On (Truly) Strong Females, Recycled Tropes and Hope for the Horror Genre

Happy Halloween! I’m a bit low on candy (okay, I don’t have any – *sniff*), but I do have a special treat for you all. Today I’m thrilled to share my blog living room with one of the most brilliant folks I know. Karina Wilson is a British writer and story consultant based in Los Angeles who knows the horror genre better than most. She took time out of her hectic week to chat with me about the genre, addressing some of the issues we addressed on Monday, and more. We are so fortunate to have her. (Thanks again, Karina!)

Horror scene of a scary woman

August: What sexist themes are most common in the horror genre as of late? Has the apparent popularity of the “strong female” archetype made a difference?

Karina: There are strong females and there are strong females… I find the emphasis on women only finding strength through their mothering instincts (e.g. INSIDIOUS, MAMA, BYZANTIUM and THE CONJURING) quite disturbing; only women who’ve conformed to social expectations and played the “good mom” role are perceived as having value and are therefore permitted to survive. This is especially worrying when it plays out to target audiences weaned on poor, benighted Bella Swan, who wanted nothing more from life than to get married and have a baby before her 19th birthday. However, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (one of my favorite films of the last few years) counterbalances this ‘cult of Motherhood’ quite nicely.

I’m also very wary of the current fashion for witch-bashing, which was particularly iniquitous in HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS. It’s all a bit too glib and easy (the Crone with warts on her nose must die!), and doesn’t acknowledge that witch hunts led to the deaths of tens of thousands of women in Europe during the peak of the Inquisition, and that accusations of witchcraft are still used to justify lynch mobs and the murder of old women across Africa. It’s all part and parcel of the expressed desire to persecute women who don’t fit neatly into the marry-reproduce-nuture mold – there’s nothing wrong with doing that, per se, but women who don’t choose that path shouldn’t be routinely demonized.

August: What’s the dynamic like for female writers and filmmakers in the genre?

Karina: I actually think horror is a more welcoming place for women than many other segments of cinema – you’ll find more female-driven story lines than in action or biopics, for instance, or those ‘heavy-hitting’ dramas that clog theatres this time of year, and I personally know a number of female horror directors. However, I believe there is a fetishization of violence against women in low-budget horror that has to stop. A rape/torture storyline is one of the cheapest and easiest things to film, but that doesn’t mean filmmakers should keep doing it. Why keep putting it out there, especially when it keeps coming from the tired perspective of the male gaze? We’re not in 2005 any more. Screenplays where conflict arises only from the suffering of a young, attractive woman are often more reflective of the writer’s mental health than about telling a story. They read like a cry for psychiatric help rather than entertainment.

August: Do the sexist notions cut both ways, affecting both genders? 

Karina: Horror movies have to conform to a fairly solid set of conventions – otherwise they’re not horror films anymore. Unfortunately, filmmakers mix up stereotypes and tropes, and recycle the same old same old characters thinking that this is what the genre demands. It’s not. As long as your story is structured along the right lines, you can innovate with characters, especially in terms of race, age and gender. The more you defy expectations on that front, the more enjoyable even a familiar story can be. CHASTITY BITES is good example of a recent independent horror movie that made huge efforts to defy stereotypes, with a subsequent payoff in audience good times.


August: Why do you feel sexism in the genre seems to carry on, after significant amounts of (if partial) progression?

Karina: The male gaze. We’ve been looking at women as objects rather than subjects for so long, that we’ve forgotten there are other ways of seeing ourselves. So many movies across the board, from family fare to R-Rated, are produced, directed, photographed, written, edited and scored entirely by men that there’s no room for female perspectives. The statistics from research like that done by the Geena Davis Institute on women’s roles within the media are heartbreaking. There are so many talented women out there who never get a voice, or, when they do, their voice is diluted.  It’s so rare to see a film like Sam Taylor-Johnson’s NOWHERE BOY that even partially embraces the way women look at men with desire rather than the other way around.  She’s up to direct FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, which could be very interesting. So sexism is a huge issue across movies in general, not just horror.  I sincerely hope things will change throughout the entire industry so that the female gaze becomes a familiar way of seeing for audiences.

August: How can readers, film watchers and creative artists make a positive difference in these regards?

Karina: Tell stories not just about women but from a female point of view. Embrace those stories where you find them. Think about ways in which the female gaze is different from the male’s, and why there’s room for both in our filmed and printed fictions. Tell your friends. Begin a cultural revolution.

August: Brilliant. Any such horror writers, books or films you’d recommend?

Karina: Where to start? Anne Rice, Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier are the grande dammes of horror fiction, and they’ve been telling stories from a female point of view for a long time. If you haven’t read them, you should. More recently, Michelle Paver, Sarah Pinborough, Sarah Waters, Lisa Tuttle, Muriel Gray, Sarah Gran, Sarah Langan and many more – go crazy with your “To Read” pile (but why are there so many Sarahs?). I’m always looking for suggestions for my column on horror and cult fiction, LURID, at LitReactor so hit me up via Twitter (@medkno). Female-directed horror movies you should see are AMERICAN MARY, TROUBLE EVERY DAY, NEAR DARK, IN MY SKIN, FUGUE, PET SEMATARY, THE COMMUNE and THE ATTIC, again, to name but a few. There’s so much material out there.

To learn more about Karina, visit www.horrorfilmhistory.com.

We’d love to hear your thoughts! What struck you most about Karina’s insight? What’s your take on “strong female” characters? Do you seek out or aim to write/create female-driven stories? What’s your favorite horror book or film? ♥

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  1. Coincidently, I just wrote about my favorite horror novel on my blog. It’s HELL HOUSE, by Richard Matheson. A classic haunted house story written in 1971, it still has the chops to scare the crap out of readers. http://mikesirota.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/still-scary-after-all-these-years/

  2. Great post, August. I love Karina’s comment urging horror authors to tell stories not about women, but from a female point of view. There need to be more strong, resourceful women in this genre. I don’t read many horror stories, but I think I’d get into them if this were the case!

  3. Catherine Johnson

     /  October 31, 2013

    Awesome post! I went to a christian speech the other night and the speaker was just like Kristen Lamb and the subject was about not being a victim anymore. It was amazing! So many went up at the end to be prayed for and they were all crying. I feel so boosted by it, I’m already not taking any crap ;0

  4. “We’ve been looking at women as objects rather than subjects for so long, that we’ve forgotten there are other ways of seeing ourselves.” <- Love this! So true. Why does the ditzy cheerleader always have to die? lol Great post. I'll be checking out some of those authors mentioned.

  5. Kourtney Heintz

     /  October 31, 2013

    Perfect post for Halloween. Karina has such great insight into horror and how we can stay within the genre while moving beyond the stereotypes. Terrific post August!

  6. Raani York

     /  October 31, 2013

    What an interesting and awesome blog post, August! I loved reading through this!! It’s amazing, always when I’m having a hard day and am in quite a bad mood – and I’m reading your blog posts and all of a sudden all is fine! 🙂

  7. Great post – and I agree. The horror genre is too well founded in old cliches; time to re-cast the framework…and writing from the female perspective is a great way ahead. And a way of avoiding being framed by old stereotypes – merely reversing them isn’t enough; the onus is on authors to re-think the whole framework, and in a way that works into the current society. (That was a gripe I had with “Xena”, which broke some barriers but didn’t go quite far enough in terms of re-casting what was essentially a masculine genre.)

  8. One of the best I have see lately is “Tooth and Nail.” It contains one female of the usually ditzy type, however, there are two very strong female characters who run the show. Excellent fun as I love post-apocalyptic movies. Not saying academy award time or anything, just a different slant from the usual.

  9. I can’t really address anything about how women are treated in the horror genre, movies or novels. I don’t get into that kind of story…mostly because I don’t care for nightmares. However, one thing did stand out…

    “The male gaze. We’ve been looking at women as objects rather than subjects for so long, that we’ve forgotten there are other ways of seeing ourselves.”

    I’m probably going to take some heat for this comment, but I’m okay with that. Personally I think there are a lot of women – from all walks of life, and from teens to seniors – who actually like to be seen as sex objects. Everything they do…from the way they wear their hair, to the way they put their makeup on, to the way they show as much skin as they can without actually walking around naked screams “MY ONLY VALUE IS IN MY BODY.”

    Add to that the vast number of them who like to be labeled as the helpless, not-quite-bright sex objects, and is it any wonder why so many men can’t see them as intelligent females? Why they’re portrayed as victims in movies and in stories?

    I find myself disgusted more and more when I think of how much women throughout history fought for equal rights, and to be treated as fairly as men have always been treated. And then I see the current generation spitting on everything all of those women went through for all of us.

    There is a very clear line in the sand. Those of us who appreciate how far women have come in less than a hundred years stand proudly on one side. And then there are the rest of them. Apparently they never cracked open their history books.

  1. On (Truly) Strong Females, Recycled Tropes and Hope for the Horror Genre |

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