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Killer Sex

Updated: Dec 24, 2022

Women are shown on-screen more than men in only one film genre: horror. A study conducted by Google and the Geena Davis Institute also noted that female-led films statistically earn 16% more than their counterparts, but neither of these facts are progressive. The reason that we see more women in horror films, and any films at all for that matter, is because of how these women are portrayed. Like any good story, horror is recognizable for the archetypes it has established over decades, often referred to as tropes. These repetitious themes are based on the medieval ideology that women survive because they're virtuous. Hollywood has created films for decades that idealize this perfect woman due to its origin of censorship. In the 1930s, the Catholic Church managed to establish the Hays Code. This list prohibited a large number of things such as on-screen nudity, denouncement of religion, and anything else the Church deemed immoral. Catholicism's religious beliefs have been responsible for centuries of purity culture, a form of toxic hypersexualization itself. Before major studios were protected by the First Amendment, they adhered to the rules to avoid retaliations and to create films that would sell tickets even during the Great Depression. They needed shock value.

Films had to get creative with their depictions of sex and violence therefore horror movies, in particular, had to become scarier by birthing classics like Dracula and Frankenstein the following year. A court ruling in 1948 disrupted the monopoly on studios owning theaters and thus allowed independent filmmakers to come in without having to abide by the code. The production methods established during these few years set the precedence for how women and sex are depicted indefinitely.

In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover first described the “Final Girl” trope as a female character who outlasts the (often male) killer until the end of the movie. This female character stands out because she possesses more masculine attributes such as a gender-neutral name or boyish attire, in addition to strict morals and responsibilities. Of course, most important of all, she must be virginal. Her lack of sexual distraction, unlike her preoccupied friends, will help her achieve survival. The “Final Girl” goes hand in hand with another popular trope, “Death by Sex.” Slashers are notorious for killing off teenage couples after they’ve had sex, especially young girls for their implied promiscuity. Franchises such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th all capitalize on this character, but 1996 Scream was the first film to disrupt the standard. While Sidney was the first “Final Girl” not to die because she had sex, a discussion around it still lingers. Writer and Director Anna Biller took to Twitter to express her interpretation of the trope, stating, “the ‘Final Girl’ is not there in most cases to celebrate a strong woman. She is there to dispel male voyeuristic guilt at the pleasure of watching eight other disposable women be violently killed, and so he can call his entertainment progressive.”

Halloween and Cherry Falls are two more classics that also use the trope of “Revenge of the Repressed.” Because the killers are unable to express themselves sexually, they lash out and kill those who can. Not much has truly changed in the last 20 years, other than marketing techniques. New Wave Horror like American Horror Stories uses the same tactics as its predecessors but attempts to balance style and substance. In the last few years alone, major streaming companies have nearly replaced theaters and started their monopoly in creating horror films with female leads to entice viewers. It makes sense when you consider that the topics of gender and sexuality are at an all-time high as hashtags like #metoo and #mybodymychoice trend across social media globally. Viewers want to see powerful female leads kicking ass, but how kick-ass are they being written?

Most plot lines still revolve around how sexual the characters are, they’re almost always white, able-bodied, and typically heterosexual as well. The age-old dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore still persists while the idea of who can be a victim versus heroin remains among a select few straight white saviors. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey wrote that female bodies are reduced to objects of desire, spectacles constructed to sexually stimulate and satiate the scopophilic tendencies of the spectator. Hulu’s recent original, Fresh, highlights a female lead with a disappointing dating life, ignoring every red flag that her new boyfriend has (including being a murderous cannibal.) In the classic “Final Girl” style, the lead uses phallic appropriation as she kills her opponent with his weapons.

Few films such as Midsommer and feminist cult classic Jennifer’s Body have accomplished reinventing the form of subversion that female characters are more than mere passive objects. A24’s soon-to-be trilogy is an attempt to reinvent the “Final Girl” and “Revenge of the Repressed” tropes while still being filled with a hyperaware sense of “Death by Sex.” Maxine is the antithesis of the “Final Girls” that came before her because she is unapologetic, certain about her sexual identity, and faces a female opposite. Even better examples of progressive Horror include Jordan Peele’s films Us and Nope.

If you’re looking to broaden your horror horizons this spooky season, here are a few other films worth the watch.

  1. Carrie (1976 /2013)

  2. Suspiria (1977/2018)

  3. Ms .45 (1981)

  4. Teeth (2007)

  5. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

  6. The Lure (2015)

  7. The Witch (2015)

  8. Get Out (2017)

  9. A Quiet Place (2018)

  10. Ready or Not (2019)

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