copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Traditionally, the monsters of horror stories have had masculine character traits--or, at least, more masculine than feminine characteristics. The monster was aggressive, dominant, forceful, strong, self-reliant, tough, daring, competitive, and, in its own way, athletic and courageous. Today’s monsters, however, following the contemporary trend in which males seem, more and more, to be undergoing feminization, are also adopting more and more of the traits that have been associated, traditionally, with women.
Often, before killing its prey, the predatory monster will stalk it. Whether the intended victim is male or (as is more commonly the case) female, the audience (or reader) will identify with the human, over the monster. Therefore, since the victim is seen through the eyes of the monster-as-stalker, the audience, despite the gender of the individual moviegoer or reader, will identify with the victim, seeing him- or herself in this role. Whether the victim has traditional feminine traits per se, he or she will be defined in opposition to the monster’s hyper-masculinity and will be seen as weak, vulnerable, defenseless, helpless, imperiled. In short, the victim, regardless of his or her gender, will be a damsel, as it were, in distress.
Not only does the feminization of the victim, regardless of his or her gender, result from the threat of the hyper-masculine monster, but the larger community is characterized as feminine as well in many contemporary horror stories. The lone hero of Beowulf seldom makes an appearance to take on the monster in single combat. Instead, the monster is defeated by committee. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a community to kill a monster. Traditionally, the characteristics that make community cooperation--like cooperation itself--possible are labeled feminine: unselfishness; sympathy; the affinity for establishing and maintaining interpersonal, familial, and communal relationships; yielding to others; helpfulness; loyalty; reliability; and sensitivity. Even such traditionally feminine qualities as secretiveness and understanding can help in the community’s cooperative effort to protect its members and to destroy the monster.
Although the monster itself retains many of the characteristics that, traditionally, are counted as masculine, it has also begun to be characterized, in some ways, as being feminine. In other words, it becomes a bestial sort of phallic woman. As such, it is often the antagonist of an equally hyper-masculinized phallic woman protagonist. Traditionally, the male body is considered to be normative. The female body has been labeled as not only derivative (Eve, after all is created from a rib taken from Adam), but also deviant: it is a deviation from the norm of the masculine physique. Possibly for this reason, some of the deviance of femininity is associated with the monster, as in Dracula’s ruby lips, the menstrual-like lunar cycles characteristic of the werewolf, and the wearing of feminine clothing by Norman Bates and even of female body parts and skin by The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill. Moreover, the monster is often a disguised phallic woman in the sense that it is intent upon emasculating the male characters, by forcing male audience members to adopt the feminine role of exhibitionistic victim rather than the male role of voyeuristic stalker and by, sometimes literally, castrating them (that is, by dismembering them). When, instead of a community's cooperating to kill the monster, it is a woman, such as Lieutenant Ripley, in Alien and its sequels, Xena the Warrior Princess, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who takes upon herself such a duty, the feminization of the male is complete, for not only are the male members of the audience forced to adopt a feminine role and a feminine point of view as potential victims of a hyper-masculine monster, but their rescuer is female, rather than male, inverting the traditional polarities of the masculine-feminine continuum by positing phallic women as the protectors and rescuers of feminized males.
In horror fiction, women have been the traditional victims of the hyper-masculine monster. Some remain such. More and more often, however, their ranks are increased by male characters. While female characters, by definition as well as by reference to the traditional traits of femininity, are female, males as victims are not. Their being cast, as it were, into this role, therefore, constitutes a feminization of them and not merely a role reversal. They retain the male physique, but psychologically they are transformed. They become, as it were, women trapped in men’s bodies, or psychological hermaphrodites, or transsexuals.
By feminizing both male audience members-as-victims, their larger communities, and the monster itself (as well as, occasionally, the slayer of the monster), contemporary horror movies are part of the ongoing feminization of American (and, indeed, international) culture. Although some may find such a metamorphosis to be desirable, many others find it--in a word--horrific. It seems that all is grist for the mill, after all. Hence, the feminization of the contemporary male is another of the many themes and topics that writers of horror have adopted recently, as such television series as Xena, Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and such movies as Psycho, Dressed To Kill, Alien and its sequels, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (starring none other than Renee Zellweger!), The Silence of the Lambs, Species, Sleepaway Camp, The Descent, and others suggest.