Friday 13 April 2012

Men, Women, Chainsaws and Why I Still Miss Buffy

Posted by Lilka

[Trigger warning: Use of misogynistic language, in the post and the links. I discuss sexist portrayals and violence against women in the horror genre, including sexual violence, and have embedded a video that depicts some of these things. Some of the film descriptions I link to may also be disturbing or triggering. At least one of the linked videos is NSFW (the others, it may depend on where you work!).]

[Spoiler warning: I potentially spoil some minor plot points in The Vampire Lovers, Shambleau, Jenifer, Deadgirl, Carrie, Teeth, Misery, and Bride of Frankenstein. Major ending spoilers for Perfume and Martyrs. Some spoilers for Supernatural, especially in the embedded video, but nothing from the last couple of seasons. Almost all links contain spoilers.]

So, I'm a fan of horror. Movies, books, comics; anything that promises me a creepy doll, a supernatural menace, an eldritch abomination or just a really good scare, I'm there for. And I feel sympathy for people who raise their eyebrows when I mention this. One friend said to me, “Oh, I'd like to get into horror fiction too. It's just so hard to find the good stuff that isn't all blood and rape,” and I could only agree with them. While I would say horror is no more prone to Sturgeon's Law than any other genre, horror's usual subject matter means that the crap is often, well, crappier; more violent, more gratuitous, more enraging, more difficult to read or watch. Horror fiction is by its nature often reactionary – it's about the intrusion of the abnormal into normal life and (usually) the eventually re-assertion of the status quo. That being the case, it's not surprising to find the annals of horror fiction littered with bad guys who are in some way othered: demons dressed in S&M gear, predatory lesbians (link NSFW), really offensive metaphorised representations of people of colour.... And of course slasher movies are particularly infamous for the tendency of the victims to be black, sexually active or generally behaving in non-societally approved ways.

Besides the general kyriarchical mess, though, there are two things that make it tough for me specifically as a female fan of horror, and it's those that I'd like to talk about more in this post.

1. Where are the women?

They say that a picture's worth a thousand words, so I'm going to start with one. This is from TVTropes' splash page on horror cinema:

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

[Description: a black and white image depicting a mass of iconic characters from horror cinema, mostly only showing their faces. The vast majority are male.]

… yeah. A quick breakdown: this picture includes one film director (male), two heroic characters (both male), and one victim character (female). All the other characters depicted are monsters – I count about forty. Of those, only four are gendered female.

This is more complex than the picture makes it look, but only slightly. First-rank protagonists are female in horror movies more often than in many other film genres, thanks to the Final Girl phenomenon (more on this in a bit). It's not a complete absence of female characters, but rather a lack of diversity that's the major problem here. Women can be cannon fodder, love interests or even heroes in horror – but where are the wise old mentors, the tough-as-nails veterans back to for one last job, the plucky comedic sidekicks? Where, most of all, are the monsters?

Monsters gendered male can be almost anything: malevolent clowns, possessed puppets, supernatural dream-invaders, serial-killing snowmen, sexy vampires, bestial vampires, the Phantom of the Opera or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Monsters gendered female, on the other hand, almost invariably conform to one archetype – the succubus. Whether it's C. L. Moore's space-medusa Shambleau, Jenifer, with her hideous face but obsession-inspiringly beautiful body, or the titular zombie sex slave in Deadgirl, the vast majority of female monstrosity in horror revolves around sexual appeal to men. Easily the most common type of female monster is the one who appears to be a beautiful woman in order to seduce men and then feed on them in some way, whether by eating them, drinking their blood, absorbing their life force, or something more esoteric (the female leads in the Species films want to mate with men in order to have alien babies and take over the Earth; a hilarious early Star Trek monster fed on and killed men by draining all the salt from their bodies). Very often, the focus of the horror will not be what they do to their victims, but their transformation from their sexually attractive form to a more monstrous one during or immediately after sex. Those female monsters which do not conform to this specific pattern still tend to be heavily shaped by their sexuality; Carrie's psychic powers are triggered by the onset of puberty, and we've had a whole film about vagina dentata (although this doesn't quite fit within the succubus archetype as the protagonist's 'teeth' only appear when she is sexually assaulted). Even Annie Wilkes, possibly the least fanservice-y woman in horror fiction, is implied to be motivated by a repressed sex drive, since her main goal is to force the (male) protagonist to keep writing the romance novels she loves.

Perhaps none of this is very surprising. I've already said that horror antagonists are frequently othered, and there are few more common ways of othering women than treating them as if only their sexuality counts. But it makes me sad. Horror is a form of speculative fiction, and the whole point of speculative fiction is that anything should be possible. So why do male gendered monsters range across a much wider spectrum than female ones? Probably because, as a culture, we tend to treat 'male' as a default and 'female' as a variation on that default. A male werewolf is a werewolf; a female werewolf is a new twist on the genre all by herself, with the added bonus for script writers of being able to make jokes about 'bitches' and 'that time of the month'. (Oh yeah; supposing you do find a cool, interesting, not over-sexualised female monster, you'd better brace yourself for the huge amounts of misogynistic language that are almost certainly about to be thrown at her. I'm looking at you, Sigourney Weaver, but not nearly as hard as I'm looking at the writers of Supernatural, Season 3 onwards....) It's possible to come up with 'a female version of Frankenstein's monster' (with the conflict in the story coming from sexuality again - she refuses to marry the original monster as she was designed to); it's much harder to sell the idea of Frankenstein creating a female monster in the first place, if he's not doing it for sexual reasons.

Horror, particularly horror cinema, isn't really about the good guys; the story comes from the villains and monsters, and they are the icons of the genre. And it really bums me out when I look at the picture above, see so few female faces there, and realise that it's an accurate reflection of the iconic status of female characters. Even someone like Alice Krige, who has given brilliant performances in horror films from the start of her career, embodied one of Star Trek's most memorable monsters, and frankly deserves a medal for Services to Horror for her work as the Big Bad in Silent Hill alone, would not be as recognisable to your average horror buff as Dracula, Leatherface or Pennywise; but I'd bet a lot more could identify Pyramid Head, the male-gendered monster in Silent Hill who has under five minutes of screentime.

2. Oh, there they are....

But of course, the kind of roles that women are used for in horror are just as telling as the kinds they aren't.

Carol J. Clover first coined the term Final Girl in her brilliant book Men, Women and Chainsaws. The Final Girl is the most important (and not infrequently the only) surviving character in a horror film, and particularly in the slasher subgenre. Clover identifies a number of key characteristics of the Final Girl, the principal one being, as suggested by the name, that this character is almost always female. She is also usually a tomboy, or at least has far fewer feminine markers than any other female characters, and she is very rarely sexually active. Clover theorises that there are two main purposes for this character: she must be available for viewers to identify with as far as possible; and she must feel and show enough fear to make whatever is threatening her frightening to the audience as well. Tellingly, Clover argues, the level of fear required makes it near-impossible for this character to be male, as a man showing that much fear would be too 'weak' (or possibly too funny) for male audience members to identify with. A woman is allowed to be terrified without compromising her 'strength' as a character.

The general sense that where possible, it is women who should be feeling (or demonstrating that they feel) fear and pain is one that pervades the genre. Perhaps ironically, this often comes less from the creators' sadism towards women and more from an (equally sexist) belief that male characters should not show a lot of emotion openly, particularly if those emotions make them seem vulnerable. This view is irritating on its own; it becomes downright infuriating when it leads creators to make every victim female when logically they shouldn't be. In Perfume, having spent a lot of time at the beginning of the book explaining how perfumes are made up of different and contrasting notes, the protagonist, Grenouille, sets out to make the perfect perfume by combining the personal scents of twenty five people – and all of them are beautiful virgin girls who have just reached sexual maturity. Not only that, but the perfume is so powerful that anybody who comes into contact with Grenouille while he is wearing it instantly feels overwhelming love for him, regardless of their gender, age or sexual orientation. You might think that there would be someone somewhere whose preference wasn't for virgin girls; you might think, come to that, that a perfumier as sophisticated as Grenouille would want more variety in his masterpiece. But apparently not. Equally egregiously, the antagonists in Martyrs are revealed to be a secret society attempting to find out the truth about the afterlife by torturing people until they reach a higher state of consciousness; absolutely no reason is given in the film why this couldn't work on anybody, but again, all of the victims depicted are female (and mostly young and beautiful too). There are loads more examples; I picked these because they're from works I generally consider to be pretty good, which shows how widespread the problem is.

Expressed openly rather than borne stoically, male fear, and to a large extent male pain and suffering, tends to be treated as weak, pathetic and ultimately laughable. Female fear, pain and suffering, by contrast, are accepted – not least because they are often presented in an eroticised fashion.

The fanvid embedded below, titled 'Women's Work', made a bit of a splash in Supernatural fandom when it was first posted. Some people complained that it misrepresented or exaggerated the program's misogynistic treatment of its female characters - which is interesting, because it's made up of nothing but clips from the show. Because Supernatural consciously uses as many horror tropes as it can, the vid provides an excellent illustration of some of the things I've been talking about in this post. I don't think you need to be familiar with the show or with fanvids generally to get something out of it, but YMMV. Trigger warning for high levels of violence against women, including non-explicit rape imagery.

A parting thought

If I could tell the makers of horror fiction one thing it would be this: the more, and the more diverse, female characters you have, the less offensive any single portrayal is likely to be. I'm sure it would be possible to make a vid very similar to 'Women's Work' using clips from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; but at least on BtVS, we had Buffy herself coming to rescue the victims and slay the monsters, not a couple of overgrown frat boys whose favourite word is 'bitch'. And we also had Willow, and Cordelia, and Miss Calendar, and Joyce, and Anya, and Tara.... Having a whole range of female characters who were different from each other, had relationships with each other, and mattered to the show and the ongoing plot took a lot of the sting out of the occassional distressed damsel or (literal) man-eater.

And honestly, that's the same piece of advice I'd like to give to writers in all genres. The problems I've outlined here – treating 'male' as default and 'female' as variation, making female characterisation all about sexuality, confining women to a narrow set of roles, designating women as 'feelers' (and, by extension, men as 'doers'), eroticising women who are in pain or powerless – all of those problems exist in every genre and medium I can think of. All horror fiction does is make some of them more visceral. Is Freddy Krueger's hand coming up out of Nancy's bathtub really much creepier than the fetishistic, voyeuristic way that most scenes of women bathing are filmed? I don't think so. I think it's just easier to see.


  1. If you liked Buffy, you should probably go see Joss Whedon's new film, Cabin in the Woods. It's a horror movie which, like the Scream series, highlights the tropes and clich├ęs of the horror genre. Which means the depiction of female characters isn't brilliant (certainly not when compared to Buffy), but at least it's aware of the stereotypes and attempts some sort of a justification for them.

  2. Oh, I have been *so there* for Cabin in the Woods for months at this point. But thanks for the rec!