Horror and Gender: What is it about the treatment of women?

Horror is a gender stereotyped industry. That’s a fact, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest so (years upon years to be precise). But, before I bash horror, it should be said too, for parity, that so is nearly every other genre. You can’t escape stereotypes, because they create narratives from which writers build a film, and from which the characters are cast. But with the stereotype comes the predictability. You know how it’s going to end, because…well…every character is a stock one. Just think of a semi-decent box office hit you watched over the past few years. You could, from simple analysis, signpost who is the ‘tough guy’, ‘the girlfriend’, ‘the kooky one’, and so on. They each play to ‘type’. But, seen as we’re in the month of blood, gore, psychos, ghosts, ghouls and all that’s in between, here the focus isn’t on every stereotype ever (because we’d be here forever).

Instead, the focus is on the poor deal women seem to be dealt when it comes to horror. It’s a bit of a why, how and when, but with some exploration into whether we’re moving away from gender bias and towards gender parity when it comes to who gets to do the killing and who gets to do the dying. A smorgasbord of representation if you will.

Throughout the history of horror cinema, for the most part, women seem to be on the end of a knife rather than the one wielding it. They are the sacrificial victim, the innocent virgin, the temptress, and so on. I should say that men in this genre are stereotyped, and not always in a positive manner, but it seems to be women who get the raw end of the deal. Men get to do the killing, or get to be the protector from the other guy doing the killing, and usually the women get to die (unlucky).

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But what actually are these stereotypes, and why do they always portray women so dirty? Well, first up is the most obvious one: the damsel in distress. It goes without saying, but I’ve said it anyway. For the most part, women need to be saved, usually conjuring a screaming commotion whilst they are at it. And in many a slasher flick, it usually happens in minimal clothing, for no other reason than…isn’t it obvious? (If it’s not obvious, well, research suggests that some men get off on watching scantily clad women die, so there’s that).

From the damsel in distress, we come to the ‘host’. Seen as women give birth, they are the ones to spawn the demon, and the only agency they are afforded seems to come from that fact that well, they have a womb. Not much agency there really. Moreover, they are still a victim, not only of themselves, but also of their gender. From The Exorcist to The Omen, with Rosemary’s Baby thrown into the mix as well, if a woman is pregnant in a horror film, or has a child, well, sucks to be her, and everyone else for that matter too.

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However, it’s not all about being the damsel in distress, or a mother either, sometimes, the woman in love goes on a crazy murder spree as well.

Whilst I said earlier (time to contradict myself), that women rarely are the ones doing the killing, sometimes, they get the chance to wave a couple of knives. Yet, if they are doing it in a way that boosts the male ego, well, that’s not positive female representation. The woman scorned, or in a love, is a tricky one, but if it’s usually for the benefit of someone other than themselves, or they are a victim to their own raging female emotion (please note the sarcasm), it works against them rather than for. Take the 1967 film Frankenstein Created Woman. Book ended by a tagline that comically notes, ‘a beautiful woman with the soul of the devil’, and a plot that sees a disfigured gal go on a rage filled murder spree of the men who have rejected her, the picture starts to paint itself.

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From there, we arrive at possibly one of the most contentious tropes of the horror genre.  Whilst it is relatively easy to see why the others fall into the unfortunate pitfalls of poor female representation, with some exceptions, the final trope pits female against female in one the biggest battles seen on the big screen, The Virgin Vs. The Sexually Promiscuous, and sets up the argument between what constitutes positive representation. But before the potential for positivity, let’s get to the negative.

If you’re a horror fan, or even a movie fan, or have the capacity to use Google, then you may know that one of the most common threads between movies such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, and many exploitation slashers of the 70’s (such as Scream Bloody Murder), is that many of the females meet a bloody end if they are sexually active. If you’re a girl and you’ve had sex and you’re in a horror movie, you’re probably going to die (sorry ladies). This is expected of the genre, but that doesn’t make it worthy of positive representation. Punishing women for being promiscuous relays on screen what many see as playing up to societies sexual perversion. It’s odd, except it’s not, because throughout history, women who have explored their sexuality have being executed or exiled soon after.

But that brings me onto the case of ‘The Virgin’. So much currency is placed onto women being virgins that you can find it at nearly every corner of society. But in the horror genre, it appears that if you’re the innocent virgin, well, you get to live. And I’m all for females surviving horror movies, but why do they have to be a virgin to do so? Again, it comes back to the world in which we live. Horror reflects society, and the surviving virgin reflects how many view female sexuality – who should be punished, and what for.

To give this some movie context, let’s take Halloween out for a spin, and the concept of ‘The Final Girl’ (be warned, spoilers ahead). Whilst I could relay the plot, to cut a long story short, at the end of the movie, Jamie Lee Curtis’s character is still alive. Good for her you may add, but is it? On the one hand it is good, because when the movie was released in the 70’s, it flipped the genre on its head; a woman had lasted the whole 90+ minutes. But, there is a reason as to why. Laurie (Curtis) survives because she is innocent. Not in the sense that she is innocent of crime, although she is, but more because she is pure. She triumphs in the end, not because she is skilled, but because it can be perceived that she is more deserving of life than those girls who drink, party, and die earlier in the movie. If you stay chaste, well, you get to live.

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This brings me onto the notion of ‘The Final Girl’. Predominant in slasher movies, this trope deals with the girl who confronts the killer at the end, the one who is the last to survive. Brought to the forefront of horror analysis by Carol J. Clover in the early nineties, ‘The Final Girl’ gives name to the women who avoid death, are usually smart, virginal, and contain a unisex name. They survive because of these qualities of character. Laurie of Halloween is a strong example, but so is Alice in Friday the 13th(not a unisex name I know), as is Sidney in Scream. The question of whether this is positive representation is complex. Women surviving is positive, let that be clear, but if they have to live up to certain standards, such as being virginal, or adopting stereotypical masculine traits, as does Sidney in Scream, in favour of feminine ones, that isn’t quite as forward thinking. Yes, women can be ‘masculine’ (there is a whole gender debate to be had right there, but that’s for another day), but they should be able to be ‘feminine’ too, and survive. So, although she isn’t the damsel in distress, if she has to adopt certain expectations to live, it doesn’t quite hit the representation pitch out of the park. In plain terms, both the virgin and the girl who has sex, the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’, should be given the opportunity to survive, and one shouldn’t be favoured over the other. The reasons as to why goes back to society (which I can’t fix, sorry), but that’s it boiled down to its simplest form.

You may note though, that the tropes I’ve mentioned, and the debates I’ve set up, deal mainly with films that we’re shot and produced before the 2000s. So, are we on a path of new found female discovery? Well, yes and no. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, Eli Roth stated that ‘horror should not have a gender bias’. In other words, gender shouldn’t come into who lives, who dies, who kills and so on, because everyone can be scared, regardless of how they identify themselves. But are there any movies actually living up to this expectation and moving beyond these tropes?

Well, from 2014, psychological thriller The Babadook, to 2016’s nostalgia filled camp horror The Love Witch, there are films out there that go some way to moving beyond the realm of the expected, and poorly represented. And although The Love Witch gives the titular role of ‘witch’ to a woman, where she seduces and kills men (hmm…), it opens broader questions about the so called ‘battle of the sexes’, offering a fresh take on what it means to be in love, and flipping the roles between who’s starry eyed (the guys), and who doesn’t really give a damn (the girls). It’s classic noir horror, but with a twist.

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So, subverting roles, or offering nuanced takes on them, seems to be the way forward. Even the not quite positive, sort of middling in representation wise Jennifer’s Body (released in 2006), still offers an updated version on an outdated trope. A possessed cheerleader, Megan Fox dons the mask of a man-killer, and it’s only her nerdy best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) who can stop her. A bit like The Love Witch, it’s what’s under the surface that counts. Whilst it can be read that the movie is basically a cat fight between the two girls (boring), it also is a (flawed) outlook on young teen female relationships, and the very real sense of intense love and intense jealousy all mixed as one.  The movie isn’t as forward thinking as it pretends to be, but it does offer, if you dig a little, some interesting symbolism in terms of the tropes and themes it tries to subvert.

All in all, there is still a way to go. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy horror, in all its varying majesties, but more can be done, and more can be explored, that switches stereotypes on their head, and strives to do women a little less dirty in the process.

Think Jodi Foster in Silence of the Lambs or Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Films that strive to give you full-on psycho horror, or science-fiction terror, and put gendered stereotypes on the backburner, delivering female characters that are fully fleshed out (ignore the ‘flesh’ pun please), and avoid killing them off for the same banal reasons as many a similar movie in the horror genre.

Give the Resident Evil series a watch too for that type of representation, and whilst the films aren’t exactly fantastic, or well-acted, and sort of nonsensical (its camp, but good, kind of), Milla Jovovich shoots the monsters and looks good doing it too. (Also, go watch the psychological thriller Misery for Kathy Bates being the absolute best at playing the absolute worst woman on screen).

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So, as long as the pornographically charged slashers are avoided, a la anything where a woman dies in a bikini, and has being sexually active only moments earlier, (yes, the bar is that low), then we’re moving a positive direction.

Article by Emily Harrison

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