IV New directions

“I Can Take Your Eyes”: re-envisioning religion and gender in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Re-envisioning religion and gender in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Megan Goodwin

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Dokhtari dar shab tanhd be khdne miravad, 2014) is your basic Iranian Vampire Western (Vice 2014). Boy steals cat from neighbor’s yard for reasons undisclosed. Pimp steals Boy’s car to settle Boy’s father’s heroin debts. Vampire Girl kills pimp for genderbased vengeance, also dinner. Boy steals pimp’s drugs with intent to distribute. Girl wheels Boy, high on his own supply, home on her skateboard. Boy gives up on his junkie father, hurls a brick of heroin at his head, and kicks him and the cat out. Boy’s father forces sex worker to shoot up while cat looks on. Vampire Girl kills Boy’s father for gender-based vengeance, also dinner; takes cat home with her. Boy finds father’s body dumped on street, decides to get out of Bad City, begs Girl to leave with him. Cat wanders out of Girl’s bedroom. Boy realizes Girl was involved in his father’s death, takes her (and the cat) with him anyway. David Lynch highway shot.’ Fin.

It’s hard to know what to make of this film. Girl Walks Home Alone is a gorgeous music video with pacing problems.2 It’s a love story with no kissing, but which includes romantic impromptu DIY ear-piercing. The film’s ageless protagonist is obsessed with bleeding edge pop music that sounds nostalgic for the 1980s.3 The writer/director and lead actor are both women, and the eponymous Girl feeds only on men, but it is not a feminist film. The Girl wears a chador, but there is no mention of Islam or any specific religious tradition in the film. It’s an American film whose actors speak only in Farsi. It’s an Iranian story with Iranian characters filmed outside Bakersfield, California.

Amirpour has insisted that the film’s setting is “not Iran, it’s like a fairytale world, it’s universal. It’s like any town where there’s corruption and there’s secrets and there’s loneliness and people that got dealt a shit hand.” The Girl lives in Bad City, something like an imaginary Tehrangeles suburb planned by Frank Miller. The town’s name is almost certainly an allusion to Miller’s monochromatic Sin City; Amirpour is an avowed fan of serial art and is two volumes into a planned six-volume series of graphic novels that explore the Girl’s backstory.

The place of religion in Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is elusive, at once everywhere and nowhere. The movie features no (professed) Muslims, notable for a film set in a fictionalized Iran. No character mentions Muslim identities, practices, or beliefs. There are no mosques in Bad City; public spaces are bleak and unmarked by Persian calligraphy. Given the marked Iranian influences throughout the film, Islam is conspicuous in its near-absence.

There are two brief allusions to Iran’s Islamic commitments, and the first is admittedly a bit of a stretch. At the end of the film, we glimpse the license plate for Arash’s beloved 1957 Thunderbird. The plate, formatted like an Iranian license plate, reads “BAD CITY 67b433.” 67b433 is the hex color code for green, a color strongly associated with Islam.4 If Amirpour were slightly less geeky, we could probably write this off as coincidence. As it stands, I’m inclined to read the plate as a nod to Bad City’s Islamicate ambiance.

The only explicit reference to religion occurs during an exchange between Atti, the sex worker, and the Girl, in which Atti asks if the Girl has been watching her. When the Girl admits she has, Atti asks if the Girl is “religious or something.” She demurs. Her chador seems to be more a nod to vampire aesthetics than to piety - its appeal is as a disguise not as devotional practice (Waste 2015).5

Nevertheless, the Girl’s chador has rendered her conspicuous. Bad City itself watches the Girl, even as she watches its inhabitants, stalking, attacking, or protecting them by turns. In a stunning commentary on the hypervisibility of covering women’s bodies, even the walls are watching the Girl. Early in the film, we see her leaving a grocery store, flanked by a poster that reads “Is this you? If so, call this number now.”6 The Girl is the only character dressed in chador; we may assume that the poster refers to her and is asking for leads as to her whereabouts - though there is no explanation provided for this request.

The Girl leaves the grocery store and returns to her own room. On the walls, a poster of Margaret Atwood, designed to look like the cover of Madonna’s first album, echoes this suggestion of surveillance. Atwood is of course best known for her Handmaid’s Tale, in which a totalitarian theocracy rigidly monitors and controls women’s bodies. We might read this as a critique of American gender politics, or Iranian, or both.

Though writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has been candid about her distaste for Iran, describing the country as “a mess. Medieval. Suffocating,” she does not afford Western viewers an opportunity to disdain Islam or its “treatment” of women (Leigh 2015).7 The Girl dons a chador, true, but the garment functions as a disguise and an allusion: when she skates down the street, she is transformed, without any special effects, into a winged creature of the night.

This image at once captures the defiance of both the film’s anti-heroine and its director, who lean into the Girl’s monstrosity. Girl Walks Home Alone at Night resists American cultural imperatives for Muslims to present themselves as good citizens and for women’s agency to present itself as resistance - as Western feminism.

This is not a feminist film. Its delight in threatening and murdering men might qualify it as a misandrist fantasy, but symbolic castrations do not a feminist film make. It is not a feminist film because it does not advocate for the political, financial, and social equality of people of all genders. And it is not a feminist film if we may judge the story by the evaluations of its writer/ director, Ana Lily Amirpour, and its lead actor, Sheila Vand.

Vand was blunt on this point. She told Salon that “we didn’t set out to make a feminist movie . . . the lead is a female who happens to be a badass. But is that all it takes to be feminist? I don’t know. It’s certainly not about being feminist, but it certainly follows some of the requirements,” (Silman 2014). [In an interview with The Guardian, Amirpour called Lars von Trier - director of such graphic films as Nymphomaniac and The Antichrist - “the biggest feminist,” which suggests Amirpour’s definition of feminism might be slightly left ofcenter (Leigh 2015).] When the New Republic asked if she intended the film to have “feminist themes,” Amirpour demurred, asking the interviewer if she interpreted the film as feminist. When the interviewer said she had, Amirpour countered, “that probably says more about you than it does about me. A film is like a mirror,” (Breger 2014).

Girl Walks Home Alone may not be a feminist film, but feminists’ reception of the film clearly mirrors certain desires (Shepherd 2014; Barcella 2014; Derr 2015). A Google search for “feminist Iranian vampire movie” results in over two hundred thousand hits, most for Girl Walks Home Alone. Our collective longing to see an Iranian feminist vampire story might be a form of neo-Orientalism, in which Western audiences are still reveling in fantasies of “the East” - except now we expect them to reflect ourselves, our commitments, our desires, back to us. Girl, like a good vampire, will not cast this reflection.

Western feminists’ desire to see Girl Walks Home Alone in their own image is perhaps understandable. Linda Willliams’ “When the Woman Looks” famously argues that women see ourselves in the monster (1984). Horror films also create space for women’s hero(in)ic agency and for audience identification with a female protagonist, as Carol Clover insists in her unforgettably titled Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (2015).8 Horror movies are a genre in which “badass” women, to use Vand’s phrase, make it out alive (thus Clover’s famous trope, the Final Girl). Twenty-first-century American audiences, it seems, are eager to elide women’s violent agency with feminism.

Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety both observes and insightfully disrupts the impulse to identify Muslim women’s agency as feminism (2005). She highlights the cultural imperialism at work in collapsing agency with resistance. Mahmood’s critique suggests that we need to find a new lens for this film. Amirpour’s work might not be feminist but that might not be a bad thing. Girl Walks Home Alone literally flips the script on how we see “women of cover.”9

The film deliberately disrupts the gaze: it reflects neither heterosexual male desire nor Western fantasies of “good Muslims.” With regard to heterosexual male desire: there are several brief scenes in which the camera’s point of view seems to encourage the sexual objectification of women, only to punish the actor and audience soon after. Arash, the Girl’s love interest, watches a wealthy debutante dance at a party. Arash’s father, Hossein, commands Atti the sex worker to dance for him. Neither of these scenes ends well for the men. Arash is rebuffed and humiliated; the Girl murders and feeds on Hossein, dumping his body in the street.

The most overt sexualization of a female character occurs when the camera lingers closely on the Girl as Saeed, the pimp, caresses her face. (His neck reads SEX in all capital letters, lest you misinterpret his intent.) He suggestively traces her bottom lip with his index finger, opens her mouth with his thumb ... and startles as her vampiric incisors descend. Despite the Girl’s fangs, Saeed allows her to sensuously slip his index finger in and out of her mouth, simulating fellatio. This exchange ends in literal dismemberment and symbolic castration: the Girl, mouth bloody, traces a screaming Saeed’s mouth with the finger she bit from his hand. The camera viscerally disciplines the audience for having objectified the Girl. Indeed, all acts of penetration in this film - even the consensual one, in which Arash pierces the Girl’s ear at her request - end in bloodshed. In light of these examples, it’s fair to say Amirpour’s film disciplines and redirects the audience away from what film theorist Laura Mulvey famously termed the male gaze.10

Amirpour does not merely discipline heterosexual male desire; she confounds it. A gender-ambiguous character haunts the peripheries of Bad City and the narrative. They are never formally introduced or referred to by name, but the credits identify them as Rockabilly. There is no indication of Rockabilly’s sexual orientation in the film, though their appearance does resemble Iranian men preparing for sexual reassignment surgery. (While Iran does not recognize homosexuality as a condition of possibility, the state subsidizes sexual reassignment surgery.11) Girl Walks Home Alone includes an extended non sequitur sequence in which Rockabilly dances with a balloon in an abandoned public square. As journalist Sophie Mayer notes, this scene is so out of place, so deliberately Lynchian, as to suggest the gender difference Rockabilly embodies should unsettle the viewer (2015).

This is a curious and perhaps unintentionally unkind presentation of gay and/or trans identity by Amirpour, who identifies this character as the film’s only overt political actor. “If there’s one political thing [in the movie], it’s not the chador,” Amirpour told Wired. “It’s Rockabilly, because it’s not OK to be gay in Iran” (Watercutter 2014). But Rockabilly reads as disjointed, bizarre, and out of time, not political. While the camerawork confounds compulsory heterosexual desire, Amirpour’s vampire performs an unwavering heterosexuality and presents as cisgender - a departure from the western vampire’s queer literary genealogy.12 Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does little to critique gender as an oppressive social construct - again, this is

“I Can Take Your Eyes’’ 143 not a feminist film - but does resist Orientalist impulses toward fetishizing women who cover.

Girl likewise resists Western fantasies of “good Muslims.” Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror notes the emergence of “good” and “bad” Muslim tropes in American political discourse following September 11th, 2001 (Mamdani 2005, 15, 23). In George W. Bush’s war on terror, Mamdani argues, all Muslims were presumed bad until proven otherwise. Muslims proved themselves good by disavowing and supporting the United States in their assault on “bad Muslims” (i.e., fundamentalist terrorists) and by espousing western values. Interestingly, Sheila Vand played just such a “good Muslim” in the 2012 Academy Award winning film Argo; as Sahar, housekeeper for the Canadian ambassador, she lies to Iranian military personnel to protect fugitive American embassy workers during the 1979 revolution. Not so in Amirpour’s film. There are no good Muslims in Bad City, and its nights are filled with monsters.

Girl Walks Home Alone at Night rejects the “good Muslim” trope by affording its main character her monstrosity. Muslims have long been monstrous to western minds, as Sophia Arjana reminds us. Arjana engages Stoker’s Dracula and other Orientalist blood-suckers at length in her Muslims in the Western Imagination (2015, 84-132). Arjana traces the “monstrifica-tion” of Muslims in popular Western culture to an Orientalist exoticization of Muslims as timeless, hypersexualized, and essentially foreign.13 In other words: Muslims make great vampires. Amirpour plays on the blood-sucking Muslim trope when Arash - the Persian James Dean who becomes the Girl’s love interest - dresses as Dracula for a costume party at which he is dealing (Tyler 2015).

Amirpour makes the Muslim-monster trope work for her. This Girl who walks home alone at night is not vulnerable or weak. She is not in need of saving. Indeed, Amirpour affords her Girl the luxury of rage. We see her dismember Saeed, the pimp, after he mistreats and robs Atti, the sex worker. She murders and eats Hossein, her love interest’s father, for likewise mistreating Atti. But though all her victims are male, they are not all bad men. One is a nameless man living rough on the mean streets of Bad City. The other is a small boy, a street urchin of perhaps nine.

In what is arguably the film’s most haunting scene, the Girl stalks the urchin down a deserted street.14 She demands to know if he is a good boy. When he claims he is, she insists he not lie to her. “I can take your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat. Till the end of your life, I’ll be watching you. Understand?” she hisses. “Be a good boy,” she warns him. And then she steals his skateboard.

The moral ambiguity of this moment is striking; we are haunted by the threat of constant vampiric surveillance. Indeed, the Girl is watching everyone at every moment in this film. But she is not alone in this. The characters are all watching each other across physical and emotional distances - they dance for each other, spy on one another, long for contact but seldom touch. (The chief exceptions being physical violence or the dragging of dead bodies to the unremarked-upon corpse pit at the edge of town.)

Islamicist Michael Pregill has suggested that Bad City’s corpse pit is “an allusion to totalitarian states like Iran where people get disappeared. . . . How can we not think of the hundreds if not thousands of people who were jailed and disappeared during the 2011 demonstrations?” (2016). The corpse pit, then, is perhaps a third place in which the Islamic Republic of Iran, if not Islam itself, irrupts through Bad City, suggesting surveillance and the violent, often fatal consequences of resistance.

But the Girl resists and evades both surveillance and consequence, acting according to her own inaccessible motivations. When she cautions Arash that she’s bad - “I’ve done bad things. You don’t know the things I’ve done” - we believe her. But she also rescues Atti from Arash’s violent father and gives her the resources to leave town. She seems to genuinely care for Arash, uprooting her life at a moment’s notice when he begs her to leave with him. The Girl faces no consequences for her actions, even upon Arash’s realization that the Girl has killed his father.

In these moments - her righteous vengeance, her petty thefts, her compassion, her loneliness and longing, her lack of conscience and accountability -the Girl is neither good nor bad. She is neither an overt political statement nor a heroine. She is, however, most assuredly an agent in her own right, unconstrained by government, religion, conventional morality, or cultural mores.

Amirpour’s Girl will not be your mirror: at every turn, she resists both facile stereotypes of Muslim women and attempts to map Western feminism onto non-Western agents. American media and political discourse frequently deny Muslims the luxury of individualism; as Dohra Amad asserts, Muslims are perceived as “singular and representative,” (Ahmad 2009, 127). Any one Muslim in the public eye too often stands in for all Muslims everywhere. Amirpour’s Girl, by contrast, is merely herself. She walks home alone at night, and in doing so, presents trenchant commentary on both the hypervisibility and the perceived vulnerability of women of cover.

Ultimately, then, the Girl’s threat to the young boy is the film’s promise to its audience: I can take your eyes, redirect your gaze, force you to look differently at Muslim women (or women in Muslim-majority countries, or perhaps just women, full stop).

Notes

  • 1 As Amirpour says, “David Lynch is magic,” (Waste 2015).
  • 2 A number of reviewers have commented on the length and slow pacing of the film. I remain undecided as to whether the pace of the film is an ingénue director’s indulging a confessed over-fondness of David Lynch, Sergio Leone, and Jim Jarmusch, or a deliberate and disciplined homage to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979). Herzog’s film overlays German band Popol Vuh’s droning, repetitive score onto sustained shots of clouds moving over the sun to emphasize the relentless, banal despair and detachment of immortality. The inclusion of slow-paced extended shots of the setting sun, set as they are to grating music uncharacteristic of Girl, incline me toward the latter reading.
  • 3 “Death,” a song by the band White Lies, is a particularly trenchant example of the genre. As Amirpour says, “It has this vintage nostalgia, it’s a new song but it has this feeling of synth-pop from the 80s. It just felt like the feeling of falling in love but in an adolescent way, it has a high school love feeling, it’s this innocent John Hughes kind of feeling,” (Selavy 2015).
  • 4 I am indebted to Dr. Kathleen Foody of the College of Charleston for this observation and translation.
  • 5 The chador’s function for the eponymous Girl - disguise, not devotion - mirrors Amirpour’s own experience covering in Tehran in 2003. She wore the chador, but was still marked as an outsider, chided by older Iranian women in public. But covering made Amirpour feel “badass,” and “like a bat.” Thus was her Iranian vampire born. (Leigh 2015).
  • 6 My thanks for Dr. Foody for this translation as well. On the hypervisibility of Muslim women, see Hoodfar 1992.
  • 7 On the problematics of the perceived helplessness of or Western concern for Muslim women, see Abu-Lughod 2013.
  • 8 On the impact of Clover’s Final Girl analysis, see also Totaro 2002.
  • 9 On October 11, 2001, George W. Bush gave a press conference in which he referred to American Muslim women as “women of cover.” Bush applauded American Christian and Jewish women for showing Muslims “true friendship and support” by going shopping with them.
  • 10 In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey famously theorizes that the camera, as “male gaze,” “projects its phantasy onto the female figure,” (2009,19).
  • 11 On state-subsidized sexual reassignment surgery in Iran, see Najmabadi 2008.
  • 12 As Halberstam (1993) notes, the western vampire trope trades on gender ambiguity and sexual voracity'. This hunger and fluidity is observable in Le Fanu’s predatory lesbian Carmilla, Rice’s sexual omnivorous Lestat, and most recently in Lindqvist’s gender ambivalent Eli in Ldt Den Ratte Komma In (Let the Right One In).
  • 13 Halberstam has also suggested that the vampire can be read as both Jewish and queer (1993).
  • 14 Vand’s movements are distinctly and deliberately serpentine and feline: she and Amirpour watched videos of cobras and cats striking as part of the Girl’s characterizations (Moreno 2014).

References

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2013. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ahmad, Dohra. 2009. “Not Yet Beyond the Veil: Muslim Women in American Popular Culture.” Social Text 27: 105-131.

Arjana, Sophia. 2015. Muslims in the Western Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barcella, Laura. 2014. “The Feminist Vampire Movie That Teaches ‘Bad Men’ a Gory Lesson.” Jezebel, November 25, 2014. http://jezebel.com/the-feminist-vampire-movie-that-teaches-bad-men-a-gory-1662788544.

Breger, Esther. 2014. “We Like Vampires Because We Hate Death.” New Republic, November 24, 2014. https://newrepublic.com/article/120376/interview-ana-lily-amirpour-director-iranian-vampire-movie.

Bush, George W. 2001. “Bush on State of War.” Washington Post, October 11,2001. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bush_ textlOl 101.html.

Clover, Carol. 2015. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Derr, Holly L. 2015. “A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part 7: New Beginnings.” Ms. Blog, October 27, 2015. http://msmagazine.com/blog/2015/10/27/ a-feminist-guide-to-horror-movies-part-7-new-beginnings/.

Halberstam, Judith. 1993. “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’.” Victorian Studies 36: 333-352.

Hoodfar, Homa. 1992-1993. “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women.” Resources for Feminist Research no. 22: 5-18.

Leigh, Danny. 2015. “The Skateboarding Iranian Vampire Diaries.” The Guardian, May 7, 2015. www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/07/skateboarding-iranian-vampire-ana-lily-amirpour-feminism-porn-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 2005. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Harmony Books.

Mayer, Sophie. 2015. “Film of the Week: ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’. ” Sight (St-Sound, May 22, 2015. www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/ reviews-recommendations/film-week-girl-walks-home-alone-night.

Moreno, Abeni. 2014. “Vampires, Skateboards and Autonomy: ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’.” Ms. Blog, November 27, 2014. http://msmagazine.com/ blog/2014/11/27/vampires-skateboards-and-autonomy-a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night/.

Mulvey, Laura. 2009. Visual and Other Pleasures. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh. 2008. “Transing and Transpassing Across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36: 23-42.

Pregill, Michael. 2016. Personal correspondence.

Selavy, Virginie. 2015. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Interview with Ana Lily Amirpour.” Electric Sheep, May 19, 2015. www.electricsheepmagazine. co.uk/features/2015/05/19/a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night-interview-with-ana-lily-amirpour/.

Shepherd, Julianne Escobedo. 2014. “Watch the Trailer for the First-Ever Iranian Feminist Vampire Western.” Jezebel, October 27, 2014. http://jezebel.com/ watch-the-trailer-for-the-first-ever-iranian-feminist-v-1651418042.

Silman, Anna. 2014. “Sheila Vand: ‘This Is Not a Movie About Being Feminist.” Salon, December 12, 2014. www.salon.com/2014/12/12/sheila_vand_this_is_not_ a_movie_about_being_feminist/.

Totaro, Donato. 2002. “The Final Girl: A Few Thoughts on Feminism and Horror.” Offscreen 6, no. 1 (January), http://offscreen.com/view/feminism_and_horror.

Tyler, Kieron. 2015. “Style Over Substance in the Supposed ‘First Iranian Vampire Western’.” The Arts Desk, May 21, 2015. www.theartsdesk.com/film/ girl-walks-home-alone-night.

Vice Media. 2014. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” http://films.vice.com/ a-girl-walks-home. Accessed 4 January 2018.

Waste Magazine. 2015. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: An Interview with Ana Lily Amirpour.” https://web.archive.org/web/20160817022246; http://waste-magazine.com/post/98311332325/a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night-an-interview. Accessed 4 January 2018.

Watercutter, Angela. 2014. “Meet the Woman Who Directed the World’s Only Iranian Vampire Western.” Wired, February 5, 2014. www.wired.com/2014/02/ girl-walks-home-alone-at-night/.

Williams, Linda. 1984. “When the Woman Looks.” In Re-vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Mary Anne Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams, 561-577. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

11 Negotiating borders, gender, and identity

 
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