ARTS + CULTURE
Women in Horror Cinema: ‘Screen Queens’ and changing representations
16th October 2020
Horror cinema has always been an extremely nuanced genre of film in terms of its representation of female characters. Conventional gender roles and stereotypes permeate the genre with clichéd female archetypes such as the helpless victim as portrayed by Drew Barrymore’s character, Casey Becker in Scream (1996) and the sexually promiscuous woman as depicted by the character of Marcy in Cabin Fever (2002). The genre’s female characters have been historically perceived, in the words of English professor, horror novelist and Stephen King enthusiast Anthony Magistrale “exclusively as objects inspiring salacious behaviour from the horror monster, or at least as the object of the monster’s victimisation’’. Films such as Ginger Snaps (2000) began to comment on these quintessential female roles problematising them. The protagonist, Ginger Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle), directly comments on the limitations of gender roles in horror film, criticising how ‘’a girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease or the virgin next door’’.
Still from Ginger Snaps, Copperheart Entertainment.
However more and more contemporary characterisations of the female figure in horror cinema have challenged these long-held gender stereotypes. In this article I’ll be examining the historical representation of women in horror films and how the horror landscape is changing, allowing for more nuanced and multi-faceted female characters that speak directly to modern female experiences.
Historical representations of women in horror cinema can be overall perceived as chiefly negative due to the hegemonic cultural practice of gendered stereotypes. According to film theorist Claire Johnston, ‘’the image of woman operates in film as a sign, but as a sign which derives its meaning not from the reality of women’s lives, but from men’s desires and fantasies’’ (Gymnich and Ruhl 229). This holds true with the many slasher films where women are repeatedly victimized such as Halloween (1978) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1978) and Friday The 13th (1980) to name a few.
Although there are a few exceptions, such as the character of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in sci-fi horror Alien (1979). The film reconfigured the idea of women as helpless victims and placed her centre stage, a powerful gun-toting feminist heroine. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of The Lambs (1991) who is a successful female agent, dominates within the phallocentric industry of the F.B.I.
“Masculine roles such as the antagonist or monster figure are upheld by a male or a masculinised female, whereas women are more than often the victims of highly sexualised violence”
However, within the horror genre specifically, female characters have been repeatedly victimised and punished for being sexually active, in contemporary language, they’re slut-shamed. The horror genre can therefore be recognised as a gendered genre as the masculine roles such as the antagonist or monster figure are upheld by a male or a masculinised female, whereas women are more than often the victims of highly sexualised violence.
Such films as American Psycho (2000), The Human Centipede 2 (2011) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006) feature scenes that depict sexualised violence against women which can perpetuate a harmful coexistence of sex and violence. However in recent years, as described in a comprehensive article about the evolution of women in horror cinema ‘’Women in horror: Victims no more’’ by Beth Younger, ‘’the genre has moved from taking pleasure in victimising women to focusing on women as survivors and protagonists. It has veered away from slashers and torture porn to more substantive, nuanced films that comment on social issues and possess an aesthetic vision’’. Such films as It Follows (2015) subverts the idea of woman as sexually deviant and opens up an opportunity to critique rape culture and comment on the importance of sexual consent.
With the contemporary emergence of empowering, feminist directors such as Julia Ducournau, Ana Lily Amirpour, Greta Gerwig and Ava DuVernay to name only a few, it only makes sense that the on-screen female characters are equally as empowered.
This series of articles will examine contemporary female-centred narratives from a number of directors across multiple cultures, such as; A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) Midsommar (2019) Hereditary (2018) The Witch (2015) and Halloween (2018). It might not be a bad idea to check these out before my next article. Happy spooky season!
Check out some of the interesting sources that I’ve mentioned in this article below!
Featured photo from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 chiller Psycho