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.
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.
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.
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.