Boobs, Brainlessness and Horror Films: Sexism on the Big Screen

“Sex is like flypaper to the average murdering psychopath, and anyone who wishes to participate in it during a horror movie is going to die horribly, probably mid-coitus.” – Cracked.com

Romantic Blonde Woman Holding The Light Of Love

Amber: Popular girlfriend of Jason (male lead/college football star), blonde and blue-eyed, beautiful, but with hint of mischievousness – think Exotic meets Girl Next Door. After seeing Jason kiss her best friend, she runs away, has sex for the first time ever with Jason’s geek brother Tom, then gets lost in the woods where she is attacked by werewolves.

With a description like that, wouldn’t you just love to be Amber? I wanted to, badly, leading up to my audition for the indie film role during my acting days. My heart aches a bit, recalling how fervently I tried to bring depth to the countless lovely yet dim-witted or smart but dangerously seductive characters I portrayed. Huddled with other actors at my coach’s studio, we’d take turns exploring the emotional layers that hid beneath our characters’ ruses.  “Kim” was as insecure as anyone, I’d assert, and simply played her “dumb” card for attention she felt unworthy of. “Jessi” wasn’t using her sexuality, so much as seeking and celebrating it the only way she knew how; it only appeared that she was pushing her boobs in guys’ faces then treating them heartlessly. (Sometimes boobs just, you know, fly up there! And sometimes you really do need to wash your hair on Friday night…or accidentally stab a guy.)

If nothing else, the preparation made the characters more appealing to portray, staving off the sense that I was selling out. Giving my all to every role I played seemed crucial to my craft and career, both of which I took seriously. There are supposedly no “small parts,” after all. It took me a while to realize that my preparation—adding depth where none was desired—may’ve worked against me, preventing me from landing many of the roles I’d hoped might lead me to grander pastures.

One casting director told me to not to “think so hard,” that the character was “light and perky” and that something about my portrayal seemed too introspective and mature. Another suggested I be less articulate. “Think bimbo barbie,” she offered with a laugh.

I believe Sanford Meisner’s theory, that the best acting involves living truthfully in imaginary circumstances. (Similar notions apply to great writing, in my opinion.) The problem with Amber and characters like her is that they make authentic portrayal nearly impossible, without extreme stretches of one’s imagination. Why? Because sexist stereotypes, such as the “dumb blonde” persona, aren’t truthful. Sadly, they cement and perpetuate the false notions, leading the masses to take them seriously on some level—even when it’s all in the name of good fun.

With Halloween on the horizon, I decided to go through some of the horror scripts and audition scenes from 5 or 6 years ago. Here are a few patterns I observed, with very few exceptions:

♦ The female lead (Perky Popular Girl) is likely to walk directly into obviously dangerous situations she’s terrified of, alone. When the monsters or intruders attack, she’ll stop like a stunned deer, tremble and cry then attempt to claw her way out of the situation by flailing about.

♦ Popular Girl must house her perky breasts in a powerful pushup bra (my breasts have been taped in place – OUCH) and maintain salon-chic, if romantically tousled, hair and makeup, even after being chased through a dark wood or stuck in an abandoned cabin, car or camper for days on end.

♦ Chaos will undoubtedly unfold during a rainstorm, in which Popular Girl’s perky, pushed-up breasts will have no choice but to make themselves (much more) known. As she runs frantically through the rainy wilderness, she’ll fall down at least 7 trillion many times.

♦ The sharpest female character will be a gawky, unpopular, non-blonde virgin, and likely Perky Popular Girl’s adversary. Desperate to be “cool,” but loathing female peers who are (while possibly lusting after Mr. Cool Asshole), she’ll outlive her “oversexed” (having any sex) counterparts.

♦ If Perky, Popular Girl and her stud-muffin beau are sexually active, the monsters/evil forces/psycho-killer will transform them from lust-filled lovers into a bloody pulp—or, if they’re lucky, vengeful zombies.

Some psychologists theorize that sexual stereotypes are perpetuated in horror films because we, as viewers, have been socialized to associate Barbie-like women and studly “bad boys” with sex. Filmmakers want to arouse viewers on multiple levels—and little gets our adrenaline flowing like sexual arousal.

Sexual arousal is a GREAT thing, as everyone at Girl Boner Central (including you fabulous readers!) well know. What saddens me is how many of us witness these ideals without recognizing the potential harm. (It’s extremely easy not to, considering their abundance.) Even if we have wonderful intentions, the notions can creep into our subconscious, strengthening society’s hurtful messages that we have to look and act a certain way to be considered attractive and valuable, and that sex is a dark, insidious and risky practice reserved for certain people—who, if they’re young, will be severely punished.

While I don’t think it’s necessary to avoid horror flicks or other films with sexist themes, I do think it’s important to recognize the damaging stereotypes, and for those of us who wish to change these stereotypes—and ourselves, for the better—to dig deeper. Asking questions, forcing ourselves to look beyond the surface of entertainment (even when it’s unpleasant), supporting and creating sex-positive works and engaging in conversation about these issues can go a long way. We’re not likely to gain Hollywood happy endings quickly or soon, but every step matters.

Basic RGB

We’ll explore these topics further in upcoming posts. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Does sexism or other stereotyping in horror films bother you? Which stereotype irks you most? Any commonalities to add to my list? Don’t be shy! Here in GirlBoner-land, we welcome all respectful thoughts. ♥

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37 Comments

  1. Hmm, I had to think about my answer to this. No, I don’t think sexism in movies bothers me. Any character that is dumb enough to go into the dark and scary room bugs me. The perky popular girl is a trope. I totally understand where you’re coming from in your post, but it’s entertainment. To demand that Hollywood make movies to satisfy our wants and desires is ludicrous. That’s like saying I have to write only strong, intelligent characters so I don’t offend anyone. The thing is, no matter what we make creatively, we’re going to offend someone. I would hate to think that I have to tone down a character just because she might come off as the dumb blonde. I actually know several dumb blondes in my life, and a few brunettes, as well. They aren’t the sharpest women, but damn they have big hearts! And they’re hilarious. And yes, they would go into the dark and scary room expecting pink unicorns to jump out at them. I think we need to be careful of not going to the extreme of editing ourselves out of entertainment. It’s my choice to watch those movies or not. If I find a movie offensive, I turn it off.

    Besides, if I want to cry foul at the sexism in movies, then I’m a hypocrite. I’m the first one to admit that I think any movie Chris Hemsworth stars in, he should be naked. In fact, all of his movies he should play naked.

    Reply
    • Interesting perspective, Tameri – and I really value our thoughts! I certainly don’t think all female characters need to be smart and savvy. It’s the heavy stereotyping and the residual effects and what they reflect about societal ideals that bother me. And for the most part, Hollywood does provide what viewers (have been taught) to want. I totally agree that it’s up to us what we choose to watch or avoid.

      Reply
  2. In teen slasher movies (most of the “teens” are actors in their twenties) there is always the “asshole” factor. If six (or seven, or eight) of them are headed into the woods/mountains/desert/wherever to drink, do drugs, have sex, etc., you can usually identify real quick the one or two who will survive by how obnoxious the others are. 🙂

    Reply
  3. You should really start watching Buffy, my friend.

    I’d normally respectfully disagree at some length with Tameri, but today is not that day. Briefly: I don’t think there’s anything remotely “ludicrous” about choosing to patronize entertainment that more or less respects all types and treats everyone as human beings, over entertainment that uses women (or minorities in skin color or religion or sexual preference, etc.) as two-dimensional objects or as barely-human means to the strapping-white-male hero’s end. If it’s ludicrous to demand that, I think the world would be a much better place if the majority of consumers got a lot more ludicrous.

    And of course there’s nothing at all wrong with appreciating how another person looks, or even, depending on the context, wanting to see that person (Chris Hemsworth) in less clothing. Totally different issue. 😉

    Reply
    • I hear ya! I’m pretty familiar with Buffy, and grateful for her/the show’s existence. 🙂

      I don’t think admiring physical appearance is problematic, but I do have issues with the type of narrowly defined, unrealistic beauty and sexuality standards society and the media promote. The consequences run deeper than most folks realize.

      Reply
      • Haha. Yeah, more realistically, it’s not your thing. But it’s the polar opposite of most of the tired old tropes discussed here, so if you have to do horror (which I usually avoid EXCEPT for Buffy, partly for a lot of these reasons) it’s really refreshing. 🙂

        Yeah, so totally agreed. Man…I want to go on and on about that, but I (a) don’t have time and (b) don’t want to risk offending Tameri, who is my facebook friend and who I quite like (hi Tameri!). I know we’re on the same wavelength here, and that’ll have to be good enough for today. 🙂

  4. You said, “I don’t think admiring physical appearance is problematic, but I do have issues with the type of narrowly defined, unrealistic beauty and sexuality standards society and the media promote. The consequences run deeper than most folks realize.”

    I think there’s a bit of a double standard involved here. Many, if not most, of my female writer friends would say “Amen” to your statement. Then in the next breath, they would ooh and aah over some guy’s six-pack abs as if that’s what defined a real man. Not every worthwhile male is built like Schwartzenegger or Stallone, any more than every worthwhile female is build like Pamela Anderson.

    Let’s apply the standards both ways.

    Reply
    • I have to respond to this, speaking only for myself (obviously), as a guy who’s often troubled by this attitude from other guys.

      There’s no double standard there. Not close. Putting aside the strawman aspect of it (you directly quote something she says, then put words in her mouth by contrasting it with something that you imagine some other unnamed female writer friends of yours might say/do) and just assuming you’re exactly right, that the same one real-world woman would (a) agree with August’s quoted statement and then (b) immediately turn around and admire some guy’s six-pack abs? There’s nothing remotely inconsistent in those two things.

      It’s all right there, in that quote (and again, speaking only to how I read the quote, having expressed my full agreement with it as I understand it): “I don’t think admiring physical appearance is problematic.” And that goes both ways. The rest of the quote is specifically about “society and the media.” So her quote wouldn’t condemn my own admiring a particular woman’s long legs or slender waist or big rack any more than it’d condemn a woman admiring a man’s abs, nor would it condemn either of us expressing (in certain limited respectful non-harassing ways) that admiration. My wife (and certain other friends…) will roll her eyes good-naturedly and tell you that I do plenty of that myself and am NOT shy about it. 😉 We likes what we likes, and that’s how it goes, that’s being human.

      IMO, there’s a big, thick, four-lane-highway-type line between expressing admiration for a certain feature or person on one hand, and on the other expecting people to *conform* to certain ordained ideals and assigning value to people based on how well those people live up to them. No doubt there’s *some* pressure on men to strive for certain physical attributes, especially around high school and college, but generally speaking there’s a lot more pressure on women. And either way, in no way, shape or form is admiring some dude’s abs akin to the kind of society-wide standards and pressure August (as I read her) was getting at.

      Reply
    • Excellent point, David. I’ve observed and take issue with that double standard. It’s frustrating when women refute the objectification of women, and then treat men little better. That’s not moving forward, IMO.

      Reply
  5. The fact that your post today outlines at least a dozen horror movies I’ve seen tells me that Hollywood needs new ideas. Seriously. That said the fact that you have so many people in these movies die because that gotta get their freak on in the middle of the woods/dark building/island, cut off from the rest of the world, I think points back to the need to perpetuate a moral message. Good boys and girls don’t get into this kind of trouble. Kind of like the old bloody hook on the car door story of the 40s and 50s. While I know this, I know I’d be dead in the movie because the black guy always dies by the middle of the 2nd act in a horror movie.

    On a side note, I’m guessing you won’t be going out as the Perky Popular Girl for Halloween. The taping doesn’t sound like fun.

    Reply
    • You see, Russ, I can’t watch horror movies because I get too damn scared. Really, the black guy always dies in Act 2? That’s a bit creepy, all on it’s own.

      And August, I know skippy well I’d never be able to stay in the theater long enough for the girl to get whacked in the forest (no pun intended). This post was highly educational for me. The last horror movie I watched all the way through was The Blob…I think I was six.

      Reply
      • Usually if there’s main black guy character, he dies in the beginning but very few make it through the second act. I’ve only seen a black woman survive in “I know what you did last summer”

        the Blob was a good movie.

      • I’m sure it’s a great movie, but 30+ years later, I STILL can’t bring myself to go back and watch it!

    • You’re absolutely right about racism running deep in the genre, Russell—another baseless, harmful trend. Right again, regarding my PPG avoidance plans. Since we’re both destined to die fast horror-wise, maybe we should skip straight to world’s most awesome zombies. 😉

      Thank goodness there are plenty of great non-horrror flicks to enjoy, Jenny! JAWS had a similar impact on me at age 5, only I kept on watching—more thrillers and suspense than horror, but still. I can’t help but dig the darkness (and the way out). 🙂

      Reply
  6. Both Mathair and I are horror fanatics, but always end up rooting for the serial killer to annihilate the unsuspecting teens merely because of the ridiculous stereotypes.

    Reply
  7. Great & timely topic, it reminded of a never-ending debate with my friends over the film ‘the Breakfast club’, we’re divided over enjoying the characters and them being such unbelivable stereotypes.

    Reply
  8. Have you watched any Norwegian horror movies? The women in the few I’ve seen are lovely, smart, and strong. My two favs- Dead Snow and Cold Prey.

    Reply
  9. TamTam

     /  October 28, 2013

    I think the sexism factor goes both ways in these examples. Don’t you? I mean, I do not believe that all these beyond beautiful and sexy men, as portrayed here, are in anyway ‘reality’. Their roles are just as stereotyped as their female counterparts. They’re characters are as much of a fantasy as the ‘dumb blonde’ paradigm. Their portrayal of the ‘ideal’ male is as damaging to self the perception of ‘real’ men, from young to old, as much as the ‘dumb blonde’ ideal is to women…. No?

    Reply
    • I absolutely believe the stereotypes cut both (and multiple) ways. I wanted to share a bit of personal experience I found interesting here, as a bit of an intro to the topic and conversation starter. The “attractive,” sexual males are often portrayed similarly as their female counterparts, and the films also tend to be homophobic, agist and racist.

      Great points! Thanks for weighing in.

      Reply
  10. You covered it very well, August. The ‘dumb’ persona whether it be a blonde or brunette irks me every time! Grrrr! 🙂

    Reply
  11. Raani York

     /  October 28, 2013

    This post is very interesting… and very funny – in a way…
    After all, I used to watch tons of horror movies for a few years. The funny thing is, that I could generally understand why the scared couple being followed by monsters did need the feeling of sexual intercourse right at the peak of all fear – the sad thing was, that normally the big breasted girl had to die and the six-pack-guy survived.
    By thinking back I wonder if this was because of what she had in her boobs was missing in her head since usually what she decided was so damned wrong it always made the danger even bigger…
    On the other hand I have to admit I’m the hypocrite who does prefer seeing a six pack Guy surviving than the sweating trembling Guy with the greasy hair who wet himself…
    *sigh*
    Maybe I should re-think my attitude.
    I do understand perfectly well what you’re talking about and I’m 99% on your side, August. But that 1% feels “guilty” of thinking exactly like David N. Walkers’ “Double Standard”.
    I’m trying to see myself in a horror movie and I wonder how my boobs would do there… *widegrin*

    Reply
  12. Kate is

     /  October 28, 2013

    This is the theme of the horror movie “Cabin in the Woods” and my apologise if someone has mentioned it. It is based on stereotypes and archetypes, and the whore must die first. If she does not, the universe can not be sustained. The Jock will inevitably be useless and the nerd will sacrifice himself so the virgin will live. Very few plots deviate from this plan and so it’s a meme that has been places into our collective thoughts.

    Reply
  13. I can’t watch horror films so cannot comment August!

    Reply
  14. I can’t watch horror movies since learning screenplay structure. I hate when a female character acts more or less normally for the dire situation UNTIL a plot point looms, then she goes stupid. I drive my husband nuts yelling at the TV, “Reducing your female character to a vacuous heap of drivel does not equal a plot point. It’s bad, lazy, sexist writing.” Yup, I’m banned from horror movies. You’ve nailed it, August!

    Reply
  15. I’m a fan of horror movies – not least because I was actually born on Halloween (blogging about it tomorrow…). My mum knew an actress who starred alongside Christopher Lee in one of the Brit horrors circa early 1970s, which was pretty cool.

    I used to watch the old Hammer horrors as a teenager. Thinking back, a few were little more than soft-core porn in vampire clothing. But the cliches you mention often reflected the nature of the source material, which was nineteenth century – with those very prejudices. They were annoying, but sort of contextual in that socio-cultural sense. Can we forgive a movie for that? Perhaps, if it’s cheesy enough.

    I couldn’t see much appeal in the ‘slasher’ genre – which embodied all the stereotypes you’ve outlined, in twentieth century context, and I think you’ve nailed the essence of what’s wrong from a socio-cultural perspective. Do cliches make good characters and a compelling story? Not for me. And that applies irrespective of male or female.

    Incidentally, for me the quintessential slasher was ‘Maniac’, which I saw in 1981. I was going “cooool, I can get into an R-18 legally!” Had I known how disturbing it was, I probably wouldn’t have gone. However, this year’s remake (with Elijah Wood in the Joe Spinell role) has been BANNED here by the censor’s office. Why? First-person POV camera-work.

    Movie I’d like to see? Halloween Part 486: Myers vs Xena. How long would it take for Xena to whip Myers’ ass? Milliseconds, I bet.

    Reply
  16. It would be wrong of me to say that I don’t enjoy the sex in horror films. I do have problems with the fact that nearly all couples are killed in mid-sex. I mean, really, can’t they just have a little fun, THEN get killed?!
    Aside from that, I do hate the women characters who are ditzy and scared of everything. I always wonder “why are you here?” They just die and usually manage to take someone with them.
    I thought one of the best death scenes I witnessed was Paris Hilton’s death in “House of Wax.” I did not like her character at all, but the death was done very well.
    Scott

    Reply
  17. Kourtney Heintz

     /  October 31, 2013

    Great insight into the sexism within horror films. I hate that sex somehow makes a character “fair game” for a bloody death.

    Reply
  1. On (Truly) Strong Females, Recycled Tropes and Hope for the Horror Genre | August McLaughlin's Blog

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