One day after school, a group of five orphan girls decide to go to the seaside with some boys. After they are seen playing with them in the water, a scandalised neighbour reports the accident to their grandmother and uncle, affirming that the girls were "pleasuring themselves” on the boys. In order to preserve the honour of the family, the conservative relatives turn their house into a prison where the girls are confined, taught to be good wives and married off one after the other. Mustang (2015), Deniz Gamze Ergüven's first feature film, is about five girls whose only crime is to have independent spirits in a patriarchal culture. It materialises and exemplifies the control that is wielded on women in a (strongly) patriarchal society such as the Turkish one in which the film is set. According to the director, in fact, for women in Turkey, "it's like the Middle Ages” (Ergüven in Cook 2016).
The imprisonment of the girls is nothing but an exertion of power on their bodies as well as their lives. According to Foucault, in every relationship based on power, there is an intrinsic potential of resistance, especially in everyday life (Yilmaz, 2016: 235). The case that Mustang presents is no exception, as the girls find multiple ways to resist power from within their prison. The mere existence of the prison originates the possibility of escaping it. Besides from the two actual escapes, the girls find other ways to rebel and create resistance through mundane acts such as wearing short, tight, and colourful clothes, watching a football matches, and through continuous laughing and giggling that disturbs their uncle Erol. These are acts of micro-resistance that continuously erode his power (ibid.) and the controlling power of his restrictions.
Mustang is about girls, or rather about the experience of being a girl in a certain society. And talking about girls and girlhood is no easy task: scholarly studies focus mostly on Western constructions of girlhood, and a potential definition always needs to be deeply contextualised. It makes sense, therefore, to focus on how the film itself constructs girlhood and to examine the consequences of such construction.
According to the director, in Turkish society, girls and women are "completely objectified" and seen through a strong filter of sexualisation (Ergüven in Donadio 2015). The misunderstanding that causes the confinement of the girls is indeed based on the sexualisation of the innocent behaviour of the girls - precisely because they are girls - which is therefore deemed outrageous. It is clear that the film presents a universe where gender norms are in force. In the house, their breaking generates certain modes of punishment. The house being almost literally turned into a prison is an extreme and highly individualised situation — it is the reaction of one family to a specific infraction. But it is clear that it actually responds to and expresses cultural relations that are pre-existing. For example, the first measure taken in order to “tame” the girls’ spirits is physical punishment (in order of age), followed by teaching them how to cook and make good wives — the house becomes a “wife factory”. And this happens because of specific cultural circumstances, in which “girls are expected to learn and become familiar with the household activities before they get married”, (Hisarciklilar, 2002: 6) and their education is often sacrificed in favour of this sort of “training”, which is deemed more valuable for a woman.
But the five girls Lale, Nur, Selma, Ece and Sonay, however imprisoned, keep living their lives with a certain liveliness and giggling grace. This light and delicate depiction of young femininity, which is conveyed through an aesthetic of dreamlike intensity, has caused the movie to be associated with Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999). With a common use of soft-focus and pastel colours, they give a positive value to the delicacy of the representation: especially in the case of Mustang, such it does not diminish the violence of the situation but rather offers a way out.
There are some obvious plot similarities between the two films, as they both tell the story of the isolation of young girls in the attempt of controlling them. But what the two films have more relevantly in common is the focus on the particular stage of “girlhood” as an independent state. Hollywood girl films in particular, in fact, “tend to emphasise the necessity for the heroines to go through the process of ‘maturity’” (Monden, 2013: 140), the same way in Mustang the girls are supposed to grow to “womanhood” through marriage. The general tendency, then, seems to be seeing and portraying “adolescent girlhood” as merely a transitional stage (id., 141). This shows that there are certain culturally structured ways of seeing adolescence and youth, which is not only defined as a chronological age, but also by its social meaning, and often ends up being seen as a period of transition and incompleteness. As for the five protagonists of Ergüven’s movie, the girls are seen by their relatives, by the neighbour, and by society as in a phase between childhood (which is not sexual and therefore not restricted) and adulthood (which is feminine and sexual and needs therefore a form of regulation), and in need of guidance in their transformation into ‘women’. But both Coppola and Ergüven refrain themselves from considering their protagonists as unstable or in becoming: they treat them as fully developed characters, who have the power of agency and are able to use it in order to assert themselves, and the legitimacy of their status.
It was at the end of the Eighties that Judith Butler developed her theory of the performative quality of gender. Before her, in her The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir had claimed “one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman” (1949: 330); meaning that gender is not a stable identity, but is rather constituted in time, by endowing its physicality is with cultural meanings. A ‘woman’, Butler states, is constituted “through a stylised repetition of acts” (Butler 1988: 519). And with that she means, that there is a way in which gestures, language, clothes and social signs of different kinds constitute what gender is culturally. It is a series of acts that are performed and acquire significance and meaning through their repetition, and constitute an idea of what a woman is. They are subconsciously ‘acted out’ in everyday life, and “constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” (ibid.)
As for Mustang, it tells the story of five girls who do not conform with their acts to what a woman is supposed to be, starting from modest. What their grandmother attempts to do, then, is to bring the ‘deviant’ behaviour of the girls back to normality, to its normal cultural construction: through the imposition of long brown and shapeless dresses that hide their bodies, by arranging marriages and organising meetings with prospective husbands, by teaching them how to cook, arranging their hair, and preventing them from having any kind of non-regulated contact with the opposite gender, including a strict and consistent control of their virginity.
It goes without saying that, in this process, the body is the central bearer of cultural meaning. First of all, the female body is primarily where the value of the girls is negotiated. It is therefore under strict control on the part of the family: the girls are forced to have their hymens examined by a doctor who releases a certificate for them, and one of them has to do a humiliating trip to the hospital after she has shown no bleeding on her wedding night. In that situation, as a little rebellious gesture, her frustration with the situation expresses itself in the statement of having slept with thousands of boys. The girls’ bodies are important because they are not private, but public and related with the idea of honour — the actions of their grandmother and uncle are aimed at preserving the respectability of the family, together with the girls’ bodies.
The body is what enacts the performance of ‘womanhood’, and so the girls are taught how to have women’s bodies — that dress, speak, behave like women. But they are independent girls, who have a personal and peculiar relationship with their social world, which they naturally rebel against. In particular, they rebel against the notion of womanhood that is imposed onto them: if ‘woman’ is a repetition of acts through time, by extension, any gender is. And girlhood is as well: “If the ground of gender identity is the stylised repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking of subversive repetition of that style.” (Butler 1988: 520).
We can think, then, of the adventures of the girls as a way to break that style, to break womanhood and expectations, and as a reconfiguration of it. It starts with the colourful clothes, the denim shorts, with a bra worn and showed off at home in the absence of men. It starts with the everyday games played in their bedroom, wearing swimsuits and pretending to be swimming in water instead of on a mattress. And then it evolves, bringing this energy and this resistance outside of the walls, by escaping in order to go to a football match. It is present in Sonay’s request of marrying her loved one under the threat of screaming in the presence of a potential husband. The five sisters start to undermine womanhood by simply being ‘girls’ and in Mustang, girlhood is constructed as performative, too — as a series of repeated and escalating acts that aim at asserting the girls’ virtue, presence, and identity. Girlhood is depicted as a series of rebellious acts, associated with freedom and positivity. It is not seen as becoming-woman anymore. The ‘woman’ is their grandmother: a woman who, instead of being an evil witch, is a figure “who can hardly be hated for clutching to the roots of old traditions” (Lane 2015), but is constantly trying to mitigate their pain and save them from public shame and ulterior violence. Moreover, at some point, tries to share her experience with the nieces “I didn’t know my husband at all, but I grew to love him.” But the girls are not becoming this kind of woman, they are not becoming at all. If anything, they show an affinity with another woman in the movie, a different and fully realised one: Lale’s liberal teacher who lives in Istanbul.
The gravity of the punitive consequences increases, as well as weight of the girls’ acts of resistance. And it is Ece and her body (an already hurt body that has been abused by her uncle) that take it to the extreme consequences. When her wedding is arranged, she starts acting dangerously: eating without control and having sex with a boy in her uncle’s car. Until one day, during one of the small moments of privacy that her daily routine allows, she takes time to make her sisters laugh during lunch, before going to another room and shooting herself. Suicide among Turkish women has also been discussed by Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk in his novel Snow. In particular, he speaks of the obligation of wearing the veil, while Mustang has no specific religious reference. But the two works both speak of a situation where women have no way to negotiate their value in a system that entraps them and therefore “turn to their only means of controlling their bodies — suicide.” (Clemens 2011: 141) Suicide ends up being, for many and for Ece, the last resource for exerting their own agency and body.
In Mustang, therefore, the body is where a woman’s value is negotiated and what various kinds of violence is performed on. But for the girls, it is also the means to create something positive that has potential for resistance. Not only everyday acts, but also a bond that is present since the beginning of the film and becomes a strong component of the representation of girlhood made by the movie — sisterhood. Not actually sisters, they are similarly close, “often intertwined in languid larks” (Lane 2015), just like Coppola’s Lisbon Sisters. They are often shown in their rooms, playing, wearing each other’s clothes, and taking care of each other. Their bond is one of the ways they resist to their uncle’s power — just like when they can’t stop making each other giggle at the table, disturbing Erol’s routine. Their bond is visceral, nearly physical, and expresses itself in the shots of intertwined legs and arms, immersed in the sunlight that pours from the caged windows. In the director’s words, “initially, it was a visual idea, of having a body with five heads and ten arms and ten legs.” (Ergüven in Rapold 2015) And particular attention was given to the bonding of the girls during the pre-production of the film, where the girls through workshops that were aimed at creating a sister-like connection among them, to make them “a single rebellious entity.” (Ergüven in Cooke 2016)
It is hard to define girlhood, as one runs the risk of generalising and creating stereotypes. Girlhood is not merely a chronological age, but is also defined in relation to cultural, economic and social contexts. It is constructed in different ways within different societies, where it assumes different meanings. According to Judith Butler, we can understand gender (and, by expansion, girlhood) in terms of performance: behaviours, languages, signs and acts through which a body acquires meaning. And Ergüven’s Mustang presents and puts into contrast two different constructions/performances of girlhood. The first one is the ‘normal’ construction of girlhood which is found in Turkish society, where a girl seems to be nothing but a woman-to-be. Therefore, she needs to be taught how to act appropriately, and how to become a “woman”. She needs to be taught what sort of activities she has to perform, what clothes to wear, how to behave in public and with men. And because the girl is a woman in becoming, she is highly sexualised and her body needs to be controlled, too.
The other kind of girlhood is the one expressed and constructed by the actions and behaviours of the five protagonists. As girls, they are fully realised individuals, who demand to be acknowledged as such, as well as to be independent and free (and safe). Their ‘being girls’ consists in perpetuating everyday “inappropriate” behaviours and acts that slowly erode the power of their uncle (and that of the patriarchal society they live in) — sometimes with tragic consequences. Ergüven’s construction of girlhood is a performative one, and one that breaks the expectations. Being a girl the way the protagonists are is revolutionary — it is a strong yet delicate and liberal force that fights for freedom against the established order and violence. If there is any essence in what the director portrays, is not an ethereal femininity, but a lightness and positivity that are able to fight against power and control.
Words by Alice Giuliani
We are hosting a screening of Mustang (2015) at the Institute of Light on 9/04/18 with an introduction by Alice Giuliani. Tickets are available here.
Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40(4), pp. 510-531
Clemens, C. A. L. (2001). “Suicide Girls”: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and the Politics of Resistance in Contemporary Turkey. Feminist Formations, 23(1), pp. 138-154
Cooke, R. (2016). Deniz Gamze Ergüven: ‘For Women in Turkey It’s Like the Middle Ages. The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/15/deniz-gamze-erguven-mustang-turkey-interview-rachel-cooke
De Beauvoir, S. (2009). The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books (1st ed: 1949)
Donadio, R. (2015). With Mustang, a Director Breaks Free of Cultural Confines. The New York Times [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/movies/with-mustang-a-director-breaks-free-of-cultural-confines.html
Hisarciklilar, M. (2002). A Censored Regression Model for the Educational Attainment of Boys and Girls in Turkey. Professor. The University of Nottingham.
Hoffman, J. (2015). Mustang Review: The Virgin Suicides in Anatolia is a Sweet, Sad Turkish Delight. The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/19/mustang-review-the-virgin-suicides-in-istanbul-is-a-turkish-delight
Lane, A. (2015). True Selves. The New Yorker [online]. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/30/true-selves
Monden, M. (2013). Contemplating in a Dream-like Room: The Virgin Suicides and the Aesthetic Imagination of Girlhood. Film, Fashion and Consumption, 2(2), pp. 139-158
Yilmaz, G. (2016). Reflections of Tactics of Women in Everyday Life: Analysis of the Movie Mustang. Humanities and Social Sciences Review, 6(01), pp- 235-244