Feminism, Vampires, and Rebellion against Misogyny in "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"
What’s not to like? I mean really, you couldn’t die. Plus there’s nothing sexier than a vampire. If a vampire showed up, I’d be like: “Do it: I want to live forever.” —Ana Lily Amirpour
Young woman, covered in a black chador (traditional garment worn by many Iranian women, used as an outer layer to cover the remaining clothes on the body) roams the streets of a deserted town infused with fear, stagnation, and loathsome melancholy. She leaves her apartment late at night, in search of another corrupted soul whose presence poses a heavy burden to the people around them. Seemingly innocent and frail-looking, she waits for the perfect opportunity to overpower her victims and liquidate them with her vampiric strength. Her sole victims are men who reap vice and lawlessness in Bad City, a god-forsaken place whose inhabitants seem quite unconcerned with the presence of undecomposed, dead bodies lying in an open pit under the town bridge. This is the story portrayed in Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature film “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”, dubbed as the first Iranian vampire western. What makes this movie superbly unusual and unique in the vampire-film canon is its central focus on a female protagonist, who could easily be seen as a personification of an emancipated and independent woman refusing to yield to traditional patriarchal norms. Interestingly, the vampire woman (played by Sheila Vand) appears to be the only vampire in her community, and stands in complete contrast to most vampire movies where women are, oftentimes, the prime objects of a murderous lust and blood-thirst of the male vampires. However, Amirpour’s movie presents us with a beautiful twist to the tale. In contrast to the mainstream vampire movies, where the female protagonists are portrayed as vulnerable and remarkably indecisive (just think of Bella Swan in The Twilight Saga), “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” shows the woman’s attempt to break away from the grip of patriarchy and to regain the power and the rights she is entitled to. The female protagonist in the movie is the predator who preys on the men reaping vice in the city: she first eliminates the main drug dealer and pimp in the city, then an old heroin addict Hossein who is destroying his son’s life; and finally, she steals a skateboard from a young boy living in the streets of Bad City, warning him to not let the life in the city corrupt him, for as she whispers to the boy’s ear: “To the end of your life, I’ll watch you…” Most likely, she’s also the reaper of death for most (if not all) of the dead (male!) bodies piled up under the town bridge.
Amirpour’s portrayal of women’s empowerment in the movie is very intriguing. Namely, moments before the female protagonist kills her victims, we see the victims engaged in sexual intercourse with the prostitute woman who takes part in both acts involuntarily. The vampire–who, as we are told in one of the scenes, has psychic powers–shows up right after the rape scenes, killing the men. In doing so, she removes the rules and regulations instituted by the masculine consciousness. The female protagonist could easily be seen as an outcast in her own community: she seems to be the sole vampire in the city; she never reveals her name, as if she refuses to be associated with any labels; and finally, she is not afraid to renounce the veil of masculine oppression and supremacy, in order to finally reassert the power of femininity and equality for all women in the society. To use the words of Adrienne Rich, used in her critique of female tokenism, the female protagonist in the movie eventually loses “her outsider’s vision, [and thus] she loses the insight which both binds her to other women and affirms her in herself” (Rich, Blood, Bread, and Poetry, p. 6). What I find particularly fascinating about Vand’s character, i.e. the vampire woman, is the transformation of her initial desire for seclusion and loneliness into an exercise of power, strength, and dominance over the men living in her community. As an audience, we never really find out why she lives alone and has no friends, family, or any companions in her life. We can only assume that she either chose to live this way, or more likely so, that her difference–that of being a vampire–is not only her unique weapon against the male oppression, but it is, at the same time, the major source of her exclusion and rejection from the society.
One of my favourite scenes in the movie is where we see Vand’s character dancing in her residing place (Note that she lives in the basement, and that the entrance door to her place is very reminiscent of the catacomb gates). The scene clearly shows the split between her natural identity and the identity imposed by a set of societal norms and principles. What we see in the scene is Vand’s character dancing by herself, in a very seductive way, and we cannot escape the feeling of music being her channel to break away from reality and the oppressive present. There is no doubt that Vand’s character is nostalgic for the past: the walls in her room are covered with vinyl records, including Elvis Presley; then our attention is caught by the poster of the famous Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, who looks more like Madonna or Debbie Harry (from Blondie) at the prime of their careers. In yet another dancing scene, Vand’s character is not alone. She is now dancing with Arash, the guy she met while skateboarding her way back home. There is a great tension in this scene, both sexual and deadly. We have a vampire woman dancing with a guy dressed in a dracula costume, to the tunes of a song called “Death” (coincidentally so!): on the one hand, we are led into believing that Arash is her next victim for it is quite obvious that she can hardly resist biting into his neck; on the other hand, we cannot overlook the attraction between the two of them, as attested by their intoxicating body language and eye contact. Nonetheless, Vand’s character is trying to defy and escape this sexual attraction: after a careful and breathtakingly patient inspection of Arash, the vampire girl resists his kiss and simply falls into his embrace. Both of these scenes give off the impression that Vand’s character, in cheating death and embracing the life of eternity as a vampire, has to endure intolerable pain, suffering, and boredom after losing her family, friends, and love companions who cannot live as long as her, due to their human limitations. Even more so, she has to learn how to erase, at least mentally, the feelings she once had for the people in her past, and to put behind, all the events, periods, and movements that have defined history. As such, Vand’s character has a problem not only with living in a community that does not acknowledge and accept her identity and all of her unique characteristics. She also has to cope with adapting her identity and existence to the social, political, and cultural norms of the new communities, ages and periods, risking rejection, alienation and excommunication, time and again.
The Vampire Girl roams the streets of Bad City, in search of a new victim.
Vampire Girl (played by Sheila Vand) shown in her room, with the face of Margaret Atwood in the background (pay attention to the poster on the wall).
While the mythical and supernatural aspect of vampirism represents one of the main elements in the movie plot, we have to bear in mind that Amirpour never really intended to make that the most dominant element. As the movie itself is primarily associated with the Iranian film canon, it is crucial to consider the actual meaning and significance of Vand’s character in relation to the whole aspect of women and women’s rights in Iran. Shirin Ebadi, one of Iran’s most outspoken advocates for women’s rights, and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, wrote very openly about the state restrictions imposed upon the Iranian women. As she writes: “In the early nineties[…] the morality police conducted themselves with a frightening, thuggish authority. Certain squares around Tehran became notorious for their komiteh patrols[.] […] If a woman strolling down the street noticed a komiteh patrol in the distance, for example, she would swiftly pull her hejab forward over her hair and wipe off any makeup. So the morality police soon expanded to include plainclothes women who hid walkie-talkies under their chadors and would radio in to summon the male komiteh and their vans to round up unsuspecting women” (Iran Awakening 102-3). Decades later, the morality police in Iran is still patrolling the streets and town squares (in smaller numbers, though), monitoring the way women dress, in an attempt to restrict women’s freedom of choice and their expressions of femininity. Despite all the restrictions, younger generations of Iranian women have, however, shown much audacity and tenacity in resisting the conservative regulations, by incorporating the Western style of dress and by using the hijab in a very modern and flaunting way (To read more about the different dress-code regulations in modern Iran and the way women resist it in their own rebellious way, see (Iran’s morality police: patroling the streets by stealth).
If we apply this aspect to Vand’s character in the movie, it is interesting that her style of dress–plain and non-provocative—would be looked upon as outrageous in some parts of Iran and according to members of the secret police, simply for her buttonless chador that reveals the Western style of dress. While the vampire girl might appear, first and foremost, as the hater of men to most viewers, this, however, is not the way we should interpret her overall role in the movie plot. Amirpour incorporates a beautiful twist to the story itself: the vampire girl is a rebellious individual, who, like the secret police, patrols the streets of Bad City and serves as the guardian of those who are oppressed. Her goal is not to eliminate men per se. On the contrary, the vampire girl has set out on a mission to eliminate the oppressiveness of patriarchal, heteronormative, and repressive cultures where prostitution, rape, and wife-beating are perpetrated and tolerated, and where a woman has no right to speak freely; even more so, where a woman is stripped of her rights to lead the life that she had planned for herself, including the right to dress the way she wants, to be with someone of her own choosing, and to be financially independent. If we try to place the vampire girl in a larger-scale context, we could say that in her use of violence and vampiric powers against the male perpetrators of crime in Bad City, she is trying to put an end to the victimization of women and the stigmatization of the women’s choice of social, economic, and emotional freedom and independence in male-dominated societies.
Finally, what adds to the overall artistry of the movie and its plot is Masuka, the cat. You may wonder why include the cat in the black-and-white vampire movie at all? What is the purpose of Masuka, which spends her everyday existence engaged in typical feline activities, such as sleeping, eating, purring, and more sleeping. Very early in the movie, we learn that Masuka has a great importance for Arash who refuses to give the cat away to the local thug and drug dealer, as a compensation for the money owed by his father. Instead, Arash chooses to give away his car, but not the cat. Then, at the very end of the movie, Arash and the vampire girl, determined to leave Bad City, take Masuka with them and set off into the unknown, in search of a new and better place. Throughout the movie, we get the impression that Masuka is the guardian of Arash’s life, for any time Arash is in danger, Masuka happens to be around. Masuka also has a great significance in relation to the vampire girl, however. Many ancient cultures, including the Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Persian cultures, assigned mystical properties to cats. Cats enjoyed a special status among the ancient Egyptians, who regarded them as the sacred guardians of the household. It is well-known that many of the excavated Egyptian tombs also contained a mummified cat, which only testifies to the importance of cats in ancient Egyptian culture. Contrary to this, ancient Greek culture associated cats with Hecate, the eternal resident of Hades, the underworld, and the goddess of death, darkness, witchcraft, and necromancy. This association of cats with death and sorcery was then adopted in the Middle Ages in Europe, when one of the common beliefs was that cats were demons and that the witches could assume the form of a cat. It is also interesting that the women who were either fond of cats or held cats as their pets would be accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death in the Middle Ages. In addition, it was believed that cats had the power to revive a dead body and turn it into a vampire. In “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”, Masuka does not revive any corpses: instead, it protects Arash and the vampire girl against all the evil and bad people in the city. Like the vampire girl, Masuka enjoys its independence and freedom, refusing to stoop before oppressive social and cultural limitations.
Closing scene of the movie, showing the Vampire Girl, Arash, and Masuka, on their journey of abandonment from Bad City