My Dancing Queen: ABBA as a Hopeful Escape in Muriel’s Wedding

Updated: Mar 24

By Allyson Roche | @allyson.roche

"If I didn’t get ABBA, I was not going to make the movie.” — P.J. Hogan, Director of Muriel’s Wedding

When I graduated high school, my parents gifted me a locket with the words “You’re Terrible, Muriel” engraved on the front. Subtle enough to present itself as an unassuming — even elegant — necklace, the design still prompted questions from the most observant people, quickly transforming conversations into interrogations as I would repeatedly be asked Who is Muriel? and Why is she terrible? I often found myself embarrassed in explaining the origin of the phrase, quietly acknowledging that this little anecdote was not cute or charming; it presented me as a person obsessive enough to create fan-made luxury merch for an Australian cult-classic from the 90s. That wasn’t a look I was particularly keen on bearing.

Years prior, my parents introduced me to Muriel’s Wedding out of their own relationship to it. But this graduation present they gifted me did not include life-defining Joni Mitchell lyrics, nor did they choose a line from a book or film that I could use as an emotional anchor when self-doubt would hit in my journey towards adulthood. They chose a joke — a silly one-liner to reference at dinner parties — and with their method of delivery, they gave it the grace and sophistication of a Jane Austen or William Shakespeare declaration of love.

P.J. Hogan’s 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding does something similar by elevating Swedish pop group ABBA as its protagonists’ primary source of hope and escapism. Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette), a socially-awkward 22-year-old trapped in a fictional Australian suburb, is characterized with two obsessions: ABBA and getting married. ABBA’s dreamy and eccentric pop, almost permanently hovering on the outskirts of “cool,” encapsulates Muriel’s painful desire to be both accepted and loved. What ABBA possesses is not a pensive mystery that begs for thorough examination, but a simplicity — celebration, pure fun, joy. With that elation and delight, of course, comes the exploration of loss, misunderstanding, and deep, deep sadness. Even in the 90s, as ABBA was in the midst of a comeback initiated by the release of their greatest hits album in 1992, their perceived simplicity was dismissed. Carl Magnus Palm, the author of the biography, ABBA: Bright Lights, Dark Shadows, said that he’s noticed that fans of ABBA have “had such a hard time of it.” Comparatively, with Beatles fans, for example, it’s “easy, because everyone loves the Beatles, whereas with ABBA, there was a long time when you had to hide that fact.” They were still neglected by the mainstream cool girls, who — in Muriel’s Wedding — prefered Nirvana and the Baby Animals.

“You're enchained by your own sorrow

In your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow.”

- Chiquitita by ABBA

When I think of Muriel, which happens more often than I’d like to admit, I think about her expressive bursts of excitement in the most mundane of circumstances. They look like this: her seemingly permanent shoulder-slouch transforms as her shoulders almost meet her ears; she smiles, harshly, sometimes sticking out her tongue and raising her eyebrows. It's an attempt at a charming cheekiness, but is deemed by other characters as evidence of her social ineptness. This introduces the film’s tone, when Muriel catches a bouquet of flowers at a wedding, and persists throughout: when she’s talking about partying with her friends at dinner; when she runs into those now-ex-friends on vacation; when she meets her future husband at a swim practice; when she stands at the altar, ready to say “I do.” It’s never received with an equal amount of excitement and love, but always with repulsion.

While they are able to balance true feelings of joy with a cool, casual glow about them, she fails, again and again, because her desperation for connection and acceptance overpowers any impulse to downplay that yearning. Because I recognize that same vulnerability as one that prefers — and even demands — privacy, I’m paralyzed with fear in seeing it so transparent in her body language. Everytime, I worry and wonder if it unknowingly appears that exact same, exposed way on me. Can I be read as easily as they read Muriel? Like her, there’s an ever present sense of self-doubt within me, circling my brain, projecting destructive messages about possibly never being fully understood or embraced. Before I lead myself down this pitiful road, I distract myself with the comfort of figures who I perceive as being strong enough (or cool enough) not to be phased by confidence issues like these — which is exactly what Muriel does with ABBA.

"You listen to seventies music. This is the nineties!" It's like a lob of spit thrown right onto Muriel's face. She patiently listens, as her “friends” lay every aspect of her on the table in front of them, her laziness and anxiety just another part of the cheesy tropical decor, emotionless and unreal, fair play for their mocking judgements. It's the music-related insult that wields the most ferocity to incite pain, not the critique of her clothes, her weight, or her hair, as the previously stationary camera mobilizes on that cue, closing in on Muriel and slowly removing her friends from the frame. Muriel’s face reddens, her eyes begin to water, and her lip uncontrollably quivers as she concedes, “I know I’m not normal, but I’m trying to change.”

Judging her music taste unfairly exposes her true desires; music is the roadmap to her dreams, an escape plan to emerge as confident and successful. It’s where her ideal self lies. Most importantly, it is a distraction from debilitating loneliness, achieved through an empty stare and half-hummed lyrics, as the vivacious, celebratory sounds of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” fill the air. The disco declaration stands in as the joy she isn’t experiencing, an ode to the happy person she wants to be but fears she’ll never become.

The music was her — and my — saving grace, because without the aspiration to one day become the dancing queen that others revere and champion, we would disappear into nonexistence. Our loneliness was one that felt so unchosen, so tight and invasive, that we needed anthems to aid in exclaiming, “I’m not nothing!”

“You'll be dancing once again

And the pain will end

You will have no time for grieving.”

- Chiquitita by ABBA

So ABBA is the band that calls Muriel’s name, providing her with her only source of solace from learned self-hatred, which can be seen as an extension of the general public’s rejection of ABBA as serious musical contenders. This sort of publicly acknowledged association is one of the film’s central themes; from Muriel’s desperation for a marriage, to her friends’ abandonment of her, to her father’s boastful satisfaction at his wife’s funeral when the priest reads a letter of condolence from a former prime minister. You have to be around the right people, and shed yourself from the loners, the ones who can’t quite catch up. People become like points in a game, and you have to stick with ones that are “on your own level,” as Tania, one of the mean girls, explains. Life, for Muriel, is a game. So when Muriel is chosen for the first time, ABBA’s brilliance accompanies the decision, initiating a reversal of her previous abandonment in a moment so satisfying, I find myself punching the air each time I watch it.

After secretly depleting her family’s savings to finance a vacation to Hibiscus Island, the same resort that her ex-friends excluded her from, she runs into another outcast from her high school, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), and reignites their friendship. The high school frenemies invite Rhonda to party with them instead of Muriel, but Rhonda rebukes their offer by revealing the group’s adultery and saying that she’d “rather swallow razor blades than drink with” them. Here, the camera moves in an identical manner to when the frenemies previously abandoned Muriel; it swivels to exclude the judgement-spewing character and focuses a close-up on her victim. This time, it’s gratifying because the bitches finally get a taste of their own medicine. But the most satisfying moment of this sequence is when Rhonda, with a sly smile smacked across her face, says, “By the way, I’m not alone. I’m with Muriel.”

The opening chords to ABBA’s “Waterloo” coat the bullies’ shocked faces, and instantly, Muriel is victorious, accepted, championed. Someone is finally on her team and she can hardly believe it. Serving as an anthem of triumph, we then cut to Rhonda and Muriel in outrageous wigs and all white costumes, clearly an homage to ABBA in all their theatrical glory. Embodying the magical figures Muriel honored by plastering their faces all over her bedroom walls, Muriel carries their unpolished playfulness in her copy-cat, lip-syncing performance, showing us that Muriel can succeed.

The lyrics of success and love are no longer framed as unattainable aspirations for Muriel; she is living out their message. Most importantly, this scene is framed as a victory, which is supported by the lyrics and historical background of the song itself. “Waterloo” refers to Napoleon's surrender at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but takes this defeat as a metaphor for falling into a loving relationship. Applied to Muriel’s life, the song foreshadows; she spends the entire movie traversing an internal battle that positions her instincts and impulses as inferior. She ultimately learns to surrender, embracing herself and rejecting society’s definitions of perfection and success. But in this moment, she succeeds with “Waterloo,” just like ABBA did in 1974 when the song won them the title at Eurovision’s Song Contest, setting both Muriel and her heroes on the path to self-defined success and victory. Rhonda and Muriel lip-sync to the camera with smiles wide enough to almost escape the confines of their faces, encouraging the audience to do the same, even while the high school frenemies beat each other up below the stage.

Their love for ABBA unites them in their otherness, a shared appreciation for something that was outcast, just as they were, bonds them together. To have someone who shares not just your experience, but the tendency to indulge in the same interests that you do — just as deeply and specifically as you do — is overwhelmingly validating. In sharing a love for ABBA, as Muriel and Rhonda lay under the stars and hum the lyrics to “Fernando,” we see Muriel in a light that she isn’t seen in prior; happy, with the strength and autonomy to be vulnerable on her own terms.

“Chiquitita, tell me the truth

There is no way you can deny it

I see that you're oh, so sad, so quiet.”

- Chiquitita by ABBA

I secretly hope, with any obsession, whether it be musical or cinematic, that my life experiences will inevitably result in a graduation from the crutch of hopeful distraction, like shedding a skin of protection that is no longer necessary. While Muriel says that since moving to Sydney, she hasn’t “listened to one ABBA song” because her “life is as good as an ABBA song,” — even as “good as ‘Dancing Queen’” — lies continue to slip out of Muriel’s mouth with the accidental ease that one would drop a pencil or fumble a football with. There’s a hurriedness in her delivery, from when she says she’s married to a man named Tim Simms, to when she denies the fact that she is Muriel Heslop — like she hopes that one will stick in such a way that the fabrication would actually replace the truth.

Her facade of happiness, one that came so close to bliss, fades; she was still subscribing to the ideals of success defined by people expelled her from achieving them in the first place. So “Dancing Queen,” the song she thought her life exceeded, returns to distract herself from her faltering friendship and agreement to marry a stranger. And of course, she pops the tape into her bubblegum pink cassette player, partially humming along while looking stoically into the mirror.

Muriel has the wrong concerns, just like I often do; she’s obsessed with escaping herself, instead of escaping the power of other people’s judgments. ABBA has the key to what Muriel wants, but she’s still blinded by the rigidity of her community’s expectations to realize that. ABBA are Muriel’s superheroes; they don’t care about their clothing, or how they’re perceived. They don’t care if they don’t quite fit in a certain corner of the pop, rock or disco scene. In fact, ABBA’s iconic wardrobe wasn’t so much about personal expression as it was a financial benefit, as their costumes could be deducted from their taxes if they were too eccentric to be worn on the street. Muriel wants to exude that level of carelessness, that freedom; ABBA embodies all the freedom that she wants, in their look, in their lyrics, in their reputation, simultaneously representing all that society prevents her from having if she is to be accepted by them.

I think this is why I’ve obsessed over the film for years, unsure of what aspects to point to for why I related to it. If I could harness her arc without failing and lying as much as she did — if I could use her story as a cautionary tale with a happy ending, I could be just a bit freer.

“Try once more, like you did before

Sing a new song, Chiquitita”

- Chiquitita by ABBA

Muriel’s Wedding wasn’t one of those movies that left me looking at the world with a new lens. I didn’t feel “seen,” nor did I feel like a new person after my first viewing. It was a gradual discovery of comfort, similar to the way that one discovers their favorite band. You have to familiarize yourself with a band’s discography; it takes time, and the music later colors different life events. With experience, the music changes and grows, the meaning expanding with time. I found myself relying on Muriel’s Wedding as a comfort movie, and when I would tell people that, they wouldn’t understand why. That movie is so depressing, people would say. The mom commits suicide, it’s not uplifting. And I wouldn’t have an accurate response at the time. I couldn’t answer why. The inexplicability irked me, and I tried searching for an answer, but only discovered it while not looking. In the midst of a deep, deep depression, when I found myself hysterically sobbing, I knew, I didn’t look any different from Muriel and her guttural sobs, her seering “I’m not nothing” on repeat in my brain, so powerful I could almost hear it in that moment. That thought paralyzed me.

Muriel wasn’t my comfort, but my fear: a liar, a family disappointment, a loner, someone stuck with friends who hate her, someone who doesn’t face reality and would rather live in delusions of hope than facing the truth, someone who is utterly and completely rejected. The possibility of falling in her footsteps, without realizing it, had been the biggest fear of my life, because the reality of me being there wasn’t too far away if I wasn’t careful.

And after acknowledging this, I watched Muriel obsess over ABBA, and in her somewhat dorky, embarrassing love-affair, I knew that her relationship with ABBA was my relationship with the film. I had nobody to share it with, yet projecting my hopes and fears onto it was a habit I couldn’t get out of.

In recognizing Muriel as my fear, I allowed her to become my superhero. She wins. The status quo loses. Romance loses. Suburbia loses. Settling loses. Traditional, oppressive structures lose. Even the structure of the film, as it teases the possibility of turning into a romantic comedy, loses. Muriel could have easily fallen in love with David, the swimmer she married for show. Or perhaps, she could have left him and reconvened with the video-store guy — her perfect match in awkwardness and yearning. Or, the most patriarchally noble option of them all, she could return to her home and take her mother’s position in caring for her siblings. However, she does something radical and dramatic for her: she moves out of the suburbs and into the city with her best friend. Freedom and individuality win.

She leaves knowing that she is leaving on her own terms. She leaves not accepting their version of success and perfection, but waves goodbye, giving it all a proper farewell, shouting “goodbye Porpoise Spit!” while ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” salutes her victory. Muriel wins. She wins because she finally realizes that the Dancing Queen isn’t an elected position that requires permission and praise. It’s one that needs to be seized. She grabs the crown with her own hands, overthrowing the oppressive rulers who suffocated her, creating her own ways of living, finally, giving herself the permission to no longer care about what others think of her.

My parents chose the locket with the silly quote from Muriel’s Wedding without telling me why. Like a replacement for a tattoo, they wanted me to cement my inhibitions and interests proudly, boldly, without the influence of others’ thoughts hindering mine. They saw that I should aspire to be like Muriel at her apex, and that her arc is one to take with me throughout all endeavors, no matter how silly it may be, when I failed to see that. The silver oval that reads “You’re Terrible, Muriel” actually declares, “Embrace what feels meaningful and true to you. Forget the rest.”