“Are you afraid?” said the North Wind.
“No!” she wasn’t.
–“East of the Sun and West of the Moon”
It might be tempting to read Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s beautifully confident feature film debut, Mustang (France’s official entry to the Academy Awards), exclusively as a portrait of the situation women face in Turkey today. The situation, while it should continue to concern those interested in in women’s rights , however, is too complex to be contained by a film that traces the story of one family of daughters in one part of Turkey, and I do not believe Erguven’s film should be, or is even intended to be, reduced to an examination of the particular issues faced just by women in the filmmaker’s own country, however much the story is, in fact, inspired by her experiences there and by her concern for Turkish women. She has noted for example, that the inciting incident at the film’s beginning is one very similar to an episode in her own childhood, and she has also said that she “put many . . . stories that I heard in Turkey into the film.”
So while the film is, certainly, culturally specific in significant ways, it reads more as a fairy tale or a folk tale than as a slice of life story. As such, its themes resonate as much for me, an American woman, as they might for anyone. Folk tales invite us to consider direct applications for the readers, and here, viewers might do the same, apply and identify. The five sisters at the center of the story and living at the edge of the Black Sea are very much like the sisters you might find in the Norwegian tales of East of the Sun and West of the Moon collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, a book, gorgeously illustrated by Kay Nielsen, that I grew up with and pored over, and, embracing any hints of fantastical Other, identified with.
Though I am the eldest and only daughter in a family of four, somehow, the tales spoke to or into my sense of self, idealized or real. I had no sisters, but the sisters of, say, the tale of “The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain” seemed to represent some version of the closeness I felt with other girls, particularly, my best friend, and she and I imagined perilous adventures for ourselves that mirrored those the sisters faced in the hall of the trolls. Our hair, too, was long in those days; we even competed about whose hair was the longest and practiced the best ways of brushing it so that it shone most, but in play, that hair was tangled and unheeded; at the height of an adventure, what did it matter, after all? By our wits and our stout hearts, not our beauty, we’d escape the evil orphanage and make our way through Dinosaur Island to safety, muddied and triumphant.
The sisters of the Blue Mountain, with the long hair and bravery we imitated, are akin, then, to the sisters in Mustang, though the sisters in the Norwegian tale find a happy ending in marriages, and, in direct contrast, it is marriage –and the cultural, restrictively gendered assumptions that surround it – by which the Turkish sisters find themselves specifically pinioned. Marriage, here, is no happy end; it is a complex threat to identity.
The film’s fable of the sisters begins in innocence; carefree, the girls plunge headlong, still dressed in school uniforms into the sea, and join in a romping game with the boys who’ve joined them. They leave the sea only to continue in play through the undergrowth, leaping high to pluck unripe apples and laughingly grimacing at the sourness of the bite.
But carefree innocence, suddenly forced through the lens of the adults who do not see playing girls but stealers of forbidden fruit and as potential wives, is transformed, perverted. In the space of an hour, the schoolgirls are cast by neighbors and by their aunt and uncle as sexualized beings, meant to perform one function and to fill one small domestic role set out for them. Wholly innocent before, they, ironically, now must concern themselves with Purity, a purity that must be maintained at all costs, for the benefit of a particular marriageable man, each one chosen by the family. The sisters become virtual and actual prisoners in their home, a space where higher and higher walls are built, where bars are set in place, and any task, not associated with cooking, cleaning, and serving, is suspect. It is the veritable Blue Mountain of the trolls’ kingdom.
The fortitude of the sisters, even in their new prison-like, nominally chaste garb, nevertheless, continues, running just beneath the surface, and erupting in the laughter of privately shared sister-jokes the aunt and uncle cannot understand. Prison breaks are a matter of course, and aiding and abetting one another, there are climbs out the windows and down the high walls.
And when such climbs are rendered impossible, their strength still is in what they are to one another. Aunt and uncle may see them merely as women who will be wives and who will fulfill a sexual function; they see each other through sisters’ eyes, and in a tangle of limbs and hair, one head resting on another’s belly, one foot dangling over another’s shoulder, the girls share an intimacy that has little, if anything, to do with their sexuality.
It is the intimacy of sisters, an intimacy that understands the one another as complete beings, with sexual desires to be sure, budding or latent, but with whole facets of self that have nothing to do with sex. And Ergüven deftly constructs the personality of each girl in such a way that we understand each as wholly unique even within the circle of their closeness.
The aunt, another beautifully developed character, though showing signs, at times, of solidarity with her nieces, cannot, bound as she is by the cultural framework in which she resides and trapped under all the weight of the years of such a structure, cannot really see the girls as individuals who want more than marriage. The uncle, even more, cannot comprehend them in any other way, and, ironically, as the supposed guard of purity, he cannot see them for who they are; he sees them only as sexual beings. As such, he may be, from the inside, exactly the threat he builds high walls to keep out.
The youngest sister of the fairy tales, inevitably, is always the prettiest, spunkiest, and wittiest, and it is she, here, too, who functions as primary protagonist whose narration and vision ultimately shape how we understand all the sisters. Pre-pubescent herself, she is poised, more than any of the sisters, to question the necessity of a life devoted to marriage and to sexual slavery. She, more than the others, resists the categorization of herself as wife. Even when she playfully tries on her older sister’s bra, it’s not a young man she’s thinking of, but her sisters, of being like her sisters, of wanting them to see her being like them. And she, like, the youngest sister in the tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” has the audacity to imagine that, even in the most despairing of circumstances, if she presses long enough, the North Wind, or maybe a young man friend in a pick-up, just might carry her where she decides to go. Because she dares to imagine a different sort of relationship to life than the only one pressed upon her, she sees more clearly what her sisters might not.
The best fairy tales often include or acknowledge some kind of horror, and we are always aware, even in those that end happily, of a brutal reality that hasn’t been fully resolved. This tale is no different; the prison in which the sisters reside might, potentially, be conquered, but the bars are high and the guards ruthless. Escape may mean some kind of sacrifice.
But what lingers in the aftermath of such a tale is the vision of women, of girls, whose tale is their own and whose eyes seek out one another’s for courage, for laughter, for a sense of self, even when some of them, by choice or by force, must leave their sisters’ warm mesh of legs and arms. Even the princesses of classic fairy tales ultimately succumb to the prescribed structure of their worlds; the youngest princess perhaps chooses for herself the prince she wants to marry, but she still marries. There is, in those tales, no other possible happily ever after. But the youngest princess here is not even necessarily a princess – she is herself and her tale is her own. Instead of the embrace of a prince, there is the literal embrace of another figure, someone that may represent, for this youngest girl, not only a new future for Turkey, but a new future for any girl who imagines that her life could be something she, herself, decides.
This year is the 40th anniversary of Laura Mulvey’s classic essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which Mulvey coined the term the “male gaze” (a term that has taken on a life of its own, for better or for worse), and in a recent December edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, collected essays from Susan Bordo, Sharon Marcus, Toby Miller, and Jack Halberstam examine the current place of Mulvey’s essay in a world that has essentially replaced post-structuralist theory with new frameworks. As Bordo points out, “many of the generalizations [in “Visual Pleasure”] no longer pack the punch that they did in 1975,” but Bordo, as well as the other writers, also affirms, “the piece remains among the most generative works of an era that forced us to see that gender matters.”
And gender does matter; it still matters in discussions in the TV and film world. This year, as Melissa Silverstein, Inkoo Kang and Laura Berger indicate in Indiewire in “The Most Epic Feminist Moments of 2015,” there are still “feminist moments” to be had, points to be made about the ways women are represented in front of the camera and behind it. And we are, perhaps, not so very far from the cultural moment represented in Mulvey’s essay as we would like to think. With Mulvey we might still say, “Unchallenged, mainstream film” most often “code[s] the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order,” and “In a world” still “ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking” is still most often “split between active/male and passive/female, “ however much we now can and should complicate that simple dichotomy.
So in this cultural moment, Ergüven’s film feels more germane than ever, offering us an assured vision of fully rounded female characters from the female perspective. It’s a kind of seeing, still so rare in Hollywood cinema – a woman looking through the camera and women in front of the camera looking at other women – that speaks to me and says something both about what I was as a girl, what I am now, and what I could be, a being fully active in my own story.
Some may become impatient with the way fairy tale here offers, at times, too neat a metaphor, but there is a simplicity at the heart of Ergüven’s film that is as conversely rich as any strong fairy tale. As the editor my edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon notes, “A folk-tale” has a kind of “primitive plainness of word and entire absence of complexity in thought” that nonetheless, and perhaps through that very plainness, conveys “never-failing springs of sentiment, of sensation, of heroic example,” a “quaint,” “tender,” even “grotesque” quality that is “yet [a] realistic intermingling of actuality” that “will make an appeal to all.” Mustang contains all of these elements, and like a true fairy tale, I will not be able to forget these sisters any more than I can forget the three princesses in the Blue Mountain, especially the youngest. And Ergüven’s youngest gives me a better vision, by far, than the pale, and perhaps dangerously thin, princess imagined by Kay Nielsen. She is the kind of princess-who-is-not-a-princess I would like my own daughters to see and be.
Mustang opens in Seattle on December 25 at Seven Gables Theatre.