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Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf filmmaker Susan Yousseff presents the self and subjectivity of Marjoun, a young Muslim woman and daughter of immigrants. I will speak of Marjoun as though she were a case scenario. Marjoun in depicting her own self as the protagonist is dependent upon the headscarf of the film's title, a hijab which she insists on wearing even indoors (to her mother's derision) and which becomes a crucial symbol at the climax of the story, but which overall represents her own greater outward religious observance in front of her parents.

Marjoun's mother and father are in conflict with Marjoun and her vision of herself in crucial ways. Marjoun's ostentatious religious display of wearing her hijab indoors -- which her mother criticizes -- mostly bewilders her mother and sister, who seem more assimilated than Marjoun. Yet Marjoun's father is in conflict with that observant Muslim woman's commitment to total chastity in that he rather creepily spies on her while she is nude in the shower, and may in fact be molesting her (although the film does not dramatize this). So his disrespect for his own daughter, and his incestuous trespasses upon her, may be the ultimate motivation for Marjoun's headscarf in the first place -- at least this seems to be Susan Yousseff's hint for the audience, when the mother describes its function as "protection." Marjoun wears it for protection from her father.

It is fascinating, though, that the social relationship which seems most important to Marjoun is with the plump blond-haired and blue-eyed white boy who sits in front of her at school -- he is named in the final credits only as "Marjoun's Crush." It is clear that Marjoun's own budding eroticism is feeling its own need to transgress -- but the film's quizzical handling of Marjoun's actual religion seems to suggest that she has an authentic religious experience, while at the same time she experiences sexual desire that is amazingly transgressive to that same religion. Then again, Marjoun's transgressions here are perhaps prompted by her father's transgressive and creepy behavior with her.

But as befits the fact that he has no name beyond "Marjoun's Crush," this boy is incapable of working his way into her world as we might expect: when Marjoun romantically throws herself at him, he does not understand why she won't remove the scarf. But nonetheless she does refuse to remove the scarf: as though to prove, in a culture where a girl's sexual purity receives heavy clerical emphasis, that a girl who is sexually molested by her own father can still resist her own strongest temptations, and refuse to remove the scarf. In other words: her transactions with the crush-boy are simply Marjoun's way of "acting out" her desire to assert her own purity / innocence / virginity in the wake of her father's unwanted advances.

Marjoun's conception of her own self is not influenced by the boy's desire to have her cast aside Islam's rules for women and permit them to enact their mutually-felt desire: nor is influenced by her mother's own calls for Marjoun to seem more assimilated, or at the very least to express no desire for its "protective" elements within her own home. But in this family situation, it is clear that the mother has no idea what Marjoun requires protection from.

The scarf is, of course, the chief way that Marjoun's self is objectified in Yousseff's film. The logic of this even continues to the way in which Marjoun herself objectifies her crush (by staring at the nape of his neck, one of those portions of the body which the hijab is designed to veil) and also by the way in which Marjoun's father objectifies his daughter (by intruding on her in the shower, when he knows her to be nude).

If Marjoun were actually a client, the chief issue that I would wish to address is the one that she seems unable to say to anyone in the course of the film: the nature of her father's attentions towards her. Frankly, if I as a therapist knew that an event took place like the one that is depicted in the film, when the father comes to watch his pubescent daughter as she takes a shower, I would be professionally and legally obligated to inform law enforcement. I would imagine that one way or another, structural social work would be imposed on this family by the courts, after a legal investigation of Marjoun's relationship with her father.

Victims of sexual abuse really require their own specific form of counseling, often because they may suffer from post-traumatic stress or other behavioral indicators, such as OCD handwashing or compulsive promiscuity; but I believe that in terms of specific "schools" of therapeutic practice, the one that is most often associated with victims of sexual abuse -- largely for its ability to confront the issues of stigma, shame or guilt which may be associated with such abuse, especially if it is incestuous -- is group therapy, perhaps in the form outlined in Irvin D. Yalom's Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. Feminist approaches to counseling might be useful in Marjoun's because -- as a matter of purely personal opinion, not speaking as a therapist -- I think the sort of heavily patriarchal religion that Marjoun is a believing participant in bears a large part of the blame for Marjoun's inability to speak out about the unwanted paternal advances. Marjoun's therapist would require a knack for the ability to treat victims of patriarchal oppression who lack the vocabulary, or perhaps even the psychological willingness, to even acknowledge themselves as victims of anything but themselves. In the vocabulary of classical feminism, the therapist would have to first "raise consciousness" with Marjoun in order to even consider offering her a feminist interpretation of her plight -- although such noteworthy cases of oppressed third-world women as Rigoberta Menchu or Ayaan Hirsi-Ali prove that consciousness can, indeed, be raised in the unlikeliest of women.

My Nose

"My Nose" represents a more lighthearted case for the therapist. The filmmaker and protagonist Gayle Kirschenbaum, has spent her whole adult life -- since her teens, really -- enduring her mother's constant kvetching at her that she should get her nose fixed. Kirschenbaum and her mother both speak directly to the camera, so Kirschenbaum's own self is depicted as Kirschenbaum wants it depicted: with the opinions of others adequately represented.

So we do see the opinions held on Gayle's nose by her mother -- who thinks she looks like the Indian on the buffalo nickel (a not inaccurate comparison when the two are superimposed) -- but also the opinions held by famed "Grey Gardens" documentarian Albert Maysles (who tells Gayle she's "got a great nose"). Gayle's social relationships and social network are mainly filmmakers and documentarians, largely impervious to the lure of cosmetic surgery. The chief (but not only) spokesman for plastic surgery in the film is Kirschenbaum's mother; but the plastic surgeons who are interviewed have differing approaches to the question of whether Kirschenbaum "needs" a purely cosmetic procedure. One doctor has a Kabbalistic vision of the husband Gayle will find after making her nose more muppety and/or Irish-looking.

Gayle seems to have solidified into a comfortable relationship with her mother over this issue and the fact that neither of them will yield an inch. In a sense Kirschenbaum's film is an attempt to document the fact that neither of them indeed will move an inch, with Kirschenbaum as unpersuaded by the various surgeons who offer them their appraisals as Kirschenbaum's mother remains unmoved by the aesthetic opinion of Albert Maysles that Kirschenbaum should keep her nose.

Gayle is no longer worried about her mother's impressions, or anyone else's, since she seems to lead a happy and satisfying life with the nose she's got. She refuses to let her nose be the way in which her self is objectified, and her mother never stops insisting that in some way it does objectify Gayle. But the simple fact is that Gayle must surely be aware of something which is never addressed outright: that this is mostly a specific issue of Jewish assimilation. Viewers of the Coen Brothers film "A Serious Man" will undoubtedly recall the shrill rage with which the film's Jewish university professor protagonist reacts to the suggestion that his teenage daughter is contemplating a nose-job in the 1970s. "No member of this family is getting a nose-job!" he howls impotently, like King Lear. It's clear that a passionate opinion about nose-jobs one way or the other is a means of defining differing modes and methods of Jewish assimilation. For Professor Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brothers' recollection of the 1970s rhinoplasty would be a sign that one felt shamed by one's Jewish heritage -- which is still apparent in the euphemism of saying that a woman like Gayle Kirschenbaum "has the map of Israel written all over her face." In other words, forms of strong Jewish self-identification…[continue]

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