Sunday, April 26, 2009

Time for the Death of the Scream Queen?

Screaming women have long been a staple of horror films. It seems to be paired with the idea that women who watch horror films are holding on for dear life to their men as they peek at the screen through their fingers.

But women have evolved over the past decades. We hold a greater variety of positions in society. We work out and have healthy, strong bodies. We run households by ourselves. Ever so slowly we are becoming more in touch with our power as women. The vision that women hold of themselves has changed and continues to change. And with this comes a desire to see that vision of strong heroic womanhood portrayed in the media.

Horror provides the perfect place for a character arc where a young woman becomes empowered. This has been done quite masterfully in films like Silence of the Lambs, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, The Descent, Scream and others. We rejoice at women who use their smarts, heart, intuition, and physical strength to survive and, yes, even kick butt when the situation requires it.

But horror hasn't quite fully quite caught up. We have one horror device that needs to either die or be transformed -- the scream queen. Now my objection does not come at the portrayal of women being afraid, letting out screams of surprise, or even wanting a partner to help work through a situation. My objection comes when the hysteria of a character is so complete that it basically immobilizes them, makes them useless, and all they do is high shrill screeching while people die around them. I especially have a problem with a movie if all of the female characters have this trait.

I'll give an example of what I mean. I'll preface by saying Jennifer Carpenter is one of my favorite actresses. I think her range and abilities are pretty limitless. She is appealing, warm, fun, vulnerable, loving, beautiful on the screen. She has given performances that define both female strength and the kind of scream queen I have a problem with.

Her performance in The Exorcism of Emily Rose is Oscar worthy. What she manages to do with her body and voice is incredible. And her performance of vulnerability, faith, fear, and being slowly taken by the demon is breathtakingly believable. Yes, she is afraid. Yes, she wants help. But she realizes her power in the end, the power of her journey to awaken the faith in others. It is a strong character arc -- full of all that is beautifully female -- compassion, empathy, love, intuition, and creation.

Now Jennifer also brings us the kind of character I have a hard time with in Quarantine. This character does little more than be hysterical as things fall apart and people die. She screams so much you want to kind of smack her to wake her up, hand her a knife and say "Do something useful! Help us here!" If she wasn't the center of the movie it might not have grated on my nerves as much. But I was sad because I couldn't get behind her, root for her.

Of course this issue crosses genre boundaries into books, games, television shows. I think it tells a lot about how women are viewed when we have female game characters that have to be rescued, protected, and seem to almost be trying through their lack of intelligence to get killed. It says just as much when the female character is a valuable asset that saves or helps the other characters.

The creators of horror need to realize that sexism impacts their wallets. I still have not seen the movie version of The Ruins because I just could not stand any of the female characters in the book. And there are many movies after watching I would tell people to stay away from. I am the one doling out the funds for a ticket, book, or game and I won't support such negative visions of female worth.

I think it is time that women call for the kind of female characters they want to see, read about, or play as. We need to reject visions of females as only good for some kind of perverse sexual bloody death. We need to be on the front lines as artists, writers, and directors creating the vision of womanhood we want to see. Maybe then the old scream queen can die and a stronger, more fully realized and empowered scream queen can emerge.

1 comment:

  1. Just last night my son and I watched "Night of the Living Dead". The female lead seemed to be the very embodiment of a scream queen... and decades later, we certainly have not come a long way, baby.

    I happen to be a big fan of campy horror movies, bring on the cheese please, and scream queens certainly have their place in this world. But if I'm going to watch something in the hopes of being scared, I want a female lead that can hold her own. One that remembers not to back herself into a corner, attic or basement when being pursued, one that will resist the urge to get up close and personal with the killer she thinks is dead. In other words, one that doesn't need me to shout instructions from my seat while she's "doing it wrong".