As a teen movie, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants achieves what so many others don’t – it praises the centrality and multiplicity of girlhood. Directed by Ken Kwapis and based on the novel by Ann Brashares, the film is divided into four plot lines, following four completely different girls over their first summer apart. Throughout the summer, to commemorate their strong bond, they send around a pair of denim jeans which magically fits each of them perfectly. They ship the jeans from country to country along with a written letter about their best moments experienced while wearing the pants.
The mysteriously versatile jeans, found in a cute thrift store, are part of the genre of magical realism – realistically, such jeans are almost impossible to exist. But it is this magic of the jeans that acknowledges the different body types of every single girl and woman, grounding the four girls as utterly real and relatable, yet bonded by the magic of their friendship.
While the film is divided into four stories, the plot of each girl is not denied complexity or growth. Bridget (Blake Lively) is sent to soccer camp in Mexico for the summer. She’s also grieving the loss of her mother and grappling with her distant relationship with her father. She seeks attention and refuses to be mediocre on the soccer field. The romance between her and her soccer coach is so forced as to almost be cringeworthy – Kwapis portrays beautiful Bridget not simply as the “hot girl,” even though she does look slim and sporty throughout the movie, but as a girl who is struggling to feel comfortable with herself, struggling to fill the loss of her mother with the love of others.
Carmen’s (America Ferreira) summer takes her to her estranged father’s house, where she discovers he has built a new family without her. He is due to get married; there are two blond, all-American teens lined up to be her step-siblings. Carmen is Latina, and is very proud of her identity, but throughout the summer, she feels herself and her mother become more and more erased from her father’s life. The new family treats her poorly, she is body-shamed, and she ultimately feels more comfortable talking to the house maid than her soon-to-be step-mother. All summer, Carmen is faced with having to consider her culture and body a problem – but she never turns herself into her own villain. Her father remains the villain, she is constantly happy with herself and unhappy with her new family. Carmen retains the power for her and her mother.
Lena (Alexis Bledel), meanwhile, visits her grandparents in Greece. She’s an artist. During one of her sketching sessions, she meets Kostas (Michael Rady), who she later develops a crush on, and they fall in love. But Kostas is the grandson of a man who Lena’s grandfather has been feuding with for decades. She is forbidden to see Kostas again. The retrograde tradition of feuding families baffles Lena: she feels robbed of her own experiences and agency. The familial tensions become difficult to navigate. She has done something wrong against her family’s standards, but measured against her own moral compass she has only been a normal teen girl, and an honest one, too. Lena has to unite her love for her family with her new love for Kostas by confronting her grandfather and asking him to put aside his patriarchal rules, a difficult thing for a young girl. Lena is successful, her agency is retained.
Lastly, Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) begrudgingly has to stay in their hometown by herself for the summer. She fills her days by working at the grocery store and filming a documentary about ordinary people. She soon meets a young girl, Bailey (Jenna Boyd) who proposes to be Tibby’s camera assistant. Tibby is reluctant at first; she is annoyed she isn’t on vacation like the rest of her friends, and Bailey is clingy. But Tibby finds out that Bailey has cancer. This completely changes Tibby’s mood and perspective, and mundanity becomes very beautiful. Kwapis emphasises that to be a female main character, you don’t need to be in love or suffering or unreserved. Tibby treasures simple moments with Bailey, her summer becomes very meaningful to her. When her friends finally return from their vacations with their own set of problems, Tibby unloads a harsh criticism on them all, creating a fantastic dynamic that is not usually portrayed in girl-ensemble movies. The awkwardness and honesty of this confrontation is mature and deeply realistic.
As the magical pants travel from girl to girl, the audience slowly receives the layers of these girls’ lives. The movie is a tapestry in this way, woven by the girls, their experiences becoming inextricable from one another yet entirely individualistic. Kwapis portrays four entirely different girls in The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. Their girlhood is desperate, and greedy, and romantic, and boring. Above all, the movie makes its audience pray for such a good pair of jeans: that is a desire we can all unite for.