When the Vampire Looks
Gender and Surveillance in
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Dokhtari dar shab tanhā be khāne miravad, 2014) is your basic Iranian Vampire Western.1 Boy steals cat from neighbor’s yard for reasons undisclosed. Pimp steals Boy’s car to settle Boy’s father’s heroin debts. Vampire Girl kills pimp for gender-based vengeance, also dinner. Boy steals pimp’s drugs with intent to distribute. Girl wheels Boy, high on his own supply, home on her skateboard. Boy gives up on his junkie father, hurls a brick of heroin at his head, and kicks him and the cat out. Boy’s father forces sex worker to shoot up while cat looks on. Vampire Girl kills Boy’s father for gender-based vengeance, also dinner; takes cat home with her. Boy finds father’s body dumped on street, decides to get out of Bad City, begs Girl to leave with him. Cat wanders out of Girl’s bedroom. Boy realizes Girl was involved in his father’s death, takes her (and the cat) with him anyway. David Lynch highway shot.2 Fin.
It’s hard to know what to make of this film. Girl Walks Home Alone is a gorgeous music video with pacing problems.3 It’s an American film with whose actors speak only in Farsi. It’s an Iranian story with Iranian characters filmed outside Bakersfield, California.4 It’s a love story with no kissing, but which includes romantic impromptu DIY ear-piercing. The film’s ageless protagonist is obsessed with bleeding-edge pop music that sounds nostalgic for the 1980s.5 The Girl wears a chador, but there is no mention of Islam or any religion in the film.6 The writer-director and lead actor are both women, and the eponymous Girl feeds only on men, but it’s not a feminist film.
It was the siren song of a feminist monster that first lured me to Girl Walks Home Alone. I was planning a class on Religion and Monsters as a creative introduction to Religious Studies, and Jezebel promised me an Iranian feminist vampire film.7
Jezebel lied to me. So did Ms.8 Inconstancy, thy name is clickbait journalism.
This is not a feminist film. Its delight in threatening and murdering men might qualify it as a misandrist fantasy, but symbolic castrations do not a feminist film make. It is not a feminist film because it does not advocate for the political, economic, and social equality of people of all genders. And it is not a feminist film if we may judge the story by the evaluations of its writer-director, Ana Lily Amirpour, and its lead actor, Sheila Vand.
Vand was blunt on this point. She told Salon that “we didn’t set out to make a feminist movie… the lead is a female who happens to be a badass. But is that all it takes to be feminist? I don’t know. It’s certainly not about being feminist, but it certainly follows some of the requirements.”9 When the New Republic asked if she intended the film to have “feminist themes,” Amirpour demurred, asking the interviewer if she interpreted the film as feminist. When the interviewer said she had, Amirpour countered, “that probably says more about you than it does about me. A film is like a mirror.”10
Girl Walks Home Alone may not be a feminist film, but feminists’ reception of the film clearly mirrors certain desires. (A Google search for “feminist Iranian vampire movie” results in over 200,000 hits, most for Girl Walks Home Alone.) Our collective longing to see an Iranian feminist vampire story might be a form of neo-Orientalism, in which Western audiences are still reveling in fantasies of the East – except now we expect them to reflect ourselves, our commitments, our desires, back to us. Girl, like any good vampire, will not cast this reflection.
Western feminists’ desire to see Girl Walks Home Alone in their own image is perhaps understandable. Linda Willliams’ “When the Woman Looks” famously argues that women see ourselves in the monster.11 Horror films also create space for women’s hero(in)ic agency and for audience identification with a female protagonist, as Carol Clover insists in her unforgettably titled Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Horror movies are a genre in which “badass” women, to use Vand’s phrase, make it out alive (thus Clover’s famous trope, the Final Girl).12 Twenty-first century American audiences, it seems, are eager to elide women’s violent agency with feminism.
Saba Mahmood both observes and insightfully critiques the impulse to identify Muslim women’s agency as feminism in her Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.13 She highlights the cultural imperialism at work in collapsing agency with resistance. Mahmood’s critique suggests that we need to find a new lens for this film. Amirpour’s work might not be feminist, but that might not be a bad thing. Girl Walks Home Alone literally flips the script on how we see “women of cover.”14
The film deliberately disrupts the gaze: it reflects neither heterosexual male desire nor Western fantasies of “good Muslims.”15 In his 2005 Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, Mahmood Mamdani noted the emergence of “good” and “bad” Muslim tropes in American political discourse following September 11th. In George W. Bush’s war on terror, Mamdani argues, all Muslims were presumed bad until proven otherwise.16 Muslims proved themselves good by disavowing and supporting the United States in their assault on “bad Muslims” (i.e. fundamentalist terrorists) and by espousing western values. Interestingly, Sheila Vand played just such a “good Muslim” in the 2012 Academy Award-winning film Argo; as Sahar, housekeeper for the Canadian ambassador, she lies to Iranian military personnel to protect fugitive American embassy workers during the 1979 revolution. Not so in Amirpour’s film. There are no good Muslims in Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
To be fair, the movie features no (professed) Muslims at all. No character mentions Muslim identities, practices, or beliefs. There are no mosques in Bad City; public spaces are bleak and unmarked by Persian calligraphy. Given the marked Iranian influences throughout the film, Islam is conspicuous in its absence. Though Amirpour has been candid about her distaste for Iran, describing the country as “a mess. Medieval. Suffocating,” she does not afford western viewers an opportunity to disdain Islam or its “treatment” of women.17 The Girl dons a chador, true, but the garment functions as a disguise and an allusion: when she skates down the street, she is transformed, without any special effects, into a winged creature of the night.
More importantly, Girl Walks Home Alone at Night refutes the “good Muslim” trope by allowing its main character to be monstrous. Muslims have long been monstrous in the western imagination, as Sophia Arjana reminds us. In her Muslims in the Western Imagination, Arjana traces the “monstrification” of Muslims in popular western culture to an Orientalist exoticization of Muslims as timeless, hypersexualized, and essentially foreign.18 Muslims make great vampires, in other words; Arjana engages Stoker’s Dracula and other Orientalist blood-suckers at length.19 Amirpour plays on the blood-sucking Muslim trope when Arjash – the Persian James Dean who becomes the Girl’s love interest – dresses as Dracula for a costume party at which he’s dealing.20
Amirpour makes the Muslim-monster trope work for her. This Girl who walks home alone at night is not vulnerable or weak. She is not in need of saving. Indeed, Amirpour affords her Girl the luxury of rage. We see her dismember Saeed, the pimp, after he mistreats and robs Atti, the sex worker. She murders and eats Hossein, her love interest’s father, for likewise mistreating Atti. But though all her victims are male, they are not all bad men. One is a nameless man living rough on the mean streets of Bad City. The other is a small boy, a street urchin of perhaps nine.
In what is arguably the film’s most haunting scene, the Girl stalks the urchin down a deserted street.21 She demands to know if he is a good boy. When he claims he is, she insists he not lie to her. “I can take your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat. Till the end of your life, I’ll be watching you. Understand?” she hisses. “Be a good boy,” she warns him. And then she steals his skateboard.
The moral ambiguity of this moment is striking; we are haunted by the threat of constant vampiric surveillance. Indeed, the Girl is watching everyone at every moment in this film. But she is not alone in this. The characters are all watching each other across physical and emotional distances – they dance for each other, spy on one another, long for contact but seldom touch. (The chief exceptions being physical violence or the dragging of dead bodies to the unremarked-upon corpse pit at the edge of town.22)
In a stunning commentary on the hypervisibility of covering women’s bodies, even the walls are watching the Girl. Early in the film, we see her leaving a grocery store, flanked by a poster that reads “Is this you? If so, call this number now.”23
The Girl is the only character in the film who wears a chador; we may assume that the poster refers to her, and is asking for leads on her whereabouts. On the walls of the Girl’s own room, a poster of Margaret Atwood, designed to look like the cover of Madonna’s first album, echoes this suggestion of surveillance. Atwood is best known for her Handmaid’s Tale, in which a totalitarian theocracy rigidly monitors and controls women’s bodies. We might read this as a critique of gender politics in America, or Iran, or both.
But the Girl resists and evades this surveillance, acting according to her own inaccessible motivations. When she cautions Arash that she’s bad – “I’ve done bad things. You don’t know the things I’ve done”— we believe her. But she also rescues Atti from Arash’s violent father and gives her the resources to leave town. She seems to genuinely care for Arash, uprooting her life at a moment’s notice when he begs her to leave with him.
In these moments – her righteous vengeance, her petty thefts, her compassion, her loneliness, and her longing – the Girl is neither good nor bad. She is, however, most assuredly an agent in her own right, unconstrained by government, religion, conventional morality, or cultural mores. Amirpour’s Girl will not be your mirror: at every turn, she resists both facile stereotypes of Muslim women and attempts to map western feminism onto nonwestern agents. She is neither an overt political statement nor a heroine.24
American media and political discourse frequently deny Muslims the luxury of individualism; as Dohra Amad asserts, Muslims are perceived as “singular and representative.”25 Any one Muslim in the public eye too often stands in for all Muslims everywhere. Amirpour’s Girl, by contrast, is merely herself. She walks home alone at night, and in doing so, presents trenchant commentary on both the hypervisibility and the perceived vulnerability of women of cover.
MEGAN GOODWIN is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow for Creative and Innovative Pedagogy in the Humanities and a Lecturer in Religious Studies at Bates College. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality in contemporary American minority religions. Her current project is Women and Children Last: Sex, Abuse, and American Minority Religions.
 As Amirpour says, “David Lynch is magic” (http://waste-magazine.com/post/98311332325/a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night-an-interview).
 A number of reviewers have commented on the length and slow pacing of the film. I remain undecided as to whether the pace of the film is an ingénue director’s indulging a confessed over-fondness of David Lynch, Sergio Leone, and Jim Jarmusch, or a deliberate and disciplined homage to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979). Herzog’s film overlays German band Popol Vuh’s droning, repetitive score onto sustained shots of clouds moving over the sun to emphasize the relentless, banal despair and detachment of immortality. Shots like this, set as they are to grating music uncharacteristic of Girl, incline me toward the latter reading.
 Esther Breger, “We Like Vampires Because We Hate Death,” New Republic, November 24, 2014 (https://newrepublic.com/article/120376/interview-ana-lily-amirpour-director-iranian-vampire-movie).
Amirpour has insisted that the film’s setting is “not Iran, it’s like a fairy tale world, it’s universal. It’s like any town where there’s corruption and there’s secrets and there’s loneliness and people that got dealt a shit hand”: Emma Myers, “ND/NF Interview: Ana Lily Amirpour,” FilmComment, March 19, 2014 (http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-ana-lily-amirpour/). The Girl lives in Bad City, something like an imaginary Tehrangeles suburb planned by Frank Miller. The town’s name is almost certainly an allusion to Miller’s monochromatic Sin City; Amirpour is an avowed fan of graphic novels and is two volumes into a planned six-volume series of graphic novels that explore the Girl’s backstory.
 “Death,” by White Lies, is a particularly trenchant example of the genre. As Amirpour says, “It has this vintage nostalgia, it’s a new song but it has this feeling of synth-pop from the 80s. It just felt like the feeling of falling in love but in an adolescent way, it has a high school love feeling, it’s this innocent John Hughes kind of feeling.” Virginie Sélavy, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Interview with Ana Lily Amirpour,” Electric Sheep, May 19, 2015 (http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/features/2015/05/19/a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night-interview-with-ana-lily-amirpour/).
 The rare exception to the film’s areligiosity is in an exchange between Atti, the sex worker, and the Girl, in which Atti asks if the Girl has been watching her. When the Girl admits she has, Atti asks if the Girl is “religious or something.” She demurs. Her chador seems to be more a nod to vampire aesthetics than to piety.
The only other possible allusion to Iran’s Islamic commitments is admittedly a stretch: at the end of the film, we get a glimpse of the license plate for Arash’s beloved 1957 Thunderbird. The plate, formatted like an Iranian license plate, reads “BAD CITY 67b433.” 67b433 is the hex color code for green, a color strongly associated with Islam. (I am indebted to Prof. Kathleen Foody of the College of Charleston for this translation and observation.) If Amirpour were slightly less geeky, we could probably write this off as coincidence. As it stands, I’m inclined to read the plate as a nod to the pervasiveness of Islamic influences in contemporary Iranian culture.
 Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, “Watch the Trailer For the First-Ever Iranian Feminist Vampire Western,” Jezebel, October 27, 2014 (http://jezebel.com/watch-the-trailer-for-the-first-ever-iranian-feminist-v-1651418042); Laura Barcella, “The Feminist Vampire Movie That Teaches ‘Bad Men’ a Gory Lesson,” Jezebel, November 25, 2014 (http://jezebel.com/the-feminist-vampire-movie-that-teaches-bad-men-a-gory-1662788544).
 Holly L. Derr, “A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part 7: New Beginnings,” Ms. Blog, October 27, 2015 (http://msmagazine.com/blog/2015/10/27/a-feminist-guide-to-horror-movies-part-7-new-beginnings/).
 Anna Silman, “Sheila Vand: ‘This Is Not a Movie About Being Feminist,” Salon, December 12, 2014 (http://www.salon.com/2014/12/12/sheila_vand_this_is_not_a_movie_about_being_feminist/).
 Breger, “We Like Vampires Because We Hate Death.” In an interview with The Guardian, Amirpour also called Lars von Trier, director of such graphic films as Nymphomaniac and The Antichrist, “the biggest feminist” (original emphasis). This suggests Amirpour’s definition of feminism might be slightly left of center. Danny Leigh, “The Skateboarding Iranian Vampire Diaries,” The Guardian, May 7, 2015 (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/07/skateboarding-iranian-vampire-ana-lily-amirpour-feminism-porn-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night).
 Linda Williams, “When the Woman Looks,” in Mary Anne Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams (eds.) Re-vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism (University Press of America, 1984), 561-577.
 Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton University Press, 2015). See also Donato Totaro, “The Final Girl: A Few Thoughts on Feminism and Horror”: http://offscreen.com/view/feminism_and_horror.
 Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005).
 On October 11, 2001, George W. Bush gave a press conference in which he referred to American Muslim women as “women of cover.” Bush applauded American Christian and Jewish women for showing Muslims “true friendship and support” by going shopping with them.
 In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey famously theorizes that the camera, as “male gaze,” “projects its phantasy onto the female figure” (Visual and Other Pleasures (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 19).
There are two brief scenes in which the camera’s point of view encourages the sexual objectification of women: first, as Arash, the Girl’s love interest, watches a wealthy debutante dance at a party; second, as Arash’s father, Hossein, commands Atti the sex worker to dance for him. Neither of these scenes ends well for the men. Arash is rebuffed and humiliated; the Girl murders and feeds on Hossein, dumping his body in the street. In light of these examples, it’s fair to say Amirpour’s film disciplines and redirects the audience away from the male gaze.
 Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Harmony Books, 2005), 15, 23.
 Leigh, “The Skateboarding Iranian Vampire Diaries.” On the problematics of the perceived helplessness of or Western concern for Muslim women, see Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press, 2013).
 Arjana, Muslims in the Western Imagination, 84-132. J. Halberstam has also suggested that the vampire can be read as both Jewish and queer; see “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Victorian Studies 36 (1993): 333-352.
 Kieron Tyler, “Style over Substance in the Supposed ‘First Iranian Vampire Western,” The Arts Desk, May 21, 2015 (http://www.theartsdesk.com/film/girl-walks-home-alone-night).
 Vand’s movements are distinctly and deliberately serpentine and feline: she and Amirpour watched videos of cobras and cats striking as part of the Girl’s characterizations. See Abeni Moreno, “Vampires, Skateboards and Autonomy: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” Ms. Blog, November 27, 2014 (http://msmagazine.com/blog/2014/11/27/vampires-skateboards-and-autonomy-a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night/).
 Michael Pregill has suggested that Bad City’s corpse pit is “an allusion to totalitarian states like Iran where people get disappeared… How can we not think of the hundreds if not thousands of people who have been jailed and disappeared by the Iranian regime over the years since 1979?” (personal correspondence, April 10, 2016).
 I am indebted to Kathleen Foody for this translation as well. On the hypervisibility of Muslim women, see Homa Hoodfar, “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women,” Resources for Feminist Research 22 (1992-3): 5-18.
 Amirpour strenuously resists interpretations of the film as either feminist (as we saw above) or political. “If there’s one political thing [in the movie], it’s not the chador,” Amirpour says in an interview with Wired. “It’s Rockabilly, because it’s not OK to be gay in Iran.” Angela Watercutter, “Meet the Woman Who Directed the World’s Only Iranian Vampire Western,” Wired, February 5, 2014 (http://www.wired.com/2014/02/girl-walks-home-alone-at-night/). Rockabilly is never formally introduced; they are a gender-ambiguous character haunting the peripheries of Bad City and the narrative. There is no indication of Rockabilly’s sexual orientation in the film, though their appearance does resemble Iranian men preparing for sexual reassignment surgery. (While Iran does not recognize homosexuality as a condition of possibility, the state subsidizes sexual reassignment surgery. See Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Transing and Transpassing across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36 (2008): 23-42.)
Girl Walks Home Alone includes an extended non sequitur sequence in which Rockabilly dances with a balloon in an abandoned public square. As noted by Sophie Mayer, this scene is so out of place, so deliberately Lynchian, as to suggest the gender difference embodied by Rockabilly should unsettle the viewer: Sophie Mayer, “Film of the Week: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” Sight & Sound, May 22, 2015 (http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-girl-walks-home-alone-night). Rockabilly reads as disjointed, bizarre, and out of time, but not political. This is a curious and perhaps unintentionally unkind presentation of gay and/or trans identity by Amirpour.
Indeed, Amirpour’s vampires are noteworthy for their absolute, unwavering heterosexuality and cisgender presentation. As Halberstam notes, the vampire trope trades on gender ambiguity and sexual voracity – observable in Le Fanu’s predatory lesbian Carmilla, Rice’s sexual omnivorous Lestat, and most recently in Lindqvist’s gender ambivalent Eli in Låt Den Rätte Komma In (Let the Right One In).