You can take the girl out of the city...
Where's the representation of rural girlhood on our screens?
In contemporary Western culture, girls and women have been increasingly aligned with a postfeminist rhetoric of “girl power” that positions them as self-determined, neo-liberal subjects. We are promised through popular culture a supposedly universally attainable model of female success (every thirtysomething needs an enviable career, the perfect husband and kids, right?). And yet this (problematic) model remains implicitly linked to the urban environment. From the high schools in teen flicks to Gossip Girl's Upper East Side, mainstream cinema and television have tended to focus on urban experiences of becoming a woman. Why does cinema seemingly lack a space for girls and young women outside this narrow lens associated with postfeminist culture, and how might this different space affect our perception of the modern young woman?
Two films currently streaming on Netflix, Le meraviglie/The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, 2014) and Mustang (Ergüven, 2015), seem to have broken the mold. In these movies, you see, we have young female protagonists navigating the precarious boundaries between childhood, adolescence and womanhood – but in isolated, rural settings. And in such remote settings – from the Northern Italian countryside to a remote Turkish village – the girl is separated from the urban space that is so inextricably linked with postfeminist norms, forcing the viewer to re-examine the figure of the contemporary young woman. Far removed from the limited scope of the sparkly “girl worlds” established as the norm by Mean Girls and Clueless, dictated by high school popularity and consumer products, Le meraviglie and Mustanginvite us to look beyond the superficial and onto the affective experiences of their girls as they leave childhood behind.
The rural landscapes in Mustang and Le meraviglie are complex and contradictory. They are visually compelling, idealised through warm, saturated aesthetics, but also oppressive and alienating under the rule of aggressive patriarchs. And against the complexity of the rural setting, the girl too is seen as complex: natural and pure, yet resilient, angry and adventurous. We see traditionally masculine ideas of adventure, wildness and danger associated with non-urban spaces reclaimed by the young girl subject; they become a means for a female quest towards individuality and womanhood. And in both movies, this quest takes place along the boundary between rural and urban: Mustang and Le meraviglie each offer a faraway urban idyll – Istanbul and Milan, respectively. As the opposite of the rural, these places are presented as an end goal for the girl in her quest, a beacon of hope to where she longs to escape.
This quest motif may sound familiar. After all, it's reminiscent of narratives traditionally characterised as fairy tales, in which a young female protagonist is imprisoned by an evil force and must escape or be rescued. Mustang, first off, sees five adolescent sisters contained by their physical surroundings and an inevitable future of arranged marriage. Barred windows and an isolated house are physical obstacles through which it becomes increasingly harder to escape the oppressive control of a rural patriarchy. ‘So the house now looked like a real prison,’ Lale (Günes Sensoy), the youngest of the sisters, remarks in the film’s voiceover. Repeated shots of the girls looking down on their rural surroundings from the windows of their bedroom reinforce the idea of them being locked away like princesses in their tower.
In Le meraviglie, on the other hand, the lines of confinement are less clear; Gelsomina (Alexandra Maria Lungu), the oldest of four girls, at first seems content in performing her beekeeping duties for her father. However, after the discovery of a surreal television competition and the arrival of Martin, a quiet German boy whom her family takes on as a farm worker, she begins to feel less like a child, and the desire to rebel against her role increases.
Other elements of the fairy tale genre emerge in these films’ narratives, too, from the fairy godmother figure of Monica Bellucci in Le meraviglie, to the Rapunzel-like long hair of the sisters in Mustang imprisoned in their bedroom. There's a certain fable-like quality evident in the over-exposed, ethereal visual style of both films, too. "We shot on the coast of the Black Sea. It had to look like a fairy tale," Mustang’s director explains in an interview. The remoteness and rurality of these films’ settings foster a certain timeless quality associated with the conventional fairy tale opening of “once upon a time, in a land far, far away…” Le meraviglie embraces this sense of mystery in its ambiguous temporal and spatial locations, too, as it's set in an unspecified period somewhere on the borders between the regions of Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany. Even just the title of Le meraviglie – or The Wonders in English – conjures up associations with the fantastic and the magical, and subtly makes reference to one of cinema’s most iconic fairy tale adaptations, Alice in Wonderland – in Italian, Le avventure di Alice nel paese delle meraviglie – which incidentally provides the name of the local television competition for which Gelsomina secretly enters her family.
The female quest structure is used in many fairy tales and their cinematic adaptations. In fact, many mainstream movies marketed towards girls and young women like A Cinderella Story and The Princess Diaries capitalise on a Cinderella-style rags-to-riches narrative structure, representing adolescent girls at key and challenging points in their lives. And in almost all of these films, of course, the goal of this quest is to find true love, to marry the prince and to live happily-ever-after. And yet even though many of these contemporary fairy tale films feature powerful, independent women and even liberal feminists – Tangled, anyone? – they ultimately sell the same postfeminist message: girls and women can achieve all of those things – just so long as they remember conform to the social norms of heterosexual marriage.
And yet in both of these films the girls’ quests are not, for once, limited to postfeminist culture’s “feminine” aspiration for marital happiness. In Mustang, for instance, Lale completes her quest by escaping the social norms of her conservative community. And although in Le meraviglie Gelsomina’s tale is less dramatic, she too is simply drawn to the possibility of an alternative future free from her rural family’s traditions
Interestingly, animals play a key part in these notions of imprisonment and escape. A mustang, of course, is a wild, free-roaming horse. Ergüven’s five protagonists – Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma and Sonay – are strongly aligned with this image through their long, unkempt manes. Visually binding them to their rural landscape, this image becomes all the more powerful as the narrative unfolds. When one day their conservative community view an innocent game with some local boys as sexual and perverted, the girls are punished by their tyrannical uncle. They are locked away in their rooms, their bodies covered with modest dresses and their long hair controlled in conservative plaits – an attempt to suppress their adolescent sexuality. And their wild hair – a signifier of youthful femininity – comes to represent the visual counterpart to their culture's veil that covers their hair as they are “tamed” through arranged marriage, and to the headscarves donned by the older women in their community. But as well as positively aligning the girls with the rural, their matching long hair also binds them to each other. Ergüven has described her characters as "a little monster of femininity" and "one body with five heads: a single rebellious entity." And she has frequently emphasised in interviews the close relationships between the young actresses themselves. In this way, the mustangs become a metaphor for the collectivity of the girl and of womanhood – a reminder from Ergüven of the power of female solidarity in the ongoing battle for women’s rights in contemporary Turkey.
Meanwhile, the poster for Le meraviglie features a painting of a girl’s face with four bees crawling out of her mouth and up her cheek. This mysterious image – echoed twice in the film – establishes an almost magical connection between Gelsomina and animals. She has a special talent for bee-keeping, making her the favourite child of gruff patriarch Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck). And the bees, like the untamed mustangs, also act as a powerful metaphor for confinement and escape. Usually people work with animals that they keep confined in cages or pens, but the opposite is true of beekeeping; the bees are free, and you have to hope that they return in order to collect their honey. And so for the audience, Gelsomina seems magical and mysterious in her ability to defy this system with the strange trick that she silently performs for Martin: covering her face with her hands before lifting them to reveal a bee escaping from her parted lips. A lingering close-up and strangely heightened sounds of her breathing give this surreal moment a bizarre sort of intimacy and realism. It's a mysterious performance that captivates an otherwise disengaged Martin and later moves Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci), the presenter of the television competition. And so through her affinity with bees, Gelsomina becomes strange and unknowable – and perhaps one of the wonders of the title.
Rohrwacher also uses the weather to convey Gelsomina’s growing potential for agency. Storms have long represented the unpredictable nature of youth particularly with regard to femininity, conveying the moodiness and uncertainty often associated with teen girls and women. In Le meraviglie, a storm arrives that begins to rip the lids off the hives. In a desperate attempt to keep the bees from escaping, Gelsomina and Wolfgang cover the boxes with their bodies, pulling a tarpaulin over them as shelter from the rain. Gelsomina, usually in harmony with the bees, is stung. In the darkness, against the sound of the storm, she tearfully begs her father to enter them into the contest. Contrasted to the light, sun-filled aesthetic of the rest of the film, the wind and rain evocatively echo Gelsomina’s growing frustration with her father’s way of life and her role in it and the change beginning to occur within her. In her alignment with her rural setting, then, the girl’s transition out of childhood is just as complex and volatile.
Water also plays a key role in both texts in the journey to becoming a woman. Both female directors find an elemental, liquid setting for their films’ pivotal scenes. In Mustang, it is in the Black Sea that the girls’ innocent play is re-read as sexual, changing their worlds and suddenly catapulting them towards womanhood. Long shots locate the girls within their surroundings, and a visceral emphasis on their girlish shrieks and laughter immerses the viewer into the sensory experience of the young protagonists. The sounds of waves and splashing water entangle with giggles, binding girl and nature together. Pale, irradiated shots give the scene an ethereal quality, equating this site of girlhood play with Edenic notions of innocence and paradise. Yet the Garden of Eden was also the site of corruption for Eve, as it is for the girls in this film who are beaten by their grandmother for their “perverted” behaviour when they return home subtly – alluded to in the following apple-picking scene. And there's an equally pivotal scene in Le meraviglie. In a rare moment of respite from her labour, Gelsomina and her family visit a nearby lake. As the camera lingers on her, circling behind her head, her silence is contrasted with the playful cries of her sisters. It seems that she has passed the age of youthful innocence when she can enjoy playing freely in the water like her younger siblings, and her attention is diverted to the filming of an advert for the television competition. She is enchanted by the show’s hostess, a glamourous Monica Bellucci in a Fellini-esque all-white ensemble. Her younger sister likens Bellucci’s wig to sea foam, equating her sparkling femininity with the shimmering waters in which they had been playing – and thus with innocence, freedom and fun. By contrast, Gelsomina is quietly bewitched by this new spectacular vision of Italian womanhood and coyly accepts a sparkly hair clip from this fairy godmother who promises change.
Both filmmakers thus show a nostalgic interest in fairy tales through their films’ narrative structures, chimerical elements, use of animals and air of mystery. Nostalgia also comes to the fore through the luminescent aesthetic that is persistent throughout the films. For example, in Le meraviglie, the natural style captured by 16mm film gives a raw, documentary-like quality to the rural space. It makes all the more tangible the amber lake of honey that spills across the family’s workshop floor in its metaphor for Gelsomina’s sticky transition out of childhood and the beam of sunlight that she bossily orders her sister to “drink.” Mustang, too, evokes nostalgia in its visual style that features sun-filled shots of a scenic backdrop, as well as a retrospective voiceover from Lale.
The emphasis that both directors place during interviews on the autobiographical nature of their work also contributes to this sense of nostalgia. The beekeeping profession, the region of Northern Italy and a family of mixed-nationality are all elements inspired by Rohrwacher’s real childhood. What's more, the decision to cast her sister, Alba, in the role of the girls’ mother reiterates this. Ergüven, meanwhile, recalls that her pivotal water scene was in fact based on a personal experience. Unlike her spirited young protagonists, however, she did not fight back; as she explains, "the characters in the film voiced the courage we wished we’d had." Ergüven’s nostalgic representation of her girlhood also articulates a sense of nostalgia on a larger scale, perhaps for the dream of a united Europe. Rohrwacher, too, likens her girl-becoming-a-woman to the current state of her country, explaining that "Italy wants to leave infancy, but it still doesn't know where to go." Through nostalgia, then, both films use the relationship between girlhood and the rural space to speak to contemporary social and political problems, containing anxiety surrounding the girls’ futures within the uncertainty felt for the future of their countries.
Much more than simply a place for the action to occur, these coming-of-age movies' rural spaces act as metaphors for the adolescent girl. In its complex and contradictory nature, the countryside becomes synonymous with the figure of the girl-in-transition, whose navigation of rural femininity and journey towards becoming a woman prove equally complex and contradictory. These films show girls that are forced to navigate themselves through the tumultuous transition into womanhood against an unpredictable backdrop that both nurtures and restricts them. These girls are at once constrained and free, vulnerable and autonomous adventurers moving between the boundaries of rural and urban.
Both directors wield an exploratory lens on girlhood through ideas of confinement and boundaries: the boundary between childhood, adolescence and womanhood, between rural and urban, between fantasy and realism, between tradition and modernity. And through a fairy tale-like air of mystery and nostalgia, these films seem to suggest that the rural, like childhood, is something that must be left behind in exchange for the urban. Their girl protagonists, despite at times being constrained by their rural setting, are nonetheless presented as agentic, mobile subjects. Lale learns to drive and eventually uses a car to escape to her urban idyll, Istanbul, in somewhat of a fairy tale ending. Gelsomina, meanwhile, paddles on her surfboard to the fantasy-like island in search of Martin and a different kind of future. By providing a different kind of space for the young female subject, these female-authored teen films offer exciting new discussions that need not position the female experience as inherently defined by the urban. By situating their girls in less conventional, rural settings, both movies are able to theorize the affective experience of becoming a woman in a peripheral space, challenging and expanding the limited representations of girls-in-transition offered by postfeminist culture. Like wild horses and like bees, these newly visible girl subjects cannot truly be confined.