Posted by: xlaurenreneex | January 24, 2020

Feminism in Horror Films

Feminism is seen in many aspects of modern horror films. This idea is not very widely recognized, however, because most of the time female leads in horror films are often portrayed as ditsy, pretty, and weak women who are in need of protecting. However, Carol J Clover, a professor at Berkeley who specializes in film studies, has invited into consideration the theme of the “final girl”. This theme is the effect that the final female in a movie ends up being victorious and overcoming her oppressor. In her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Clover discusses how the lead female character more often than not is victorious in the face of danger. This theme is showcased in many popular horror films. One example is in the film Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where the female character Sally ends up being the last one left out of her group of friends when they enter the dangerous slaughterhouse, and she manages to escape and be free of the murderer. In the movie Halloween, the murderer Michael comes to town and kills many teenage girls, however finds himself in a constant struggle to capture and kill the character Laurie, who consistently fought back and inevitably won the battle. Clover also addresses how inevitably in all horror films, men who pursue “wrong” sex always die in the end, and usually by the hands of the female who he attacked. This idea highlights the heroism in women, even though they are often portrayed as the weakest in the group.

Clover also addresses how many horror films use sex appeal to draw in more viewers. She discusses how pornography and horror are the only types of film to incite a bodily response; arousal and fear, respectively. This concept explains why a lot of the time, female characters are portrayed as beautiful, put together, and often dressed in revealing clothing. Although I do not necessarily agree with this aspect of the role of females in horror films, it also supports the idea that just because a female looks a certain way, i.e. dresses feminine or has their makeup and hair fully done, does not mean they are not powerful beings with the ability to come out victorious in the face of stressful situations. Attached, I have an article written by Clover where she discusses the same ideas as her 1992 book.

Click to access HerBodyHimself.pdf


  1. This is such an interesting look on the depiction (or lack thereof) of women in film and how they are shown in horror specifically. When I was reading your post, I immediately thought of the stereotypical scared girl who willingly walks into the creepy, abandoned shed alone in the middle of the woods. I think this can start a whole conversation of the representation of female leads in film in general. I found an article that speaks to this and the uphill battle for female presence in front of and behind the camera. It’s also contextually interesting to me that the films you mentioned were directed by – you guessed it – men. The article I read also speaks to how this phenomenon is changing with the times, especially in horror calling this a “horror renaissance” where there is more focus on heroism and the surviving female protagonist than sexualized, weak female victims. The “sex appeal” you talked about seems to be less of a selling point recently. I think of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” or “Us” as innovative films that contribute to this changing narrative.

  2. I think that this article and post are insightful into the world of feminism in the film industry. I have never thought about how women are portrayed in horror movies because most of the time I feel that gender does not play a role in these movies. What I mean by this is that no matter the gender of the person in trouble or the person being preyed on, it terrifies them and leaves them traumatized. It does not matter whether it is a woman or man because both are affected equally by the predator or killer. However, I see now how big of a difference a female character being the victim of a murderer in a horror film is. For example, the Netflix series “You” has become a large topic of conversation in our society recently because of its graphic nature and intensity. While this series is not a “horror film” per se, it still has a lot to say about women in films that are horror- or thriller-related. The narrative is that as a woman, you are more likely to be a victim of a terrible love story than a man because women get so swept up in romance (at least that is what I have gained from this series). Additionally, in an article I read about the showrunner, Sera Gamble, there were mentions of how she made the show intentionally in order to discuss gender and how dating is much harder for women than men. She specifically mentions that the main character, Joe (who plays the creepy stalker), was made to be seen as a “good guy” and a “feminist” but in reality, his idea of “feminism” is dangerously close to misogyny. This is similar to other horror movies in that both put the woman as the innocent and gorgeous “prize” to be “protected” but different in that “You” takes on a new character who seems to be a modern feminist but really is a killer. The ongoing idea here is that even men who “seem” kind or progressive could very well be doing something in their own self-interest. I agree that horror movies take on too much of a sexual nature because as many know, “sex sells” and will often bring more attention to the film. I get frustrated by this because there is no reason why a woman should not be able to be heroic AND tasteful. If the woman chooses of her own accord to wear “scandalous” clothing, that is one thing; but if this clothing is chosen by a filmmaker to win a bigger audience, that is just insulting. This kind of filmmaking reduces women to just their bodies and what their bodies can do for sex appeal. I think women should be the heroes in these movies simply because they often ARE in real life, but are not credited in the same ways as men. Here is the article about “You” and the showrunner:

  3. Being a media scholar, this article really resonated. There are lots of stereotypes and tropes in films, like the “final girl,” that are often overlooked or ignored because we just expect them. In several of my other classes, we have talked about how certain genres of film create certain expectations in the film. The “final girl” is certainly one of these stereotypes. You never really recognize it when you’re watching the film but you expect the ditsy blonde girl to be killed first in every horror movie. So when one finally makes it to the end and survives, we are slightly shocked she made it. We also do not recognize how harmful this trope is for women in real life. This stereotype of women in film transcends into real life because we expect them to be helpless, scared women who need men to save or protect them.
    I read another article by Krahn (2015) that explained there is no in-between of how women are portrayed in horror films. They are either the sexy, helpless victim who needs to be rescued or they are the hero who is overly-masculine. It creates this binary view on women in horror who are either the helpless victims who are screaming for help or the masculine girl saving everyone. The article also talked about how it is interesting that there are very few films where woman are the killers. It is typically the men who are the killers. All of this shows that we expect women to be the helpless girl who need to be saved or the “final girls” who just manage to survive. It also shows that women are often over-sexualized in film and other media so they can serve as entertainment for the male gaze.

  4. It is sad that women are portrayed in such a way in horror films. Throughout time, women have been seen as less than or inferior to men and it translates over to many aspects of life and in this case we’re killing them off in movies. Now because it is the film industry, movie companies feel obligated to sexualize women to boost sales and ratings. From a financial standpoint, it makes sense to movie makers, but from a woman’s standpoint it creates a false beauty lens that women have to blindly conform to in order to be seen as beautiful. i also agree that there should be more horror films that don’t kill off women or portray them as dumb blondes that fall every time the killer chases them. These aren’t horror per se, but Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels have women in action roles and they are absolutely kicking butt in those films. The drawback in Charlie’s Angels is that Charlie, who is the boss of the Angels has a subliminal sexual relationship with these women which caters to women being less than men, but other than that those women are in empowering roles.

  5. The way women are portrayed in horror films is most notably characterized by the way in which they are seen through the “Male Gaze.” Women’s bodies are hyper-sexualized, to the point where their bodies are glorified even when they are being chopped up and mangled. While horror films pass the Bechdel test (a simple test that illustrates the lack of female representation in media) at a higher frequency than other genres, this may largely be accredited to the lack of romanticism in the plotline of horror films. There are of course exceptions to the sexist nature of horror films, but the film industry as a whole does not accurately portray women, men, or anyone else. The way horror is filmed largely provides an outlet to objectify female bodies

  6. I watch a lot of horror and psychological thrillers. The first thing that came to mind when reading about females in horror films is Gerald’s Game (2017). This Netflix film showcases Jessie who goes to an isolated cabin with her husband. Gerald, her husband, wants to spice things up in the bedroom and handcuffs Jessie. He begins to play out a rape fantasy. Jessie becomes uncomfortable and asks to stop. Jessie’s resistance lunges the couple into a heated argument, in the middle of which, Gerald has a heart attack and dies on the floor. Still handcuffed, Jessie is now trapped, all alone. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn she was sexually abused by her father. Through a series of painful physical events and her hallucinations of Gerald and herself giving her advice, she breaks free. The majority of the film is her struggle with her past, her hallucinations: some offering confidence, some discouragement. The end of the movie resolves with her using her husband’s life insurance to start a foundation for victims of sexual abuse. She also helps put the serial killer behind bars with her eyewitness statement.

    The movie, based on a Stephen King novel, shows a woman who had a traumatic past and nearly abusive husband. Yet she is the final victor over the men who hurt her.

    Just as you mentioned Clover’s comments about using sex appeal in horror films, Jessie is a beautiful woman with the majority of the film showing her in the slip she had put on for Gerald, while struggling to survive and free herself. I think this was a different take on the “final girl” concept because by the first 20 minutes of the film, it was already confirmed Jessie was the final girl. It was no fault/mistake of the serial killer or Gerald that helped her escape, it was purely her own conniving.The audience watched to see it play through; to watch her struggle, trumping her abusive past and persevering through present crises.

  7. Although I am not one who watches a lot of horror films, I can definitely see how the idea of the “final girl” is portrayed even in thriller type films as well. In creating the idea of a “final girl,” it is as though the producers want their audience to be able to hold out hope that someone will be able to make it out alive. In a sense, I can see why it is necessary, since by having that hope, it makes the audience more attached to the characters, rooting for them to still survive in the end. When thinking about the concept of the final girl, I wonder if the idea of the final girl is applicable to other types of movies besides horror films? How this can be paralleled to the experience of the roles of men in horror films?

  8. Horror films are often not my cup of tea. I find them a bit too scary since I can easily identify with characters in movies. However, this concept of the “final female” in horror films is interesting. Is it possible that directors/writers are manipulating gender role expectations to create fascinating films? Specifically, I am wondering if the gender role expectation of “men being better fit for survival than women” is being used to keep audience members enticed in horror movies where a group of friends is slowly picked off one-by-one by a serial killer. For example, audience members may be more interested in watching these films to see if the man survives, fulfilling the gender role expectation. It might even be exciting when this gender role expectation is not met, where a woman survives, making the movie a bit unpredictable. It would be interesting to do a study where audience members had to watch two similar horror films where a woman survives out of a group of friends vs. one where a man survives out of a group of friends and assess audience members reactions to each film.

    Another question pops into mind however. Do we only see horror movies with sole female leads because we would never expect a man to be in danger this way? I.e., do we expect that a man would never be “stupid enough” to be in danger like this?

    In response to your paragraph about sex appeal in horror films, I think it is kind of cool to use sex appeal as a way to entice people to watch films where women are the leads. Hopefully it makes them consider the power of feminine heroism. However, I do think it plays to an unhelpful stereotype in the beauty bias, where people expect beauty to be tied to heroism. This might even play into women’s leadership, where women who are more attractive are expected to be better leaders compared to those less attractive.

  9. I am not a fan of horror movies (read: I’m a baby when it comes to horror movies) but in the few I have seen or heard about, I have definitely noticed the trope of the ditzy, sexy horror movie heroine. There is also a disproportionate amount of women as the people in the horror situation in these types of films. However, as you said in your post, there is a lot of feminism associated with final girl status. I think these two conflicting aspects of the main female characters is an interesting thing to look at more in-depth.

  10. I love this intriguing take on the female leads in horror movies, and I think many of the same ideas can carry over to the stage off the screen as well. In particular, I was thinking about the musical (which was also turned into a movie) “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” which CNU will be producing next spring. It is a psychological thriller about a barber who becomes vengeful when the judge in London lusts after the barber’s wife and later his daughter. Throughout the musical, the audience is torn between who is the true villain, the barber who begins killing men indiscriminately and turning them into meat pies as he plots his revenge on the judge, or the judge who imprisons the barber’s daughter and tries to force her to marry him (who is a good 30-40 years older than her). In the end, the daughter ends up taking somewhat of the initiative to run away from the judge, leave London, and marry her “Romeo.” The daughter, Joanna, possesses many of the typical qualities you mention in your post: blonde, not exactly smart but not dumb either, beautiful, etc. In a way, she is the “Rapunzel” in the story. However, she is also the one who stalls the wedding, who resists the judge’s advances and keeps her innocence and chastity, the one who escapes the slaughter in the end with her love. With the opportunity of the show being performed next year and with this discussion, I hope maybe this more feminist aspect of the character could be emphasized in CNU’s production.

  11. This article highlights the theme that women have to be beautiful and sexualized to have a place in the media. It is similar to the beauty bias that we talked about in class, where women only get hired because they are beautiful. Much like Chainsaw Massacre, in the movie, Midsommar, the main character is a woman who ends up essentially being the victorious one. Dani maintains her position of power throughout the movie, and ends up sacrificing her own boyfriend. It goes to show that (although realistically women should not murder anyone) that a female can overcome the male narrative and is able to become more successful than them.

    I definitely think that there has been a shift in the horror genre in the way that women are treated. Media is usually faster in shifting to make things politically correct, of which I appreciate.

    Overall, I believe that if a film is intriguing enough, it does not need to have sex appeal to attract viewers.

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