Representation of Men and Women in Horror Movies 

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In the past, horror movies represented men and women in clear gender roles. Men were heroic, while women were meek at the outset and thrust into having to survive the situation. There is a sadistic thread in the way women are attacked, tortured, held captive, and ultimately survive. There have been changes to this in contemporary horror movies in that the gender roles are not as clear, but they still follow the same formula. The heroine is often innocent and sexually prudent, yet she discovers her inner fighter by the end of the movie to survive. Young, innocent women are the ideal, which makes them the movie’s killer’s ultimate trophy to chase after. Men are represented as being able to physically and intellectually fight for their lives, but they lack that sense of purity that will help their survival. These representations reflect the patronizing view of a certain type of woman being an ideal that needs to be protected.

In the horror movie, Cabin in the Woods, a group of teenagers are manipulated into filling a ritual that uses them as a sacrifice to gods living under the ground. As the lead character learns near the end of the movie, there are roles that each person is supposed to play to satisfy the gods. The one that survives is a virgin female. The other woman is referred to as “the whore” who often dies first. The men vary, but one of them must be “the athlete.” Horror movies are formulaic and often follow the same pattern, but these are the key roles that are usually followed. The women who are usually considered to be safe are the ones that fall into the traditional role of the domesticated mother and wife, or the virginal good girl, and these are known as “madonnas” (Welsh 763). The girls who challenge the traditional roles of women are considered “bad girls”, “vamps,” or “whores” (Welsh 763). The troubling nature of these representations is that not only does it separate women into “virgins” and “whores”, it punishes women who are more sexually active by giving them a violent, agonizing death. Often, women are killed after they had something that was considered immoral. For example, in Psycho, Marion Crane is stabbed to death after she stole money from her job; in Jaws, a woman is killed when she goes skinny dipping; and in Dressed to Kill, a woman is slashed with a razor after she has an affair (Bonner 87). Through the medium of film, the audience can engage in ‘slut shaming’ but within the rules of the horror movie, in which punishment is a violent death.

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Women are expected to fill traditional roles, including in horror movies. When they step outside of those roles, there is a violent reaction. This can be seen on social media, in which women are outed for sexting or for sharing nude photos, and then bullied for it (Bonner 86). In contrast, when men have their messages or photos exposed, they are seen as being “hapless victims” (Bonner 86). There is a double standard in what is acceptable between men and women. The same applies to horror movies. The women who meet grisly ends do not just have to go against the traditional roles in terms of their sexuality though. There are modes of behaviour that they are meant to follow. If they are not decent and caring, then they are seen as being monstrous or weak (Lazard 132). Sometimes, when the women in a movie become fighters, it is only because they have come mad or unstable (Lazard 134). For example, in the movie The Descent, the leader character goes on a caving trip with her friends but she is having issues getting over the deaths of her husband and child. She begins to hallucinate. Complicating things is that she feels that one of her friends was having an affair with her husband. Eventually, she goes mad and this gives her the energy to escape. In the end, she ends up punishing her friend for having cheated with her husband (Lazard 134). This change in character seems to be empowering, but it shows that the only way women can be strong is through going mad or getting angry. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the main character escapes after going through so much trauma that it makes her go crazy. In the end, she laughs hysterically as she escapes her attacker. She did not survive because of her own resourcefulness or ability. In fact she was saved by men by pure luck because they happened to be driving by at that time she was being chased by a man with a chainsaw. This demonstrates how it is only after women have gone through a traumatic experience and come out battered that they are able to survive.

The women that do not go mad or become enraged, are then punished with a violent death when they fall outside of the traditional role of “the Madonna”, but how about men? There is still some form of punishment for men who engage in sexual activities (Welsh 764). In the movie Freddy vs. Jason, a teenage boy and girl engage in sex. Afterwards, while the girl is showering, Jason comes in and stabs the boy to death through the bed. Then he kills the girl. Although they are both killed right after sex, the boy is killed relatively quickly, whereas the girl has to fight and fend for her life before being killed. This difference is a reflection of the idea people have in real life of “ideal victims” (Welsh 764). Research studies have shown that in sexual assault cases, when the victim has had a prior history of sexual conduct that does not conform to the normative sexual standards that is expected of women, then she is often perceived as having instigated the assault (Welsh 764). In another study, they found that when people heard of a woman’s sexual history, they were more likely to also view her story as being less credible than before they had heard of her sexual history (Welsh 764). These kinds of studies show that even though men in the horror movies might be punished after having sex by being killed, their suffering is less severe than that of women. Men are not punished for their sexual activities. Instead, they are punished for being unintelligent or weak. In the movie, Midsommar, one of the male characters gets terrified after watching a ritual suicide. He shouts at everybody and cries about the need to get away. The other male characters are more stoic and thoughtful. This character is killed off-screen but his body is seen later. He was one of the first people to be killed because he also went against the traditional roles expected of men, which is that they be strong. There are fixed forms of showing masculinity and virility in men (Berns and Foronda 23). They have to be courageous, smart, and capable of getting out of a bad situation. This view of masculinity reflects where power lies in the male/female dynamic. Even though the men usually get killed or knocked out near the end of the film, they still demonstrate the virtuous ideals that show masculinity. This is sexist, but not just towards women. The truth is that most men who are confronted by a man in a mask made of human skin and a chainsaw would probably run away terrified. However, as men watch horror movies, they feel they need to act the way they see men in the movies act. If they cannot, then they might hide their shame at being unable to act out like that by being more aggressive towards women or other men. The gender roles in horror movies are just as dangerous for men as for women.

Although horror movies can reflect gender roles and even reinforce them, they can also be a vehicle that draws attention to them for critique. When looking at gender in isolation, clear distinctions can be drawn. However, peoples’ identities are intersectional. When race plays a role in a film, gender issues take on a new light. For example, in the movie Get Out, the main character named Chris is targeted by wealthy, older people as a host whose body they can take over. As a black man, they assume he has certain characteristics. The stereotypical way that black men are portrayed in horror movies is that they are “hypermasculine and hypersexualized” (Sobande 240). The movie turns things around and shows the horrors that come with these kinds of stereotypical images that people have. A lot of the dialogue in the movie is racially coded and gestures (Sobande 238). By showing these interactions in a creepy way, the filmmakers can use the horror genre to highlight how black men are stereotyped and discriminated against. The way people of other ethnicities are portrayed in horror films also reflect the racial stereotypes that exist in society. However, movies such as Get Out can help to change some of those images, or at least, they can draw attention to them.

Horror movies can also be vehicles to combat gender stereotypes. In the movie, The Descent, all of the characters in the movie are women. They do not fit the expectations that people have of women in that they take part in “masculinized” sports, like cave diving (Lazard 133). Furthermore, their pursuit of these sports is shown as being something that they enjoy for themselves, and not because they are around male characters and want to impress them in any way (Lazard 133). Later in the film, they have to fight against some of the monsters that live underground and they are able to do it without falling into the stereotypes that people have of women falling apart when faced with danger. At the same time, the women are three-dimensional and have different personalities. They are not held up as role models as a way for the filmmakers to make a statement. One of the characters, Juno, is somebody who is willing to betray the others and can come across as duplicitous (Lazard 134). This complexity in the female characters go against the usual behaviour that female characters do in horror movies. Another movie that goes against gender expectations is A Quiet Place. In this movie, the female lead is resourceful and although she has a husband, she is independent. Part way through the movie after her husband is killed, she is able to manage to fight back against the monsters that had attacked them before. Even though she turns out to be the heroine of the film, she did not have to demonstrate her purity. Furthermore, even though she is a mother, she did not have to demonstrate that she is a typical mother who is dependent on her husband for her protection. The male character is also portrayed in a way that is different than in most horror films. He is seen making mistakes, being scared, and being unable to connect emotionally with his daughter. He is heroic at times but not anymore heroic than his wife or their children. If more movies continue to portray gender as more complex and more natural, then it is possible that the genre can be the kind of movie that leads to changes in how both men and women are portrayed in film.

Horror films are not created in a bubble. The gender roles that the characters fill are not from the imagination of the screenwriter. Instead, horror movies take the images in society and put them into the film’s story and signs. Men are expected to have characteristics that are masculine and seen in a way that shows their strength and abilities. If they do not have those, then they are usually killed quickly and in a gruesome way. Women, in contrast, are supposed to be innocent and approachable. If they do not meet those criteria then they fall in to the role of “the vamp” and are also killed in a terrible way. Gender in horror films also intersect with other issues, such as race, class, and sexual orientation. These issues are also starting to be looked at more carefully by people. Unfortunately, horror films are not looked at as something to be taken seriously, and people expect gender stereotypes to be played out. However, as people become more aware of gender roles in society, horror films might start reflecting these changes as well.

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Representation of Men and Women in Horror Movies . (2020, December 24). WritingBros. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/representation-of-men-and-women-in-horror-movies/
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Representation of Men and Women in Horror Movies  [Internet]. WritingBros. 2020 Dec 24 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/representation-of-men-and-women-in-horror-movies/
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