Thursday, June 25, 2009

Feminism and Slashers: The Evolution of Feminism From the 1970s to the Present as Told Through American Slasher Films

In some of the notes my teacher wrote on my previous paper she said I didn't understand feminism at all. So I set out to prove her wrong. I did quite a bit of research on the history of feminism and discovered I had gotten quite a bit of it right. I realized that the real problem was that my teacher did not believe that I - as a man - had any right to complain about any women whatsoever. Now, I realize that not all women were acting in the manner described in the previous paper but enough certainly were than many men all over the country were complaining about it. Comedians did routines about it and the phenomenon even showed up in movies and television sit-coms.
Our last assignment was to take a previous paper and expound upon it. Naturally, I seized the opportunity to reinforce my thesis. I took out the most egregious comments and reinforced the paper with more research and examples. I think I did a pretty darn good job of proving that, rather than subjugating women, slasher films actually exalted women by tracing the history of feminism. In so doing, I proved my most important point, the one the teacher least wanted to hear: In literary analysis there are so many examples and references to choose from that one can prove just about anything. This, in my opinion, renders the entire academic field moot.

Feminism and Slashers: The Evolution of Feminism From the 1970s to the Present
as Told Through American Slasher Films

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a terrible time for feminism. The 1980s started out great. Young women were embracing the independence that had been won for them by the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s. But then something happened. Factions developed within the movement. As is common with many movements, from Christians to ecologists and even feminists, there are always some people with more extreme views. These people have a tendency to speak the most vociferously while claiming to speak for their entire group. Generally, everyone else in the group who disagree are accused of being traitors to the cause. So it was for radical feminists (Evans 221-222). By continuously crying “oppression” over simple courtesies, such as the opening of doors, they had men throughout America walking on eggshells. In that confusing and almost antagonistic environment a new term, “Femi-Nazi,” was coined by none other than Rush Limbaugh to label these extreme feminists. Unfortunately, this new brush was then used to paint all feminists regardless of their views. To avoid this drastic and negative label many women began to distance themselves from the feminist movement entirely. Kristina Wong expresses that sentiment well when she explains how she thought, “as a self-proclaimed feminist, I would have to develop a supersensitivity to anything that might be somewhat offensive, policing society for every ounce of injustice. ‘Feminism’ was a word that was repellent to me, even as an educated college student” (295). The pendulum, having been set on its course in the 1960s and 1970s, had picked up mainstream momentum in the early 1980s. But by the end of the 1980s and early 1990s it had been pushed too far to the left and was being quickly shoved back towards the right.
This swinging pendulum is reflected in American art as well. And, whether you prefer to call them art or not, "the qualities that locate the slasher film outside the usual aesthetic system … are the very qualities that make it such a transparent source for (sub)cultural attitudes toward sex and gender in particular” (Clover 67). Though disputed by Susan Faludi, one columnist actually claimed that feminism was the cause for the rise in slasher films (Faludi Backlash xi). Three films that illustrate feminism’s pendulum well – allowing for a natural delay between life and art – are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper in 1974, A Nightmare on Elm Street, directed by Wes Craven in 1984 and Toolbox Murders, also directed by Tobe Hooper in 2003. The beginnings of the modern feminist movement are illustrated by Sally’s realization that she was threatened by a “problem with no name” (Faludi, Stiffed 13) in the masked “Leatherface” of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Unfortunately, she didn’t know what else to do about it but scream and run. The acceptance of the feminist movement by young women in mainstream America is exemplified by Nancy's independence and ability to fight Freddy on her own in Nightmare on Elm Street. This is often referred to as “The Second Wave” by feminists (Evans 1). While the back swing is well reflected in the character, Nell in Toolbox Murders, who falls back to the earlier standard within the slasher genre of being saved by others or surviving merely by accident (Trencansky 72).
These women – or more accurately, these girls and this woman – by being the only survivors of the primary victims are commonly called the “Final Girl” (82) of their film using a term coined by Carol Clover. While Clover listed six major characteristics of slasher films which she analyzed, an analysis of the victims, survivors, and of course, the Final Girls within these three films best illustrate the changes between them and the cultural significance those changes imply.
After a series of grotesque grave robbings, Sally Hardesty, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, decides to take a road trip to her grandfather’s gravesite to make sure his was not one of those desecrated.[GSR1] Along for the ride are her boyfriend Jerry, their friends Pam and Kirk, and Sally’s invalid brother Franklyn. Satisfied that their grandfather has not been desecrated, Franklyn convinces everyone to take a side trip to his late grandfather’s abandoned house. On the way they pick up a hitch hiker whom they later eject for unaccountably slicing open Franklyn’s arm. The kids then make their way to the family homestead despite being low on fuel. Seeking to borrow some gasoline Kirk wanders into the neighbors house with Pam trailing behind. And that’s when the killing begins. Leatherface, our primary killer, steps out from behind a sliding door and whacks Kirk squarely in the head with a sledge-hammer. When Pam straggles in looking for Kirk she is captured by Leatherface and hung on a meat-hook, still alive, to watch as Leatherface carves up her boyfriend’s body with a chainsaw. When Jerry goes looking for the missing couple, he is also quickly dispatched. After many hours of impatient waiting, Sally and Franklyn go looking too. On the trail they are confronted by Leatherface who slices Franklyn open from stem to stern while Sally runs screaming into the night. After getting away, being betrayed, then tied down and having her blood offered up to an almost-dead old man, Sally finally escapes to the nearby road and flags down a truck to escape; screaming and flailing her arms madly all the way (Chainsaw).
In Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Kruger is a supernatural killer created when a group of parents burned him alive after a technicality allowed him to escape prosecution for murdering children. The children of those parents are now haunted by Freddy in their dreams. However, whatever happens in those dreams also happens to their physical bodies. Freddy first stalks and eventually kills a young girl named Tina. Then her boyfriend, Rod, and friend Glen are killed. All the while Nancy, the Final Girl, is being slowly stalked even as she works to avoid sleep and, hopefully, Freddy. Finally, Nancy gives up her metaphorical running and decides to pursue Freddy in his own world and force him into hers where she can hopefully kill him. She learns how to set booby traps and manages to cause Freddy great pain but ultimately only defeats him by “taking back all the energy” she gave him (Nightmare).
Set in 2003, Toolbox Murders, is the story of Nell and her husband Steven who have recently moved into an old building called The Lusman Arms. It has supposedly been under renovation for quite some time but has become a dump due to the ineptitude of its superintendent and its handyman, Ned. One other family and several single adults live in this building together. When Nell’s new friend, Julia, turns up missing she gets worried and begins investigating. While being nervous and suspicious about the building and believing that something must have happened to Julia, Nell has no real idea that there is a killer stalking the halls. That is, until she literally falls into the killer’s lair – a townhouse hidden within the walls of the building – and repeatedly stumbles over rooms full of bodies. It is her bumbling that also tips off the killer to her presence. This killer is the same Mr. Lusman who designed and built the building in the 1920s. A young boy, Austin, discovers the killer and notifies Steven, who then sends Austin for the police while rallying a posse of men to go save Nell. They are naturally picked off one by one until only Nell and Steven survive. Steven is injured but revives just in time to save Nell from being sawed in half from the crotch up. But, in the required the-killer-is-still-alive twist, Lusman attacks Nell again in her apartment only to be dispatched by police officers just in the nick of time. (Toolbox)
Aside from being human, the victims in Nightmare share few characteristics with those of either Chainsaw or Toolbox. Nightmare’s ratio of males to females is equal, while in both Chainsaw and Toolbox far more men are killed than women. In Nightmare all the victims are children, dependent on their parents for support. Conversely, those children are suffering for the sins of those same parents whereas the victims in Chainsaw and Toolbox have no prior connection with their killers. One similarity between Chainsaw and Nightmare is that the men die quickly. In Chainsaw this is exceedingly so. One whack on the head and that is it. Almost as if leatherface, the problem with no name, is trying to knock some sense into them. Or perhaps when confronted by “the problem” they just can’t handle it. Unable or unwilling to accept feminism they just simply drop in their tracks, dumbstruck. Pam is another matter. When confronted by the problem she recognizes the danger and tries to escape but is caught up by the shear magnitude of the issues. Unable to escape she is hung up like a piece of meat. Metaphorically, she is overwhelmed by the rampant sexism represented by her attacker and succumbs to the meat market mentality of the era.
In Nightmare, Tina is also treated like a piece of meat. Sliced up by Freddy’s finger-knives and tossed around the room the same way a dog plays with a dead rabbit, she was turned into nothing more than a plaything. As many analysts have noted, Tina’s murder received much more screen time than all of the other murders combined. They claim this is due to her sexual transgressions earlier in the film. An equally viable explanation is that she had not fully embraced the independence won for her by her feminist foremothers. The same lack of independence that caused her to succumb to Rod’s advances lead to her inability to defend herself from Freddy’s. Rod, Glen, and even Marge – the worst transgressor of them all, having murdered Freddy, gotten a divorce, become an alcoholic, and practically abandoned her daughter within her own home – in exchange for giving little credence to the plight of Tina and Nancy, are given short shrift in the murder department as well. Thus reminding us that anyone who dismisses feminism will get the short end of the stick when it comes to their relationships with these newly empowered young women.
But there seems to be little, if any, consistent “cause” to be found among the victims at the Lusman Arms other than the fulfillment of the killer’s independent needs. Daisy – a normal working girl as evidenced by the name tag on her jacket, who’s only transgression is a credit card that doesn’t go through – is the first victim we see. She dies despite owning an electronic stunner and locking 4 locks on her apartment door. Saffron – a braless hippy chick who has loud fights and even louder make-up sex with her heavily tattooed and pierced boyfriend – dies next. Then Julia – a superficial woman who has worked hard to lose 47 pounds but seems primarily concerned with using her new looks to attract men – gets attacked in her bedroom. Each of the female victims in Toolbox represent a different degree of dependence on men. Daisy completely ignores calls for dates on her answering machine. Saffron is sexually liberated; having sex with whomever she pleases. And Julia is willing to change her body just to please men. Regardless of the strength of their feminist ideals or the degree of their sexual transgressions, they are all equally doomed.
The men at The Lusman Arms are doomed as well. An older construction worker, blown out a third story window by a freak electrical accident before the film starts, is apparently killed simply to put a halt to the renovations. A hard working, young, black actor takes a bow after Julia. We don’t see very much of him compared to the other victims – his acting or his insides. Just at the point in the film where the more astute in the audience would begin to observe that the women were getting much more mutilation time and the more gullible are convinced that Ned, the brooding handyman, is the killer; he is killed in the longest, most gruesome scene yet. At first portrayed as ominous, or perhaps jealous of Julia’s dates, he turns out to be many women’s dream when he tells Julia that she was pretty even before she lost the weight. Louise – a basic, helpful, courteous doorman who is willing to risk his life to help Nell whom he has only met days earlier – is picked off almost as soon as Steven’s posse enters Lusman’s townhouse. Then the apathetic, lying, dismissive superintendent rounds out the full spectrum of men’s attitudes toward women. With his murder, equal screen time has now been dedicated to both male and female victims and both have perfectly balanced the scales of feminist justice. Chaz, the last to die is simply the stereotypical man killed while trying to protect the Final Girl.
With this long and seemingly intentionally balanced list of victims it seems less like Lusman, or the problem he represents, is attacking any particular people for any particular transgressions, sexual or feminist, and more like he is attacking the community as a whole. In fact, a closer examination of all the people who survive reveals that they are all members of a family; compared to all the victims who are single. So, even within the community, those less invested in that community have less of a chance for survival.
The most important survivor in any of these films, the person given the most screen time by far, is the Final Girl. Carol Clover claims that “In the slasher film, sexual transgressors of both sexes are scheduled for early destruction.” (80) with the implication that Final Girls are pure and chaste. This holds true for all of our Final Girls. In Chainsaw, no sex is portrayed or even implied on screen perhaps because of the era in which it was released. In Nightmare, however, all of the victims either had or asked for sex in contrast to Nancy who fends off Glen’s advances. It is implied that Nell, in Toolbox, does have a healthy sex life but only within the bounds of holy matrimony. This is where the similarities end. The most telling of the differences between these three is the way in which they survive to actually become the Final Girl.
As Sarah Trencansky notes in "Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgressions in 1980s Slasher Horror", “…the 1970s slasher heroines … usually survived seemingly at random, based on their ability to scream, run, and avoid the pursuing monster…” (64). Trencansky relates this to a lack of “Agency” (72) or self determination and it is certainly true of Sally in Chainsaw. Easily convinced to pick up a creepy looking hitcher and equally easily convinced by her brother to take that iffy side trip, Sally doesn’t seem to have much to say about what happens in her own life. But she does survive; often with Leatherface’s chainsaw swinging wildly mere inches behind her back. Sally definitely knows there is a problem. But, in her youth and innocence, she hasn’t the resources or strategies to fight back. When confronted with the enormity of it all at the killer’s dinner table all she can think to do is offer her body in exchange for freedom. But her oppressors don’t want sex; they want control. Freedom is the last thing sexists want women to have. For them, sex without control is worthless. Instead, Sally must turn to a passing semi driver for rescue. Representing many of the supposed “tough guys” in American culture, he is sympathetic but doesn’t quite have a clue either. Rather than simply step on the gas, he follows Sally out the other side of the cab and runs from the issue himself. Finally, she flags down and climbs into the back of a pickup truck driven by a young man who’s face we barely see.
The Final Girl of the 1980s, in contrast, survives on her own merits. In addition to being chaste, she is resourceful and independent. In Nightmare, Nancy actually studies up on how to set booby traps. When all her friends and family let her down she sets off to attack Freddy all by herself. Trencansky relates this to feminism saying, “The 1980s slasher heroines as a whole literally embody Melissa Klein’s concept of feminism…” (72) and “the 1980s Final Girls actively invaded the monster’s private world … taking on the responsibility of their entire generation’s future…” (72).
“Yet the 1990s slashers tell a different story. … The heroines symbolically relinquish any power they amass [and are] presented as the screaming, cowering, nearly catatonic victim more common to pre-1980s slashers.” (72) and merely “stumble into [the] random violence, …” (72) according to Trencansky. Though released in 2003, there can’t be a much better example of this than Nell in Toolbox Murders. Nell does do a considerable amount of investigating prior to stumbling into the killer’s lair but it is important to note that she is not actively searching for a known killer. She is merely excessively curious; the kind of curiosity that usually kills the cat. Even after she has trapped herself she doesn’t know what she has gotten herself into until she discovers the bodies; rooms and rooms full of them. Once her bumbling does set the killer on her trail she basically runs and screams a lot until her husband, Steve, and his posse find her. In the final attack scene she only barely fends off the killer with the symbols she has inexplicably written on her arms till the police come and blast him out the window. Yes, Nell appears to be the perfect example of the back-swing of both the slasher genre conventions and the perception of feminism in American culture.
There is another difference between Nell and her younger sisters, Sally and Nancy. Although it is more obvious on the surface, this difference has subtle implications. Nell is the only adult of the three. Yes, Sally is older than Nancy; but she is still just a teenager out on a road trip. Clover does note that the pre-1980s Final Girl was an adult, then in the 1980s she was a child (80); but there is a difference between simply being older and living in a grown-up, adult world. Adult women are not the same in the late 1990s and 2000s as they were before the 1980s; neither is the feminism to which they subscribe. “By the mid-1990s young feminists labeling themselves the ‘Third Wave’ announced their presence…” (Evans 215). These women place much more emphasis on diversity (Dicker 9-10) and community (Evans 191); while allowing for a broader definition of “woman” and “feminism” (Dicker 5). The mature Nell is a member of a diverse community. She has only just moved in and already Saffron has offered her some spare tea from her kitchen. She has met several others in the building where the Super’ informs her, “We’re all friendly here.” It takes a young boy to first discover the killer and several others are willing to risk their lives in order to save Nell. In the final scene it is a perfectly diversified pair of police officers – a black female officer, firing the first shots, and a white male officer – who save her. This represents a new emphasis in feminism today: that not all male assistance is oppression and that a woman doesn’t need to be entirely independent to be liberated. Family, community, and interdependence are equally important.
Changes in the slasher genre from the 1970s to the 1980s and into the post-1980s decades at first seem to resemble a swinging pendulum. A cursory examination has led many to believe that the return of some earlier genre conventions indicates a return to the past for feminism as well. However, the more subtle differences found in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Toolbox Murders reveal that culture is more complex than a simple weight, swinging back and forth on the end of a rope. Not all progress is linear. Sometimes it comes in fits and starts; regressing in some ways and progressing in others. Rather than fall back to pre-1980s standards, the ideals of feminism have evolved from a birth of growing independence, through an adolescence of extreme independence and antagonism, to a more mature notion of community and interdependence. Let’s hope this “Third Wave” can wash over American culture in away that cleanses it of misogyny and sexism without the antagonism that prompted the seawalls to go up in the past.

Works Cited

A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. New Line Cinema, 1984.
Clover, Carol. "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film." The Dread of Difference: Gender in the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austen: U of Texas P, 1996. 66-113.
Dicker, Rory, and Alison Piepmeier, eds. “Introduction.” Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003. 3-26
Evans, Sara M. Tidal Wave : How Women Changed America at Century's End. New York : Free Press, 2003.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
––– Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. New York: William Morrow, 1999.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Dir. Tobe Hooper. Vortex, 1974.
Toolbox Murders. Dir. Tobe Hooper. Alpine Pictures Inc., 2003.
Trencansky, Sarah. "Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgressions in 1980s Slasher Horror." Journal of Popular Film and Television. 29.2 (2001): 54 para. Expanded Academic ASAP. 21 July 2004. Keyword: Trencansky.
Wong, Kristina Sheryl. “Pranks and Fake Porn: Doing Feminism My Way.” Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003. 294-307.

[GSR1]What, they didn’t have telephones in 1973?

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

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