If you follow the horror blogsphere, the newest master list that Horror-movies.ca released recently has created something of a frenzy. The reason, when ‘master lists’-lists of the top genre directors-are released all the time without this much controversy, is that all 1o of these up and coming genre masters, are male.
It’s not like horror doesn’t have its female members (raises hand). In fact, it could be solidly argued that some of the major, definitive tropes in the genre, center around the feminine. There are a lot of female voices on the review sites; many of the most respected commentators in the genre are female (and in a response that’s slightly more profane and slightly less sociological-thought not by much-than this one, see All Things Horror’s breakdown of the comments left regarding this issue. Fair warning, there’s a fair bit of ragey-ness and profanity-in other words, they wrote what the inside of my head actually sounds like on this subject). So why aren’t women making these lists?
What Does Horror Say About Gender?
So what is the relevance of gender in horror? What does the genre even have to say about women? A lot, actually-which is a topic that I’ve touched on before. The feminine does very much tend to fall into the ‘Other’ category- all those things that are different, alien, and therefore dangerous. However, as it’s been show before, the act of othering can sometimes open up some interesting paths to discussion.
For example, what does it mean that in so many slasher films, the strongest lead character-and the one that makes it out alive in so many films- is female? What does this imply in a societal environment where women are supposed to shun violence, let alone engage in it to save her Self? What exactly would have happened had Jamie Lee Curtis had been male and Michael Meyers was chasing after his brother? I think it would have been a much weaker franchise, personally.
But the Gendering is Negative
Is it? Or I guess the better question is, is the gendering of characters in horror any less damaging than the gendering of characters in say, a rom-com? I’m not certain that the implication that your life cycle has to include ‘romance’ (which is such a turbulent topic that you could probably write an entire blog just on that idea alone), ‘marriage’ (again, which never looks like reality), and ‘family’ (….you get the point) is much better than fake blood and a chainsaw-wielding monstrosity ala The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Actually, Massacre is a good place to look at this concept. On both sides of the hero/villain divide we have characters acting out what are essentially the same gendered motives-the protection and the success of the family unit-and turning them on their head. I think if anything, horror is an environment wherein the exploration of the full range of gender is possible; when a character is pushed to their breaking point, what happens to the patterns that they’re ‘supposed’ to fall into? What happens, for example, when Rosemary discovers that her dream wasn’t a dream and who exactly fathered her child? In the world of say, the rom-com (you’ll notice I hate rom-coms for a number of reasons), the family unit would be perfect, healthy and beautiful.
How many perfect, healthy, beautiful rom-com style families do you actually know?
What Does Feminism Require?
So we’ve agreed (or I’ve agreed for you, I guess) that since horror is a valid local to start looking at gender and its expectations-what are the societal obligations for the idea of genre ‘masters’?
More specifically, in order to be a ‘feminist’ reader, viewer, or critic, what do you have to ‘do’? I suppose that you can argue that you ‘have’ to be equal in all things; your 10 item list better be more or less split between men and women. Otherwise, you’re ‘silencing’ women, right?
Keep in mind I consider myself a feminist theorist.
…But What If the Voices Aren’t There?
I’m not claiming that this is true, but for argument’s sake let’s say that the top 10 directors in genre really are male. Let’s just say that the best of the best truly are men.
What happens then? Does feminism require that we discredit their voices and gaze because, patriarchy?
Not so fast. It’s pretty well established and accepted in Third Wave theory that the destruction of the masculine does nothing but destroy men, not lift up women. Tearing down the things that men have done does not inherently make room for women.
There are female directors out there. Pet Semetary was directed by Mary Lambert. American Mary is making the rounds as one of the best new indie pieces and was directed by the Soska twins. (For some reason I got it in my head that Ridley Scott was female for like two days but we won’t go there…) And…
Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Where are the other female directors?
So Where Are They?
What happens when women just don’t want to director horror, or just haven’t been at it long enough to have reached ‘master’ status? It’s not enough to just be making horror, you have to actually be good at it. I’m not suggesting that women aren’t capable of directing it-that’s just not true.
But just as a thought experiment, is it any better to start pressuring women into the director’s chair because it’s a man’s game? It is possible that they just don’t want to take on the role? It is possible that we’re actually silencing the experience of women in horror by spending too much time criticizing what they’re not doing and not examining what they are doing.
(I need to point out All Thing Horror’s entry again here-there’s an entire paragraph full of female directors listed. However, I think that the point regarding the apparent invisibility of female directors is still valid.)
Again, Where are They?
Maybe part of the problem is that we’re looking at the wrong area of genre. If you’re looking only at Hollywood, you’re missing out on a huge amount of territory.
The Indie scene is massive right now with the rise of the crowdfunding movement, the Internet, blogging, and other unconventional techniques. And, a lot of that material is being generated by women. As stated above, the Soska twins are on fire right now. Perhaps, interestingly enough, our norms regarding the freak-out about gendered norming is actually keeping us from finding the areas of society where the norms are being torn down (oh say it ain’t so, the same problems that we always have with seeing change are at play here? You mean counterculture…runs counter to the main culture?)
Finally, keep in mind as well that there’s no reason that a- men can’t be feminist and b-just because they are the empowered actors men don’t have anything worthy to say about women. It’s been suggested that one of the best ways to read Alien is to see it as the masculine fear of childbirth. That can have some really interesting implications on the role of women in society; maybe it’s not entirely a positive implication, but it’s still worth examining what both genders think about themselves and each other.