Ideology as Entertainment: Mustang’s Muslims and Pro-Western Interventionism Under the Left Cover of Feminism?
Given the recent terrorist attacks in France co-writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Mustang, the French entry in the Best Foreign Language Oscar category, takes on special meaning - and should be analyzed carefully. On the one hand, Mustang - which won AFI Fest’s New Auteurs Audience Award, earning it a third screening on the festival’s final day, when I saw it - is a powerful plea for female rights and liberties.
In essence, Mustang is the story of five young orphaned sisters coming up against the glass ceiling of patriarchy and religious/cultural zealotry in contemporary rural Turkey. At first, the film, co-written by Parisian Alice Winocour, has a lighthearted tone as the girls resist authority and sexual repression. But as the grrrl power story progresses it becomes increasingly fraught with tension, as their rebellion and the suppression of their sexuality and basic freedoms takes darker and darker turns. As in Spotlight, about another religion (Catholicism), repressing natural desires leads to abuse and molestation, always disturbing themes.
So Mustang can be seen as sort of Zero de Conduite (aka Zero for Conduct, French director Jean Vigo’s 1933 anarchistic ode to youthful rebellion against authoritarianism) meets 2015’s militant feminist Suffragette. Maybe Mustang is meant to be a 21st century Turkish counterpart to Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 Little Women? It’s hard not to empathize with this sorority of feisty female little rebels, one prettier and cuter than the other, with little Lale (Günes Sensoy), the youngest, spunkiest and most irresistibly adorable freedom fighter of them all.
So far, so good. However, there is another way of reading this film: As a piece of propaganda in the so-called “clash of civilizations” between secular Western values and those of what is widely considered to be conservative Islamicism, supposedly opposed to female rights. (I say “female” and not “woman” here solely because the quintet of characters are all young teenagers to children - Lale looks to be around 10 years old or so.) To be sure, Mustang cleverly avoids explicit references to Islam - no Koran-thumping imams here.
But you don’t have to be troublemaker Pamela Geller, purveyor of provocative Prophet cartoons, or Marine Le Pen, führer of France’s racist, immigrant-bashing National Front, to recognize Muslim stereotypes when you see one. Although Mustang doesn’t hit you over the head with overt references to Islam per se, it’s commonly known that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim nation (where the ruling, authoritarian Justice and Development Party recently regained a parliamentary majority after a Nov. 1 snap election). And the individualistic sisters, who like to dress European style and so on, are clearly butting heads with a form of unspecified (yet obvious if you read between the lines, Dear Reader) religious repression and fanaticism.
The movie reflects Ergüven’s international background - born in Ankara, she was reportedly raised in the U.S. and France. The stylishly-made, entertaining Mustang is a French-Turkish co-production, in the Turkish language with English subtitles. But just as the halftime and other pro-military activities at U.S. sporting events have been revealed to be Pentagon agitprop bought and paid by the Defense Department (your tax dollars at work!), movies, too, are used in the war of ideas. Among other things, Mustang, which premiered at Cannes, seems to be a French response to the Charlie Hebdo massacres and related concerns.
Looked at in this light Mustang may be using its pro-feminism messaging to provide a left cover to justify Western incursions in Middle Eastern and other Muslim nations. That is, by critiquing Islamic societies for keeping women down, the West appears to be pro-human rights in a struggle against tradition-bound cultures, as advanced modernity clashes with medieval backwardness. How often have we heard the status for females endlessly used as an excuse for U.S. intervention in Afghanistan? (Never mind that women were arguably far better off in Iraq before Washington invaded there.)
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After the U.S., France has been carrying out more air strikes in the Middle East than any other country and according to RT Paris deployed the French fleet’s only aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, to the Persian Gulf Nov. 18 (before the recent attacks in Paris). RT, a Moscow-funded news outlet, reported: “France carried out about 1,300 aerial missions in Iraq with 271 airstrikes destroying more than 450 terrorist targets. Only a few airstrikes have been carried out in Syria. The Charles de Gaulle is the biggest European aircraft carrier. It is also the only nuclear-powered vessel of this nature outside the US.”
Now, the above observation about female emancipation is not meant to rationalize or mitigate the oppression of women, which is always despicable wherever it occurs and must be fought, whether it is perpetrated by fanatical Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, whoever. The fact that insanities such as honor killings and female circumcision have been occurring for centuries is not an argument in favor of continuing these psychotic practices indefinitely but for ending them immediately, unconditionally.
Having said all this, my concern is that Mustang perpetuates a one dimensional image that stereotypes Islam as being anti-woman. (Although to be fair, not all of Mustang’s Muslims are anti-female rights - a male truck driver and female teacher play positive roles.) This enables Western audiences to perceive terrorist attacks as taking place at the World Trade Center, Paris, etc., because “they hate our freedoms”, as Bush stupidly brayed after 9/11 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel just reiterated. (Of course, it’s implied that female equality is among these liberties the terrorists despise.) As opposed to understanding that foreign intervention, invasions, aerial bombings, drone strikes and the like incite reprisals from people who fight back using techniques and tactics available and advantageous to them (as contemptible as they may be).
However, another film screened at AFI Fest - Michael Moore’s brilliant new documentary Where to Invade Next - shows the other side of the coin. While ISIS and other Islamicist jihadis and zealots undoubtedly do have anti-female biases and policies, not all Muslims do. In Where to Invade Next Moore shows how Tunisia - the Arab Spring’s birthplace and where those popular uprisings have been most successful - has embraced and supported women and their rights.
Not only that but Moore subtly shows how a number of predominantly Muslim countries (as well as primarily Hindu India, with the world’s second largest Islamic population) have elected female heads of government. (Those belonging to the Commonwealth have also had for more than half a century a woman as head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.) So the next time someone makes a blanket attack on Islam as being anti-woman in comparison to the supposedly more enlightened USA, ask them: “Why has there never been a female president in America while Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, India (with its 100 million Muslims), the Philippines (with millions of Muslims), etc., have head woman presidents and prime ministers???” My point is not to pooh-pooh the immiseration of females by overzealous Islamicists but to have a more balanced view of the overall reality that takes into account other progressive trends in the Muslim world. And to not let legit concerns about female rights enable auds to turn blind eyes to foreign intervention against “barbarians.”
Although this reviewer certainly enjoyed Mustang and recommends it, readers should approach it with caution. Equal rights for girls and women is a noble, worthy cause - but is it being used to justify Western intervention in Muslim lands and the so-called “clash of civilizations”? Inquiring minds want to know. In “democracies” ideology often poses as entertainment because when viewers watch the news and politicians they are more likely to have their antennae up.
But this critical analytical faculty tends to be lulled when propaganda masquerades under the guise of mass amusements - from sports stadiums to the silver screen. David Robb and Tricia Jenkins have written books about Defense Department and CIA efforts to actively influence Hollywood. Viewers beware.