“Representation” in Film Studies. Representation of gender in Mustang as a case study.

If you just want to get to the Mustang stuff scroll down until you see a picture of a horse. You’re time poor – I get it. 

Being a Film Studies teacher and a Media teacher is sometimes a bit like being a tourist in Thailand.

That’s because you can wind up dealing with the problem of similarity.

You see in Tinglish (Thai-English) if someone wants you to tell you that the thing they have on offer is similar to the thing you requested out comes this phrase . . .


And sometimes in Film or Media you can wind up looking at the same problem but using a different approach.

So, in the case of representation, we have a word that is an entire area of study in Media (with big-name academic theorists and ways of tackling issues of representation) but in Film there is a whole different starting point. If you are a student who studies both courses this can be a bit confusing.

Just to explain . . .

When Pob lookalike Michael Gove


(BTW Pob was an early Channel 4 star – he used to spit all over your telly screen). Same same, but different.

Erm . . . when Pob lookalike Michael Gove decided all the A level courses needed reforming one of his criteria was that no course should replicate content which appears on another course. This was an attempt to get rid of Art courses which seemed to contain the same stuff, but it laid a trap for Media and Film studies. Especially Media Studies as it is an interdisciplinary subject which borrows from History, Linguistics, Sociology, Politics, Literature, Film, Art and many other subjects in order to come to conclusions.

Media students used to be able to study films (coz it’s a mass-media right) as part of their course and Film Studies students used to look at the way the film industry is organised as part of their course.

So when Schools Minister, and last person to be picked for dodge-ball, Nick Gibb,


had to turn this into practice he made some decisions.

Media students get to look at the industry context for film (business models, distribution and marketing) but not actually study films. They do get to make trailers though!

Film students don’t get standalone questions about industry (but they do need to know about the context of production).

Media students study media theorists (a fancy name for academics and writers who have shaped the way we think about the media) but Film students can’t be expected to be tested on the same material.

So we come to the problem of “Representation” in the two subjects.

In Media Studies representation is one of the reasons for the subject’s existence as an academic thingy.


Professor Stuart Hall (one of the founders of the subject as a discipline) became interested in mass-media because he could see that representation lay at the heart of the way we think about ideological concerns (such as race and politics). If you are interested I have written about some of his theories a bit here and here.

And he’s not alone. Issues about representation and stereotyping quickly became one the hallmarks of the subject. Here are some notes if you are interested.

And Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theories


are the bedrock of semiotics  which lies at the heart of media close analysis.

BUT . . .


Which is a shame.

What we can do is borrow from Hall, and others, to help shape the way we look at any question which asks about representation.

Meaning and Response and The Elements of Film.

Handily Film Studies asks you study . . .

Area 2. Meaning and response: how film functions as both a medium of

representation and as an aesthetic medium

And also . . .

Area 1. The key elements of film form: cinematography, mise-en-scène, editing,

sound and performance

They also require you to study . . .

In making sense of film, learners explore how film functions as both a medium of

representation and as an aesthetic medium.

Learners study the following in relation to film as a medium of representation:

  • how film creates meaning and generates response through cinematography, mise-en-scène, editing, sound and performance (including staging and direction)
  • how all aspects of film form including narrative contribute to the representations of cultures and societies (gender, ethnicity and age), including the ideological nature of those representations

What we can learn from Hall is that representation never happens without ideology; there is always a reason why decisions are made. These can be intentional, or the unintentional result of context, but recognising ideology will help you write useful things about representation. There are some more notes on ideology in my “The Surgery” bit. It’s about halfway through – look for some ballroom dancers.


Didn’t I tell you it would Thirty/Thirty from Bravestarr? Basically a horse with arms and a laser-shotgun. Oh and he can wink.


Mustang is a 2015 French-Turkish film from director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. It is a film about five sisters who gradually lose their freedom under an oppressive form of conservative, religious patriarchy in Anatolia (a region of Turkey).

Ergüven may have been born in Turkey but she grew up, was educated, and learned her art in France. One of the criticisms leveled at the film is that of orientalism (looking at the East with Western eyes – notes here). A defensive way of reading the film is that it effectively represents the way women are treated in a wide variety of cultures (there is evidence for this from the positive reaction of various audiences who have experienced oppressive patriarchy).

Either way we need to understand something about the way French culture has conceptualised and represented young women to understand aspects of Mustang.

France, Femininity, Sexuality, Myths, Mythemes and Ideology.

Phew! That’s a big sub-title! And by even embarking on it I am going to be horribly guilty of sweeping generalisations and the the terrible, and myopic, outsider’s viewpoint. imagine if some idiot tried to sum up English masculinity in a set of brief notes? Well it looks like I’m going to have to be that idiot!

What you have to understand, in order to begin to analyse Mustang, is what the ideological context is like in France (the country which shaped both Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour) France has a particular reputation in terms of gender and sexuality which is the root of a fair few stereotypes but also contains certain ideological truths.

1: Sex has been decoupled from morality.

Some big generalisations here but . . . you know . . . time.

French culture has had a long tradition of messy relationship stuff: romance, seduction, the veneration of dancers and courtesans (what we would now term “sex workers”) and formalised affairs (i.e. the role of the mistress). Throw into the mix the pill and the sexual revolution and you have a powerful set of forces which mean that sex is generally viewed as a positive rather than a negative.

This means that French society regards it as entirely normal that a woman should have a number of lovers in her lifetime. This extends to pre-marriage; and sex on a first date carries no stigma in modern France. That ideology was mythologized in the 1950s and 60s by the film star Brigette Bardot.


She played hedonistic, sexually liberated women. It is worth noting that her defining role in Et Dieu… créa la femme (And God Created Woman) is one where she plays a rebellious teenager in a conservative small town (remind you of anything?) but the audience were asked to hold Juliette, her character, as an ideal; an aspirational figure who threw off the shackles of stifling respectability.  Whatever aspects of that mythology helped to perpetuate the sexual objectification of young women it also helped women to see themselves as free to pursue their own desires.

BTW: It becomes hard here to separate out ideas about freedom, clothes, showing skin and sexuality. France gave the world the bikini in 1946 (explosif!) – which was immediately banned in neighbouring Spain and Italy – an action which meant that the French could feel at the vanguard of liberal progressiveness. It was Bardot who popularised the bikini and it went hand-in-hand with the secondary persona that she had created of the liberal (in every sense of the word) and modern French woman. Therefore showing skin, or being allowed to show skin, is an important part of French chauvinism (believing you are better than other people). This will become important when we consider mise-en-scène.

2: French culture has created a mythical “French Girl” and exported her around the world.

Just a few years ago the internet was full of Anglo and American articles with titles like “How to dress like a French Girl”, “20 wardrobe staples that every French Girl knows about”, “Why French Women Age Gracefully” and other crocks of assorted shit.

As we know myths are built out of tropes and mythemes and these are the choices that have been made in a thousand novels, songs, films, fashion photos and perfume ads.

If you think about the fashion industry, and the myths it sells, there is an argument to be made that all western women became a little bit French in the years since 1946. France has punched well above its weight in cultural clout and it has had a massive impact on the way (to paraphrase Judith Butler) women perform femininity. Check out this quote from i-D magazine (full article here).

The French Girl is the summation of an old expectation that women are supposed to look beautiful, but also natural. Though there are thousands of guides on faking French hair, we’re always told that there’s an authenticity to the French Girl that we could never replicate. As soon as you try to be the French Girl, you’ve failed. In interviews, the famous French Girl stresses how simple her beauty routine is — she doesn’t actually do that much in terms of makeup and hair — and usually wears the same thing everyday. When asked by Refinery 29 how to be Parisian, Caroline de Maigret replied, “to not to care about it”.

3: The French spearheaded thinking about gender, the patriarchy and equality.


Une Femme Libre: A Free Woman.

French writers and academics have had a massive impact on global feminism and the way we view issues surrounding gender and power. There’s a nice introductory article here which explores the difference between feminism in the U.S. and France to help orient you. To sum it up though France has a history of égalité for women (fariness) which stretches back to the revolution and has used socialist mechanisms (like health and child care) to re-balance society away from a patriarchal system.

It’s not all perfect across the channel; the hashtag BalanceTonPorc is the French equivalent of MeToo (it means rat out your pig –  so not all right there), France has a severe problem when it comes to intersectional issues (such as gender and race, post-colonial identities and body-shape) and the gamine (attractively boyish) girl-woman ideal is a bit too paedo-y for comfort at times (it literally means naughty-child FFS). France is no longer in the top ten places to be a woman (it depends on the indices but it can be 15th to 20th depending on the list) All that aside French women have freedoms, employment opportunities and access to justice, that most other women in the world can only dream of.

Which means Ergüven has the freedom, and resources, to make Mustang.

The Elements of Film in Mustang and how they Represent Gender.

Cinematography, including lighting 

Let’s talk light. And how light affects colour palette.

Look at this image from the film.


Now look at this image.


The image used in this Marc Jacobs advert, shot in 2001, shares a set of aesthetic ideas with many of the shots in Mustang.

BTW, a bit of background. The girl in the advert is Sofia Coppola (yes Francis Ford’s daughter). She had appeared in The Godfather films and had already directed her first feature film in 1999 – The Virgin Suicides (a film about a group of teenage girls who are confined in their house by their parents – sound familiar?) and was part of a group of artistic friends who included her then husband Spike Jonze and Jurgen Teller.


Note the similarities in cinematography (amongst other things) in this still from Coppola’s 1999 The Virgin Suicides).

Jurgen Teller’s signature style of photography was to over-expose the image and so bleach it out. This results in an almost pastel colour palette. In his shot he did it using Polaroid film (emphasising an anti-technical proficiency approach to his work – the schick is that he’s just taking snaps of his friend).

Now Teller hasn’t invented the bleached-out look. It’s been part of the photographic, and cinematic language associated with images of youth and femininity for ever (check out the famous “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” advert)


but what Teller has done, is really push the image creation so that there is a huge feeling of sun in the image.

So the trick is to over-expose the image and to put in lots of natural back lighting. This results in lots of lens flare and hot atmosphere in the picture. Ergüven is using the compositional, lighting and image creation language of advertising to create her story about girls and young women. This makes them interesting subjects; are the audience supposed to feel longing for their youth and vitality? Feel uncomfortable in the way they are presented in the same way as desirable youths in advertising? Or is it just that the image links to a very old set of concepts where youth is represented as spring/summer (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” – Shakespeare).

The other thing that Ergüven does is use a hand-held camera. It’s often too far away or too close for comfort. Sometimes it takes us inside groups (messing around with the 180 degree rule). This has the effect (like Jurgen Teller’s snaps) of making the film feel more real; less a construction and more a record of what is actually happening. This means we believe in the girls, and their terrible predicament, more.


There’s so much I can write here but I’ll limit it to some . . . um  . . . highlights (pardon the pun).


There’s a whole language of hair in cinema. We know the rules. Hair tied up, tightly bound by rules or personal repression. Hair down and loose, free. The cliche is the moment when a woman in a film unpins her hair and takes off her glasses to reveal that she is – gasp – just beautiful!

So we get the rules. There’s also the title. A mustang is a wild horse, y’know – mane and tail streaming in the wind.

As a result there’s loads of hair in the film. As we’ve seen there’s always hair being back lit, giving the girls halos. At the football match Lale tosses her hair repeatedly (kinda like a wild horse) and check out Yasin!


I mean in this shot there’s more hair than Woodstock! How large a percentage of the frame is full of hair? 30%? Look at how it catches the light. Look at the way it is artlessly messy. This hair symbolises youth, freedom and vitality. Yasin is the only male figure who is happy to break out of the social rules and restrictions and he wants nothing in return. We know he is a figure of suspicion (“I don’t employ any queers” says a rival delivery service on the phone) but the audience love Yasin. He’s literally a good guy (and even better because he doesn’t hang around the screen drawing focus away from the girls).


Lale even cuts off her hair in preparation for the escape. I know it’s for the dummy but there’s a long history of women cutting off hair to get serious (especially in France).


Given the added significance of loose hair in a Muslim society (note in the film when hair is uncovered and who is allowed uncovered hair) and the tensions concerning headscarves in Turkey (Cliff’s notes: Turkey is secular. Head scarves aren’t even allowed in some universities. It doesn’t stop some areas being very traditional) the inclusion of, very French, very mussy hair is really important.

Costume – the dresses! Bikinis! Shoes (red shoes, trainers):

One of the first things we have to notice in mustang is the amount of bare skin on display. If you are going to write about costume is the absence of costume that we often notice. There are times, like in the scene where the girls are entwined on the bedroom floor, where much of the frame is made up of skin. This use of skin is therefore strongly associated with an ideology of personal freedom.

Another thing we notice is the way a contrast is set up between western vs traditional clothing. If you’re a media student you will recanize’ this as one of Levi-Strauss’ (not the jeans guy – first name Claude) binary opposition structures. There are two opposing groupings which have been arranged within the narrative which helps to orient the audience. Notice that the girls have to wear their “shit coloured dresses” after the Grandmother’s decision to enforce traditional values. This leads to some interesting re-evaluations of lines. Early in the film her admonition to Sonay and Selma (“Cover up before your uncle sees you!”) seems to be coming from a place of traditional values however once we learn that he has been abusing the girls it is clear that her fear is not just outside the home; the girls have to cover up as she is concerned that they are provoking her son (notice it is not Erol who is required to change but the five girls).

It is also important to note that costume functions only until it becomes something else (which is one of Saussure’s ideas about a signifier – it only works until there is the possibility it can be mistaken for another). Sonay’s dress is ripped by the girls to give it a side slit. This instantly changes it from being a signifier of conservative respectability to being one of instant sexualisation (and by extension the moment it is sewn up she is transformed back to respectability). The rip represents choice through destruction.

Ergüven has said, in interviews, that it was a trip back to Turkey for a wedding which inspired her to begin writing. As a result the mise-en-scène choices, relating to gender, in the pre-wedding scene for Sonay and Selma, are interesting. The clothing and lighting (along with the sound choices – a traditional song emphasising family loyalty) are designed to evoke a sense of sorority and make marriage seem like an appealing and acceptable outcome. That said some of my students read the red veils as symbols of gothic horror or linked the red to the blood referenced later in the film. There is also, in the song, echoes of the fairy tale horror of Bluebeard. Guess what folks the story of the man who serially murders his young wives is a French one! The seductive nature of the ceremony is there to quell the, very real, fears of the young brides.

Another thing my students spent time discussing is the choice to begin the film with the girls in school uniform. Is this designed to symbolize the way that education is  freedom (note that Teacher Dilek is Lale and Nur’s final escape destination). The use of uniform also codifies the youth of all the girls; it places them in a pre-adult state (just as their lack of headscarves does too).


I told you that we’d be talking about this again. There’s lots going on in this image. The girl’s underwear reminds us of bikinis – western clothing. That said they are also caged. I don’t know how intentional it is but the scene reminds me particularly of a tiny short story, Emancipation: A life Fable, written by the pioneering American feminist writer Kate Chopin in 1863. Ignore the male pronouns, this was a tiny story-let designed to reflect the status of women in a patriarchal system. It doesn’t matter if Ergüven has never read it because they both come from the same place and are designed to illustrate the same problems (For Ergüven Anatolia today is like America in the nineteenth century).

There is also an interesting element to this in that there is an entire exploitation sub-genre of films we can call women in cages movies. These are products of late 60s and 70s grind-house culture.


This is something we meet over and over again in the mise-en-scène of this film. In the hands of a male director, telling a titillating story, the images would mean something different from the meaning we get in Mustang. I’ve tried to work out why this is but really it comes down to the following fact . . . Performance always trumps other film elements – and here performance is framed by a female director.

Think about it. You can have all the elements designed to evoke a particular audience response (fear, awe, desire etc.) but the performer has the ability to completely remove those responses and replace them with a new one. Some comedic actors build their entire careers on this trick but, conversely, it is the reason why lots of student films fail; the performers are not strong enough to carry the emotions required by director. all the mise-en-scène, cinematography and narrative crafting you do can be undone by a poorly delivered line.


Oh – Shoes!

just like hair there is a language of shoes. In the course of the film Lale wears trainers, slippers and red heels. The red high heels indicate freedom, symbol of adulthood. They are a talisman of sexuality but are being worn by someone who rejects that meaning . That said they do indicate that she is having to undergo another form of accelerated development (learning to drive). The shoes are the opposite of her slippers which are symbols of domesticity, of housebound-ness.

Simple then. The trainers she wears at the end – freedom and escape. Western. comfortable – they fit.

Oh and there’s forbidden fruit . . .




Notice how the camera is often positioned to give us Lale’s perspective on the scenes and then we get a reverse-shot which shows us her face, and so hints at her emotional response to the scene (which, sympathetically, becomes the audience’s response). We learn about the story-world from Lale’s point of view which is less cinematographic and more a trick of editing.

Jump cuts


After Ece’s death we get these discontinuous moments. Ece has become frozen in youth but not in a Blondie “Die Young, Stay Pretty” way . Her death is tragic and remember the Greek tragedy rule – action happens offstage. Do the jump cuts represent Lale’s post traumatic shock at the death of her sister (again emphasising the sorority aspect of the representation of gender in this film)?


The soundtrack was written by Warren Ellis (Australian/French composer and regular Nick Cave musician/co-writer). It is enormously evocative stuff – give some of the tracks a listen without imagery.

At the end of the film the soundtrack has a real emotional punch which is partially down to his use of droning strings (coincidentally this echoes the drone of Sufi Muslim religious rituals like the whirling dervishes). This soundtrack guides the audience’s emotional response to the story of the girls; it anchors the other signifiers.


There’s a huge amount I could write here, and I’ve already touched on it a bit, but, yet again Italian Neorealism is the style at play (check out my notes her on Taxi Tehran). The choice of non-actors, and the careful rehearsal process are deliberately different from conventional representations of girls and young women.

What was it about them that made you choose those five girls?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Elit İşcan, who plays Ece, was the only one with any acting experience. I wrote the script with her in mind and hoped she wouldn’t outgrow her character before we could shoot. I noticed Tuğba Sunguroğlu, who plays Selma, on an Istanbul-Paris flight while I was still writing the script! Besides her mustang vibe, I glimpsed a huge personality. And Güneş (who plays Lale), Doga (Nur) and Ilayda (Sonay), they all had great listening [ability], great imagination and something singular about them. We did a lot of exercises that were extremely playful. Some things that looked like games – looking into each other’s eyes, or looking into each other’s eyes and then saying something extremely personal and then nothing for long minutes, to generate trust. It feels so playful when you do it, but it’s still like directing actors.

Full article in Dazed and Confused here.

As a result Lale appears to be both utterly human and animalistic. This is made up of the kinesis in her performance (her movements) and the use of her whole body to climb out of the situation she finds herself in (literally – she’s always in vines, up drainpipes or on the roof).

Another performance element is the use of haptic (touch) elements which add to the feeling of inseparability that the girls project early in the film.


We know this is a drama. To be precise we know this is a social-realist drama (one which aims to realistically depict the struggles of a group in society) but it has other elements to it. One of the things that strikes me more and more is the way the film replicates the tropes and structure of the horror genre (don’t start referring to it as a horror film though, that would be a mistake).

What I mean is that there are elements which remind the audience of horror conventions; the way the group loses members (like a slasher or cabin movie), the way Lale and Nur have to barracade themselves into the house (like a zombie survival film) and the way the weakest in the group turns out to be the most resourceful (what in horror terms is referred to as “the final girl“).

There are also elements of the coming of age film, even down to the voice-overs from Lale which tell the audience narrative expositional points which are almost cliches. Instead of ,”after that summer nothing was the same again” or, “that was the last time I saw her” we get “After that summer everything turned to shit” and “we were never all together again”. Unlike a conventional coming of age film these changes are forced on the girls, with differing amounts of unwillingness (Sonay appears happy but there’s more going on in her story once we find out about Erol – something which makes us re-evaluate all of Sonay and Erol’s screen-time after the revelation).

All of these are also narrative elements and in the construction of the representation of gender the narratives follow Todorov’s ideas (where an equilibrium is disturbed and the narrative can only be completed when a new equilibrium is reached). The fact that for there to be a new equilibrium the sisters will be smashed apart, two married, one dead and two in exile in Istanbul highlights the situation that women find themselves in within the traditional, and conservative, world of Anatolia. The other women in the village may help to cover up the girl’s tracks (the comic scene where they cause a power cut) but this only extends to maintaining the status quo; true conservatism.

The final formal element is the rigid adherence to realism. This is a film which never strays into fantasy, magic realism or even daydreaming. It never becomes impressionistic except in the football stadium scene.


Because the director was denied permission to film at the real match the scene had to be shot in a studio. Ergüven has chosen, as a result, to turn this moment into a hyper-real, near dream-sequence. The studio lighting may be attempting to replicate stadium lights but the high top-lighting, slight soft focus and montage editing make this feel different in form to the rest of the film. The girls seem to be more excited by their freedom than the match and they perform to each other rather than into the imaginary stadium space. It is as if, with the banishment of the men, all their problems, for a while, have been removed. It is here that they are happiest.

If you have any ideas for anything else that should be included here please let me know in a comment and I’ll get it in. Please like and subscribe!

One thought on ““Representation” in Film Studies. Representation of gender in Mustang as a case study.

  1. Pingback: “Representation” in Film Studies. Mustang as a case study. – Mr G's English, Film and Media.

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