Horror films. Classically they’ve never been well respected in the world of cinema, and women have never been represented as particularly favorable characters, either killed of straight away, portrayed as the victim/damsel in distress that needs saving, or the bitch that deserved to be killed anyway because of some ‘sinful’ act she’s preformed like drinking or taking drugs…wow. It’s great to be a woman in a horror film.
While I was studying media at college (UK terms not US, It’s still high school for ya’ll), we got to choose a genre of film to complete our coursework on. Naturally I chose to write about the representations of women in horror films. I specifically concentrated on the original 70’s slasher I Spit on Your Grave, directed by Meir Zarchi, and the 2010 remake directed by Steven R Monroe. I chose these films because they both directly focus on a female protagonist, both have been controversial, and I thought it could be interesting to see how and if female representations have changed in the horror genre through time, using a film that had been remade almost 30+ years later.
I first heard about the original I Spit on Your Grave when I was far too young to be watching it. My Dad owned it on DVD (typical Dad), and I spent a lot of time being intrigued by it, partly because of the huge BANNED words the DVD had on the front.
When it was first released in 1978, it natrually received a lot of criticism and controversy and was subsequently banned in many countries who claimed it “glorified violence against women.” The film still remains controversial to this day, and is even considered “among the worst (films) ever made.” I mean, clearly that’s a lot of evidence for this movie being misogynistic and violent towards women…so why am I including it in a post about feminist horror films?
Because I’m crazy, that’s why.
But seriously, there were some interesting things I found out about this film when I was researching it (and unfortunately re-watching it) for my media project. Firstly it’s interesting to note that Meir Zarchi, the director of the original film, had intended the film to be named, “The Day of The Woman.”
That title alone sets the movie up for a completely diffrent experience than the rather crude, I Spit on Your Grave, don’t you think? It also gives us some insight to the directors intentions towards the film. By the middle of the essay, I had began to debate whether the film was “ridiculously violent” and “anti-feminist”, or rather an empowering yet misunderstood slasher horror film that made some attempts to be feminist.
Now I wont bore you with the critical details of my essay, where I talk about Mulvey’s male gaze and the voyeuristic gaze of the spectator. But what I will do is explain more about the film and the ways it could be interpreted for those who haven’t seen it.
Both the original and the remake have a female protagonist. Jennifer is a writer, and moves to an isolated house in a new town to write her first novel (sounds like a nice idea, right?!) She is attractive and begins to attract the attention of some local men, who begin to harass her and eventually kidnap and gang rape her. Just writing those words makes a sick feeling in my stomach.
After one of the men is sent to kill her, he chickens out and goes back to the men claiming he has killed her.
Now here is where things take a turn. Jennifer basically turns into the anti-hero, she gets revenge in the most gruesome way possible, with each man, one by one. Both the original and the remake follow this plot, with a few things changed (mostly the torture sequences by Jennifer in the 2010 remake.)
Something that I’d really like to give both films credit for, is the fact that both films give Jennifer the power. The original film has an extremely raw and real feel about it. There is no music and hardly any dialogue, which makes the attack scenes even harder to watch. The entire film is shot by the females perspective (involving one of the longest and most disturbing rape scenes in the original film,) and in the remake, this goes even farther by introducing the element of a hand held camera. The camera occasionally shifts from Jennifer’s point of view, what the main cameras are filming, and the point of view of the attackers (with the hand held camera.) Towards the end of the remake, Jennifer turns the hand held camera back onto her attackers and films them being tortured, therefore almost redirecting the ‘male gaze’ back at them and taking control of the movie and her actions.
Both directors seemed to aim for a feminist or at least female view point in these films. Steven R Monroe, the director of the 2010 remake states that the violence depicted in the film is necessary as it is real, saying, “I don’t agree with America’s mentality, where as long as they don’t have to hear about it, it doesn’t happen. And that’s why I think these films need to be made, to push people into opening their eyes to what really happens.” And in ways I agree with him.
Mostly what I find sad and disappointing about both these movies (which to me, clearly had good intentions) is how they were marketed. Jennifer is not overly sexualized in the original film, apart from the famous movie posters which feature her half naked and bloody. Unfortunately in the remake, they use these same styles of poster, and continue to sexualize Jennifer in the film by depicting her as ‘sexy’ even though she has just been brutally attacked. Just by the posters alone it’s clear to see why people think these films are so misogynistic, and it is such a shame to see that even 30 years on, exploitation of women and using them as sexual imagery is only growing.
So are there any feminist horror films? Or at least horror films that have female characters for a female audience rather than the male? I think there might be a few…
You’re Next, a 2011 slasher film directed by Adam Wingard, starring Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, A. J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg.
I mentioned Wingard and how much I enjoyed You’re Next in the recent review I did of his movie, The Guest. When I went to see You’re Next at the cinema I was expecting to see a typical violent horror film with a bad script, plot holes, and stereotypical/damaging portrayals of women. But I got something completely opposite in return.
Erin, the main female protagonist, is quite frankly, bad ass. Not only is she bad ass, she is attractive, intelligent, and kind. I liked her immediately. I won’t spoil the film for you because I genuinely think it’s one of the best horror films I’ve watched in years, but basically Erin proves to be the strongest character in the movie, much to the surprise of the people trying to kill her. (And plus- the script written by Simon Barrett, was great, intriguing and a great example on how to actually write a horror film.)
Another horror film I felt challenged negative or stereotypical female representations is, as we know, The Shining. I’ve spoken about it before, about how Wendy is actually an incredibly brave female character who ultimately (spoiler alert) saves herself and her child at the end. If you wanna check out that post, please do here.
Obviously I haven’t watched nearly as many horror films as I could have, maybe there are a lot more that have feminist or positive female representations, but the fact is the opposite is still portrayed in most films, not just horror, and for a movie lover like me, it’s a pretty disheartening fact. Clearly horror films can have positive representations of women (despite some of them being let down by their marketing) so why aren’t more doing it?! It’s 2014, you’d think there would be more films like You’re Next being made, especially when the horror genre continues to be extremely popular.
Are there any horror movies you feel challenge stereotypical representations of women in movies? Or perhaps there is a horror movie you think is so misogynistic you can’t believe it was even made? I’d love to know about them!
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