As I have talked about many, many times on this blog, feminism and horror aren’t always an easy combination to reconcile; especially if you are both a feminist and a horror lover.
But, to celebrate Women in Horror Recognition Month, I have come up with a list of my favourite (and mostly kick-ass) female characters in horror.
In the hyper-masculine world of the action movie, her character consistently challenged entrenched gender roles that existed to relegate women to the passive cinematic victim; always in need of rescue and who are never enterprising enough to look after themselves in times of trouble. She is not defined by the men around her and does not allow her relationship with them compromise her ability, to, quite frankly, kick ass and save the day.
Ripley was the last survivor of the Nostromo in ‘Alien’, she was in deep sleep for 57 years; and went back in ‘Aliens’ to face her arch-nemesis, the xenomorph; she suffered the loss of her surrogate child; she held her own on an all-male prison planet in ‘Alien 3’ and sacrificed herself for the good of humanity by throwing herself into a pit of molten metal AND THEN Ripley returned in ‘Alien Resurrection’ as a clone of her former self only to kick more ass, and save humanity AGAIN.
Given the year that Ripley first appeared on the movie scene, 1979, her character was, and still is, groundbreaking in that she smashed the gender divide that was so obvious in the world of action heroes. (Whether or not this still stands for action movies now, remains to be seen).
(This rapturous description of love for Ellen Ripley, incidentally appeared in Swansea Feminist Network’s zine, ‘My Feminist Hero’).
Asian horror fans will be familiar with 2000’s Battle Royale; a dystopian nightmare where troublesome kids are sent to fight each other to death on a remote island.
Takako Chigusa is one of the unlucky teenagers of Class B who does a good job of hiding until she is approached by one of her male classmates Kazushi Niida; someone she despises because of the way he bullies other people.
After threatening to rape Chigusa (surely, she must want to lose her virginity before she dies…), Niida accidently grazes her face with a crossbow arrow. Chigusa at this point, loses it and goes after Niida with a knife goading him to come and get her if he thinks he’s hard enough (or something to that effect…). Chigusa quickly incapacitates Niida and finishes him off (remember, this is a competition of sorts, folks) by stabbing him repeatedly in the groin area with a flick knife.
The reason why I like Chigusa so much is because she doesn’t take any shit. Instead of lapsing into hysterics about her injured face, or throwing herself in front of a train (see: ‘Hostel’…) she swears bloody revenge, and gets it.
Often this theme of teenagers-losing-their-virginity-before-they-die is a bit overdone (and not to mention, cheesy) and I for one think it is great that this female character isn’t going to give it to the first opportunistic rapey loser with a crossbow that stumbles by just because they are facing impending doom.
Of course, gender and sexuality in horror is a slightly more complex issue but this is just a ‘light-hearted’ list, i’m afraid…
Clarice gets a bit of a bum deal, initially. She is plunged head-first into the hunt for serial murderer Buffalo Bill and forced to negotiate with incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer and psychiatrist Hannibal Lector; presumably as bait, as her male colleagues haven’t got the balls to go down and see him themselves for the behavioural profile they desperately need.
On her first visit to Hannibal Lector, another prisoner throws semen in her face and the director of the institution, a Doctor Frederick Chilton, hits on her. The tone is not set well for Clarice.
Her male colleagues do not take her very seriously at all.
But Starling being the professional she is, takes it on the chin and then sets out to solve the investigation that have left whole teams of male investigators stumped.
Ultimately, she kicks some ass, kills the murderer in a pitch-black shoot-out and saves the girl; something her colleagues seem incapable of achieving.
In this respect, I think Silence of the Lambs is a great film with a great female protagonist. However, it’s portrayal of transgender people leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
In the book by Thomas Harris, Buffalo Bill (or Jame Gumb) is rejected as a candidate of gender reassignment surgery from the 3 major providers of such procedures in North America because of his mental health issues. In this scene, the doctor explains to Jack Crawford at great length that it was not Gumb’s ‘desire’ to become a woman that was necessarily the issue, but his pre-existing psychotic behaviour, which leads the doctor to believe that it is not really gender reassignment Gumb wants.
The fact that Buffalo Bill had a quilted Swastika bedspread in the film also pisses me off so I think the film would have done well to include the hospital scene, for the sake of clarity and to destigmatise the transgender issues it poorly represents on-screen.
I frickin’ love Clarice Starling, don’t you? So does Hannibal Lector; and if you are familiar with the novels you know that Starling and Lector’s lives are irreversibly interconnected…but not really in a run-off-into-the-sunset way…
I have many more favourites but I am afraid this will have to do for now!