Gender prejudice in horror films
Fatal for Femmes… The best horror movies often feature strong female leads or play with assumptions. Are we ever going to see the back of slut shaming in horror?
The best horror films, like The Shining and Alien, offer up bona fide narrative essentials (you know, character development and dialogue) along with the usual fear-n-visceral display horror fare. They’re terrifying crowd-pleasers with the ability to please critics and thoughtful horror fans alike.
Then there are those horror films and TV shows that play with the innate ridiculousness of their genre by maintaining a saving self-awareness (think Buffy the Vampire Killer, Resident Evil, Zombieland and Scream). Films like Alien and The Shining often feature a strong female lead; a well-developed character who steps forward and shows uncommon courage or strength. Films like Scream and Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods poke fun at the typical, dreadfully-overused stereotype of “the virginal girl will survive and the slut will get hers”.
Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, one of the best horror films in 2012, plays with gender prejudiced horror stereotypes. When smart sociology major Jules dyes her hair blonde in the first act, we have a sneaking suspicion what her fate will be…
And yet, despite an increase in films trying to be both thrilling and thought-provoking/ironic, a persistent number still rely heavily on spamming the horror genre with harmful gender stereotypes and gender prejudiced principles. SAY WHAT? In almost every other genre, even action, gender prejudice seems to be waning. The trend of portraying strong, more true-to-life women has been growing in RomComs (with the works of such greats as Nora Ephron) as well as in action and adventure (with independent and strong female characters such as Lara Croft and Natasha Romanoff) and of course in drama and independent films. Why has this trend not followed through to hardcore slasher films?
Perhaps horror films still portray women in damaging stereotypical roles because so many of them rely on primal gut instincts to get an emotional response from viewers. One of the our primal instincts is fear; another is a strong sex drive. Combining horror with the tried-and-tested images of women as sexual objects is a surefire way to increase a primal emotional response to the film with little actual effort.
Great horror films like The Shining and Alien stimulate a spectrum of emotions from positive to negative. They manage to highlight the worst parts of human nature while remaining encouraging and uplifting. Perhaps the best (in this context, the most affecting) horror highlights positive features of human nature: Courage, love and support. In this context the deeply negative feelings elicited by the films are given weight and meaning.
There will probably always be a place for B-Movies that rely on dreadfully bad generalizations and disgust to shock their viewers. We’re unlikely to ever see the back of horrible, uninspired dialogue and overused plot devices. However, directors like Joss Whedon and Ridley Scott have made a huge impact on viewers and box office figures. With this in mind, horror film makers may finally understand that audiences are no longer thrilled with cheap tricks, flat characters, and the scream queens of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.