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Monday, August 09, 2004

Scream queens

Trish Wilson has a nice post about Fay Wray and female characters in horror/action/sci-fi films at XX. As any horror fan worth her salt knows, there was a dramatic opening up of the kinds of characters that women could be in horror films. Before the 70's, women were victims. Period. Occasionally, there were female villians, but the main issue in writing female characters in horror films seems to be that the writers couldn't comprehend a feminine role outside of a passive/sexual one.

I am not entirely sure why there was a huge shift in the way that female characters got written. But the shift is undeniable. The best example of the dramatic change is the way that the character of Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. In the original movie, she is a sniveling, crying moron and everyone who watches the movie hates her, though I get the distinct impression she played better to a 1968 audience. Romero does treat his female characters with a sympathetic hand, but in 1968 it was difficult to write a female horror movie character and not play up her helplessness. It is a shame that Romero, who is otherwise very forward-looking, couldn't write a more appealing and heroic female part. He corrects for this in the 1990 remake, of course, turning Barbara into the horror movie heroine that audiences have come to love--tough, ass-kicking and smart as hell.

Of course, woman-as-victim is still standard. But if you really want to put butts in seats, you'll have a heroine who isn't a victim, but a fighter. Trish lists a bunch of favorites in sci-fi, and in the comments some people point out the victims turned to fighters of the slasher flicks, like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and of course the sole survivor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I put Ripley from Alien in this category--for all the surface sci-fi stuff, Alien really is just a monster movie. The entire cliche of the sexually pure, tomboyish horror heroine is played with cleverly in Scream, of course, where the heroine rejects the need to be desexualized in order to survive.

Why are horror heroines more appealing that horror heroes? Well, I think it's because it's easier to be afraid for a woman, because women are still coded as "vulnerable" in films. Male and female audience members relate immediately to the fear that the potential female victim has. A number of film critics I've read suggest that it's because the male audience members enjoy looking at the heroine and the female audience members enjoy emphathizing with her, but I reject that interpetation. Everyone accepts that women can easily relate to male characters, so why do we resist believing that men can easily relate to female characters? A character's gender in a film, especially in a genre film, is often symbolic. Vulnerability is perceived as a feminine trait, therefore it is embodied in a female character. Her vulnerability is a trait that is part of all audience members, male and female.

I'm not talking entirely out of my ass. I love a good horror movie and have watched plenty with male company, and they never react how they should to the heroine if the "men gawk, women relate" theory is true. From my observations, men react the same to horror movies as women--relating to the fear of the heroine early on, cheering her victory towards then end right along them. A horror movie heroine's sex is no more an obstacle for the male audience members to relate to her than her status as a high school student excludes adults from caring.

I recently went to an all-night outdoor showing of some George Romero movies and while there I spent a lot of time talking to other fans of the Living Dead series and all sorts of horror flicks. All sorts of interesting theories about what makes horror appealing and how different monsters appeal to different anxities were bandied around. At no point did I hear anyone suggest that specific fears have an actual gender, and these were not people who were unaware of feminist readings of horror movies. After all, there was a long discussion about exactly this, the changing role of women in horror movies from pure victim to victim-hero. Horror movies touch on fears that go far deeper than gender can reach.

Of course, all that only explains why victims in horror movies are usually coded female. Why did the victims in so many horror movies transistion to victim-heroes? Was it a Hollywood conspiracy or did audiences just start demanding victims who quit taking shit and started fighting back? Well, I'm sure it wasn't a Hollywood conspiracy. After all, the ultimate seeming victim turned superhero is the beloved vampire slayer Buffy, a character that the Hollywood system did everything in its power to undermine and marginalize. (That's another example of how male audience members relate to the heroine instead of just gawk at her. Every time I've watched an episode of Buffy with male fans, they clearly relate to Buffy and cheer every time she pulls off a particularly specatular move.)

Well, I have no idea why all of a sudden potential victims started running, hiding or even fighting back. It's such a dramatic change that watching something like Psycho now is disconcerting; you keep expecting Janet Leigh to snatch that knife right out of Norman's hand and turn it on him. Maybe it was in interest of better film-making. Most of the tension in Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes out of watching the respective heroines scrap for survival. Feminism probably made it easier for writers to concieve of female characters who fight back and easier for audiences to accept them. Female heroines also came out of the push for more interesting and thoughtful horror movies that started with Night of the Living Dead, as well. It was obviously the "thing" to subvert audience expectations and ratchet up the tension that way.

No matter how important these different factors were in creating the horror heroine, the reason that she continues to show up in movies and TV shows is obvious enough--audiences love her. Her seeming vulnerability hides an inner reserve of strength and gives the audience a way to deal with the fears that horror movies play on. The message behind the truimph of the small girl/woman who survives is that yes, it's a scary world that will try to beat you down, but if you're smart and resourceful you can survive.

That's why I have a problem with feminist critics I've read who say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn't quite feminist enough because even though Buffy is an ass-kicking, resourceful heroine, she is still a petite blonde and playing into the beauty standard. But to my mind, she wouldn't be so appealing without the outward appearance of physical vulnerability. When she turns around and beats down a vampire who saw her as easy prey, she's speaking to that part of all of us that secretly believes that we are underestimated, that if we had to, we could kick some ass. This is a feeling that exists outside of gender and outside of beauty standards, even if a small, beautiful woman is the symbol of that.

44 Comments:

Blogger Diane said...

I think feminism, slow as it may be to creep into American culture, is indeed the chief reason that horror movie victims have turned on their stalkers and fought back. But I do not think that feminism is the only reason. Horror movies, like all films, are filled with symbolism, as you point out, and many of the films we see now show an intersection of feminism with the new "we won't be kicked around" American ideology. Most of the "Halloween" movies came out in the 80's, when Reaganism was practically a national religion. It is also worth pointing out that starting in the 80's, the horror movie villain could not be destroyed--he kept coming back. We were fighting back, but was it in vain?

I agree with you totally about Buffy. It was her very "Buffyism" that made the vampire slayer such a wonderful and witty concept.

8/10/2004

 
Blogger Earnest said...

I embrace the notion that it is difficult for men to embrace female protagonists in films. It's something my girlfriend and I argue about all the time, but it is next to impossible for me to get involved with a romantic comedy unless there is a strong masculine role (When Harry Met Sally, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, etc...). A dramatic movie featuring a woman? I can't think of the last one I enjoyed. Generally, I require the masculine component.

You are right about the use of the feminine lead in horror movies. The lone woman is the hallmark of the slasher flick. She is the woman who is victim at first but survives the killing spree to overcome her predator. I do, however, think that there is a voyeuristic component to that scenario-- it's why sex is so important to the slasher flick. I also agree, though, that there is an economic component. As a narrative model, this plot mirrors the plot convention of the comedies and action movies that were popular at the same time as the slasher. The comedic equivalent was the put-upon, poor loser (usually a guy) who eventually overcomes his tormentor. We enjoy watching the triumph, and it's easy to put a dark-haired poor guy against a blonde rich guy. It's also easy to place a woman in danger and have her run from the man/monster. The joy comes from watching her overcome her fear and put down the killer. Using those conventions just saves the writer, director, and audience time. I can only extrapolate from my own experience considering males and horror movies, but I think you don't want to see terrified males-- you want to see males kick butt. That's why the monsters are usually so popular. I think it's why Friday the 13th continued on using Jason as its star, switching from his mother.

All that having been said, could someone please explain to me the "popularity" of Buffy (I put it in quotes because I see its popularity being more of the cult than mainstream variety). I tried watching the show several times, and I just do not understand why people like it. The special effects and fighting just seem so subpar. I like that for a kids' show like Big Wolf on Campus, but for a primetime drama?

8/11/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

If you don't like it, it might have something to do with your personal block against empathizing with a female lead, you know. But don't speak for all men on that--plenty of men I know fully enjoy watching movies with female leads. It wasn't all women who packed the aisles of Alien and Terminator.

8/11/2004

 
Blogger Earnest said...

Again, Terminator is about Arnold, and Ripley in Alien is the classic woman in danger. Alien is set up like a slasher flick, and seeing Sigourney Weaver shimmy around in a t-shirt and panties is all about voyeurism. It's not that I think my perspective is representative of all men; I just wanted to give you a window into my own thought processes, which I'm sure I share with at least one or two other men.

I'm not saying I don't like female leads; I'm saying that dramas and comedies without strong male leads tend to bore me.

8/11/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

I'm not going to get into a long involved thing explaining exactly why Ripley is written like a traditional male hero, but I will say that rare is the male viewer who doesn't identify with her. If you resist identifying with her, it's for your own reasons. Your reaction could be the standard male reaction, but my gut feeling is it's not, considering that a man directed it and two men wrote it.
Whatever it is, be it a book, movie, band, whatever, if a woman wrote it/leads it, it's not hard to find a cadre of men to put it down using elaborate and baseless arguments about how women are not intelligent enough, daring enough, etc. to be interesting or that the female experience is too specific and that only men can put forth a "universal" experience. I've known men who have had their nose rubbed in their own sexism before and realized that they sounded pretty foolish when they made pronouncements like that, so it's not a completely lost cause to take that attitude head on.

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