Taking a Stab at Feminism: Why Horror is Empowering

by: Elyse Dawson

WARNING: This article contains light spoilers for various movies including Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream and various other classics that you should have seen by now.

“Look out!  He’s behind you!”

She could go out the front door but she goes upstairs instead.  She clobbers the murderer over the head once and leaves the weapon behind.  He’s been chasing her for over an hour and she hasn’t even taken her shirt off!

I’m sorry; did that sound sexist?

Horror doesn’t get a lot of credit.  And trust me, trying to make a critical argument that horror is a relevant art form over a cup of coffee doesn’t earn you much either, but the topic that always gets people’s blood boiling is how degrading the genre is toward women.  When someone poses that viewpoint, I feel more slighted as a woman than when I’m actually watching a slasher.  I would kill (or be killed) to be a Scream Queen.  To follow in the bloody but unbowed footsteps of Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Sidney Prescott and countless others would be the triumph of a lifetime.  Literally.  In third grade, my best friend and I made a sleepover tradition of renting through the shlock and shock of the local video store’s horror section.  The first time I saw the iconic closet scene in Halloween, I knew I was done for.  The fact that someone could be backed into a corner and terrorized yet keep her wits and get out alive was baffling.  A girl no less!  I’m one of those!  I fell in love with horror.  Of course, to be fair, it came on to me first.  And it was empowering.

Now, while I don’t think that all horror films are rife with girl power, I think there’s a solid case that the female archetypes found throughout the genre (and especially the subgenre of the slasher) are actually positive feminist features.  On top of the inherent male gaze of Hollywood cinema, the fear factory tends to bleed out a stream of conventions that demean women and glorify violence against them. However, no other genre of film has evolved so intimately with the times: reacting and responding to real politics and humanity itself.  From creature feature to torture porn, horror has remained a highly stylized caricature of human nature, and, more importantly, the dynamic between men and women.  To see why these chillers remain one of the few consistent pro-women vehicles in the media, you have to break down the very conventions that define the genre.

It really comes down to the characters.  You know them.  The Debbie Downer, the Blonde Bimbo, the Mannish Muscle, the Woebegone Witch and of course the Scream Queen/Final Girl.  Debbie doesn’t even want to be alive, Blondie is hypersexual, Manny is an “other” and Sabrina is either too smart or too superstitious to remain until the end.  Instead, it will all boil down to a showdown between a psychopath wielding a phallic weapon and the one girl who remained pure and virginal throughout the whole ordeal.  These roles are so reductive it hurts.  But, take a look at the cast list reflecting horror’s primary audience: The Stoned Shaggy, the Sweet Geek, the Horny Half-wit, the Brave Boyfriend and The Killer himself.  Shags is too hazy, Bill Nye is only helpful for so long, the Horndog more than likely provoked an attack at one point or another and trying to be the hero most assuredly leaves you to die second to last.  All that remains is a contorted shell of madness.  Scooby Doo makes a lot more sense now, doesn’t it?  Of course they didn’t deal with real monsters or ghosts!  There isn’t an archetype in the Mystery Machine that could possibly survive an actual murderous rampage!

Although I would’ve put my money on Don Knotts.

Many would argue that horror films are often morality tales.  The Final Girl is a prudish virgin and, therefore, is allowed to live.  I think it’s important to point out that Laurie had a crush on a boy. Of course, Nancy was doing it with Johnny Depp and Sidney broke the rule.  These iconic women didn’t lack sexuality or desire; it simply was not essential to their survival.  Recent additions to the genre such as Cabin in the Woods and The Descent have shown an acquired self-awareness within the confines of horror preconceptions that allows characters to show their clean character without relying on the merits of their chastity.  In fact, a lot of Final Girls exude commonly male anti-hero flaws.

There is always an exception to the rule, but I guarantee that if one expectation is removed, another will be reinforced.  Even if these character patterns are not adhered to, another custom will still exist.  Look at the final throwdown between Good and Evil that is usually personified in the two main characters of the film.  The Final Girl epitomizes women’s struggle against a patriarchal society, which is often embodied by a faceless, lumbering, all too powerful source (i.e. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface)  Have you ever rolled your eyes when the Scream Queen trips over nothing?  She just hit the glass ceiling.  By the end she’ll have a limp and no way to actually outrun her foe, forcing her to confront The Killer head on.  During her attempted escape, she will more than likely find a phallic object to use against her opposition.  Some might say that this further proves the chauvinistic idea that a woman must arm herself with male aspects in order to overcome an innate vulnerability.  I would argue that it is a bite back at the gender binary enforced upon our culture.

Being a typically adolescent-focused type of cinema, horror is loaded with sexual symbolism and imagery.  It is usually very apparent within the first ten minutes of a horror movie who our heroine will be.  From that point on, we watch her have her personal space or home invaded, her friends stripped away (be possessed in some cases) and endure countless stabbings and other rape imagery via an intrusive voyeuristic viewpoint.  Again, this seems very sexist, but I can’t stress enough how important this oppression is in presenting viewers with a survivor instead of a victim.

Let’s be honest, the horror genre isn’t the most critically acclaimed film form, nor is it the most cerebral cinematic experience one could hope to have.  However, millions flock to gorge themselves on popcorn and Milk Duds while they watch numerous people (usually women) be gored, gutted and gouged in the most unique way possible.  Despite the frail attempts at being creative or reinventing horror, the genre’s greatest strengths tend to lie in its accepted truths and archetypes, which simply do not need to be viewed as intentionally harmful.

Yes, some scenes can be excessive and are meant to shock and stun audiences but in the hands of a good director and an informed audience, they can be inspiration to action.  Laurie used every weapon available (Hello.  Knitting needle to the neck.),Nancyset traps andSidneygrew the fuck up.  They are hardcore.  Think of a horror film as “The Best of the 11 o’clock News”  If you’re not disgusted or upset by the cinematic content or the fact that far worse trespasses are actually being made against your fellow people, that women and their rights being threatened has become an everyday occurrence, doesn’t that make you the monster?

All true Queens know that the point is to scream, not remain silent.

Elyse Dawson is just working to afford her acting habit.  A graduate of Wright State University, she moved to Chicago post graduation to see how the other half lived and liked it better.  She occasionally dabbles in her blog as American Psychette, (http://americanpsychette.blogspot.com/) and often charades as an Administrative Assistant.  Her main sources of sustenance are pizza and puns in mass quantity so that she can maintain her bubbly and dark personality. And she can totally whoop you at Sega Genesis.

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4 responses to “Taking a Stab at Feminism: Why Horror is Empowering

  1. Achhh, choked with words; horror movies are my favorite… item of anything to deconstruct always, especially as it relates to gender roles and feminism, so I totally feel you on all this, and agree that the genre has trended toward becoming more aware of its messages about women. I’m surprised I only recently saw Slumber Party Massacre and am still weighing my feelings on that–I would love to hear any perspective you would be willing to provide (or other commenters), since I feel it often ends up as footnote in horror film discussions.

  2. This is fabulous. I think the transformation of Sidney Prescott and Laurie Strode, from victims to hunters by H2O and Scream 4, is a perfect example.

  3. Wait, so it’s sexist because the girl is the victim/protagonist. But it’s not sexist for portraying men as the creepy evil murderers in almost every film..

  4. I love horror movies, but just because a character eventually gets to kill her aggressor doesn’t make it a feminist portrayal. She still gets objectified. I don’t think presenting the same archetype of victimized, sexualized virgin over and over is really helping to empower women. For every Ripley or Laurie Strode there’s about 1,000 beautiful, slashed up girls upping the body count in the horror genre. While there are some wonderful female characters in horror, that doesn’t make the final girl archetype universally empowering. Also I can’t fucking stand the fact that they’re expected to be virgins in order to live. It’s such a stupid double standard. Our culture places way to much value on virginity, it doesn’t define your worth or your morality.

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