The MKE Sisters of ‘Black Christmas’ (2019) Fight Back [Matriarchy Rising]

Black Christmas

Black Christmas (2019) is a relatively controversial film. Sophia Takal’s loose remake of the 1974 slasher classic tends to garner nearly as much criticism as it does praise with strong opinions. And there are valid points on either side. The film’s heavy-handed feminism is as off-putting to some as it is galvanizing for others. With a notoriously rushed production, it’s also not a perfect film. Amidst the stylish holiday-themed kills there are moments of pure cringe and a plot that requires a massive suspension of disbelief. But the message of Black Christmas (2019) is one of unabashed empowerment. Despite its flaws, Takal’s film offers a lot to love. 

Slashers are seen as allegories for the patriarchy with a usually faceless male killer ceaselessly stalking subversive women. Takal’s Black Christmas makes this subtext explicit. She boldly names its depiction of gender-based oppression and refuses to hide its message behind genre tropes. Though some attempts at feminist empowerment are clunky (missing diva cup, anyone?) sometimes the message needs to be blunt. And loudly proclaiming the truth about systemic forces that threaten women can feel intensely cathartic. Takal’s film may wear its message of gender equality and collective empowerment on its sleeve, but Black Christmas is inspiring nonetheless. It’s a clear indictment of patriarchal oppression and a blunt call to arms for women tired of silently taking abuse. This may not be the feminist manifesto the original classic deserves, but it’s the one we have. And like it or not, Takal’s film forces a conversation too often relegated to allegory. 

Sisters and Killers

There’s a killer stalking the grounds of Hawthorne college. Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) and her fellow MKE sorority sisters prepare for the upcoming holiday break. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure in a hooded robe murders female students under cover of silent, snowy darkness. Riley fears that after performing an inflammatory song at a Greek talent show, she and her sisters have become the target of DKO, a prestigious fraternity whose legacy dominates the campus. The MKE sisters have been added to a list of transgressing women who must be put back in their subservient place or eliminated altogether. Only by destroying the source of this patriarchal oppression can they effectively stop the system that threatens their lives. 

Black Christmas

Though blunt, Black Christmas’s message is both powerful and relatable. Throughout the film, sisters Riley, Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Helena (Madeleine Adams), Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) struggle with the choice to accept a designated place within a rigid system of gender-based oppression or to actively fight back. Leading this charge is Kris, an outspoken feminist whose activism is inspiring, but also a source of discomfort for her sisters who are more inclined to keep their heads down. She is the driving force behind the girl’s talent show performance, which is also an act of protest.

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Three years ago, a member of DKO drugged and assaulted Riley. He denied her accusation and went on to lead his fraternity as president. School authorities refused to act and now she’s the target of cruel jokes from her attacker’s fraternity brothers. Unwilling to let it go, the sisters perform a variation of “Up On the Housetop.” There, Riley sings about being roofied and raped to a packed audience while staring down her attacker. It’s an unconventional, yet empowering moment that serves to highlight glaring inadequacies in how the system supports survivors. What does it say about our societal power dynamic that she would see a talent show performance as the only justice available?

To be clear, Riley deserves the right to respond to her assault in whatever way she chooses. Though this scene strikes many as odd, it’s worth noting that the performance occurs years after the assault. Riley did report and attempted to go through the proper channels to hold her attacker accountable to no avail. A variation of this report occurs after the performance when Riley is unable to contact her little sister Helena. She reports her concerns to campus security and is essentially laughed at. If this is any indication of the way Hawthorne College treats crimes against its female students, it’s no wonder she emerged from the experience feeling helpless.

Black Christmas

Riley’s song is a way to show that she refuses to stay quiet about what happened to her. By resisting the temptation to hide in shame, she prevents her story from fading into the obscurity that would allow him to attack another woman. Though uncomfortable, her song continues the conversation and serves as a warning to other students. Though unconventional, Riley sees this social pressure as the only real power she has. 


Riley believes that the performance makes her a target of the cloaked killers. And she’s right. She and her sisters are added to a kill list. They’re then attacked by pledges possessed by the spirit of the fraternity’s founder. The plot details get a little messy. But the through-line is that by standing up for themselves and each other, the girls invite attack. Kris accepts this risk and encourages the others to as well. However, Riley is uncomfortable with the level of attention she’s drawn to herself. She worries that by refusing to accept the crime committed against her, she’s put herself and her sisters in further danger. 

Marty’s boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead), asks what they expected when they decided to perform the song. Though his question is condescending and connotes ugly shades of victim-blaming, it also contains a frustrating grain of truth. The patriarchy is not going to offer itself up for destruction. Takal argues that simply existing as a woman is inherently dangerous and fighting back is the only path to long-term safety. Riley ultimately realizes that by allowing the system to continue operating as it was designed to, she is essentially empowering her own oppression. There is no middle ground.

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Helena learns this lesson the hard way. Secretly working with DKO, she wants to be a “good woman.” She allows them to control her destiny in exchange for temporary protection. She betrays her sisters by stealing their belongings as a part of the targeting ritual. Seeing herself as inherently weaker, she sacrifices her own autonomy to support their system of control because it gives her power over women who refuse to submit. But she finds that the system will turn against her the moment she no longer has value. She’s chosen a position based on her usefulness rather than her humanity. As soon as she is no longer needed, the men cast her aside, snapping her neck. Too late, she’s learned that oppression is about protecting the dominant group. Everyone else is expendable. 

False Allies

The back half of the film becomes extremely murky with confusing messages about allyship and empowerment. Nate is presented as a passive feminist, but finds himself overcome by the power of his gender. Swayed by the founder, Nate lashes out at the girls and calls them man-haters. While this characterization is limiting, heteronormative, and fails to see people as existing apart from their gender, his behavior is unfortunately common. Many men see themselves as allies until feminist action actually affects them. Then they become defensive and angry, demanding we calm down and stop being hysterical. 

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In an argument with Marty and her sisters, Nate demands to know what they would do if the brothers of DKO sang a slanderous song at the MKE house. He neglects to ask what would happen if Riley drugged and assaulted a DKO brother and the whole campus let her get away with it. His false equivalence is proof of his fundamental acceptance of a patriarchal power structure. He claims that he is not a rapist, using the loaded phrase “not all men.” While this may be true, it’s beside the point and only serves to dilute the actual objectives of feminist activism. Yes, not all men. But too many men. And good intentions mean nothing without action.

Black Christmas

His argument also reveals widespread misunderstandings about the goals of feminism. We do not want to destroy men and we certainly don’t hate them all. What we hate is the way masculinity has become the barometer for power in the society we’re forced to exist in. We hate the limits set on us based on our gender. What true feminists want is the same power men are freely given over their bodies and their choices. Tired of being forced to stand behind men, we don’t want to stand in front, but on equal ground.


In a somewhat clunky analogy, Marty compares her sisters to ants. Though unusual, her logic is sound. Silent and often unnoticed, ants have the ability to carry heavy loads. They operate as a seamless unit, working together to accomplish a larger goal. Killing a single ant may be easy, but eradicating them altogether is next to impossible. We each contain within us the ability to withstand oppression and our resistance is contagious. Takal’s central message is that fighting the patriarchy relies on working together. If we stay focused and support each other, we can begin to chip away at the structures of oppression on which our society was built. 

DKO’s power comes from a bust of the founder, a symbol of tradition and social rules many of us follow simply because we were born into them. Agents of the patriarchy keep us down by making us afraid of our own power. By telling us that we are inherently weaker, they convince us that we deserve to be subservient. But this lie is based on an essentialist definition of gender and identity. In Black Christmas’s climactic battle, Riley smashes the founder’s bust, breaking the spell of masculinity and allowing the sisters to escape. They watch the flaming ruins of the DKO house from the safety of the snowy lawn, a cinematic representation of burning down the patriarchy.

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Like our society, Hawthorne college was built on a foundation of misogyny. The fight against systemic gender-based oppression is one that has been raging since the dawn of recorded time and will likely continue for generations to come. The central message of Black Christmas (2019) is that the deeply-rooted patriarchy will not go down without a fight. So we must be ready to stand together in opposition. This system of male domination has had its chance and has shown that it only serves a vocal minority. It won’t be easy, but burning it to the ground will allow us to start again on equal footing, a world of true equality that often seems impossible. But if we keep fighting to destroy the foundation of patriarchal oppression, a matriarchy will rise from the ashes. 



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