‘The Exorcist’ and its Punishment of the New Woman

The Exorcist is a unique pop cultural artifact. On the surface, it’s meant to intrigue and terrify, but is that really all? We’re raised to believe that film is representative of the time period in which it is made. In the case of The Exorcist, that would indicate a somewhat different reading of it than most. With second wave feminism in full swing at the time of the film’s release, it seems almost impossible to ignore the issue of gender in Friedkin’s 1973 classic.
The film centers on Chris, an actress living in Georgetown with her daughter, Regan. Both of their lives are thrown into chaos when Regan becomes possessed by the devil. Although it primarily tackles theological issues, it also reflects the general attitudes towards women, both young girls and their mothers. It suggests how women behaved, but also dictates how women should behave through digs at gender, some subtle and others more blatant. Before delving into how horror is reflected through a deviation from the norms in The Exorcist, it is crucial to see what is “normal” for Chris and Regan. Chris is the “new” woman that the 1970s promised so many young women. She is a successful career woman, but she is also a mother. Although the film never directly confronts the topic of how Chris’s career leads to her failing as a mother, Anne-Marie Cusac investigates this in her book, Cruel and Unusual: the Culture of Punishment in America. Cusac suggests, “In her beliefs, her marital status, and her career, Chris belongs to the disobedient generation.” (Cusac 115). In fact, Regan’s possession could be argued as torture for her mother for pursuing a life outside the role of the homemaker. While The Exorcist explores Chris’s redemption as she desperately searches for a way to cure her daughter of her affliction, for most of the movie, Chris’s career as an actress is equated with negligence as a mother. This is achieved in the scene where Regan comes downstairs to the party and urinates on the floor. She responds with embarrassment and concern for her daughter is secondary. As the film progresses, Chris is forced into the motherly role.
An argument could be made for Regan’s father’s negligence in this film, but his absence is recognized. This re-asserts Chris’s status as an independent woman, but refuses to place blame on the father. One could even argue that his absence is the cause of Regan’s possession, but his lack of presence would make it difficult to support such bold claims. In fact, it is only afforded a few lines and one scene in which Chris is yelling at an operator to get her husband. While this demonstrates that the father is a source of tension, it does little else. Once again, the film shifts focus to the woman’s role in defining the man. The reasons for his absence are never explained, but it is inferred that Chris’s career, or possibly her success, has driven a wedge between the two. This does not give Regan’s father an excuse for his absence, but once again, points to the dissolution of the family by the successful and career-driven woman. This dismissive attitude towards the father demonstrates that the key figures in this movie are the women, which audiences tend to recognize as conveyors of horror. For instance, audiences are much more likely to react to a feminine shriek as something terrifying than any sound that an actor may elicit. The use of female protagonists demonstrates how The Exorcist seem to delight in horrifying the “new woman” for wanting something outside of domesticity.
However, The Exorcist’s relationships with its female characters are more complicated than relegating them to scream queens. Friedkin suggests that they are all something to be feared. This can be seen in the representation of Regan. Regan turns 12 when the movie begins. As such, she is at the cusp of womanhood. Her puberty, as depicted in the movie, transforms her, literally, into a hellish creature. She is no longer a sweet innocent girl, but she transforms into a manifestation of a male fear of womanhood. This horror is communicated in a variety of ways, but most notably in Regan’s behavior. Some of the more memorable instances of horror in the film are Regan’s use of obscenities. It is clearly upsetting to Chris to hear her daughter speak this way. Matters are only made worse when Regan begins to masturbate using a crucifix. These images seem to want to elicit a discomfort from the audience from this behavior and the abuse of this young girl’s body, an idea that Barbara Creed explores in The Monstrous-Feminine. However, the effectiveness of this is directly related to the ideals of what was “ladylike” at the time. It is not just the use of the crucifix to masturbate, but this young girl as a sexual being. Most of the horror of The Exorcist is derived from the common ideas of how girls should act. In this sense, the horror of The Exorcist is derived just as much from Regan’s actions and her transformation into a young woman, as it is how the audience expects her to act.
The Exorcist portrays women as conveyors of terror, but also as instruments of terror themselves. This is demonstrated as the movie develops and the few deaths that take place in the film are male. For the most part, the violence against men does not come until the film’s climax. When the exorcism takes place, Father Merrin dies from a heart attack. Although not seen on screen, it is clear that Regan caused the heart attack. This reiterates the fear of the female. However, it is crucial to take notice of the final male death of the film as a form of redemption for the men of The Exorcist. As Father Karras invites the demon into his own body to save Regan, he kills himself. Clover suggests his willingness “to commit spiritual or literal suicide” (Clover 97) is his power. By committing suicide, Karras re-asserts the typical gender roles of the young girl as victim and the male as the hero. These struggles with gender throughout The Exorcist suggest a male fear of loss of control as well as the fear of women themselves and it is through Friedkin’s power as director that he is able to make things right again by exercising male dominance over the “new woman” and the devilish young girl.

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5 thoughts on “‘The Exorcist’ and its Punishment of the New Woman

    • I’m huge into gender studies so I’m constantly looking for new ways to apply it to movies, specifically my favorite horror movies.
      I also did another piece on gender tension in Black Christmas, if you’re a fan of that movie.
      Either way, thanks for the kind words and for reading!

  1. Interesting blog. I’m going to send it to a freind via Facebook – she adores horror movies and she is also very interested in gender politics (among other things) in this genre. I am not a horror movie fan but I adore kung fu movies. She and I love to chat about how physicality and the body is used in these films.

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