Feminist Horror: Plotting against Patriarchy

By Gillmor, Alison | Herizons, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Feminist Horror: Plotting against Patriarchy


Gillmor, Alison, Herizons


Horror and feminism seem like an unlikely pairing at first. After all, horror is a cinematic genre marked by ugly violence, menaced by masked men and packed with blonde sorority girls who run upstairs when they should be running out of the house. Then there's the iconic image of the scary movie: the flash of a knife penetrating soft female flesh.

Recently, however, fans, filmmakers and cultural critics have started to re-evaluate horror, not just as a feminist possibility, but as a feminist necessity. Historically, the genre's great strength has been its ability to explore dark and difficult places. Horror probes the extremities of physical vulnerability, the power of primal emotions, the transgressions and taboos lurking under the surface of ordinary life. Done right, the horror genre is full of subversive possibility, and female audiences, especially young female audiences, seem to be hungry for this promise. In 2009, Entertainment Weekly reported that the majority of the North American audience for horror movies is now female.

It's interesting to consider how 21st-century female viewers are connecting with horror. In her book House of Psychotic Women, Canadian writer and film programmer Kier-La Janisse examines her obsession with grindhouse exploitation flicks and extreme horror. A childhood sc aired by violence and family dysfunction drove her to this disturbing terrain, Janisse writes. But she "stayed there because of so me thing in myself. And that 'something' was decidedly female." Movie blogger Gita Jackson puts it this way: "Horror movies are one of the few places women are told their fears are real." For many women, the horror genre is profoundly cathartic: It constructs imaginary spaces where they can work through true-life trauma.

Defining feminist horror can be tricky. There are many approaches to feminism, so it follows that there is no single infallible form for a feminist film. The increase in the number of women behind the camera is crucial, but it's not an automatic guarantee of subversive content. In Jennifer's Body (2009), written by Juno scripter Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama {Girfight), the disembowelling demon is now a hot cheerleader (Megan Fox) and the hapless, helpless victims are now teenage boys. Merely reversing the usual gender roles, in this case, isn't enough to produce meaningful feminist subtext.

It often requires only a subtle shift in viewpoint to create a subversively feminist film. Take the case of American Psycho (2000), based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel that many critics considered aggressively misogynistic. The 1991 book follows the interior narrative of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street trader who tortures and murders women and men.

Canadian director Mary Harron and scriptwriter Guinevere Turner transform Ellis's brutal, deliberately banal prose into a hilarious, weirdly high-spirited satire on male vanity. Patrick Bateman (played with deranged glee by Christian Bale) may be butchering women, but Harron and Turner are taking a scalpel to social conformity, consumer capitalism and toxic masculinity. Patrick's fetishization of brand names, his nervous bromances with other men, and his contempt for women all reveal a fatal insecurity lurking under his surface arrogance. Harron and Turner parody alpha-male posturing, as Patrick and his Masters-of-the-Universe colleagues fret about who has the best business cards and who can snag the most exclusive restaurant reservations. By positioning Bateman's masculinity as a constant, desperate, ultimately hollow performance, the movie becomes a sneaky-smart feminist statement-not to mention a prescient look at the 2008 financial crisis.

Over the last 25 years, feminist horror has received a boost from film theory and cultural studies. The notion of "the feminist spectator" asserts the viewer's ability to interpret popular culture through a feminist lens, so that canonical works like Night of the Living Dead or The Exorcist can yield new insights into our culture's social, political and psychological stress points. …

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