What Priscilla Presley Teaches Us About Devotion
Why Sofia Coppola's latest film is a lesson in love, heartache, and American romance stories that are more complex than they seem at first sight.
After seeing Priscilla, I spent the following weeks talking to every woman in my life about this thing — a nuance in the way we love. Each would know what I was talking about but couldn’t find words to describe the sensation. Calling it “suffering for love” felt too banal, and “heartache” wasn’t representative of the truly Sisyphisian task that Simone de Beauvoir describes. She said loving is where “the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” Yet, it seems all women are burdened by love, most of all by the people we’ll deem the loves of our lives, if we’re so lucky.
A religious bent in me finds “devotion” the most accurate descriptor — it embodies the extreme ecstasy and suffering one endures in realizing how far we will go to obliterate ourselves for love. What’s uncanny about this suffering is that even the first time we experience it, it feels familiar. Devotion is both primordial and intentional, and as Erich Fromm writes, “to love somebody… is a decision”. Decisions are not instantaneous; they require spiritual sustenance to be carried out. Humans deal with absence consciously, and we invent ways to navigate this thing that moves inside us and tells us to endure, wait, and yearn. For those of us who cannot avert our fidelity, who succumb to what romance ethicists Earp and Savulescu would describe as our “ancient biological machinery,” there’s something hidden in this crucible of suffering.
Devotion is a woman’s world, and one would be pressed to find a modern example of a romantic woman like Priscilla Presley. We always hear her last name first, emphasis on ‘Presley’. Priscilla seems to know this, too. She elected to call her auto-biography Elvis and Me, emphasis on ‘Elvis.’ It’s no wonder Sofia Coppola titled her movie Priscilla — hers is the first film that Presley worked closely with a director to produce. In her words, the movie is “right on.”
We meet Coppola’s Priscilla Beaulieu as a diner girl with limp hair and a frame so flutelike, she seems crushable. Callie Spaeny, smaller than small at her 5’1, is cast alongside Jacob Elordi’s spectacular 6’5 Elvis, making each foray into womanhood under his eye seem superficial, like a child playing dress up with her mother’s lipstick. As she is molded into Elvis’ wife, the delicacy of her frame is burlesqued by the symbols of womanhood that grow around and out of her, and she becomes Priscilla Presley. Her imposing hair, dramatic eyeliner, and structured clothes, which no longer hang off of her but instead swallow her utterly, bring the sympathetic viewer a sense of great discomfort. Yet, she seems to care for this man always, in a way he does not — perhaps can not — reciprocate.
The American cultural zeitgeist has generated a number of similar figures, such as Jackie Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, and Pamela Anderson; devoted women whose love simply seems unkillable. It refuses to die with infidelity or divorce, when the love of their life dies, or even when they die. Instead, it seems to fortify with each milestone.
These women, it dawns on the public, are true romantic figures, and their devotion is sincere and legendary. Naturally, there are acolytes of these figures, a prominent example being Lana Del Rey, who, like a true romantic, has built her career on their legend. These are individuals, often women, who are besotted with the aesthetic of devotion and deliberately place themselves in the positions to wield it, yet cannot bring themselves or are not destined to live it in perpetuity. They are 21st-century romantics.
So, where does the modern world find themselves in discussion with the woman who is a true romantic? For the most part, we’d benefit from looking beyond the dichotomies whose flags we march under from birth, those of the “Madonna and the Whore” ilk. This complex certainly helps in understanding Elvis. As Freud wrote, “Where such men love they have no desire, and where they desire they can not love."
Women do not often suffer this specific ontological affliction (though we certainly understand it is projected upon us). Thus, their prerogative is to find themselves free to experience the boundless romanticism that results from the perfect union of love and desire. The romantic represents a certain kind of integrity, but she also stands atop a thousands-year tradition of women’s status as objects. She is forcibly defined by what she desires, and not always by her choice. The romantic cannot see their true reflection, and this is where the modernist is essential.
Coppola is a modernist set on representing the surfaces of women’s lives; in Presley’s own words, the director is “for women.” The veneers that become her playground in Priscilla are gift wrapping for some of Elvis and Me’s most inculpating confessions. She has no desire to gloss over some of the more perverted truths that are revealed in the book, such as that Elvis controlled how Priscilla dressed and acted, plied her with pills, and was often unfaithful.
Understanding a young Priscilla’s authentic devotion to a broken man in a broken society is essential in understanding her life. Coppola has managed to distill these ideas into a coherent package that allows us to consider Presley for what she is: a child with the potential to become another tragic ingenue. Instead, she was destined to become something different. She became a woman who knowingly charted a course to becoming an artist of the highest order - the kind whose art is secondary to the way they live their life. That is, second to her autonomy.
Understanding the romantic devotion that takes root in a girl's heart, which she carries through womanhood, requires us to do the difficult and ugly work of reformulating our idea of girlhood autonomy. I know I am not the only woman who viewed that movie and was struck to see a part of myself reflected in it.
By the age of 26, I’ve been engaged three times, the first time nearly consummating an elopement at 17 with a man who was almost 30. I had been living with him for a year following an exit from an abusive relationship with a classmate and subsequent disownment by my family. I’m sure many will sneer, but at that point, I had never been happier. I had the support and friendship of a trusted companion as I worked to stabilize myself. We made it to the West Coast, where I got cold feet and returned home unmarried. I dumped him unceremoniously over text three months after I went to college. One year later, he mailed me a sketch of the place out west where we stayed, and it hangs on my wall to this day.
Certainly, I’m lucky in this relatively positive experience. Though not without drama, it places me in the camp of women who have found themselves in similar circumstances. Many have gone as far as to accuse women in these positions of being in denial due to ignorance or trauma, as expected. These individuals may take away what they wish, but my ability to advocate for myself when I was offered up to adulthood against my will, as many girls are, is the product of a fight that has spanned decades of effort in empowering us.
During these decades, Priscilla put work and her soul into maintaining Elvis’ image and legacy despite the cadence of their relationship, over which she has never publicly held any bitterness, and this is what I mean by exercising autonomy.
In the capitalist West, especially for young women, autonomy is more of a skill that is honed as opposed to an ingrained asset. This type of autonomy is how we learn to question, doubt, evaluate, criticize, defend, and reinterpret the structures that surround us, and where we learn to imagine alternative ontologies of womanhood. The idea that Priscilla Presley is foremost a woman who has successfully engaged her own autonomy to overhaul her life on her own terms, time and time again from 14 to 78, is an idea with which Coppola seems to agree.
I’d like to believe that other directors haven’t had the courage to make a movie about Priscilla because of the kind of reactions her story elicits — criticism from manic Elvis devotees and understandable rage on Priscilla’s behalf chief among them. How challenging and intimidating must it be for a woman to tell the story of another woman who was seemingly well out of her depth, yet somehow still completely in control in the end?
This is where we can examine the difference between the romantic figure and the romantic herself. The fortunate majority of us live beyond the era of Juliet’s suicide, when girls were sold to men they did not love, and indeed also past the era of Madame Bovary, a married woman whose romantic notions destroy her only within a domestic moral framework. Surely, each of us knows an Emma Bovary — we’ve probably been to her divorce party.
Similarly, what we celebrate in Priscilla is not her marriage to Elvis; it’s her divorce, and more movingly, her devotion even afterward. Women’s devotional occupations gave them both the environment and the means to develop agency, intimacy, romance, sexuality, and of course, hatred. “Incarceration” is a term that does not just pertain to the act of living, but also to the act of dying. So is the case with domestication, emancipation, jouissance, and devotion, all sacraments of the modern female romantic. They want to die, but they also want to live.
Certainly, Elvis was oppressive to Priscilla emotionally, materially, and socially — something she discusses in Elvis and Me in no vague terms - and certainly, she was abused. Yet it seems unfair to foist victimhood on her now that she has commanded her image, made clear her prerogative not to be portrayed as such, and secured her freedom from those systems as a mother, a woman, and a genius. We must remember that at 28, Priscilla left divorce court hand in hand with Elvis, proclaimed he was still the love of her life, and never looked back.
Perhaps Nietzsche said it best: “Love is not consolation. It is light.” And there have been women in every generation who - call them what you want - are true romantics, sentimentalists, or fantasists, willing to be engulfed by the baptismal fire of devotion’s tragedy, and on the other side have discovered themselves. Yet we have gained enough ground, wisdom, and agency to finally be burning in a world where we might pull our hand away from the fire. It's a world where Priscilla Presley is now just Priscilla, and the romantic is just a woman in love with her life.