Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s directorial debut, charts five sisters’ resistance, as they both grow into and reject a narrow notion of womanhood. But Ergüven privileges perspectives that a Western audience can understand and approve of, making the story too familiar and incomplete.
Adolescence is a time for asking, “Who am I?” But for Lale, a nine-year-old girl living in rural Turkey, this line of inquiry seems almost moot: she and her four older sisters are expected to abide by strict patriarchal traditions and marry into respectable families. Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s directorial debut, charts these girls’ resistance, as they both grow into and reject a narrow notion of womanhood. However, because Ergüven privileges perspectives that a Western audience can understand and approve of, the story remains familiar and incomplete.
The movie begins on the last day of school, when Lale (Günes Sensoy), Nur (Doga Doguslu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) stop by a beach to celebrate. They get into a game of chicken with boys their age and spend the afternoon splashing and swimming in the waves. Their guardians — an elderly grandmother and hot-tempered uncle — are horrified by this “transgression.” From that point on, a lockdown ensues. Fences go up around the house, and bars are installed on bedroom windows.
This imagery is overplayed. According to Professor Farzeneh Milani, the West’s appetite for stories about Middle Eastern women in captivity is “unquenchable.” She writes about an “unprecedented flourishing of writings,” such as Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), which portray Muslim women as prisoners in “an open-air detention facility.” This narrative homogenizes women’s experiences and legitimizes foreign intervention. Milani argues for new representations of “the Muslim Woman” that acknowledge her history of “protest and accommodation, of resistance and acquiescence.”
In some ways, Mustang rises to this challenge. It joins the likes of Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, and The Virgin Suicides in portraying growing up as a group activity, especially among sisters. This approach highlights the bonds between women and explores a cross-section of female experiences in a patriarchal society. The film pays particular attention to the way the girls work together to resist oppression. In one sequence, they escape the house to attend a soccer game. Scrambling up trees and wriggling through cracks in the wall around their house, the sisters help each other navigate the boundaries that contain them.
At times, this sisterhood spans generations. During the soccer game, a kindhearted aunt cuts off the village’s electricity, so the men won’t see the girls live on television. Even the grandmother’s intentions are understandable: she sees marriage as the only way to ensure her granddaughters’ long-term protection. To ready her granddaughters for wifehood, she and a contingent of older women teach them to clean, sew, and make dolmas. In these scenes, Mustang shows us the ways that gender roles are inherited — in assembly lines, passed down from person to person.
More often, though, Ergüven foregrounds simplistic perspectives. Lale, the movie’s narrator and audience surrogate, epitomizes Western values. Like Amy March in Little Women, she learns about herself by bearing witness to her sisters’ stories. Watching them survive corporal punishment, sexual assault, and virginity tests radicalizes Lale. She spits into the drinks of her sister’s in-laws and hurls a hot pot out the window when she first learns about sex. Increasingly spunky and rebellious, she winds up resembling the second-eldest March sister, Jo.
Lale tells us a story that confirms, rather than complicates, Western audiences’ expectations. She says things like “One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit” and “Now the house really did look like the prison.” In keeping with Western mores, Lale cherishes the emancipatory potential of education. The movie opens with a close-up of her hugging her female teacher; ultimately Lale seeks refuge at this teacher’s house, and the movie ends with another student-teacher embrace. This clearcut journey from imprisonment to freedom is predictable.
Meanwhile, the sisters whose stories are most tragic are also the least developed characters. Other than Lale, we spend the most time with Sonay, who manages to marry for love. Her desires and the role society casts for her seem to overlap, while the other girls face darker fates: Selma is miserable in her marriage, and Nur seems poised to suffer a similar fate. Ece, who is sexually abused by her uncle, ends up committing suicide. Partly because the movie is filtered through Lale’s eyes, we are never forced to inhabit these more heartbreaking perspectives, and we don’t understand why each girl responds so differently to similar circumstances. What modes of “protest and accommodation, of resistance and acquiescence” are within their reach?
Mustang makes it too easy to stop thinking of the five girls as individuals. At times, this blurring between characters succeeds as parody. When the girls are forced into identical brown dresses, for instance, they cut slits in the outfits, and their grandmother stitches them back up, desperate to keep them in uniform. Later, she declares each sister “one of a kind” in front of prospective in-laws, but the engagement scenes are all interchangeable, down to the same tea and cookies. In these instances, Mustang is clearly riffing on traditions that make women interchangeable.
But there are moments when the movie is less self-aware. All the girls are conventionally beautiful with long wavy hair and light dustings of freckles, despite their incarceration. They traipse around the bedroom in various stages of undress, and the camera adores them. Sunlight pours through the windows. Some of these scenes recall footage of the Lisbon girls in The Virgin Suicides, a movie explicitly about voyeurism and the male gaze. Though Mustang rejects the premise that women are sexual objects, it sometimes treats them as such.
For all its tragedy, Mustang is an uplifting, ethereal movie, which captures the magical inner world the sisters create despite and because of their confinement. The film is shot with finesse and compassion, and Lale’s gumption is easy to delight in. But Mustang seems to coddle Western audiences, playing to our tastes and ideologies. I walked away enchanted but suspicious, wondering what it means that I found the film so pretty.