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When Women Die Onscreen

In the 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio, the horror isn’t what is happening in the film but the horrors that occur as a film is made.

Berberian is about an English sound designer named Gilderoy (played by Toby Jones) who is brought into an Italian horror movie making factory, one adjacent to Dario Argento. Gilderoy is at the top of his game and is highly respected in his field – but has many reservations about the film he has been assigned to. Something doesn’t feel quite right and he can’t pinpoint why. Is it the nature of the film? Is it the actors? Is it the responsibilities – or irresponsibilities – of those in charge? He can’t figure it out.

Warning: spoilers ahead for multiple films.

Gilderoy is particularly unnerved by a scene he is working on where a red hot poker is inserted into a woman’s vagina. He feels it’s inappropriate, despicable, and a violation of respect to women. The director disagrees, calling it art, before shifting the conversation to the sound designer being bad at his job. What bubbles up after this is a combination of #MeToo and machismo at the movies, a collision of women being heard and many doing what they can to destroy their bodies on screen.

It’s a filthy, smart take on something we see again and again and again at the movies, specifically in horror. But the issue isn’t the depiction of “gore” but instead the idea of the male director in horror making the female body the site for pain, for torture, for destruction, either at the hands of a faceless murderer or at the hands of other women. This isn’t a unique problem in horror but in the industry at large, one that producer Jason Blum’s recent comments highlighted for all the wrong reasons.

What this gets at is an issue of representation and the manifestation of quiet misogyny or overt discomforts in the genre. There was a time when audiences could blithely watch a film like 2003’s High Tension or 2005’s Wolf Creek or any other film in the “female victim” oeuvre and think “LOL, wow blood and guts and some boobs. Killing! Fun!” and think nothing of it. What has evolved nearly a decade later – or century, given the greater context of Hollywood – is a discomfort in repeatedly watching women led to slaughter at the hands of male directors. Yes, there can be women victims and women killers in horror but the difference is when the nature of a horror film is to represent reality or to apply a certain amount of violence, gore, and nudity to do the execution. A line is crossed between good, irreverent fun and seeing the film as a problem, as a technically gross example of the unseen male hand run amok.

“The horror genre has always explored womanhood in various ways, whether through sexuality, motherhood or female neurosis, but the majority of the time it is through a male, and at times exploitative, lens,” director Amelia Moses explained in a recent article for The Independent. “On top of that, it’s also a genre with a history of its female characters being included solely for sex appeal or as nameless victims of violence.” As Moses – and others – note, time has changed and the movies should too. As gender studies professor Beth Younger wrote last year, the genre has shifted from taking “pleasure in victimizing women to focusing on women as survivors and protagonists.” This is a big step.

The converse to this is when a modern movie does not heed this call, creating results that are even more damning.

Take Darron Aronofsky’s 2017 film Mother!. Described as an exploration of a couple’s relationship, the film very quickly and very obviously reveals itself to be a meditation on the creative process, on destruction and creation, on the brutal unfolding of the muse’s path. A creation is a mother unto itself, a creation that creates. This is all great! However, this manifests by the muse – Jennifer Lawrence as “Mother” – being destroyed by the world of the artist, the “him,” Javier Bardem. The “Mother” goes through literal hell, through psychological torture and gaslighting, through literal bloodshed and beating, and even watches her newborn baby get ripped apart by fans, all as she screams and calls for help and hopes and hopes and hopes that someone listens. Does anyone? No. No one does. The film ends with the “Mother” immolating herself, destroying her body and the world around her in order to escape the disrespect that has befallen her.

And? The “him” is rewarded, is given a diamond out of her body, a treasure to take from her in her death as another “Mother” is born for him to rape, slaughter, and destroy, only to place the blame on her.

The film is pretty at points but it eventually crosses a line from Lawrence seen as dewey and doe-y to displaying her (like the gorgeous house in the film) as a canvas for destruction. The metaphor is lost as you are left to worry about the actor, about the woman, as a victim instead of the character. It crossed over from interesting to disgusting and it never recovered. It was gratuitous and bad, using horror for Aronofsky to masturbate artistic poetics. There were no winners, particularly as such a film attempted to fuse art and horror together for mainstream audiences.

This feeling of abusing women and objectifying victimness also befell one of 2018’s most anticipated horror films: Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria. It’s a beautiful film, well acted with large doses of camp, encased by beautiful dancing and even more beautiful costumes and architecture. It is tense and intriguing, fun and filthy. It is a great movie. Yet, there is the trap of abusing the women that Guadagnino lets himself indulge, whether knowingly or not. What should have been a film about female empowerment and women-helping-women in adverse times became exploitation in the near-final act and, believe me, there were many acts in this bloated film.

What Guadagnino does that Aronofsky does not is tap into the genre-within-a-genre of female victimization that sees women destroying themselves, their destruction and demise as being part and parcel of the female experience. It’s ludicrous. In the film’s climax, viewers are finally introduced to the coven’s bloody lair where not one not two but over a dozen women are nude, writhing and self-flagellating, offering their physical bodies as sites of harm. It’s uncomfortable and exploitative and, given the absence of a man except for behind the camera and within the script, one can’t help but see this as a sort of brutal fantasy, as a way to get a bunch of naked women together so that they can die. It’s indulgent and, while consent was given, the scene will very easily be viewed without the greater context of intention.

(Particularly since, in the final moments of the film, it ends with the film’s only leading male character being absolved of the burden of memory, of his experiences with such violence being removed from his mind. But the women? They must remain in this world, whether they see – or don’t – how vicious they are to each other.)

There will be talk of 2018’s Suspiria being good or bad for women and, after being treated to a brief Q&A with the director, writer, and stars of the film, I can tell you that the intention to make it a comment on the treatment of women in society now was illustrated in the wrong direction. Instead of offering a call for female empowerment, it falls into the bygone habit of horror films being an excuse to destroy a woman, for a brutal fantasy to be realized. I couldn’t help but feel like Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio: is this really what should happen in a movie? Why aren’t the women being listened to? Art aside, there are certain measures of respect – and this isn’t exactly how such things are accomplished.

The problem isn’t the content in any of these situations but instead the gaze, the power. In both films – particularly in Suspiria – the question that a contemporary viewer is left with is why didn’t a woman direct this? Where was the female writer? How are these not products of the male imagination?These movies are distinctly male and, try as the new Suspiria does to ruminate on female power, the advantage is given to the men who watch, who put these women under the microscope to sabotage each other. As the New York Times‘ Manohla Davis said in her review, “it’s the old vagina dentata scare show, this time fancied up with art-house pretensions.” The Mary Sue‘s Kate Gardner dug deeper into thjswith her review, saying “the themes of female freedom and awakening and motherhood” that the film shows “is not a story a man can necessarily tell well.” I wholeheartedly agree.

It’s beyond time for films, particularly horror films, to turn away from the male gaze, from being opportunities to destroy. It’s disgusting and enables everything wrong with Hollywood, leaving viewers to feel like Gilderoy: these things shouldn’t be happening. Am I going to let them? I most certainly am not — and I am no longer comfortable enabling men who kill women on screen with their invisible hands.

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