“Horror” films and its vast landscape of sub-genres have always served as a reflection of our society. Often it is a reflection of our present fears and often it is a warning of some things future potential. In fact, one can tell a lot about a generation based on the horror films they watch. And much can be said about the roles of women based on their portrayal in these films. The number of sub-genres means, of course, that these treads do not run through every movie of an era, but that one must look a bit more closely – beyond the eye candy so to speak – in order to see them.
It’s a Man’s World Ya Crazy Dame
In the 1950’s and early 60’s women served as the damsel in distress. Seldom did she actually die in these films – that would be inappropriate – and mostly her role was to do a lot of screaming, fainting and running in uncomfortable shoes and skirts. It was fairly reflective of women’s overall roles in the real world as “support staff” for whatever her “husband” had in mind. By today’s standards these damsels are two-dimensional and add very little (with some exceptions) to the film. But that changed –
Quick, Distract it with your boobs
In the 1960’s women became eye candy for the feverish imaginations of young (and maybe not so young) men. The censorship of earlier times was being challenged and with it came a lot more skin. Women’s roles in these early films didn’t change that much, although Hitchcock gave us a brief glimpse of the future when we saw that shower scene. Still while audiences were tantalized a bit more with sexy scream queens, the roles of women in these movies were still subjugated to the “male hero.” In their sexiest roles in horror, most of the women were simply portrayed as “woman behaving badly.” The message seemed to be “that’s what ya get for not being proper.”
You’re my possession
Late in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s the female role in horror became more prevalent. Yes, she was still a victim but in a way that was far more violent than in the past. In films like Blood Feast the violence is direct and very gory. Perhaps it was even more violent in films like Rosemary’s Baby and the Stepford Wives- just in a different more subtle way. In these films we see women at the mercy of others. Not in control of their bodies nor their futures whether it is to be the mother of the anti-Christ or the perfect mate. The Stepford wives was the scariest commentary on “what happens when a woman won’t do as her husband wishes.” The movies seemed a reflection of or perhaps commentary on feminism or more properly male fear of feminism.
I’m gonna pretend this disgusts me
It was in the 1970’s however where the damsel, the eye candy, and the “free women” received her most horrific treatment. With the “rating” system settling the issue of censorship, films were free to explore much more graphic imagery and it seemed that females received the worst of that treatment. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and the film I Spit on Your Grave were some of the most graphic portrayals of rape and violence. They may have served to show the “empowered” female…but only after she was raped and or abused by sadistic males. These films were sadistic voyeurism at its best (or worst). The women behaving badly angle was replaced with the “woman acting independently” angle. The messaged seemed to be that if Sally wanted to go off on her own without the protection of a man…then she would pay the price. It is difficult to determine if the film makers intended them to be statements “for” or “against” women or if they were just little more than sexplotation movies.
Hello Final Girl
I’ll give John Carpenter credit for the invention of the “final girl” with his game changing slasher film Halloween. The final girl phenom would last for many years into horror’s future. You know the drill – virgin girl, psycho killer, “sex = death,” final girl takes up phallic symbol (knife/gun/arrow etc) and kills killer and then returns to “damsel” and cries.
Although it was at least a step away from “girl raped in the woods” it still did little for our less virginal ladies. The formula was meant to bridge the gap between what female viewers wanted and what their male counterparts could accept. It seemed that the guy viewers could support the “damsel’s” lead role if she had the virtues of say the Virgin Mary.
In the midst of the series of “final girls” one movie stands out with a different set of rules. Ripley in Alien was our final girl, but she didn’t exactly fit the mold. She didn’t seem a virgin, she had no previous connection to the beast, and she was not prone to crying. And as I mentioned in another post, the rape and impregnation in the original Alien was definitely reserved for the male cast. That one point seems evidence that the film makers intended to present a strong female role sans all the necessary clichés. Much later in Prometheus we would see even greater support to my theory.
Now there’s a chick flick I can enjoy
For a while, Horror went through a period of making fun of itself. Ironic treatment of the rules it had created, villains who became sympathetic or funny and death scenes where we hardly cared about the characters who died. All the while the female fan base grew. And with it, the role of women became larger and more important. Horror was becoming a lot like NASCAR…a lot of female fans…and they wanted stories that portrayed them as more than eye candy or virgins.
In a way, the new films combined the elements of chick flicks with those of horror. We get a little romance in our horror and a little more character development. We also get a lot more female roles that are both believable and respectable. Take one of my favorites, Paranormal Activity. In this film who understands that something ain’t right? The woman. Who does a whole bunch of dumb stuff and isn’t smart enough to look at the recordings? The dude. We see a lot of that now in horror films – guys who are more bravado than brains. More importantly we see strong female characters kicking butt.
Underworld, Resident Evil, Prometheus are just a few examples of ladies who are kicking ass and taking names. One of my favorites, The Descent, is cast entirely with females and proves you can deliver horror without a guy in sight. I think these and other films speak to the changing thoughts about gender in our society. I think we are seeing hints of a generation far more willing to set aside gender “absolutes.” (SPOILER Below)
I think the film Prometheus summed it up nicely. The lead character is impregnated with an alien. She goes to a “medical machine” and tries to program an abortion. The machine states that it is only programmed to perform male surgeries…so she programs it for the “removal of a foreign object” which turns out to look a lot like a C-section. Clearly a message of a woman’s right to choose, and clearly we have a female willing to endure any pain to make that choice…if that isn’t a new portrayal in the genre I don’t know what is. Remember these are the same filmmakers who had the alien mouth raping guys in 1979. I don’t think I’m reading into the C-section scene.
I have three daughters so I am grateful that the female leads have become stronger, more real, and no longer have to fit the slasher cliché. In my own novels I choose to portray the women with the same strengths as the men, because in my experience women have that strength.
Unfortunately, in these films the men have become dumber and more two-dimensional. Perhaps us guys deserve it after being the hero’s of horror for so long, but it means that horror’s best moments still lie ahead – when a film needn’t take sides on gender, when one doesn’t have to make any “gender” smart or dumb, good or evil, sexy or virginal.
I like this next generation. The one I see in my kids and their friends. I think they are going to put to rest a lot of the bias and prejudices in this world….when and if they get off Facebook. I think today’s best horror films are providing a glimpse of that trend. I think most horror fans agree…sexy and sweet is good…sexy, sweet and strong, well that’s hot… now go kick some ass ladies while us boys go check out Lollipop Chainsaw.