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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Horror, of course—The Nightmare Continues

Today's topic: The Damsel in Distress and Undressed

Yes, she's always there. The Virgin and the Whore. There's no in between, no other identity markers. And usually there are a lot more Whores than there are Virgins. The only way for a woman to remain a Virgin is to be married and faithful to her husband and build her life around her children (and yet remain completely unsexual). But a married woman can also be a whore if she has any kind of professional ambitions or if she tries to be too much like a man. She always dies. The only way for a woman to survive is if she's not only a virgin but sinless and, in effect, supports the reigning patriarchy. I'm not going to say that horror should be more sensitive to women's issues and offer empowering roles. In a perfect world that would happen, yes, but the world of horror films is far from perfect, so I'll set the bar rather low—for the sake of the genre, there should at least be variation in female characters. For example, being a successful business woman does not mean she slept her way to the top or that her marriage is troubled or that she pays no attention to her kids. Virginity does not make a woman virtuous (Carrie is my evidence—her general inexperience and closed-off life actually primed her to become an insane murderer!). Likewise, a man who is a stay-at-home dad will not go insane from acting against his masculine nature and not all football players are drunken, girlfriend-beating lunkheads. The sooner these realities sink into a genre that seems to eat, drink, and breathe stereotypes, the better. Creating more sympathetic, varied characters can only add to the element of horror. Striking a balance between the canny and the uncanny is the only way the genre will continue to create worthwhile works.

I've heard the argument that the misogyny that is all but inherent to the genre—why else would women almost always be the first to be attacked when clearly the best tactical maneuver would be to take down the big game (the men) while the element of surprise is still on the murderer/monster's side?—is really meant to be an opportunity for discourse about its social pervasiveness. That's about as convincing as the idea that The Merchant of Venice is not an anti-Semitic play but actually aims to reveal the social evils behind anti-Semitism. Please. From Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Bram Stoker's Dracula (and every single rip-off that has ever been written) to almost any modern incarnation of the genre (too numerous to list, really), the Virgin and/or the Whore are integral plot devices. And that's just books. Slasher movies are probably the most infamous for their misogyny but they are by no means the only guilty ones. Look at Exorcist, the uncontested scariest movie of all time. Why was the little girl possessed? Because her father was a man ruled by his netherparts and her mother was a career obsessed and therefore distracted, bad wife and mother, all of which resulted in the little girl's possession. If only the mother had known her place, perhaps the father wouldn't have left and everyone would still be happy with heads not rotating one hundred and eighty degrees. And of course, there would be no other way for Satan's child to come into the world except through a woman. All the other demons were busy that night but Rosemary was available so obviously he'd take what he could get. And the only three people to survive the mansion-turned-military compound in 28 Days Later also happened to be the only three who seemed not to be ruled by their hormones. Really, the soldiers were that hard-up after less than a month? Great movie, but really?

Jason may have hacked more teenage girls to pieces, Chucky may have cut up more women (a phallic gesture on both counts), and Freddy may have been the most creative killer of the 80s (and look at that—he had a whole handful of phallic symbols!), but their overt, senseless killing is outdone by the sleeping misogyny of their less violent cousins. Because it's not noticed as quickly, the violence against and hatred of women in the better movies is all the more shocking when it finally is recognized.

1 comment:

Aimée said...

I suppose Ann Radcliffe and the many other women writing Gothic novels could be examined through the Virgin/Whore lens in which case the novels could seem misogynistic. After all, many of the evil women depicted in these books are of rather shady moral character for many reasons and of course their lack of sexual purity in eighteenth and nineteenth century novels is certainly suspect.

I prefer to look at female gothic novels of this era in a different light, one in which the authors were subverting cultural expectations by allowing their heroines to engage in activities that would have been prohibited to women at the time. These female characters often travel alone through desolate and rugged landscapes. They pass through mountains, secluded villages, and dark castles in their quest for identity. Almost always in these novels the protagonist learns that the knowledge she has about her past or parentage is false and this is what begins her quest. She doesn't wait for this issue to resolve itself, but sets out alone to do so which I think is pretty powerful stuff.

Although pursued by villains intent on destroying her and her virginity, these women escape and are rewarded at the end with knowledge of their past. While many think the marriage plot is central to these novels, it should be noted that the male hero is largely absent throughout the quest and novel as a whole. Romance isn't what these books are about, yet these males (who could be said to lack the bravery and stamina of the female protagonist) often reappear briefly at the end to serve as an additional award.