Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Resilience of Women in Horror

This post makes double sense, because I’m returning to my monster blog after a long hiatus!09-unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-cult-bunker.w1440.h957.2x The Netflix original series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” premiered this week. I haven’t given it a try yet, because the trailer felt pretty manic to me, but the plot is intriguing. Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper, of The Office and Blowjob Girl fame) plays a young woman who was kidnapped by cult members and held in a bunker for fifteen years. Although it’s obviously not a horror comedy, I really wish that it was.

Here’s the thing about damsels in distress: A study led by the Center for Surgical Trials and Outcomes Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that women who had suffered traumatic injuries were 14% less likely to die post-surgery than men with equivalent wounds. These women also experienced fewer complications after their operations.

A protagonist’s ability to absorb stimuli and respond in an interesting way is tantamount to any story, so it’s confusing that so many horror films star female characters who aren’t capable of doing much. I’ll venture to say that male audiences became accustomed to watching the female form in duress throughout the development of horror. Contemporary projects have allowed us to pile on the gore, spraying the blood of innocents all over female protagonists while giving them something interesting to do in response. To me, there’s nothing more interesting and iconic than the determined face of a woman who’s been driven to the brink, whether by monsters or a slasher-murderer or some kind of ghost or demon, her eyes still steely with rage. Let’s see some examples!

youre-next-sharni-vinson-2Thank you, universe, for giving us 2011’s You’re Next, a horror movie that succeeds mainly because the writers tweak a single element in the story: the central character, Erin, is a sweet, unassuming, polite and loving girlfriend dating a guy who is clearly a loser with self esteem issues, but she’s also the only character who leaps into action when the house she’s staying in is attacked by masked murderers. There is a reason for her brutality, which is afforded to us in the second half of the movie, and the explanation is acceptable, although I would have preferred a character who just rocks at killing her way out of a dangerous situation.

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The cool thing about Erin is that she’s not a badass because of some secret spy training, but because of the lifetime of suffering and paranoia she endured as a kid. Her story isn’t revenge porn, and it’s not about a “strong female protagonist” who enjoys hurting others. You’re Next is about a pack of murderers who underestimate a young woman, and she succeeds at her task because of her profound survival skills. She’s a contender because of the way she adapted to life’s trials. That’s what I’m talking about.

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Let’s talk about The Walking Dead‘s Michonne and all that she’s lost. When we first come across Michonne in the TV drama, she’s wielding a katana alone in the woods, navigating packs of the dead by hiding her scent with two zombies on chains. She’s hacked their arms and lower jaws off so they can’t hurt her. As the show progresses, we start to realize that Michonne’s first embodiment in the show, as a complete and true assassin, is the product of years of heartache and terror.

To understand the depth of Michonne’s resilience, we must recognize her experience before she entered Rick Grimes’ life. (Of course, The Walking Dead is paralyzed with its strict adherence to a male, straight, caucasian timeline and the stories and viewpoints of characters who fit that persona, but they do give us some hints.)

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We learn in flashbacks that Michonne was once a mother, and that she lost her baby during the zombie apocalypse. Her character is not a killing machine instead of being a mother, and she’s not a killing machine because of the lack of motherhood. She was a mother, and is a mother who has lost her son, and something was awakened inside her during the apocalypse that is fun for audiences to watch. In that way, our enjoyment is a little sadistic, because Michonne’s story is enhanced through pain. If we look at The Walking Dead‘s Maggie, the set-up is a little different.

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When we first meet Maggie, she’s a simple girl living on a farm with her father and young sister. Seasons later, Maggie has found a love interest, and she’s endured watching her father’s decapitation at the hands of a psychopath. She’s lost her younger sister to a violent conflict with another group of survivors, and she, like her boyfriend and all the other in their clan, are constantly under threat of death. Maggie remains kind and level-headed, and her ability to love and understand others develops, but she also morphs into the image below:

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Maggie, then, is a great example of classic femininity not only surviving adversity, but being enhanced by it. It’s also worth noting that Maggie and Michonne are both depicted as attractive, but not overtly-sexualized women. Maggie has suffered extreme loss post-apocalypse, but she’s also become more complicated and self-aware.

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In 2008’s Babysitter Wanted, protagonist Angie leaves behind a conservative Christian background to embark on a life of her own, which includes college classes and the occasional babysitting gig on the side. When babysitting for the Stanton family, Angie realizes that she’s been charged with protecting the spawn of the devil. Worse still, the kid’s parents are well aware of what he is, and they’ve been keeping him on a strict diet of bloodied and battered babysitters.

Typical set-up, yes? Angie is exciting because she’s knowledgeable when it comes to religion, and her personal experiences with Christian oppression inform how she responds to true evil.

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This shot reminds me of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, obviously, but Angie is much more calculating than her TCM counterpart. She doesn’t end the film screaming.

Perhaps resilient women must be informed by their backstories in order to survive present circumstances in horror. Strong writing should create textured, multi-dimensional characters who aren’t weakened or emboldened because of arbitrary details like their gender. A violent, female character is a step toward representation in horror; that is, her performance of femininity is not less feminine because of the violence she enacts. It is colored by it.

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In the 2007 French horror film Frontière(s), protagonist Yasmine is a pregnant (!!!) armed robber who is kidnapped during a political revolt in Paris. She watches her male friends picked off one by one, slowly and painfully, and slowly changes while under duress. At the beginning of the conflict, several of her male friends put themselves in danger in order to allow her to escape. She climbs over dead bodies to get closer to an exit, all the while internalizing her captors’ brutality.

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Leading up to the final showdown, Yasmine utilizes all the skills allowed to her as a feminine character: she seduces one of the captors, emotionally connects with female characters through secrets, and makes promises on the subject of her unborn baby in order to bring peace to her friends. (She vows not to have an abortion while one friend dies.) At the film’s climax, however, Yasmine’s actions are singularly and wholly brutal. She stabs, threatens, manipulates, causes explosion and tears out a person’s throat with her bare hands. After the dust settles, she returns to the only remaining female character on screen and begs her to come along to safety. In Yasmine, we get an exploration of femininity under extreme duress. She is changed in some ways, but she also maintains certain aspects of her character.

So Kimmy Schmidt is obviously a comedy, and Frontière(s) is obviously a horror-thriller, but I’ll watch both and enjoy them. I’m just hoping for a film that combines aspects of the two genres to give us an interesting, flawed female protagonist (without being one of those crass-for-no-reason “horror comedies”!)

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Resilience of Women in Horror

  1. grotesque ground

    It’s not a comedy, but have you watched “American Mary”? It’s a very good movie that I think you would like. It also plays with the stereotype of female protagonists in a horror movie. Mary is a very interesting (and flawed) character that I have been thinking about for months.

    Reply

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