Thursday, June 25, 2009

Feminism and Slashers: The 1980s and Beyond

In this next paper, the assignment was to analyze a horror film according to certain criteria that had been set forth in many of the readings previously assigned by our teacher. In most of these readings horror films were put forth as some kind of concerted effort by the movie industry to subjugate women. According to the standard theory, any woman who is promiscuous gets punished for her sins by being horribly murdered. Only the one pure and chaste female character ever survives to the end of the movie. Of course the more practical explanation is never considered. Young - but less skilled - actresses who are willing to expose themselves in exchange for a roll are a dime a dozen. And the producers need about a dozen of them to appropriately fill the movie with bodies and the theaters with hormonal young men. However, skilled actresses are more expensive and less likely to be willing to do nude scenes. So, the chaste character is created simply because the lead actress is unwilling to go nude.
Unfortunately, an entire genre of literary study has grown up around this ridiculous notion that an entire genre of movie was created, not to produce profit, but to control women. I called B.S. on this, much to the chagrin of my teacher, a young, strongly feminist, graduate student, who seemed to be more interested in foisting her political opinions than in teaching a simple English 101 course. However, being required to analyze these films according to the aforementioned model and not wanting to finish my first course after returning to college with a big fat D, I attempted to toe the line. Not willing to completely accept my teacher's particular brand of feminism, however, I decided to show how slasher films, rather than subjugating women, actually traced the history of feminism. And I did it by using the same sources I was supposed to use to prove how terrible they were. I apparently did a pretty good job because - despite several comments about my interpretation of feminism - she did give me an A.

Feminism and Slashers: The 1980s and Beyond
by Grant S. Robertson
Written July 2005
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a terrible time for men. Ask any man who was single and of dating age during that time and he will tell you how difficult it was to please many single women. 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. Feminism took a turn for the dark side. There was a period when a man couldn’t open a door for a woman without being accused of trying to oppress her. He couldn’t buy her dinner without being accused of trying to buy her body. Things got to where people almost had to sign a pre-date courtesy agreement to clarify which courtesies a particular woman would appreciate and which she deemed oppressive. In that confusing and almost antagonistic environment a new term, “Femi-Nazi” was coined by none other than Rush Limbaugh to label the more extreme of these feminists. To avoid this drastic and negative label many women began to distance themselves from the feminist movement entirely. The pendulum, having swung too far to the left, began swinging quickly back to the right.
This swinging pendulum was reflected in American art as well. And, whether you prefer to call them art or not, as Carol Clover states in her article "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film," "… 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.” (67) Two films that illustrate this back swing well are A Nightmare on Elm Street, directed by Wes Craven in 1984 and Toolbox Murders, directed by Tobe Hooper in 2003. 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. While the back swing is well reflected in the character, Nell in Toolbox Murders, who falls back to the pre-feminism standard within the slasher genre of being saved by others or surviving merely by accident (Trencansky 72).
These two women – or more accurately, this girl 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 – the “Killer” (75), “Terrible Place” (77), “Weapons” (79), “Victims” (80), “Final Girl” (82), and “Shock” (87) – an analysis of the victims, survivors, and of course, the Final Girls within these two films best illustrate the changes between the films and the cultural significance those changes imply.
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 to those children in their dreams also happens to them in the real world. 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 a man – “born of death” when he was born in his mothers coffin – who sets out to become immortal by having a building built to his exact specifications complete with spell symbols distributed throughout. Since its construction in the 1930s, Lusman has inhabited his secret townhouse hidden within The Toolbox Arms while killing struggling actors and doing unspecified things with their bodies in order to preserve his life. Nell and Steven are a married couple who have recently moved into this building. 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. Chaz, one of the original residents, gives Nell a clue that leads her to discover, via an incredibly informative city records clerk, Lusman’s secret townhouse. 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; nor that he has killed several of her neighbors. That is, until she literally falls into the killer’s lair and repeatedly stumbles over rooms full of bodies. It is her bumbling that also tips off the killer to her presence. 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 these two films share few characteristics. Nightmare’s ratio of males to females is equal, while in Toolbox twice as many men are killed than women. As many analysts have noted, the murder of Tina in Nightmare 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 Toolbox 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. At least one courtesy afforded the women of both films is that they get to go first, so to speak. 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 Toolbox 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. It is hard to tell if he is the token black actor, the token black victim, or both. 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 mutilated in the longest, most gruesome scene yet. At first portrayed as ominous, or perhaps jealous of Julia’s dates, he turns out to be a feminist’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 evil he represents, is attacking any particular people for any particular transgressions, sexual or feminist, and more like he is attacking the entire 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 both Nancy, who fends off Glen’s advances, and Nell, who does have sex but only within the bounds of holy matrimony. But this is where the similarities end. A telling difference is the way in which these two women 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) often saved by a man in the end. The Final Girl of the 1980s 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 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 Nancy and Nell that, while more obvious, has subtle implications: this has to with their age. It can’t escape notice that Nancy is a child while Nell is an adult. At first glance this appears to be another example of the back swings mentioned earlier. After all, Clover does note, the pre-1980s Final Girl was an adult, then she was a child (80), and now she is an adult again. Sometimes, however, by the time the pendulum completes that second swing the environment is not the same as when it left. 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 subscribed. 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, “Were 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 her. 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 1980s to the post-1980s decades at first seem to represent a simple return to the old days before feminism was commonly accepted as a good thing. However, the more subtle differences found in films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Toolbox Murders reveal that culture is more complex than a simple swinging pendulum. 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.
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.
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.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

1 comment:

  1. I remember the late 80's early 90's when men no longer held doors open, etc for women and I felt it sad that men were no longer allowed to be courteous to a fellow human being. This certainly gave feminism a bad name. It was years before -for the most part - both men and women felt comfortable opening doors for ~anyone~ regardless as to whether they were of the same sex or not.

    In the aftermath of the "extreme independence and antagonism" I have found myself on several occasions explaning what feminism really means to both men and women for whom that period left a bad taste in their mouth.