Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

August 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

Since Scream came along, even people who don’t know much about horror films know how horror films work. They know who’s a goner (and usually in what order, typically starting with the black guy and moving on to the Girl Who Fucked Too Much) and who will make it to the end (the badass chick who keeps her tits covered); they know that men will be killed with much less fanfare than women, and they know that what they expect to happen probably will, i.e. if there’s a poorly-lit area that looks like a good place for a killer to hide, that’s where he’ll HEY WHY ARE YOU WALKING TOWARDS THE WOODSHED, NOTHING GOOD WILL COME OF WALKING TOWARDS THE WOODSHED slash scream crunch LOL I TOLD YOU, WHAT AN ASSHOLE. The “rules” of this game long preceded the Scream franchise, but ask the average 90s rat & he’ll probably mention something about liking scary movies and Drew Barrymore’s boobs heh heh.

Carol Clover’s analysis, though written six years before Wes Craven offered up the horror-film blueprint to the unwashed masses, covers much of the same ground as does Scream’s creepy psycho Billy, or the other guy, you know, funny-face. Clover does add some psychoanalytic flair to her account, from which she occasionally backs off and then returns, only to back off again, sort of. The  basic talking points are as follows: in horror films, sex often precedes from gender, making characters’ visible sex less to do with genitalia and more to do with how the character behaves; passivity, fear, and victimization are gendered female and virility, strength and action are gendered as male; the bad guys are almost always male and the victims, or intended victims, are most conspicuously female; female bodies sure do get cut up a lot; etc. Although many feminists cite this last point as evidence of slasher films’ inherent misogyny, Clover counters with the claim that in almost all slasher films, there is a Final Girl who either evades or kills the shit out of whatever psychokiller; this doesn’t mitigate or rearticulate all those cut-up female bodies but it does challenge, or at least complicate, that which is perceived to be straightforwardly and irredeemably sexist.

But then Clover does this somewhat weird thing where she argues that actually, the Final Girl represents a kind of slippage between gendered male and female characteristics — in the process of “manning” herself she “unmans” the bad guy (49), thus replacing one gender binary with another, which is better? Clover presents a number of explanations for why this might be the case, starting with a bunch of psychoanalytic horseshit about the fetish, and how the Final Girl is a way for male viewers to feel a little better about their mom’s vaginas or whatever (50). She then seems to veer towards Eve Sedgwick territory, arguing that perhaps this “male” on “female” violence actually represents repressed homosexxxual desire (52), thus causing fear –and therefore femininity– in the mostly-male audience. It’s not clear to what extent Clover buys any of these explanations; by the end of the chapter, she backs off the irritating foregone-conclusion Freud stuff and instead suggests that maybe guys are just curious about women’s experience, and/or are actually capable (GASP!!!) of identifying with a female protagonist.

After talking a bunch about vaginas and rape-revenge and eyeballs and gashed-open abdomens plus the relative difference between a one-sex verses two-sex world view (in the former, women and men have the same junk but everything is inverted and internalized i.e. incorrectly placed in women, while in the latter, women are defective humans missing the all-important penor; apparently the one-sex system is supposed to be less offensive, though as far as I’m concerned both can die in a fire), she goes on to argue that, whatever their political status, low-budget horror films function as a cinema of (for lack of a better term) trollishness (64) — they state outright what is often implicit in mainstream films, namely the degradation of women, the privileging of the male gaze, all that fucked-up jazz, the end.

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