Media studies: how are women represented in horror films

Women are represented in a variety of ways in films, depending on the genre and narrative that it’s based on. For example in sci-fi films they are usually portrayed as intelligent leaders (such as in Alien (1979), Ripley being the sole survivor and leading the team to try and save them throughout) and strong willed characters throughout, which are aimed for a broader audience than some types of film. Such as chick flicks, which are targeted at a female audience, because it has feminine qualities/plot in it, which men can’t relate too, therefore would appeal less to them because the way in which women are represented is so diverse. In general the majority of the killers therefore villains in the horror films are male. The position as the female as the antagonist also seems to be a rarity in the genre. Yet in the few cases that this has actually occurred, after the shock of finding out the killer’s gender was not male rubs off, it becomes harder for an audience to keep fearing her in the same way. I like the new era of horror, thanks to the likes of switchblade romance, pans labyrinth and let the right one in. These new forms of horror films are great, thanks to the films “not in the English language category” (sight and sound magazine (may2009). “The director, who’s Brutal, arty “Extreme” movies set the tone for this cycle.” They really are brutal, but in a lot of contrasting ways, unlike the typical slasher films.

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The traditional roles and representations of women are stereotyped as “housewives”, until the emergence of feminism; women were almost treated as objects, passive agents in a male world. women used to be represented in a lot more of a clich� style way (damsel in distress/helpless victim), this may have been down too gender studies at the time;” feminism is the response to societies assumptions that women should be subservient to men.” The feminist activists were battling for women’s liberation and equal opportunities. The roots of the feminist theory go back to the eighteenth century and run through suffragette movement, who fought for the votes for women’s rights.

“The term Feminism can be used to describe a political, cultural or economic movement aimed at establishing more rights and legal protection for women. Feminism involves political and sociological theories and philosophies concerned with issues of gender difference, as well as a movement that advocates more gender-specific rights for women and campaigns for women’s rights and interests. Although the terms “feminism” and “feminist” did not gain widespread use until the 1970s, they were already being used in the public parlance much earlier; for instance, Katherine Hepburn speaks of the “feminist movement” in the 1942 film Woman of the Year. ”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism

There’s also Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, which argues that cinema audiences look at films in two ways, voyeuristically and fetishistically. Audiences watch a film without being watched by the characters on screen and usually in a darkened cinema so the audience members do not observe them either. Therefore they are almost voyeurs, watching people on a screen. According to Laura this can lead to two effects, Objectification is one, where the female characters are controlling the (male) gaze, or narcissistic identification, with an idea image seen on the screen. This overall involves turning the represented figure itself into a fetish (object), so it becomes more increasingly perfect but ends up being so unrealistic, that it’s now only seen as something of desire and visual pleasure.

“Representations of women in sci-fi have offered women real opportunities to be empowered and to break away from the more helpless “princess” role. Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Sarah Conner in Terminator (1984) were given lead roles who had real power and strength and were often responsible for pushing the narrative forward/ it could be argued that such women play the hero role rather than the heroine”

Esseen/Phillip/Riley (2004)

So far the primary research I have conducted has consisted of a questionnaire and then a graph of the results that I have found. I have also begun to look into secondary research about the main films I am focussing on (the scream series) and how women have been portrayed in each of them. In my opinion woman are shown in horror films as almost stereotypical, they are mostly shown as weak/helpless, usually the damsel in distress, like prop’s theory of stock character. They are often portrayed as objects of sexual desire, perhaps this is to broaden the audience, but it’s an obvious trait for the horror genre in the film industry. However even though they are often portrayed as weak, the women in horrors rather than needing to be saved, they become the cause of the problem and the men need to save themselves. I did a class survey asking for peoples opinions whether women are represented as sexual objects, and the majority (11 out of 16) think that they are represented in a more sexual nature in horror films. I had many interesting and contrasting comments including what one person stated “women are never seen as equal to me in those films, there always the victims” (Wood, 2009)

I have chosen to compare 2 films which completely contrast in views. “Scream” (1996) is a slasher horror; this is obvious because of its unidimensional structure of characters and straight forward plot line, of killings one by one, in addition to the barbarous killings of young females usually due to the fact they have secome to some form of indulgence, such as sex. Not to mention the displacement of sexual objectification. Where as my second choice of film; “Alien” (1979) is said to be sci-fi it also contains elements or the horror and thriller genre, because of the gory killings and language. However it doesn’t use the female characters in the typical way, of victimisation, but it does let the main character Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survives at the end. This is a trait of the horror genre, but then again you must also consider how her role was masculine anyways, which can be easily perceived by her appearance, of clothing and a shaven head. However she still remains sexually as a woman, due to her “attractive physical features” (Edwards 2009).The men show lack of respect towards her throughout, both are equally distinctly different to analyse.

After watching the beginning of “Scream 1” and “2”, the first thing that was noticeable was how a woman always seems to die first. The visual codes that indicated the killings included the colours red and usually the start of the scene seemed calm at the beginning, but then changes for the worst. Drew Barrymore is the first woman who appears in the film, when she picks up the phone, she thinks it’s a prank call at first and harmlessly flirts with the caller, (again this is a feminine trait). She also knows a lot about horror and it takes a trick question to fool her. She’s put in control of her boyfriends life so she has a chance to get the answers right, but in some ways is powerless. This is a twist compared to the usual horror genre expectations, instead of the male dominance, drew has actually got some of the power, to help her boyfriend. However, this then slips away as a trick question catches her out, the killer has all the control again, and doesn’t spare any thought in ending her life. Where as in the beginning of Alien (1979) you immediately see Sigourney Weaver (Ripley’s) leader qualities as she appears to be in control by trying to quarantine the protocol when the alien first attacks. This shows how opposite that the directors of each of the films were trying to construct and represent the females. Personally I feel scream actually represents a more realistic version of women. This is because even though Ripley is a great strong female role but its primarily androgynous, as the character was originally meant to be male, Because of this I feel she could have been easily played by a man, so I don’t see it as being a real representation. It’s a very male dominated film.

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I think that’s also another difference between scream and alien, if you look at the women in scream, they’re all feminine and dealing with feminine problems such as family, sex and boyfriends, where as Ripley has none of this and is shown mainly as the protagonist throughout. The only character in alien who’s easily perceived to being more feminine is Lambert, but she is then punished for being the most “emotional” character, and ended up being killed. Lambert is that character that the audience can easily identify with, because she showed her emotions throughout. What I do like about scream is the fact that the female characters are empowered and realize that no one is coming to rescue them and that they are responsible for their own lives.

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I feel that “Alien” (1979) changed the characterization of women, as Ripley, (Sigourney Weaver), was the advert/ realization of female characters who could hold there own, by standing out as a more masculine character/ lead role. Unlike in scream (1996), where Sydney (neve Campbell) is a strong character, but still shows her femininity, because scream has a lot of post modern features, that are quite distinct. For example the way the opposition or dissimilarity is used when it comes to when randy says “if you want to live you can’t drink, you can’t have sex”, but Sydney does and she still lives and saves the day. However it is typical in this sort of slasher genre for a female to make it to the end. Though they both have the lead female roles, Ripley takes control throughout hers and takes the role of the “action hero” and predominant leader, like the stereotypical male would do, where as Sidney is more of a victim, simply trying to escape the killer.

The creator of “Alien” (1979) was ridley Scott, who had also done films such as Gladiator, Hannibal, Black rain and Thelma and Louise. “Alien” (1979) was his first success, due to the disappoint he felt for his first feature film “The Duellists”. He wasn’t originally going to direct the film, but when Carl Rinsch decided to drop out ridley Scott accepted the job. His films are varied in genre, so it’s difficult to categorise and define why he chose certain aspects each. Where as scream was directed by Wes craven, who is well known for his love to create explicit, gory and very violent films. Such as nightmare on elm street, the fear, body bags and the house on the left. In my opinion in his films he liked to explore the nature of reality and test people’s fears based on a twist of reality, which can be related to. Wes has a way of creating suspense in his films. In Wes Craven’s scream films we find such an empowering representation of the female, through the main character (Sidney), who not only has to work out and defeat the killers, but try’s to save her boyfriend. Because of this, she’s portraying the lead role as the saviour/hero, and by doing so changing the conventional gender role of the male hero and damsel in distress in reverse.

In conclusion, women have been represented in many different ways for a long time in horror films, stereotyped or not, there’s always going to be an audience for both. Women’s strength as characters with more intelligence/power and being the main antagonist is slowly but surly becoming more popular, and representing women in ways they should have always been. I think “Scream” had all the stereotypical aspects of a slasher horror, but the main character (Sidney Prescott) was strong in many ways.

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