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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Perfect Strangers is a Matter of Gender Double Standards

Perfect Strangers
This picture taken on January 23, 2021 in Cairo shows a phone displaying a scene from the Netflix-produced pan-Arab film “Ashab wala Aaz” (Perfect Strangers). Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

Youssef Sharkawy

This article has been translated from Arabic to English.

The new Arabic-language film “Perfect Strangers” presents a slew of themes with gender issues and the various interpretations of the term “queer,” whether in historical context or in Arab societies. The film, which premiered on Netflix on January 17, 2022, compares the “male gaze” with the “female gaze” and raises questions about the freedom to view and classify films, the shift in the audience’s relationship with cinema, and the audience’s preference for moral over artistic criteria.

Between the female gaze and the male gaze

Ironically, some believe the film threatens a decades-long state of denial in the Arab world, namely the failure to recognize recurring social practices such as harassment, rape, marital rape, child marriage, depriving women of their rights, violence, killing, bullying, and hegemonic patriarchy.

In other words, a state of denial that cannot imagine the existence of a feminine entity with free will, who is not subject to hegemonic patriarchy, who is not subject to male censure, and who defies two laws that have long dominated Arab cinema: “The woman as an image, and the man as the viewer,” and “The screen is female, and the audience is male.” Unfortunately, the outpouring of hate has not been restricted to Egyptian actress Mona Zaki’s part in the film; she and her husband have been the targets of a vicious social media campaign that has included threats of legal action.

The film contradicts the usual masculine gaze that pervades Arab cinema. It rejects the psychology of sensual “love of looking” by depicting the woman as a free, self-aware individual who is not subject to dominance. Unlike most films, it rejects the “male gaze,” which refuses to see women as having power and a human identity, as well as the patriarchal view that women are merely a source of pleasure, an image, and that the only purpose of the female actress is to visually support and advance the image of the male protagonist.

In her famous work “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” released in 1999, British researcher Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze,” in which she presents her thoughts on the phenomenon via the prism of psychoanalysis. Mulvey portrays the power imbalance between men and women in literature and art, as well as in society and politics, in her article by portraying women in the visual and literary arts from a male perspective, i.e. as a sexual object for the pleasure of male spectators. In Arab cinema, there are various examples of this viewpoint, notably the Egyptian film “The Danish Experience.”

It’s possible that this contradiction of the dominant viewpoint in an Arab film, along with other arguments, sparked the backlash, just as it’s possible to ask a simple question about the hypocrisy surrounding the scene that drew the most attention, namely actress Mona Zaki’s character removing her underwear. Would the opinion have altered if the actor’s gender had been reversed?

The Syrian sitcom “Chicago Street” and the kiss sequence between Solaf Fawakherji and Mihyar Khaddour spring to mind as recent examples of critiques levied against the woman in a kiss scene without mentioning her male companion in the action.

The male gaze, on the other hand, is represented in the film’s male characters’ indifference to their behavior and failure to criticize any of their immoral behaviors. Whether it was Lebanese actor Adel Karam’s character, who deceived his wife with two women, or Iyad Nassar’s character, who cheated on his wife with a younger lady, this was the situation. Meanwhile, the actresses are facing charges for the actions of the characters they portrayed.

The queer issue and double standards

The term “queer,” which has been Arabized, comes with various interpretations: It is sometimes defined as “strange,” or “outsider.” In more accurate contexts, “queer” may take the connotation of “sexually free,” “non-compliant to norms,” “unconventional,” and today it can be used to refer to homosexuality.

The subject of homosexuality is one of the issues that Egyptian international filmmaker Youssef Chahine addressed in his films, which he portrayed in a distinct manner. Chahine depicted the homosexual person’s personality as normal, rather than out of the norm, and contrary to societal standards. Whether it was in his films “Those People of the Nile” (1964), “Alexandria… Why?” (1979), or “Alexandria Again and Again” (1990), Chahine’s portrayal would pave the way to how queerness is addressed in “Perfect Strangers.”

Yet during Chahine’s cinematic career, no Egyptian member of the House of Representatives issued a statement stating that any of the films incited homosexuality, as was the case with “Perfect Strangers.” This demonstrates a significant shift in the public’s attitude toward cinema and its reception.

The audience’s relationship with film is divided into several levels, the first of which is their relationship with the protagonist. According to the German critic Hans Robert Jaus, this relationship comes in six forms: empathy, admiration, comparison, sympathy, aversion and neutrality.

The second level involves the audience’s relationship with the film’s plot which, according to Nawar Galahj’s book “The Authority of Cinema, Cinema is the Authority,” is divided into five types: contemplation, imagination, remembrance, excitement, and indifference.

Never was there a mention in any of the levels of a moral relationship between the audience and film that would see the former pass judgment on the ethics presented by a cinematic work, or criticize the forms it presents, without mentioning any criteria or artistic aspect.

Egypt’s former age of cinema was divided among Nadia El-Gendy, “The Star of the Masses”; Nabila Obeid, “Egypt’s First Star”; and Adel Imam “The Leader.” These three in particular presented a cinema free of moral criteria in the time before the application of age classification for viewing, and public opinion never convulsed before Adel Imam’s kisses to his female colleagues, nor at Nabila Obeid’s scenes on cinema beds, and all this at the height of the “Wahhabi invasion” of Egypt.

In the wake of this era, the notion of ​​”clean cinema” prevailed in Egypt, with “right-wing conservative” becoming the architype for filmmaking, which in general dominated the society’s identity. A number of Egyptian actors, including Ahmed Helmy and Mona Zaki, rose during this period of clean cinema and took part in it. Later, during a seminar at the Cairo Film Festival last year, Mona Zaki denied the existence of a clean or respectable cinema, saying it was in fact the producers who promoted the label and flung it on her generation for commercial purposes.

These changes apply to the audience’s interaction with both film and performers, particularly in the latter’s engagement with the public, which is now made accessible via social media.

The form and method of the public’s reception also includes societal identity, the current political situation, the character of political and social systems, and their bias toward one side or the other.

This could explain why the problem of homosexuality in Youssef Chahine’s films received such a different public response across three decades than the same subject in a film released in 2022. This paradoxical behavior may also be seen in Syrian director Abdel Latif Abdel Hamid’s recent film “The Last Iftar,” in which a kiss elicited public outrage but scenes of murder and blood elicited none.

Freedom to view

Films and other materials are now subject to age classification ratings so that parents can control what ideas their children are exposed to and stay informed about global developments and changes in the presentation of facts and ideas, such as the system established by Jacques Joseph Valenti in 1968 and the amendments implemented in some Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, which added a new +21 rating.

The film has a +16 classification on Netflix, indicating that the topics portrayed in it are not appropriate for children under the age of 16. Regardless of this cautionary designation, audiences continue to pass moral judgment on the actors rather than the characters, reflecting the Arab world’s attitude of denial.

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