Horror, SF and fantasy, according to common knowledge, are not female friendly genres. Bad enough that the prototypical image of the genre fan is the sweaty overweight dysfunctional geek – that’s hardly representative. By making that image male, the picture is distorted even further away from the true. As a regular visitor to Frightfest, I’m happy to confirm the large number of women that attend that are just as vocal in their enjoyment of the movies as the men. The authors of the two biggest fantasy franchises on the planet are women – JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. Common knowledge is, as is usually the case, bass ackwards from the truth.
However, the depiction of women in SF, fantasy and horror needs a refresh. There are still far too many victims out there, female analogues waiting to be rescued or assaulted. When kickass women do appear, they’re frequently Buffy clones or, in the case of Hitgirl, children. It’s either that or the avenging angel of I Spit On Your Grave or Ms. 45. The wronged as killing machine, using their femininity as a weapon or a cloak from which to strike out at their abusers. It’s an old, tired tale.
I’ve seen a couple of movies lately that change that sorry state of affairs. Both films feature strong, uncompromising central performances from their lead actors, and both explicitly reject the myth of the female as victim in genre films.
Pedro Almadovar’s The Skin I Live In has a cool, controlled surface. Underneath that, lunacy boils and writhes. I need to be careful here. The central conceit on which the plot pivots is not one that should be easily spoiled, and it’s one that threatens to derail my whole argument before I even get started (feel free to give me a kicking in the comments).The film is part Pygmalion, part Frankenstein, part Eyes Without A Face. It tells a common genre tale – the mad scientist attempting to cheat God and death by resurrecting a lost love. Antonio Banderas is suitably driven and remorseless as the plastic surgeon, rebuilding a burn victim in the image of his dead wife. But all is not as it seems with the beautiful Vera. Played by Elena Amaya (pictured left) with a mix of vulnerability and shocking power, she seems at first barely human. A mannequin, meek before her master’s demands. As we discover her past, and all she has lost at the hands of Banderas, Vera shrugs off the weakness, becoming something fierce and strong. Her own creation, transcending the scientist’s plans, remade by sheer force of will. She ends the film as her own woman.
Lucky Mckee’s The Woman, which had it’s UK premiere at Frightfest, tells a similar tale, then rebuilds it from the bones up. A feral woman is discovered and captured by a suburban lawyer, who plans to “civilise” her. He locks her in an outhouse, hoses her off and dresses her in clothes with easy release fastenings. It’s clear what his intentions are from the beginning. Yet the Woman of the title, played with ferocious magnetism by Pollyanna Mackintosh, is no victim. She will never succumb to him, and is content to wait as the lawyer’s family collapses under the weight of revelation that her arrival sparks. Her release, and her revenge, are inevitable. Part monster, part hero, the Woman is never less than the mistress of her own destiny.
Frightfest was a bit of a showcase for this cliche-busting approach this year, with films like Susan Jacobson’s The Holding (with yet another fine central performance from Keirston Wareing) showing how genre doesn’t have to mean generic when it comes to gender. This is a good start, but we shouldn’t be complacent. Although I started this post in a bullish mood about equality in the realm of the fantastick, we’ve had a summer where DC Comics’ big relaunch was marred by the realisation that there were hardly any female creators on board, and a call from author Juliet Mckenna to promote equality in genre writing. There’s a way to go before we can get the balance right, but as Juliet points out, SF, fantasy and horror have always questioned unthinking prejudice and the status quo. Films like The Woman and The Holding are encouraging indeed, pointing the way to new, strong voices and bold, uncompromising stories.
One thought on “The Women: Genre And Gender”
[Treading carefully to avoid spoilers…]
I agree with the main thrust of your article whilst at the same time finding The Skin I Live In to be overrated tosh. It has committed performances from both its leads (particularly Elena Amaya as Vera) and has some beautiful imagery. It’s also really boring. Buried underneath the padding and on-the-nose dialogue is a thriller, but Almodovar makes a real pig’s ear of telling that story. Perhaps because he seems to regard the pulp source material (which I haven’t read) with disdain. Right, now I’ve got that off my chest:
One film that would have fitted in nicely with your thesis (by way of contrast) was also at Frightfest with The Woman and The Holding. Swiss horror SENNENTUNTSCHI: CURSE OF THE ALPS like The Woman also features an abused mute central female character, and like The Skin I Live In, she’s also a woman ‘created by man’. However, whereas the films you cite focus on their strong female characters, Sennentuntschi instead splits its focus between the male abusers and a hapless would-be rescuer. ‘The woman’ in Sennentuntschi remains an enigma… to the film’s detriment.