Even though merit is more important to me than possible political implications when it comes to works of art, I nonetheless take special notice of the role of women in movies I see, stories I read or lyrics I hear. It’s the natural reaction to being a woman consuming art that is by and large created by men – I am always curious to see how my girls are externally processed by the opposite sex. As I have made clear several times in this blog, I love watching movies, from A(rt film) to Z(oolander), and when October rolls around, I love to give myself a pass to watch as many horror movies as I’d like, when usually I avoid them because they sometimes give me panic attacks, and I can just imagine myself hyperventilating and my husband asking me what’s wrong and I have to be like “I just watched Halloween 2 and now I can’t stop thinking about how I’m going to die someday.” In October, though, I like to imagine that I’m just one of many people on my block, in my neighborhood, in Los Angeles at that very moment going out of our way to scare ourselves with the disgusting, depressing Horror genre. And it’s a genre which is known for being exploitive to women, so I was just taking quick stock of the women in my favorite horror movies, and I really like all of them, or at least their important role in their fictitious worlds (surprise surprise, my opinion runs counter to everyone else’s). Sometimes the non-essential women characters are given the stereotypical horror movie function of getting killed while dry-humping or breaking curfew when they should be home studying or whatever, like in Halloween (1978), but I can’t really mind that much, because I like the main character, Laurie Strode, so much, and love it when she escapes Michael Myers. Some of my other favorite horror movies, The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), Skeleton Key (2005), Dark Water (2005), The Others (2001), Carrie(1976) and the Paranormal Activity franchise (2009-2012), all revolve around the female characters, and not at all in the same way. In the Haunting, for instance, the character of Eleanor, the protagonist, is a shy and lovelorn woman who has been pushed around her whole life – if she were a real person in real life, she would be written off as a chump or something, and not as some ass-kicking hero, but she is – she strikes out on her own against the people who’ve been trying to push her into a subservient role her whole life (her family), and though the new group of people she settles in with may think that she’s a nervous spinster, she’s in fact involved in an intense supernatural adventure that the others are ignorant of – she emerges the hero, seemingly sacrificing her life for the others but in fact transcending this world into a supernatural world where she finally gets to be the master of her own home.
The women in Carrie and The Exorcist are used in the exact opposite way of The Haunting’s Eleanor. The Exorcist’s Regan and the titular protagonist of Carrie both experience horrific personal hauntings that mess up and scare the people around them. I used to love how … uh, I guess I would have called it “punk rock” at the time I was most into these films (my teens) … I used to love how boldly unfeminine both these characters’ freakouts were. Now that I’m older, I think there’s something a little too grotesque about each of them, and I think that has something to do with an awareness of how young both actresses were, especially when compared to the male directors putting them through these grotesque transformations in a possibly sort of voyeuristic or even a little mocking way, like “see how horrible this seemingly nice young woman can become when I transform her in my movie.” I’m not sure about that (though I do know I can’t wait to see Kimberly Peirce’s upcoming Carrie remake). But if I had no idea the gender of the directors now, I would no doubt unconditionally love Carrie and poor but awesomely crazy and scary Regan as much as I used to in my teens, when I felt like a perfect combination of the mercilessly bullied Carrie and the possessed Regan when she tells the priests to f each other’s a-holes.
If I think back to what it was like to be introduced to horror films when I was a teen, I can pinpoint it to watching the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and I don’t find anything sexist about these films; I even remember a couple favorite characters from these movies I haven’t seen in over 10 years, like the brave and intelligent Nancy, the only one in her group to survive Freddy Krueger in the first film (1984) and a sacrificed hero in Nightmare 3 (1987), and the tough Debbie, who pumps iron in order to kick Freddy’s butt (before unfortunately turning into a cockroach and being crushed in a roach motel that a giant Freddy crushes in his hand, in Nightmare 4: The Dream Master (1988)). The movies in this franchise contain the same self-aware humor that is more recently attributed to the Scream franchise (in both cases, it’s a cool device at first, but later on gets a bit obnoxious, as both franchises run past their natural courses and turn into overly postmodern commentaries on themselves). This self-awareness in the Nightmare films that “I am a slasher film” is in part exhibited in female characters that hate the stereotype of a dumb girl that gets killed in classic horror movies like …. I don’t know the names of these movies because I’ve never actually seen a horror movie where there are no strong women and the only girls that appear are naked and make dumb choices. And when I tried Googling “Sexist Horror Films,” all I really found was essays like this one, written by feminists with graduate degrees in liberal arts, like me, writing about sexism in horror films. I think there’s a bunch of horror movies that are simultaneously teensploitation movies that contain a lot of gratuitous violence against women and slut-shaming, but I can’t stand exploitation movies of any sort, not so much because they offend me (though I will always be up in arms about all the stomach-turning violence against women in the ‘great exploitation film’ aka piece of shit that is Class of 1984 (1982)), as because they are boring and I’m not really into stuff that’s ‘so bad it’s good.’ Also, I know that there are a bunch of disgusting movies like Saw where, I can imagine, the women may not be treated well, but I can’t stomach the type of brutality that I’ve been warned is in these movies, so I haven’t seen any of them. In my favorite horror movies, the woman is a hero (Halloween, Dark Water, The Others to some degree, The Haunting, Skeleton Key), or at least eschews feminine stereotypes by being a foul-mouthed or bullied killer (The Exorcist and Carrie). Happy Halloween!