Feminism and the Horror Tradition: Keep your politics off my genre? Part 1

I love slasher films. I am also a feminist. I believe in full gender and sexual equality. I’m also a devotee of the horror tradition in all its forms.

For some, these are antithetical conceptions. They see horror as part of a larger cultural fascination with violence against women. Some even view horror as a transformation of everyday male violence into a mythical tale of monster-patriarch slaughtering female-sacrifice.

This discussion almost inevitably focuses on the slasher film where, critics presume, women are hunted like prey by male killers and a particularly vile mixture of violence and sexuality reigns supreme. I’ll mostly focus on that sub-genre too, at least in this posting.

Now, of course, horror people often roll their eyes at the discussion. “Who cares?” is their question.  “I love horror because, well, I guess because its exciting, it’s a more intense experience than I can get from any other kind of film, its just plain fun. Keep your politics off my genre!”

Both views miss something essential about the experience and tradition of horror. Horror is an incredibly nuanced and complex set of texts that can be read on many different levels. Scholars, especially feminist scholars, must continue to engage it. Thoughtful fans would probably enjoy the conversation and, indeed, have got to be a part of it.

Let me start our discussion with a short history lesson and a few brief thoughts for my fellow feminist scholars and theorists.

Second wave feminism, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, generally rejected the idea of the horror film. Scholar and filmmaker Laura Mulvey lead the charge, critiquing horror as a particularly repulsive example of how misogyny dominants and control women on film. Mulvey rightly saw patriarchal power as inherent in how cinema represented women though she likely overstated her claim that “the male gaze” dominates female subjectivity onscreen, especially in a horror flick.

Scholars didn’t leave the discussion there.  Carl Clover’s essential study Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender and the Modern Horror Film called into question the idea that film viewers always imagined slasher films through the eyes of the killer. Clover actually introduced the phrase “the final girl” into popular usage to describe the heroes of the slasher genre, the Jamie Lee Curtis’ and Heather Langenkamps, who fight the monster and often elicit the audience’s sympathy and approval.

Monsters in America explores this question in relation to the 80s “backlash” against feminist gains. It also places the slasher film, and its fascination with gore, in relation to the Reagan era’s fascination with the serial killer, especially in connection with the idea of “killers of women.”

Placing horror movies in connection with these larger cultural ideas allows us to see them for what they are: texts that can subvert, indeed literally mangle, popular narratives of women as victims. The book also argues that the complexity of the monster unsettles us in our simplistic conceptions of gender.  It borrows from theorists like Judith “Jack” Halberstam, Carol Clover and Isabel Pinedo in suggesting that films like Friday the 13th, Halloween and Scream can become cultural playgrounds where gender norms and identity are up for grabs. The way that sex, violence and gender intersect in these cultural productions makes them essential feminist viewing and, sometimes, allies in the struggle for gender equality.

So, how is your average horror fan to feel about this? Why should they care about it at all? In my next post I’ll examine this question as well as move the discussion beyond the slasher genre. How has gender and its politics been a part of the horror tradition more generally? I’ll include in my discussion the brief conversation I had with Camille Keaton, an amazing actor who had the traumatic experience of being the female lead in I Spit on Your Grave. I’ll also explain why The Bride of Frankenstein is the most awesome thing in the history of awesome.

What I’m reading: Lovecraft and Kafka had a beautiful, scary baby and its name was Thomas Ligotti. If you like your horror mixed with the absurd with a nihilism chaser, seek out his work.  Also hoping to catch up on my comic reading later this week … including some of the DC re-launch stuff and whatever else is waiting for me in my pile at Captain’s Comics.

What I’m Watching: PopMatters sent me the Blu-Ray of the terrifying, and terrifyingly original, 2001 film The Others. What a great spookfest. Also got the 3rd season of Sons of Anarchy that I need to both catch up on and write a thousand words about for PopMatters. So, guess I’m doing a lot of reviewing this week.

What I’m Listening to: Lot of stuff from my electric blues collection. I’ve got an Italian import Howling Wolf Collection I’m listening to right now with all the classic stuff, “”Little Red Rooster,”  “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Moanin’ at Midnight.” Need to catch up on some newish stuff.  Interested in this new Stephen Malkmus thing and even the new Tom Morello project (which also features Ben Harper). And Robert Earl Keene has something new out…so yeah, I’ve got catching up to do.

What I’m Playing: By the time you read this, maybe while you are reading it, I will be playing Dead Island, the new zombie killing platform for Xbox360. Either I’ll be in undead heaven (!?!?) or deeply disappointed. Like most of you, I’ve been inappropriately excited about it since I saw the trailer. I pre-ordered (which I never do) and so it should shamble to my door Tuesday the 6th. I plan to blog about my experience with it soon.

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