Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Note: In this and a few subsequent posts, I summarize and comment upon essays concerning horror fiction that appear in Gender, Language, and Myth, edited by Glenwood Irons (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). Although some of the claims in these essays seem far-fetched (to me, at least), others appear to have some validity and even some practical application. In any case, readers of Chillers and Thrillers are likely to find that these synopses offer unusual takes on the theory and practice of writing horror fiction.
Transgender, especially transsexual, images disturb many because such pictures suggest that not only one’s sexual orientation, but also his or her very gender--and, therefore, a person’s identity as an individual--may be more fluid and flexible than people generally suppose.
Horror fiction plays with notions of both gender and sexual orientation. For example, traditionally, women, not men, have been the victims of the monster’s or the madman’s misogynistic rage, in part as Edgar Allan Poe implied, decades ago, because “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” (“The Philosophy of Composition”).
In “Her Body, Himself,” Carol J. Clover summarizes a number of loosely related “figurative readings” (283) of “slasher films,” which “present. . . a world in which male and female are at desperate odds with one another but in which, at the same time, masculine and feminine are more states of mind than body” (Gender, Language, and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative, 252).
When directors film death scenes from the perspective of the monster or the madman, the moviegoer sees what the antagonist sees; arguably, to some degree, the audience also thinks and feels as the monster or the madman thinks and feels. Such a perspective certainly invites the viewer to identify with the killer, but, according to Clover, it also invites the viewer to identify with the killer’s victim: “Just as attacker and attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares, so they are expressions of the same viewer in horror films. . . . We are both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf; the force of the experience, the horror, comes from ‘knowing’ both sides of the story” (258).
In slasher films, defined by Clover as movies in which “a psycho-killer. . . slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is himself subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived” (252), the antagonist himself is often a victim of “gender confusion” and arrested development, or “infantile fury” (260-261), and “even killers whose childhood is not immediately at issue and who display no overt gender confusion are often sexually disturbed” (261). It is with this confusion, this arrested development, and this disturbance that horror films are concerned, Clover suggests.
The “gender confusion” that is often at the heart of male slashers is an effect and a reflection, perhaps, of the psychologically, socially, and, indeed, politically plastic, even protean, nature of culture itself, of culture’s own accidental (as opposed to necessary) and constructed (as opposed to given) character. Just as gender, if not sexuality, is not biologically determined but is culturally shaped, so are the other elements of civilization, such as its psychology, social communities and nations, and political structures and institutions.
The protean, variable, mutable, and, above all, synthetic nature of culture allows horror not only to exist but to shift its shape and to take on new forms--in a word, to transform. The transformative nature of culture benefits the fantastic as it is represented in cinema, too: “If the fantastic depends for its effect on an uncertainty of vision, a profusion of perspectives, and a confusion of subjective and objective,” Clover contends, “cinema is pre-eminently suited to the fantastic” (256). The transgender themes discernable in horror fiction, both printed and filmed, dovetail with the transformative nature of culture and fantastic art. Moreover, either sex is able to identify with itself or its opposite because both males and females share the “threat function and the victim function,” which “coexist in the same unconscious, regardless of anatomical sex” (276). Regardless of an individual’s sex, transgender perception, like “gender confusion,” is rooted, it seems, as much in nature as it is in the individual’s nurturing..
With the introduction of the “Final Girl,” who “alone looks death in the face. . . [and] finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B)” (266), Clover sees a transformation, rather than a mere development, of the formula that Alfred Hitchcock established in his 1960 movie Psycho, a forerunner, of sorts, to the slasher genre:
With the introduction of the Final Girl. . . the Psycho formula is radically altered. It is not merely a question of enlarging the figure of Lila [Marion Crane’s sister] but of absorbing into her role, in varying degrees, the functions of Arbogast (investigator) and Sam (the rescuer) and restructuring the narrative action from beginning to end around her progress in relation to the killer. In other words, Psycho’s detective plot, revolving around a revelation, yields in the modern slasher film, to a hero plot, revolving around the main character’s struggle with eventual triumph over evil (270-271).Like the monster or the madman, the “final girl” is also apt to blend gender. She is, Clover says, “a “boyish” figure (266), and “lest we miss the points,” she adds, “it [her masculinity] is spelled out in her name: Stevie, Marti, Terry. . . Stretch, Will” (270). If the viewer is invited to see him- or herself as both the “attacker and [the] attacked,” as both “Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” then he or she is also invited to see him- or herself as both masculine and feminine, as both male and female, or, in a word, as transgender. In short, Clover says, “filmmakers seems [sic] to know better than film critics that gender is less a wall than a permeable membrane” (275).
Clover sees a Freudian dynamic at work in the cross-gendering of the final girl. This character, she contends, is a stand-in for the adolescent male who is progressing, via the Oedipal complex, from the latent to the phallic stage of his psychosexual development. The killer represents the father, the final girl the son who fights for both his own life and his emerging manhood:
It is the male killer’s tragedy that his incipient femininity is not reversed but completed (castration) and the Final Girl’s victory that her incipient masculinity is not thwarted but realized (phallicization). . . . The moment at which the Final Girl is effectively phallicized is the moment that the plot halts and the horror ceases. Day breaks, and the community returns to its normal order (279).Although Clover’s tone, as she summarizes these “figurative readings” of slasher films is objective to the point that the reader may assume that she herself shares these interpretations, she makes it clear, toward the end of her essay, that she finds fault with some of their assertions. She questions whether the basically “homoerotic” interpretation that views the final girl as a surrogate male adolescent struggling to realize her--or his--phallic promise in the Oedipal murder of the killer (father) can account for the enjoyment of these films by female moviegoers. Perhaps some other dynamic accounts for young women’s pleasure in witnessing “a psycho-killer. . . [as he] slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is himself subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived.” However, Clover’s questions suggest that “gender confusion” is certainly an element of such movies and, probably, among such moviegoers:
Some such notion of differential understanding underlines the homoerotic reading. The silent presupposition is that reading is that there can be no male identification with the female as female, and that the male viewer/reader who adjoins feminine experience does so only by homosexual conversion. But does female identification with male experience then similarly indicate as lesbian conversion? Or are the processes of patriarchy so one-way that the female can identify with the male directly, but the male can identify with the female only by transsexualizing her? Does the Final Girl mean ‘girl’ to her female viewers and ‘boy’ to her male viewers? If her masculine features qualify him as a transformed woman (in which case the homoerotic reading can be maintained only by defining that ‘woman’ as phallic and retransforming her into defining that ‘woman’ as phallic and retransforming her into a male)? (283)Nevertheless, Clover agrees that slasher films are basically about “gender confusion”: “The gender-identity game. . . is too patterned and too pervasive in the slasher film to be dismissed as supervenient. It seems instead to be an integral element of the particular brand of bodily sensation in which the genre trades” (286). Instead of the transsexual or homoerotic readings that are typical among Freudian film critics in their discussions of slasher films, Clover simply suggests that the final girl’s feminine-masculine characterization reflects the contemporary understanding of sex as being both fixed and determined (“a less-than interesting given,” Clover says) but gender as fluid and flexible (“theater,” Clover says):
Abject fear is still ‘gendered’ feminine. . . . By 1980, however, the male rescuer is either marginal or dispensed with altogether. . . . At the moment that the Final Girl becomes her own saviour, she becomes a hero. . . . [and] the willingness of one immensely popular genre to re-represent the hero as an anatomical female seems to suggest that at least one of the traditional marks of heroism, triumphant self-rescue, is no longer strictly ‘gendered’Moreover, Clover believes that she knows what sociopolitical upheaval has caused the phenomenon of the hermaphroditic final girl; she is the product of the feminism of the 1960s and the societal changes that this movement effected:
masculine . . . .(298)
. . . The fact that we have in the killer a feminine male and in the main character a masculine female--parent and Everyteen, respectively--seems, especially in the latter case, to suggest a loosening of the categories, or at least of the equation ‘sex = gender’ (292).
The fact that the typical patrons of these films are the sons of marriages contracted in the 1960s or even the early 1970s leads us to speculate that the dire claims of that era--that the women’s movement, the entry of women into the workplace, and the rise of divorce and woman-headed families would yield massive gender confusion in the next generation (292).