Film & TV

Scream Queens and Final Girls: the Portrayal of Women in Postmodern Horror Films

Halloween is upon us, and thus begins the battle to watch as many of the seemingly infinite number of horror films as possible. While you may associate horror films with the likes of ghosts, gore and creepy children, a key feature of the horror genre is, in my opinion, women. You may ask: ‘why!? What do women have to do with anything?’ The answer is, out of all genres of film, perhaps excluding the female targeted rom-com genre, horror films have a particularly high number of female protagonists; especially in comparison to the gender inequalities of most Hollywood films.

However, this inclusion of ladies in horror is not necessarily as good as it may seem. If we go with the view that we live in a patriarchal society, the portrayal of women in horror actually often reinforces male dominance, or woman as a monster, suggesting that the representation of many women in horror is used to maintain the status-quo in terms of gender roles and societal beliefs.

Women in horror movies can often be categorised into several archetypes, for example, women can be portrayed as a victim, a ‘Scream Queen’ or ‘Final Girl’, or as monsters and mothers. One of the main ways in which women are represented in horror movies is as a victim. Women as victims are often highly sexualised, particularly in the ‘slasher’ genre; think Rose McGowan in Scream. Slasher movies are often metaphors for punishing teenagers’ sexual behaviour- because obviously pre-marital sex is a punishable offence worthy of gory death! Carol Clover, a feminist academic who has written extensively on women in horror argues that while both male and female characters get punished for their sexy acts, the deaths of the ladies are usually way more erotic and graphic than their male partners, who are usually bumped off quickly and off-screen. This idea that sex equals death and therefore being a virgin is your only chance of survival is rife in horror; an obvious example of this would be in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), in which several characters are killed just after having sex, leaving the virginal character ‘Laurie’ as one of the only ladies to survive until the end of the film. This concept of virginity as a means of survival is actually joked about in Wes Craven’s Scream, as one character states ‘sex equals death… in order to successfully survive a horror movie… you can never have sex’.  However Scream certainly challenges this, as the Final Girl, Sidney, survives despite her loss of virginity. As the film was created nearly 20 years after Halloween, this could perhaps reveal how real world views on female sexuality were being deemed as more acceptable.

However, in terms of Halloween and Scream, the surviving female protagonists, or ‘Final Girls’, Laurie and Sidney, can be argued to only survive due to their lack of femininity and sexuality. This even goes as far as their names; both of which are unisex.  This masculinisation of the strong female protagonist is, on the one hand, suggestive of the view that femininity is weak. However, on the other hand, the core audience for the horror genre is young males, who have the internalised belief that they must be inherently masculine and powerful, and so in order to identify with the female character, that character must have masculine qualities. Therefore in order for film companies to attract a mostly male audience the ‘final girl’ must have masculine qualities. Not so fantastic for the actual female audiences of horror who want to see a kick-ass female character who can still rock floral dresses and winged eyeliner. From a feminist perspective, the fact that keeping men feeling masculinised is more important than providing women with an accurate representation of their gender implies that men are more important.

In many horror films, teenage girls feature quite prominently; Laurie and Sidney, for example, are both teenagers and feature as the protagonist. However, in many horror films the female, in particular the female teenager, is portrayed as a monster. Films like Carrie  and Ginger Snaps are great examples of this. People have always been afraid of teenage girls, due to the move from childhood innocence to sexual maturation, and this fear of puberty and its link to ‘Satan’, evil or supernatural powers has existed for a long time, in particular in relation to menstruation. The association between menstruation and the ‘supernatural’ is thought of in several cultures to be a sign of witches and witchcraft. One example would be the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, which occurred due to several girls of pubescent age ‘screaming’ and ‘throwing things’- perhaps more a normal teenage girl tantrum rather than that of demonic possession or witchcraft…

A teenage girl with links to Satan and the supernatural is central to Carrie, in which the main character Carrie White develops telekinetic abilities after she begins menstruating. This occurs after a shower scene, in which Carrie’s actions in combination with the music, produces a sensual, almost erotic view of the character. As is the same for many women in horror; for this pleasure she is punished, again suggesting female sexuality is sinful, an idea in keeping with both the horror genre and patriarchal ideology. Perhaps the most iconic scene in ‘Carrie’ is that of the pig’s blood scene, in which pig’s blood, symbolic of menstrual blood, is dumped over Carrie as she is crowned prom queen. The scene signifies horror and shame, and humiliates Carrie, therefore suggesting that menstruation itself is shameful. Again, not such a great view of women being put out there by the American horror film genre… Thanks for that guys!

In keeping with the idea of women as monsters in horror is that of the portrayal of mothers in horror films. Perhaps the most famous of these would be the ‘mother’ in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), who’s domineering relationship with her son, Norman Bates, creates a monster. Carrie’s mother certainly fits into this category also, as her domination of Carrie ultimately leads to the creation of her monstrous child. In the films both mother’s attempt to curb their child’s attempts to escape and become independent of them by keeping them in a naive and childlike state, while punishing them for forming relations with others. Carrie’s mother achieves this with her refusal to inform her daughter about sexuality and reproduction, something she considers a ‘sin’, as well as manipulating her daughter with phrases such as ‘they’re all going to laugh at you… stay here with me.’ Such portrayals of women and mother figures is again in accordance with dominant views about both women’s roles in society and the idea that in some way women are inferior to men.

Women as monsters are also seen in more recent films, like Scream 4 (2011) and Jennifer’s Body (2009). However both of these films suggest that gender roles in films have changed again somewhat in recent years, as the female characters are being portrayed in a monstrous way that has previously been thought of as ‘male’; for example they are seen stabbing their victims to death rather than just being a bit of an overbearing mum. Modern horror also brings a change in that these ‘monsters’ are portrayed in a more traditionally feminine way; with Megan Fox’s character in Jennifer’s Body being portrayed in a hyper-sexualised manner. Although it may be considered a welcome change to have a variation of roles for women in horror, it can equally be argued that such portrayals are dangerous as they present women both in a negative light as a monster, and also as sexual objects. This does nothing to aid the already fairly bleak portrayals of women, both in the media and society. Essentially the horror genre provides women with five stereotypes; the sexualised victim; the sexualised killer; the witch; the mother; or the virgin, all of which are very limiting and suggest that women can only be defined by one trait, which, as per usual, does not provide people with a realistic view of women.