Review: ‘A Girl and a Gun’ Is Not All You Need in a Film

By  · Published on July 6th, 2013

If you’re hoping for a deep exploration of the connection between women and firearms, Cathryne Czubek’s documentary A Girl and a Gun will fail you. There is little to this 76-minute film that isn’t very obvious and sometimes even oblivious. Or maybe the aim wasn’t to bother with the heavy psychoanalytic notions of guns being extensions of masculinity because of their phallic shape as much as their capability for dominance. It’s a light piece of nonfiction, not even going for much political address let alone agenda, in spite of the national conversation going on this year. As far as missing out on timeliness, though, it’s mostly a shame the doc was produced too soon to be informed by or point to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, with its strong barrel-fellating imagery.

There are a lot of film clips here, too. Shots from your basic female-heavy action movies, such as Terminator 2, Aliens, Wanted, Resident Evil, Kick-Ass, Kill Bill, Foxy Brown, and wronged-women dramas like Enough and Sleeping With the Enemy, as well as a few films noir (albeit with little recognition of the femme fatale character in general) and all the way back to Edison’s Annie Oakley short from 1894. No mention of Jean-Luc Godard’s famous line about how all you need to make a film is “a girl and a gun,” but that doesn’t exactly have anything to do with a girl with a gun. Besides, this isn’t a film studies documentary.

Instead, A Girl and a Gun is simply a look at the idea of armed women, and by look I mean more a spotlight on the idea than a full examination. It would seem to be a response to the fact that gun ownership among women is rising (the New York Times did a sufficient short piece on the topic in February of this year, and then a few weeks later they had an article on the decline of gun ownership overall, which noted the rate for women actually has remained constant in spite of that decrease), yet Czubek has been working on the documentary for the past decade. In that time she has cast a wide net over distinct American stories of women and guns, compiling stereotype-breaking portraits of people who are more than the idea itself tends to imply.

Among those characters is a woman whose daughter was the victim of stray bullets, a widowed new mother who stopped an intruder thanks to the gun left behind by her husband, a young woman in prison for shooting her girlfriend, not in self-defense, a high-ranking sergeant in the Marines, a champion skeet shooter and another mother who we meet as she’s wrapping up a hunting rifle for her 8-year-old son on Christmas eve. She and some of the others have a little twist to their tale, usually of the sort that could make you surprised they are so gun friendly. The individual profiles with full narratives to tell, like little vignettes dotting the film, are the highlights of A Girl and a Gun, while some of the simpler character studies come off more randomly picked and therefore less absorbing.

Still, all of the stories together makes for the only part of the film that really works, as ultimately timeless and inconsiderable as it may be. We get a better sense of the true culture of women and firearms through these varied portraits than any of the expert voices on the scholarship of this topic. Professor and author Mary Stange offers some nice history, especially on the armed left of the ’60s and ’70s, but it’s stuff that illustrates a long tradition of women and guns that too much counters the film’s point that this is a fresh phenomenon. Magazine editor Peggy Tartaro brings up the ridiculous image of “the Sabrina” pose in TV and film named for the Charlie’s Angels character without any sense of the real fantasy within that framing. “It’s to get the sexy gun and the sexy girl in the same picture,” she says, as if they remain separate objects rather than adding up to a festishistic whole.

Not that A Girl and a Gun completely avoids the sexual aspect of the guns themselves. Right away fetish expert Katharine Gates points out that they are hard and hot and shoot things out, explicitly calling out the “totally obvious” maleness of the weapon. And not that the two parts of the film aren’t meant to contrast one another. One side is how women and guns are salaciously represented, while the other is the sometimes boring reality. This is fairly clear, yet it’s not always well-defined that the former is being repudiated in favor of the latter. The film bounces side to side rather than back and forth, as if all the images and cultural considerations are equal parts. To better dismiss the iconographic aspects would have had the film substantially categorizing academic and psychoanalytical approaches as being not only false and general but also rather silly.

A Girl and a Gun doesn’t offer a focused thesis from the start, nor does it culminate on any clear conclusive point. It’s not really a cultural study so much as it’s a feature length puff piece on a concept that it’s making us aware of and then pretending is something we’re already conscious and curious and concerned about. It will have you thinking about women and guns, but for what purpose? In the end it feels like there shouldn’t even be an address of the gender distinction at all, that it’s the media’s fault that this idea is addressed as being significant and fascinating in the first place, but as a form of media this documentary is therefore part of the problem in making a big deal about it. At least in concentrating on a specific area it apolitically treats gun ownership as altogether not being a big deal, though this film is sure to be looked upon with political goggles regardless of its relative neutrality on any issue.

The Upside: There are a few intriguing vignettes about women and their guns; political neutrality in a doc about guns is very welcome right now

The Downside: The expositional scholarship side of the film feels slight; the two sides of the doc and their contrasting relationship isn’t communicated clearly enough; the overall point is hazy

On the Side: Although it’s one of his most famous quotes, the “girl and a gun” quip by Godard is only from a diary entry dated as recent as May 16, 1991.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.