(International) Girls on Film

Liv McMahon
4 min readApr 21, 2020

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Previously published in The Columnist magazine

Illustration by Yivon Cheng

It was last year that Jill Soloway gave their master class keynote lecture for the Toronto International Film Festival on the Female Gaze, over 40 years on from Mulvey’s landmark proposal of the Male Gaze. The talk is hilarious but damning in its critique of the cishet cinematic patriarchal powers that be, whose gaze encompasses nothing short of ‘um, well, everything. Pretty much everything you’ve ever seen, most TV shows, all movies’ according to Soloway. Creator of tv-sensation Transparent, Soloway pleads for cismale cinephiles to relinquish their grasp on a gaze still writing the rules of female attractiveness on and off-screen. It’s all well and good to discuss smashing the celluloid ceiling, but the omission of non-white, women of colour, and non-Western influences from the cinematic canon and even the conversation is perhaps too often neglected. If ‘art is propaganda for the self’ as Soloway so convincingly claims, why aren’t we more concerned with those who have to fight twice as hard to represent themselves and experiences so unlike our own?

The means of self-representation have been long denied within and without Middle Eastern societies, its internal divides and conflicts amplified by a longstanding segregation between East and West; our Orientalist and Colonialist Western tendencies linger dangerously as we turn away from their cultural richness as quickly as we once upon a time seized to lay claim to it. As we continue to situate what lies outside our typically white, Western worldview, the ‘third world’ and the mass of culture such generalisations ironically encompass is thriving on the fringes of our slim social perceptions and representations. The growing visibility of women in society and the workplace, behind and in front of the camera has led to a new language and means to allow women to own their subjectivity. Lena Dunham and Sofia Coppola are just a few female directors lauded for asserting a whimsical, white womanhood on-screen. But do their familiarly privileged protagonists too not present a sort of ‘propaganda that protects and perpetuates privilege’, as Soloway attributes solely to the male gaze?

Numerous films attempt to bridge the boundaries built and maintained by the institution of the West and its Hollywood hub. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a ground-breakingly seductive disruption to a Western, white-feminist frame of film reference. Nor, as its title seemingly suggests, does its protagonist succeed her streets to be mere sites of unpoliced male tyranny and extreme female vulnerability. Amirpour’s 2014 feature plays as much with expectation as it does geographical location and film convention; the Bad City generated by the sombre film-noir aesthetic sits suspended between Eastern and Western influences, recalling simultaneously the stylishness of the New Wave and Sin City’s grit and modernity. Mimicking the peculiar hybridity of the film’s style and genre, and Amirpour’s background as an American-Iranian director, the Girl appears at one moment a doll-like incarnation of Anna Karina and skateboards through empty streets prowling for victims the next. It is easy to see Amirpour’s mission to create moments and mementos of magical realism for audiences; her Girl dances strangely and alone in her room in one scene fit for a brilliantly weird David Lynch feature, and later returns to it with male protagonist Arash, embracing him as White Lies’ Death resounds dreamily in the background. Envisioning an inbetween, upside-down world where men are the prey to a vampirish female predator Amirpour changes a dominant narrative — it is her Girl who wondrously commands the (anti-)hero role, not James Dean-esque Arash. What Mark Kermode labelled the ‘East-West girl power’ in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night finds itself personified in the ardently female gaze and lens of French-Morrocan Houda Benyamina’s Divines (2016), American-Iranian Maryam Keshararz’ Circumstance (2011) and Pakistani Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar (2014), to name but a few. Across all four films is a constant hybridity of characterisation, nationality, sexuality, ethnicity, style and substance, always as complex and nuanced as the very foundations of female gaze and female subjectivity itself.

Amirpour, Benyamina, Keshararz and Nathaniel are all rebels with a cause that sadly but unsurprisingly continues to go unnoticed in a cinema industry that is ‘white, bourgeois and racist’, as Benyamina bluntly puts it. These women, like Soloway, are reclaiming spaces of otherness and expanding our cinematic horizons, allowing the female gaze its full potential as a ‘cultural critic’ as Soloway laid claim to in her keynote speech. Yet to privilege the culture and Western subjectivity the female gaze contains does all but fail to call out the harmfully heteronormative tradition still operating with critical and commercial success on our screens. More importantly, it potentially fails an international audience of women who deserve to look back on themselves through their own lens.

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Liv McMahon

Journalist covering technology, regulation, digital culture and trends for The Scotsman. Read more at www.livmcmahon.com.