The Girl Behind The Mission: A Review of He Named Me Malala

Pictured above: the promotional poster for He Named Me Malala (photocredit: Screenrelish)

He Named Me Malala, directed by Davis Guggenheim, was a very well made, easily digestible biopic that detailed the events leading up to the Taliban’s attack on Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old Nobel Prize winning activist from Pakistan.

The film’s strongest moments were not in the scenes that highlighted Malala’s heroism but rather in those that humanized her from public figure to the girl next door.  Seeing her playfully interact with her brothers and shyly thrilled by Googling Roger Federer (a Swiss tennis player) was especially illuminating, as we get to see her as a big sister and a teenage girl with a celebrity crush.

We also witness the loneliness she feels in school and the palpable feeling of loss from being displaced from her home due to her activism on behalf girls’ education.  

Meanwhile, seeing her standing alone on a red carpet, while she tilts her head slightly and smiles modestly, exposes the utter awkwardness and loneliness of her celebrity girlhood.

One of the strengths of the film is its refusal to demonize Malala’s home country, Pakistan.  She speaks of her ache for the “dirt roads” of her hometown, the way children play in the street, and the close community to which she belonged.  In fact, the film was careful not to perpetuate the usual caricatures out of Muslims in general, and Pakistanis, in particular. Even the Taliban was humanized by Malala’s compassion, characterized as men led astray by a need for guidance.  Below is an excerpt between the interviewer and Malala:

“‘All this time, you’ve never felt angry?’

‘No. Not even as small as an atom. Or maybe a nucleus of an atom. Or maybe a proton. Or maybe a quark.'”

That said, there were major oversights in the documentary.  One of the largest, and most problematic (albeit interesting) questions posed by the film is whether the choice of Malala’s activism had been her own or her father’s, who seems to play the role of a stage parent. Is it morally right for a father to risk his daughter’s safety for a larger cause? While interesting to ask, I doubt this question would have been posed if the subject of the film had been a young man or boy.  

I see this kind of questioning of personal agency in many situations, whether it is at an everyday or celebrity level; for example, young women entertainers who are in touch with their sexuality are often portrayed as puppets on strings controlled by the CEOs of their record labels (who are male in the public’s mind), whether or not they have creative control over their endeavors.  

Even Malala, whose appeal is based on a strand of feminism that advocates for global girls education such as the eponymous Malala Fund, does not seem to escape these implications, even in her own home. Guggenheim asks her if her father’s naming of her and encouragement of activism fated her to a life of sacrifice and heroism.  However, in this moment, Malala reclaims her agency, declaring that “He only gave me the name Malala — he didn’t make me Malala. I chose this life.”  

I asked myself many questions throughout the film: is the utter lack of discussion on intersectional feminism tampered by the fact that she is a woman of color using her voice on a public platform?  Is the fact that she is having her voice heard as a woman from a war-torn country, enough, as she herself represents a fundamentally intersectional view?  

I wanted to hear her insights on how racism and sexism compounded for her–for example, the difference between her experience of gender in London and Pakistan.  What freedoms do Pakistani women have that American women do not (and the other way around)?  We will not achieve Malala’s most coveted goal, girls education, until our media and legal system recognize and respect intersectional experiences.  This was a lost opportunity to spotlight how issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity intersect in Malala’s life and activism.   

The film was still perhaps one of the finer introductions to feminism one could receive.  We see Malala’s ongoing struggle in the face of discrimination, (even from her own mother, Toorpekai, who tells her not to “shake hands with men” or “look at men”).  We see both sexist microaggressions (such as the aforementioned questioning of Malala’s agency as a young girl) and blatant terrorism against girls (the open fire from Taliban gunmen of the school bus Malala and her fellow schoolgirls occupied).

But it is just that: an introduction, helpful in its simplicity.  It did not go deeper, did not speak of specific solutions other than the general goal of education for girls and Malala’s constant direction of media attention to that topic.  It felt like an advertisement for Malala, an enshrinement of her narrative.

Davis Guggenheim has made a very good film about a great subject. Malala’s character alone is enough to carry this production.  The film did a skillful job of showing Malala on the ground; welcoming refugees across the border; teaching a class of students at the Kisaruni Girls School in Massai Mara, Kenya; speaking to the UN; but I was left hungry for Malala’s global strategies in order to achieve her vision, which, in my mind, were lost in the formula of this biopic.  

If you are looking for a story of a mission, you will not find it here. But if you are looking for the story of the girl behind that mission, you are looking in the right place.

6 thoughts on “The Girl Behind The Mission: A Review of He Named Me Malala

  1. I like how you used described the film as “easily digestible” right away. I am learning so much in this course and seeing the world as an intersectional/radical feminist. I know that it is easy to be frustrated at why greater society does not think like I do. I think the film had to be “easily digestible” to make it accessible to a greater audience. Many movies do not even pass the Bechdel test (have two woman characters that talk to each other about something other than men).

  2. I like that in your review you were able to separate Malala from the mission, the girl from the media. One of my favorite parts of your post was when you quoted Malala on her “reclaiming her agency” when she stated that “He only gave me the name Malala — he didn’t make me Malala. I chose this life”.

  3. Similar to what Carson said, I really like your review on this movie and how you almost went inside her mind. You talked about how this life was always hers and she wasn’t created this way but the media just poured her voice out for her. The media didn’t create her, but she created herself on the media.

  4. I loved the film as well and thought it was really well done! I agree completely that it did a phenomenal job of humanizing Malala and showing her as someone other than “the girl who was shot by the Taliban.” It had not occurred to me that they may not have questioned Malala’s agency had she been a boy. I’m really glad that you brought this up because I may not have noticed! I agree that the film did a great job highlighting her character rather than restricting her to nothing more than her negative experiences. Very well written, E!

  5. I really enjoyed reading your blog post and it was really well written. Your critique of the film was also very eye opening because it is very easy to overlook the problematic scenes in such a well produced film. Your critique really showed that even with such a powerful feminist public figure, gender binaries are still forced on women.

  6. Great analysis on this biopic E! You really ask the important questions that many people would probably brush by after viewing this film. I haven’t watched the film yet but I would love to watch while keeping some of the questions you have asked such as why this film is titled “He Called Me Malala”, when throughout the entire film “He” may have influenced her, but surely was not the reason why she chose to fight for the rights to girls education around the world.

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