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.

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Can We Talk About How Sexist House Of Leaves Is?

The Necropolitan

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In some ways this book was doomed from the start for me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.* House of Leaves has been on my To Read list since I first heard about it back in high school. Experimental horror fiction is 100% up my alley. But it’s an extremely hyped up novel. I’ve had multiple people tell me it was too scary to finish, and others tell me the horror in it still haunts them. So the expectations I had couldn’t really be met. As a lifelong voracious consumer of all things horror (or at least things very morbid and weird), something needs to be very disturbing to leave that type of impression on me. Especially after watching Martyrs (the film that made me quit watching horror movies for 2 years), not a lot of things reach that standard. There were without…

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NoD #18 Gender Issue: “crumbs”

The magazine I worked hard to keep alive and put together was finally completed by an excellent new team of editors this year. I’m very grateful for them to be able to publish the issue when I was unable to. Please support the magazine by purchasing it here as a physical copy or a pdf. There’s a lot of excellent work in here.

Below is the first poem I contributed for anyone who would like to read but can’t afford a copy. This one is titled “crumbs” and the other is “Mygale” (meaning tarantula in French). They were both written while I was in university. “Mygale” is a found poem from the novel of the same name, which the film The Skin I Live In is based on. I will upload “Mygale” eventually.

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NoD Magazine is a labour of love run out of the University of Calgary by volunteers. If you’d like to volunteer or contribute you can find more information here.

Athena Loves Horror 5eva

I am a lifelong horror addict. I spend probably too much time watching and reading horror. I tried to squeeze as much horror related stuff as I could into my BA. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am about that spooky life. As a result people ask me for movie recommendations all the time. Since I have had a lot of spare time lately I finally compiled an actual list of film recommendations and favourites. They range from must see classics to guilty pleasures to the best indie and foreign films of the 21st century. It should go without saying that some of these are incredibly disturbing and difficult to watch.

Last updated April 2017.

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Good Men Project: Frank Underwood Is Bisexual…

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Frank Underwood is Bisexual, What’s So ‘Ambiguous’ About That?

Last month everybody’s favourite bingewatching service, Netflix, released a new season of House of Cards. However even though we are now on the third season, everyone is still hung up on the events of second.

The biggest highlight of season two was not his ascension to the presidential throne, but the revelation that Frank Underwood’s sexuality is more complicated than anyone ever thought. He subverted expectations when he and his wife engaged in a threesome with his bodyguard Edward Meechum. Prior to this there was no obvious lead up or suggestion that Frank was anything other than heterosexual, so it was assumed the showrunners would go for the heteronormative default. Whatever their motivations, Frank has become a rare commodity. There are very few bisexual men on TV, and fewer who are billed as part of the main cast.

(Confession: I have not finished season three yet. I’m still slowly making my way through it, hoping for a few more gifable scenes that do more than hint at Frank’s sexuality. But that hasn’t stopped me from reading recaps, thinkpieces, and interviews about it. The article that caught my attention above all others was the one where the series creator dismissed Frank’s sexuality as ambiguous.)

Beau Willimon claimed in his recent interview with Huffington Post that Frank doesn’t really put “much stock in…labels” like bisexual or pansexual. He’s reluctant to “pin him down”. Despite the fact that he clearly enjoys sex with men and women, Willimon doesn’t deem this aspect of his identity worthy of exploring or naming. Instead he evades the ‘b’ word by talking about trust and steering the conversation toward a general intimacy that could be found in any relationship. When asked about Frank’s relationship with a different man he continues to elude clarity: “It’s an emotional connection. Not necessarily a sexual one.” Though this conversation wears the mask of progressive, it perpetuates the silence surrounding men’s bisexual representation. You say ambiguous, I say bi-erasure.

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Fem2pt0: “Her Body, Her Choice: Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda”

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Her Body, Her Choice: Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”

 

Unsurprisingly the revelation of the cover artwork for Nicki Minaj’s upcoming single “Anaconda” was met with shock, debate, and criticism. The picture itself is relatively simple: it features Nicki Minaj crouched down looking over her shoulder. She just happens to be wearing a thong that shows her enviable cheeks. But it’s not as though our culture isn’t already heavily saturated with images people’s rear ends. In fact it’s at the point where white people like Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and Jen Selter have insinuated an ownership over a ‘trend’, without acknowledging that their cultural appropriation reflects a very specific type of oppression. People of colour have been aggressively categorized as Other in a multitude of ways for centuries, and having body types that differ from idealized white bodies continues to be a massive part of that. So what is this really about? Exploitation? Her race? The fact that she’s doing it herself for her own single? All of the above.

One of the most visible reactions is concern over a perceived exploitation. It’s easy for people to distance themselves from her lived experiences by questioning whether or not she’s crossed a line, or talking about how it’s all part of the act to sell records. It is true that her career has involved personas, sexy Instagram photos, and boundary pushing lyrics. Yet that doesn’t mean Nicki Minaj isn’t an authentic part of Onika Maraj. While there’s no way for anyone to know her motivations, it’s outright sexist for critics to ignore her agency. The worry people express over Minaj neglects the possibility that a woman is capable of showing her body for her own pleasure and enjoyment. Even when she is given the benefit of the doubt, her actions are analyzed with skepticism and hesitancy. This continues to occur despite the fact that Minaj has demonstrated awareness of gender in the music industry. Nearly as soon as the gossip popped up she shut it down.

And her response can’t be overlooked. On her Instagram she shared photos of various magazine covers and photoshoots that featured thin white women in thongs. Not only she is highlighting the hypocrisy of what is ‘acceptable’, she’s giving plain evidence of the racial politics that determine which bodies are appropriate and which ones are too much. Minaj is asserting her own confidence and sexuality, but she’s also speaking to other women. With one photograph she is promoting the beauty and power of her black body and demanding respect.

When controversies like this arise I always think of Missy Elliot’s song “Work It”. I listened to Under Construction countless times as a teenager, and without realizing it Miss became a role model for me. The specific line that comes to mind is “Ain’t no shame ladies do your thang / Just make sure you’re ahead of the game”. We all live in a system that constantly subjugates women in more ways than we can count. Society is dominated by the omnipresent ‘Madonna-Whore’ complex that criticizes women for being too slutty one minute and too prudish the next. We just can’t win. As a result there’s always going to be a negotiation between conforming to the norms and rebelling against them. What that looks like for each individual person varies; we all have different paths to empowerment. Nicki Minaj is working the system and enjoying it.

This also speaks to me on a personal level. As a curvy woman of colour I have been treated differently than my white friends for my body. Even the ones who are curvier than I am. Even if we’re wearing the same types of clothes. Since I was a teenager and people realized that I have a sizeable booty, and even more so when my upper half caught up in adulthood, I have been made uncomfortably aware of my distinct appearance. The behaviour I’ve encountered has had a noticeable and sometimes even overt racialized connotation. But like Minaj (and as I’ve written about before), I’m happy to express myself by showing some skin. This summer I’ve been most at home in crop tops and high waist shorts or tank tops and short skirts. I don’t believe I should have to change the way I dress to make other people more comfortable, and I certainly can’t do anything about the how my body looks in the clothes I like. I’m not the problem in this scenario, and neither is Minaj. Seeing powerful women like her stand up for the way they choose to represent themselves is necessary and inspiring. Even more so because the bodies of women of colour are being erased as much (if not more) as they’re being embraced.

People tend to applaud actors for refraining from nude scenes in film, or talk about the ‘elegance’ that comes from a more conservative style. The implication here is that some bodies are wrong, and that there is a ‘right’ way to share and dress them. When we praise some women for their choices and shame others for doing the opposite, we are failing all women.

Update:

My article was quoted in a ThinkProgress piece! I love that site so this is a big deal to me.

Fem2pt0: Dissecting Masculinity in Hannibal

A proper article to go with all my Hannibal recaps! More or less spoiler free.

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Dissecting Masculinity in Hannibal

 

The second season of NBC’s Hannibal has received critical acclaim for the way it’s pushed boundaries on artistry, violence, and depth on television. But one of the most integral and perhaps overlooked aspects is the progressiveness of masculinity in this series. In what is an increasingly male-centric series we see a distinct comfort and openness with homosocial intimacy, and challenging depictions of male sexuality.Hannibal is not only delivering a fresh take on a popular and well known franchise, but further expanding on the trope of the male anti-hero.

Male anti-heroes and morally gray men are not only the norm on TV today, but the hot trend. Some even say it’s a tired trope, taking up too much space at the cost of other characterizations. Personally I still thoroughly enjoy characters that make me challenge my own ideas of morality and ethics. The typical heroes of shows rarely speak to me the way flawed characters do. Even as a kid I preferred to root for Faith over Buffy or Pacey over Dawson. But it’s impossible to miss the growing uniformity in this trend and how the representation of female anti-heroes lags far behind. This is why it can be easy to skim over the way gender works in Hannibal.

One of the many things that makes this critic and fan favorite special in season 2 is the fact that its two male leads are both protagonists and antagonists in their own right. Of course Hannibal the Cannibal is obviously the villain. The whole premise of the book series and all the adaptations that followed is that the center of this fictional universe is the horrific yet somehow appealing psychiatrist turned cannibal. In Bryan Fuller’s TV series Hannibal is fleshed out even more than in the source material. The audience is finally able to see what others saw that allowed him to elude capture for so long. But the second season also develops the darkness and ambiguity in the characters we’re supposed to cheer for. Will Graham approaches Walter White levels of boundary blurring. Jack Crawford and Frederick Chilton justify their own questionable actions with dubious logic.

It is in part this disregard for conventional characterization that allows the show to also transcend some of the usual trappings of masculinity. One major difference between Hannibal and other shows is the comfortable inclusion of homosocial relationships. How often are men seen spending time together just to enjoy one another’s company on serious TV dramas? Male friendships are a common feature of comedy series where they can get into hijinks together or talk about the women in their lives. But it isn’t normalized to a portray men just hanging out without the pretext of a joke. One of the primary features of this show is Hannibal having his friends over for dinner. Women talking over cocktails or a coffee is a given in these post-Sex and the City days, but not the reverse. Sure the meals are used to frame his cannibalism or subtly discuss major themes in the series, but it also goes a long way in showing male friendship is not only okay but a regular part of life. No homophobic jokes necessary. This is incredibly important because it helps to break down the depictions of men only in each other’s lives for beer, boob jokes, or competition. Even on a horror series that often stretches plausibility, representation matters.

Sexuality is also more fluid in Hannibal than its counterparts. Fuller intentionally wrote in homoerotic subtext between Will and Hannibal. He has suggested that Hannibal is a sexually flexible person with attractions that go beyond gender. While unfortunately Fuller has not been explicit with expressing various characters’ queerness on or off screen, he has them room to exist in non-binary ways. Not even the creator himself has been able to silence the debate surrounding Will’s sexuality and the nature of his relationship with Hannibal.

Another notable aspect on Hannibal is the sexualization of male characters. Season 2 features the first overtly erotic moments and sex scenes of the series, but the gaze is focused more on men than women. Whether or not this is problematic is a whole other conversation in itself, but it’s significant that the female and queer gaze is being acknowledged. But the most meaningful aspect is that the violence of the series is not eroticized. Bodies belonging to problematic men? Yes. However the common link we see in the media that fetishizes male violence and violence against women is not present.

Nonetheless, how progressive is the show really if it still leaves its female characters underdeveloped? In comparable series like Mad Men and Dexter women are featured as leading characters and are crucial to the stories being told. While characters in horror series are all potentially expendable, women onHannibal seem to be particularly disposable. The issue isn’t female characters dying or taking extended absences, the problem is that Fuller offers them so few moments to shine. No woman gets as much screen time as the three leading men. Still in its infancy, there’s room for improvement. But if Hannibal wants to continue developing its unique bond with fans it needs to give the women in the show and the audience more consideration.

NoD Magazine: Fever

A short piece of prose/poetry (prosetry?) published in NoD issue #17: Symbols. You can order issues here. Below is the logo for this issue.

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Fever

 

We’re sitting at a wooden table greasy with navy paint discussing something we can’t seem to retain much past the point when it tips out of our mouths. The sweat from our glasses trickles toward each nick and dent on the surface. Our eyes roll downward and we noticed the floor is checkered blue, no, it’s solid blue. So are our shoes. Cerulean whispers in our mouths and then the growing echo of pressure tells us we can’t breathe in colours.

 

It’s a diner we’re sitting in. How does the pizza taste? We’re not sure, blue has no flavour. How was the Economics exam? Well we didn’t attend class often enough and the textbook was dry in a dense way so we didn’t read that either. We tap our fingers against the scratches with the expectation that an action should bring about some kind of reaction. The slow-spinning fan overhead is our only companion. There are windows covered with sinking blinds that filter in only the dimmest and bluest of light. Sometimes there is the hint of a wind that wants to whistle. But it is empty and the room is motionless except for the dust pulled into the fan’s vortex.

 

What did we do last night? There’s so much we can draw up from the well of our minds but the most recent details slip out of our grasp. It’s always like that. Somehow far away and insignificant things float around the murky well. A sudden buzz draws our attention down to the pizza rotting on our vermillion plates. The red shadows make it difficult to note any one aspect of the room. Perhaps the crimson vibrations came from our stomachs, since the diner is static. The sludge on the table distracts us. It’s dizzying, we say and nod in agreement. Somewhere, there is a fly waiting for us to tear our eyes away.

 

Our throats are raw so we try the doors. Don’t step on the cracks, our feet murmur across the maroon tile. The round window in the swinging kitchen door reflects the dining room. We push the door open but the room is hollow and impenetrable. The bathrooms are locked. The little people on the doors are misshapen and genderless. The entrance has those gleaming ruby chimes that make the tinkling clinks we don’t like. We tap our nails against the slim ridges of the table top and watch the scarlet paint flake off. Our pizza is taking longer than expected, but it’s difficult to sink our fingers into time.

 

Do you remember the way the field spun around us? Yes, we lived in our own gravity. We took off our heels and the grassy moisture centred our soles. The skyscraping lights scalded the constellations, but they still prickled down on our bare chests. Our sighs remind us of thirst but a dusty film covers the Coke glasses. Where is the server? The need to order was so ripe that we are losing our hold on the toppings. Our bright rouge nails bleed into the table until it is difficult to tell where the wood ended and our cuticles began. When did we paint them?

 

Up down up down our knees bob. When the movement reaches the height of our nervous systems our brows fold into crumpled napkins. Is this impolite? It can’t be helped that we are just oscillating pockets of fuel. Where do we plug in? Our throats are raw so our queries squelch red in our bellies.

Beyond the reach of the diner the sky swallows and gasps. The rectangle of a restaurant contracts and its bones grind. Someone asks how long, and the rain responds. The room greens with humidity. We tap the toes of our lime heels on the checkered, no, solid floor to pulse of the clouds. Is this what we ordered? Pine needles are scattered across the congealed cheese. We reach across the table to pick crusty residue out of our eyes. The viridian crumbs disintegrate in the slick oil of our fingertips.

 

Do you remember when our voices used to vibrate clear as slivers swimming just beneath the skin? Of course, but we’re—. Looking for something in a language we can’t speak. Our forks scrape across empty plates. How was the Economics exam?

The Gauntlet: U of C Confessions Too Revealing

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U of C Confessions Too Revealing

I “liked” the U of C Compliments page on Facebook. While its content tends to lean towards male-gazey compliments about foxy women at the gym, I still think it’s kind of sweet that people take the time and effort to say something kind anonymously with no incentive. The page is problematic, but superior to others of its kind that I’ve seen online.

On the other hand, I avoid the U of C Confessions page, only looking there when someone tells me they have seen something notably awful. Sometimes I have a morbid curiosity to see the kinds of things people say, if for no other reason than to remember why I put time and energy into social justice issues. More often than not looking at this page has filled me with regret and disgust.

The problem with the whole “sorry not sorry” attitude is that while it can be used to make light-hearted jokes, it is often appropriated to excuse hate speech. We live in a world where it is still easy and acceptable to brush off prejudice as a joke, and dismiss the people hurt by it for “not having a good sense of humour.” But laughing at something does not justify its cruelty. The use of humour to mask intolerance is rampant on U of C Confessions.

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The Good Men Project: Men Don’t Need To Justify Their Beard Implants

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My beardy husband. ❤

Men Don’t Need To Justify Their Beard Implants

When women do things like get eyelash extensions, wear lipstick, and even get breast implants it is generally accepted (even if not respected) because femininity is expected to be a cosmetic performance as well as a social one. But as soon as men show that they fall victim to a pressure to meet masculine aesthetic ideals, do they deserve to be mocked?

That’s the condescending implication of an article PolicyMic published titled “Hipsters Getting Beard Implants Are Officially Taking Things Too Far”. Victoria Kim, the author of the piece, essentially believes this procedure is just a bunch of misguided millenials too concerned with trends, and makes a throwaway comment about how transgender men also get this procedure done, without even a trace of consideration as to why trans men may opt to do it.

How Kim could publicly deride men for succumbing to the same type of stress that women struggle with every day is beyond me. If the intention was to make me laugh at the expense of others, it instead only raised a few of questions:

How is a beard implant really any different from wearing makeup, dyeing your hair, or getting a tattoo?

What is it about men getting plastic surgery that evokes this kind of ridicule?

Why is it anyone’s concern what these men are choosing to do with their own bodies?

 

Undeniably, beards are really ‘in’ right now. It’s not hard to find countless articles written in the last couple of years fixating on the sexiness of beardswondering when this beard phase will pass, and analyzing the trend itself. But beards are also associated with a timeless kind of masculinity, rugged masculinity. Most fashion trends are lucky to last a few years, but throughout history there have always been periods where facial hair dominated. Facial hair is a rite of passage for teenage boys, and in the last decade or so for college aged men who want to participate in Movember. So it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that we’re experiencing a beard renaissance, or that facial hair or lack thereof affects men’s relationships with their own masculinity.

As a teenage girl attending an arts school dominated by my gender, I didn’t really grow up knowing much about the role facial hair played. But shortly after I graduated and met my husband I got a crash course in beards. He would talk nostalgically about No-Shave November and joke about how his friends liked to call him ‘patchy’, but occasionally there a small hint of sting to these stories. I would see firsthand the way people sometimes teased him about the fact that he could only grow a small beard with a few patches missing. While I know the jokes were never made with malicious intent, it illuminated a clear social hierarchy to me where the men who could and did have facial hair were on the top. Now that we’re both older we’re both happy with the facial hair he has. He’s much more confident and comfortable than he was at the young age of 21, and I find his unique beard to be a potent mix of adorable and seductive.

So to see an article like this hit a nerve for me. Kim demonstrates zero empathy towards the way men’s appearances are idealized and the ways that makes them feel inadequate. She doesn’t even make an effort to imagine what it is like for a man to be emasculated for something he can’t control. When was the last time a male sex symbol has been shirtless on screen without sharply defined muscles in a thin package? There’s an obvious correlation between that and the rise of eating disorders in young men.

With all the necessary focus on the way society wreaks havoc on women’s body image, people tend to overlook the fact that men are also increasingly bombarded by concepts of all the ways they’re supposedly deficient. Beard implants are just one of the many ways men are dealing with the unrealistic expectations of what it means to live their gender. This demand to meet physical ideals can be even more pronounced for transgendered men, who are expected to make surgical transitions to be considered ‘legitimate’ regardless of whether or not this is something they want.

Ultimately whether it’s transgender or cisgender men getting beard implants, it’s really no one else’s business what they choose to do with their bodies. To assume one person’s opinion on style should carry any weight in the choices someone else makes for themselves is absurd. Kim ends the article to reference one man who claims to be very happy with his choice, and then mocks his satisfaction by immediately stating that for “our part, we continue to weep for America”. Instead of the presumptuous and patronizing final statement, she should have opted to conclude on a positive note.

If beard implants have become an inevitable reality that makes people content with their appearances, shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that these men have the option to live their lives in a way that makes them feel good? While we need to address the social pressures in place, we also need to be able to enjoy our bodies in this world. Quite frankly if it’s okay for me to pay someone to poke me with a needle and put a piece of metal through my skin, I don’t see why beard implants should be looked down on.

You don’t have to like beard implants. But you’re wasting your time if you think making fun of what someone else chooses to do with their body is going to accomplish anything. Instead challenge the social structures in place that make men feel like they need to get minor surgery just to be attractive. Take the time to remind the men in your life that you love them for who they are, or learn to respect their choices and love that they are taking active steps to make themselves happy.

Not your chin, not your problem.