Women in Horror — Are horror movies inherently misogynistic, or are they just misunderstood?

The following article was originally published in The Australia Times TATGirl vol.3 no.3


Horror movies have long been a focus of feminist theory. There have been many criticisms of the genre, from the representation of women, explicit violence against them, and ongoing sexual objectification. However, does this make horror movies inherently misogynistic?

Some subgenres of horror are plagued with trashy and hyper sexualized imagery of women, which is clearly intended for the male viewer. I’m not going to contest that. However, this same objectification can just as widely be found in many mainstream comedies and action movies. Why then, is the horror genre so regularly singled out? As a lifelong horror fan, obsessive film festival attendee, and feminist, I’d like to contest some of the major arguments against the genre.

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Violence against Women

Violence and gore is a major component of virtually all horror movies. The raison d’etre of the horror genre is crossing borders — portraying the unthinkable. Different viewers may find the same scene repulsive, clever, or even humorous.

Subjects which horrify and scare one person will, of course, offend another. There is certainly no shortage of audiences being offended by horror movies. A frequent argument against the genre is that it is problematic to enjoy watching women be killed in graphic and violent ways. However, there are reasons for depicting violence in film, beyond purely entertainment purposes. Many serious and intentionally horrifying scenes aim to provoke discussion, critical analysis, and make political statements.

In the 1970’s, rape revenge films became popular because of their political commentary, shown through a gritty, brutal display of sexual violence. Possibly the most well-known one, I Spit on Your Grave (1978), was created because the director, Mier Zarchi, actually came across a woman in a park after being attacked. He assisted in taking her to the hospital, and decided that her story must be told. Rape revenge movies usually depict a violent attack, then follow the victim, turned survivor, in tracking down the male perpetrators and violently killing them. It was banned in many countries, such as Norway, Ireland, West Germany, and Iceland, because people argued that it’s lengthy, drawn out rape scenes glorified violence against women. However, many feminists claim that it is actually a feminist movie because it is told through the eyes of the woman, and because it doesn’t hold back in showing the vicious reality of sexual violence.

Another problem with criticism of onscreen violence against women is that there are often just as many male victims. A customary trope in many horror films is noticeably that the film starts with a group of people or series of characters, many of whom die by the end of the film. This trope is most commonly found in the slasher, splatter, or zombie subgenres. The gender balance is usually fairly even, the deaths are typically circumstantial, and the audience sees as many men being killed as women. A problem with being offended with witnessing a woman being killed and not a man, is that it is seeing the woman primarily as her gender. For example, a man is a person being killed, whereas a woman is a woman being killed. The inability to differentiate between a death based on someone’s gender/race/sexuality, rather than because of circumstantial factors, removes the person’s ability to be anything more than that socially designated label. While stories involving gender based stalking/violence do exist, these need to be accurately distinguished, otherwise accusations become invalid.

Women as Victims?

A concern for many feminist theorists is the genre’s portrayal of women as victims. For anyone who doesn’t watch many horror movies, the vast majority of horror films have female protagonists or at least end up with a single female left after the other characters have been killed off. In film studies, this is called ‘the final girl’ trope. The character is usually being targeted by some kind of evil force (killer/ghost/monster etc), and this entity is virtually always characterized as male. This trope is criticized because it portrays women as victims of male violence and is a major criticism of the genre as a whole. However, this overlooks the fact that statistically women are very frequently victims of male violence. To censor this fact is to tamper with very real statistics. This victimization could even be argued to validate women’s fears as real dangers.

Because of this trope, films often culminate in an opposition between the male and female genders. Critics state that women are portrayed as weak. However, one common element is that the ‘final girl’ always wins. Almost all horror films end with a singular person surviving, and with the exception of a small percentage of films with male protagonists, it is virtually always a female character who survives and beats the evil force. This is essentially the main framework of the horror genre. There is a type of ‘evil’ threatening a person who is ‘good’. In the end, the ‘good’ always destroys the ‘evil’. This could be argued to be empowering, as the woman rises up to victory and becomes a survivor rather than a victim. In the same way that rape revenge films are seen as a female survivor getting back at her attackers, many horror films, which follow this framework, could then be interpreted as the female gender responding to male violence as a whole.

A problem, of course, is that while this could be seen as empowering for women, similar arguments could also be used to highlight the problematic representation of masculinity in the genre. However, this should not be seen to counter balance any perceived aspects of misogyny, but rather as a separate and distinct issue to debate.

Representation of Women

The Bechdel test has become more widely known in recent years. What once started as joke in a web comic is now used to measure the depth of female characters in movies. A film will pass the Bechdel test if it 1) has more than one named female character, 2) if they speak to each other, and 3) if that communication is about something other than men. With a staggering average of around 43% of all movies failing, we can see that women’s representation in films are often either only through men or revolving around male character’s stories. While it does not measure the quality or success of an individual film, it does highlight patterns of subtle sexism and allow one to compare genres.

In genres most likely to pass the Bechdel test, Horror came second only to Music. It scored just under a 70% pass rate. Next were romance, musicals and dramas. Out of the 22 genres tested, the worst were war, film-noir, and at the bottom — western movies, with just 25% passing. For many horror fans, this will not be a shock. The genre often portrays women as the subjects, rather than the objects with which to convey men’s narratives. This is unlike many action movies, where women are secondary objects to a male protagonist and are primarily there for decorative purposes. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this singularly, it becomes problematic when it is realized to be standard practice.

The excitement over the character of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games is an indication that strong female roles are all too rare. While she has been a positive addition to the adventure genre, horror movies have had those characters for decades. Think of Ripley in Aliens, or Laurie in Halloween. Horror is continuously overlooked and dismissed as a genre for males, though studies show that the gender of viewers is even.

Final Thoughts

The horror genre should be recognized for its approach in not censoring the horrors of violence, its ability to tell women’s stories, its diverse range of female characters, as well as its ability to position women as constant survivors.

While there are valid reasons for people to critically assess and point out certain aspects of misogyny in the genre, there are equally valid reasons to point out that many elements of misogyny are present in all genres, with horror perhaps actually being more progressive in some essential ways. Maybe it’s time we took a closer look at the genre and reevaluated it for ourselves.

Recommendations

For anyone interested in viewing films that may reshape their opinion on the horror genre, the following could be beneficial:

The Babadook (2014) — This small Australian film by a female director, Jennifer Kent, was named feminist movie of the year by Bitch Flicks. It showcases the struggles, loneliness and isolation of motherhood in a truly frightening way.

Teeth (2007) — While being both a comedy and horror, Teeth also manages to give social commentary through this coming of age story, focusing on a girl who is plagued with the mythological medical condition of vagina dentata.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) — For a true slasher, and for a taste of both the theoretical criticisms and common tropes which this article described, this film has it all. There is sexual objectification, trashiness, violence, survival, some terrible characters, and female empowerment. This film is the epitome of a generic Hollywood-style horror and is worth a watch, even if only to better understand the arguments about the genre.

When Animals Dream (2014) — This Dutch film follows the self-discovery of a 16 year old girl as she grapples with a sick mother and hidden family secrets within a small town.

Savage Streets (1984) — For anyone wanting to tackle a rape revenge film, Savage Streets offers electric 80’s glam mixed with depravity and violence. The narrative is told through the eyes of Linda Blair (also the little girl from The Exorcist) whose sister is attacked.

Pans Labyrinth (2006) — Fantasy and imagination elements of this Spanish film are blended with the harsh realities of war and motherhood, seen through the eyes of a young girl in 1944.