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Barbara from Night of the Living Dead, playing the helpless femaleI love horror movies. Always have. From the time I was old enough to watch them (which was a lot younger then I would admit to my parents). As I got older I came to appreciate the classics as well as some of the new ones that came out. However, as a young man I came to the impression that women in these films weren’t good for much more than running, screaming, falling down, and dying. Well, they could take their shirts off in just about every 80’s horror movie out there, but aside from that there were, and still are, a lack of strong female characters.

As a social justice educator I tend to look at horror movies and the women in them in a bit of a different way then I did as a kid. I found something out as an adult, women like horror movies too. And as women, I can only imagine that they have a unique view of the horror genre.

The issue that many people in the social justice fields have, as well as women and men who are devoted to feminism, is the sexualization of violence in horror movies. If you have sex in a horror film, you’re dead. We all know that. It’s the way that the violence immediately proceeds the sexual act or during that has people troubled. It can have psychological consequences for impressionable young people. As I have said, I love horror movies, the gorier the better on some occasions, but I still question the need for the sexualization of it all. The horror movie industry finally caught on to the fact that their R ratings were getting their movies exposed to too small an audience, and so with no TNA and a PG-13 rating the industry opened the door for a whole new fan base. The newer movies have made a positive move away from the sexualization of the violence, which is good.

Anyway, my favorite movies had very little sexualization of violence in them. Dawn of the Dead is an anti consumerism piece. Night of the Living Dead is a statement on human relations and how we treat each other. They still have all the splatter, and the women seem to have more powerful places in the films. The 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead has the heroine cast as a toughened survivor. In the Dawn of the Dead remake the main character is a strong woman. Resident Evil has a woman at the helm.

Which leads me to another subject, that is happily making progress due to not only “girl power”, but feminism too, and that is the role of the woman in the horror film. As I said, growing up I watched countless screaming, running, half naked women get slaughtered by the bad guy. Then one day I sat down with my dad and watched a movie that changed my view of women in horror movies forever. The movie was Alien. (If you haven’t seen Alien, then why are you on a Halloween site to begin with?) If you have, then you know what I am talking about. Sigourney Weaver changed my whole concept of women as leads in horror films. Sigourney Weaver plays Eleanor Ripley. Ripley didn’t scream, Ripley didn’t cower in a corner crying, Ripley didn’t fall down running, Ripley just kicked ass. Ripley didn’t need a male hero to come save her. Even in Aliens, which has a slight romantic interest for Ripley she still put his broken down butt on a ship while she went to save the day. If I want my daughter to watch a horror movie that conveys strength in women I will pop in a copy of any of the Alien titles.

Eleanor Ripley: feminist horror icon

So what to do? Obviously I can’t condone the stopping of watching horror movies. That would be absurd, not to mention boring. What we need to do is educate ourselves on the subject. We can be the responsible watchers of horror movies who understand the consequences of violence against women in our society and demand better female role models in horror films. We need more Ripleys, we need more women in horror films that can kick just as much butt as their male counter parts. If a woman is gonna get snuffed out for being stupid, then the same needs to happen to the men in the story. Why does the man get to go down swinging, while the women has to go down screaming?

With all of the women fans of this genre we need to offer them more. Scream Queens are great, but unless they are giving a war cry while doing battle with the bad guy, is that the message we want to convey? If the guys reading this want their girlfriends/partners to sit down with them and watch more horror flicks with us then maybe we need to demand a horror movie that caters to both of the genders.

In conclusion, I know that there are many people out there who are going to point out examples of horror movies aside from the ones that I mentioned as an example that I am off base. This is what is referred to as “The example illustrates the point.” The fact that you can point out a handful (or if you do enough research perhaps more) of movies that go against the grain just proves that they stand out, or else they wouldn’t be examples. I am certainly not an expert on horror films, or at least not to the standards of many. I do however, have better than a passing knowledge of social justice issues, which is why I wrote this. I still watch Alien Resurrection every time it comes on TV. And my favorite baddie of all time is Freddy. That one can be a bit hypocritical I admit. I actually stood up in the movie theater at the end of Freddy vs Jason and yelled “Oh, bulls***!” With all of that in mind though, I still like to see a woman on the screen who kicks butt. A heroine who breaks through the gender classifications and helps the hero up right before he gets hacked to bits. The Ripleys (Alien movies…duh!), Alices (Resident Evil), and Anas (Dawn of the Dead) are the start of something brilliant. Hopefully we will see more of them in the future. And hopefully one of them will be wielding a sharp instrument with which to decapitate the un-dead. Later.

This butt-kicking article is courtesy of guest writer Rick Baumgartle, a social justice educator. You can read more at his blog www.sorenkb.blogspot.com.
Interested in writing for 365 Halloween? Email us!

Posted on July 5th, 2008 in
Halloween Entertainment, Odds and Ends by

3 Responses to 'Sexism and Horror Movies'

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  1. pastavangelist said:

    You forgot to mention two great (practically feminist) horror films: Silent Hill and The Descent. Both movies are full of strong female roles, with men playing only minor parts. Silent Hill stars Radha Mitchell from Pitch Black (another strong female role) and her scene at the end proves that Hell hath no fury… Although the female characters are attractive, they are not sexualized or objectified. A strange trend I’m noticing now is that Hollywood hasn’t figured out how to work a good romance into a horror movie with a strong heroine role. It’s like you can be a heroine or you can have sex… you can’t have both. 28 Days Later came close, but in the end, the man still had to fight off the bad guys to save the damsel in distress.

    on November 24th, 2009

  2. alison said:

    My husband and 18 year old are watching a horror film (I can hear from here) as I write.

    I hate the ubiquitous female screaming and male grunting. I really dislike the whole gender stereotyping, so I think it’s not just a matter of women being stronger (though that would be some improvement) but also a matter of men being less violent.

    Why is the focus on changing the female characteristics?

    365 Halloween Response: Good point, Alison. Every issue has 2 aspects. I think that as we see stronger, participatory female characters in horror, new understandings are going to surface. Things are always changing, thankfully.

    on July 14th, 2009

  3. Lauren said:

    Great insight, Rick. The lack of strong female characters in horror has always been off-putting to me simply because I can’t identify with that. I theorize that women are evolving in horror – being presented in a holistic way rather than a caricature of “woman” – because of this reason. As females increasingly identify with traits that the heroes have (strength, bravery, independence, etc.), I think we require that in our movies and other forms of entertainment. We need to see “us” up there. Here’s to hoping that everyone in new horror films gets represented in a more realistic, identifiable way.

    For anyone interested in further exploring women in horror, I would highly recommend visiting AxWound, a feminist horror zine, particularly the article Girls, Women, and Enjoyment of the Horror Genre. The latter theorizes that, regardless of gender, many of us get into horror as a rite of passage, yet so many females lose interest in their adult years. It makes me wonder if that would be the case, were we creating movies that were more identifiable to women.

    This is a huge topic though, and I’m excited to see what others think. What say you, Halloween fans?

    on July 5th, 2008

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