In this essay, I will take a closerlook at the development of female identity and feminism in the film The Open Door made by Henry Barakat thatis heralded as a ‘bold manifesto of woman’s liberation’ (Bier, p.
23). Certainly,the protagonist’s compelling feminist quest for self-discovery throughout thefilm makes it tempting for us to call it a feminist film. However, through acloser reading of the film using the psychoanalytic model of Laurva Mulvey and a”third world” feminist perspective proposed by Chandra Mohanty, I havequestioned the films’ definition and approach towards ‘women emancipation’. Theuse of these models is grounded in the understanding that the experience ofcolonial Egypt inscribed it to some extent within western practices.Nevertheless, the different female identities and their relative standing onthe scale of feminism, merits an intervention from a postcolonial “third world”feminist eye. I specifically argue that Laila and the ‘other’ women in the filmuse European feminist ideal as the norm or the referent.
Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay ‘VisualPleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975) calls for the destruction of visualpleasure as a radical, feminist weapon against patriarchy. Mulvey argues thatmainstream film form is based on a patriarchal unconscious, which derivespleasure from voyeurism and narcissism. Classical cinema narrative isconstructed by men who are active, controlling subjects and treat women aspassive objects of desire. I will further discuss specific psychoanalytictechniques from Mulvey’s model to analyse the film. Chandra Mohanty in heressay ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ (1984)highlights the problems with White feminist writing on “third world” feminismand refuses to elevate gender as the primary axis of power, embracing instead the potential for diverse, organicfeminisms that are rooted in differences in cultural experiences. Mohanty also pointsout to the dangers of equating femaleidentity with female subordination,which automatically defines power in binary terms: people who have it (men),and people who do not (women). Woman across races, ethnicities have differentinterests and goals that have customarily been defined on a scale normed through Eurocentric assumptions (Mohanty.
1984). Laila’s relations with various menin her life frame the proceedings in the film and open up the feministdiscourse to new paths. First, her cousin Isam tries to sexually control and exploither and when Laila is finally able to overcome this primitive obstacle, shefinds herself being manipulated by her fiancé, Professor Ramzi.
His attempts toimprove her personality are clear indicators of misogyny and arrogance. But whileIsam and Ramzi’s efforts at controlling Laila are more palpable, Hussein’s mediationin Laila’s life is presented as well intentioned and therefore justified. He isthe one who ‘understands’ and shows Laila the ‘right’ path to her salvation.She represents the concern Hussein feels for her and in herself she doesn’thave importance.
This way, the male agency in the film passes from one man toanother and the narrative keeps up with Mulvey’s argument about the malecontrol of feminity on screen. The narrativecan also be read using Mulvey’s paradigm of castration and lack: “the disavowal of castration by thesubstitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure into a fetishso that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous” (Mulvey, p.840). In the film, Laila’squest is not towards self-independence but towards a ‘higher’ cause of Egyptiannationalism which makes her rebellion less threatening and more acceptable. However,Barakat successfully uses space to communicate the concept of liberation andoppression in this film, which removes itself from the classical narrative thatMulvey critiques in her psychoanalytic model. He constructs female subjectivitythrough the use of space, for example, we see that Laila is uninhibited andable to express herself when she is in public space but in the face ofoppression and external pressures she hides behind a closed door. The postcolonial reading of thisfilm is also important to differentiate the roles of different women in thefilm. Laila represents Cairo’sEuropean-aspiring bourgeoisie of the 1940s who is seeking education at a university.
She confronts her family on issues of gender equality and is against the ideaof an arranged marriage. Thisis illustrative of the kind of feminity that White western feminists espouse asper Mohanty’s theory. The other women are used as tools to forward Laila’s typeof ‘correct’ feminity by juxtaposing their decisions, aspirations and theirrepercussions with Laila’s desires. For example, in one of the scenes, Lailarealises that she has unsuspectingly evolved into Gamila’s counterpart, whichshocks and disheartens her probably because Gamila’s womanhood is consideredsubordinate to hers.