The misogynistic portrayal of women in horror films

In Opinion
Shelley Duvall's character in "The shining" screams as the ax with the word misogyny breaks through the door.
(Angelina Dequina / Daily Titan)

The most frightening thing about women in horror films is not the fact that they are often monstrous, supernatural or perpetually scared. Women’s emotions and their bodies are a foreign concept in horror films, and their portrayal in the cinematic world is indicative of that.

The following female stock characters show the underrated misogyny in horror films:

The Screamer

In their most simple form, many horror films have an underlying “versus” theme. That is, there is always a woman who is hunted by the villain. Women in these types of horror films are voiceless apart from their screams.

A prime example of this is the character Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining.” Wendy consistently screams because of her husband’s descent into madness, but her character development doesn’t go much further beyond that.  

Stephen King, the author of the original book, was notorious for disagreeing with the way that Wendy was portrayed in the film compared to his novel. King called Kubrick’s version of Wendy “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film,” according to IndieWire.

The problem with this kind of film structure is that it reduces female characters down to a singular emotion: scared. Instead of portraying women as the multifaceted beings that they are, some horror films insinuate that women are just living representations of weak emotions.

The Monster

Female monsters in horror films are in many ways representative of society’s fear of the female body and women’s sexuality.

“Carrie” sheds light on this idea by telling the story of a bullied young girl with telekinetic powers who is raised to believe that her period and sex are sinful. This aspect of the film exemplifies the theme of a foreign female body because of Carrie’s restraint towards her own bodily functions and powers.

Another movie that showcases the foreign female body is “Teeth.” This film revolves around a teenage girl who discovers she has teeth in her vagina after she is almost raped. It is based off of horror folklore called vagina dentata that was created out of fear of women’s unrestrained sexualities.

Horror films’ persistent use of female monsters and their relation to the fear of women’s bodies is the result of the male gaze. It objectifies women by showing that their sexuality and body can be too powerful.

The Accomplice

If a woman is not a screamer or monster, she is likely an accomplice. Women are often the motive behind the forces of evil in many horror films, which can sometimes shift the blame to them rather than the actual villains.

Mia Farrow’s portrayal of Rosemary in “Rosemary’s Baby” illustrates this idea because of her compliance with an evil force that is compelling her to protect her unborn child. When it is revealed that she was carrying Satan’s son, her role as an accomplice is apparent.

“Bates Motel,” a contemporary prequel to “Psycho,” features a female accomplice to a serial killer. The show fleshes out the relationship between Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) and her son Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore). Norman Bates eventually becomes a serial killer that emphasizes his mother’s role in his life, which is shown countless times through his split personality.

Women’s indirect involvement with evil things in horror films is subtle misogyny. Far too often, the plot of horror films are dependent upon blaming women when there is plenty of room to show the influence of males too.

The relationship between women and horror films is one that Rebecca Sheehan, associate professor of cinema and television arts at Cal State Fullerton, said is very sexist and tells a lot about Western culture’s alienation of women.

Sheehan also said that women are classed as non-human, almost alien in the world of horror.

Some horror films inadvertently empower women, but that empowerment is counteracted by how demeaning it is to be a woman in a horror film.

This odd dichotomy mirrors the reality of the female experience. It is disturbing to think that being a woman is not only misunderstood but feared, and horror films’ blatant misogyny has certainly contributed to this.

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