Thinking Outside The Box, Part 2: Female Filmmakers and ‘Underrepresentation’

By Keri O’Shea and Annie Riordan

Keri: Happy Valentine’s Day. Is February still with us? It is? Jeez…

Anyway, so far we’ve talked about our experiences as horror fans and misconceptions relating to that – but there’s no fandom without the films themselves after all, so it’s high time we talked about life on the other side of the lens. And – wouldn’t you know? – it seems like we can’t discuss female filmmakers either, without falling foul of yet another array of received wisdom and entering into a discussion which frequently falls over itself in order to crow the loudest about under-representation. In this, the second part of our feature on women and horror, we talk about the idea that horror as a genre is not open for business for women and that it’s unfair to the women it portrays. We’ll start with something we’ve heard a great deal of over the past few years…

“Women are sidelined in the horror industry and prevented from achieving.”

Keri: actually, although Hollywood seems a tough nut to crack, independent film – which, let’s face it, is more often than not where we’re looking as horror fans – boasts a significant proportion of female directors. Recent data shows that in the last ten years of Sundance, around 1 in 3 directors were women. The picture isn’t all doom and gloom. Still, the cry often goes up that women are ‘under-represented’ in filmmaking, and ergo, that women are being prevented from reaching equality.

Okay, so let’s think along those lines for a moment. Rightly speaking then, as women make up 51% of the population, slightly more than half of all directors should have their chromosomes laid out in an XX pattern. Somehow we need to rectify this situation, or face an unfair, corrupt industry stretching away forever into the future. But if we continue along this path – and if we’re concerned for equality and representation, then we shouldn’t simply stop at gender – what about securing proportionality for people of different ethnic backgrounds? Or gay people? Or bisexual people? Or Muslims? Or transgendered people? or those with a disability? Once you begin to refract everything through this kind of lens, it has the potential to go on forever. There will always be some minority which isn’t fulfilling some quota or other. The search for a completely representative demographic is endless, and as such provides an endless, easy supply of grievances. And, if we reached this utopia of perfect and fair representation in the arts, what exactly would it mean?

Let’s get back to women in the horror industry. How would the genre benefit by a more proportionate number of women directors? Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University’s School of Theatre, Television and Film says that women are far less likely to work in the horror genre at all, and that the lack of women working in film generally ‘impoverishes our culture’: by extension, more women directors would make for more women on screen, and more believable characterisation of women.

Let’s take a moment here to apologise to the male horror directors who have been more than capable of creating and directing a wealth of legendary female characters over the years, even whilst impeded by having a different gender to them: Carrie White, Rosemary Woodhouse, Ellen Ripley, Uxía Cambarro, May Canady, Baby Firefly and Lola Stone, to name but a few. Does it necessarily follow that men are unable to write, or empathise with female characters? It seems a very disparaging thing to assume. In fact, if you call yourself a horror fan, chances are you are a fan of creative works which have been almost exclusively created by men – and presumably you’ve enjoyed them just fine. Nor does being a woman director automatically make you more inclined to craft well-delineated female characters on screen: some of you might have heard of Doris Wishman…a facetious example maybe, but one worth making nonetheless.

Anyway, according to Lauzen’s beliefs, a lack of female horror directors should mean we have a lack of women in horror movies. Is this the case? Using our 2012 Top 10 lists on Brutal As Hell (which at present lists nine women writers and only four men – we really should strive for better representation), alongside a straw poll on Twitter, I looked at the horror films of last year which people rated the best. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most votes were for American Mary, a film directed by two women with a female protagonist; other films which figured highly were The Cabin in the Woods and Berberian Sound Studio, each directed by men. Were they therefore lacking in female characters? Well, Berberian Sound Studio stars a man, but lists twenty-three female cast members to fourteen men; The Cabin in the Woods contained three guys and two girls…so far, it isn’t looking as though we are lacking for women in horror movies. I found a similar story wherever I looked. It simply isn’t the case that horror is female character-deficient. As stated in the last article on this topic and supported by Dr Brigid Cherry’s research, horror is far more all-encompassing than many other genres of film.

Annie: The horror film industry has proven itself time and again to be an excellent springboard too, launching the career of many an actress and director (directoress?) alike. Don’t believe me? Go to IMDb and scroll through the credits of Rene Zellweger, Jennifer Aniston, Naomi Watts, Meg Ryan, Sissy Spacek, Drew Barrymore, Sharon Stone, Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver. And those are just the actresses. Once upon a time, Kathryn Bigelow – acclaimed director of The Hurt Locker and the currently controversial Zero Dark Thirty – shot a little vampire film called Near Dark back in 1987, which was considered an instant gem of the genre. Not much was made of the fact that the director was a female. Nobody cared, because the movie was so fucking amazing, it didn’t make a single shit-worth of difference. Oh, and then there’s Mary Harron, who shot a film called American Psycho. Ever hear of it? You’d better say yes if you want to be taken seriously as a horror film fan. Everyone’s seen it, everyone loves to quote it, who remembers that the director was female? And more importantly, who gives a fuck? It was an excellent film, therefore the gender of the director matters about as much as the gender of the person who brewed the coffee I had at Dunkin Donuts the other day. The end result was good, so who cares?

Keri: Ah, but what about what happens to women in horror movies?

“Women are always the victims in horror movies. We need to combat that misogyny by giving the world strong, empowered female characters in films.”

Keri: look, women certainly are not always the victims, nowhere near, but even if they were, horror is horror because it’s unfair and it’s nasty. End of story. It has no obligation whatsoever to satisfy whatever notions of equality are current in a culture. In fact, I’d say it’s the opposite: horror is where our worst fears and preoccupations are toyed with. That of course includes situations where people are victimised, and women of course get victimised.

Annie: Yes, women are quite often the victims in horror films. I’m not going to debate that fact. But is this necessarily misogynistic? I think not. The most basic rule of writing fiction is this: you must have a protagonist and an antagonist. You must make the antagonist ultimately despicable, someone you want to see fall, whether that fall is metaphorical or literal. And really, what is more cowardly and despicable than someone who victimizes those who are smaller, weaker and/or defenceless? This is why horror films often offer the catalyst of a slain pet to start the ball rolling. “That bastard killed Fluffy! I want to see him die!”

But we must also remember that the term “Final Girl” exists for a reason too. Girls are victimized in horror, yes. But they’re also usually the ones who triumph, overcome their fears, discover the reserve of strength within themselves they never knew existed and tap it, unleashing the proverbial “can of whoopass” on the one who has, so far, assumed them to be an easy target.

Sidney Prescott (Scream) not only lived to the end, but taunted her attacker with emasculating insults before blowing his head off. Marti Gaines (Hell Night) fixed her own fucking car before using it as a murder weapon. Meg Penny (The Blob, remake) the town cheerleader, grabbed a machine gun and went Rambo. And then there’s films like Teeth and Hostel 2, both of which feature the thus far victimized girl castrating their male tormentors and feeding their dicks to their own dogs, turning Man’s Best Friend into the garbage disposal, the most vaginal appliance in the woman’s heretofore accepted domain: the kitchen.

Would horror movies be as palatable if all of the victims were men? No, because it’s generally considered an even match which inspires no true sense of conflict. If you want to watch men fight to the death, watch UFC. If you want empowerment, watch a slasher. It’s no coincidence that horror film fans are, for the most part, a non-violent bunch. Our viewing experiences are cathartic, and our frustrations worked out in watching the repeated story of David and Goliath, especially when David turns out to be Daisy.

Keri: This perception that horror is in some way misogynistic invariably leads onto discussions of the ‘male gaze’, neatly entrenching the idea that the default audience for horror is male along the way – but we already debunked that bullshit last time. Anyway, this ‘male gaze’ notion basically insinuates that people watching these awful situations unfold in films enjoy partaking in them. It is deeply insulting to everyone involved. Find me one person who ‘gets off’ on scenes of rape and violence in horror and I’ll find you five hundred who don’t. If you see films in these terms and wonder about the titillating aspects of rape and murder, perhaps you’re the one with the problem…it is an attitude which also ignores a massive swathe of horrors which contain nothing of the sort.

The idea that horror is going to be subject to redress by a vocal minority who don’t understand what the genre is fills me with foreboding. Horror is not an equal opportunities arena. Its dissection by feminist film studies and people who want to engineer ‘strong, empowered female characters’ whilst seeing more ‘female directors’ who they presumably feel would give a fairer voice to women seems to miss the entire fucking point of the genre.

I hate even talking in these terms. It’s not how I see the world.

Funnily enough, though, even in a sub-genre like slashers, which is renowned for predominantly carving up girls, the picture is more complex than you might expect. In his book Teenage Wasteland: the Slasher Movie Uncut, author Justin Kerswell discovered that during what he calls ‘the golden age’ of slasher movies between 1978 – 1984, there were more male victims on screen than women.

“Female filmmakers need extra support to get noticed.”

Keri: How? We all know it’s tough out there. Getting off the ground, getting funding, getting your product known…these issues affect everyone in the horror genre, not just women. The indie movie market is always going to be fucking brutal because times are hard and cash is scarce. But how do you say outright that women are being prevented from success purely because they’re women? The focus is all off. Why don’t we concentrate on promoting films which are good, rather than concerning ourselves with quotas?

Annie: female filmmakers need support to get noticed? Ida Lupino didn’t think so.

In 1953, Lupino directed the film noir/psycho-thriller “The Hitch-Hiker” which she also wrote, based on the true story of serial killer Billy Cook. She made no big deal out of the fact that she was female. True, she was already established as an actress, but she made films because she wanted to, not because she was told that she couldn’t because she was a girl.

Director Audrey Ewell spent two years immersed in the primarily male dominated black metal scene of Norway with her co-director/life partner Aaron Aites to make the documentary “Until The Light Takes Us.” Her sex was, and remains, a non-issue, both among the films fans and the musicians themselves. This despite the fact that the metal music community is also considered to be an exclusively male scene, closed to girls who cannot possibly appreciate the ferocity and nihilism of metal. Apparently, both Keri and myself missed that memo…

There have always been female directors in the film industry, stretching back to 1896 (Alice Guy Blache – The Cabbage Fairy). The fact that not much has been made of their sex should be viewed as an attribute, in that the director wants to be seen as artists, storytellers, and filmmakers first and foremost.

Ultimately, and in my usual and crude manner, I don’t think that the sex of the director is an issue, unless the female director in question is filming said movie with a camera held in her labia.

Keri:…and lest we get told we don’t know what we’re talking about because we’re not filmmakers ourselves, let’s hear from some female directors, shall we? Director Devi Snively told me, “I think it sets us all back when we limit ourselves according to sex stereotypes. Nonetheless, I mostly just ignore it all. I’m not one to pigeon-hole myself. If others feel the need to, that’s their issue. I believe the work should speak for itself and the work isn’t just me. I’ve got a team that includes men and women of varying ages. Our stories have laughs and romance, suspense and the macabre. We can throw labels around, or we can make movies. I prefer to make movies personally.”

Back in 2010 when I spoke to the Soska sisters – long before American Mary was a going concern – they corroborated this viewpoint. Jen Soska told me, “simply because a film is made by a woman we shouldn’t think it’s wonderful or crap. We should let the work speak for itself. If a man makes a movie and it’s shit, everyone jumps on him. I’ve seen women make crap and have their work protected because it was apparently some great accomplishment that the poor dear even tried. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have a great deal of respect for any man or woman who has the balls to go out and make a film. It’s rough and you deserve a lot of credit for pulling it off. However, I’m a feminist who believes women shouldn’t be cut breaks because of their gender. Even if it’s positive, it’s still sexist.”

From a personal point of view, I don’t give a damn about the gender of the person who directs any film I review – I’d rather they all listed themselves first initial + last name, if it comes down to it, so that I can concentrate on whether the film is any good, nothing else. That would be genuine equality. What we get instead is an assemblage of people who will promote the hell out of anything directed by a woman, screeching from the rooftops about ’empowerment’ with seemingly no concept that they’re actually being sexist and skewing quality control by focusing on gender politics at the cost of all else.

Furthermore, people need to be honest about the level of interest which can be generated, simply because a filmmaker is a woman. I’ve mentioned Jen and Sylvia Soska; as much as I am inclined to agree with Jen’s take on gender bias, I am absolutely certain that the fact we have twin sisters directing has granted them exposure which would otherwise be impossible to come by. Everyone knows who they are in the horror genre. Does everyone know Jon and Howard Ford? They’re insanely talented filmmakers, but then they’re brothers, not sisters…

If you persist in asserting that films made by women are being overlooked or if you’re saying that films made by women need to divided from all the other films out there because they aren’t competing on the same terms, what you’re doing is entrenching difference, selecting films simply on the basis of the gender of the people who worked on them. Why? It suggests they aren’t equal. It suggests women’s films need special help. If they’re as good as anything else out there, they don’t need to be considered separately or differently. If you push it just because it suits your agenda, aren’t you then in danger of overlooking better films? Aren’t you creating a false positive?

But then, a lot of people out there (often the ones who crow loudest about unfairness and discrimination) seem to have a schizophrenic attitude to their gender. They claim mistreatment and demand equality, but can’t seem to help making their appearance an important part of their online identities. They don’t want people to judge them on their looks, but they invite it. It’s one reason that I’m very careful to avoid doing the same thing – I don’t think my face is really relevant to what I do or how I do it. I have no interest in concealing my gender, my age or my appearance, but no interest in pushing these to the fore when what I’m actually doing is writing about horror. I would never like to think that I was one of these champions of feminism who absolutely requires a bikini/soaked in blood avatar or topic-irrelevant cleavage shots to get noticed. I actually have no issue with any of these things, not at all. But let’s be honest about them, eh? Shit or get off the pot. However you dress it up, you’re seeking attention based on your looks, so accept this openly, or don’t fucking do it. Hypocrisy is such an ugly thing…

Essentially, myself, Annie, and many others don’t feel that we benefit at all by sequestering ourselves into little huddles of conformity. Rather than feeling that horror is an unfair arena, one closed to female fans and filmmakers alike, we call bullshit. It isn’t what we’ve experienced, it isn’t what we know, and any suggestion that the genre needs an overhaul because it is inherently sexist smacks of opportunism, as well as missing the point. You can play divide and conquer if you want to, and you can band together to bewail unfairness if you must, but do it well away from us, and don’t be surprised by the backlash, because you do not speak for us.

 

8 comments

  1. This is an excellent piece that shines a light and takes a very objective view on this subject. Bottom line is a film is a film and a filmmaker is a filmmaker — ultimately, the work should and will speak for itself.

    Two quotes that immediately jump out and really hit the nail on the head for me…

    “What we get instead is an assemblage of people who will promote the hell out of anything directed by a woman, screeching from the rooftops about ‘empowerment’ with seemingly no concept that they’re actually being sexist and skewing quality control by focusing on gender politics at the cost of all else.”

    “I don’t think that the sex of the director is an issue, unless the female director in question is filming said movie with a camera held in her labia.”

    Awesome read, Keri & Annie!

  2. I’d like to “second” that comment, Dom. A wonderful article with some fantastic points being made, Annie and Keri. I was so happy to hear you bringing up Ida Lupino! Yes! You presented some points that vocalized things I’d not been able to put into words myself, for which I thank both of you. Just …awesome.

    I’d love to see more collaborative writing such as this, as I feel that sometimes each writer brings out or augments the strengths of the other when the material is so rich in potential.

    -William.

  3. I really have to give props to Keri for this article, and the one that preceded it. It was her idea, she did all the research and grunt work and polished it up. I just sat on my butt and typed swear words.

  4. Excellent article! I voiced a similar, however far less in-depth study in my article, “Not Your Dad’s Horror Eye Candy”. We live in a world with gender bias, but I believe horror fans are perhaps the one subset that has far less. Male fans love and accept strong female roles and female fans -okay look we’re always gonna like boobs, that’s not bias that’s biology. Horror may have been a “guys” world at one time…but not today…and the industry is far better off because of female participation in the industry. Again great article!

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