Gender Struggles Within DePalma’s ‘Carrie’

Film is frequently seen as a product of its times. If this is the case, we need to look beyond the surface meaning. We must look beyond the director and his or her choices to see the underlying forces that drive a conflict that extends beyond the big screen. One of the most notable examples is the 1976 DePalma film, Carrie. On the surface, it’s a horror movie, but when examined more closely, it beautifully charts the struggle between feminists and anti-feminists in the 1970s.

Carrie follows a misfit teenage girl who discovers that she has telekinetic powers. Abused by her mother and outcast by the other girls, Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to get her revenge on prom night after she is humiliated by having pig’s blood dumped on her. At the heart of Carrie are varying displays of female power. Utilizing some of the characters of DePalma’s film, it is interesting to examine how these characters may reflect attitudes towards women at the time. A variety of contextual clues are made available to the audience that indicate a reverence for the female visually, but also an inherent fear of her capability and an exploration of the cruelty of women. Carrie suggests that it will not be an outside male influence that leads to the collapse of the women’s rights movement, but it will be women themselves that destroy the cause.
Carrie has one of the most telling opening scenes that come to mind. The camera explores the women’s locker room as the girls bounce around naked in slow motion with dreamy musical accompaniment. It almost reads like a fantasy sequence as women are subjected to the camera lens, which stands in for the male gaze. Reality is imposed again as Carrie has her first period in the gym room showers. As she screams, DePalma suggests an established relationship between femininity and pain. Carrie’s physical pain at this rite of passage can be read as emotional pain as well. Matters are only made worse as Carrie cries out for help and the other girls throw tampons at her and tell her to “plug it up!” All of this takes place within the first ten minutes of the movie, so DePalma wastes no time in both victimizing and demonizing the women of his film.
As the film continues, Carrie concerns itself with a number of women, each evil in her own right. Chris Hargensen is one of the most recognizable examples of femininity and evil being intertwined. Chris is one of Carrie’s classmates and one of her tormentors. As the movie develops, her cruelty worsens. In a sense, she represents the duality of female sexuality. She is classically beautiful, but she is also vicious. After being punished for tormenting Carrie, she is shocked. It is as if she expects her looks to exempt her from any wrongdoing. Although instances of her cruelty are numerous, it is her influence and her beauty that gives her the real power. In fact, aside from Carrie’s massacre at the end, the main perpetrator of violence is Chris. Not only is she verbally abusive to a number of people, but she slaps her boyfriend in almost every scene the two have together. Particularly in regards to Chris’s influence, the camera framing plays a role in demonizing her. While forcing her boyfriend, Billy, to kill the pig the camera focuses on Chris as she yells, “Do it!”. Although Billy is performing the explicitly violent action, the camera opts for Chris, as she almost seems sexually aroused by the violence. However, the end fractures the previously mentioned duality of outward beauty and inner aggression. After Chris and Billy have just escaped the prom, they come across Carrie and attempt to run her over. In this scene, Chris is clearly behind the steering wheel as the car guns for Carrie.
Although Chris’s evilness throughout the film is unquestionable, until this point she has asked Billy to do her dirty work. As the film progresses, her malevolence becomes more visible to the characters within the film. This represents just one of the many faces of feminine evil in DePalma’s film. It highlights the sexual dimensions, but also demonizes her. In contextualizing this, Carrie suggests that women’s inherent cruelty towards one another will be their downfall. No explicit evidence suggests this reading, but the fact that the inciting act of cruelty in the women’s locker room is directly related to a rite of passage into womanhood suggests that sexuality is an undeniable element of Carrie.
Although Chris represents the evil of adolescence, Margaret White presents a different kind of evil. Her religious zealotry leads to the emotional and even physical abuse of Carrie, but Margaret dismisses her own flaws as doing what is best for her daughter. The film demonstrates throughout what kind of woman Margaret is, but she is never fully fleshed out until close to the end of the film. As she describes the night that she got pregnant with her daughter, she confesses that she enjoyed the sex and that having Carrie was her punishment for enjoying sex. Although Margaret’s punishment is a self-imposed one, it informs her stunted relationship with her daughter, returning to the concept of femininity at odds with itself. Removing Margaret’s own sexual admission, Margaret presents an opposite to the character of Chris. While Chris utilizes her sexuality to get Billy to do things for her, Margaret represents the other side of the camp, downplaying her own sexuality.
This idea of Carrie’s mother as the militant man-hating feminist while denying her femininity is demonstrated in a number of ways. First and foremost, Margaret explicitly espouses the message that men are evil and not to be trusted multiple times in the movie. The most noticeable is her objection to Carrie’s interest in Tommy Ross. This is one element of the film’s complexity. While Margaret’s distrust of men isn’t inherently feminist or anti-feminist, it concerns itself with an outside understanding of feminism which some opponents characterized as anti-male. DePalma addresses this with the character of Margaret, but does not suggest that this is the only way to understand feminism. Instead, he offers it as a lens that the audience may choose to see Margaret through. This is expanded in the movie as Margaret attempts to shield Carrie from any male influence, again insisting that men are evil. Furthermore, it adds an interesting dimension to the character that Margaret is never seen with a man onscreen. Even when Tommy Ross comes to the house to ask Carrie to the prom a second time, Margaret’s voice can only be heard in the background. In the end, where Chris represented the traditional feminine wiles, Margaret’s abrasive and militant stance against men presents a counter that serves as another conflict for Carrie.
Finally, Carrie as an evil is difficult to describe. It seems to be genetic, as evidenced when her powers begin to manifest as she comes into womanhood. This could be interpreted as suggesting that women are inherently evil, which Depalma certainly depicts, but in all of this, Carrie is the victim. Torn between the two sides, the cruelty of Chris and the zealotry of her mother, Carrie is hopeless; she is doomed to collapse from the start. In fact, it seems odd that Carrie is portrayed as the evil of the movie because her wrongdoing is a result of others’ wrongdoing and her emotional fragility. In the pivotal scene when Carrie uses her powers to kill, she only does so as a result of Chris and Billy pouring the pig’s blood on her. This does not excuse her actions, but it is important to understand that her rampage is a result of other’s actions. Furthermore, in the confrontation between Carrie and Margaret, once again, Carrie is forced to act because of the actions of others. It is only after her mother stabs her that Carrie resorts to violence, as a means of self-defense. Although it is certainly arguable that Carrie is the monster of the piece, she embodies the struggle between the two extremes of feminism. On one hand, the superficially beautiful Chris haunts her, but on the other, her mother denies Carrie the recognition of her own sexuality. As a result, Carrie is torn between the two and collapses inward. This represents the conflict of the women’s rights movement, as told from an outside perspective. The clash between the two extremes eliminates any hope for the success of the moderates that fall in between.

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