A great deal has been written about women in horror movies, from their victimization, to their object- and abjectification, to their triumph over adversity. Among the most well-known texts is Carol Clover’s “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” (1992) in which she identifies and dissects the Final Girl. As her name suggests, the Final Girl is the last woman standing at the end of movie; but the Final Girl does not just simply survive the horror, she defeats her enemy. Clover is right to celebrate the Final Girl’s accomplishments, but the analysis is, I think, detrimental to the Final Girl herself. Stripped almost entirely of her femininity, Clover’s Final Girl survives by virtue of her androgyny. Virginal and tomboyish, she takes control while tarty girly-girls run screaming. Though I’d be hard-pressed to call out Clover as a misogynist, her de-feminizing analysis is the result of a decidedly male-centric point of view.
Running counter to Clover, Sue Short writes in “Misfit Sisters” (2006) the Final Girl is, in fact, wholly feminine. Whereas Clover identifies the Final Girl as androgynous or masculine, Short defines the Final Girl as, quite simply, a girl. Moreover, her femininity (which is never called into question) and her virtue have little to do with her chances of survival; the Final Girl triumphs because she is smarter and more mature than her friends. Her intelligence and maturity give her courage which allows her to develop into the strong person she needs to be in order to survive the movie and kill the monster.
As can be seen in the writings of Clover and Short, femininity in horror can be addressed from two different points of view, pro-masculine and pro-feminine. The pro-masculine tends to shoehorn female characters into male-dominated and male-oriented categories, whereas pro-feminine analyses are less compartmentalized. Regardless of the tack taken, the fact remains that most movies are written by men, and sometimes female characters suffer for it. That’s not to suggest male writers aren’t capable of creating strong or compelling female characters and female-lead stories, but as it happens, sometimes they don’t.
And even when they do, there's always away to knock 'em down a peg.
In her review of Dog Soldiers, Monster Scholar points out the film casts a negative light on women and female sexuality. The movie follows a group of soldiers (all male) who, while training in the woods, are set upon by a pack of werewolves. An ally in the fight against the monsters is Megan, but she eventually reveals herself to be a werewolf as well, only her period prevented her from transforming into a beast. In Dog Soldiers women are strong, a force to be feared and fought and menstruation is the catalyst for female sexuality which must be repressed.
Equally deleterious is the too-forgiving or weak-willed female protagonist; hard-done-by women often end up sympathizing with their male transgressors. In Left in Darkness, Celia dies from a forced drug overdose and has two hours to find her way to heaven before her spirit dies a second death. At one point, Celia watches the boy who raped and murder her contemplate suicide, and cries out in anger when her guardian angel, Donovan, helps the rapist cut his wrists. When Donovan suggests the rapist both wants and deserves to die, Celia orders him to leave. The rapist dies anyway and his spirit begins sucking Celia’s energy, thus even after death he continues to traumatize her. And still Celia tries to help him, suggesting they work together to get to the afterlife. Eventually the rapist/murderer gets his comeuppance, but the moment is cathartic only for the audience. Celia, for all her suffering, remains unchanged, and is victimized a third time when Donovan turns on her. Lacking the strength of character to confront or challenge Donovan, Celia instead bargains with him and, almost seemingly by chance, is presented with an opportunity to escape to the hereafter.
Most interesting is when women fulfill both roles in the same movie. In Haute Tension, Alex murders the family of her friend and love interest, then kidnaps and terrorizes the poor girl. However, the audience doesn’t know Alex is the aggressor until the end of the movie. By switching between first- and third-person narratives, the film successfully hides the killer’s identity until the final reel. What the audience sees and what’s actually happening differ slightly, so that what appears to be a large bearded man is in reality a svelte young woman. Unfortunately for Haute Tension, the film suffers a logic problem that actually precludes Alex from being the killer, but the point to be made here is that the film imagines Alex as a man. Moreover, her name and haircut help further the idea that Alex is more masculine than feminine, and her sexual orientation (she’s gay) drives the point home; a real woman would not be capable of murder, but because Alex is characterized as being more man than woman she is willing and able to terrorize and kill.
The issue of deliberate misogyny is a thorny one, and though Monster Scholar builds a case for a misogynistic narrative in Dog Soldiers, for a number of horror movies the problem is a combination of male chauvinism and patriarchal gender constructs. Celia’s overall blandness is simply the result of bad writing, but her willingness to absolve her rapist and murderer stems from a cultural belief that women are empathetic, forgiving, and easily exploited. Similarly, Alex’s dichotomy points to a particular understanding of what it means to be a woman, and how a damaged woman (Alex, in addition to being gay, suffers from dissociative identity disorder) is not wholly female—like Meg, Alex is violent and dangerous because her repressed sexuality.
Drawing on preconceived notions of what it means to be female can open the door to interpretations of femininity as being either aggressive and dangerous (i.e., something that should be subdued and controlled, or failing that, destroyed) or weak and vulnerable (i.e., something to be protected or exploited). The pro-masculine tack, that which guides Clover, does manage to harness aggressive femininity for the purposes of defeating evil, but at the cost of ostracizing the Final Girl from her peer-group. Short’s pro-feminine approach finds strength and weakness in all female characters, including the Final Girl. It’s a refreshing, harmonizing approach to horror movie criticism, more so if most the movies under the microscope are themselves stuck in a male-oriented head space.
*Regretfully, I cannot find the complete reference for this quote.
I did not survive Freddy and Jason only to be bossed around by Sark from Alias!
1992 Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
2006 Misfit Sisters. Palgrave McMillan, New York.