Gender politics in horror films are not all that difficult to comprehend mainly because they devise a specific role for the various genders. That is the gender politics are little more than a variant on class roles in society. In fact, even an individual who has a passing interest in horror films can see that the heroes and villains are male and the victims are predominantly women. This is the common, tried and true cliched method of “cranking out” horror movies on an assembly line basis.
There are, of course, some excellent horror films that alter the generic methodology of producing horror films that prescribe to a single minded of opinions of what are the “proper” gender roles that are found in horror movies. Often, we see men as the hero and women as either the victim or the hero. In reality, when it comes to gender roles in horror films there really are no differences because these different roles are based on human interpretations deriving from external opinion; in the film itself it is the “monster” that defines the role and the monster invariably defines the role of all human – regardless of gender – as prey.
When it comes to drive in theater/direct to DVD releases, serious study is often difficult. Films that are cranked out to cash in on a niche market are generally not works of art. Those horror films that do rise to a higher level of art, however, can provide a brilliant insight into the multitude of variances of gender roles that exist. In examining gender roles in horror films, one could split the genre into two halves: the pre-ALIEN era and the post-ALIEN era. In the era prior to 1979’s landmark film ALIEN, the perceived role of women was that of the unwilling victim who was
Gender Roles in Horror Films – Page 2 menaced by the vampire, werewolf, artificial construct et al and needed a hero to save her. This is referred to as a perceived appearance because the role of the female character was actually much stronger then that in certain films. (In the more “B grade” films the role of the victim was a cardboard one lacking in any depth) With the release of ALIEN, a female character was presented as a strong adversary of the monster. Instead of needing to be saved, the female heroine defeats the monster quite handily. This would become the more common female role in horror movies.
Unfortunately, this more active role would be perverted into “the last victim” stereotype crafted in the slasher films of the 1980’s; a role that still exists for many female characters to this very day. Of course, not all female gender roles are heroines or victims. The recent release of SAW III brought back the lesser used concept of the female villain. The most famous example could be found in 1932’s underrated DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. While the role of the female vampire was effective, there was little interest in continuing to use females in “horror movie heavy roles”.
The usage of a female in a horror role was limited although it was not without precedent. A female werewolf debuted in lost werewolf film unimaginatively titled THE WEREWOLF. (Female werewolves would return in such films as SHE WOLF OF LONDON and CRY OF THE WEREWOLF) But, this particular role was limited. Further roles of females in the monster role range from the exploitative (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) to the downright silly (FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER) to the brilliant (THE EXORCIST) While this particular gender role of
Gender Roles in Horror Films – Page 3 villainess is limited it is not without precedent and it does occasionally appear. In rare instances, it is done effectively as seen in films such as the aforementioned SAW III and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. There are questions that need to be raised in terms of how a woman’s role vs. a male role in a horror film is devised. While some may look for a profound answer to this the real answer is somewhat mundane. That is to say, the roles presented in many of these films are simply reflections of common themes.
Consider the following assessment: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, please in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects a fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact… ” (Mulvey 203) In other words, the gender roles prevalent in most horror films was simply what the audience had grown accustom to expecting.
If the audiences of the 1930’s sat down in a dark theater in the 1930’s and were treated to a female hero in DRACULA or KING KONG the films would have been radically different in their narrative. Audiences generally expected a common role for men and women in horror films and any departure from these roles may run the risk of being rejected. Well, they will not be rejected if they are scripted well. In the 1976 KING KONG remake, Jessica Lang’s dopey dialogue to Kong did change her role from the frightened Fay Wray of the original film, but not in a good way.
Screaming at the top of your lungs at the sight of a monstrous ape makes sense. Looking at a gigantic amorous Gender Roles in Horror Films – Page 4 ape and saying “This isn’t going to work out” is just outright silly. It simply is not the role people expect in a situation of grave terror. But traditional roles do not always exhibit passivity. In a way, Fay Wray’s fear and terror is not so much submission or passivity as much as it is obstinate. She rejects Kong and stands up for herself. Her screams are screams of defiance and such defiance throws Kong off his game plan.
As such, her role is really not as passive as one would assume. She does stand up to the creature, but unlike Jessica Lange’s obtuse reaction Wray’s reaction is believable. This is what makes her defiance believable. In a way, gender roles in horror films really more blurred than most would initially assume. Consider the following conclusion: “From its beginning gothic writing entwined culture and economy as well as blurring sexual boundaries and disturbing aesthetic and moral categories. ” (Botting 135) On the surface, many would be disinclined to agree with such a statement.
After all, what blurring of gender roles are there to be found in a horror film? Prior to ALIEN, the roles of men and women were starkly contrasted. In the post ALIEN world, women take on a more active role. This is hardly blurring. In fact, the roles are fairly obvious and pronounced. Again, this is what might appear to be the fact on the surface because on the surface we are looking at the actual action of the characters. The roles of the characters do not change regardless of the decade the film was produced. That is to say, humans – whether they are male or female – remain victims in horror films.
Gender Roles in Horror Films – Page 5 That is, Ripley may be active in ALIEN but she is the prey of the alien no different from the role of Fay Wray in KING KONG. Even in 1942’s THE WOLFMAN we can see a variant of this. Consider Evelyn Ankers role in the film: her character Gwen is far from a weak female. She is a very independent and strong character. At the film’s climax, she goes out in the woods by herself looking for her boyfriend even though she knows a werewolf is prowling. Of course, the werewolf attacks her because that is what werewolves do.
The werewolf – like aliens, vampires and giant monsters – only sees humans as prey. The creature often does not see gender roles. The role to the creature is irrelevant beyond seeing humans as victims. Victims are essentially the repressed regardless of their gender role. “What is primal Repression? Let us call it the ability of the speaking being always already haunted by the other, to divide, reject and repeat. Without one division, one separation one subject/object having been constituted… why? Perhaps because of the maternal anguish, unable to be satisfied within the encompassing symbolic.
” (Kristeva 12) As such, the gender role of the active male or active/passive female never really changes. The role they play is always reactive to the creature and this makes them perfect for the role of a victim. This may seem like a odd way of looking at the roles because it deviates from the commonality of what we are grown to expect in horror films. This is because “Cinema is at once a form of perception and a material perceived, a new way of encountering reality Gender Roles in Horror Films – Page 6 and a part of reality thereby discovered for the first time.
” (Shaviro 40) That is, one of the benefits to enjoying a film is watching how humans are presented. Even in fantastic films such as the horror genre there is a unique insight into reality present and that particular reality is both the different roles genders play (passive/active) based on human perception and then there is the monsters perception: prey. As such, there are different roles and singular roles occurring at the same time. As Barker illustrates: “If she had been taciturn in the street, Anne-Marie was anything but in the privacy of her own kitchen.
Gone was the guarded curiosity, to be replaced by a stream of lively chatter and constant scurrying between a half dozen minor domestic tasks, like a juggler keeping several states spinning at once. ” (Barker 74) That is, a singular person can play many roles based on varying perceptions. While there are many different types of horror films, all horror films center on the common theme of predator and prey. While sometimes there may be variants to the role ( a sympathetic monster, a flawed human hero, etc) the end result always returns to the original theme: predators seek their prey.
Sometimes, the prey is passive and sometimes the prey remains passive. Of course, prey can be both male and female and, unfortunately, the gender roles of the prey often follow common stereotypes. However, to the classic monster gender roles are irrelevant: to the monster all humans are prey and that trumps gender roles completely. This is not to say that there are no nuances found in the various gender roles. But, as far as the creature is concerned all humans are prey no matter how they act or react through the course of the film.
Bibliography Barker, Clive. “The Forbidde. ” In IN THE FLESH: TALES OF TERROR. New York: Poseidon Press, 1986. 67 – 108. Botting, F. “Candy Gothic. ” In GOTHIC CAMBRIDGE: Boydell & Brewer, 2001. 133 – 151. Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror: A Study in Abjection. ” New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema. ” Shaviro, Steven. “Film Theory and Visual Fascination. ” In THE CINEMATIC BODY. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1993. 1 – 65.
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