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How the Portrayal Of Women and Sex in the Horror Genre Epitomizes Rape Culture

[Spoiler alert, and trigger warnings for murder, rape, and mutilation.]

I have some leftover feminist musings from this past Halloween. Does anyone else ever feel like you can’t watch a horror movie without seeing at least one sex scene? You know the one — where the stereotypical white girl takes her top off, and someone inevitably dies by the end of the scene. It happens so often it even has its own trope — “Death by Sex.”

Horror movies throughout the ages, regardless of their antagonist, all seem to have one thing in common — women are demonized for their sexuality and punished for having sex, often by death.

Death by Sex

Sex shows up in all sorts of forms in horror movies. The Friday the 13th series revolves around it — in the original, the killer specifically targets people who are having sex because her son drowned while two camp counselors were too busy getting it on to keep track of the kids. The reboot (2009) takes it to a whole new level — even fantasizing about sex is enough to get you killed.

The horror genre features slut-shaming in some of its highest forms, and some have even connected this trend with the idea of rape culture — if you don’t drink, don’t have sex and dress modestly, the killer will let you go. When you translate that to reality, instead of a killer, you have a rapist — but the result is the same: Don’t act like a slut, and you won’t get attacked.

This has also been labeled the Token Wholesome trope. We see this mindset again and again in Hollywood, and in popular culture in general. It’s also so profitable for movie makers that unless we start talking about and working to discontinue these tropes, they will perpetuate in the genre.

Literal Man Eater

The “Literal Man Eater” trope turns the traditional punishment-for-sexuality narrative on its ear, but it’s still a way to demonize women for their sexuality — sometimes literally. You’ve got movies like:

  • Teeth — The female protagonist literally has teeth in her vagina, which she uses to maim and punish potential rapists.
  • Jennifer’s Body — The main character is assaulted and left for dead, and subsequently possessed by a demon that seduces and then kills her partners.
  • Species — An alien hybrid kills using sex.
  • Contracted — The movie starts with necrophilia, and while the main character isn’t literally eating men, she is raped and infected with a zombie virus that is transmitted by sex.

Even our favorite TV shows are no escape from this trope — from the praying mantis demon substitute teacher in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the sex goddess Bilquis from this year’s American Gods who eats men whole with her vagina at the climax of intercourse.

These women are usually fully in control of their sexuality — Bilquis is a good example — or are retaliating against their attackers after getting assaulted. Yet in both cases, one thing remains the same — these women are treated as literal demons for the use of their sexuality.

Final Girl

This trope tries to subvert the traditional death-by-sex narrative, but it is still just as sexist and damaging as the rest of the horror movie tropes. The “Final Girl” is the character we might all want to be — the woman who emerges bloody and broken, but ultimately victorious at the end of the film.

Final Girl is often layered with the Token Wholesome trope — the Final Girl is often the one who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, dresses modestly and doesn’t have sex to bring her to the killer’s attention. The Final Girl is the embodiment of that “perfect woman” by societal standards, and for that alone, she “deserves” to survive until the end of the film.

Every remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has included a female protagonist who survives her hellish ordeal. Laurie, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, has been the final girl in nearly every Halloween movie and remake, and will probably continue to be so when the new movie releases in the next year.

This trope also appears in video games — 2015’s Until Dawn is a good example. While your decisions will determine who lives and who dies throughout the game, the main character of Samantha, voiced by Hayden Panettiere, is effectively untouchable until the final scene of the game. The game does subvert the Final Girl trope in the end, but it is there for the majority of the game.

This is the case in almost every game or movie that even comes close to subverting the Final Girl trope. For example, Cabin in the Woods has been praised for subverting the Final Girl trope, but critics have also pointed out that it’s still a heavy underlying theme throughout the majority of the movie. In this way, movies and games manage to play to this trope while still feigning a veneer of feminist progressiveness.

While Final Girl might seem to have a feminist slant for women in the horror genre, it ends up being the same sort of sexist trope work that encompasses women throughout the genre. It doesn’t leave any room for the women who don’t fit the Final Girl archetype, so the rest of the female cast members often end up as fodder for whatever monster has its name in the title. People of color fall into this trap as well — a host of movies even satirize this trope. We’ve all heard the joke about how “the black guy always dies first.”

Complex Magazine actually conducted a study on this and found that while only about 10 percent of horror films depict a black character dying first, the majority of horror films do kill off the black character, or “Token Minority,” at some point in the film:

“As it turns out, black characters don’t always die first in horror movies. In fact, they rarely ever die first. Their mortality rate is, however, extremely low, but at least black characters get to hang around long enough to either crack plenty of comic-relief jokes or awkwardly stand around in the background, behind the bland Caucasian heroes and protagonists.”

You may not have even realized how many of your favorite classics do this — think Night of the Living Dead, Candyman, The Shining, and Nightmare on Elm Street.

 

The Point?

I’m a huge horror buff myself, but I’m tired of this. As a young blonde girl who enjoys sex like any average human being should be allowed to do, I don’t particularly enjoy seeing representations of me — albeit usually with far bigger breasts — dying naked in every horror movie. I can only imagine what it’s like for women of color and other marginalized groups who are even worse represented in these films.

Movies in the horror, thriller and suspense/action genres don’t tend to meet the Bechdel test to begin with. You know, the simple three-rule test that a film must meet in order to be deemed even vaguely female-inclusive. The test that only 7,451 movies of all time meet the standards for out of the thousands upon thousands of movies that exist. And again, horror movies also tend to be terribly lacking in intersectionality.

What does this all say? Unsurprisingly I’m sure, the movie industry still has so much work to do regarding how it depicts marginalized groups. Do I think they’ll do it? I won’t hold my breath. But I’ll always have that little hope that next Halloween I’ll be able to find some better depictions of myself and my black and/or LGBT+ friends in the slasher movies.

 

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Written by Kate Harveston

Kate is a political journalist from Pennsylvania. She enjoys writing about women's issues and social justice. You can check out more of her work here at Fembot or on her personal blog, onlyslightlybiased.com

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