Misogyny in horror films
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Misogyny can occur in horror films when there is a degrading representation of women. This is found particularly in slasher films, where there is often gendered specific violence towards women. Female characters experience violence and brutality at the hands of male antagonists far more often than male characters in these films. Female characters are more likely to experience sexual violence, particularly in the rape-and-revenge subgenre. Women in horror films are typically reduced to roles that are considered tropes, such as the final girl, the blond victim and the femme fatale.
- 1 Genres
- 2 Gender
- 3 Sexuality
- 4 Audience
- 5 Race-based sexism
- 6 See also
- 7 References
Mark Edmundson[who?] believes that watching horror films is one way that some people have of dealing with evil. He sees the world as "evil, randomly violent, godless", and believes that "gothic horror functions in psychologically and culturally significant ways."
According to J.B Weaver III, slasher films do not predominantly victimize women, as many individuals believe. However, both female and male characters who have been sexually involved die in the slasher genre. Even though Weaver's research is unable to pinpoint whether characters of the female gender are more often killed in an explicitly sexual way than are characters of the male gender, he identifies other ways sexist bias can be seen in such films. Research by Donnerstein and Penrod led them to believe that violence in slasher films "is overwhelmingly directed at women". Slasher films are primarily sexually violent films consisting of "scenes of explicit violence primarily directed toward women, often occurring during or juxtaposed to mildly erotic scenes".
Teen slasher films
Teen slasher films feature teen protagonists who portray the stereotypical American family. Films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Carrie (1976), show the relationship between society and horror films. Pat Gill states that, "teen slasher films both resolutely mock and yearn for the middle-class American dream, the promised comfort and contentment of a loving, supportive bourgeois family." These films portray parents who are incapable of helping their children when the latter are in dire need of help. Psychologists have concluded that an "ethical shift in the meaning and value of family responsibility" has occurred, which is characterized by a change from an obligation to others towards to a focus on oneself. According to some research, divorce is the main reason for this shift, and it has been suggested that horror films tend to portray what is going on in society. According to Gill, this change in meaning and values explains why teenagers in horror films are left to fend for themselves and the boundaries of their homes have become "entirely permeable to evil".
Some critics suggest that the torture represented in the torture horror genre reflects contemporary U.S. society. The methods of torture in these films are adapted from the discussion of terrorism. After the War on Terror, the film industry had trouble distinguishing between the characters of "torturer, victim, villain, and hero." Writers and directors of horror films had difficulty allowing their torturers and villains to survive after doing such heinous acts. Mashia Wester sees films such as The Descent, Saw, and High Tension as depicting "average Americans both as tortured victim and torturing hero." The heroes within these torture films do not actively torture but contribute to their own and others' suffering.
Eli Roth, the creator of the Hostel films, taps into an "undercurrent of anxiety about the place of gendered bodies in relation to torture as well as the connection between gender equality, torture, global capitalist venture, and the passive American consumer." Maisha Wester's states in her article, Torture Porn And Uneasy Feminisms: Re-Thinking (Wo)Men in Eli Roth's Hostel Films, that the popularity of the Hostel films makes the questioning of gendered dominance "both elusive and inescapable in the face of capitalism since, within such a system, we are all commodifiable and consuming bodies."
The misogynistic treatment of women in horror films can be associated with the fear of the abject. Julia Kristeva explains the abject to be "something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us." Kristeva is stating that we are horrified by the abject because "it is something that disgusts us, yet comes from us or from which we come." We are brought up being taught what we should see with disgust; therefore we must conceal it in shame. Horror films use the female body as a form of an abject. The bodily fluid, blood, gets related to the period and birthing only the female body can perform. This then constitutes motherhood as something society is taught to be disgusted with feeding into this patriarchal world.
In the article, Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film by Aviva Briefel, she states that there are two identifications of gendered modes for monstrous suffering: masochism and menstruation. Masochism is central to the identification of male monsters "who initiate their sadistic rampages with acts of self-mutilation." However, if we look at the female monster we will see that she does not commit acts of self-mutilation out of pleasure but instead "commit acts of violence out of revenge for earlier abuse by parents, partners, rapists, and other offenders." Female monsters will engage in masochistic acts when she is coerced or is trying to terminate her monstrosity. Briefel shows examples of these certain masochistic acts by female monsters with films like Carrie (1976), The Exorcist (1973), Stigmata (1999), The Hunger (1983), and Alien 3 (1992).
The slasher film was the first genre that allowed gender norms to take a different path. The role of the final girl confused audiences with the portrayal of a female being a violent hero. However, there was finally a possibility that the heroine who defeats the monster is a female and is categorized as the final girl. The final girl is the "first character to sense something amiss and the only one to deduce from the accumulating evidence the pattern and extent of threat; the only one, in other words, whose perspective approaches our own privileged understanding of the situation." The only way the final girl is able to kill or escape the monster is by taking on male characteristics. However, Clover cautions audiences against seeing "final girls" as products of feminism. Final girls are still seen like the other women who have been killed after taking part in sexual activities by being a part of "the chase". Clover concludes that the final girl is "an agreed upon fiction [for] male-viewers' use of her as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies."
The final girl is one of the most commonly seen tropes in horror films. The final girl is always female, usually a virgin and according to Carol J. Clover, who first identified this trope in 1992, she is typically seen as "the embodiment of what a woman should be." She does not smoke, drink or engage in other illicit behavior though most, if not all, other characters in the film do. She is the lone survivor of the slasher villain, and often bests him by taking on masculine characteristics and engaging in her own form of brutality to kill or escape the antagonist in the end. Clover notes that the final girl is almost always brunette, modestly dressed and seemingly naive in comparison to her friends and other film characters.
Carol Clover states that the monster in horror films possesses emasculated rage that portrays the male idea of the monstrous female identity. Wester states that the hero and the monster have blurred lines making their characteristics very similar. Both the hero and the monster are dependent on the female body whilst taking part of the patriarchal world and degrading women. The monsters in horror films try to hide their sexual frustration by masking their identity and human self. The mask allows the monster to kill and release the tension from his sexual repression.
The female monster
Shelley Stamp Lindsey states "Carrie is not about liberation from sexual repression, but about the failure of repression to contain the monstrous feminine". Audiences are not supposed to identify with Carrie whilst she becomes the monster, instead they are supposed to be scared of her ability and destructive potential. Carrie is purposely portrayed in this manner because she demonstrates what happens when women gain power and are no longer repressed. Carrie ultimately tells its audience that they must live as a patriarchal world and if they do not then this is what will come of it.
Aviva Briefel states that menstruation is the start of monstrosity. Once a girl has reached her puberty she is seen to be monstrous. Horror films feed into the female monsters identity through her menstruation. This then states that having your period makes you weaker. The overall objective in Briefel's article, Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film, is that the female monster is unable to control their emotions when pain occurs whereas male monsters are unable to feel pain.
Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight reiterates these stereotypes in present-day filmmaking, styling the major female character, Daisy Domergue, as a bloodsoaked twin of Carrie, or as the glutinous slimy monster of The Thing. Daisy is imaged arbitrarily as a monstrous force, rather than being human. There has been much debate about the conservative nature of this symbolism and the openly negative attitude to women in The Hateful Eight. Harvey Weinstein and others have vigorously defended the filmmaker from these charges, given that the film has received mixed reception and has not matched the commercial success of Tarantino's previous titles, whilst discussion about the treatment of Daisy has opened up criticism of the film that was unforeseen by both producers and director. Though her portrayal as "Female Monster" is no doubt deserved due to her committing multiple acts of murder both during and before the film's story, turning her eventual downfall by the hands of Warren and Mannix into well deserved punishment.
The repressive patriarch
In every horror film the repressive patriarchal form of a monster is either "symbolically castrated, pathetically lacking...or he is overly endowed and potent". The real sexual interest that occurs in horror films comes from the monster. "The monster's power is one of sexual difference from the normal male. In this difference he is remarkably like the woman in the eyes of the traumatized male: a biological freak with impossible and threatening appetites that suggest a frightening potency precisely where the normal male would perceive a lack."
Men only stay on the screen long enough to show their incompetence, unless they are seen to be a true form of patriarchy. The repressive patriarch is often dressed as a female and because he does not exemplify patriarchy at its finest, the final girl is his "homoerotic stand-in".
The "masochistic monster" revels in acts of self-mutilation before the audience sees the harming of others being done. Briefel looks at films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Fly (1986), Hellraiser series, Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). All these horror films show examples of masochistic monsters that take pleasure in the pain they inflict on themselves. It is something they must endure to be monstrous.
The horror film emphasizes the idea of female sexuality being something that needs to be punished or come with negative consequences. It shows that once a woman acts in a lustful way she will be killed. The American fantasy of women continuously being sexualized is completely taken away in horror films. Once a woman is related to sex, her sexuality is punished. Klaus Reiser argues, "It is not so much the girls' sexuality per se...but the fact that they have sex with other boys". Sex is considered to be a masculine trait because it is a form of power over someone, and if a woman tries to take control of this power she will instantly be punished for trying. Her sexual freedom is not within gender-norms and the patriarchal society does not accept it. Only "male domination is natural and follows inevitable from evolutionary...or social pressures".
The Chase consists of a sexualized and degraded woman running for her life as an assailant hunts her down and kills her, unless she is termed the "final girl". Often, The Chase will feature the woman in various states of undress and lecherous camerawork that focuses on her body before she is killed in an attempt to mix sex and violence. Female victims in slasher films are shown to be in a state of fear five times as long as males, specifically occurring during "the chase".
A phallic weapon, such as a sword or gun, takes on masculine characteristics, even in the hands of a monster, or a woman. It has been considered that, in a horror narrative, once the "final girl" is given the chance of killing or injuring the antagonist, she can only be successful with such a weapon.
Attaching even further onto the fear of women's bodies, there are multiple cases of female bodies become mere vessel for the monster. A female character is violated and is mystically inseminated, and then endures an excoriating pregnancy or an almost non-existent one, passing without any repercussion. The child is then either a monster that must be killed, or is taken away from the character presently. This trope reduces a women down to the biological, and degrades the emotional and physically complex aspects of bearing and giving birth to a child. The women often have no say in what happens with the baby or even with their own bodies, becoming little more than an object. In horror films such as Rosemary's Baby (Polanski 1968), Rosemary spends the whole film being told what to feel about her pregnancy by her husband and others in the apartment complex. She never gets a say in the subject of her baby, even after it is revealed as the spawn of Satan. She remains the vessel for others to take advantage of throughout the film.
The audience first identifies with the monster until there is a shift in point-of-view camera narration, and allows identification with the final girl once the monster is after her. The audience relates only with masculinity and disdains femininity. Horror films resemble a mirrored object. They gaze back at the audiences' who are unsuccessful in hiding their own sexual desires.
Aviva Briefel believes that pain is central to the audiences understanding of horror films. It is "the monster's pain that determines audience positioning in the horror film." "By gendering the monster's pain, the horror genre prevents the audience from losing control of its own."
Scholars such as Mulvey, Clover, and Creed have argued that we live in patriarchal society, where men dictate the rules and women have to abide by them. Clover looks at the notion that men might "elect to betray their sex and identify with screen females." In slasher films, male characters are often killed quickly and easily leaving the audience to resonate with the strong female character left to kill the monster. Clover seeks to suggest that masochistic impulses is seen within the male spectator who finds a "vicarious stake in" the "fear and pain" the final girl endures by the monster's torturous actions.
The male gaze
The "male gaze," a term coined by Laura Mulvey in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", describes the depiction of female characters in a sexualized, de-humanizing manner. Mulvey states that, because the media depict women as they are observed through the male gaze, women tend to take on this male perspective. According to this theory, women largely appear on screen for men's erotic pleasure men.
Linda Williams suggests it is supposedly honorable for males to gaze upon the terror shown on a movie screen while females hide, avoiding these screen images. She also suggests women have the right to feel as if they do not belong since they are shown as powerless "in the face of rape, mutilation and murder". As Mulvey argues, the female character "exists only to be looked at." When female audiences gaze upon the screen and when the women on the screen are involved in the gaze, they see "a distorted reflection of" their own image. "The monster is thus a particularly insidious form of the many mirrors patriarchal structure of seeing hold up to the woman." Linda William believes that the woman's gaze is "so threatening to male power, it is violently punished."
The female gaze
Mary Ann Doane suggests that a woman can only actively participate in the gaze when it is "simultaneous with her own victimization." The woman's gaze is turned into "masochistic fantasy." As soon as the woman feels as if she has power and tries to act on it, she is punished. In "When The Woman Looks", Linda Williams analyzes the terrified gaze a woman encounters when she looks at "the horrible body of the monster." In that very moment, as the monster and the woman gaze upon one another, there is recognition of "similar status within patriarchal structures of seeing." What the woman gazes at in horror is always first seen by the audience and then, seconds later, by the woman on the screen. This sequence "ensures the voyeur's pleasure of looking" and punishes the woman by "the horror that her look reveals". The monster and the woman's gazes are similar. There is not "much difference between an object of desire and an object of horror as far as the male look is concerned." Williams is stating that it isn't an expression of sexual desire that is formed between the monster and the girl but instead "a flash of sympathetic identification."
While misogyny abounds in horror films, so too does a sexism rooted in the colonial traditions of North America. Women in general have poor representation in the American film industry, but its women from minorities who suffer the most, being both nearly non-existent and appropriated for the sake of furthering the plot, especially in the case of horror cinema. This deeper rooted misogyny exposes further problems with the horror genre and its catering to a white audience. It also exemplifies issues of racism within film making and how, according to Harry M. Benshoff, "the vast majority of those films use race as a marker of monstrosity in ways generically consistent with the larger social body's assumptions about white superiority"
The horror genre seems to be the genre within cinema that has the most space to comment on issues of race and gender due to its extremist nature and access to allegorical imagery. Ariel Smith states that "by forcing the subconscious fears of audiences to the surface, horror cinema evokes reactions, psychologically and physically: this is the genre's power." The genre holds a great amount of potential to not only explore violence against women and minorities, but also inform the public and show the extents of that violence in a powerful way. ." However, instead of bringing these issues into a public appeal, it only seems to be making the issues worse with neglect to these issues and highly racialized/gendered points of storytelling. By constantly reusing and creating trope images/plot devices like the "Indian burial ground" and "Mythical Negro" these films trap an entire minority in a set role in cinema while also rendering the reality of their cultures invisible.
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