Credit Universal Pictures

Victim or villain: more than a trope

By Meredith Rae

A defiant attack on the male gaze; Meredith analyses the way Jennifer’s Body subverts the typical portrayal of women in horror films.

As the evenings become darker and colder we anticipate Halloween and, naturally, start watching horror films. Like most films and genres, horror is built upon stereotypes. We have the beloved hero, the villain, or the token character, to name a few. These familiar strangers that always seem to reappear on our screens make horror films an easy watch for audiences. And when we think about horror films, women are often at the forefront of what comes to mind. Ranging from a sacrificial lamb, to an innocent virgin, to the femme fatale, women are almost always a key part of the narrative. We all know the classic blood curdling scream from women in horror films. Whether it’s out of sheer fear, anger, or a cry for attention, it has become an expected element in the soundscape of horror films. In contrast, male characters are usually seen from both ends of the knife: killers and protectors. Men are allowed and expected to play both the roles of the villain and the hero. Therefore, unlike female characters, they are a lot less restricted in terms of the stories they can tell in horror films, allowing for more complex character development. 

Traditionally, horror films are directed by men, allowing the male gaze to dominate the genre. According to Stephen Follows, an established data researcher in the film industry, only 5.9% of all horror films grossing more than $10 million in the past three decades have been directed by women. However, the limitations placed on female characters in horror films are starting to be challenged. In Us, Jennifer’s Body and Midsommar, women are not only the protagonists, but they embody the blurring of good and evil. These three films ultimately revolve around women who cannot be easily labelled, and confuse the lines between good and evil.

In Jennifer’s Body (2009), the eponymous protagonist becomes possessed and turns into a succubus after being sacrificed to Satan in the forest by a group of men. As a result, she begins to satisfy her appetite for human flesh with the school’s male population, until her nerdy friends ultimately put an end to the carnage by killing her. The film is unique in that its director, Karyn Kasuma, and writer, Diablo Cody, are both women.

Jennifer’s Body weaponsises traditional horror tropes to use them against the predominantly male audience. The film is a great example of ‘lipstick feminism’, a third-wave feminist subcategory where the sexual force of women upholds feminist ideas, allowing women to use their female allure and sexuality as a form of power, especially over men. We see this when Jennifer says to her friend at a local bar: “They’re just boys, morsels. We have all the power,” and refers to her friend’s breasts as “smart bombs”. But Jennifer’s overpowering female sexuality is not her downfall here; instead she uses it to exact revenge on the gender that wronged her, by luring in men with her attraction before killing them.  

The historic and systematic exclusion of women from villainy causes a one-dimensional vision of femininity, overlooking the complexity of female emotion and experience, but Jennifer’s Body subverts this. Where there are female villains in movies it is often a surprise for audiences, but I think it is refreshing to see a woman being allowed the opportunity to occupy a space in horror films which she is usually denied.

So does Jennifer’s Body represent the beginning of a new cinematic era? Will we finally start to see more female directors in this genre? Cody admits that there is no right way to be a feminist, or to use your sexuality, but I think we can agree that the presence of female storytellers in the horror genre is essential. Until women’s rights are fully actualised we will still face a plethora of blood, gore, and everything in between on screen. But one can only hope that by having women at the forefront of these films, their perception as mere vulnerable bodies will soon wither away.


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