Bitchin': How The Horror Genre Empowers Women - Part I

Sigourney Weaver and the Alien Queen in Aliens, 1986
GET AWAY FROM HER, YOU BITCH!

Is there a more iconic line for a woman from a horror film?

Well, maybe this one...

Gena Davis in The Fly, 1986
BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID.

But really, we women have very little to fear. We're living in amazing times right now. Women have done so many things to become equals to man, particularly in first-world countries. In America alone, women have all the same rights as men. We can choose what kind of job we want to have, we can choose our own education, we can choose whether or not we want to have children, we can choose what to do with our bodies, and we can choose how to live our lives as we see fit. Social stigmas have been broken over the years by pioneering women in so many areas--science, medicine, military, entertainment, social issues--really, it's hard to count them or to even begin to talk about them here.

Women's Suffrage Parade, New York City, 1917.
Civil Rights March, 1963.
Women's Rights March, 5th Avenue, New York City, 1970.
It doesn't mean that social sexism doesn't still exist. It doesn't mean that women don't suffer from abuse due to their gender. While the laws are in our favor, there will always be those who will choose to cause problems on a social level. However, it does mean that we women have many choices to help ourselves and our fellow women. We also are getting positive signals from all kinds of outlets, and sometimes we don't see them even though they're staring us in the face.

One prominent outlet that I believe doesn't get the recognition it deserves is the genre fiction on the silver screen. Of course, I can always talk about places where women's struggles have been showcased throughout history. Films like Iron Jawed Angels, The Color Purple, Annie Hall, and The Help have had a really big impact on me as a woman. But since February is Women in Horror Month, it's time to put the spotlight where women probably get the most love yet, and they consistently aren't recognized for it.

NOTE: It should come as no surprise, but this blog post does have spoilers, though I do my best not to give away the ending of the films or books.

SO WHERE DO WE START?

Let me start with my own personal history. It might seem like a weird place to start, but I think it's important because many women may actually relate to what I'm going to talk about.

Entertainment throughout the years has matched the social expectations of women, from films to television, to music and even toys. Of course, that's fine--there is nothing wrong with girls wanting to, well, "be girls". I hold no animosity toward women who wish to live their lives as mothers, housewives, or other such "traditional" roles. That's because we live in a time where everyone's choices should be respected and appreciated.

But I want to bring up those of us who look past traditional entertainment. We have our own struggles that we have dealt with, and amazingly, our struggles have been given power in genre fiction.

To begin...

I have never been a girl who truly enjoyed princess movies and playing with dolls, dreaming about who I would marry and playing "House" with my cousins and female friends, where I took care of "children" at home while my "husband" was at work. It all seemed...well, boring to me. I was much more interested in adventures and interesting stories, mostly based in science fiction, fantasy, and--you guessed it--horror.

I pretty much rejected the original Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Frankly, I wanted the power to speak to mice and forest animals, and I found Maleficent much more interesting than Aurora.

And seriously, Maleficent could turn into a dragon. A dragon. How fucking cool is that?
I was a lucky kid. I grew up in an era where just about any type of woman character was possible to watch in the movies and on television. I was a product of the late 70s and the 80s, where we had such characters as Princess Leia, Cheetara (ThunderCats), Sarah (Labyrinth), The Unicorn/Amalthea (The Last Unicorn), and Sorsha (Willow). The 70s and 80s had seen a lot of breakthroughs for women in business, science, and entertainment, and I was a girl who got swept up with it. My princesses were much more hardy, much stronger, women who were powerful on their own without the need of finding a man.

Cinnamon buns be damned - who's the one who got them out of that mess in cell block 1138?

Plus the cheetah is my favorite big cat!

She-Ra was one character who was incredibly important to me. In 1983, Mattel needed to come up with a toy line to rival Kenner's Star Wars. They went with Conan on steroids and designed He-Man, and from there created a comic book and a cartoon. It turned out girls were playing with He-Man as much as boys were (myself included), so they created his female counterpart, and she is just as cool. (If you want to learn the entire story, check out the show The Toys That Made Us by Netflix. They devote an entire episode about He-Man. It's fantastic!)

For once, there was a female character who was the exact equal to her male counterpart. She wasn't a sidekick, an accessory, or a secondary character. She-Ra was everything He-Man was. She was just as strong, just as powerful, just as kind, and just as capable in every aspect. She was never portrayed as weak or unable to conquer her enemies, both external and personal. There was never a need to, either. She was simply a strong female character as is, no need to ever doubt herself as a woman.

And quite frankly, she was better. Why? Because she could FLY. Spirit, her horse, turned into a flying unicorn named Swift Wind! Battle Cat can't fly! Take that, He-Man!

I can FLY, bitches!!!
Then the 90s came, when I was in high school and college, and Disney made the big leap from princesses who were focused on men to princesses who were focused on finding happiness through their own actions and choices. Television shows were showcasing women as independent and not relying on their families or men to help them along in their lives (Friends, Seinfeld, ER). I was in college at the time, and while I had started on horror films in junior high and high school, college was where I was really exploring it. And I was seeing more and more women being given powerful roles and positions in films, and it was influential and inspiring.

Plus: BOOKS!!!!
SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH HORROR?

Well, as I said before, I never bought into mainstream girly stuff. I have enjoyed horror since I was a kid and first read Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and I love the thrill of getting scared. Every Halloween, my dad used to recite his own version of e.e. cummings' poem [hist whist] to us. My favorite YA books dealt with ghosts, monsters, and supernatural powers.

So as a girl, I tended to look for female characters that were interesting in the horror world. When I started watching horror films more seriously in high school, I gravitated towards films that showcased women who had to step up and fight against the bad guy/monster/alien/entity/serial killer...and I found that in many, many cases, women usually prevailed.

Some of my favorite "horror" YA novels from when I was a kid. I still have these editions of these books.
WOMEN PORTRAYED AS VICTIMS? PLEEEEEASE.

Many of us know that horror is considered the general bad boy of the film world. And it's probably because it doesn't follow social "norms", so to speak. It challenges ideas of innocence, protection, love, personal strength, and other traits that we don't want to be challenged. But it is these challenges that actually help women and paints them in a positive light, and not as victims but as heroines.

There is a fantastic documentary out there called Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. It was made in 2006 and goes over the horror slasher film and how it came to be and shaped filmmaking and film-going. Interviews with top filmmakers and actors in the field combined with the history of the genre really creates a compelling documentary.

Now of course, not all horror films are slasher films. We have a wide variety that fall into multiple categories such as action, science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, psychological, and yes, even romance. However, this documentary had some compelling things to say about women in the horror genre, and I believe it's important to this post.

One portion of the documentary is devoted to critics and their attack on the horror genre. They show our old favorite film critics from the 80s, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, talking about horror films. (Click here to learn more about their show, At the Movies.) Both men claim that slasher films are "exploiting the plight of women in danger," and they think "these films hate women, and unfortunately the audiences that go to them don't seem to like women too much either." They believed the films were backlash to the women's right movements from the 70s and early 80s by "some very sick people" who want women "back in their place."

The actresses and filmmakers, however, disagree...as do I.

The horror genre does not exploit women at all.  On the contrary, it empowers women for several reasons. First, it shows that when the chips are down, women are the ones who pick up the pieces and fix the problem. How many times has the virgin girl and/or smartest girl of the bunch have had to take down the villain in a fight for survival? Quite a few. But she's not only doing it to survive. She's doing it as revenge for her friends and family being killed. For hell hath no fury, and all of that. The horror genre takes a woman's innermost abilities--to fight for herself and those she finds dear to her--and puts them firmly on top. It shows she can look past the traditional female roles and take control, and ultimately she can triumph.

If no one else is going to kill this mofo, guess I'd better get to it.
Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (1978)
Amy Holden Jones, the director of the cult classic slasher film The Slumber Party Massacre, puts it best in the documentary:

Nobody wants to see her [the heroine] hurt. Because you’re playing to a fear -- that is the emotion of horror movies is, fear -- you’re trying to evoke that and put the audience through it in a visceral way. That doesn’t mean the audience wants to see her get hurt. That’s a complete misunderstanding of the genre. They want to see her in jeopardy and triumph and get revenge.

You're right, Amy. We do. And Wes Craven (director and creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street) talks about how women being subservient and timid is...well, let's let him say it for himself.

I think slasher films are considered one notch above pornography in a lot of people’s minds and subversive and dangerous… Horror films way back when when the women were fainting and not able to cope with anything and they had to be rescued by a man is a social statement…those of us that make the films started realizing wait a minute, that’s really bullshit, and started making heroines that were strong.

TEENAGE ANGST AND SEXUALITY AT ITS SCARIEST

Another way horror films empower women is through recognizing women's particular issues, in both obvious and not so obvious ways.

For any human being, the teenage years are a trying time. Not only are we dealing with physical changes, we're dealing with the embarrassment of those changes. One novel and film that really puts those embarrassments at the top is Carrie* (novel by Stephen King, film by Brian de Palma). In both the film and the book, Carrie is dealing with an overprotective mother who hasn't even explained to her what her period is. When she begins menstruating for the first time at school in the girl's locker room, she is terrified...but no one comes to her aid. Instead, her classmates mock her and attack her. For many teenage girls, complete rejection by your peers can be far more terrifying than any knife-wielding masked man.

Carrie's psychokinesis is a manifestation of every rejected girl's inner anger. Carrie becomes the very symbol of wrath and shows how women can stand up for themselves when in trouble. While her methods of dealing with her anger are violent, she is at least given power to make the choice to do something about her situation rather than continue to take the abuse.

Oh shit...now you done it.
Sissy Spacek as Carrie (1976).
*Of note, the 2013 film version of Carrie is also very good, and I recommend it!

Another great example comes again from Amy's comments in the documentary. She says she was criticized for doing Slumber Party Massacre, but she said she "thought they were full of it." As she puts it:

...I think that the film is not sexist. It’s based on an underlying fear that’s very interesting and very female which is about getting, you know, laid for the first time.

We are still seeing child-rearing methods where girls are taught from an early age to not explore their sexuality. It is wrong to dress to attract the opposite sex, it is wrong to masturbate, it is wrong to even want to have sex. They are taught they should only have sex if they plan to have children or to please their husband or mate. Many times girls turn to their peers for help, and horror films can explore that need.

There is an obscure, somewhat bizarro horror novel called Stallion by Gordon McGill that deals with teenage girl sexuality. This novel was one of my first introductions into horror books. In the story, a family moves from America to England to restart their lives by putting together a riding school. The daughter's sexual awakenings are symbolized by the horses...and what better choice for symbolism, for so many girls are horse crazy during their pivotal preteen and teenage years. While her parents try to stiffle her, she continues to gravitate toward the forbidden. The daughter has no one to help her, no one to show her a better outlet for her physical changes, and it leads to disastrous consequences.

And it has a totally bitchin' cover!
Now I'm not saying young girls should be wearing shorty-shorts and midriff shirts. There is a time and place for sexuality, and I believe that school certainly is not it. But we do need to give girls permission to be in control of their own bodies. They need to understand when sexuality is important and when it's out of place. This will empower them to be able to push back against unwanted sexual advances. And overall, let's face it: kids are going to explore sex whether we want them to or not. So why not allow them outlets such as horror films and books to do so?

And this exploration in film and books is not always negative. The recent horror film The Shape of Water explores female sexuality in a positive light. Elisa is given permission to enjoy herself in the bath and with the creature. Her sexuality is kept pure and loving by being enveloped in water each time she experiences it. We are shown that even during the 1950s, when sexuality was continually stiffled, there were still bright spots of women and men exploring what they needed in their sexual lives, whether it be cross gender, same gender, or cross species. We should be given permission to be ourselves, to love who we wish, to love how we wish. We can truly learn a lot about women's needs from this film.

Together.
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water.
Even if critics and parents want to continue to say "but" when it comes to horror films and how they treat women, especially teenage girls, we can look at a pretty surprising fact that is present in so many slasher films, especially those from the 70s, 80s and 90s. The kids who usually get killed are the ones who are having extramarital sex, drinking, doing drugs, or participating in other such "bad" behaviors. It's usually the virgin of the group, or the smartest kid, who stands up against the killer and ends his reign. It seems that the kids who are having fun are the ones who are being punished.

So if the kids are being punished for having sex, and that punishment is death, then most likely, they’re going to stop having sex. And if it’s the virgin who wins out, especially a female, then it gives exactly what parents and critics of the film want: the person who is the most righteous is the one who wins. Who wouldn’t want to emulate that?

Amy sums up sexuality in horror films in a pretty straightforward way in the Going to Pieces documentary: "There’s something inherently sexual in every slasher movie. What is wrong with there being something inherently sexual?"

Coming up next: We explore the combination of women and unconditional love, and the strong messages we get from horror films in those areas.

PART II COMING SOON! - CLICK HERE FOR PART II

If you have any ideas you want to share about female empowerment in the horror genre, feel free to add any comments, or contact me at andreadawnwriter@gmail.com!

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