Scream 3 gives us a woman in the shower in its opening sequence, but at least her character’s an adult. She’s quickly dispatched, no time for depth or characterization. She’s simply a tool to... well, to make Cotton’s death even more complicated. It’s also a good example of how the female attacks are more drawn out than the male attacks (more on that below).
(I’ve actually only seen Scream 3 the one time in the theater, so I’m not fully prepared for what’s coming.)
But, my chosen topic for today is not strictly speaking this sequel. It may come up, but I won’t force it.
One more thing before this gets serious again.
: sexually excited
1 chiefly Scottish : having a coarse manner
2 : lustful, lecherous
Origin: probably from obsolete rand to rant.
First use: 1698
Synonyms: concupiscent, goatish, horny, hot, hypersexual, itchy, lascivious, lecherous, lewd, libidinous, licentious, lubricious (or lubricous), oversexed, passionate, lustful, salacious, satyric, wanton
Antonyms: frigid, undersexed
One of the killers (presumably Billy) says to Sidney over the phone in Scream, “I’m not Randy.” On a literal level, he is being honest; he is not the character Randy. But, on a much more poetic level, he’s being quite honest about his psyche. Billy (and Stu as well) is not a strictly sexual being; even though serial murder is inherently sexual. Per Clover (1987), the killer(s) is overly lacking when it comes to sexuality or gender (despite Billy’s pursuit of Sidney, which in retrospect, is really just one more aspect of his sexual confusion/frustration as the slasher killer with his psychosexual fury); Billy’s inability to have sex with Sidney is just a part of that lack
Maybe it’s already serious. Anyway, here’s where I meant to begin:
...the qualities that locate the slasher film outside the usual aesthetic system... are the very qualities that make it such a transparent source for (sub)cultural attitudes toward sex and gender in particular.
...the slasher film, not despite but exactly because of its crudity and compulsive repetitiveness, gives us a clearer picture of current sexual attitudes, at least among the segment of the population that forms its erstwhile audience, than do the legitimate products of the better studios. (Clover, 1987, p. 188)
What are slasher films telling us about gender relations? Is the victimization of (mostly) woman in a genre birthed in the 1970s a reaction to the women’s movement in the 1960s? Clover cites Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) as an early example of the slasher killer. This comes before the heyday of what we call the women’s movement but well after the seeds were planted.
(Alternatively—but a topic for another day—was the relatively anonymous slasher villain, nearly indestructible, born of ongoing Cold War fears? A villain we could not really fight?)
Regardless of the reason, the slasher film is about a conflict between genders, or at least a conflict between gendered expectations and reality. Everything about them is sexual, even if, like Scream, they don’t show us the sex. In the slasher film, “the violent, penetrating weapons of the killers are meant to operate as phallic symbols, showing us how the one who thrusts the phallus is the one who is superior” (Christensen, 2011, p. 26). Citing the arguments of Clover, Christensen echoes the basic idea that the Final Girl takes up the phallus in order to be victorious over her attacker in the end.
Generally, the audience for slasher films is described as mostly male, though that has increasingly become less and less true over the decades. There are females in the audience as well. In fact, they flock to slasher films more than some purportedly feminist horror films like I Spit on Your Grave or Jennifer’s Body. Reini (2013) points out, “horror films that have arguably attempted to cater to the supposed desires of female fans have failed miserably. If history has taught us anything, it is that women want to see horror films that are apparently meant for men.” That is to say, the slasher film, however true or not it may be that its audience is mostly male, exists for a male audience.
Females allowed as well, but only under certain conditions, of course.
Karanović (2012) suggests the slasher film works quite simply for the males in the audience: “While on the one hand, male viewers can indulge in sexual fantasies, violence, and experience fear, they can also learn that being a strong man is what get’s [sic] you out of a bad situation; all while enjoying the view of beautiful women.” More simply, “the postmodern slasher film [is] a projection of masculine desire” (Keisner, 2008, p. 420). The gaze of the camera is even masculinized
by focusing more frequently on the female body, in various stages of dress, undress and then mutilation... The focalizer, just like Freddy and Michael, spends more time following the females in the film, lingers longer on the female body and its anatomy than on the male body, even when both are murdered in the same scene. (Keisner, p. 423)
Case in point, the opening sequence for either of the three Scream films (so far). Scream: it’s a long drawn-out sequence for Casey’s torment and murder but her boyfriend is shown in all of a couple shots and is killed between them. Scream 2: Phil gets killed quickly in the bathroom while Maureen gets stabbed repeatedly in the movie theater as the crowd cheers (then gradually stops as they realize something’s really wrong). Scream 3: while Cotton is made aware the killer is in his house, his attempt to drive home quickly is cut with another long sequence of torment for Christine. She doesn’t even die until he gets home, and then he is killed quickly thereafter.
Case in point beyond Scream: in Halloween—a sequence we see in Scream, actually—Lynda and Bob have sex. Bob goes to the kitchen to get some beer, and in a brief, but fairly intense scene, he finds Michael Myers in the pantry, Michael lifts him by the throat and nails him to the wall with his knife. Back to Lynda and “the obligatory tit shot” as she thinks Michael is Bob, covered in a sheet like a ghost, and when “Bob” doesn’t react, Lynda gets up, goes to the phone, and Michael slowly walks over and then strangles her. I haven’t timed it, but I imagine Lynda’s scene is at least twice as long as Bob’s.
The key is understanding who we identify with in the film. In a franchise, with each new chapter, we certainly cheer on the killer more and more. We come to know the killer, come to expect and even want him to kill in new and more inventive ways. With POV shots, we experience the film, especially in the first two acts, the way the killer does. Think back to the opening sequence of Halloween—we are the killer as he sees his sister and her boyfriend and as he searches for a knife in the kitchen drawer, as he heads upstairs and kills his sister (and lets the guy get away, the sexist little bastard). It is only after all of this is done that we even get to know who we are exactly, a little boy dressed as a clown. As he stalks his prey throughout the film, we are often pulled back into his POV—I imagine the game in Brainscan, if it really got into the visceral feeling of stalking and killing, might be popular among some of the slasher film’s audience—to stalk and kill again and again. It is only in the third act that we really shift to the Final Girl’s perspective, and we switch to her side of things. If Clover is right about the killer and his sexual ambiguity, then it is not the females in the audience who cross genders to connect with the killer but the males in the audience—generally cited as the majority of said audience—who crosses genders to connect with the Final Girl.
Clover (1987) asks an important question:
...why, if viewers can identify across gender lines and if the root experience of horror is sex blind, are the screen sexes not interchangeable? Why not more and better female killers, and why (in light of the maleness of the majority audience) not [Final Boys]? (p. 209)
See, the problem is that the horror film “so stubbornly genders the killer male and the principal victim female” (ibid). And, we accept it because, well, it feels right.
Keisner (2008) cites a study at the University of Missouri in arguing, “the Final Girl does little for female empowerment” (p. 425). I would argue, that depends on how you define empowerment. Maybe in feminist terms, no, the Final Girl is not an empowered female, but one has to wonder how many of the females in the audience know enough about feminism and empowerment for it to matter? Maybe just seeing the Final Girl kick some ass can be quite simply empowering and inspiring for a girl in the audience... Or, given some of the details of that University of Missouri study, maybe the more important part is the earlier stalking and killing because it gives that girl the opportunity to curl up next to her date. After all, “male viewers report more enjoyment when in the company of a distressed female, and females when in the company of a male demonstrating his fearlessness” (Keisner, p. 425). Or maybe they both simply live in a world that makes them respond that way because that is how they are encouraged and expected to respond. Just because it feels right does not mean it is.
By the way, Clover points out an important issue here:
Underlying [this] discussion is the assumption that the sexes are what they seem; that screen males represent the Male and screen females the Female; that this identification along gender lines authorizes impulses toward sexual violence in males and encourages impulses toward victimization in females. (p. 206)
I will approach this in two parts. Regarding the first, I think film generally, and horror film more specifically, does operate in a world in which gender is binary and any deviance from that binary is treated as unusual, worthy of suspicion. This conservative take on gender identity positions the horror film quite comfortably in a world where gender is not only binary but uniquely matters in the way it affects who each character is and can be. This leads me to the second part—this worldview positions the male over the female quite explicitly even as it undermines most traditional forms of authority (a topic, probably, for later this week). With each act of violence, it reifies a patriarchal system built on violent subjugation and exploitation. Of course the victims in horror will be female because females are, traditionally, victims in reality. But, by turning that realistic setup—male as aggressor, female as victim—into script fodder, we are at once a) reengaging with that setup as a recurring thing that refuses to go away and b) in fictionalizing it, taking away some of its power on the one hand and making it seem a little less real on the other. The latter is particularly a problem because the more this dichotomy is part and parcel of our stories, the less we tend to assume it is also part and parcel of our reality. We can pretend just a little bit more each time that women have more equality and men as a gender do not tend toward violence, even if history proves the opposite.
Operating within a reality in which male is male and female is female, strictly speaking, then it is important that we look to the slasher film as a teenage film. Teenage boys, teenage girls—still constructing themselves and hardly open to any challenge to who and what they are. Especially a teenage boy—in the conservative world of the slasher film, or in its audience—cannot accept challenges to his identity, to his gender. One reason the Final Girl may not be sexually active, then, is not simply because purity equals power and sin leads to death, but also because that boy in the audience can identify with the Final Girl much more readily if she never does anything too overtly feminine. Clover (1987) argues,
Her sexual inactivity... becomes all but inevitable; the male viewer may be willing to enter into the vicarious experience of defending himself from the possibility of symbolic penetration on the part of the killer; but real vaginal penetration on the diegetic level is evidently more femaleness than he can bear. (p. 212)
The sexually active female, the argument goes, is the danger. Dangerous to her male counterpart, dangerous to the conservative world in which the slasher film takes place. Derr (2012) references not the slasher film but the possession film, particularly The Possession, in identifying the threat. “This pre-pubescent girl,” she writes, “who’s in possession of a symbolic ‘open box,’ ‘ring,’ and ‘thing growing inside her,’ speaks to our lingering cultural discomfort with women becoming sexually active before marriage.” Further, Derr (2013) argues that “most of these [possession] narratives specifically equate a young woman’s coming of age to the possibility [of her] becoming evil.”
First of all, I would argue that this same overall idea about the threat of female sexuality is fundamental to the slasher film, to that conservative world I referred to above. Second of all, I would argue that the real problem—stepping outside that world—is not sexually active young women. Rather, what slasher films really show us is the danger of both sexually active and sexually frustrated men. The killer penetrates or tries to penetrate girl after girl (and occasionally a boy). This penetration, as I said above, is representative of the subjugation and exploitation prevalent in the patriarchal world. The violence is not strictly masculine in that it belongs only to men, but it is fundamentally patriarchal, engendering a world in which physical force is a reasonable way to get things done. Rieser (2001) echoes this sentiment, arguing “the slasher film... remains deeply implicated in patriarchal ideology... the slashers’ gender disruption is folded back into the hegemonic mold [and] it serves to reinforce the heterosexist matrix, despite—or even by way of—its break with mainstream gender forms” (p. 375). Essentially, the very idea that the killer is outside the norm, that the Final Girl can only be victorious by becoming more masculine—these things do not break down the hegemony of patriarchy; rather, they lift it up by, as I suggested above, turning flaws in the system into fodder for fiction. We watch film after film of men stalking and killing women and a news story about the same is just a passing story, one more iteration of the same. We watch film after film of those men being beaten finally by the Final Girl and somewhere deep inside, maybe we assume that empowerment has happened, that women can defend themselves, and it becomes the woman’s responsibility to dress conservatively so as not to tempt the man, for example.
Martinuzzi (2010) argues against the so-called feminism of films like I Spit on Your Grave or Jennifer’s Body simply because “men are the victims in them” is wrong. “It’s creepy when you think about it,” she writes, “isn’t it?
The norm in horror films, and in most cultures around the world, is that men are seen as the aggressors and women the subservient and the victims. But switching the dynamic and putting men suddenly at the (usually sexual) mercy of a woman with the intent to harm does nothing but reinforce the mainstream ideology that women with control of their sexuality (and by default, their reproduction) are dangerous, intend harm, and will always turn on their male superiors.
Reversal is not reversal. Turning the violence in the opposite direction is still reifying the power of violence. In Scream, Sidney not only turns weapons on Billy and Stu but also a) dons the killers’ costume and b) penetrates Billy’s wound with her finger. In Scream 2, she shoots Mrs. Loomis in the head when the latter is unmoving and presumably already dead. In Scream 3, she brings a (stolen) gun to the mansion with her, and wields an icepick and a statue or a vase or two to take down Roman. The Scream series may actually prove Clover’s (1987) notions true simple by presenting us with Sidney’s trajectory into more and more violence. And by making us cheer on this development.
Reiser (2001) argues that the slasher film involves what he calls the “one-sex model”—essentially, women are allowed to be a little more masculine because that is an upward move on the spectrum of the binary gender divide. But a man—the slasher film’s killer for example—who displays feminine or ambiguous traits has moved downward. “A masculine woman, then,” Reiser says, “is no contradiction, but an indeterminate monster is unacceptable” (p. 383). The conservative world of the slasher film requires us to accept, at least temporarily, this gender binary, and measure its deviations as appropriate.
I’ll end with this bit from Clover (1987):
The Final Girl is (apparently) female not despite the maleness of the audience, but precissely because of it. The dscourse is wholly masculine, and females figure in it only insofar as they “read” some aspect of male experience. To applaud the Final Girl as a feminist development, as some reviews of Aliens have done with Ripley, is, in light of her figurative meaning, a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking. She is simply an agreed-upon fiction, and the male viewer’s use of her as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty. (p. 214)
An agreed-upon fiction. If only that were true.
Works CitedChristensen, K. (2011). The Final Girl versus Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street: Proposing a Stronger Model of Feminism in Slasher Horror Cinema. Studies in Popular Culture 34:1. pp. 23-47.
Clover, C.J. (1987). Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film. Representation 20. pp. 187-228.
Derr, H.L. (2012, October 5). A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part One: Daddy Knows Best. Ms. Magazine. http://msmagazine.com/blog/2012/10/05/a-feminist-guide-to-horror-movies-part-one-daddy-knows-best/
Derr, H.L. (2013, November 1) A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part Six: The Final Chapter. Ms. Magazine. http://msmagazine.com/blog/2013/11/01/a-feminist-guide-to-horror-movies-part-six-the-final-chapter/
Keisner, J. (2008). Do You Want to Watch? A Study of the Visual Rhetoric of the Postmodern Horror Film. Women’s Studies 37. pp. 411-427.
Martinuzzi, H. (2010, October 29). Horror Show: Faux-feminism and Horror Films. Bitch Media. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/horror-show-faux-feminism-and-horror-films
Reini, S.C. (2013, April 21). The Final Girl and Scream Queens: A (Feminist) Call for the Revival of Slasher Films. http://the-artifice.com/feminist-call-for-the-revival-of-slasher-films/
Rieser, K. (2001). Masculinity and Monstrosity: Characterization and Identification in the Slasher Film. Men and Masculinities 3. pp. 370-392.
Karanović, J. (2012, December 16). Fear, Sex, and Feminism: Analysis of Slasher Films and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. http://www.karanovic.org/courses/mca006/2012/12/16/fear-sex-and-feminism-analysis-of-slasher-films-and-the-texas-chainsaw-massacre/