I’ve been reading a mostly delightful new book on the history of horror lately, but I have to quibble with the author’s constant arguing against the fact that slasher movies do glamorize violence against women, mainly by “punishing” them for stepping out of line, either by having (and enjoying) sex or for some other offense like being somehow “unfeminine.” And don’t just brush me away as a barefoot feminist critic– George Gerbner the Communication scholar noted in his study of TV that characters outside the dominant group who step out of their box (women, the elderly, and racial minorities) are disproportionately likely to be punished by an attractive white male for their sins.
Back to horror. One complaint in the book is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not subject to the same criticism as Halloween. Fair enough, I suppose, although Tobe Hooper (to my knowledge) never expressed confusion as to why he was being criticized for punishing the characters in his film. Carpenter has. Also, the violence in TTCM isn’t as necessarily gendered as it is in Halloween. Yes, Michael Myers kills the boyfriend, but that’s just one man as opposed to the three killed by the evil family, plus the creep who runs the gas station, and let’s face it, Leatherface should realistically die from blood-poisoning after he injures himself. It’s an incredibly nasty film, but sex isn’t really a part of it, the way it is in Halloween. Also, while it did contribute to the trend of making horror films an ordeal rather than a form of entertainment, the Massacre movie didn’t really prove as influential as Carpenter’s movie. The author is right, though, that TTCM deserves much more criticism for the torture of the female characters– especially the death by meathook. No one in their right mind would argue, though, that having Sally survive the massacre makes it a “progressive” film.
I’ve already detailed Halloween‘s misdeeds. The film does equate female sexuality with gruesome blade violence– the sister, Laurie’s fellow babysitters, and then the boyfriend is tacked on their too, but that’s really more of a ploy to kill Annie. He’s collateral damage rather than a receiver of moral punishment. Jamie Leigh Curtis rather ineffectively denies that Laurie survived the film because she was a virgin; her explanation was that Laurie survived because she could use her pent-up sexual energy to fight. Which is basically saying that she survived the ordeal because she was a virgin.
Friday the 13th isn’t any different because it has (spoiler!) a female villain. It still strongly equates sex with a violent death, and carries it out. Arguably, the violence is spread fairly evenly between the genders, but most of the attention is paid to the female deaths. Most of the men, except for Kevin Bacon and the guy who owns the camp, are dealt with offscreen. It doesn’t make as much of an impression if they’re not killed on screen (one or two exceptions exist, yes), and there isn’t as much “intimacy” with that crime. Yes, the owner, Steve, takes an axe in the face, but his death is a plot device. He is the only person who could recognize Mrs. Voorhees. Ultimately, the villain is still punishing the teenagers for sex (even pre-emptively) and we the audience are more up close and personal with the female characters’ deaths.
Like TV news, it’s all in how you frame it. So yes, the movies are sexist. They delight in torturing and killing the female characters. I avoid them because none of them are that good as movies, although you can certainly argue with me there, and I don’t like any of them besides. Gothic horror is more my cup of tea, anyway. I’d say I’d avoid the aforementioned films because of their misogyny, but I’m a feminist who loves film noir and horror. I’d watch them anyway, and take the opportunity to critique, criticize, and discuss. Which is what I’m doing right now. Cutting off and burning bridges isn’t always the way, and I think it’s perfectly fine to trot out these museum pieces again every October (or whenever you prefer to watch them), as long as you do with with your eyes wide open in regards to their content. Cover your eyes at the gory bits, but don’t claim because one female got away from the killer that it’s a breakthrough, progressive movie. To do so would be about as ridiculous as calling Margaret Thatcher a feminist icon.