Yesterday there was an interesting article on the Independent website, which is surprising enough in itself these days. It was a piece by Harriet Williamson about misogyny in horror films, which is something that troubles me too – how does a feminist justify their love of a genre with such a problematic relationship with women?
“Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” – Alfred Hitchcock
“If you’re going to follow around somebody to murder, I’d much rather be photographing a woman than a man.” – Brian De Palma
“I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.” – Dario Argento
Three quotes from three giants of the genre, explaining quite frankly their motivations for the horrible things they do to women on screen. It seems to boil down to voyeurism; we want to see attractive women and we want to see graphic violence, hence the common combination of the two – one moment you’re watching a woman undressing, the next you’re watching her being hacked to pieces. Is this just a sexist strand of cinema?
Carol J. Clover doesn’t think so, coining the term “final girl” – the woman in slasher films who ends up confronting the killer. It’s her transformation from stalked victim to resourceful survivor that not only redeems these movies, but could even give them feminist credentials. On this model, it feels like filmmakers get to have their cake and eat it, by indulging the exploitation thrills of the chase and then playing the final girl card at the last minute – and I don’t think I have a problem with that.
In my recent blog about journalists in films, I noticed that all my examples from horror films were women. Perhaps it’s due to suspect motivations but horror films do tend to have strong roles for women, disproportionately to most Hollywood movies. Some of my favourite women from cinema are the heroes of horror films; Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street… These are interesting, developed and complex characters, the types of roles usually reserved for men. Indeed, in the original Alien script, Ripley was a man, but the casting of Sigourney Weaver brought to the franchise strong themes of femininity, rape and motherhood – as well as making Ripley into the cultural icon and all round badass she has become. With a lovely cat.
Similar themes run throughout the genre – I wrote recently about Rosemary’s Baby and its political resonance today as a feminist take on abortion. And of course there’s Carrie, whose pointless remake is now in cinemas, but whose original seems to undermine the accusations of misogyny levelled at director Brian De Palma. To quote Stephen King: “Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women’s sexuality.” I find Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street a particularly fine example, because it’s Nancy who saves the day and her useless boyfriend Johnny Depp who just screws up and looks pretty, rather than the other way round.
I shouldn’t mention TV on a film blog, but in a post about feminism in horror it would be stupid to ignore Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose women are funny, intelligent and flawed. With the ass-kicking Buffy herself, Joss Whedon has created another icon. More recently, American Horror Story has given great roles to women, particularly the current series Coven, which features only three men – and one of them is a Frankingstein. Sorry for being patronising here, but that many of these women are over the age of 50 is even more admirable. Meanwhile Jamie Brewer has Down’s syndrome but it’s irrelevant in the show, because she’s just brilliant. But enough about how much I love American Horror Story…
Then there’s the issue of rape, such a common feature of horror movies that there’s a whole rape-revenge sub-genre. Problems arise when the audience are invited to enjoy the sexual violene, as director Sylvia Soska of the Twisted Twins explains: “There’s a study by the NYU which looked at rape scenes, and found that most rape scenes are done to be sexually gratifying to the male audience.” But when that’s not the case, these can be powerful films. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left succeeds as a ferociously political exploitation flick thanks to the sheer repulsiveness of the rape scene. If you’re turned on by that you’ll be turned on by anything.
Of course there is sexism in horror films, as there is in many genres – action films seem to use women for the sole purpose of clinging on to the big manly man and shrieking incessantly, and Hollywood comedies treat women like walking punchlines with boobs. No matter how many episodes of Girls Judd Appatow writes. And this sexism won’t be going anywhere in a hurry – this year’s Maniac remake saw Elijah Wood repeatedly butchering women and I was apparently one of the few people who found it anything other than very refreshing.
But as for the future, I’m uncharacteristically optimistic. People seem to be talking about this stuff more than ever and recent years have given us some of the most stridently feminist horror movies I’ve ever seen. The Twisted Twins do something genuinely refreshing, as opposed to Maniac refreshing, with the rape-revenge movie in American Mary starring Katharine Isabelle, who also co-stars in feminist werewolf film Ginger Snaps. The new movie Jug Face brings with it the spectre of Rosemary’s Baby, and shares stars Lauren Ashley Carter and Sean Bridgers with the phenomenal The Woman. Horror is a genre which has always been subversive, progressive and political, and its thread of feminism is one which refuses to die.