In her recent film Shirley (2020), Josephine Decker tackles the notion of literature’s tragic heroine through a self-reflexive narrative that combines the realms of the real and the surreal in order to highlight the inner frustrations of the feminine experience in 1960’s America. While Shirley is inspired by the famous gothic horror writer Shirley Jackson, the film is in no way a biographical film about her. Taking inspiration from known traits of Jackson’s life, like her agoraphobia, curt nature, and the plot for her book Hangsman (1951), her character is portrayed as the ruthless woman and enigmatic author she once was within an entirely fictional story. What unfolds in Shirley, is a depiction of the battle of the dual nature of contemporary womanhood – submission versus agency.
The tragic heroine is doomed from her conception by ultimately succumbing to the consequences of being a woman. The feminine experience in literature is often framed within the scope of the tragic heroine, represented in the character’s conditional experience to the expectations of womanhood. To achieve this meta-narrative in Shirley, the film is essentially dependent on the three central female characters that, together, help bring the story full circle by identifying the parallels between the different experiences of womanhood and the expressions of femininity.
A story being written within a story being told, Shirley documents the creative process of the author Shirley Jackson, resurrected with an impeccable performance by Elizabeth Moss. After a young married couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), move in with Shirley and her husband, Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Shirley begins to crawl out of her bedridden state. She decides to start a new novel, inspired by a local newspaper article about a nearby college student named Paula Jean Welden who mysteriously went missing. Shirley appears haggard, with a hunched posture, frequently disheveled hair, and notorious back-talking attitude. In heavy contrast, Rose comes across as shy yet polite, styled with perfect hair and tidy clothes. The two visually and narratively clash at first, despite the newcomer’s amicable effort. While the two husbands go to work at the University, Rose agrees to take care of the household chores and to keep an eye on Shirley throughout the day. A complex relationship develops between the two women as they get closer and closer throughout the film. Their intimate bond begins with a shared quest to study the disappearance of Paula in order to establish a stronger understanding of Shirley’s new heroine. As their relationship progresses, Rose and Shirley slowly assimilate towards each other and become more and more like the other, pulling from mutual frustrations of their experiences of being contemporary women in American society.
The film blurs the lines between reality and fantasy through its surrealist approach of blending the stories and narrative perspectives of Shirley, Rose, and the fictional heroine, Paula. Shirley is portrayed as a character who utterly rejects the traditional roles of domesticity and submission to the household. Upon her husband applauding Rose’s housekeeping job, Shirley snaps saying “a clean house is evidence of mental inferiority,” suggesting that a mere practice of domesticity is a poor reflection of her intelligence. Rose, in contrast, seems to be a more willing participant in the expected domestic practices of a homemaking housewife. She is shown to be relied upon by the rest of the household to cook and clean. Although she is necessary in order to maintain a decent household, Rose doesn’t recognize or exercise any of her own agency for most of the film. She is shown to be insecure and unsure regarding her looks and intelligence, seen asking her husband for reassurance when comparing herself to his students.
As her relationship with Shirley beings to grow in trust, companionship, and intimacy, Rose slowly begins to shed her insecure shell and reveal a growing sense of power and dominance. A catalyzing moment occurs in a scene where Shirley tricks Rose with mushrooms. Shirley tells Rose that the mushroom in her hand is poisonous and teases her to take a bite. She talks about how “most young women are fascinated with their own mortality,” acknowledging the proximity between their alive existence and death, identifying the power of having control over whether you live or die. In response, Rose states that “no one really cares if you live or if you die,” revealing her insecure attitude towards her own life. With the presumably fatal mushroom nearly touching her lips, Rose seems to be hesitant but pensive, as though she’s considering to indulge. After Shirley takes a bite, she reveals that the menacing mushroom is just a harmless oyster mushroom. The scene is sealed, solidifying their trust in each other as Shirley places the symbolic mushroom into Rose’s open mouth.
Shirley combines her own perspective and understanding of womanhood with Rose’s frustration towards her rather suppressed identity. Hazy vignettes blend these perspectives together, often with Rose’s body standing in for the missing Paula — creating a broader representation alluding to a unifying common perspective on behalf of women everywhere. For Shirley, Rose is the ink to her blank pages, inspiring her more and more each day and helping her further characterize her mysterious heroine. She is shown quoting Rose directly in her notes as she establishes Paula’s point of view and experience of the world. Shirley takes to Paula’s story because she identifies with her. In addition to her relationship with Rose, the process of developing her heroine forces Shirley to confront the woes of womanhood head-on. She prays with Rose for Rose’s baby to be a boy because “the world is too cruel to girls” and defends herself when pressed by Stanley who argues that she doesn’t know her subject. She fights for Paula as a symbol for many other girls, “lonely girls who cannot make the world see them,” a telling moment for Shirley, offering a glimpse of her urgency to tell this story.
The ambiguous and dual ending offers an opportunity for the viewer to assume Rose’s fate. If they choose to believe she dies, her story complies with the tragic heroine’s journey. If they choose to believe she lives, she leaves “the madness” of little wifey Rosie behind, breaking the conventions of the tragic heroine. If they don’t care at all, they confirm her initial attitude towards death. Is this ending reflected in Shirley’s novel in the film world? We’ll never know. What we do know is this: both endings for Paula and Rose are unbeknownst to us and the agency over their stories is left to them and them alone.