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female victimization and empowerment in horror film

By Jack Dorfman

In film, as in any art form, specific genres have been developed in order to make the consumption of the art more manageable to the public. However, this is a misleading concept, as the parameters that define genres often become so intertwined that attempting to classify a film into a single genre can be reductive and arbitrary. This can lead to disappointment from an audience when they are marketed a “horror” film and not all of their boxes are checked. Genres provide the illusion of social stability, and when it is broken, so is our sense of security. Thus, analyzing how and why certain tropes come develop through time provides insights to societal fears and desires. The horror genre has some of the most clearly established tropes, and while some films subvert them, most have continued to be used.

Perhaps the most consistent generic element of horror is the victimization of women. For most canonical horror, the male characters are never the (primary) subject of terror. This obviously stems from the extremely patriarchal society we live in. Women tend to be thought of as the more vulnerable sex (the farther back in history you go, the more true this is) and therefore are the easier targets for terror. According to the horror filmmakers in history, fear was simply more effective when it was applied to a female. When William Peter Blatty was writing ​The Exorcist​, he made the main character a young girl as opposed to the “true” story it was based on, where a young boy was possessed. Would ​The Shining​ have been as effective if it was Wendy who had tried to kill the family rather than Jack? We can never know for sure, but it would undeniably be a vastly different film. Gender politics and perception have a huge impact on any film, but most prominently horror. I am going to analyze the role of female victimization in horror through two examples, ​Rosemary’s Baby​ (1968 dir. Roman Polanski) and ​The Silence of the Lambs​ (1991 dir. Jonathan Demme), both of which use the trope of female victimization to create radically differing contemplations of the female experience in a patriarchal society.

Before we get to the differences, we must first appreciate the massive similarities between the two. Each film was a defining moment for the genre. ​Rosemary’s Baby​ was the one of the first horror films to break free of the “B-Movie” label. Although it wasn’t as big of a hit as something like ​The Exorcist​ or ​The Shining,​ it was one of the first films to pave the way for the more prestigious horror. Much like ​2001: A Space Odyssey (​ also released in 1968)​ ​did for science fiction, ​Rosemary’s Baby​ changed the popular conception of horror. ​The Silence of the Lambs​ had a similar effect, as it redefined both the slasher film and the police procedural, bringing more respect to both, then going on to become the only horror film to win best picture. The films were both based on books with strong literary merit, making the transition out of B-movie territory even easier.

Rosemary’s Baby​ achieves its feminist themes through a seemingly conservative character and story. In Ira Levin’s character outlines for the novel, he says Rosemary is a “housewife, and happy to be. Clips recipes, files decorating ideas, wants large home and family. She trusts, loves, worships Guy.” This is hardly a progressive character model for feminism, however it is used in order to highlight the prison created by patriarchal society and the obstacles which Rosemary faces at its most horrific. It’s no coincidence that the film came out just as second-wave feminist movement was rising. After World War II, the suburban domesticity of women while the men worked and made money became the “American Dream.” In 1960, the contraceptive pill was introduced, while significant strides were made in the effort to make education more accessible, workplaces less sexist, and homes less dependant on women. Although other films such as ​Poltergeist​ and ​The Exorcist​ have explored concepts of suburban horror, none have approached the incisive gender commentary seen in ​Rosemary’s Baby. Essentially the whole plot can be viewed as the effect on someone confined the the housewife archetype. Throughout the runtime of the film, Rosemary is constantly being deceived, used, and betrayed. This is emblematic of a larger concept of patriarchal society, where people may not be actively repressing others, but it comes from the result of a societal construct that has been cemented over the years. This is a version of the “mob mentality,” where people identify with the majority rather than the minority. This is why the entire town teamed up against the monster in James Whale’s ​Frankenstein.​ The power of a large group of people should not be underestimated, and ​Rosemary’s Baby d​emonstrates this in the context of gender repression. Interestingly, this dissection of the female role in society intersected with Mia Farrow’s personal life. She was married to Frank Sinatra at the time, who had wanted her to quit acting. Once the production of ​Rosemary’s Baby​ ran over schedule, Sinatra told her she either had to leave the movie or there would be a divorce. When Farrow refused, Sinatra had his lawyer bring divorce papers to her on the set. Farrow, unlike Rosemary, was able to defy patriarchal expectations, ultimately choosing her work over a domestic marriage. Perhaps this was one of the reasons Farrow was drawn to the script in the first place, she identified with the victimization of Rosemary which was emblematic of her own struggles within male-dominated society.

The horror in the film does not only come from the idea of everyone in the world being against you (as in ​Invasion of the Body Snatchers​). There is also a significant amount of body horror, which increases throughout the film. The satanic cult only wants to use Rosemary for her body’s reproductive ability. They need a young, healthy woman who is fully capable of bearing a child (shown by Ruth Gordon’s character’s relentless inquiries regarding her health). This, again, is representative of the perception of the traditional female archetype: they only want her for her body. The dream scene towards the beginning of the film is obviously a rape. This is the stem of the traumatic events throughout the course of the film, and highlights how sexual assault has a lasting impact on a woman’s life, confining her to the role of a victim.

It should be noted that Polanksi is far from the figure of progressive femininity one might think after viewing the film. Ten years after the film was released, he drugged and raped a thirteen year old girl, and then fled the country after learning of his prison sentence, and is now considered a fugitive of the U.S. Criminal Justice System. Polanski is a prominent emblem of the patriarchal problem itself, despite the apparent critiques his film makes. In a 2012 interview promoting ​Rosemary’s Baby’s C​riterion restoration, Polanski said that he liked working with female actors better because they are more used to being led, whereas male actors want to lead themselves. This shows that Polanski has an understanding of this male dominated culture, but he’d rather use it to his advantage. This poses a serious problem in contextualizing ​Rosemary’s Baby​, as how can a film made by a rapist be considered feminist? As D.H. Lawrence said, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” Just as it would be wrong to consider Polanksi a feminist based on this film, it would be wrong to refuse to acknowledge the feminist themes based on Polanski. Therefore, the feminism can be more attributed to the source material than Polanski’s directing decisions. In fact, the film was so faithful to the book that Ira Levin said “I’m not sure he realized he had the right to make changes.” Thus, all the feminist elements were integrally woven into the original story, and Polanski simply made a horror film that incorporated them.

​Rosemary’s Baby’s ​feminist qualities could almost be considered a byproduct of simply wanting to make a horror film, but ​The Silence of the Lambs​ is much more overt with its feminist qualities. Whereas ​Rosemary’s Baby​ uses societal isolation of the female character in order to generate victimization and empathy, ​The Silence of the Lambs​ uses it to generate a sense of empowerment. When approached with the script, Jonathan Demme was initially extremely skeptical, as he viewed the story as a slasher film. However, after reading the novel, he was subsequently drawn to the idea of a strong female protagonist. In an interview from 1991 promoting the film, he says “It has to do with the fact that just in everyday life, in this male-dominated society, women are operating under some handicaps. For women to achieve what they want is harder than for men to achieve what they want. That brings a touch of the underdog to them, and I respond to that. So I’m partial to women in that sense.” This is a testament to Demme’s feminist intentions, which also come through clearly in the construction of the film. There are certain visual cues that capture the strife of being a woman in a patriarchal society. For example, Clarice goes into an elevator at the FBI academy, and just before the door closes, we see her short stature in a blue shirt, surrounded by nearly identical tall men all in red shirts. Or, the stares from the policemen which shatter the fourth wall, making us feel as exposed as she does. These simple images do not contribute significantly to the plot, but give us insight to her character and make her triumphs that much more valuable.

Demme was well aware of the horror scene upon taking the helm of ​The Silence of the Lambs.​ He broke into the industry while working under Roger Corman (who plays the head of the FBI in the film), the king of independant and low budget horror. Thus, intending to make a somewhat revisionist horror, it was necessary to incorporate elements from the history of the genre. The film delves into a style reminiscent of gothic horror, especially in scenes of Lecter’s cellblock. However, Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto wanted to incorporate lightness wherever possible. In the interview from 1991, Demme names ​Rosemary’s Baby​ as his influence for the incorporation of light throughout the film, to bring a more realist sense to it. Like Rosemary’s Baby​ before, this actually increases the terror, as it makes it seem that all of this is happening within normal society.

Whereas Polanski simply moved the ideas of feminism from the novel into the film, Demme takes a much more active stance, and actually incorporated ​more​ feminist traits into the film. In the novel, Starling is in more need of acceptance from her “father” figures (Jack Crawford and Hannibal Lecter) whereas in the film she is there to do her job and save innocent women. She is more driven by vulnerability in women than attracted to power in men. In the novel, she also has a romantic relationship with Jack Crawford, which was eliminated completely (and for the better) from the film. This was in an effort to disrupt her from the traditional female role. Clarice (and the other female characters) subvert many tropes regarding femininity in cinema. Although there is a classic “damsel in distress” that drives the plot of the film, she acts much different from other characters who have embodied this archetype previously. She does not simply cry and scream for help, but takes action against her captor. From the beginning, she is yelling obscenities at him, and finally, when frustrated by her lack of  progress, kidnaps his dog. This is a strong counterpoint to the traditional feminine victim, as she has the ability to actually improve her situation through her wit and resourcefulness. Also, her mom, while in a more minor role, also demonstrates immense strength. Classical Hollywood would have her visibly upset and distressed over the disappearance of her daughter. However, the senator maintains her composure throughout the film, making it more effective when she shows a hint of repressed emotion at Hannibal Lecter.

Although the ending of the film brings a certain sense of satisfaction that Buffalo Bill was defeated, it should be noted that this is undercut by Hannibal Lecter’s escape and integration with the real world. Buffalo Bill has a reputation for killing women, whereas Hannibal Lecter’s only criteria seem to be if they’re rude or if it would benefit him. Thus, he is non-discriminatory in his murders. Although Demme or Ted Tally (the screenwriter) have not commented about it to my knowledge, this can be interpreted as a statement on equality- in the end, it is better to have a killer of ​everyone​ on the loose than one who only kills women.

Identification became an extremely important element in the film in both the craft and the characters. Demme used various techniques to get us to associate with Clarice, allowing even the men in the audience to identify with a female protagonist. There are many shots of characters breaking the fourth wall and looking directly into camera, except for Clarice, who is always looking slightly off to the side. This not only increases our sense of unease, but when the characters who are supposed to be talking to Clarice are in a way talking directly to us, it brings on a sense of identification with her that is hard to ignore. The importance of identification is underscored by the plot of the film itself. Throughout the runtime, Clarice is constantly attempting to identify with the serial killer in order to get closer to finding him. This is shown most prominently in the scene where Clarice is looking through a victim’s room just before the climax of the film. From her ability to identify with the female victim, she knows to break open the music box and find the nude pictures of the girl. This, of course, brings her to the closet, which leads her to the conclusion that Buffalo Bill is making clothes out of the skins of his victims. There is a strong case that the male FBI agents would never have had the intuition to discover this on their own, and it was only by Starling’s identification with the victim, and womanhood in general, that she was able to solve the case.

Unlike ​Rosemary’s Baby,​ ​The Silence of the Lambs​ uses the established idea of feminine vulnerability and victimization to craft something more insightful towards gender politics than a traditional horror film. This takes us back to the idea that genres serve a specific purpose: maintaining the illusion of social stability. With this logic in mind, how can one justify the trope of victimizing women in horror films as a way to maintain social stability? It’s no secret that most films (the moreso the farther back you go) are principally made by men. While some may think we have progressed to a place of more equality, the numbers are still extremely disappointing. It was just this year that the first woman ​ever​ was nominated for best cinematography after ninety years of Academy Award history. This demonstrates that men still hold the power over most film production. Thus, if the trope of harming women says something about the upholding of the illusion of social stability, the only conclusion is that men create these stories as an expression of their desire to stay in power. The constant victimization of women subconsciously solidifies the male patriarchy. This is undeniably a tragedy that we should have progressed passed by now, but what we need is more Clarice Starlings to carry us forward to a future where cinema does not need to prey on half the civilization to generate suspense and terror.

Works Cited

Farrow, Mia, et al. “Remembering 'Rosemary's Baby' (Video 2012).” ​IMDb,​ IMDb.com, 2012,

www.imdb.com/title/tt7223748/​.

Levin, Ira. “‘Stuck with Satan’: Ira Levin on the Origins of Rosemary's Baby.” ​The Criterion Collection​, New American Library, 2003,​www.criterion.com/current/posts/2541--stuck-with-satan-ira-levin-on-the- Origins-of-rosemary-s-baby​.

Park, Ed. “Rosemary's Baby: ‘It's Alive.’” ​The Criterion Collection​, The Criterion Collection, 30 Oct. 2012, www.criterion.com/current/posts/2535-rosemary-s-baby-it-s-alive​.

Smith, Gavin, and Jonathan Demme. “Identity Check.” ​Film Comment​, Jan. 1991.

Taubin, Amy. “The Silence of the Lambs: A Hero of Our Time.” ​The Criterion Collection​, The Criterion Collection, 2017, ​www.criterion.com/current/posts/5402-the-silence-of-the-lambs-a-hero-of-our-time​.