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Horror Show: Faux-feminism and Horror Films

Seducing and then dispatching her rapists (I Spit on Your Grave), tempting horny teenage boys before killing them (Jennifer's Body), getting even with all the boys who ruined her life in high school by becoming sexy and then killing them (Tamara), having a real-life vagina dentate to defend against male rapists (Teeth), becoming sexy and sexual right before she starts killing men. (Ginger). What do all these storylines have in common? They've been touted as feminist because they star a woman who fights and kills her oppressors (see Carol J. Clover's interviewees in Men, Women, and Chainsaws). Personally though, women being depicted as so powerless that the only way they can fight against their oppressors is by using sex is not my idea of a feminist film.

a still from Jennifer's Body. Jennifer is in a prom dress and leans over to kiss a young teen man lying down by a tree. It's dark and foggy.

Let's take Jennifer's Body, written by Diablo Cody, who seems to have an affinity with tacky dialogue but not with female camaraderie in her characters. This 2009 horror movie was directed by Karyn Kusama (Girl Fight) and starred Megan Fox as Jennifer, the poster child for 21st century female sexuality. And it sucked. Here's why: Jennifer gets killed and resurrected as a demon who then proceeds to seduce high school boys right before killing them. Because, you know, a demon, unleashed on the earth, has nothing better to do.

Writer Diablo Cody doesn't explore the strange relationship between the two best female friends Jennifer and Needy; she doesn't discuss Jennifer's trauma or teenage sexuality and relationships. We simply see 22-year old Megan Fox strutting around pretending to be 16 and using the promise of hot sex to lure innocent men into false senses of security before killing them. Yawn. Just like how Jess Weixler's character in Teeth finally learns how to control her vagina dentate and uses them… to kill men by cutting off their penises instead of to have sexual pleasure for herself. Yawn. Or just like how (another) Jennifer in I Spit on Your Grave seduces each of her former rapists before dispatching them in gruesome ways in the original 1978 film because, naturally, a woman would be able to stomach the thought of sleeping with her rapists. Can I yawn again?

Even though these are female characters often written by women (and in the case of Jennifer's Body, directed by a woman), each of these stories seems more like a teenage boy's nightmare than anything that would actually frighten a woman—I'm just not terrified at the thought that women are sexy or that I might be too dumb to notice they're about to stab me because I'm too busy thinking about their vaginas. And, despite the purposeful removal of Jennifer's seduction scenes, the recent remake of I Spit on your Grave makes an equally prolonged spectacle of gang rape and then not-so-subtly adds fun one-liners that dangerously blur the lines between rape and sex such as "It's date night!" before Jennifer uses intricate torture devices to kill her rapists.

Poster for the remake of I Spit on Your Grave. It is a black poster and a woman whose face is obscured holds a bloody pair of garden shears in an X over the title. "it's date night" is the tagline.

So why are all these movies touted by fans and filmmakers as "feminist"? Because men are the victims in them. It's creepy when you think about it, isn't it? The norm in horror films, and in most cultures around the world, is that men are seen as the aggressors and women the subservient and the victims. But switching the dynamic and putting men suddenly at the (usually sexual) mercy of a woman with intent to harm does nothing but reinforce the mainstream ideology that women with control of their sexuality (and by default, their reproduction) are dangerous, intend harm, and will always turn on their male superiors. Movies in which teenage girls discover their sexuality and then use it solely to inflict harm on males for the sake of revenge is a guilty male fear if I've ever seen one. So next time you want to call a horror film "feminist", make sure it espouses gender equality—not the cutting-off of penises by horny, monstrous women who like sex.

Heidi Martinuzzi is the co-director of the Viscera Film Festival and the founder of FanGirlTastic.com, a site that aims to celebrate creative, innovative, and awesome images of women in horror, sci-fi, action, and fantasy films, literature, and art. 

Remember, Bitch readers: Since this is part of the Horror Show series, whoever leaves the best comment gets a shiny copy of The Exorcist on DVD! Be sure to register before you comment so you can claim your prize—if you dare!

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Comments

26 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I believe Megan Fox is not

I believe Megan Fox is not 22. She's 24.

who cares how old Megan Fox

who cares how old Megan Fox is?

She's 24 *now*. The article

She's 24 *now*. The article is referencing her appearance in Jennifer's Body, in which she is 22. Jennifer's Body was filmed roughly in March of 2009, at which time she was 22 (being that she was born May 16, 1986).

feminist horror

This is a useful and intriguing take on the idea of feminist horror films. I agree in part with the ideas expressed, but I think it's important to make a clear distinction between films like Jennifer's Body and Teeth. Jennifer's body was a somewhat lame attempt to capitalize on a trope in horror (traditionally beautiful sexual female) and turn it on its head by having her be the killer. I think Jennifer's Body failed on many levels, but primarily because assuming that since (as you say) the killer is female does not make the film feminist. And the character of Needy was intriguing, but failed to capture my imagination because the filmmakers simply covered her up with glasses and droopy clothes to make her look "less hot" than Fox. This is not feminist, in my view, since there was really no visible critique in the film of anything sexist or degrading. It was just silly.

But Teeth is definitely more feminist than many films I've seen, and probably the most feminist horror film in recent years. Teeth engages with sexism on a very profound level by rejecting abstinence only education, by empowering the main character with her vaginal teeth, and by resisting easy answers to sexual problems. I think Teeth is disappointing in that her sexual pleasure is secondary, and having to defend herself becomes her focus. But despite not being perfect, teeth challenges our ideas about female sexuality and at the very least constructs a young woman who takes matters into her own hands. Or vagina. Of course one could argue that Teeth is reactionary--that it simply reacts to sexual assault by making women into weapons. But that's not such a bad idea, in my view.

Yes, sexual pleasure is always runner-up....

Yes, sexual pleasure is always runner-up....either you're wielding your scary snatch in order to survive in the man's world OR you just abstain in order to override stereotypical traps. And yet, I also don't with the typical "compromise" that a woman just join the boys and act like a sexual vampire.

I'd like to actually see a film dedicate itself to what many people automatically dub "the slut." Perhaps it would ask questions about navigating sexuality, which we tend to from in reaction to such limited sexual representations.

These titles have an oral fixation

I agree that Teeth stands apart from some of the other films mentioned in this piece. Mostly because I'm remembering a moment that undercuts the notion that Dawn's vagina is used only "to kill men by cutting off their penises instead of to have sexual pleasure for herself." There is a scene in which she is having sex and enjoying it -- until she learns that her partner is only interested in sexually exploiting her. It is at that point that her "teeth" come out. I believe this is the scene in which Dawn finally realizes she has control over her teeth, body, and sexuality.

However, I'll agree that labeling Teeth a feminist film is problematic (what is a purely feminist film, anyway). But I find that the film has more feminist complexity than it is being given credit for here.

Quick aside: I'd be interested in reading Martinuzzi's thoughts on Hard Candy and how it stands in dialogue with the films discussed here.

I just thought of Hard Candy!

I just thought of Hard Candy! Namely, I was thinking about how it was not expressly marketed as a horror movie, the way the above examples are, but as more of a psychological thriller, which I think is more appropriate if the topic is revenge. It's also one of the few movies that has a female enacting revenge without being the victim herself.

Revenge isn't a feminist act

Thank you for this article. I hate revenge movies and I've always been troubled by the notion that these "turn-the-tables" horror films are inherently feminist. For all the reasons you mention, the mere fact that a woman is the killer and that men are the victims doesn't leave me with a feeling of strength and empowerment - or at least, not one that lasts more than a few cheap seconds. Revenge movies, like revenge plots in general, are always an homage to the person who has committed the harm in the first place, not a righting of the original wrong. I even hate in non-horror movies when the bad guy "gets it" in the end. I want to scream at the screen: "Who cares about this asshole?! Why do we even care if he 'gets it'? Why is this STILL ABOUT HIM?)"

I think the truly scariest thing to the patriarchy, to people who hurt other people, and to oppression itself is to heal, move on, and live a fun life with us at the center.

Toward Equality In Horror Films

The "guilty male fear" component of the films is an interesting one. It is also an interesting observation that women might find these movies far less frightening than men do, and in my own mind i can see the cliche views of "castrating females" blending together with memories of women applauding Lorena Bobbit for having cut off her husband's penis as he was sleeping and then heaving it out a car window as she was driving. Certainly more sexualized movies will get a bigger box office draw. i suspect that the reason the female characters are not shown getting more satisfaction and sexual pleasure during their revenge is fear of getting an X or XXX rating.

From my own regrettably male point of view i do find the dominant vengeful female leads in horror movies stimulating, but am not really that much of a horror movie fan in general. It does seem to me to at least be a small step toward some equality. i get sooooo sick of the common television show and movie scripts that constantly link women looking sexy or being sexual with their winding up being victims of violence, mutilation and murders especially if there is even a tacit implication they were asking for it by being sexual.

These films may not be feminist but it seems at least a little feminist to me to advocate for more gender balance and diversity with respect to scripts. It would be also be nice if some of the horror movies had dominant female leads who at least got gratification for themselves without leaving you yawning.

i haven't seen any of these movies.

ok, so disclaimer: I haven't seen any of these movies.

While I agree with your main points, I have to think I Spit on Your Grave would be different that the other movies you mentioned. Instead of the female killer using her sexuality to seduce and kill men and teenage boys, she's using it to get revenge on the men that attacked her. Could it not be seen as reclaiming her sexuality from the monsters who stole it from her? Yes, she could have just killed them, but by "seducing" (i'm not sure what that means within the context of the film) she's also showing her rapists that she's not afraid of them and they cannot have control over her body or her sexuality ever again.

Like I said, I haven't seen the movie (so maybe I have no clue what i'm talking about), and I'm not sure that I really could stomach graphic gang-rape scenes.

I'm not sure how slasher

I'm not sure how slasher movies could possibly be made feminist. This type of sub-genre is about the gory murder of human beings. I'm not trying to stifle conversation, just trying to think how one could even create a slasher movie that isn't by its nature dehumanizing. Any thoughts?

Of all the movies mentioned

Of all the movies mentioned here, I have only ever seen the terrible Tamara. I think, though, that the revenge movie, like the romantic movie, the tear-jerker movie, and the dudebro comedy movie, is simply a storytelling formula that has proved time and again to be financially successful. I think people, including myself, enjoy revenge stories as a method of catharsis, both in the righteous violence of the punishment and the often unrealistic idea that the "bad guy(s)" always "get it" in the end. A formula is easy to produce and easy to consume, but comes with a lot of problematic baggage. The fact that many of these female characters were created by women seems to be telling, and may speak to a vent for anger at social injustice. Incorporated into the formula is the unfortunate trope of the female needing revenge as a motivation for her violence (this can be seen with male characters, too, but it's not a necessity the way it seems to be with the females). The suggestion seems to be that a violent, murderous woman must have a concrete reason for behaving in what would otherwise be a manner unnatural to a woman. Her reason for acting is, ultimately, emotional, confounding more traditional ideas about sex/gender and personality.

I've always been one to dislike the straightforward approach, and I tend to become bored with movies that follow the formula dutifully. My favorite revenge movie is actually Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, which I know some people will have a problem with, but I find it extremely satisfying in its revenge-fantasy madness, which maybe says something about me. The thing I liked about it was the women who exact the revenge are explicitly not afraid of the villain, and they do not need to be raped nor undergo a supernatural transformation to become capable of exacting revenge. I don't know if the film is wholly "feminist," but compared, at least with Tamara and what I've seen of Jennifer's Body, it doesn't rely so much on the problematic tropes covered in the article here.

Death Proof Dialogue

One of the less-remarked on aspects of Death Proof is how much of the film is dominated by pure dialogue. You go in expecting an action movie but there is really only one or two short car chase scenes towards the end. If you aren't interested in what the women are saying you won't enjoy the movie. So it's sort of a Rorschach test. I think that just by including so much pure dialogue time, Tarantino challenges the sexist notion that when a group of women get together to talk casually, it's inherently uninteresting and especially not movie worthy.

That's a really good point. I

That's a really good point. I don't think the movie is entirely free of problems, but I give it a lot of credit for trying, both in dealing with sexist tropes as well as dealing with the standard slasher/horror/action/revenge movie tropes.

Carol Clover

Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws, which seems to be an obligatory mention on every single article on misogyny and slasher films, is vastly overrated, in my opinion. Clover exaggerates the importance of the "Final Girl" and ignores the many slasher films where there is no "Final Girl" or where she dies. Arguably the first modern slasher film was Psycho, in that film the "Final Girl" would be Marion's sister. But to argue that the film was ultimately 'about' Marion's sister would be absurd. The film was about Norman Bates and centered on the famous 'shower scene', of a nude Marion, who at that point you are led to believe is the protagonist, being butchered. Feminist? No.

Later slasher films too, are not really about the "Final Girl" - if she is there at all (see Wolf Creek, House of 1000 Corpses, Texas Chainsaw Massacre original, the Evil Dead) she is often the relief, not the point. She is there to offer the audience some relief after seeing so many women being butchered - at least one survived. Usually she is the one most sexually pure, innocent and mentally fragile; seeing dangers lurking in every corner. After seeing her (barely) survive, we the audience can feel good; the pain of the torture and killing we've just seen and any guilt we might feel for watching it is washed away. We forget for a moment that the graphic torture and killings are main event and the reason why people see these films. Clover's book directs our eye to the wake and raises it up as the main event. In doing so it covers up the misogyny of slasher films and apologizes for them.

As for I Spit On Your Grave - I would suggest looking up Roger Ebert's original experience from 1980. The "revenge" scenes are just a cover. "Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud, After the first rape: "That was a good one!" After the second: "That'll show her!" After the third: "I've seen some good ones, but this is the best." When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: "Cut him up, sister!" In several scenes, the other three men tried to force the retarded man to attack the girl. This inspired a lot of laughter and encouragement from the audience."

Follow-Up Article on Real Feminist Horror

Heidi makes some great points here dismissing TEETH, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, etc as being incorrectly labeled "feminist horror". I'd love to see a follow-up article that touts horror films that Heidi are or should be embraced as feminist horror. Off the top of my head, THE DESCENT would be an excellent starting place.

The Descent

Such a great horror film, so overlooked for having feminist themes and very little t&a.

great post - suggestions?

I agree with all of the above, but did enjoy watching teeth last night while realizing it was still pretty sexist. The same might go for other jilted woman revenge films like Audition and thematics we see in vampire films using the penetration of teeth and blood imagery.
Any suggestions for feminist horror films? I just watched Let the Right One In and it was pretty amazing...

Check out the Ginger Snaps

Check out the Ginger Snaps series, a personal favorite.

Suggestions!

Thanks to everyone who has asked for feminist horror film suggestions! During this scaaary blog series we've had a post on feminist horror films: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/horror-show-5-feminist-horror-films-to-see... and one on women horror directors: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/horror-show-women-horror-directors-to-watch, so those might be good places to start. Please keep adding to our list with more suggestions, though!

Happy Ladyween!

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Kelsey Wallace, contributor

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More ruminations...

One of the things I also think it worth considering is the difference in which male revenge is depicted from female revenge. Male revenge (movies like Mad Max, The Punisher, even Batman Begins), usually centers around the main protagonist avenging the violence inflicted upon his family members at the hands of some villain--in the case of the first two, an attractive wife and young child. Outside of the emotional anguish, the man himself is left relatively unharmed. The female protagonists, however, are usually the victims of the violence themselves. It's interesting to note, too, that the male-character-driven films above are marketed as "action" movies, while a female character seeking vengeance often comes with a "horror" label. The exception, off the top of my head, anyway, would be the Kill Bill movies, and Uma Thurman still takes a bullet to the head before enacting her revenge.

Good point

Very good point, Owl. I'd love to see a female revenge film that uses the male revenge tropes. Whenever female revenge is depicted, the woman has to use her sexuality in some way, and she's always responding to violence that was inflicted upon her personally. It's insulting, IMO. It's like they're implying that a woman's only weapon is her pussy. I call serious bullshit on that.

My favorite revenge film is Death Proof. I know its problematic for a lot of people, but it is the best female revenge film, hands down. Tarantino really did subvert several tropes re: female-dominated action/horror films. Someone above mentioned how dialogue-driven the film is, and I completely agree with their point. Death Proof passes the Bechdel test with ease. The final scene was just too much fun for me; really, the entire film hit me on a really visceral level. No matter how nonviolent and feminist we are, deep down, we all want our revenge. We secretly love it when the bad guy gets his teeth kicked out in the end. Tarantino knows this. That's also one of the reasons I love Kill Bill, but I still prefer Death Proof by far.

Winner!

Hi Owl,
Thank you for your continual engagement with this post! You made several really thoughtful points in the course of this thread, and did a great job of offering new insight and responding to other commenters. We would love to send you a copy of the Exorcist! Please email me, newmedia (at) b-word (dot) org with your mailing address, and we'll get it sent to you right away!
Thanks!

I'm a huge horror fan, and I

I'm a huge horror fan, and I always feel so let down that there are so few really feminist characters in horror movies (books have a slightly better track record). Off the top of my head, I can think of Ripley from Alien and arguably Nancy from the original Nightmare on Elm Street (she did use her own brains to figure out how to trap--or at least hurt--Freddy).

I'm actually working on a feminist-toned horror novel. I'm having loads of fun with it.

Here here!

Ugh.. I wish I've seen this article sooner! I agree with you wholeheartedly Heidi! And to cheer us up a little, how about 'The Descent'? So much awesome in this movie!:)

In that case...

check THIS out, SkippyBooga!