Andria Tayeh, Rakeen Saad, and Yara Mustafa in Tima Shomali's "AlRawabi School for Girls" on Netflix.

A Devastation in Pink — “AlRawabi School for Girls”

“AlRawabi School for Girls” is a Jordanian series that follows a “Count of Monte Cristo” plot. Mariam is a bookish student who becomes the target of three popular girls. They beat her, leading to a school investigation. In what might be the most stomach-turning scene this year, the most popular girl convinces the entire student body that they saw something they didn’t, something which casts Mariam as the aggressor instead of their victim. On top of her injuries and trauma, this shatters Mariam’s home and school life, so she decides she’ll take them down one by one.

What “AlRawabi School for Girls” gets so right is its feeling of hideousness. There are acts of bullying here that other shows often treat as plot impetus, instead of focusing in on character. Here, it feels world-ending, which is exactly how it feels to children enduring it.

The scene where Mariam’s bully Layan convinces everyone to swap their roles is particularly stark. We tend to think this rewriting of reality is something complex. After people like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, there’s a temptation to imagine it requires a vast power struggle at the highest levels to pull off. That’s a comforting thought in the face of their horror because it pretends things like this only happen beyond our ability to control or influence. Yet this single scene in “AlRawabi School for Girls” shows how ordinary it really is. It just takes a little bit of privilege to exert, which most of us can find somewhere in our lives. That means any of us is capable of it, and that we all have a responsibility against it.

“AlRawabi School for Girls” focuses on how girls are disempowered. Some of this is specific to Arab and Islamic culture. One episode revolves around trying to get an image of a girl without her hijab. Even though most of the girls don’t wear one, the fact that Roqayya does means that removing it to flirt is scandalous and would embarrass her family. It’s not difficult to see how this plays out in other cultures as well – such as how many evangelicals police the clothing of girls and persecute them based on double-standards.

The series also poses how this struggle for limited agency within the bounds of a private school – already dangerous and traumatizing – is dwarfed by the denial of the girls’ agency outside the school. One of the tensest scenes I saw this year was brief but overwhelming, when an old man tries to sexually assault one of the girls in a swimming pool.

“AlRawabi School for Girls” never shows too much – it doesn’t glorify these moments or turn them into set pieces as if they’re somehow an exception. By sitting us with the experience in a more realistic, everyday way, the idea’s commonality is what becomes horrific.

The point of this hideousness isn’t shock. It’s to make you understand how it’s licensed – how it’s made so normal. In every instance, the adults blame the wrong person. Every time, the one at fault is a girl without agency because this is how our societies have organized themselves to license and excuse predatory behavior. The show’s ultimately about girls taking out their lack of agency on each other. They desperately need to rebel against this lack of agency, but their only lesson in control and confidence is to emulate their abusers by harming those lower on the social ladder. Their only chance to exercise agency as girls is to take it away from the other girls.

The three students who first abuse and discredit Mariam are in turn pursued by Mariam so she can abuse and discredit them, in a cycle that ensures nothing in the patriarchal system that holds all of them down is challenged. In a difference from how we investigate this genre in the U.S., this isn’t a matter of complex mystery plots pulled off by teenagers. Mariam may have a conspiracy wall in her closet, but the reality is that her plot for vengeance boils down to pretty simple steps: get a certain picture, report a girl for sneaking out, that sort of thing.

It’s the consequences – the abusive control these girls’ families exert over them – that are escalated. Even the hacking in the show, while spiced up a little when we see it on a character’s laptop, is narrow and realistic in its capabilities and goals.

Andria Tayeh’s Mariam is well conveyed. There are long stretches where she’s alone in a sea of people, but she recruits two friends to help and it’s in these dialogue scenes where she shines. We see Mariam’s quest for justice morph into a control over her friends that starts to look a lot like Layan’s. These friends are Yara Mustafa’s Dina, a rich girl often lost in her own world, and Rakeen Saad’s Noaf, the aforementioned hacker who balances a desire for change against just wanting to keep her head down.

Noor Taher’s Layan, Salsabiela A’s Roqayya, and Joanna Arida’s Rania round out the cast as the three popular girls who make everyone’s life hell. This is absolutely an ensemble effort. The core cast is good, but some of the surrounding players can be a little hit or miss.

I do want to single out Arida’s Rania as a character who shifts from publicly carefree to privately aggressive at the drop of a hat. She balances that cycle from abused to abusive well, and the more we get to know her, the more we see how much of her attitude is a front.

Saad’s Noaf becomes a standout performance later in the show, as she’s given an overwhelming amount to react to and pinned as the character with the most complex moral and philosophical choices.

At times, “AlRawabi School for Girls” can feel too broad. Its portrayal of power dynamics, privilege, and agency are all pinpoint, but its slice-of-life elements can feel glossed over. Characters occasionally talk about everyday events in ways that relate more to the plot than to each other. There’s foreshadowing here that’s used beautifully, but there’s some initial suspension of disbelief that’s asked of the viewer in terms of who these people are. Everyone except Mariam starts off as an archetype.

This does get filled in, and there is a strength to this approach, too. We get to know the characters best as they’re radically changing who they are. This escalates our sense of consequence as the show progresses, and creates a lot of space where we’re genuinely unsure how a character will respond. Are they still the archetype we were introduced to, or the conflicted person we’ve gotten to know?

Showrunner, director, and co-writer Tima Shomali has a stunning expertise at handling scenes with large-scale crowds. There’s a bad habit in filming coming-of-age or school-based dramas where the leads are off on their own. This cuts on costs for supporting actors and extras. Here, though, characters are constantly coming in and out of rooms. Time outside isn’t just a few leads against the wall with ambient shouting in the background and a handful of cutaway shots. The school is populated; dozens of students exist in every space. This goes a long way to exacerbating that sense of social anxiety and trauma. There’s literally nowhere here you can escape. Even hiding in a bathroom stall out of shame turns into being cornered before long.

Shomali drives many of the bullying and revenge moments forward in these large-scale crowd scenes. That would already be impressive, but these scenes become some of the most personal in the whole show. She establishes a towering sense of apprehension for how things will play out both plotwise and for each character’s development. There’s a sense of the social experience inside that crowd. It’s remarkably easy as viewers to cheer on revenge that’s just another form of bullying, to become a part of that crowd one minute, and then sit as a viewer and feel empathy the next. It’s a rare balance.

Some aspects of the show may not play out the way we’re used to seeing. There’s a sense for how these girls are often awkward in their own skin. Take a moment where a character becomes excited and betrays how they otherwise want to present themselves. We’d tend to play that for laughs that tread into satire, schadenfreude, or manic pixie dream girl territory. Here, it’s just played as uncomfortable. That’s a lot more realistic, but because our series in the U.S. are made with character acting, banter, and big, anchoring moments in scenes, a more patient and subdued intent can read as less realistic for us. There’s a shift in sensibilities that a viewer has to make with this. It’s not particularly difficult, but it may be noticeable for some.

I mean – let’s be real. When we make coming-of-age shows about this premise in the U.S., it’s either a comedy or a conspiracy thriller. Both absolutely have their value, and some of them are among my favorite shows, but we also tend to provide abusers with redemptive story arcs that misrepresent the impact of their abuse and excuse their responsibility for it. And let’s not get into being adrift in shows about sexy murder high schools that we pretend aren’t a creepy trend in our storytelling culture that we should at least talk about more.

My point is that the shift into a series like “AlRawabi School for Girls” can feel clunky in places, but I think that has a lot to do with our training as viewers. Its dramatic moments exist more to communicate experience and empathy than to provide the direct catharsis, satire, or schadenfreude we expect from U.S. versions of this show.

What’s being told here is very universal. If you can make that shift and appreciate the show’s sensibilities, there’s a specific story about how Jordanian culture denies girls agency, and a broader portrayal that mirrors how all our cultures practice and reinforce this denial. We expect girls to take that disempowerment and objectification out on each other, to practice it and get good at moving within it, to fight each other for limited agency rather than challenging us for the power and control over their lives they should have in the first place. (And we certainly struggle as men to imagine we should give more than words to supporting such a challenge.)

Perhaps there’s no catharsis for that because there’s been none. There’s no satire for it because our real world is a satire of it. There’s no schadenfreude because laughing at it is propagating it. “AlRawabi School for Girls” leaves us with more questions than answers because none of its questions have been answered in the real world. When I say it captures hideousness, it’s not because of any moment where you have to turn away from the screen. It captures what we turn away from every day – the hideousness we all know but like to forget or put out of mind because its systemic, that we all like to pretend happens beyond our ability to control or influence. What’s hideous is that it’s ordinary, that we overwhelmingly pretend we can’t change it, and that we allow the aggressive punishment of the next generation until they get good at repeating it.

You can watch “AlRawabi School for Girls” on Netflix.

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