With the current state of our country, it’s hard to ignore the continued debate over women’s role in our society. The importance and equality of women should be obvious by now, and yet, there is still a demand by mainstream film goers for the heroes in their film to be male.
The knight in shining armor. The quick-witted adventurer. The rebel cop. The dashing spy. Men kicking ass, defeating evil and rescuing the girl has been the standard since the first story ever told. Why can’t there be a world where characters like Wonder Woman, Trinity, Beatrix Kiddo, and Furiosa aren’t exceptions that need to be celebrated as isolated victories in progressive thinking? Or worse yet, with the case of Mad Max: Fury Road, not be seen as having a political agenda.
(“Their response to not wanting to be milk farms, baby factories, and sex dolls was to steal resources from the community that enslaved them and use violence against anyone trying to forcefully stop them? Damn liberals with their feminist agendas and soft, warm bodies.)
But to horror-lovers, that place has existed for the longest time. Characters like Selina from Underworld and Alice from the Resident Evil films have been kicking ass for roughly 15 years. Becoming celebrated heroines in their genre. I’m talking deeper than that though.
Like sci-fi, fantasy, and comedy, horror has carried with it many stigmas that keep the genre from being taken seriously. When films like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King win best picture and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker receives best actor at the Oscars, it doesn’t go unnoticed. But when The Silence of the Lambs does the same thing, suddenly a horror movie becomes a thriller, and a fearless female detective becomes just another dramatic female role
And that’s the stigma with horror. Amongst critics and award givers, it’s generally considered a “lesser” genre, usually due to the unconventional subject matters and graphic viewpoints of the filmmakers. But that is what gives horror it power. It’s the underdog. The one that can break the rules because, “it’s only horror.” There’s so many horror movies out there because it’s the most inviting to new filmmakers. Everyone is welcome to make a horror movie, because, good or bad, they will be enjoyed by the community. Horror is the pizza of film genres, and opportunities are the toppings.
It’s in that mentality where horror surpasses. Having no one to answer to give these films the chance to be more forward thinking and open minded with story telling. Subversion of tropes is far more welcome than anywhere else. It’s expected, even.
And that is what brings me to the thing most of us cinephiles want more of that horror gives us mountains of already.
Strong female heroes.
While female heroes are a small percentage in other genres, they dominate horror. Follow me on this journey, will you? Some spoilers ahead, so do be careful.
Horror films, like other cinema, started out pretty much the same way:
1 – Unspeakable evil shows up from space/ocean/lab/lost island.
2 – Mr. Action McHandsome leaps into, well, action.
3 – His best gal, apple of his eye, Ditzy Goodintentions does the same.
4 – Ditzy repeatedly screams and trips more than newborn fawn.
5 – Action saves the day and the girl, ignoring the fact Ditzy discovered how to defeat the alien/robot/monster/creature/alien creature/robot monster/alien robot/dinosaur/robot din…oh you get the picture.
6 – Woman apologizes while being embraced and getting a gentle pat on the head.
7 – Action soothes us all with promises of protection forever more.
8 – Fade to black.
In the 70’s, horror evolved into a new but familiar face of evil. No longer were monsters, aliens, giant creatures and ghosts the forefront of fear. No. Terror had devolved into the familiar form that Hitchcock had predicted with Psycho in a decade earlier.
No horror can be outdone by what we can do to ourselves. And with that, the slasher was beginning to emerge. Films like Black Christmas, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and My Bloody Valentine was flooding the theaters during the 70’s. And with them, emerged the troupe that would be synonymous with the killer’s themselves and soon spill over into other sub-genres and continue to this very day. The Final Girl.
As the name suggests, the final girl is the lone survivor of a hideous incident, succeeding in surviving the horror nearly everyone else didn’t and living to tell the story. Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Sydney Prescott. They all were survivors.
It’s theorized the final girl has the characteristics of an ideal woman as perceived by a man in order to freely identify with her alongside the female audience, something considered more difficult to do believable with a male hero. Then again, horror is coming through on this problem with films like 28 Days Later, The Strangers, and Don’t Breathe. But I digress.
The weaker, less inhibited women who adhere to the stereotypes placed upon them usually fail to survive. And the male, chauvinistic hero quickly fails where, in other genres, would easily survive. Arnold Schwarzenegger dominates in most films, but going against an intergalactic hunter or the devil himself? Barely victorious. Meanwhile, Ripley and Sara Conner outlast all the badasses. And yet, sci-fi claims the stake of the Alien franchise, and no one considers The Terminator a slasher film
But slowly over time, the evolution from a weak girl into a strong, independent woman over 90 minutes has become something more. The female leads are starting to no longer be traumatized into a forced point to find strength, but to discover the hidden strength that was within them all along. The human spirit. I feel this is showcased beautifully in the criminally underrated Hush. It’s a movie where I never felt like the main character’s weakness was attached to her femininity. She was simply a character who used her strengths to overcome her physical “weaknesses” and not be the easy victim she was perceived to be.
The film adaptation of the Silent Hill video game erased the line between masculinity and femininity by casting a woman in nearly every role, including the once male protagonist. In fact, director Christophe Gans original script had nothing but females. Only after getting a memo from the studio was Sean Bean and Thomas Gucci’s subplot added.
Yet, if I had to choose the end all, be all examples of how wonderfully perfect the strong female lead can be, I give you Ofelia.
Pan’s Labyrinth. The most beautiful horror fantasy to ever exist on film. It is here Guillermo Del Toro perfectly illustrates how truly powerful women can be by giving us the story of a courageous girl, usually considered to be frail and weak, who faces the entire spectrum of horror without batting an eye. From the death of loved ones to war to monsters both human and not, Ofelia’s indomitable spirit carries her past the evils she faces with nothing more than brief moments of guidance and the love she has for her family. And the tests she faces not only represent her transcendence into womanhood, but into true royalty.
And she does this all on her own because she must. Her mistakes along the way are her own, and so are her triumphs against the greatest evils. It doesn’t get more badass than that to me.
Say what you will about horror, but it knows what’s been going on for decades. But what does this mean for the strong female in modern-day cinema? I couldn’t tell you. But as far as guessing, the safe bet for now is to keep that one eye peeking between your fingers on what is going on in horror.
I have a book full of words called Year 47. The order in which they are arranged may interest you. http://amzn.to/2hsxzZ2
(NOTE FROM SHAWN: Year 47 is our 2016 Book of the Year. You should buy it.)
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