By Giulia Leo / Matthew staff || Edited by Marouso Pappas
In art, women often fall victim to a binary representation that sees them as either angels or monsters. In Ana Lily Amirpour’s film masterpiece, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), the main character (played by a wonderful Sheila Vand) is a girl with no name. She makes herself an angel of death, by using her sharp vampire teeth to kill men who disrespect women. Although you might initially think that The Girl fits into the trope of the monster-woman, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night actually uses the trope to subvert stereotypes about monstrosity and gender, making the character of The Girl neither an angel-woman, nor a monster-woman, but something in between.
The ideal angel-woman has been depicted in many literary works through time, including The Divine Comedy, and Coventry Patmore’s “The Angel in the House.” For every angel-woman, there must be a wicked female figure that represents values opposite hers. One of the most famous representations of monster-women in literature is Medusa, the creature with the power to turn people into stone, who is decapitated by the “hero” Perseus. Before being turned into a monster, Medusa is an angel-woman, beautiful and devoted to chastity, like Athena, whom Medusa serves. Medusa’s beauty, together with her aura of innocence and purity, make her an object of desire for many men. Among them is Poseidon, who rapes her in Athena’s temple. When the rape is discovered by Athena, it is not Poseidon, but Medusa who is punished. Her locks of hair are turned into (obviously phallic) snakes, and her face becomes hideous. Because her lost virginity prevents her from being a pure, beautiful, obedient source of life, she becomes the embodiment of the monster-woman, the phallic snakes on her head a constant reminder of who rules over her. On the other hand, the obedient Athena remains “the glowing portrait of submissive women enshrined in domesticity” in the words of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
Not many know the complete story of Medusa–who she was before she turned into a monster and why she became one. In a similar way, in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the audience knows nothing of what happened to The Girl before the narrated events take place. Even her name remains unspoken; she is only The Girl and The Monster. The Girl’s only defining characteristics are her gender and her monstrosity.
The monster-woman is independent and unfeminine, characteristics which The Girl from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night possesses at least in part. Most, if not all, of the main characters in the movie are dependent on someone or something: Hossein (played by Marshall Manesh) is addicted to heroin and depends on his son, Arash (played by Arash Marandi) to live a decent life. Arash, on the other hand depends on money to keep his father and himself safe from people like the drug dealer Saeed (played by Dominic Rains).
The Girl, on the other hand, is independent. Sometimes, other characters rely on The Girl for saving. For instance, when Atti (played by Mozhan Marnò), a prostitute working for Saeed, is drugged and raped by Hossein, The Girl comes to her aid by killing the man and hiding his body. However, there is never a moment in the movie when The Girl must rely on someone else to get out of trouble or achieve something. It is not a coincidence that no one, including the audience, knows The Girl’s name. No one knows because she doesn’t need anyone to know. Ultimately, her independence lies in her solitude. She never allows anyone close enough, so that she can remain a loner. Even with Arash, she refuses to open up completely: he has no idea what her powers are or what her story is, yet he somehow understands and never asks questions–not even when he realizes The Girl murdered his father.
The angel-woman proves her femininity through her asexuality: no passions are tolerated for a woman beside her family, the house and religion. By contrast, the monster-woman is unfeminine because she is cheerless, evil, selfish, and, most importantly, because she values and embraces her sexual drive.
A character that responds to both the canons of angelic femininity and monstrous (un)femininity is Bella Swan (played by Kristen Stewart), from the Twilight Saga. Like Medusa, Bella is an angel-woman before she is turned into a monster. Forced to move to Forks to live with her father Charlie (played by Billy Burke), Bella “spends her time, outside her obsession with Edward Cullen, cooking for her father, doing homework and household chores,” as Reni Eddo-Lodge writes. She is weak, in need of a protector, chaste, and submissive, which–again, like in Medusa’s story, are all characteristics that make a woman an object of desire for many men, including Edward, who will eventually bite Bella and turn her into a monster-woman. If the angelic, human Bella was chaste and weak, the new, monstrous one appears strong and sensual–although she is definitely not independent, since she is still constantly under the protective wing of her now-husband Edward.
Visually, Bella goes from being a shy girl wearing sneakers, cardigans and jeans, to a woman with piercing red eyes, and voluminous hair, dressed in heels, tight pants and a leather jacket. Such a transition proves that Bella’s transformation into a monster-woman results in the hypersexualization of the character.
The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does not possess most of the traits that make angel-women feminine: she does not practice cheerful self-sacrifice, nor is she particularly sentimental or tactful. However, the character doesn’t fully conform to the trope of monster-woman either, since she steps away from the stereotype of the hypersexualized monster.
Unlike Bella, The Girl is never seen wearing tight clothes or heels. Her hair is most often hidden under her chador, and her make-up is miles away from Bella’s feline smokey eye. Furthermore, her costume, which covers her entire body except for her face, stays the same throughout the movie–with the only exception of one scene.
In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Girl is neither hypersexualized nor does she conform to the asexual, chaste model of the angel-woman. The Girl is a sexual being, but the embracing of her own sexual drive does not result in her objectification. She is not a subject of male authority. She rather becomes the subject, a term to be read according to its grammatical definition of the person that performs an action, and is not acted upon.
Referring to the costume of The Girl, it is important to stress the symbolic meaning of her striped shirt. I believe that, ultimately, the metaphorical meaning behind the design of The Girl’s shirt can be used to understand the character herself. The Girl appears to be a personification of the yin and yang concept of dualism, according to which there is good in bad, and vice versa. The Girl is neither good nor bad: she is both. On the one hand, she is a hero, with her cape-like chador flowing in the air as she rides her skateboard and kills criminals. On the other hand, she is a cold-blooded murderer.
In the end, The Girl refuses any type of categorization. If she cannot even be labeled as good or bad, it is not clear where she stands in the binary division between angel-woman and monster-woman. Perhaps, this is precisely the point. Why rely still on binarism, when the outbreak of post-modernism and post-modern feminism have proven that the only way to discover the self is through fragmentation? “Killing the Angel in the House,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” Amirpour, having both directed and written A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is a woman writer who went beyond Woolf’s statement. Not only did she kill the angel in the house, but she also killed the monster-woman, creating a character that ultimately rejects the binary view imposed upon women in media.