Sexuality & Psychopaths: Gender Politics in Early Slasher Cinema

The 1970s is typically characterized as one of the ultimate decades in which personal freedom was prized above all else. Riding on the coattails of the Civil Rights movement, the 1970s capitalized on the American necessity for this kind of liberation. However, although the African American community was at the center of attention in the previous decade, there were still plenty of other special interest groups that were left behind as America proclaimed itself enlightened. Moreover, America professed its personal love of the explicit. With the rabid success of Deep Throat in 1972, Americans everywhere made that much clear. However, there was still the voice of those for “decency” who argued that it was in violation of their personal freedoms to be subjected to pornography. However, it was the ensuing legal battle that shone light on the fact that the sexuality of everyday Americans was a business to profit off of. Furthermore, there were those who argued that pornography itself was acceptable as an American right, but their issue with it was in the treatment of women. Although the issues of the rights of women in other areas, particularly in the home and in the workplace, were frequent topics of debate, the issue of women in film was not commonly discussed.
However, there were other films that had garnered interest in the public eye at the time as well. None were quite as notorious as Deep Throat, but the 70s saw the birth of the slasher film. Although horror has existed in the world of cinema for years, the slasher is commonly viewed as a sub-genre, typically regarded as a product of the 1970s. While America had been exposed to violence before, the previous films had not been enough to satisfy the American thirst for blood. As with the pent up sexual frustration which was unleashed through Deep Throat, there was a need for a violent equivalent. The aggression felt by those who had been repressed by, for lack of a better term, the “man”, gained momentum as the years went on and was eventually unleashed in 1974 with Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, which is largely acknowledged as the first “true” slasher film. It is with the birth of this sub-genre of horror films that the discussion of repression of women in modern film became a topic of interest in film theory.
Although Deep Throat and Black Christmas are nearly impossible to compare, the two films both expressed the need for release in sexual frustration as well as the pent up rage of America. They brought to light the “seedy” truth of American life, that both sexuality and violence were an undeniable element of the American way. Furthermore, they catered to the wants of American audiences everywhere by addressing the very topical issues of sexuality, both gender and physicality. Although slasher movies do this in their own way, it is important not to give them too much credit. These topics had been the focus of films before and had even been combined in some earlier films. Directors such as Russ Meyers had focused their attention on the sexual needs of their audiences rather than plot or character development. Although films such as Faster Pussycat Kill Kill provided the obvious sexual interest, it represented a change in attitude toward women and violence. While in earlier films women were often the victims of violence, in later years, they became the perpetrators of violence. While this signifies a significant shift in American gender politics, the lack of any dimensional characters or serious plotlines quickly discredited Meyers as a “film maker”. As a result, his films were viewed as purely exploitation and were largely disregarded as legitimate pieces of cinema, but rather as B-movies. The later years, which produced slasher films, saw the sexuality of the villains over ridden and the sexuality of the victims and the heroes/heroines come into focus. More importantly, the sexuality was just an aspect of these characters and not always the only selling point for the film. Furthermore, slasher films saw a more polished blend of sex and violence.
Following in the footsteps of exploitation filmmaker legends such as Russ Meyers, the slasher film kept the tradition of women as the main area of focus. However, the similarity between these two areas of filmmaking are limited at best, but more importantly, to limit 1970s horror films down to a simple comparison between its exploitation predecessors would be truly criminal. First and foremost, it is crucial to understand that the 1970s saw two extremes in the way of horror cinema. The first, and probably more widely recognized form, is that of the traditional slasher, as previously mentioned. However, there was an intense reaction to these slasher films that manifested itself with the creation of what are typically referred to as “revenge films”. Although the two revel in the same exploitation of gore and nudity, they handle the sexuality of their female characters quite differently. The revenge film is often subject to more criticism and certainly more moral speculation as it approaches the subject of women in a different manner than that of the typical slasher.
Revenge films are by no means a product of the decade, but the 1970s saw the mainstream embrace these films as a part of their culture. It reflected not only America’s fascination with the inherent connection between violence and sexuality, but more importantly, it signaled their desire for moral clarity in an otherwise ethically gray world. These films tend to focus on profound displays of violence in the first act, followed closely by vengeance on behalf of the victim from the first part or sometimes perpetrated by the victims themselves. These films represent the core of exploitation films in their handling of the subject matter. Although it is true that most were made on a low budget, the subject matter and the handling of the graphic depictions of sex and violence are frequently cited as being in the same vein as most exploitation films, rather than the filming techniques themselves. For instance, the first act is almost always the act of torture itself. This category of “revenge films” is typically entitled “rape and revenge films” as the inciting incident is typically the graphic depiction of a sexual assault on a young girl. What follows are typically women, sometimes men although frequently not as explicit, exacting their revenge, hence the sub-category of these films. One of the most famous examples of “revenge films” is the 1978 Meir Zarchi film, I Spit on Your Grave. In this film, it starts out by showing its audience the victimization of women as sexual objects. In I Spit on Your Grave, the men who rape the protagonist repeatedly reference that she “deserved it” or “was asking for it”. Although we see the sexualization of women as primarily a negative in the beginning of the film, we see the victim herself commanding her own sexuality and directly using her femininity to assault the masculinity of the men who have raped her. Though it is not a requirement to be considered a “revenge film”, most of these films tend to capitalize on these themes of the victimization of women followed by the subsequent empowerment and domination over the men in the film. In I Spit on Your Grave, the perpetrators clearly state that Jennifer, the protagonist, is an attempt to bring Matthew into manhood by raping her and losing his virginity. Therefore, it is no surprise that when it comes time for Jennifer to execute her revenge, she once again capitalizes on her sexual wiles before stringing Matthew up by the neck. A more explicit example of the assault on the male identity by the women is when Jennifer seduces another one of her assailants and even admits to being in the wrong for her rape. However, soon after she admits to that, she takes him back home for a bath and proceeds to castrate him. The man’s loss of his manhood effectively kills him, both physically and symbolically, and further empowers the female victim in her quest for vengeance. This sort of call and response filmmaking, where a wrongdoing is met by vigilante justice, is still a common idea in film today, but is frequently met with moral uncertainty. Due to the graphic depiction of Jennifer’s rape, there is no question of morality in the mind of the audience. She is asserting herself in, albeit a graphic manner, but it seems disturbingly fitting. The use of sexuality as crippling, but eventually empowering was, at the time, relatively unique to “revenge films”. However, another aspect of the revenge film is that the use of the woman’s sexuality is always a utilitarian means to an end. Whereas the men get sexual thrills out of their dominance over the female, the female’s purpose is less on sexual pleasure. Through this use of female sexuality, women are given power over males, but at the expense of losing a little of their own self-empowerment. This further perpetuates the American myth that women’s desire for sex should be with a purpose. Men are understood as being able to enjoy sex free of consequence, but even with these films, a woman’s desire for sex is diminished in the first act. By the second act, after she has come to terms with what has happened to her, her desire for sexual liberation is replaced by her drive for revenge. This contributes to the controversy surrounding female sexuality in revenge films and the debate continues even today. The other popular horror extreme, the slasher, handled the sexuality of its heroines in quite a different manner.
Slasher films tend to downplay the sexuality of their heroines. While there is no question of their gender itself, their potential to be fully developed sexual beings never seems to be realized. One of the most visible examples of this is John Carpenter’s 1978 film, Halloween. In this film, John Carpenter makes no qualms with not sexualizing Laurie Strode as this perpetuates the Puritanical standards of the horror industry, which will be discussed further in-depth later. However, the immediacy of the sexuality and subsequent demise of the other characters isolates Laurie and asserts her status as heroine in the film. This lack of sexuality for the heroine typically referred to as the archetypal “Final Girl”, is key to her success. Ignoring the fact that sexuality is frequently demonized in slasher films, the Final Girl represents the insatiable. She withholds from the audience. Rarely does the Final Girl disrobe or engage in any sexual misdeeds with male characters. In fact, more frequently than not, there is a male character who is supplied only to interact with her, to entice her, to invite her to have sex with him, but her assertion of her virginity is absolute. Furthermore, it is important to understand the heroine’s sexuality as it relates to her gender and/or femininity. In most of these slasher films, it can be understood as progressive that it is typically a female that survives, but the question of the cost is unavoidable. While revenge films tend to glorify the use of violence on behalf of the female, slasher films tend to assign masculine characteristics to their Finals Girls in order to ensure their success. While there is some debate as to whether Final Girls are entirely stripped of their sexuality, it is certain that they are understood to be different from the other girls in the film. This is accomplished in a number of ways, but the most typical are through personality and/or appearance. In terms of personality, the heroine is usually perceived to be a sort of tomboy. While other women tend to revel in their own femininity, the heroine tends to hide hers. She downplays her own gender in comparison to her female counterparts. Furthermore, she is seen as different due to her interests, which are shown in her virtuous ways such as Laurie’s commitment to the responsibility of babysitting while Annie meets up with her boyfriend. More often than not, her lack of interest in men is a defining trait, as referenced earlier. However, she is not without her instances of femininity. One of the most well known examples in the horror film industry is commemorated in the term “scream queen.” The heroine is an essential device in slasher films because she can effectively communicate fear and abject horror with a piercing shriek. To say that there is no male equivalent to a blood-curdling scream would be an understatement. All in all, the heroine of slasher films is an enigma, a puzzling combination of masculine characteristics with the undeniable femininity of the actress on screen. Slasher films seem to send a mixed message as to what the status of women and female characters were at the time. However, it also must be stated that most of the directors making these slasher films were male so some level of ambiguity in the portrayal of women is to be expected.
What adds to the complexity of gender politics of 1970s horror movies is the handling of the more explicit connotation of sexuality. Although the depiction of women’s sexuality in revenge films showed most director’s understanding of femininity as utilitarian, there are many directors who addressed sexuality as a vice. The most common example in horror films is the couple that has sex. As post-modern horror films such as Scream have made clear, more often than not, such couples are the ones to die. An example of one such film is Halloween, which features several couples that have sex who are then subsequently murdered by Michael Myers. Many films capitalized on America’s Puritanical sense of right and wrong, which is what this genre is largely accused of perpetuating. However, the idea of shameful behavior in these horror films extended beyond the issue of sexuality. Frequently, characters who were seen as behaving immorally, such as drug use and underage drinking, became victims as well. The horror genre has drawn a large deal of criticism for these none too subtle indications of supposedly American values. However, this soon became formulaic and as the genre evolved, particularly into the 80s and the 90s, audiences began to notice a change in the addressing of sexuality. While it still kept in time with the previously stated idea of the Final Girl being unattainable or particularly virginal, over the years the sexualization of her as a character became more and more commonplace. However, this improvement came at a certain cost. Now, although the female had become a fully realized sexual being, her sexuality typically proved to be a hindrance. In films such as the 1981’s My Bloody Valentine and even as recent as the 1996’s Scream, the killer is revealed to be the love interest of the female lead. It is due to her attraction to the other character that prevents her from discovering who the killer is sooner. As a result, her sexuality has indirectly cost the lives of several characters throughout the course of the movie. This sexualization of the Final Girl at the cost of other characters is a relatively recent development; it has basically been rendered a cliché. Once again, we see the sexuality of the female as a negative more than anything else.
The horror genre, specifically slasher and revenge films, which got their start in the 1970s and continued on throughout the decades, have a complex relationship with gender politics. Some films have used the sexuality of their female characters as a testament to the power of the woman, while also attacking the hyper-masculinity of American culture. However, more often than not, sexuality is addressed more visually than anything else, allowing very little complexity, but is still an essential part of the genre. Throughout all the changes of the formulaic horror film, one constant has remained, and that is the unquestioned authority of the female lead. Regardless of what audiences take away from these films, the sexuality of the female is an integral aspect of the horror genre and echoes the gender politics of the time in which they were made.

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