in front of a table of three people seated with their backs to the viewer.

While researching this piece, I read several reviews by men who either outright complained about the themes of The Girls or laced their pieces with an air of “oh god, not this again.”1 They were bored of films where women struggle to choose between having a career or being a mother or a housewife. They were sick of women whining about being the primary caregivers and of feeling like they aren’t being taken seriously. These are issues we audiences have seen addressed a hundred times over already. Well, let me tell you: we women would also like these to stop being issues that need addressing! These themes keep recurring on screen because they keep repeating in real life! Between 2020 and 2023, 1.067 million women who left the workforce at the beginning of the pandemic have not returned due to limited childcare.2 Women still don’t have equal pay—the most recent study in the U.S. claims white women earn 83 percent as much money for the same job as men, while Black women earn 70 percent and Hispanic women earn only 65 percent as much.3 We are stuck in our own, special, never-resolving conflicts: Woman versus Man, Woman versus Society, Woman versus Self.

It’s difficult to address all these conflicts in one film or in one conversation, though. After her outburst, the reporters hound Liz for a reason, one single incident that led to her trying to start a discussion with her audience. Liz can’t come up with a reason. There are too many reasons. To paraphrase a quote Icelandic singer Björk gave journalist Charlie Rose in a 2001 PBS interview, communicating what is wrong is like trying to put an ocean through a straw. Liz can’t articulate what has bothered her, so she gets dismissed by the press as an attention-seeker. Society likes to do that to women. “Nothing less than perfection will do.”

Several rows of a movie theater filled with women, with three white women in the front row as the focal point.

Society is constantly asking women to break themselves down into parts and pick the best part to focus on, at least until that part is deemed “good enough” or “not as essential.” Then it’s on to the next part in need of fixing. If you’re forever moving on to the next flaw in need of fixing, though, you aren’t taking time to celebrate what you’re doing right. In always focusing on what needs to be done next, women are never fully present, ever-stressed, and working towards impossible goals. You are never going to see the full picture if you insist on breaking it down into pieces, but does anybody really want the full picture? Or, do people just want the bits of you they like best?

The Girls and Mai Zetterling want the full picture. Liz, Marianne, and Gunilla all have their own lives, their own parts to play, but they have so much in common. We’re all torn between worlds, between responsibilities. There is so much going on in the world at any given time. We’re all experiencing the same things; it just isn’t polite to talk about.


1 A handful of men’s opinions that I found unhelpful:

Fernando F. Croce, “Review: The Girls,” Slant (September 17, 2006).

Stefan Hedmark, “The Girls,” Hedmark Reviews (July 7, 2017).

Matt Mazur, “The Girls (1968),” Pop Matters (October 9, 2006).

Jim Tudor, “Review: Criterion Presents Three Films by Mai Zetterling,” Screen Anarchy (March 10, 2023).

2 Katica Roy, “More than a million women have left the workforce. The Fed needs to consider them as it defines ‘full employment’,” Fortune (September 6, 2022 ).
3 Rakesh Kochhar, “The Enduring Grip of the Gender Pay Gap,” Pew Research Center (March 1, 2023).

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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