By Annyston Pennington
As a connoisseur of feminist media—and media in general—I’ve found that movies can offer a lot of insight into the culture of our time. The film industry reflects changing attitudes toward gender, race, sexuality, etc. or conversely shows what progress must be made. Often in films, especially genres directed primarily by men, women are left to fulfill limited, stereotypical rolls of romantic interest, damsel, “bad-ass”—you know the rest. The list is long and limiting, a fact that frustrates many of us who look to media for representation of our experiences.
So, surely I come to readers with a list of film recommendations that exceed expectations, demonstrating the incorporation of feminist ideals into plot and execution, right?
This short list—by no means exhaustive—covers a genre that rarely comes to mind when one thinks of positive handlings of women’s issues: horror. Horror, as a genre, is notorious for treating women like sex objects, punch lines, gore fodder, or even a combination. Most of us can recall a film off the top of our heads wherein a pretty, “dumb” chick is hacked to bits by some masked serial killer-ghost-demon-whatever. Invariably, this violence is sexualized, normalized, expected. And that’s the kicker: expectation.
The films I’ve chosen here take expectations for the horror/slasher/thriller genres and toss them back at us viewers or straight into the wood chipper. While these films may still contain problematic material, they are all favorites of mine because of their subversive handling of female character tropes and horror plot lines. These films may not be for the faint of heart, but they’re definitely for the active mind, providing quality material both for feminist analysis and pure enjoyment.
1. DEATH PROOF (2007)
In classic Quentin Tarantino form, Death Proof features gangs of beautiful, badass women, drinking, dancing, conversing, and fighting—plus a healthy dose of cringe-worthy gore.
The movie invariably passes the Bechdel Test and features more ladies per minute of screen time than most action and horror films boast combined. However, you may get the feeling that Death Proof walks the fine line between celebration and objectification of women. While the female characters outnumber the men, they are more often than not dressed in short shorts and tight shirts, seen dancing provocatively, and flirting with or manipulating those men. These behaviors are obviously constructs of the male gaze about how women dress and behave, right?
Then again, maybe we, the viewers, must reevaluate what objectification means in the context of women being, well, women. Women are allowed to be sexual beings, are allowed to show skin and curves, are allowed to cuss and drink and smoke up a storm. Women are allowed humanity, even in movies.
One aspect of this film that is so striking to me is the fact that each character looks like she got dressed out of her own closet—wearing what would work best for the climate and activity. Also, while the women do interact with men, there is this pervasive sense of friendship and camaraderie among the individual groups of women that outshines the sparse heterosexual interaction.
Death Proof is scary because, as a young woman, Tarantino’s ladies are relatable, and that’s where solid, original characterization comes into play. The more the viewer can relate to the characters, the more invested she becomes in their horrific fates.
2. AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
When I finally watched Mary Harron’s American Psycho, I didn’t know what to expect, but what I saw wasn’t it.
The movie is unnervingly humorous in its portrayal of a sociopathic businessman murdering women left and right, but the humor is purposefully unsettling. American Psycho is predominantly a psychological thriller, focusing on the inner machinations of the protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale).
Bateman is egocentric, narcissistic, aggressive, perverse, and apparently homicidal. Rather than exhibiting these traits in yet another serial killer biopic that would, in a way, glorify the madness, Harron wants viewers to be shocked, confused, and pissed off about what a terrible person he is. The humor element of the movie—epitomized in the iconic business card scene—serves to up-play the terrible absurdity of Bateman’s tendencies rather than make light of his actions. The movie works as horror movie and satire, a combination that caught me off guard in a good way.
While Bateman’s interactions with women throughout the film vary from tense to disturbing to outright gruesome, there is a pervading sense of unreality to it all. Don’t misunderstand me: I was creeped out by all of it. However, the psychological emphasis in the movie somewhat removes Bateman and his activities from reality and places him somewhere closer to a realm of allegory.
American Psycho is rightfully a classic, but perhaps the lessons it teaches media consumers about the portrayal of serial killers and violence towards women are the most vital. Harron’s film demonstrates that we can be fascinated by people whose actions we do not understand, but not without a healthy dose of criticism.
3. PERFECT BLUE (1997)
Departing from western live-action film, I bring you Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. Again, this movie falls under the heading of psychological thriller, following the journey and mental distress of a young female pop star-turned-actress. Besides the impeccable animation, the unique editing, and the slew of later films that borrowed scenes and themes unabashedly (cough—Black Swan—cough–Inception), Perfect Blue is great because of the unique focus on the career and mind of a young Japanese woman.
The film begins with the decision of Mima Kirigoe to leave her pop idol group and become an actress. Her story unfolds with the introduction of a stalker and the expectations for Mima to act out of explicit scenes in order to advancement in the film industry.
Where Perfect Blue picks up momentum is in the slow, steady, and then suddenly overwhelming incorporation of Mima’s own mind tricking her; we viewers soon lose sight of what is real and what is fictive and who the true villain is. Of course, there is an element of violence and a lot of suspense, but Perfect Blue’s scare-factor comes from that ambiguity.
Simultaneously, Perfect Blue gives the sense of Mima as a person, not just a character being manipulated and abused. We see her apartment, her friends, her loneliness, confusion, and disappointment during her quest to become a respected actress. Perfect Blue handles the very real worlds of pop culture idolatry and women in the workforce, subjects that western media rarely delves into (and when they do it’s often at the expense of women themselves.)
While perhaps this film isn’t strictly horror, Satoshi Kon’s mesmerizing animation and plot filled with twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat.
4. THE DESCENT (2005)
Now for a legitimate, categorized as such in your local video store, horror movie. I first saw The Descent, by Neil Marshall,in middle school a few years after it was released. It was one of the first horror movies I had ever seen; I remember being amazed first by just how much blood there was and second by the almost complete lack of male characters.
The Descent follows a group of women who take part in spelunking—repelling into deep caves to explore—and the majority of the film revolves around a cave exploration gone terribly, flesh-eating-monsterly wrong. Now, this sounds corny, and maybe it is, but the mere fact that the movie is about women who go exploring uncharted caves is just remarkable. Rather than taking an all-female horror cast and teaming them against homicidal men of some flavor, The Descent has these ladies face something alien and brutal while also having to confront their own mental deterioration the longer they stay in the dark confines of the cave.
These women are physically strong, mentally capable, loyal to one another, but they also fall and kill and sometimes die. This kind of female-centric violence has nothing to do with fetishizing, with the male gaze, with subjugation of the woman against a masculine force, but about being scary.
The women of The Descent are not just a herd of pretty girl tropes but people with selfish desires, legitimate fears, and a lot of bravery. While the movie was nothing groundbreaking in the plot department, it made an impact on me because I saw myself in those women, and that made the film all the more impactful and horrific.
5. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
Ending this list with a classic is one of the creepiest movies I’ve ever seen, Rosemary’s Baby, by Roman Polanski. The first time I saw this movie was in the spring of this year, informed by my friend I viewed it with that she found the movie scary more so because of its still-relevant social commentary than the demonic elements.
The movie begins with Rosemary and her new husband moving to a new home to begin a life together, a classic unsuspecting beginning to a scary movie. Quickly, Rosemary’s domestic life goes downhill when she becomes pregnant and in turn becomes the central object around which the personal motivations of the other characters revolve.
Remove the black magic and Rosemary becomes just a young woman with a child she doesn’t want. The neighbors, her husband, their friends, everyone has a voice in Rosemary’s pregnancy—under the guise of selfless concern—except Rosemary herself. While the pressure on Rosemary to keep her demon-baby has to do with satanic ritual, it’s easy to draw a parallel to the systematic control of women’s reproductive capabilities in our society. Rosemary’s Baby derives a lot of its impact from how absolutely frustrating it is as a viewer to watch as everyone, including her own husband, ignores Rosemary’s entreaties about her health and unhappiness.
This film has a lot to offer modern viewers because we realize in the heat of modern controversy concerning contraceptives and abortion that these issues are nothing new. Giving a horror movie this metaphor at its center not only provides something original to the genre but delivers an impactful message: horror is most terrifying when it derives its substance from reality.