Set in the ‘international zone’ of Tangier in the mid 1950s, prior to Moroccan independence, Sky Atlantic’s Little Birds seemed like the perfect escape to wind down the year. The show takes its title and is loosely based on Anaïs Nin’s posthumously published 1979 collection of vignettes which also seemed promising.
The series opens with Lucy Savage (Juno Temple), a wealthy heiress about to leave an institution where she was treated for mental illness. She is blonde, demure, the picture of 1950s American innocence, stifled in her Park Avenue apartment with her bitter mother and creepy arms manufacturer father, and ready to visit her English fiancé in Tangier. Cut scene to the gold-toothed Cherifa Lamor (Yumna Marwan), a Moroccan prostitute in Tangier who specializes in BDSM. Her client, a Frenchman and part of the administration still ruling over Morocco, is on all fours in a gas mask and made to act like a pig under the whip of the dominatrix who eventually urinates on him.
As an audience are we meant to rejoice in this role reversal and upending of the oppressed (presumably) Muslim woman? It’s a colossal misstep and unfortunately the tone of the rest of the series continues on in a similar vein. The third vignette introduces us to entertainer, Lili Von X (Nina Sosanya), who meets Lucy on board the ship to Morocco and who enthralls fellow passengers with the story of her ultimate orgasm taking place as she stood in a crowd in Paris watching a man getting executed. Therefore, Lili too is a personification of the deviant femme noire.
What is perhaps most baffling about all of this is the fact that the show was adapted and written by Sophia Al-Maria, a Qatari-American artist and directed by Stacie Passon – two women. So why does Little Birds feel like a colonial male fantasy? (even the main title theme music composed by Anne Nikitin sounds like an Indiana Jones-esque ‘adventure in the East’ score)
While Al-Maria says of the book Little Birds, “Going back to it as an adult, I felt quite disturbed by viewpoints that were Orientalist, sexist, and racist”, it seems that she has similarly fallen into the very worst of stereotypes of the Middle East. Two scenes are particularly cringe-worthy, the first being when a veiled Cherifa goes to pray at the tomb of a saint and is met by niqab-clad women who immediately tell her to leave on account of her profession (because of course, a niqab gives women the superpower of being able to discover the sex life of another woman just by looking at them). The second is that orientalist fantasy of all orientalist fantasies: polygamy. In a confusing scene, two Moroccan women married to a man who is imprisoned, seduce a stranger. They remove their black niqabs and proceed to have a threesome with the man.
The ‘native’ men are also not spared this colonial gaze as the only Arab men featured are either homosexual or used for the pleasure of European women whose sexuality and sexual fantasies are not repressed when in contact with this licentious male Other. The dynamic is inevitably that precarious one in which acquiescence is guaranteed under threat of an accusation of theft or rape.
This categorization of men as homosexual or submissive is an old colonial one with a specific militaristic intent. Patricia Owens in a paper titled Torture, Sex and Military Orientalism observes “the gendered (and militarist) binary of subordination, that is, the assumed existence of a passive (feminised) penetrated subject and an ‘active’ (masculinised) penetrator. Given that prevailing – and cross-cultural – patriarchal systems, in which the feminised is to be debased, clearly there is a greater opportunity to dishonour the subject in the ‘passive’ role…”
The glaringly obvious miscalculations in Little Birds aside, Al-Maria’s commitment to rewriting and disrupting the stories results in the problem that none of it even feels like Anaïs Nin. Nin did emasculate brash men who are at the whim and fancy of women’s desires but never with lines as boring and ridiculous as “I love testosterone. What would we do without testosterone?” or as cheesy as “I’m a whore. I don’t have time for politics”.
The real strength of Little Birds is its visual appeal, making use of dreamlike neon hues in jazz bars and on the streets of Tangier. The couture-like costumes are also incredible and costume designer, Jo Thompson sourced many original pieces from the 1950s at vintage fairs in Paris and Berlin. Nikitin’s overall score (minus the opening theme) is evocative and the soundtrack also makes use of wonderful music from this era.
But strong visuals and good acting cannot compensate for the general unevenness and lack of judgment when crafting this series that also has somewhat of a flat ending. The viewer doesn’t feel invested in any character, partly because we never quite know what their motives are. Little Birds is disjointed and disappointing, it never quite seduces you and is little more than an erotic colonial adventure with great aesthetic.