Violent and Vile Women in Excision and Martyrs: Feminism in Modern Horror Films

In the summer of 2013, between my third and fourth years of university, I took a gender and pop culture class. In this course I was given freedom to pursue my particular areas of interest, so of course I chose horror. The essay below is the result and one of my favourite things that I’ve ever written. This version is slightly shorter and more concise than the original, because I had to pare it down to present it in a symposium in 2014. At one point in time this was the basis of my English Honours project. I had planned an expanded version discussing multiple films. However I had to drop Honours for mental health reasons and finished my degree early instead. The idea of this essay, my distinct perspective on horror, sitting and collecting pixelated dust on my laptop feels wrong. So I’ve decided to publish it here, and in the future I will expand upon these ideas on my horror blog.

Note: Because of the content of these films, the essay is cisnormative. The two films only deal with cisgender ideas of womanhood and femininity and so that it what I discussed.

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Violent and Vile Women in Excision and Martyrs:

Feminism in Modern Horror Films

While historically horror has been considered a notoriously misogynistic genre, the impact of feminism can be seen when examining recent horror films made outside of Hollywood. Richard Bates, Jr.’s 2012 American film Excision and Pascal Laugier’s 2008 French film Martyrs exemplify dynamic representations of women on screen. Both films are distinct in their depiction of women in atypical or unexpected roles, they undermine the prevalent portrayals of sexuality in film, and they present a significantly different relationship between women and violence. Villainous or ambiguous female characters are the backbones of these movies, and crucial in destabilizing gendered film norms.  Through dissecting the depiction and subversion of gender and sexuality in Excision and Martyrs, this paper will show the distinct and confrontational presence of feminism through female characters in horror films.

Feminism in horror specifically is distinct from other genres due to the nature of horror films. They are inherently challenging, depicting chaos in cultures which inform and promote normalcy and stability.  Horror films can “[project] particular fears and threats that destabilise the perceived dominant consensual paradigms of contemporary existence” (McCann 237) revealing “that those paradigms of stability, civility, orthodoxy and superiority are in fact a fallacy” (McCann 237). This creates a space for horror films to expose, pervert, and demolish gendered tropes.

Excision is explicitly subversive in its intentions because it is deliberately mimicking and systematically unravelling the ‘coming-of-age’ teenager film. Writer Carmiel Banasky highlights in her review that Excision is “an angsty response to movies like She’s All That (where the ugly girl transforms into a supermodel upon removing her glasses),” built around “suburban clichés that are embraced and undermined by the end of the film.” The camera follows Pauline as she ascends into a beautifully grotesque madness. This inevitably ends in the loss of her ability and even desire to maintain normalcy. Initially the film follows “Pauline-centric adventures” (Banasky). At school as she experiences the normal uncomfortable teenage milestones including sex, a dance, banal classes, and bullying. When she’s at home she’s either enduring family dinners where no one is able to connect to her, or communicating in the dark to her version of God. These comically offbeat scenes are intercut with her surrealistically vivid surgical dreams, creating unease because the audience knows this is foreshadowing. Pauline is hopelessly obsessed with excision. She refuses to conform, resulting in “attempts to excise herself from the mundanity of her suburban upbringing” (Banasky). In a conclusion that is “altruistic” (Banasky) from Pauline’s perspective, but “disastrous” (Banasky) to an outsider, her actions “culminate in a literal excision” (Banasky).

An atypical female lead is integral to warping the expected norms of a teenage drama or comedy. Pauline is unlike any other protagonist in part because she alternates moment to moment between being the hero, anti-hero, villain, and victim. She is not “easily compartmentalized” (Jason Bailey) like many other women in pop culture.

Pauline is sympathetic, and somehow charismatic despite her social ineptitude. She “can’t help but believe in her own extraordinariness” (Banasky), which is undeniably deluded but makes her the viewer’s “hero” (Banasky) regardless.  Everyone in her life “opposes her” (Banasky), but this isolation allows the “[audience] to relate Pauline” (Banasky), leaving the “viewer…drawn to her” (Banasky). But the feminine or “traditionally heroic” (Akash Nikolas) personality traits expected in a female protagonist are entirely absent. Her personality is aggressive and eccentric. Her interests lay in anatomy and literature as opposed to socializing or learning life lessons. Ugly Pauline, “beautiful [only] in her repulsiveness” (Banasky), does not even meet the expected standard of being comfortably “relatable to other women and attractive to men” (Nikolas). She displays an unorthodox heroism when she stands up for herself through satisfying moments of unconventional vengeance on those who bullied her. When she throws up on another student after swallowing a bottle of Ipecac, or attacks a girl for spray painting her house, it is justifiable in her own world. Pauline is an angry teenager who has not been taught any real coping mechanisms. She is well-intentioned even if the results are not. Watching these scenes the viewers “are rooting for the girl who has enough self-awareness to know she ought to have gone to a qualified psychiatrist long ago, but who has not one ounce of self-control” (Banasky). Yet she is punished for reacting in ways not accepted by the norm, and this is also understood by the audience as a practical outcome. So while Pauline may be the hero of her own life, she comes closer to being an anti-hero by the common media standards.

Yet even this categorization is incorrect. Pauline embodies the abject. Julia Kristeva describes the concept as “that which does not ‘respect borders, positions, rules…that which ‘disturbs identity, system, order’” (Barbara Creed 68). Specifically with Pauline the “abject [is] experienced” (Creed 69) as it “relates to biological bodily functions” (Creed 69). The abject in horror films “abound[s] in images of…the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears and putrefying flesh” (Creed 71). Pauline is obnoxious in her unattractiveness, characterized by her “cold sores, acne, mouth unfailingly agape” (Banasky), greasy hair and skin, and absurdly poor posture. She vomits, drools, cries, sniffs her own tampon, and intentionally has sex while menstruating. In her dreams Pauline bathes in blood and kisses corpses. In reality she disrupts the social order with her very presence, threatening to create a “place where meaning collapses” (Creed 69). She disturbs her already tenuously bound family, ignores hygiene standards, subverts the hierarchies of high school, and indulges in cross-cultural taboos. Furthermore, she is not frightened by this side of herself, she embraces it. This aligns her more with the role of the villain.

Morbid and unstable at her core, it is unsurprising that Pauline seizes the opportunity to ‘save’ her ill sister by turning her garage into a failed operating room and successful crime scene. The final moments in Excision are so ambiguous in their lack of clear judgement that they leave the audience full of ambivalence. Undoubtedly in some respects Pauline is a villain, but she is also the victim of her own circumstances. Her mental illness is neglected, and her parents’ inability to provide her with what she needs only pushes her further into her own dissociation. Ultimately Pauline is simultaneously the protagonist and antagonist of her own story. This directly confronts the “dearth of female characters” (Bailey) characterized by “nuance and complexity” (Bailey) in pop culture.

In Excision the subversion of sexuality as it is seen in conventional films, and the relationship between women and violence are inseparable. The film opens to one of Pauline’s dreams. In one chair is a beautiful version of herself, convulsing and bleeding. An identical Pauline sits across from her, except this one is blood-free and moaning in pleasure. Eventually the bleeding Pauline erupts and splatters blood onto her counterpart. This is when she wakes up and the narrative begins. The symbolism here is persistent throughout. Her first sexual encounter occurs while she has her period. This social outcast defies expectation by actively and successfully pursuing a ‘popular’ boy as her partner. During intercourse she fantasizes about playing with her blood, in a scene similar to her dream sequences. There are no consequences for her deviant sexual fantasies, no moral lessons added on to the end of her sexual experience to push teenage girls towards abstinence. Ashley Fetters writes for The Atlantic that teenage girls in film and television seldom ‘lose their virginity’ and leave the experience “un-traumatized and un-stricken by tragic regret.” Usually they either “‘come to their senses’ at the last minute, or get effectively dissuaded” (Fetters). If not, the girl is usually punished through some kind of “karmic retribution” (Fetters). In horror films “the slut” (Blakeley) can expect “a certain death sentence” (Blakeley). Excision instead selects a different route, addressing “well-entrenched gender stereotyping” (Bailey). Pauline is in control and moves forward. Her failed surgery is not portrayed as a result of her sexual activity. Having sex does not define the moral character or plot line of this female lead.

Similarly, Pauline’s dreams are a deeply transgressive source of empowerment for her. Her fantasies depict multiple cross-cultural social taboos, including cannibalism, abortion, homosexuality, erotic behaviour with multiple partners, necrophilia, and mutilation of the human form. While many of the bodies and victims are women, the violence is not used to subjugate them for their gender. The purpose is rather to explore Pauline’s psyche. During these artistically “pornographic, highly stylized” (Banasky) sequences she is “beautiful…because she fully morphs into a sensual being” (Banasky). Here, and later in her waking life, she is the perpetrator of violence. This gore allows Pauline a control over her life not normally afforded, and a deeper understanding of her sexuality and identity. In horror films, and elsewhere in the media, women are much more frequently the victim of violence than the cause. Even when they are the source, there are often supernatural circumstances involved. To see a woman enact and enjoy violence is uncommon, and to see full or lead characters doing so even rarer. The presence of a gore-loving lead is the beginning of more balance between male and female characters in horror.

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Martyrs takes a “relentlessly bleak” (Amy M. Green 23) approach to addressing gender issues in film. From the opening scene it “bludgeons the audience” (Green 20), and continues without “a single break in the tension of the story” (Green 22). The first distinct half of the film tells the story of Lucie, a young woman seeking revenge on those who tortured her as a child. Severely traumatized, she frequently hallucinates a brutalized corpse attacking her when she is actually mutilating herself. Shortly after Lucie murders the torturers and their children in their home, her best friend Anna arrives to help deal with the carnage. The second half begins after Lucie commits suicide. From this point the film descends into utter “futility and hopelessness” (Green 23), traumatizing the audience as it depicts the systematic destruction of Anna’s mind and body.

The characterization in Martyrs focuses on subverting the expected behaviours and plot lines for women.  Amy M. Green discusses the use and then inversion of a trope she calls “the triad,” which includes “the virgin, the matron, and the crone—or the young woman, mother, and elderly woman.” Both in and out of the media this trope “still serves as the means by which a woman’s life experiences are categorized and understood. [It] remains a vital underpinning in contextualizing rites of passage” (Green 23). Laugier “collapses and distorts all of these conceptions” (Green 23) through the cruelty inflicted on and by the women in the film.

Lucie, while disturbed from her experiences, is never just a passive victim. She actively pursues revenge to re-establish the agency she was robbed of in her youth. She escaped her torturers as a child, and goes after them despite the risks as an adult. Similarly, none of the other characters are passive recipients of fate, even if it results in their demise or extreme cruelty.

Anna “assumes the role of Lucie’s protectress and becomes a friend-sister-mother in the process” (Green 21). She is “a strong, competent woman” (Green 23), able to “[maintain] a level head when she sees the slaughter Lucie has wrought and displays great compassion toward” (Green 23) the various victims she encounters. What is unique about Martyrs is that Anna “is a genuinely good person whose compassion and care for others directly lead to her torture” (Green 22). Unlike other horror films where the ‘good girl’ survives, Anna lives the remainder of her short life in agony. For all her kindness she is not rewarded or freed from burden.

The antagonists in this film are women. Two of the three torturers are women. The person orchestrating the entire operation is “the only elderly woman” (Green 26) present. It is important to note that “Laugier does not populate the film with a patriarchal system of male domination and authority. Instead, the few men who appear either die almost immediately… or are clearly operating under the Mademoiselle’s ultimate authority” (Green 23). ‘Madamoiselle’ signifies that she “never married” (Green 26). She will never share or “cede her power” (Green 26). Her suicide in the end, once she obtains divine secrets through martyring Anna, means she will never “help any young woman pass into adulthood and maturity” (Green 26). Madamoiselle never submits to the idea that being an old women equates to kind or wise.

In Green’s analysis of these female villains she notes that “had Laugier chosen to have the positions of power filled by men, Martyrs would easily have become nothing more than quasi-titillating entry into the women-in-peril category of horror films.” Often even when women are “allowed to be bad, [it is] only when her male lead is at least as worse” (Nikolas). This represents a distinct use of female characters to subvert gender norms. While these depictions of independence and strength for these women comes at the cost of morality or freedom, they nonetheless have act on their own free will and are not dependent on male characters to give them purpose.

Sexuality is a particularly pertinent subject because it is entirely absent. The film was intentionally written and filmed in a way that “contains no sexuality at all, and all nudity that occurs— and it is scant—is not intended at all to titillate” (Green 23). Martyrs focuses heavily on gender, using imagery “analogous to… the monstrous female, smothering, dead, womb spaces, and the like” (Green 23). But gender and sexuality here “do not exist in relation to the male gaze” (Green 23). This is part of what makes it so disturbing, in that it is a rare movie that confronts how cinema is “so deeply embedded in the male gaze” (Bailey). It forces the viewer to acknowledge that previously they had seen women portrayed in the media in “stark, simplistic terms” (Bailey).

It is crucial to note that among all the gore and abuse, “the film makes clear that none of the women [were] sexually abused (Green 23). When Lucie is taken to the orphanage the doctors specify that she “has not been sexually abused in any way” (Green 20-21). This removes any sort of “voyeuristic thrill” (Green 22). Instead “Laugier’s film challenges viewers by throwing back in their faces popular culture’s propensity toward the glorification and even eroticization of violence, especially against women” (Green 21). Anna is never “sexualized” (Green 22) during her torture. Rather through the destruction of her body the audience witnesses “gender regression” (Green 24) as opposed to eroticization. Like the other victims, so brutalized they appear “barely human” (Green 21), Anna becomes “increasingly less identifiable as female” (Green 24). It is in the “skinning…and final neutering” (Green 25) that Anna ceases to appear to be a woman at all, with her “breasts and external genitals removed” (Green 25).  Green refers to John Money’s “coining of the term gender in the 1960s as ‘sex neutered and purified so as to be devoid of lust. With the neutering of sex, there is no procreation’” (27). Then she states that Martyrs “takes this idea out of the realm of gender politics and physically applies it” (27) in a way that is so aggressive it is inherently confrontational. The film forces the audience to examine human cruelty and vulnerability beyond the usual parameters of gender and sexuality.

Violence is so deeply embedded into every aspect of this film that it is difficult to discuss any element without referencing it. Laugier uses it to assault the idea that maternal instincts are inherent. Here the relationship between women and violence is key in deconstructing normalcy. Martyrs uses blood and chains to paint a picture of gendered feminine roles and imagery as social constructions.

When the family (containing Lucie’s torturers) is first introduced at breakfast there is “a sense of unease emanating from the supposed normality of the diegetic world” (McCann 226) even though the film has hardly begun. The insidious underbelly of this family and their house is shortly revealed. This in itself exposes the falsehood of the concept of the woman as maternal and the home as her warm domain.

When Anna is captured, Madamoiselle explains that “it is so easy to create a victim” (Marytrs) but “martyrs are very rare” (Marytrs). Instead of women creating life the “unnamed cult” (Green 23) uses women for death. It is revealed that Madamoiselle wants to “glimpse the afterlife” (Green 21), so she “seeks to push…captives to the brink of death” (Green 21) for answers. The victims are hidden away in dark, isolated rooms “reminiscent of the womb” (Green 25). They are chained and waiting for death, the inversion of “life-sustaining umbilical cords linking fetus to mother” (Green 25). The only reason why female characters are the subjects of their cruel experiment is because “[young] women are more responsive to transfiguration” (Martyrs). There is no “inherent hostility” (Green 23) in their methodical violence. The antagonists are distinctly unemotional about the torture. This is one of the only moments in the film that offer the viewer any sort of explanation behind the carnage. Once Anna “becomes the victim of her own compassion” (Green 26), and her efforts to save others amount to nothing, the image of Anna as a good and moral maternal character is revealed to be entirely ineffectual.

The two female torturers also make “grotesque mockeries” (Green 27) of motherhood. The only woman on screen who is an actual mother displays some of the worst behaviour. She tortures multiple women, one of which is found in the basement of her home. This mother also yells the only sexual slur in the film, used to highlight “her disconnect from the conception of ‘mother’ as a figure of warmth and compassion” (Green 26). The female torturer who replaces her is equally merciless, only displaying real emotion when she cries into the arms of the male torturer after Anna achieves martyrdom. The image of the two embracing in the house they both live in and torture together is itself is a mockery of marriage. Afterward skinned Anna is covered with a filthy sheet and pushed in a wheelchair, in a scene that “plays out like a perverse rendering of a bride being escorted down the aisle” (Green 25). She is their child, the product of all their violence and valued for her survival. The mother and the wife cease to be “symbol[s] of compassion, nurturing, and care” (Green 23). Through violence Laugier adds another level of depth and development for women.

The key to understanding feminist influence on both Excision and Martyrs lies in examining female antagonists. These violent and vile women subvert gendered film norms of characterization, sexuality, and violence itself. While they may be horrific characters committing disturbing acts, they are also the beginning of more balance between gender in film. As opposed to seeing women only in a positive light, as feminine and maternal, these horror films demonstrate that female characters can be every bit as sinister and complex as their male counterparts. Regardless of whether the directors intended to create movies that demonstrate the impact of feminism on the media, they both successfully challenge the audience’s preconceived notions of what it means to be a woman in a horror film.

 

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Works Cited

  • Bailey, Jason. “Why Are There So Few Female Antiheroes on Film?” Flavorwire. Flavorpill Media, 21 June 2013. Web. 8 July 2013.
  • Banasky, Carmiel. “The Rumpus Review of Excision.” The Rumpus. n.p., 9 June 2012. Web. 8 July 2013.
  • Blakeley, Kiri. “Women in Horror Films.” Forbes. n.p., 26 Aug. 2010. Web. 8 July 2013.
  • Excision. Dir Richard Bates, Jr. Anchor Bay Films, 2012. Film.
  • Fetters, Ashley.  “The To Do List’s Radically Practical Message About Virginity” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media, 26 July 2013. Web. 2 Aug. 2013.
  • Green, Amy M. “The French Horror Film Martyrs and the Destruction, Defilement, and Neutering of the Female Form.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 39:1 (2011): 20-28. Print.
  • Jancovich, Mark, ed. Horror, The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
  • Martyrs. Dir. Pascal Laugier. Canal+, 2008. Film.
  • McCann, Ben. “Pierced Borders, Punctured Bodies: the Contemporary French Horror Film.” Australian Journal of French Studies 45:3 (2008): 255-237. Print.
  • McDaniel, Morgan. “Feminism is On the Rise No Matter What Polls Say.” PolicyMic. n.p., Apr. 2013. Web. 2 Aug. 2013.
  • Nikolas, Akash.  “Where Is The Female Tony Soprano?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media, 27 June 2013. Web. 7 July 2013.
  • Plank, Elizabeth. “#FemFuture: The Feminist Revolution Will Be Online.” PolicyMic. n.p., 9 Apr. 2013. Web. 2 Aug. 2013.

 

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