The slasher sub genre of horror is a strange anomaly. Sometimes it becomes a male power fantasy, and other times its films feature equal strength of both genders. The best slasher films toy with the imbalance between the two and create something empowering for the "Scream Queens" that reside within it. Those films become less focused on the one doing the killing, and more on the woman trying to survive
For this month's Chick Flix Club, I wanted to tackle a horror film that's all about badass women (you know, because Halloween). I considered Halloween for setting the bar for the "Scream Queen," and Trick r Treat for skewering the "damsel in distress" trope, but ultimately settled on Wes Craven's Scream for its meta filled story of coping with loss in a dangerous, high school world.
On the anniversary of her mother's death, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her friends are hunted down by a masked man in a ghost mask. As more of her friends die and people close to her become suspects in the murders, Sidney realizes that in order to survive the masked killer, who's a fan of scary movies, she has to figure out the scary movie "rules" and use those rules to her advantage all while avoiding depression at the hands of a world that chooses to demean her.
Scream's meta-narrative is its most endearing quality. It's flexible style allows it to point out flaws in both the slasher, and surprisingly, "chick flick" genres. If you haven't seen Scream, I should tell you there are several references to other well known horror films (like Evil Dead and Halloween) in an effort to stand out on its own from other films while ironically fulfilling all of the rules it strives to avoid. Scream is trying to create its own pocket universe within the genre and is hoping its self-awareness doesn't stifle character growth. Thankfully, while tweaking horror aspects, Scream also produces one of the best "chick flicks" around.
A convention of the "chick flick" genre is having a male character enter a female lead's life and forcing an evolution of her character in some fashion. Having the male influence become a vicious murderer alters the dynamic of the genre and plays to its faults. When a conventional female lead's dialogue and plot revolves around the male influence, it's a little shaky and slightly disturbing as the female lead finds it necessary to attach herself completely to this outside force. In Scream, that influence is terrifying, foreboding. Ghost Face becomes a critique of that male influence over female characters as there are multiple scenes in which he/it follows Sidney around (convenience stores, outside her house) in order to brutally consume her. Sidney's response to Ghost Face/the male influence is where Scream truly shines.
Throughout the film Sidney is confronted by a number of outside influences and does her damndest to not cave in to each of them. Her high school teases her about the death of her mother (exaggerated to reflect her need to be an outsider to survive), her boyfriend wants her to sex him and she's of course continually being harassed and attacked by someone in a mask. As a female lead, Sidney responds to her situations in a natural, believable way. She cries a bit when her high school mocks her in a very powerful scene in a school bathroom stall, and she tries to find comfort in those who haven't hurt her, and when that fails, she harnesses her own strength (and becomes a badass).
Sidney soon takes ownership of her lead role, and thanks to the self-awareness of the film's narrative, knows she's taking it (if that makes any sense). It's one thing for a female lead to gain strength through the course of a narrative, but it's another entirely when the character is aware of their strength, their limits. In this way, the film also promotes the male influence. By creating such a negative influence, Scream forces Sidney to positively change her character from the somewhat shy girl in the beginning of the film, to the kickass serial killer fighter in the end. And when Ghost Face turns out to be her boyfriend, she isn't paralyzed by that fact. She doesn't bear a emotional connection to him at that point and chooses to preserve her own life. After she defeats he male influence, she states the line, "Not in my movie," and becomes a character who can stand on her own feet.
Sidney isn't the only badass woman in the film either. Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) is a career driven woman who knows what she wants (and isn't portrayed as the stereotypical "bitch," either) and goes through her own male driven character arc. She meets Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) and eventually softens her harder "business mode" personality without compromising her toughness as a character (she's the one who puts down Ghost Face in the end). Sidney's friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) is first painted as the "slutty blonde" (she exemplifies this before her death as she references other films) but she turns out strong as well when she fights back. In Scream, the women fight back. In terms of death count (four men, two women), the deaths are considerably minimal for a slasher film and ultimately lessens in importance in the greater scope of the film.
As a slasher film, Scream is more about survival rather than foreboding death. As a "chick flick" film, Scream is about mining feminine strength within the overbearing presence of male influence. It's self-awareness allows it to play around with both of the genre's rules and creates something special within both of them. Sidney Prescott gives "Scream Queen" a new meaning and carries that through the rest of her franchise. Seriously, go watch the other three Screams. Scream 4 especially since that version of Sidney is a hardened badass that is unfortunately taken through the same situation twice and alters her decisions accordingly.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to cover everything I wanted to (this post could've been three different parts), but for the sake of continuity, I've condensed it to Sidney alone. Gale's character deserves more investigation (and not to mention Drew Barrymore's short stint!), Scream's dissection of its genre merits more conversation, and the ramifications of finding out the main male lead was also the antagonist greatly affects the "chick flick" rules. Still, I hope this post clarifies a few ideas and promotes a friendly debate about how the slasher genre can sometimes promote a feminist ideal rather than stomp it down.
Speaking of promoting a feminist ideal, next month I'll be exploring a film whose greater message is playfully hidden behind bright pink effervescence.
The CFC will be back in November with...Legally Blonde
September: She's All That
August: CFC Primer