How the horror genre sexualizes violence against women
American cinema has created several tropes that women character often find themselves categorized in. Common tropes include: the victim, the manic pixie dream girl, the alpha bitch, the token lesbian, the final-girl, the femme fatale, etc. But a trope most female characters fall under is the victim trope. The victim trope places women at the mercy of crazed killers and monsters and perpetuates the inherent misogyny in horror films which depict degrading sexual representations of women.
In slasher films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), the final-girl and victim trope is used to move the narrative plot forward by preying on a women’s vulnerability and naivety. In violent slasher films, both male and female characters may become victims, although a female victim’s sexuality is almost always exploited in their narrative.
The sexual exploitation of women in mass media is not an uncommon occurrence, but this type of exploitation is different when depicting violence towards women in films and violence towards men in films. In films like Fight Club (1990), where the protagonist engages in violent and destructive behavior with other men, the viewers understand that the punches being thrown are for each man to gain spiritual enlightenment. This intrinsic motivation to perform violent acts with one another is for a self-gaining reason;, whereas violence against women in films exploits a woman’s sexuality in relation to following the victim trope.
In 1991 film Sleeping with the Enemy, protagonist Laura (Julia Roberts) must fake her own death in order to escape life with her abusive husband. A quick glance at the movie cover shows a half naked Julia Roberts sitting in a bathtub, displaying an almost wistful smile across the room. The term “sleeping” suggests a sexual relationship between Julia’s character and her abusive husband. As for the term “enemy,” it hardly accurately captures what an abusive husband is. An enemy is Heather Chandler in the film Heathers or Regina George in Mean Girls. An enemy is not an overpowering male who finds sexual pleasure in accusing his wife of engaging in an affair and then repeatedly assaulting her, while the only defense standing between her and her assaulter is his oversized button down shirt she is wearing.
Sexual violence against women can be seen in many other films, such as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where sadistic ringleader Alex violates a woman sexually while making her husband watch. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) the first victim is a female who is stabbed to death in the shower. Or again, in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), the female victim is strangled by a man, allowing the audience to fantasize about what a woman looks like when she is strangled. This sexual exploitation of violence against women is a voyeuristic sham, a way to gain male audience members’ sexual attention — even if that attention is subtle and ambiguous. So what repercussions does violence against women in films have on those who are watching? A New York Times article released in 1984 posted a statistic that nearly a third of men are sexually stimulated when films portray extreme violence against women. Whereas female audiences who watch films with violence against women are shown to become more emotionally desensitized to this kind of violence.
So how do we portray violence equally to all genders in horror films? Does it start with stripping the eroticism of sexual violence from films entirely? First, we can defy the victimhood trope. In the Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), a female vampire seduces and kills men who have violated women. The vampire, known as The Girl, is not portrayed as a villain; rather, she is performing a type of divine retribution for the repugnant acts made by the males in the film. By subverting the trope of the woman being a submissive victim, we get one step closer to desexualizing violence against women in films.
Julia Tricolla is a third-year CMD major who thinks you should all see A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.