Horror Cinema and the Female Villain: The Perpetuation of Female Victimisation

female villain American MaryMonsters have long dominated the realms of the gothic and horrific, both in literature and the cinema. What’s more, these monsters are often male, seeking out women to overtake or destroy. Subsequently, the most common image of women in horror has been a pose of utter victimisation – the scream. In a seminal article entitled “When the Woman Looks”, scholar Linda Williams has argued that in classical cinema, women have been bound to the roles of victims by a determination to punish those women who attempt to assume power. She writes:

The bold, smouldering, dark eyes of the silent screen vamp offer an obvious example of a powerful female look. But the dubious moral status of such heroines, and the fact that they must be punished in the end, undermine the legitimacy and authentic subjectivity of this look, frequently turning it into a mere parody of the male look (17).

Here, Williams is drawing from Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze and how to hold the gaze is to hold the power over your (female) subject. She goes on to note, “The woman’s gaze is punished, in other words, by narrative processes that transform curiosity and desire into masochistic fantasy” (17). The suggestion then is that in order for women to assert themselves against a masculine threat, they must be willing to find pleasure in their own inevitable destruction.

In horror cinema female victimisation has always been, and it seems will always be, a necessary element. However, the concept of the Final Girl, developed by Carol Clover in the 1990s, offered a way to deny this victimisation and for female characters to assert a level of power over the male perpetrator. While many female scholars have found solace in the idea that the Final Girl is heroic in her ability to overcome the monster, something rarely discussed is the trauma she is left with, most apparent through close-ups of her screaming and/or crying which are commonly used as final shots. Ultimately, even the Final Girl is a victim in that she is rarely able to accept what has happened to her or what she has had to do to survive (i.e. kill). Whether punished for her gaze, killed for her beauty (a victim of the monster’s own sexual repression), or left traumatised by her subjection to male violence, women in horror always seem to be unable to assert any level of true power. But what of the female monster?

female villain carrieThe Return of the Repressed can be a powerful tool in horror cinema. Film theorist Robin Wood argues that all scary movies derive their horror from the idea that within any given society, that which is repressed will always return. In particular, Wood sees monsters as manifestations of our tendency to enforce surplus repression within our communities. Conceptions of right and wrong, good and bad, therefore all boil down to what our social standards demand in order to ensure we remain “monogamous heterosexual bourgeois patriarchal capitalists” (64). He explains that in American society, what is subsequently repressed are sexualities, cultural Others, alternative ideologies, children, and women. Woman, he notes, is the counterpoint to male domination and as such remains a constant threat to patriarchal society; “on to women, men project their own innate, repressed femininity in order to disown it as inferior” (66). When this threat becomes a reality – the return of the repressed – the female monster must be subdued. The monstrous feminine is therefore a masochistic fantasy for the assumed male viewer, but it may also act as a powerful fantasy for female viewers.

Significantly, female villains are often portrayed as having a purpose far beyond senseless violence. Often, they are out for revenge, products of past male violence themselves. Therefore, an examination might well present us with an interesting portrayal of the Return of the Repressed and female victimisation. While these women are powerful, and own the gaze, they are also more likely to be punished for their actions in much more definitive ways than male monsters ever seem to be, thus unexpectedly perpetuating the cycle of female victimisation. It is a very problematic representation of female empowerment. Prominent examples of this include Carrie (1976), Ginger Snaps (2000), and American Mary (2012).

In Carrie, a teen girl, tormented by bullies in school and by an overbearing mother who resembles a religious fanatic, finds that along with puberty comes a sense of power – literally. Mirroring her hormonal changes into womanhood is the unexpected power of telekinesis. In finding this inner power, and learning to channel it into an outer-power, Carrie becomes a happier, more outgoing version of herself. Her invitation to the prom points to a development of female sexuality as well, her blossoming interest in boys is interpreted by her mother as dangerous, poison even. Pointed out in particular is how her dress accentuates her breasts. Against her mother’s best efforts, Carrie leaves… with force. All of these indicators that Carrie is growing stronger, that she has a sense of presence and authority for the first time, lead to her inevitable (self) destruction. A cruel prank forces her to exact revenge but in the heat of the moment, overtaken by this new found power, Carrie loses control and takes everyone down, including herself. Here, we have the implication that a woman’s power is both unnatural and untrustworthy.

female villain ginger snapsIn Ginger Snaps we have a similar scenario. Like in Carrie, Ginger’s first menstrual cycle proves to be the moment of true change. She is attacked by a werewolf so that her change into womanhood (puberty) is literally demonised as she simultaneously changes into a werewolf. The connection is obvious, especially in the film’s point to make her confused about which changes are “normal” and which aren’t. Her sexuality, her hunger, her rage, her power – all becomes blurred between the lines of woman and monster; she is a literal depiction of the monstrous feminine. Like Carrie, Ginger finds that her new power can be used to exact revenge against those who have bullied, belittled, or even objectified her. She becomes obsessed with the idea that she must protect herself and her sister from the evil, penetrating, eyes of men until she is on such a wild killing spree that she is completely out of control. As a result, she fully changes to werewolf, and is “put down” by her sister during a vicious attack. The sad ending implies that Brigitte has ended Ginger’s life for her own good. Once again, a woman’s power is proven to be uncontrollable, dangerous, and unacceptable.

In American Mary Katherine Isabelle (Ginger) stars again as a woman who will need to be stopped. This time around there is no supernatural element. Instead, Mary is a promising med-student who is traumatised to find that her superiors and idols do not take her seriously, but see her instead as a body to sexualise and objectify. After being drugged and raped by her professors at an exclusive surgeon party, Mary takes it upon herself to get even. She drops out of school and dedicates her surgeon talents to destroying her assailant slowly and painfully in the basement of a strip club where she has befriended the owner. Eventually, this power extends to her everyday life as she commits to empowering outcasts (especially women) whose beauty ideals do not correspond with Hollywood norms. Specialising in underground body modification, Mary finds a new calling. But it’s important to recognise that this growth is born out of trauma and a complete loss of self. Moreover, as she falls deeper into this role, she does question if she knows who she is anymore, if she’s a monster. Before she can come around to any healthy conclusions about who she wants to be, she is attacked in her home, murdered by the husband of a woman for whom she performed drastic body modifications. Made into a “barbie doll”, the woman’s changes meant she would no longer be available to sexually gratify her husband. The man retaliated against Mary because she was seen as having the power to empower women, and to emasculate men in the process. She became a monstrous threat to patriarchy, and was killed for it.

Ultimately, the point I’d like to make is that female killers are not Freddy’s or Jason’s or Michael Myers’s – they don’t come back again and again. They aren’t unstoppable. They aren’t immortalised. They aren’t faceless. They are fully-fledged characters with fully-fledged stories. They are monstrous if only by their ability to overpower the rules of patriarchy. And that, as it turns out, is punishable by death. Thus, the woman is subdued, and female victimisation subsequently persists within the horror genre. Of course, there will always be exceptions (Teeth 2007 creates a monstrous feminine who is not killed), but I do recognise a pattern strong enough to merit this discussion.

About the Author:

My passion for film has manifested itself into years of study in both film production and film studies. I am currently completing a Master’s Degree at Carleton University for which my focus has been Slasher cinema. My research interests include Horror, Gender, and Adaptation. My typical approach to film study is to think critically about the cultural contexts of any given film in order to make sense of the formal elements, story and connotations. I am also a freelance writer and, not surprisingly, I run two film related blogs: Sinema Addiction and Pick Canadian Pictures.

11 thoughts on “Horror Cinema and the Female Villain: The Perpetuation of Female Victimisation

  1. Pingback: Everywhere But Here | Speak Up, Ask, Answer

  2. Well, I never did like the concept behind “Carrie” and I loathed the movie. Now I have a justification for feeling that way. To be honest, I haven’t watched a huge amount of horror films, so I feel as though I can’t comment on any gender-based trends and patterns. But anytime you’re dealing with a revenge plot, things get tricky. Do you have any thoughts about “Kill Bill”?

  3. I think that trope of making female villains the result of some prior male villainy is a symptom of filmmakers being afraid of being labeled as misogynist. They want an out, a way of saying, “I’m not saying women are evil–look, it was a man who started all this.”

    Unfortunately, that has the effect of weakening the character. She becomes a victim instead of a monster. In my personal opinion the message given is just as bad: “Women aren’t strong enough to be truly evil–they need a man to reach their potential.”

    The first counter-example that came to mind is Peter Jackson’s “Braindead” aka “Dead/Alive”. The character of the protagonist’s mother brings the evil on herself by her own actions (she is bitten by the Sumatran rat-monkey while spying on her son’s date at the zoo) and quite literally grows to become the final boss battle.

    In non-horror genres, there is Sharon Stone’s character from the much maligned “Catwoman”. The villain, the hero, the mentor, and the primary victim are all women, and the male characters have supporting roles–the villain’s patsy and the hero’s romantic foil. As a woman among women, the evil of Laurel Hedare isn’t softened by victimhood–she’s an ambitious megalomaniac who sells addictive and dangerous products to make money, just as bad as any man.

  4. This might seem a bit random but video games – which I have more experience with – are often accused of sexualizing women and yet at the same time I’ve also seen many horrific depictions of female sexuality that are meant to be grotesque and scary (and maybe this is the case in other mediums too.) It’s almost as if the sexual power women apparently have is also something to be feared. Many female monsters and mythological creatures – like mermaids – are often noted for using their seductive powers to hurt men.

    Personally I like stories that offer more towards the villain than simply they are evil for the sake of it and also apparently invulnerable. I like stories where they have deep conflicting feelings and emotions over what they are doing. Perhaps even a motive that drove them to do it. I quite enjoy storylines like Carrie and Chronicle where a person feels like a victim and are then suddenly granted a power that could allow them to strike back. The only problem is that these characters then end up getting killed like they are the bad guys, while the people that drove them into that state are now seen as the victims or even the heroes.

    Great article. We often engage with stories without really thinking about them in a deeper context, but it’s interesting and probably worthwhile to consider these issues.

  5. With the caveat that this is just a very fast first impression while reading…

    What did you think of Contracted? There, we have a female protagonist who is strong, but who perceives herself as weak–recovering heroin addict in a dead-end relationship who finds herself in the predicament she is in through no fault of her own (she’s raped)–but, again, her perception is that she is at fault. With the exception of the rape (understandable because that particular incident piles trauma on top of trauma when she’s already close to a breaking point), every instance of authority–not only patriarchy (her boss, the registrant at the flower show, the psychologist her mother enlists) but authority in general (her mother)–she encounters she basically shreds and walks away from without ever looking back. That’s part of what makes the final scene so satisfying (will try not to spoil it here).
    A part of the pattern on another level because of where she ends up, or a possible break from it because she’s an emotionally complex character who makes sense most of the time? (I can’t say she’s her own woman, but she’s certainly not a tool of the scriptwriter, and nor, I think, is she a symbol of the male image of the powerful woman a la Katherine Isabelle’s characters–both of whom I love unabashedly; American Mary is one of my favorite horror movies of the past five years.)

    While I was babbling about that, the odd symbiotic relationship between Angela Bettis and Lucky McKee started bubbling to the surface, but oh lord, that will take some serious mulling over, especially as regards to dichotomy of May and Roman…

  6. Fascinating contrast. It’s interesting that the same storytelling tactics being used to keep female characters in their place also make them more interesting than the motiveless and unstoppable male killers, that something good is coming from the same place as something bad – very horror.

  7. Carrie’s fate was left ambiguous at the end of the movie, just like a Jason or Freddie or a Michael Myers. With Carrie, you see her tombstone break in the end as something is stirring in the grave below.

    Frankly, I think unkillable monsters are a bore. Michael Myers was scary in the first movies when it seemed he was just remarkably resistant to death or injury. But as the sequels rolled on and the methods of his demise grew increasingly definitive (getting blown up for example), he just became a comedy. What’s the point of an unkillable monster in a movie? You blow it up, cut it in half, burn it to ashes, all the while knowing it’s not going to die. Things stop being dramatic and suspenseful when you realize there is no ending.

  8. I think this idea does cross genres but it is very stark in Horrors. Be it Western, Melodrama, Noir, or Screwball, men are typically applauded and rewarded for stepping outside societal convention and writing their own rules, while women are typically punished for doing so. I’m not sure death is the ultimate determiner of a character’s acceptability or worth. For many years, bad guys (or bad gals) had to die. The mere fact of their death didn’t say much in and of itself. I’m thinking of two movies I recently re-watched that had female “monsters.” In Repulsion, Carol kills men and apparently survives, though she is terribly traumatized. The end there is soul-crushing. In May, the title character also kills and ultimately dies herself. But the end of that movie is almost sweet. In Carrie, the thing I always found most interesting was how marginalized the male characters are. They are idiots. Women are the victims, but they are also the bullies and the potential saviors. It’s a great conversation, Shyla. Thanks for delving into it.

  9. Excellent, article, Shyla. I think you’ve made some terrific points here about the roles of women in the horror genre. The movies you cite above definitely smack of male fear of powerful women, and the fact that they meet a sticky end suggests that American filmmakers still distrust the idea of having a female monster/villain/protagonist survive … though I think that was ably done in a non-horror film, The Last Seduction. It’s interesting–I wonder if the survival of the powerful woman is more prevalent outside the genre … there’s also Sibella in Kind Hearts and Coronets that I’m recalling too.

  10. A well-argued piece of academic standard Shyla, and I do not feel the need or desire to try to counter any of your points. I did quite like ‘Ginger Snaps’ nonetheless.
    Have you seen ‘Cat People’ (1942), or the 1982 remake? A personal favourite in this genre.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

Leave a Reply