Winner Linda Nichols Joseph Award- 2021
Winner Thomas Matthew Magness Graduate Memorial Fund -2022
Outside The Lowered Gaze
Poststructuralist Feminism in Mustang
by Jennifer Sams
In feminist theory, the male gaze positions the female identity between two binaries: sexual objectification or indifference. Patriarchal discourse and ideologies fuel a construct of womanhood whose subjectivity mirrors the power structures that contain it. In contrast to the hyper-sexualization of the Western gaze, the conservative and lowered gaze of Islamic piety still seeks to control the limits and meaning of a woman's body through a critique of her commitment to her family, beliefs, and community. Across cultures, the markers of feminine identity bounce between extremes: stories of the virgin Guadalupe and La Llorona, the angel on the hearth and the woman in the attic, or "the Medusa and the abyss" (Cixous 885); the submissive/silent ideal or the dangerous woman driven to madness from her inability to fit neatly inside the cage of her construct. This concept of gendered imprisonment goes to a Turkish village in Deniz Gamze Ergüven's film Mustang, a fragmentary story of five orphaned sisters who live beneath the weight of Islamic conservatism. As the girls attempt to navigate what it means to be female in their sociocultural context, the male gaze and the community that patriarchal influence shapes continually label their bodies impure. Feminist theorists like Helene Cixous suggest that the only way to break through the construct of the narrow limitation of the female identity is through subversion and giving voice to the stories and experiences of women; the development of Écriture feminine. Poststructuralist feminism realizes that universalizing binaries derives from oppression and domination by understanding that language, knowledge, and identity do not reflect reality; they define it. In Ergüven's Mustang, the film centers on the perspective of the youngest sister, Lale, who re-signifies markers of oppression through continuous attempts of self-actualization and self-agency. The narrative scatters a bildungsroman through the lens of the most marginalized character; Ergüven’s filmic eye echoes Cixous' solution of giving voice to the voiceless with a poststructuralist feminist protagonist who defines herself through cultural symbols traditionally intended to mark her as unchaste, immoral, and powerless.
Poststructuralism acknowledges that truth fluctuates and varies between specific discourses while meaning has historical and social contexts. This mode of deconstruction is a way of looking at "reality" as it relates to systems of knowledge. Poststructuralist feminism, then, links to the fabricated dichotomy between men and women and its correspondence to the artificiality of patriarchal power. In "Constituting the Feminist Subject in Poststructuralist Discourse," Bronwyn Davies asserts that "poststructuralist feminism [envisages] a radical deconstruction of the male/female binary and of essentializing practices that [lock] individuals into particular subject positions or categorizations" (Davies 88); A psychological jailbreak from the bars of contextual oppression. Ergüven's protagonist quests for this liberation from binaries, seeking agency in a male-dominated world while rejecting symbols of the submissive Islamic feminine ideal. Both a tomboy and a young girl whose anatomy fascinates her, Lale's persistent rebellion against her uncle Erol and the tenets of Islamic modesty portray what Davies calls "a subject that understands itself, in liberal humanist terms, as free and in control of itself and responsible for its own fate" (Davies 88).
To understand the discourse that defines Lale's reality, a viewer must have some knowledge of patriarchal control in the film's setting, Turkey. Two significant factors that influence the structure of gender in the village Ergüven depicts are Mediterranean machismo and the Islamic private sphere of domesticity. In Meltem Müftüler-Bac's article, "Turkish Women's Predicament," she explains.
The Mediterranean family structure is based on male superiority and female inferiority, which is reproduced by women themselves as mothers and mothers-in-law...These results suggest the importance of women as transmitters and protectors of dominant social values and norms. The culturally defined modes of control in the Mediterranean region are deeply vested in traditions and social norms constraining female behavior. Male superiority is maintained through honor and shame codes and women's oppression is justified by society's rules of appropriate behavior. (Müftüler-Bac 305)
Erol exerts his superiority and authority while the grandmother, the transmitter of social values, attempts to regulate female behavior and reinforce the homogenous Turkish woman who is virtuous and valuable. These features of conservative homelife escalate and reach a tipping point when the family interprets the girls' innocent encounter with young boys as an act of perversion. In poststructuralist fashion, Lale's definition of "inappropriate" does not meet her uncle's, and her self-actualization as an entity beyond a gender role begins. She starts to feel the walls of her home closing in on her as tradition and domestic imprisonment become a punishment for the stress her female identity puts upon society's sexist notion of a fragile social order.
With this awareness comes attempts at signaling a new identity, aligning with the goal of poststructuralist feminism, to make visible the current form that breaks from the influence of domination (Davies 90). Lale runs to the source of misinformation, Mrs. Petek, upon the realization that society is distorting her image, "Do your shit-colored clothes make you everyone's moral judge?" (Mustang 8:29). This crude, juvenile insult speaks directly to the role of complacent conservative Islamic women in the molding of a new generation of girls. Lale is asking if submission to traditional practices gives anyone natural moral high ground and begins to question the norms put into place by a discourse that obsesses over modesty. This question illuminates Lale's knowledge of a broken system, one in which she now understands that the surveilling eye of neighboring women is a response to patriarchal codes. Erol reinforces this notion when he tells his mother "if [the girls are] sullied, it's your fault" (Mustang 10:27), unveiling the true nature of cyclical trauma and gendered blame.
After Erol bans anything "likely to pervert" the young girls, Lale interacts with her world differently and boldly. Elder women strip ties to modernity (cellphones, computers, westernized clothing) to force the girls into a state of cultural indoctrination, "the house became a wife factory that we never came out of" (Mustang 15:26). In this process, the grandmother trains the girls within the private, domestic sphere to secure purity as it relates to patriarchal and social order. A significant scene that signals the rift in generations and traditions is the destruction of conservative clothing that represents chastity; Sonay rips the modest dress her grandmother gives her. Each sister delights in making the dress "sexy" and participates in pulling at the fabric of the identity their context imposes upon them(Mustang 20:03). In addition, Lale experiments with other symbols of agency Islamic tradition typically denies women, most notably the alteration of her hair, the use of red heels, attendance at sporting events, and the ability to drive.
Lale's rebellion intensifies as she watches her sisters suffer in response to the weight of cultural tradition. In the throng of physical and sexual abuse, virginity tests, and ultimatums, the youngest sibling loses her support network to arranged marriages and the darker consequences of oppression. In Poststructuralist feminist Helene Cixous' seminal essay "The Laugh of the Medusa," the need "to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the "truth" with laughter" (Cixous 888) becomes a working response to the stagnation of gender roles and powerplay. However, this concept negatively manifests in the tragedy of Ece. The television narrates, "women must be chaste and pure, know their limits, and mustn't laugh openly in public or be provocative with every move" (Mustang 1:03:36) while Ece makes off-color jokes, encouraging her sisters to laugh at the dinner table. She goes directly against the chaste advice of the conservative ideology playing subtly on voiceover, irritating Erol and signifying her fall from society; as a girl who has premarital sex, she is essentially dead in her religious sphere. Her dismissal from the table foreshadows an inability to reintegrate into a virtuous community; her suicide becomes the only option left as her internal identity conflicts with her role as a Muslim woman. Lale, more sensitive than ever to the invisible walls and visible bars that box her into "femininity," desperately tries to break free of the label, system, and order that maintains her. On the brink of losing her last remaining sister, Nur, to marriage, Lale revolts by locking the wedding party outside while taking autonomous agency. "We're playing hard to get" (Mustang 1:17:40), she reasons, using a famous western phrase while destabilizing the gender coding her family has put upon her.
Cixous' essay champions "liberating the new woman from the old" and breaking away from depictions that rely on masculine literary conventions. She suggests that through a process of Écriture feminine, or the reflection of women's experiences in women's writing. “By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display...[becoming] the taker and initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system, in every political process” (Cixous 880). This implies that Ergüven's creation of a complex bildungsroman set from an honest female perspective begins a process of reclamation and resignification. This concept also mirrors Lale's declaration of bodily ownership towards the film's conclusion. Cixous argues for abolishing gender binaries; beyond liberal and radical feminism, she wants a state of wholeness for the female identity that is not dependent upon a superior male counterpart (or a counterpart at all, for that matter). The theorist has a warning for these dependencies, "Beware, my friend, of the signifier that would take you back to the authority of a signified! Break out of the circles; don't remain within the psychoanalytic closure. Take a look around, then cut through!" (Cixous 892), and as if in a video response, Ergüven presents Mustang and the embers of poststructuralist feminist theory with a protagonist ready to play with symbols and signifiers, ready to tell the community how she will design her purpose and freedom.
Ergüven's film certainly acts as a modern presentation of Cixous' Écriture feminine, but it is how emotional honesty trumps social "truths" that is truly impressive. Beyond being a female who accurately depicts female struggles in a small, oppressive Turkish community, Ergüven creates a space of fluctuating possibility for a young girl who arrives at self-awareness through hardship and shame. Mustang reveals illusory power structures alongside its quick and tight turning exposition to provide an experience that mimics the epiphanies found in Lale's deconstruction of her surroundings. In her own right, the protagonist becomes a budding poststructuralist feminist who blends masculine and feminine characteristics while breaking free from the domination of patriarchal knowledge. Ergüven uses her film to create a feminine discourse through Lale that employs a feminine gaze of observation and reflection to challenge the female body's typical objectification, criticism, and policing.
---by Jennifer Sams, May 18, 2022
Cixous, Hélène, et al. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs, vol. 1, no. 4, 1976, pp. 875–93, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173239. Accessed 1 May 2022.
Davies, Bronwyn, et al. “Constituting the Feminist Subject in Poststructuralist Discourse.” Feminism & Psychology, vol. 16, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2006, pp. 87–103, https://doi.org/10.1177/0959-353506060825.
Ergüven, Deniz Gamze, director. Mustang. Cohen Media Group, 2015.
Müftüler-Bac, Meltem. “Turkish Women’s Predicament.” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 22, no. 3, Elsevier Ltd, 1999, pp. 303–15, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0277-5395(99)00029-1.