Girls on Film: The Battle Between Feminism and Horror

Girls on Film: The Battle Between Feminism and Horror

Oct 27, 2011

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


Nightmare on Elm Street Still

Feminism and horror have not mixed symbiotically. The ideology is continually at odds with the art form, instigating a seemingly ceaseless back-and-forth argument that not only questions the foundation of horror cinema but also the tenets of feminism. It’s a plagued genre where exploitation battles female strength, where manifestations of power often come in problematic packages. Captivity inspires the ire of many, while some lambast and others champion the revenge fantasy of I Spit On Your Grave, and a movie in 2011, Scream 4, can be seen as the “first mainstream feminist movie (emphasis mine).”

It’s strange that this battling dichotomy between horror and feminism even exists. Modern horror as we know it rests on the shoulders of its grandparents, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley – two writers who immediately defy our modern, and supposedly more learned and progressive, viewpoint. Stoker dove into the romance of the vampire, while Shelley embraced the grotesque chills of the other. Together they provided the basis for all that would come, yet though the contribution was half female, women in horror have always struggled with at least some measure of imbalance, if not an all-out party of misogyny.

The form boasts its share of one-note women, damsels in distress, rape, and torture. These are so ubiquitous that it doesn’t take a horror fan to recognize the continual appearance of these themes. But then there are also Final Girls defying the odds, womanly butt-kickers and evildoers offering new frames of reference. But the reason this column has never previously dove into the issue is because even the moments of so-called “feminism” are problematic. It never felt right to champion the feminist elements and it never felt right to just write them off -- perhaps because the use of the word in horror is often problematic.

In a piece for BITCH magazine, Heidi Martinuzzi aptly questioned using “feminist” as a description for horror films where men are the victims because it does not espouse gender equality. Instead, it reinforces “the mainstream ideology that women with control of their sexuality (and by default, their reproduction) are dangerous, intend harm, and will always turn on their male superiors.” In her eyes, “Any film with a female protagonist in horror who does NOT use her sexuality to survive or kill is a feminist horror film because it promotes EQUALITY between the female and male characters in the movie and does not create a situation where women must use or abuse their sexuality in order to have any kind of power.”

Ripley, Underwear, AlienIn many ways, the “feminist” brand has become a safe label that champions more positive representations while still offering protection against antiquated and problematic elements. The focus is placed on the strength, sometimes to the detriment of a film’s weaknesses. Even our most beloved horror heroine, Ripley, has moments of skin and sexualization, no matter how much she’s framed in a progressive manner. The same is certainly true for other Final Girls as well.

Ah, the Final Girl. Coined by Carol J. Clover, the term applies to the women who became rising staples of the horror genre – the Laurie Strodes and Sidney Prescotts of the world who are in some way sexually unavailable, who often have unisex names, and most importantly, survive through the horror of the film as victor. As Clover saw it, the use of the Final Girl allowed the male audience to shift identification to the woman as she becomes masculinized, gaining a phallic weapon and fighting back. While it is wonderful that a great trait (the desire to fight back) became a staple of the form, as the Final Girls Support Group explains, attraction to the Final Girl is “complicated.” “We question the adoration of the virgin and punishment of the sexually active among other things, but we also choose to embrace the strong women of horror that have always been an inspiration to us.”

Producer Susan Downey once said as much herself (to EW): “When we put a woman through this mythological journey and have her come out at the end kicking ass, the guys get the eye candy they want and the girls get the sense of ‘I can face my demon.’”

The empowerment is balanced with sexism, creating what CdMScott at Cinema de Merde calls an “excuse” because the Final Girl has to not only become a man, but also be a balancing force to questionable titillation. In many uses of the Final Girl trope, she stands at odds against the whoreish, soon-to-be-dead women punished for their promiscuity. Scott suggests: “it is vitally important that the Final Girl be a girl; a man who vanquished the killer would not balance the perceived view of women. Thus all of the torture and murder the male audience member enjoyed would remain unbalanced by a more positive image of womenhood, and he would start feeling guilty about seeing all of these women as ‘whores.’”

We can be inspired by the women who survive the killer, but we must do so in rigid, often sexually problematic ways. It’s empowerment through masculinity and punishment for female sexualization. No matter what the woman does on screen, her appearance is almost always shackled to the male point of view – she’s tortured/punished/killed for liking sex, her power is her purity, or she’s marketed to titillate no matter what the scenario.

I Spit On Your Grave Posters

Some consider I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) to be a feminist film, but whether we’re talking about the original or remake, Jennifer Hills still must be sexualized to be packaged for the public (whether with the context of the old poster or the minimalism of the new) – she’s an other being who is sexy, nude, and dangerous, or sexy, nude, and victimized. As much as there is subversion, and as much as the film might carry an underlying idea that a male viewer might be tantalized through the picture of the heroine’s almost-bare backside to dig in (only to get a rude awakening), there’s no guarantee that the male viewer will even clue in. Roger Ebert certainly witnessed as much back in the day: “The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud, After the first rape: ‘That was a good one!’ After the second: ‘That'll show her!’ After the third: ‘I've seen some good ones, but this is the best.’" (One’s got to wonder how that man would’ve reacted to a dose of Lucky McKee’s May, who loved to make the on-screen horror real-life.)

And that’s to say nothing of the violence against the “bitch.” (As Forbes quotes Andrew Cooper: “The bitch will die bloody. … any female who is ‘unpleasant’ gets it in the end.”)

It also doesn’t help that there is an outright refusal to allow women the same sexual rights as men. In other words, allowing the women of horror to have sex without it defining them, fueling them, or leading to their punishment, and more importantly, allowing sex to be a natural act in women just as it is in men. In an interview with Forbes, Eli Roth was asked about victims of possession usually being young women in horror movies and he actually said: “The devil would want to possess the person who least deserves it, and it's shocking when they [girls] begin to act out sexually in their ‘possessed’ state. It's horrifying. If it was a teenage boy suddenly becomes sex-crazed you'd say, ‘He's not possessed, he's 15.’"

Last Exorcism Poster Crop

The sentiment is no surprise, considering the ongoing and entirely false assumption that the male and female experience is split. It leads men to think that girls having sexual feelings is unnatural (or must be punished). It leads women like Christine Spines to state in EW: “it should be noted that just as young male moviegoers seem addicted to seeing stuff blow up, young females in the audience have a predilection of their own: They like to cuddle.” If not sex and punishment, it’s male manipulation by watching horror, or re-empowering the man to be the protector.

Perhaps my favorite argument against the notion of a so-called division between male and female fans of horror comes from Hannah Neurotica and her piece in BITCH. She talked about the manipulative snuggling mentioned in EW as “bizarre.” “Women bleed, after all, regularly and sometimes very heavily. We push human beings out of our bodies. We deal with constant threats to our safety. So it only makes sense that women can portray fear, terror, and gore onscreen in ways only those who’ve experienced it up close and personal can.”

In a mostly horribly misguided piece on Horror-Movies.ca, PoppaScotch explained: “It had always felt to me that after the 1960s, horror was about breaking taboos, re-writing expectations, and absolutely demolishing social boundaries.”

That’s what women need to do now. It’s time for women to reinvent horror. To break the habits and boundaries that currently bind it and offer something entirely new, putting to rest the problematic tropes that plague both the most disgusting and most empowering examples of the form. Right now, we as moviegoers are just as quick to forgive horror’s failings as we are to forgive romance, action, superheroes, and the rest. It was once useful for horror’s heroines to be upheld as pristine examples of feminist awesomeness to balance the arguments against the form, but now it’s time to move beyond that crutch and into characterizations that scare and thrill without falling to the same problematic habits. Strong women untainted by sexual crap is practically taboo at this point -- a taboo ready to be broken.

Horror might be violent, bloody, and scary, but it is also exhilarating, and imagine how much better the genre would be if its strengths and female triumphs weren't so tainted by its weaknesses.

Categories: Features, Horror
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