A few nights ago, I reluctantly watched the French-produced, Academy Award-nominated movie, Mustang. It had been recommended to me—twice—by a trusted source. Furthermore, as more and more American admirers of the film solicited my opinion of it as a Turk, I figured that it might make for a better conversation if I could list specific objections to Mustang rather than deliver a lecture on why I don’t consume narratives of the sort.
The premise of Mustang—five orphaned girls forced into arranged marriages after an innocent romp with boys—rang too similar to Europe’s favorite Middle Eastern trope to tempt me. I was first acquainted with western European ideas of what constitutes a Turk when I was ten and living in Stockholm due to my mother’s job. We were there temporarily, for three years, after which we returned to our hometown, Ankara. While we lived in Stockholm, the one thing Swedes wanted to know about our family of merely four with two relatively fair children was how typical we were as Turks. When they received a response that didn’t sit well with their worldview—that we were pretty representative of middle-class Turks who live in cities—they raised their pale eyebrows and expressed blunt disbelief. The Western European idea of a Turk, I was to find out, consisted of Ottoman-era images updated with stereotypes of the working class Turks who spread across Europe during the 1960s and 70s. Thus, typical Turks were mustached men and their scarved wives, whose sons harassed blonde women and whose daughters either lowered their eyes when you addressed them or rebelled viciously and were subsequently murdered by their own fathers or brothers.
I don’t trust the Western liberators and self-identified allies of oppressed women. I question their designs—all too often, the oppression of women in the Orient is used to justify anti-Muslim sentiment. By identifying with the victim, these liberators justify their xenophobic tendencies. When outside artists center their narratives around oppressed women, I also question their ability to understand their protagonists. In the rush to liberate, Western allies project their own outrage onto oppressed women, forgetting that the victims are hurt by the culture they were raised in and which they internalize to a great degree. Their oppressors are their family and friends, who, in addition to oppressing, have loved and nurtured the victims. When outsiders project their own emotions onto Eastern women, they undermine the individuality of the victims and hijack their stories. For that reason, I approach movies like Mustang, which claim to expose the trials and tribulations of women in the hands of the Oriental patriarchy, with grave reservations.
Mustang was written and directed by Gamze Deniz Ergüven, a woman who, like myself, has claims to being “Turkish.” Born to Turkish parents, she lived most of her life in France, but visited Turkey regularly, and in one interview says that although she considers herself culturally French, she is no outsider to Turkish culture. Having lived in Ankara within a modernized intersection of the Turkish society until I was twenty-three, I don’t feel that being “Turkish” automatically gives one an insider view into the more conservative pockets within Turkey.
Mustang’s tale of oppression unfolds in a small, conservative village on the eastern Black Sea coast, a region that is known for its social conservatism and hot-tempered men. At first, I thought that the director must have picked that location because she had some connection to the culture—but when I read interviews with her later, it seemed that most of her time in Turkey was actually spent in Ankara. As the plot progressed, the reason behind the choice of setting dawned upon me. If the girls had been from a big city, all the sexist horrors that befall them later would lose their plausibility. For the later incidents—the imprisonment, the virginity checks, the forced marriages—to be believable, the girls had to be placed in a remote, conservative community.
Although the hazy Black Sea village was necessary for the later developments in the movie, it rendered the first plot twist, a playful romp in the sea with male friends, unconvincing. Once they reach puberty, girls who grow up in more modern Turkish communities, like one finds in bigger cities, are at risk for being confronted with a conservative side to their parents. A boy calls, and a hitherto “open-minded” father starts monitoring his daughter’s every move. Decidedly conservative communities, like the one in Mustang, spare their daughters such surprises—where they stand on male-female friendship is clear from the start. In the unlikely case that five girls from a traditional community who have a hideously conservative uncle hop into water with boys, it would be with a lot of anxiety regarding possible witnesses and a full understanding of potential outcomes. The Mustang girls, on the other hand, walk into the blue waters in their uniforms as if this were the most natural thing on earth, climb the boys’ shoulders without so much as scanning the coast for bystanders, and lose themselves in uninhibited fun. While Ergüven states in her interviews that the-romp-that-lead-to-disaster is based on a real event, I venture to guess that it probably did not take place in an eastern Black Sea village.
That Ergüven gave herself a little too much credit for her knowledge of “Turkish culture” was evident in incongruities peppered throughout the movie. The neighbor who snitched on the girls, a woman clearly past forty and dressed according to Muslim conventions, was anachronistically named “Petek.” Petek, meaning honeycomb, is a fairly secular and contemporary name—even in big cities where the name is popular, one would be hard-pressed to find a Petek Hanım past her thirties. Another peculiar yet ironically fitting choice was the sisters’ loyalty to Galatasaray, an Istanbul soccer team often accused (albeit falsely) of having French roots. Since the sisters were from the Black Sea region and they escaped to Trabzon to watch a soccer game, the average Turk would expect them to be fans of Trabzonspor, the pride and joy of the Black Sea region.
The sisters’ detachment from their home environment goes far beyond their love for an elitist Istanbul team, however. They talk with rich-girl inflections, Istanbul’s rough equivalent of a “valley girl accent.” They radiate confidence and defiance and show no trace of the Eastern Anatolian bashfulness a Turkish viewer expects. Despite their uncle, they not only walk around at home in tiny shorts and t-shirts that drop over their shoulders to flaunt their bra straps, but they also clean the windows in these outfits as if they were at a beach resort (using Windex and paper towels as if they were a handful of Americans). Although I grew up in a relatively modern Ankara household, I myself had internalized my culture enough to not parade around my grandparents or uncles in short-shorts or with a bare midriff, unless we were at the beach. (Nor, to this day, would I dare waste paper towels on anything that could be done with a rag.)
The visual representation of the five sisters reminded me of the 19th-century harem paintings by the French Orientalist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Ingres’s paintings show concubines and odalisques in dreamy, sexualized poses, squeezing each other’s breasts, dancing, bathing, perpetually naked. Ingres’s scenes have little to do with actual harem life—they are an imagined peek into the secret life of the Other, constructed by imagination and stereotype. The painter’s object is not to reflect the harem with any sort of realism, but simply to delight his audience and satisfy their voyeuristic curiosities.
In Mustang, the five sisters are similarly sexualized, although the aesthetic is different—the girls are not voluptuous, dreamy, and round, but Lolita-esque, defiant, and wild. They are forest nymphs through thick and thin—even on their wedding nights, they are exempt from the elaborate hairdos imposed on Turkish brides and married with wild, barely combed tresses. The conservative gowns their grandmother fashions for them bear no relation to the clothes worn by conservative Turkish women; in their brown dresses with modest lace trims, the girls look rather like they had just escaped from a French convent.
The sisters’ private moments are imagined through a foreign lens—at every opportunity, they remove most of their clothing and engage in outlandish semi-nude pile ups, legs around legs, butts against faces, arms over freshly swelling bosoms. The scenes are not convincing as what sisters in a conservative Anatolian village do in their bedroom. They seem contrived to satisfy the gaze of the voyeur and to add to the visual appeal of the movie.
An important artistic difference between Ingres and Ergüven is that Ergüven believes she has empathy for her subjects—the oppressed girls—and perhaps, imagines that through her movie, she is speaking up for them. However, her characters are as distanced from rural Anatolian women as Ingres’s odalisques were from the actual inhabitants of the harem. The protagonists of Mustang were developed not with an eye to capture the demographic they were from, but to appear relatable to a Westernized, movie-going, largely upper-middle-class audience. Thus, the audience was invited empathize not with ordinary Anatolian women but with five girls who seemed to have arrived from Istanbul by way of Paris and found themselves unexpectedly surrounded by patriarchal oppressors.
When I read interviews with the director, I was surprised by her insistence that the Mustang sisters were not sexualized. Given that the focus of the movie was the girls’ sexuality, that their bodies and beauty were at the forefront of the movie’s aesthetic, and that they frequently wore more revealing costumes than was appropriate for their situations, her standpoint seemed willfully blind. A number of American critics seemed to agree with Ergüven, comparing Mustang to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, another tale of five uniformly gorgeous sisters, and concluding that unlike The Virgin Suicides, the gaze on the Mustang sisters was not male. It is true that the Mustang girls were more active, defiant, and free-spirited than Sofia Coppola’s languid virgins, yet I didn’t think that the gaze on them was less patriarchal. The lens in Mustang was firmly fixed on the girls’ sexuality. The focus didn’t budge even when the girls were in the privacy of their bedroom where no male gaze was supposed to be present.
The cultural voyeurism in Mustang also contributed to the objectification of the sisters. Within the 97 minutes that made up the film, the main characters were subjected to the most abhorrent incidents a woman can experience in a conservative community. They were beaten, imprisoned at home, taken to the doctor for virginity checks, forced into marriages one by one (their uncle and grandmother continued to move the down the line, undeterred even after one of the girls committed suicide), and one of the sisters was rushed to the emergency room on her wedding night for not being able to produce the “bloody sheet” as evidence of her virginity. The speed with which the plot inventoried all these incidents contributed to the voyeurism of the film. The girls were doubly objectified—once by the Eastern patriarchy that won’t leave their vaginas alone, and next by the Western patriarchy, which likes to be appraised on what backward cultures do to their victims’ vaginas and nod knowingly.
When I watched Mustang, I was reminded of a completely different movie about five sisters standing against patriarchy, a campy 1977 Turkish comedy called Gülen Gözler (Smiling Eyes), by legendary director Ertem Eğilmez. The plot of Gülen Gözler focuses on the struggle of the oldest three sisters to marry the men of their own choosing, against the wishes of their loveable yet extremely conservative father. The setting is a modest Istanbul neighborhood. Although the film makes little pretense of realism, the sisters—all of whom have male names because their father kept hoping for boys—are realistically distinct from each other in their attractiveness, their personalities, and their relationship to their parents.
Despite its heavy-handed drama and hilarity, the conflict between the sisters in Gülen Gözler and patriarchy is in touch with reality. Unlike the Mustang sisters, at no moment are the Gülen Gözler sisters shocked or outraged by the restrictions their father placed on them—since they had been brought up in a conservative household, the impositions of patriarchy are perennial problems to be reckoned with. The girls fight, not through unadulterated rebellion but through deception and manipulation. Their reactions to patriarchal pressures involve more tears and less arrogant defiance. They love and, to some extent, understand their father. Their mother is not a guard dog of patriarchy but a mediator between the girls and their father. Her ultimate goal is to get her daughters what they want.
Gülen Gözler is by no means a statement against the patriarchy, but rather critical of the authoritarian pressures the father puts on his daughters; it tolerates the girls’ manipulative strategies of dealing with him until they go too far. The resolution comes through reconciliation and the girls find happiness in matrimony. What I appreciate about the film is both Ertem Eğilmez’s empathy toward his characters and his ability to present them as individuals to be understood and judged within their cultural circumstances.
In contrast to the Gülen Gözler sisters, the Mustang girls are isolated from the women in their community. While they are brimming with innocent sexuality, spirits unscathed by the local culture, all the other female characters are desexualized servants of the patriarchy who, despite showing some affection to the sisters, remain true to their cultural values. The girls themselves are unanimously cool and indifferent to their grandmother and cultivate positive emotions only toward two characters outside of their community. There are no nuances between the girls’ relationships with their family and friends; not one of them seems close to the grandmother who had raised them after their parents’ death. They are, to the end, misplaced American mustangs.
The complete alienation of the girls from their community and their single-minded rebellion dismisses cultural nuances such as the cognitive dissonance, self-blame, shame, and sadness that often bleeds into anger when an individual is hurt by her own people. Ergüven undermines the significance of familial bonds that exist between the oppressor and oppressed. Mustang is not a feminist film that speaks for underprivileged Anatolian women—it is a caricature of how five privileged women might react if they were to find themselves in a conservative community and be subjected to its horrors in a short time span.
The problem of telling a story from an outsider position is ever-present in all narrative forms. One approach for the artist is to take an objective, documentary stance and base the narrative on research. A less journalistic alternative is through acknowledging the distance between the narrator and the subject. An example of this is Yaban, a novel that is alternately considered a masterpiece of Turkish literature and criticized for being elitist and Orientalist. Written by Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu in 1932, Yaban tells the story of Ahmet Celal, an educated army official who loses an arm during World War I and retires to a secluded Anatolian village. Until his move to the depths of Anatolia, Ahmet Celal has idealized Turkish peasants. When he starts living among them, he is appalled by the cultural and social gap that separates him from the very people for whom he has lost an arm. “The rift between a child of Istanbul and an Anatolian peasant is greater than the one between a Londoner and a Punjabi,” Ahmet Celal writes. In the village, he is utterly alone, unable to overcome the peasants’ suspicious attitude toward him and his contempt toward them.
I’ve never agreed with critics who call Yaban Orientalist. In Orientalist works, the artist never questions her authority to represent the Other. The cultural distance between the narrator and the Other goes unexamined. Yaban, however, is hyper-aware of the gulf between the narrator and the subject. It does not claim to accurately represent the peasants, nor does it pretend to tell their story. Yaban is the story of the outsider stuck in the midst of others.
In contrast, Mustang is told from the perspective of the youngest sister whose voice narrates the story at the beginning. Thus, it is meant to be the story of five oppressed girls rather than a tale of oppression told by an outside perspective. I think that putting the tale in the mouth of an insider places some responsibility on the artist to get to know her subjects. But, perhaps because she is oblivious to her outsider status, Ergüven trusts her own authority. She insists that the stories in the movie are real. About the bloody sheets incident, she says, “For instance, the scene in which Selma is taken to the hospital on her nuptial night, is real. Someone who works in a public hospital in Ankara told it to me.”
Can an outsider understand the experience of a conservative woman being taken in for a virginity check on her wedding night simply by being told by a third party that it happened? Can a scene concocted based on third-party information and artistic imagination capture “reality?” Does the knowledge that something awful has happened to someone else automatically equip us with immediate understanding and the authority to tell the victim’s story?
It is perhaps no coincidence that it was a Frenchman, Montaigne, who claimed that, “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition.” On the surface, the statement reads as a wise and concise commentary on the universality of the human condition. Underneath, it is arrogant and self-assured. It rests on the assumption that the intellectual elite automatically empathizes with the Anatolian peasant, that the slave owner understands the slave, and that the Western liberator can represent the Eastern victim, all simply by virtue of having a human form. The popularity of the Montaigne quote is the symptom of a pervasive Western conviction that ultimately blinds the individual to the limits of her own understanding and gives her the false authority to re-sketch other people’s reality.