As the Twilight buzz holds strong, a slightly older audience sinks their teeth into the new season of True Blood; gore-hungry viewers have Zombieland for the latest comedic zombie-killing tale; and, for even more gratuitous violence, Rob Zombie’s latest remake, Halloween II, will be hitting theaters along with the demonic thriller Jennifer’s Body. In addition to the expected commonalities among horror features, there’s another shared bloodline: Even in the surreal universes of scary movies, women are treated differently than men. Women, with bodies that bloodlet monthly and grow other lives, have long been the very essence of horror for many.
But when the question turns to the campier horror of the big (and small) screen, women somehow are not so scary. In fact, more often than not, they’re scared. Or at least imperiled. Or both. Even the leading ladies are far from the stars. More often than not, the women are cast as the “normal” character with whom the viewer identifies and perhaps envies — the relatively ordinary Bella Swan narrates the story of the impossibly perfect (minus the vampire thing) Edward Cullen. Bella is clumsy and awkward, and yet, a handsome, musical, quick, and sparkly vampire falls in love with her. Ultimately, Bella’s survival throughout the story has little to do with her own craftiness — and she’s not the only one of Stephenie Meyer’s female characters to be denied powers of her own. Even among the Cullen family, Edward’s sisters mostly use their powers to serve him and help him save Bella.
The hot-blooded vampire commodity True Blood proves itself guilty of similar offenses. The star, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), has the superpower to hear what others are thinking, but because this is so disconcerting, she is a virgin when the series begins (something that later changes when she meets the charming, vampiric Bill). Her gift puts her in the motherly position of having to stop danger and rescue others — nothing new for a heroine. She also ends up in the familiarly feminine position of “victim” rather than hero; in a recent episode, a werewolf nearly attacked her and Bill had to save her. The sexuality that Sookie could have had is transferred to Arlene Fowler (Carrie Preston), her coworker. Though Arlene is known for having questionable taste in men, Preston doesn’t see her character as weak or cliché: “She’s a strong survivor, like ‘I don’t have time to sit around and feel sorry for myself. I’ve got to get back on the horse and figure out how I can be there for my family.’”
Based on these releases, viewers see women needing men in order to overcome life’s obstacles and even escape from life-threatening situations. Moreover, viewers don’t often get to see sexually active women put in those roles in the first place. Those women tend to be cast in supporting roles, often in more comedic ones as well.
In the forthcoming Zombieland, two women are powerhouse zombie fighters and are freed from a lot of the standard rules governing female behavior in horror. Typically, the horror genre doesn’t allow sexually active women in starring roles. The leads have to rely on men to overcome the story’s obstacles and escape from life-threatening situations. However, in Zombieland, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) are impressively violent and remarkably good shots when it comes to aiming for zombie heads. Sure, zombies haven’t been humanized in the same way as vampires, so killing zombies is a different kind of violence — but at least here it comes from the women. Although the main character, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), is cowardly by design, it’s significant that he first crosses paths with Wichita and Little Rock when they con him out of his car. Survival necessitates cooperation, and so the women have to work as equal fighters.
There are different rules governing gender roles in another survivalist genre, the slasher movie. Most often, the roles of women conform to a common storyline known as the “final girl” motif, first outlined by Carol J. Clover in her book, Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. While critics have debated the precise qualities that define a final girl — Clover states the final girl should have an androgynous name — the final girl follows a predictable pattern of close escapes, ultimately survives, and manages to do it all while remaining unsexualized and generally innocent.
In Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, the cheerleaders, perceived as more sexually available than the road-tripping girls, are the collateral damage whose torture expedites the plot. The final girl, Mary, remains unsexualized throughout the movie, aside from a symbolic deflowering when her bunny suit is torn off and she is left shaking and bloody in her white dress. Meanwhile, the cartoonishly innocent Baby is introduced as a giggling ingénue with a love of hot cocoa with marshmallows. Soon after, she’s wearing assless pants to Hot Pussy Liquors, her sexuality growing as she becomes more deviant and torturous. The prepubescent and the sexual worlds mix during the graveyard scene, in which Baby tells Mary a fairy tale and then stakes her with a phallic object. Baby’s heightened sexuality mirrors her heightened sadism, furthering the genre’s construing of sexuality and evil, especially in the sequel, The Devil’s Rejects.
Brooks E. Hefner, Assistant Professor of English at James Madison University, reflects on this: “Since Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, the slasher film has tended to protect the socially awkward, sexually naive version of femininity that Laurie Strode represents — only to punish any and all female characters whose burgeoning sexuality veers outside conservative social norms. There’s something pornographic about films which delight in the display of young female bodies, first in sexual contexts, then as bloody canvasses of male violence.” Angela Trimbur, who plays Laurie’s rebellious friend Harley David in Zombie’s Halloween II, agrees, “In a weird way, the male audience gets off on watching someone try to get away from someone and she’s all bloody. It’s weird, but it’s pretty much in every horror movie.”
According to Trimbur, Laurie “has some dreadlocks this time around and she’s wearing really punk rock clothing,” a gesture mirroring the myriad ways abnormal feminine appearances are meant to be read as deviance. Trimbur says the director wanted her own rebellious character to be really physically unclean, so she had to have “dirt under the fingernails and live it out.” She adds that Halloween II features “the first girl in horror movies to fight back, and in this movie she comes back more challenged from what she went through in the first one. She’s coming back with a lot more power.” Yet, that new aptitude results in Laurie having dreams that she can’t discern from reality — is this what it means to have an empowered female character in horror?
In a 1987 interview with Simon Reynolds for The Student, murder-balladeer Nick Cave said of his accused misogyny, “I just find there’s something essentially more exciting about seeing women being abused. Possibly because it is usually men you see in films subjected to violence. There’s a violence for women and a violence for men, and when you see a woman subjected to a man-size violence it’s usually quite shocking.” This strangely egalitarian approach to horror movies opens up possibilities for the genre to provoke the actual fear and shock that is usually missing in contemporary cinema.
This September’s Jennifer’s Body may change things. With Megan Fox starring as Jennifer Check, a high-school cheerleader who doles out man-size violence — but only to men — it is written and directed by women (Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama, respectively). This movie could reveal a new space made for women in horror. While it’s yet to be established as generally acceptable for women in movies to enjoy performing violent acts as much as men do, Fox’s Jennifer stands in contrast even to other female-penned movies of the past.
While seeing Cody and Kusama’s names scroll through the credits chalks a mark up for girl power, it’s what the duo delivers in front of the camera that’s long overdue. According to Hefner: “Women are even disempowered symbolically by the most progressive of slasher films. In The Slumber Party Massacre, one of the few slasher films written and directed by women, the protagonist confronts the chainsaw-bearing killer with a decidedly non-phallic circular saw, which, of course, doesn’t work.”
Now, thirty years later, Jennifer’s Body permits women to be more successfully violent in film. While female horror characters are still more likely to be victims, they’re definitely allotted more aggression now than in the past, whether they’re fighting or fighting back.
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