Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Get thee behind me, she-devil!

As you can probably tell from looking at this blog, I put a lot of thought into the media I consume. I'm not saying this to brag about what a smart person I am; I just do it automatically. If you don't think about what you're taking in, how can you enjoy the nuances of the plot and characters? You have to put at least some thing into what you're watching or reading, or you're just staring at a screen/page for hours on end. You don't have to go in-depth with your analysis or anything, but it's pretty basic media consumption to think "X did Y because they were motivated by Z." Again, it's not about whether or not the viewer is smart; it's just how we're wired to interact with media. I think I tend to look a bit closer because I want to create media myself, and so I look at the ways other people have gotten it right or wrong. As a woman, I'm also invested in/tend to notice the way the media I consume treats female characters, because the way we are portrayed in fiction reflects the way we feel about ourselves in real life. If I want to do anything as a writer, it's boost self-confidence rather than deflate it. I want readers to know they're not alone.

So, I've been watching a lot of movies lately! I watch a lot of movies in general, and since I'm taking two film courses this semester, I'm watching more than usual. I've also been looking at horror movies, since Hallowen is approaching. And what I'm finding is . . . disturbing. I'm familiar with the way the media in general views women; you can't be a consumer of fiction and NOT be aware of it. What I wasn't aware of, at least not personally, is the way the horror genre treats women- specifically, how much it loves tearing them to pieces.

Let's look at a proto-example, The Exorcist. You probably know the story: a little girl gets posessed by a demon, and a priest struggling with his faith has to overcome his doubts in order to save her. What are two things you notice about that summary?

One: the person in peril is a little girl, specifically a twelve-year-old. Two: the focal point of the story, the character who has an arc and emotional journey, isn't the little girl at all. She spends most of the movie under control of a (gender-neutral) demonic force. It's the priest. The movie isn't about the person being put through hell and having control of their body taken away; it's the one who Feels Really Bad About It. And the man. The male role here is the important one. It's even the title of the movie: "The Exorcist," not "The Posessed." Regan, in the grand scheme of the film, doesn't matter. Moreover, the way the film uses her to make a point- I would argue- says a lot about what we value as viewers and what frightens us. Remember this scene?

Of course you do; it's one of the movie's big shocking moments, and certainly one of the most controversial. Regan, now fully under the demon's control, "masturbates" (I'd argue it looks more like stabbing, but the intent is there) with a crucifix while her head rotates 180 degrees, and when her mother enters, the demon drags Chris's head down in an attempt to make her fellate her own daughter. Disgusting, right? Of course it is- it's incest. But it's also playing on a lot of our fears about girls, especially preteen ones who are just beginning to be aware of their own sexuality. What's the scariest thing in the world? A young girl masturbating, apparently. And masturbating with a crufix- intentionally profaning one of the holiest symbols in Christianity. So young girls > female masturbation > blasphemy. Starting to see my argument?

You can argue the point; Regan's mother Chris is, after all, a character in her own right who influences the plot. She has feelings towards her daughter, and she isn't removed from control of her body like Regan is. But she still isn't the focal point of the movie itself- Karras is. We may sympathize with Regan and Chris, but Karras is the one we're meant to root for. He is the one who's here to slay the dragon and bring the princess home to her castle. I ask you, then: why isn't her mother given that chance? I know that within the logic of the film, Karras is needed because he's a priest and priests are the ones who perform exorcisms, but what he does in the end is simply invite the demon to enter his body and then kills the demon by killing himself. Did that really need a priest?

Okay, you argue, but The Exorcist is only one movie. There are plenty of horror movies- exorcism movies, even!- that don't involve the demeaning of a girl or woman for the benefit of a male character. Okay, then. Where are they?

How about The Exorcism of Emily Rose? Who's the protagonist of that one?


Well . . . okay, how about The Last Exorcism? Does that have a female lead?

Not so much, no.
Okaaaaaaaaaay . . . Stigmata! That's the movie I watched that spurred this whole ponderance on my part. That one's got to have a woman who gets to reflect and act on her situation- she's billed on the poster! Surely they won't take yet another story about a woman being tortured and robbed of her bodily autonomy and make it all about a male crisis of fai-

Oh, for the love of God!
I'm not writing an essay (I have to write about five for class anyway); I can't claim to have drawn a definite conclusion from this. All I can say is what I've seen for myself. And what I've seen is . . . an endless parade of women being battered, bruised, and beaten while a man stands nearby weeping quietly over their suffering. But the final shot isn't the women's face. She doesn't get a say in what happens next. Whether she lives or dies (we have a 2/2 ratio on that one, though I'm told that if the director of Stigmata had had his way, it would have been a 3) it's not her story. It's his. This is veering genres wildly, but do you remember the posters for the first season of The Good Wife?

Like I said, completely different genre. But if you take the tagline and flip it, you've got a pretty good description of the horror genre- at least, the subgenre I review in this post. Her suffering. His story.


  1. I would say the nonconsent and child factor is a bigger horror impact for me in a scene like that - never seen the movie - but this is an excellent point and well put, especially how it's not just about her body and his agency, but her SUFFERING and his agency.

    1. (Bigger horror than the incest, I mean, I agree with your point about her sexuality.)

    2. Exactly- when I watch these movies I'm not horrified by the stair crawl or the pea soup-spewing, I'm horrified because the female/child (side note: would you agree that the woman is often put into a childlike position in these stories? Because she needs caring for/can't defend herself?) is having her body taken away from her and she can't do anything about it. That's horrifying enough on the part of the posessee; we don't need a male crisis of faith/helpless protector to make it scarier.