Final Girls and Distressed Damsels: Portrayals of Women in Horror

A few weeks ago I went to see It with some friends. While I greatly enjoyed (or rather, was completely terrified by) the movie, I was struck by the more problematic portrayal of its sole female lead, Beverly (played by Sophia Lillis). Beverly spends much of her time in the movie being sexualized against her wishes (also keep in mind she’s supposed to be around 13-15 years old). She’s a victim of sexual abuse by her father. Surprisingly, this story thread is handled relatively well, at least compared to some other portrayals of sexual violence, especially those related to young teenage girls. On the other hand, Beverly is made to flirt with an old male pharmacist so the boys can steal supplies and escape. Rumors are spread about her sexuality, and, in the end (spoiler!), she becomes little more than a damsel in distress for the boys to rescue; in the most inexplicable and frustrating part, she is kissed against her will by one of the boys to bring her back to reality.

While this was a disappointing element of an otherwise good movie, it did make me wonder about how women typically get portrayed in horror movies, and it’s usually not great. Women are often sexualized objects, or treated as little more than passive victims. While many great horror films make way for otherwise ordinary men to rise to the occasion and become heroes, women rarely get such an opportunity. If women get to fight, which they rarely do, it’s typically as a supporting effort, or chalked up to them being different than other girls.

Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh in It

Or, we get what’s referred to as the final girl. The term was coined in 1992 by film theorist and professor Carol J. Clover. Essentially, the trope goes like this: the killer plows through a whole bunch of victims, usually teens or young adults. The victims are typically sexually active or drug users, or both, contrasted with the final girl, who is innocent, virginal, and more masculine or androgynous than her other female counterparts, and always smarter and more resourceful. Maybe she has some expertise in science or battle, maybe she goes from being meek to being able to stand up for herself and fight. In any case, after the killer goes through all the victims, we are only left with the final girl, who is the one to face the killer, and live (usually) to tell the tale. There are countless examples of the final girl in classic slasher films: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien, Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) in Friday the 13th, and so on. While it may seem exciting to have a female protagonist in horror, it’s important to note that the final girl’s power comes from her turning away from femininity, and from contrasting her to other female characters, often by pitting them against each other. The final girl is a virgin where the other women are promiscuous, smart where the others aren’t.

Of course, this trope isn’t quite as troubling as the classic damsel in distress. Already a tired, frustrating trope, it only gets worse when put in the horror genre, and often isn’t necessary for the plot. Selena (Naomie Harris) and Hannah (Megan Burns) are kidnapped and almost raped in 28 Days Later before being rescued. Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) needs to get rescued by Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in the 2014 remake of Godzilla. And, as previously mentioned, Beverly is reduced to the trope when she gets captured.

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien

Women are also often given one specific role: mothers. There are so many films showing anxieties about pregnant women (Inside is a some good example), or women who find their bodies being used merely as tools for pregnancy. Many horror films also reduce women to only being mothers, with no other role or identity. Fathers are sometimes portrayed in horror, but it’s rare to see a male character’s motivations being solely or at least mostly about the safety of their children. Examples of this include Renai (Rose Byrne) in Insidious and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) in The Conjuring.

And of course, there’s the constant sexualization. Women who get kidnapped are almost universally threatened with rape, or have their clothes taken away, or so on. Women are usually put inside a romantic relationship, or they are sexy villains who seduce the hero or make him do something stupid. In It there’s a scene where all the kids are in their underwear while swimming near rocks, and the boys ogle Bev’s body. The original version of A Nightmare on Elm Street has a scene of sixteen-year-old Nancy Thomson (Heather Langencamp) in the bathtub, nearly attacked by Freddy Kreuger. And, of course, there’s the famous shower scene in Psycho. And in the critically acclaimed movie Ex Machina we get a sexy robot named Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ex Machina, but I wonder how seriously anyone would have taken it had the roles been reversed. Sexy female robots are the stuff of thrillers and moral questions, but I’m guessing sexy male robots would be the stuff of comedy.

Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina

And that’s exactly the problem. Some of the movies I listed are really great, or at least movies where the actions and depictions of female characters make sense. But it’s frustrating that women are limited to just a small handful of tropes in horror movies. Women are more than these films portray them to be, and it’s past time for the genre to expand.

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Diversity in Kid’s Cartoons

It was announced recently that the new version of The Powerpuff Girls would be introducing a fourth member, Bliss (voiced by Olivia Olson), and that she would be black. Reactions were mostly positive, with a few noting that the way she was characterized in the show made her out be a stereotype of an angry black girl and some also saying that her inclusion felt a bit like tokenism. It’s a fair criticism.

I was, like most people my age, a huge fan of The Powerpuff Girls growing up. It was rare to see female cartoon characters who got to run around, fight villains, and save the day as they navigated girlhood. For me, it was a really big deal to see such representation. But I’m white, so I never really felt that I couldn’t be like them, nor did I lack cartoon characters who look like me. So for all her faults, it is something that a major kid’s cartoon is choosing to include a dark-skinned black girl who will also run around, fight villains, and save the day, even if her portrayal is a bit problematic.

I think now, more so than before, creators of children’s cartoons have realized the importance of diversity and inclusion. Representation is especially important for kids, as they start to form their sense of self, and especially for kids who aren’t white, who are disabled, who aren’t straight and/or cisgender, or are otherwise marginalized.

The Powderpuff Girls: Bubbles, Bliss, Blossom, and Buttercup

Take a show like Steven Universe. The show revolves around its titular character, Steven (voiced by Zach Callison), who is being raised by three female humanoid jewels (known as the Crystal Gems), and spends his time saving the world and subverting masculinity. There are numerous characters of color, and the show has been widely recognized for its multiple portrayals of queer characters and relationships, non-binary characters, and its ability to frankly discuss consent, gender roles, masculinity, maturation, and anxiety. And yet, the show never really veers into the territory of tokenism, instead letting the identities of its characters simply be a fact of the show. It’s one of the few shows on TV for children that has multiple queer characters, and doesn’t bother with the same tired tropes that most adult shows still haven’t stopped using.

For even younger audiences, there are also shows like Doc McStuffins. The show premiered in 2012 and has been going strong ever since. The premise is that the main character, a young African-American girl named Dottie McStuffins (currently voiced by Laya DeLeon Hayes), who hopes to be a doctor like her mother and practices on her toys that come to life from her magic stethoscope, and who she treats injuries and illnesses each week.

Doc McStuffins

Comedian W. Kamau Bell explained the importance of a show like Doc McStuffins on NPR last year, saying: “And so that’s the thing. It’s not a fantasy…Like, it’s not about wouldn’t it be crazy if I was a doctor? It’s clearly a little girl who wants to be like her mom who is a doctor. And they go to her – and there’s episodes where they go to her mom’s private practice and shows that she’s the leader of this practice, and there’s other black women there…And the dad, who we also see, Marcus McStuffins, he’s always at home, so he looks to be a stay-at-home dad…These are things that break down stereotypes and traditional narratives with, like, yeah, that’s what black dads do. We have gardens of vegetables, and we hand out strawberries. That’s what we do. That’s what black dads do.” 

Or, take the show Elena of Avalor, which revolves around a teenage Latina named Elena Castillo Flores (voiced by Aimee Carrero), who rules over a magical kingdom called Avalor. The show is notable not just for having a young Latina protagonist, but also for putting her in a position of leadership, and giving her power, agency, and some cool magic powers. If you’ve ever doubted the power of representation, I’d like to point to this incredibly sweet clip that was floating around Tumblr recently of an actress at Disneyland playing Elena speaking to a little girl in Spanish.

That’s why all this representation matters. It’s not for me to write about it (although that’s a nice bonus), or for people to argue about political correctness or identity politics. Diversity isn’t just some grand idea or social justice buzzword. It’s a real and important way to ensure that young children get to see themselves in media, in positive portrayals, even if they aren’t always part of the majority.

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5 Women Working in TV You Should Know About

It’s often said that we’re living in the golden age of television, and I couldn’t agree more. However, we have to ask ourselves who gets credit for this? Networks and streaming services for hosting good content? Actors? Showrunners? While all of these people have a part to play, a lot of other people working on shows often get left behind. Even directors! After all, you can probably name at least a few film directors, but can you name any TV directors? Or, for that matter, writers, producers, cinematographers, and other people working on the more technical aspects. Now if these people get little recognition or credit in general for their hard work, women working in the industry get even less.

Last week my fellow contributor Natasha Grodzinski told you about 5 women working in Hollywood you should know about. Well, now I’m going to tell you about 5 women working in TV you should know about.

Reed Morano (Cinematographer & Director)

At 36 years old, Reed Morano became the youngest person to be invited into the American Society of Cinematographers, and one of just 14 women. She’s worked on several films as a cinematographer, and has been a cinematographer and camera operator on several episodes on shows like Divorce and Looking. She’s also made her mark as a director, and has several directorial credits under her belt, including the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, which many people (myself included), see as the strongest parts of the season. You can find out more about Morano and her work at her website here.

Michelle MacLaren (Director & Producer)

Michelle MacLaren has had a hand in directing and/or producing some pretty big TV hits in her career, including The X-Files, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul, and Westworld. Oh, and did I mention that she’s been nominated by the Primetime Emmy Awards six times (twice as a director and four times as an executive producer) for her work on Breaking Bad? She’s also got new projects coming up, including working as an executive producer and director for the upcoming HBO show, The Deuce. You can see all of MacLaren’s work on her IMDb page.

Kai Wu (Writer)

Any geek worth their stripe has likely seen an episode or two written by Kai Wu. She’s written several episodes of the high-quality horror show Hannibal (she initially interviewed for a position as an assistant and impressed Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller so much that she was hired as a staff writer) and several for the superhero show on the CW, The Flash. Wu is also a writer for the latter show’s prequel comic series, The Flash: Season Zero. Additionally, she was promoted to executive story editor for season 2 of The Flash. And she’s worked through her career as an assistant in various capacities for shows like Flash Gordon and Burn Notice. You can check out Wu’s twitter account here. Also, you can hear Wu discuss her TV writing secrets in this interview.

Joanna Calo (Writer & Producer)

Joanna Calo is an executive story editor, co-producer, and writer for the hilarious animated Netflix dark comedy series BoJack Horseman. She wrote the season three episode “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew”, tackling abortion in an empowering and fantastic way that most shows wouldn’t dare. And as an executive story editor she helped plan out another bold episode, “Hank After Dark”, where she took on sexual abuse in Hollywood (the show even name-drops some real Hollywood men accused of sexual assault, abuse, and domestic violence). She’s also written for shows like Girlboss and Benched. You can check out Calo’s IMDb page here. I’d also highly recommend checking out this article BuzzFeed wrote about her.

 

Ruth E. Carter (Costume Designer)

Ruth E. Carter has not one, but two Academy Awards for costume design: one for Malcolm X and one for Amistad. While she’s mostly worked on films throughout her career (including big hits like Do The Right Thing and Selma), she also worked on the 2016 remake of Roots and currently works on the show Being Mary Jane. Carter is highly regarded for her work, particularly in her ability to make both historical costumes for any era and for ensuring the costumes feel like a cohesive part of the character. She’s also one of few black women who have been truly recognized for their accomplishments in the industry. You can find out more about her on her website here. You should absolutely look through her incredible portfolio.

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Is Game of Thrones Becoming Feminist?

Warning: this article is going to be chock-full of spoilers, and probably won’t make sense if you’ve never seen Game of Thrones.

If you only saw the first episode, or even just the first couple of seasons of Game of Thrones, you might be surprised to hear me call it a feminist show. After all, episode one gives us Daenerys Targaryen (played by Emilia Clarke) being abused by her older brother Viserys (played by Harry Lloyd) and forcibly married to warlord Khal Drago. Seasons one and two included plotlines of domestic abuse, rape, and general brutality toward the women on the show, not to mention a great deal of gratuitous nudity and the show’s infamous sexposition.

However, the show has changed gears recently. Daenerys has gone from being a scared, meek young woman with little agency to being one of the most powerful characters with three dragons and a very large army. Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner) went from being a spoiled, naïve girl, to being a victim of cruelty from King Joffrey (played by Jack Gleeson) and Ramsay Bolton (played by Iwan Rheon), to becoming a powerful young woman with agency and intelligence.

That’s not to say the show isn’t still experiencing issues. Game of Thrones has been roundly criticized for its lack of diversity. As it stands, there are very few people of color with speaking roles whose characters are still around at the start of season seven. Off the top of my head, I can mainly think of Missandei (played by Nathalie Emmanuel), Grey Worm (played by Jacob Anderson), Ellaria Sand (played by Indria Varma), and some of the Sand Snakes, Obara Sand and Nymeria Sand (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes and Jessica Henwick, respectively). Considering that the cast is well into the hundreds, this is a pretty unimpressive list. Not to mention, there are precious few LGBT characters or storylines, with notable exceptions like the love story between Renly Baratheon (played by Gethin Anthony) and Loras Tyrell (played by Finn Jones).

Also, I do wish that the show could figure out how to deal with sexual violence. In the first episode, Daenerys is raped by her new husband Khal Drogo (played by Jason Momoa), but their marriage morphs into some kind of a love story. Queen Cersei (played by Lena Heady) is raped by her lover/brother Jaime Lannister in season four, but this event is never mentioned again nor does it seem to have any effect on the plot or characters. And while the most recent episode, Stormborn, did a good job showing Theon Greyjoy’s (played by Alfie Allen) trauma from his time being tortured by Ramsay, they’ve given no such indication that they’ll show the trauma that a character like Sansa would likely suffer from after being in two separate abusive relationships from what are quite possibly the two most evil characters Game of Thrones has ever had. Which isn’t to say that I want to see Sansa merely crying and feeling bad about it, but I think there could be space here for a deeper dive into the effects of sex trauma, but the show has yet to do so.

Still, the show has recently made a point of giving its female characters ever-increasing agency and power and more ways to exert this power. We have female warriors like Brienne of Tarth (played by Gwendoline Christie) and Arya Stark (played by Maisie Williams), just Queens like Daenerys, villainous ones like Cersei, and everyone’s favorite little badass, Lyanna Mormont (played by Bella Ramsey), who had one of my favorite lines in last week’s episode when she let the men of the North know that she wasn’t going to be knitting by the fire when the white walkers come. With Jon Snow (played by Kit Harrington) off to Dragonstone, this season is poised to have women in control over much of Westeros, from Sansa in the north, Daenerys in the south (ish), and Cersei in King’s Landing.

Plus, while watching Jon attack creepy pedophile Petyr Baelish (played by Aiden Gillan) for preying on Sansa was quite satisfying, I’m more excited to see the women of Westeros protecting each other and supporting each other, especially Arya now that she’s headed back to Winterfell to hopefully, along with Brienne, protect Sansa (not that she can’t protect herself), and Daenerys’s newfound alliance with Olenna Tyrell (played by Diana Rigg), who lets her in on the secret to surviving and outliving men: ignore them. Also, it’s worth noting that so far this season has been light on the sex and nudity, with the one exception being the sweet and romantic encounter between Missandei and Grey Worm.

We’ve only just finished the second episode of season seven, but if the season continues on this track, I think it’s poised to be the most feminist seasons on Game of Thrones, and prove itself a far cry away from its initial ways of portraying women.

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Novel Ideas: Roxane Gay’s Hunger

Author Roxane Gay. (Jay Grabiec)

Bodies are politicized figures. Our physical selves have various forms of oppressions and privileges (depending on our respective intersecting identities) planted on them. Race, gender, and disability — visible on our bodies — inform the ways in which we exist and are perceived in the world. Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, discusses body size — often overlooked and disregarded in discussions of power and politics — as a form of oppression. Gay, the author of Bad Feminist and Difficult Women, writes honestly about her relationship with her body in Hunger; about, and she’s clear on this from the start, not being “Lane Bryant fat” (being able to buy clothes at Lane Bryant, which goes up to size 28), but rather “living in the world when you are three or four hundred pounds overweight”.

Early on in the book, Gay informs her readers of the following:

My life is split in two, cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and the after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.

It was a boy, whom she loved (in the way you do at 12 years old), who went biking with her in the woods and took her inside a cabin, where his friends were waiting. She writes thoughtfully about the violence that followed: “As a sheltered, good Catholic girl, I barely understood” the situation. But, “I did understand the pain…the sharpness and the immediacy of it.” She describes this pain as “inescapable” — so much so that she eventually turned to food to make her body into a “fortress.” Food and eating, Gay explains, became a way to feel “more solid, stronger.” It was a way to veer away attention, particularly the male, sexually predatory attention, from herself. Gay knew, from witnessing hers and others’ reactions to fat people “that too much weight was undesirable.” And to “keep…[the] hurt away” — the hurt that followed the aforementioned male, sexually predatory attention — Gay created “a new body, one that shamed [her] but one that made [her] feel safe.”

Throughout the book, Gay showcases the larger modes of power and patterns that shape her experiences: the patriarchal ways in which we view women’s bodies as open to consumption by men; the immigrant experience, the move from “the Global South” to “the Global North”, which often results in a sense of responsibility and well-to-do-ness in immigrant families, that, to some degree, kept Gay from sharing her trauma with her parents; and the capitalism-fueling fat-phobia porn in popular culture, in particular reality television like The Biggest Loser. Some of Gay’s most forceful cultural critique is in the chapter discussing this televised “anti-obesity propaganda”. Gay explains that The Biggest Loser “offer[s] wish fulfillment for people with unruly, overweight bodies” – for both those watching the show and those participating in it. What is more, these “unruly bodies” become a “spectacle”,  a form of entertainment onto themselves, constantly fat-shamed by the on-screen medical professionals and trainers until they lose their excess weight. Such television testifies to the systematic nature of fat-phobia that can be found everywhere, as Gay points out, from air travel to the medical community to fashion.

Hunger is a candid discussion and exploration of our society’s disregard towards individuals with “unruly bodies”, paving a path to a much needed conversation. It is also Roxane Gay writing her own narrative, taking control of her story, in a way she was unable to with her body (indicated in the book’s subtitle: A Memoir of (My) Body). Gay’s closing words in Hunger are powerful. She declares, “Here I am”. She declares herself taking up space on the page, on bookshelves and bookstores, in a way her body is shamed for doing. There is strength in her voice, in spite of the pain – strength to do the bold and daring, like writing this book. But also the strength to do the seemingly small, like learning to love and appreciate the sensualities of food, after and even while struggling with it as a self-harming tool. Gay writes:

I started watching Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten’s cooking show on the Food Network, every day from four to five p.m. … I love the show. I love everything about Ina. … [She] makes cooking seem easy, accessible. She loves good ingredients – good vanilla, good olive oil, good everything. She is always offering helpful tips – very cold butter makes pastry dough better, and a cook’s best tools are clean hands. She uses an ice cream scoop for the dough when she’s making muffins and reminds the audience of this trick with a conspiratorial grin. … She is ambitious and knows she is excellent at what she does and never apologizes for it. She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.

There is such joy in her words when she describes watching Ina Garten cooking, such joy when she describes herself doing something seemingly small. And it is this joy — simple and whole and lovely — that sticks with me, that I think of often, days after finishing the book.

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