Women in Horror Films: a Shifting Role

Note: this was an essay written for my Women’s Study class at De Anza college.

Women in Horror Films: a Shifting Role

In the world of film, the horror genre can always be credited for pushing the limits of what is appropriate, and challenging what can and cannot be shown in terms of violence and sex. It’s quite easy to see the rise in graphic depictions of lurid and gory subject matter, from early black and white horror films to the modern torture porn movies that we see today. It seems as though our appetite for horror violence grows more each decade, prompting an increase in carnage mixed with more explicit sex. Yet beyond the obvious bloody mainstream appeal lies a disturbing trend showing a strong emphasis on violence towards women, either as a punishment for their sexuality, or a consequence of their gender. 

Entire franchises have been spawned from the misogynistic cinematic trope of the scantily clad female running from her stalker. A helpless female victim, wearing very little, runs for her life while she’s pursued by a masked killer. She falls down multiple times, and it doesn’t take long before she’s killed in a grisly fashion. Slasher films from the 1980s continue to rake in cash, either in remakes or spinoffs. It seems to be a surefire way to score at the box office: the formula is plain and clear: girls who appear to be promiscuous and express themselves sexually are sure to die first (think Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream), in the most gruesome ways, and the unspoiled virgin girl remains throughout the film’s duration, spared from death due to her purity. Not a lot of subtlety there.

Although women are greatly sexualized in these movies (and in so many other forms of entertainment), as soon as they act on their sexuality, they are considered worthless, expendable, and are punished. As explained on wikipedia, “[In horror films] Sex is considered to be a masculine trait because it is a form of power over someone, and if a woman tries to take control of this power she will instantly be punished for trying” (wiki). Phallic objects such as knives, axes, and chainsaws are used as murdering weapons against women who seem all to ready to die, as they appear to run and fall in what is known as “the Chase:” 

“The chase consists of a sexualized and degraded woman running for her life as an assailant hunts her down and kills her, unless she is termed the “final girl” [female survivor]. Female victims in slasher films are shown to be in a state of fear five times as long as males, specifically occurring during ‘the chase’” (wiki).

From the early origins of cinema, women are virtually always depicted as victims, helpless  damsels in distress in need of rescuing by a male hero archetype. In many ways, this has not changed; even women who are regarded as the heroes in film still experience gendered violence on their journey towards heroism. While a man can be assumed to be a hero just by being a man, a woman seems to have to suffer enormously before she can be regarded as a heroine. Her femininity must be cast aside as a weakness as she metaphorically “mans up” to face whatever’s in her way. Generally she experiences physical and psychological violence of a sexual nature, and an overall dismissal due to her gender.  

A category of horror film that blurs the line between victim and victor is the  sub-genre of rape-and-revenge. An excellent example of this  is 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave. In this infamous exploitation film, widely regarded as the first rape/revenge flick, a woman is brutally gang raped by four men, multiple times. The film was controversial for it’s violence and it’s lengthy, graphic depictions of sexual assault, which make up 30 minutes of the film’s runtime. The female victim later enacts revenge on her assaulters by way of castration, hanging, bodily mutilation and disembowelment. Also titled The Day of the Woman, I Spit on Your Grave received strongly negative reviews, but has gone on to become a cult classic of the genre, spawning several remakes and sequels (some as recent as 2013), and a long list of copycat films. The directors of these movies seem to suggest that the women in the genre are heroic, yet spend most of their time focusing on the degradation and sexual exploitation of the female roles. It seems clear where the focal point of the films lie. Indeed, sex and violence seem to go hand in hand, with the female role always having to deal with both as a victim or a heroine.

While this cinematic cliche is familiar to all horror fans, there has been a slow but clear transition from females being portrayed as the victim to being portrayed as the film’s hero. Alien was considered by many to be the first horror film featuring a female lead in a hero role. Channelling second-wave feminism to reflect and critique the slasher genre’s spectacle of violence against women (theconversation), Sigourney Weaver’s role was groundbreaking in that she survived the (male) slaughter to emerge as the central hero. Fast forward to the present day, where women’s rights and the #metoo movement have put sexual assault and harassment squarely in the spotlight. If this movement is finally revealing the seedy and sexist underside of Hollywood, and exposing predators left and right, then we are seeing many real life women heroes emerging from the (male) slaughter in the press. Given the recent “Me Too” movement promoting awareness of violence and sexual harassment towards women, we may finally be on the cusp of seriously rethinking how women are portrayed in horror films, and films in general.

There is another demographic that seeks to shift the gender roles not only in film, but in the social fabric of the US and beyond. The change is brought on by the Millennial generation. We can see this by the influx of strong female leads in pop culture and cinema, from the updated Star Wars series to young adult movie franchises such as the Hunger Games and Divergence. It can even be argued that major horror film franchises are focusing less on female driven violence and more on equal opportunity gore (an interesting term, but true nonetheless). Take the Saw films for instance: the franchise has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars, yet the plot lines and characters avoid gender driven violence, instead opting for the gory and graphic demise of both sexes in complex and violent methods, in roughly equal ratio. It seems that the gender driven violence of the 1980’s slasher film craze, and the raw misogynistic violence of movies that came before them, are becoming stale, overplayed, and downright offensive to today’s youth. The film industry must cater to what the public want, and if there’s an uprising in the “woke” generation, whose top priorities include gender equality and the #metoo movement, the entertainment industry must follow suit if they wish to remain relevant.

Any kind of social change occurs at a glacial pace, and many times it is only in retrospect that we see the way things have been altered over time. With the millennial generation leading the way into a world where women’s rights, equality, and political correctness are key, we may be able to see a significant change in the way that women are portrayed in horror films, and pop culture in general. Violence towards women has always been a problem, all over the world. Now that it has made its way into the public discourse in America, gendered violence and stereotypes are being challenged like never before, and it can begin with pop culture and film. Female empowerment has been a long time coming.

Works cited:

  1. “Misogyny in Horror Films.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misogyny_in_horror_films. Web.

  2. “Alien: Covenant falls short of the original Alien’s trailblazing feminism.” http://theconversation.com/alien-covenant-falls-short-of-the-original-aliens-trailblazing-feminism-77820. Web.

  3. “I spit on your grave.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Spit_on_Your_Grave. Web.