The Horror of Gendered Tropes in Film
It’s no secret that there are “rules” to horror movies. Whether they’re broken or not, they exist. In early horror films, characters were punished for having sex, doing drugs, and outright stupidity. While we still have rules to follow and behaviors that have dramatic consequences in contemporary horror, we have shifted away from those foundations. Sexually active women and stoners aren’t killed off as frequently in horror films because, as a society, we have become more accepting of these activities. Who dies and why they die is very telling of mainstream societal views. When taking any meaning from horror, it becomes essential to look at what behaviors the victims engaged in beforehand.
It’s also important to note that whether a behavior is punished or not depends on who engages in it. Early examples include that men and women do not have the same consequences for having sex. Women of color have different consequences than white women for the same bravery and curiosity. Because horror reflects mainstream views, it also reflects common forms of bigotry— whether intentionally or not— within its popular tropes.
The Final Girl
We’re all familiar with the final girl— everyone in a friend group falls to the slasher save for the one girl who did everything “right.” But what is right? What constitutes proper behavior for a final girl has changed throughout the course of film and remains largely inconsistent in terms of how gender roles are perpetuated. Some final girls are rewarded for having no sex and being cautious (i.e. Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), upholding the idea that women should be chaste and responsible. Some are rewarded for fighting back and outsmarting the killer (think of Scream and Hush), demonstrating traditionally masculine traits. It seems that women are supposed to maintain a middle ground, being relatable enough to men while still being feminine enough to be desirable. Women seem to be punished most when they stray into the hyper-feminine (makeup, sexual, ditzy) or the hyper-masculine (muscular, confident, promiscuous). The maintenance of womanhood and the rejection of femininity calls to mind the “not like other girls” identity. The final girl trope may feed into this because it shows a central female figure being rewarded for her masculinity while simultaneously punishing women who engage too much with their own femininity.
The blurred line of femininity and masculinity makes for an interesting model of gender presentation: female androgyny. On the surface this may sound freeing, but in reality androgyny adopted a lot as a form of survival. The final girl expresses androgyny because she must prioritize her own survival over her presentation, a struggle dramatized on the screen but familiar to many in real life. Those who identify as, or are perceived as women by society, often have to put expression on the backburner for safety, especially queer women and women of color. For example, presenting is a matter of survival for trans individuals, whose safety hinges on how well we pass as cis.
While the presentation of womanhood is changing as film and horror as a genre move forward, the line between femininity and masculinity is being blurred for women. Is there a similar lack of boundaries for men in horror? Yes and no.
Are we supposed to find Frankenstein and his monster scary? Or Dracula? Or Norman Bates? These stories are so old and so ingrained into the execution of horror that audiences may no longer be scared by what they bring to the table. At the time of release, though, these films posed one of the scariest concepts of all: men can cross into the realm of femininity.
In Phallic Panic, author Barbara Creed writes, “The male monster is made monstrous when he enters the domain of woman, animal, and nature.” One of these concepts seems unlike the other, but womanhood is actually innately entwined with nature. In art, media, and common vernacular, both nature and the earth are often referred to mothers. Women are usually reduced to their instincts and emotions, which are considered primal and animalistic. Because of the way women are dehumanized, especially those that aren’t white, cis, and straight, nature and animalism is inherently an aspect of womanhood and femininity.
Werewolves and vampires, even if they’re men, represent a loss of control that only women can achieve as “illogical beings.” Mad scientists, if they are men, are monsters because they are attempting to usurp women’s roles as creators and birthers. It seems that horror, at least at one point, unanimously agreed that the worst thing a monster could be was anything but a cishet white male, the image of American masculinity. The way these tropes exist reflects biased viewpoints and the structures of oppression that were and are present in society. So where do we see this in the slasher?
Frequently, killers in the slasher films engage in some form of femininity— many wear feminine clothes, wigs, or makeup, such as Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Norman Bates in Psycho. The act of slashing itself also stands in as a euphemism for penatrive sex— the killers’ inability to perform is just another way they deviate from manhood. Slashers are threats to American masculinity because they depart so severely from it. Stressing how horrifying it is for men to be feminine is why toxic masculinity is alive and well today, as well as why transphobia and homophobia are so normalized. Whether we realize it or not, what we see on screen affects how we build our real life perspectives.
How much does horror really inform our views on gender? Most would agree that the media we consume influences the way we view the world. When you’re exposed to something through a certain lens, it influences how you interact with it in real life. Especially if the on-screen portrayal is the only exposure you’ve had. Vice versa, when we have more experience with something in real life it can affect how we feel about a text. Someone who has to tolerate misogyny at work every day is going to be bothered when a film normalizes rather than condemns misogynistic characters.
The basis of horror is that it pits a representative “us” against a representative “them.” Consuming horror tells us what (or who) to be afraid of. On the surface, we should be afraid of ghosts, home invaders, and demons, but getting down to minute details, tropes give us more to be afraid of. Our own past, our own friends and family, premarital sex, drugs, entire communities of people. Tropes have the ability to drive some pretty powerful introspection— but they can also create images in our heads that leave us afraid of those we don’t interact with. Fear is a powerful motivator.
It isn’t the only option, though. Being aware of how tropes come into existence is the first step towards examining them critically. Aside from that, horror is beginning to question who gets to define who the “other” really is. In recent films, the enemy often represents deeply rooted structures of power and oppression. We can see what films Some films do this well— Parasite and Us being solid examples— while some left something left to be desired, such as the recent They/Them. Since otherness is used as a weapon in horror, it’s effective to have those who aren’t usually subjected to the feeling become the other through their viewing experience. The good news is that there is plenty of space for horror to grow. In the future, tropes should continue to be changed and built upon and utilized to get new perspectives across rather than being used to reinforce harmful frameworks.