Sexism and rape culture are not new concepts, but how do they apply to horror? And how has horror educated people on these topics and started conversations? It is important to look at the origins of these words to understand why they are relevant in horror.
I am not really sure how to pinpoint one time when sexism really began in society. You can look anywhere, even in something like The Bible, and you will find traces of sexism. It was not until the 20th century, though, when women started becoming more vocal about inequalities. This is mostly because women were afraid to voice their opinions before in a patriarchal society. But looking at all of the waves of feminism and protests and rallies women have had over the past century, I think there is a lot to be said about the progression of women.
Sometimes, though, the media likes to set women back. Every once in a while, we find invincible women in horror films (I will delve into this later), but we also still find the stereotypical tropes of women in horror. Maggie Freleng in her article “Pretty Bloody: Women and Stereotypes in Horror Movies” lists some of these tropes as the damsel in distress; the jealous, vengeful lover; the evil demon seductress; the demon host; the overly liberated woman; or the sexually promiscuous women and the saved virgin. Think of all of the horror movies you know, and there is probably a high chance that the women in these films fall under one of more of these stereotypes.
Stemming off of sexism, rape culture comes from feminists in the U.S. during the 1970s to show the ways society blames victims and tries to normalize male sexual violence. Emilie Buchwald, author of Transforming a Rape Culture, describes rape culture as, “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent.” Rape culture can also include the notions of slut-bashing or slut-shaming women.
For whatever reason, directors like using the notions of sexism and rape culture in their films. It could be for controversy, artistic reasons, or to raise awareness about an issue. I think a lot of horror directors like to include these elements just to be controversial, and there may not be any more reason to read into it. However, even if directors do not put controversial elements in their films to raise awareness, I think a lot can be said about the sexism and rape culture seen in all types of media. It is true that horror directors can also perpetuate rape in their films, especially in those I mentioned in Part 1 that are extremely graphic. I do not necessarily agree with how rape scenes are shown; however, they are meant to make viewers feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. Rape is not the punch line of a joke; rape is a crime and violation of someone’s body. Whether or not you agree with the terminology of rape culture, I am just intrigued with the type of conversations we can have about these issues.
In my undergraduate studies, I completed a capstone research paper examining Gothic horror (starting from British Gothic and going transcontinental to American Gothic), looking particularly at the treatment of women and children. I looked at both literature and horror movies/television shows starting from the 18th century to today. The literature included Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story,” Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and various short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. The horror movies and television shows I examined were Rosemary’s Baby, The Ring, and “American Horror Story” Season 1.
One thing that I found to be a pattern throughout the years from all of this different literature and media is how the Gothic represented a lot of what was going in society. For example, considered to be one of the first Gothic novels, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto represented women in a completely patriarchal society: Women/girls were properties of their husbands and fathers. The socioeconomic status of women in the later 18th century was not thought of very highly. In James Watt’s “Eighteenth Century Gothic: Nation, History, Gender,” he claims that: “It was fair to assume that women would have been ‘reduced’ under that authority which the strong acquire over the weak, and therefore treated as ‘the servants or slaves’ of men.” So, all of the Gothic novels written at this time in 18th century Britain reflected what was going on in society.
I think a lot of horror movies and television shows today also represent bits of what is going on in society, even if they are over-the-top. Women have a lot of problems being represented positively in the media today. Men want to always have a say in prominent women’s issues, whether it is birth control or defining rape, and unfortunately, some of the men with the platform to speak of these issues tend to be morally, politically, and scientifically incorrect. Women and men should team up and both speak positively and correctly about pressing women’s issues, both in the media and in society.
Politics are such a huge part of our society (whether you like or agree with politicians at all), and I believe there is a connection between politics and the horror community. Examining where the word “Gothic” came from rang a bell to me as why politics and horror can go hand-in-hand: Considered to be leading Gothic scholars, David Punter and Glennis Byron in The Gothic mention how Gothic first stemmed from the idea of the bizarre or unknown. I think that original definition of Gothic is still very true today. Think of all of the horror movies, television shows, novels, comic books, etc,. that you may watch/read. There probably are elements of the bizarre and unknown in them. Horror is meant to examine people’s deepest and darkest fears and also to make people uncomfortable and leave their comfort zones.
A very alarming trend in the media is stories about women’s issues from the point of view of men who clearly do not understand their subjects. I mentioned Todd Akin and Rush Limbaugh in Part 1, and I am more than well aware of how off-the-wall both of their ideas and arguments are. That is why I decided to use them as examples, but they are definitely not the only examples I can think of in the political realm. I believe that a lot of politicians’ views can also hit on people’s deepest and darkest fears. Akin and Limbaugh in particular have extreme ideas about a lot of issues, especially women’s issues, that I think stem from these Gothic notions of the bizarre and unknown. Clearly they either a) have no idea what they are really talking about and/or b) know that they are talking about controversial issues and know it will get them attention. I guarantee they are a mix of both (especially Limbaugh because he basically calls himself a sensationalist reporter). A lot of these ideas seen in politics, the media, etc., today can also be seen in horror today. And as aforementioned, it could be for artistic reasons or for the director to want to be controversial/strike up conversations.
From women fighting for equal pay to women fighting for affordable contraception to women just fighting to be looked at and regarded as equal to men in the media, women seem to be facing a lot of struggles in the 21st century. A lot of men want to speak for women’s issues, which would only be good if they were coherently and correctly speaking about them. Instead, we live in a society where men are making the choices for women, and the women who should have a say in it are instead criticized for looking a certain way. Women should not even have to be fighting for most of the rights that we are trying to fight for in this century because they are rights many women fought for and supposedly won decades before.
So sexism is still prominent in society in different ways. However, there has been some progress in horror in recent years. The Final Girl Theory is one of my favorite things about horror movies. There sometimes are shifts from the damsel in distress types to the kickass women in horror (and in other realms of media and society as well!). This all comes from Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaw, where she looks at horror films from a feminist perspective. Clover’s trope refers to the final woman in a horror movie—particular a slasher film—that has to confront the killer. One perfect example that always personally comes to mind is Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. Clover published this book in 1992, and I still think it is extremely relevant. I really appreciate directors wanting to have strong female leads, and I know we will see more of it as feminism is starting to become a popular buzzword with a lot of celebrities today (notice, again, how society and media can go hand-in-hand).
Feminism and horror are my two favorite topics to talk about/write about. I will continue to write articles from the feminist perspective because it is what I have been doing for years. I am by no means an expert in either (nor will I ever claim to be!), but it is something I am passionate about. The socioeconomic status of women today connects so well to the socioeconomic status of women during the different Gothic traditions’ time frames I analyzed in my undergraduate studies because women were and still are battling to be seen and represented in a positive, respectful manner. Women have somewhat come far from what Horace Walpole displayed in The Castle of Otranto, but they still have to worry about sexism and rape culture. It is amazing how far women’s rights had come with the different feminist waves in the 20th century, but it is concerning how much those rights seem to have been taken away again. The Gothic puts a face to the uncertainties we feel as a society, especially in regards to the treatment of women seen in literature and other media. I argue that the literature will better reflect women when society—especially the media—shows women in more of a positive light.
I’d like to echo some ideas from Part 1… Whether or not you agree with my perceptions of sexism and rape culture in horror movies and why some directors may decide to do it, one thing is clear to me: Whether positive or negative, all horror fans have some kind of commentary about it. That’s what horror has done: started conversations about seemingly controversial topics. I can guarantee that a lot of people may never agree with me, and that is okay. Let’s have a conversation about it.