A few days ago I read for the first time that 1996’s teen slasher flick Scream was a place for Wes Craven to pin his hopes of keeping the slasher flick alive and well by marketing it to women. This may just be a popular rumor the internet is passing around, but it immediately called to mind the fact that Scream and a few of its sequels have been and remain my favorite horror movies. Scream keeps us inside the horror by taking its characters seriously, but then pops us right out with Randy the resident horror movie expert. Randy exposes the tropes, lays down the rules, and even points out the killer. It was the first time I started to understand just how rigged the horror movie game was, and having Randy there to let us know it was all just one big morality tale was just the anesthetic my teenage brain needed to think it through in the midst of all the innards and blood. Scream is a great tool for rhetorical and critical thinking about media, but its distinction is mainly in being the first popular attempt at such in its genre. Unfortunately, what the movie seemed to spawn in its wake was merely a legion of crappy cheap parodies of this borderline parody and I didn’t see much in the way of even derivative work on the silver screen until meta-master Joss Whedon tried his hand at horror last year.
If you haven’t yet seen Cabin in the Woods, good god, stop reading this right now and queue it up. What you’ll find is a slasher that borders on the epically tragic and understands that even though this movie is just a deadly game, we still have big stakes in it. Whedon really wants us to transcend our regular thinking and suggest this genre as a form of subtle social control. And isn’t that where Scream was headed, after all? We all know the rules:
- Never have sex (lust)
- Don’t drink or do drugs (gluttony)
- Don’t say you’ll be right back (pride)
Don’t have sex, definitely don’t enjoy it, don’t indulge yourself, and absolutely positively don’t practice confidence. The other four sins have their place in terms of cause of death, but Randy has outlined these as the ones that are absolutely unsurvivable. As Jules, our final girl from Cabin in the Woods says in her final revelation; “They don’t just want to see us killed, they want to see us punished.” Cabin suggests something ritualistic about our need to complete this story over and over again, even giving us totems; the fool, the whore, the athlete, the scholar, and the virgin or final girl. There exist leagues of discussion about the final girl, and some of it well worth reading, but I concern myself chiefly with the other side of this virgin/whore dichotomy, the girl who doesn’t survive- the whore.
When the whore exists outside of the horror movie genre, the audience’s need for her to be punished follows her, as does the slut-shaming and witch-burning. She’s the embodiment of biblical Eve, she’s the girl who, in the context of horror at least, must die, and she will die first, and she will die naked and afraid. She is the blonde girl in the alley that Whedon so pitied that he wrote an entire television series about how she runs into a dark alley with a monster and emerges triumphant.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer was explicitly conceived of as a reworking of horror films in which ‘bubbleheaded blondes wandered into dark alleys and got murdered by some creature.’ As he notes, ‘The idea of Buffy was to…create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim.” (from PostFeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories, by Stephanie Genz)
Buffy ends up being much more of a final girl than whore in the end. Buffy’s first tender sexual encounter is emotional and characterized by blurry flashes of flesh and ends in tragedy, while we’re led to believe that Cordelia’s sexual relationships have been numerous and far less pivotal. Though virginal Xander is her longest on-screen relationship, no one seems to imagine that Cordelia graduates as a virgin, and when she leaves the series she spins off being just as promiscuous. The difference is clear, Buffy is the kind of girl you take home to meet mom, and Cordelia is the kind of girl you date in secret.
Cordelia is not only a whore, she’s also a self-identified bitch, meaning that she looks out for herself and isn’t afraid to bargain with her affections, physical or otherwise. She dates boys for their cars, she jumps from one emotionally distant but profitable relationship to the next, and she is not afraid to step on the neck of anyone who gets in her way. She’s ambitious in a very feminine way, and it’s not that she doesn’t know how to censor herself, she just refuses to. “Tact is just not saying true stuff. I’ll pass.” Cordelia sees her social position as something which she has earned and sacrificed for, and Buffy, by denying her authority in turning down her offering of friendship in the first episode, and then later directly threatening her position by going after the title of Homecoming Queen, is a threat to all Cordelia has, which is, even in her own estimation, not a whole heck of a lot compared to Buffy’s superhero status and support system.
The popular girl (identified as the “Alpha Bitch” by TV Tropes.org) is about status, she often comes from a broken home, or suffers from a lack of parental guidance or interest, but unlike the redeemable male bully, her situation is not to be pitied or empathized with. Cordy is well-hated among the cast of characters, as well as among the fans, and she’s often the butt of jokes, but in Whedon’s universe, she is allowed a dignity and depth she might not otherwise be afforded.
That leads me to a position for which I find myself constantly explaining myself. Mean Girls, the Tina-Fey-written feminist-lauded screenplay about just how monstrous it is that girls in the patriarchy don’t have each other’s backs while completely ignoring the fact that the patriarchy is a figure in the equation. My lack of contemporary horror-movie knowledge means that Regina George is the most recent example I can conjure of “the whore” being unrepentantly publicly destroyed for mass-consumption, but I find that Mean Girls is easily the least criticized example of this trope.
The narrative in Mean Girls would have us believe that Regina is an empty-eyed sadist, and the movie uses the viewer’s socially-conditioned contempt for the trappings of femininity to reflect the character’s intended shallow and phony personality. Her clique is called “the plastics;” a catty dig aimed at shaming cosmetic surgery, her mother’s breasts are fake and therefore alien, she’s “flawless,” she insures her hair, and her bedroom is as pink as the group’s outfits on Wednesday. Regina is the straw-femme designed to be measured against our main character and found wanting, but they both are self-interested, insecure, and unkind at different points in the narrative. Cady is fairly unrepentant about hurting the other girls in Regina’s clique and easily falls into doing the same kind of bullying that is meant to make us feel alright about the karma-bus that hits Regina in the end.
The difference between Regina and Cady though, is in where they come from. Regina comes from a house where drinking and sex are freely permitted, where she pushes limits and finds no boundaries whatsoever, where her obviously uninvolved father shows up for one scene in order to be a concerning joke about his teenage daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. Despite the emotional neglect, she takes care of herself, sets her own boundaries and expectations, and builds herself a fortress of perceived self-esteem which cannot be punctured. Cady on the other hand, while mysteriously under-socialized with young people her age, has a consistent and firm support system. In short, she knows better, but she does anyway.
The audience is meant to enjoy tearing down Regina because of what she represents the same way that every teen-slasher-flick sets the scantily clad or nude “whore” on the altar of our own prejudices and inhibitions. She is punished, no matter the genre, for daring to embrace her sexuality, her femininity, and herself, and she is right to mistrust us, because she knows intuitively that we would love to tear her down. Mean Girls did seem to be a really genuine look at how and why girls bully each other, but my fondest hope is that a decade from now we will have a feminism that allows us to empathize with this character to a point at which this movie transforms in the public eye much like Merchant of Venice from the comedy that it wants to be to the tragedy that it is.