VIDEO ESSAY: Horror Films and the War on Women (Siding with the Victim, Part 2)

VIDEO ESSAY: Horror Films and the War on Women (Siding with the Victim, Part 2)

[Original script follows:]

Everyone loves a winner. 
This is why most films have happy endings.

Such films seem empowering, especially when the characters
have to struggle through difficulties before rising triumphant.

Although we all know these are fantasies, they also mirror
our real life aspirations.

In the 1970s women demonstrated in the hopes of realizing
their aspirations to be treated equally.

But the most striking films from that decade tell a
different story.

There are two sides to any social movement, tales of victory
and tales of defeat. 

Horror movies tell us tales of defeat, usually involving
women.  Most people would say that horror
films are generally anti-feminist, even misogynistic.

But the stories of victims are just as important as those of
victors. The war on women has been going
on for many years, and the stories of its victims still need to be told.

Before the modern horror film, the melodrama told such
stories to women. Most melodramas follow the lives of people who encounter
great misfortunes. In the golden age of Hollywood, melodramas flourished. Such
films came to be called “women’s pictures.” Back then, women were expected to
be seen and not heard. There was no open forum where women’s issues could be
discussed. But women could connect with others through the medium of film. They
saw their own stories reflected in those of characters played by their favorite
stars. These lives were generally filled with suffering, and this suffering was
largely caused by men.

The modern horror movie takes this scenario to an
extreme.  This is the melodrama’s dark
unconscious.  Victimization is taken to
an extreme, and this makes us uncomfortable. 
In the best horror films, the viewer learns what it’s like to have every
last vestige of power and control stripped away.

For all of Roman Polanski’s own questionable behavior with
women, his films are uniquely attuned to their plight.  Rosemary’s
Baby
, from 1968, anticipares the 70s and horror by focusing on the vulnerability of women in a male-dominated world. This scene cuts in and out of Rosemary’s dreams. This emphasizes the
fact that we are seeing the world from a female character’s perspective. That
world is a very scary place, filled with very scary men. Such scenes linger in
the mind. They create a sense that anything can happen, and all is not as it
seems.

Or is it? Polanski leaves this in doubt until the ending of
the film.

After keeping her feelings bottled up inside for several
months, Rosemary spills out her troubles. 

Her husband then tries to regain control, but this only
makes Rosemary more suspicious.

But at last Rosemary makes a decisive break from the
sinister circle that seems to be tightening around her.  Farrow’s marvelously fragile and nervous
delivery draws us in to her vulnerable state. We share her nervousness:
certainly no one will believe her.  When
he does, a door of possibility opens and we share her relief. 

But as the door to her examination room is about to open,
the camera shifts to her perspective. When the door opens to reveal her
husband, and the sinister Dr. Sapirstein, we share her entrapment. 

The moral of the story? 
Don’t hire Charles Grodin as your obstetrician.

One of the worst injustices against women is when a
complaint of sexual harassment or charges of spousal abuse are disregarded as oversensitivity or the
delusions of female biology. Rosemary’s Baby captures that experience of being a
victim who isn’t taken seriously.

Unlike melodramas, horror films don’t simply negate the
experience of suffering by tacking on a happy ending in which everything comes
out right. This can make for grim
viewing, but it also challenges us to endure even when hope seems dim or even
non-existent.

Whether it’s physical abuse, rape, or simply a quiet life of
desperation under the glass ceiling, you don’t just get over it. There’s no “closure” for women living in a
sexist society, but most Hollywood films would like to make us forget that. 

Thankfully the horror film has a way of shutting
that whole thing down.

Ken Cancelosi is the Publisher and Co-Founder of Press Play.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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Comments

Anna

Rosemary’s Baby is not a good example of a modern horror film, since it features a female protagonist, and it’s not about exploiting her but is told from her point of view. Old Hollywood melodramas were the opposite also of modern horror films. Most modern horror films portray women as annoying, screaming, naked sex dolls being graphically slaughtered, and are the equivalent of torture porn. No relation at all to melodrama, women’s pictures, or Polanksi’s intelligent film.

Stein

The problem with most horror films today is that they are in fact perpetuating the role of the objectified woman, to the point where I as a man cannot watch. So The last one I watched and where I couldn’t believe my eyes — every cue was fully based on outdated (well, apparently not outdated) clichés about women. It was the Conjuring. How can people watch that and not realize what misogynistic narrative they’re falling for??

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