Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Women in Horror: On Their Own Merits: Musings on “Female Characters” and Some Other Stuff, Too - Molly Tanzer

Today's guest post is from Molly Tanzer, a freelance writer and editor who also works for Prime Books. I met Molly on Twitter, and I've discovered we have quite a few things in common: We write dark fiction, we're vegan, and she, too, has a debut novel coming out at the end of this year - A Pretty Mouth will be published by Lazy Fascist Press.

And I will admit, I squealed when I started reading her post because well, you'll see. Hint: She talks about my favorite movie which begins with the letter A. ;)

Welcome, Molly!

So I finally got around to watching Alien.

I know, I know. It’s iconic, it’s awesome, and most relevantly to this post perhaps, it’s a horror-scifi film with a badass female protagonist. It’s unconscionable I’d never seen it before this month; my only excuse is that space horror/alien movies freak me out more than any other kind of film. (Oh, and that’s any space aliens, not just Alien-aliens.) Really, there is nothing that can make me run around the apartment turning on lights and loudly vowing never to rent any scary movie ever again like space horror. “Everything is worse in space” is something I’ve claimed on multiple occasions, much to the amusement of my friends and family, who really enjoy showing me movies like Event Horizon. Jerks.

Anyways, Alien , motherfuckers. SO GOOD, AMIRIGHT? Lemme just answer that for you: Yes, yes it is .

I was actually surprised how good it was. I’d seen Aliens in college, after friends convinced me it wasn’t scary. It’s not. It’s a perfectly fine action/scifi James Cameron extravaganza of ridiculousness with a badass lady protagonist, but it didn’t really strike me as anything special. Upon reflection (and re-watching Aliens hot on the heels of Alien ) I think that’s for two reasons. First is something not particularly relevant to this post: atmosphere. Goddamn but Alien is tense and scary! It may be the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. No—it is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

But secondly—and more importantly—I think the reason I liked Alien way more is that Ripley is a substantially awesomer character in Alien than she is in Aliens .

Why? Well, in Alien , we know minimal information about Ripley. She’s the Warrant Officer on the Nostromo , and you can tell she’s hard as nails and used to people not heeding her advice for whatever reason. Sure, okay, great. But the coolest thing is, Ripley’s just a “character”—not a “female character.” She’s not cast in any sort of female-specific role. This is likely because, as the story goes, scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon wrote all the characters with only last-names so they could be unisex-casted. Ripley is therefore awesomely unfettered by boyfriends/girlfriends, children, aging parents, or any of the other external motivators that tend to inspire other lady-protagonists in horror films. She’s also not out to avenge her rape or anything like that. She’s just a working class woman, thrown into a horrible, unusual circumstance, and holy hell does she win out over adversity. She even saves that cat!

In Aliens , Ripley’s all mom, all the time. She’s a “female character” now, a maternal action-heroine, powered by ovaries of steel and pure estrogen. Cool, fine, but it didn’t really win me over in the same way.

James Cameron loves Mad Moms, and he sets this one up early: Ripley’s unthawed after decades floating in space, and of course upon awakening she asks after her daughter (She had a daughter? Okay, sure, whatever). After discovering her daughter is long dead, Ripley gets a complex about it. This makes total sense—it’s spooky to find out that while you were around, snoozin’ it up with a cat in the yawning infinite darkness of the universe (did I mention I hate space?), your little girl was busy growing up, getting married, and, well, dying.

But the thing is, that sense of failed motherhood colors the entire rest of the film. After going back to the planet where the initial Alien was discovered, Ripley encounters an orphaned girl named Newt, and the move goes into mom-overdrive. Ripley constantly attends Newt, at first attempting to bring her out of shock, and then standing in for Newt’s deceased mom to the point that Newt actually calls Ripley “mommy” by the end of the film. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough maternal bliss for your average viewer of scif/horror films, Ripley also keeps herself plenty busy fighting an egg-laying Alien-Momma, who gets called a “bitch” during the film’s climactic mecha-on-Alien battle scene because of course she does.

So, is Ripley-the-Everywoman’s transformation into a Mad Mom a bad thing? I’d say no … it’s just that Ripley-the-Everywoman is a much rarer incarnation of the female protagonist in horror. I can think of many, many examples of Mad Moms off the top of my head (Terminator 1 and 2, Poltergeist , The Shining , The Amityville Horror , etc.), and that’s not even going into Evil Mad Moms, who show up in, um, every horror movie. (My favorite? Elizabeth Nádasdy as played by Ingrid Pitt in Hammer Studios’ 1971 WTF-fest Countess Dracula ). And so it just felt a little disappointing to see Ripley’s character development in Aliens be womb-based, rather than, I dunno, anything else.

This isn’t to say Aliens is anti-feminist, anti-woman, or anything like that. Hell, it passes the Bechdel test, and it has a few neato female characters in supporting roles, too. I friggin’ love the badass space marine smart-gun operator Vasquez who does chin-ups after waking up from stasis! She’s rad. And I don’t think it’s wrong to put female protagonists in maternal roles; child-bearing and child-rearing is a reality for many, many women, and it’s neat to see women be strong whilst living traditional roles such as mother and/or child-raiser. And so I wouldn’t say Aliens does a worse job of gender than Alien (which also passes the Bechdel test!), just a different job—but one that, to me, felt more sentimental, easier, and more expected.

I called this post “On Their Own Merits” because I think feminist interrogation of films, horror or not, should be case-by-case, and it should be holistic (and they’re not absolute—if you liked Aliens more than Alien , more power to you!). There are plenty of excellent horror films that are not anti-feminist or anti-woman but don’t pass the Bechdel test (The (original) Thing , Let The Right One In ) and there are plenty of horror films that pass the Bechdel test that kinda suck in terms of gender (Twilight , Red Riding Hood ). It’s only one standard, of course. And there are horror films, too, that are feminist/pass the Bechdel Test, but might fail on other levels (The (New) Thing ).

So yeah, the new The Thing . I thought a lot about Ripley whilst watching it; the parallels are manifest—and I watched both this February, which is probably why I’m linking them in this ramblefest.

I watched the original The Thing last year for the first time (see above re: space aliens are the scariest thing in the universe) and really, really enjoyed it. Damn, that is a good, scary-ass movie. It’s smart, atmospheric, horrifying, nasty, and the ending is one of the best horror-movie endings I’ve ever seen.

It also has zero ladies. My reaction to this was “eh, whatever” when I realized the lack of female presence, because frankly, the movie was good enough that I didn’t care about its (maybe?) gender failings. Sure, it’s interesting to note that three years after Alien featured two women in substantial roles in a scifi/horror film, there were no women on that research station in the Antarctic, but I guess Alien was set in the future. (I actually believe that there’s a high probability there would have been some women on a science station in 1982, but that’s neither here nor there. Maybe John Carpenter worried that not even the thing could replicate those shoulder pads everyone wore back then?)

Anyways, The Thing (2011) foregrounds women. Or, at least, a woman. There’s another lady-type, and she and the MC do have a convo (Bechdel-approved!), but the focus really is on the protagonist, another woman-badass without 1. romantic entanglements, 2. kids, 3. aging parents, and her motivation comes elsewhere than rape/assault. Rawk! On! She’s really goddamn cool, she totally takes charge (when she’s able; she must win the battle of reason with the evil force of Patriarchal Private-Interest Douchebag Sander before people heed her wisdom) and does everything she can to stop the thing from getting out and terrorizing planet Earth.

And yet, for all that, there’s the pressing question of, well, is The Thing (2011) as good as The Thing (1982)? Er … okay. There were several issues that held the prequel back from the atmospheric greatness of the original, for me. First, the 2011 The Thing shared a similar problem with Aliens , which was the “progression” of special effects technology. The monster you don’t see is often waaaaay scarier than the monster you do, and I was far more uneasy about the Alien in Alien than the Aliens in Aliens because OMG WTF ARE THEY AAAHH SHIT!! In Aliens , it’s like, oh there they are, that’s what they look like, fine.

In the 1982 The Thing , you only see parts/pieces of the titular thing, except for a few sequences, if memory serves. In the 2011 The Thing , the monster is out and about, running all over the place, being super-gross and kind of hearkening back to Dr. Pretorious from From Beyond . Nasty, but kind of ridiculous. I mean, I really, really liked The Thing (2011). And I honestly think it did some things better—in particular, the who-is-an-alien test scene seemed way more tense and horrifying, especially because of the lack of absolute certainty that was present in the original sequence. I think the film got a bum rap from the review-crew, frankly. The sequence with the spaceship towards the end is stupid and unnecessary, but that was just one part.

Largely, it worked (for me) and that had a lot to do with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s portrayal of Kate Lloyd. She wasn’t depicted as a frustrated bitchy female trying to survive in a man’s world, her motivation for going on the expedition is professional rather than personal (they so totally could have had her getting over a breakup or some stupid bullshit like that), her reaction to the thing is scientific rather than emotional, and there was no “I tried to conceive but couldn’t and therefore I’ll sacrifice myself to save the world!!” (or something) nonsense to put her more in her place as a “female character” rather than just a “character.” All of the above have been the motivation for lady-protagonists in films since, um, films, but Kate Lloyd is just a scientist trying to battle a terrible shape-shifting alien. And she handles it like a pro.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s no one way to judge a horror film’s feminism, obviously, and there’s no one way to judge if “female characters” are better than “characters (who happen to be female).” It has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, because nothing will work for anyone. I do hope horror filmmaking has moved beyond the absence of female presence that (ever so slightly) negatively impacted my enjoyment of The Thing (1982). Sure, people will claim that women don’t have to be in every story told, and maybe that’s true. But, in my opinion, it’s silly to keep women out of films when there’s a high probability they would be present in whatever setting is being featured. Alien got it right; The Thing (1982) fumbled. Maybe. The Thing (2011) fumbled (maybe) on the horror front, but I think it was a great effort to make a larger-budget horror film without a scream-queen being the only lady-type around.

I guess I just think it’s telling that in 2012 I’m admiring a very recent horror film for doing as good a job with gender as a film from 1979, but so it goes. I commend The Thing (2011) for being so rad in that regard, and hope it marks a progression toward inclusion/positive representations of women in horror films. Sadly, 2009’s backlash-fest Splice is more par for the course, but the more we support movies that get it right … well, given the box office success of Alien I won’t say that Hollywood (or independent movie companies) will certainly foreground more awesome badass females in their films, but it’s a nice hope, right? Here’s looking forward to Prometheus


Sara-Jayne Townsend said...

Great post, Molly. I agree with you on all points! Movies without female characters generally turn me off, too (but like you I rather liked John Carpenter's 'The Thing').

The story goes that Ripley was cast as a woman because someone doubted that a man would go back for the cat, and this was essential to the plot as the alien gets in the escape pod when Ripley goes back for Mr Jones...

Wendy Wagner; said...

Now I really want to see The Thing (2011)!! I run a few years behind on the movie front, so it's awesome to get a recommendation.

I was at first extremely confused because I was thinking of the very first The Thing movies, which is actually The Thing From Outer Space, another movie I am eager to watch! Scary carrots FTW!

But mostly this post made me think about the ways movies in the 70s were socially better than movies now. Like the original The Crazies. The head military guy just happens to be a black man, and he's just an ordinary military officer struggling with a bad situation. THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN TODAY. Any black characters would totally have to be funny or crazy or ... something, but not important, in charge, and competent. Ditto for women!

I'm not sure who to blame, but somebody needs a kick in the rear.

molly said...

Sara-Jayne, that's really interesting! I had no idea. I heard an apocryphal account that the screenwriter said he was thinking of Kurt Russell when he wrote the role... I love me some Kurt, and the scene in the underpants would have been, um, nice to watch, but Sigourney Weaver Forever!

Wendy, you're really right about 70s/80s movies being way more "whatevs" about race. I was thinking about that rewatching Running Man; the female lead is Latina but it's never really a huge issue or anything. She's just how she is! Way cool.

G said...

molly, this was *awesome* Thank you!

(and now i want to go curl up with a bunch of movies)

molly said...

Thanks, G!

Doug Murano said...

This is a wonderful, thought-provoking post.

Some thoughts for your consideration: I think it was important for Ripley to lose *everything* prior to returning to LV-426. It's the only way I can see her decision working in any way, from a character perspective. Otherwise, it's just madness that drives her. Here is a person who has been brought back to zero on every front: personally (loss of time and daughter), professionally (loss of flight status, being thrown under the bus for detonating the ship)...not even sleep is a safe haven. Ripley has nothing in which to seek solace. She can feel herself losing her grip because of the collective strain and it is for this reason alone that she is forced to confront her (very real) demons. Ripley gets on that ship for vengeance (double checking that they're heading out to destroy them) and the chance to regain her flight status (the carrot the company offers). What she doesn't expect is that she'll also find spiritual peace in Newt. By the end, she even reclaims her dreams. It's an arc that would work for a character of any gender, but since it's Ripley we're talking about, "Aliens" becomes a story that argues women can have it all: self-actualization and a family life. Here's a busy career woman (it doesn't get much busier than battling hostile xenomorphs) who still finds time for the child in her life. In the end, (as my wife would say) being a feminist isn't about what role women play, but whether the role they play is the one they have chosen for themselves.