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Feminism and horror


Very insightful article by Donato Totaro on horror films, also a critique of feminist film theory.

The Final Girl: A Few Thoughts on Feminism and Horror

by Donato Totaro, via http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/final_girl.html [excerpt below]

January 31, 2002

One of the more important, if not groundbreaking, accounts/recuperations of the horror film from a feminist perspective is the 1993 Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws. One of the book's major points concerns the structural positioning of what she calls the Final Girl in relation to spectatorship. While most theorists label the horror film as a male-driven/male-centered genre, Clover points out that in most horror films, especially the slasher film, the audience, male and female, is structurally 'forced' to identify with the resourceful young female (the Final Girl) who survives the serial attacker and usually ends the threat (until the sequel anyway). So while the narratively dominant killer's subjective point of view may be male within the narrative, the male viewer is still rooting for the Final Girl to overcome the killer. We can see this operating archetypically in Halloween (Jamie Lee Curtis, 1978), Friday the 13th (Betsy Palmer, 1980), Eyes of a Stranger (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 1981), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (Heather Langenkamp, 1984).

One of the book's central strengths is the direct simplicity of its central premise: taking the classic Laura Mulvey male-centered identification process of sadistic-voyeur and flipping it around to a masochistic-voyeur (by having the identification process shift to the usually female victim/Final Girl). Vis--vis the Mulvian argument against male-driven cinematic pleasure, Clover does for the horror film what Gaylyn Studlar did for the Sternberg-Dietrich films: swapping the Post-Oedipal, male voyeuristic-sadistic impulse for a more feminine, Pre-Oedipal masochistic impulse. In psychoanalytical terms, sadism is post-Oedipal, meaning that it takes shape when identification shifts from the mother to the father. Masochism, deriving pleasure from one's own pain or submission, is pre-Oedipal and takes place when the mother is all powerful and is the source of the child's identification (from the womb to the breast). In the pre-Oedipal stage the child takes pleasure in this pure submission to the mother. (Fellini once said a similar thing about why his films are populated with large, motherly women and 'motherly' prostitutes: because of middle aged men not wanting to let go of that pleasure of unadorned submission.) In relating this to the Sternberg/Dietrich films, the implication is that one can also identify with the submissive male or female character one finds in each of the films. When turning this over to the horror film, as in the traditional slasher film, the spectator assumes a submissive position whenever they identify with the female victim, and more importantly, the female heroine (the Final Girl).

Hence weakness or victimization, which may be seen as a form of disempowerment, becomes a pleasurable submission to the mothering body. In Barbara Creed's feminist psychoanalytical account of the horror film, this mothering body takes the form of the "The Monstrous Feminine": the female as castrated male becomes the female as castrator, period. Although psychoanalysis never really gives full justice to the social, political and artistic subtleties of any film, it does seem best served by the horror film. Even staunch anti-psychoanalysis theorist Noel Carroll admits to its value where horror is concerned. What is also commendable about Clover's approach is that she has at least seen a lot of horror films and supports her arguments with textual analysis. But there are other precedents to her main argument, most clearly Linda Williams' "When the Woman Looks" (which Clover acknowledges but discounts as still being dependent on the sadistic-voyeuristic model).

The Linda Williams essay serves as a bridge from Laura Mulvey to Clover by positioning the woman not only or just a victim, but as a symbiotic double for the monster (monster/woman as 'different,' 'freak,' object-to-be-looked-at, victimized, etc.). [...] --http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/final_girl.html

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