Monster Guide: Female Sexuality
Female sexuality remains to be a somewhat taboo subject in both our real world and the creative one, often deemed to be a controversial topic when explored through literature, music or film. Speaking in more general terms, our society as a whole appears to have denied women the ability to express and own their sexuality, from all corners of the Earth, and across a timeline that continues to this day.
Of course, however, the subject of female sexuality has been explored and presented throughout the years, though cloaked, and often disguised through the means of metaphors that implicate the message that is being spread in relation to female sexuality. In the context of film, no genre explores female sexuality more than Horror—not even the vast array of Romance films that have been released have as deep an exploration of female desire, and the societal objections to their own empowerment, as the genre of Horror films.
Although more open to the discussion and presentation of female sexuality, Horror films do not necessarily celebrate the notion completely. For example, it is a known and popular trope within the slasher genre that the “pure” (virginal) female characters are often the ones to survive, whereas the “impure” women of the film are punished, thus female sexuality is seen to be a factor taken into account when deciding on who should live and who should die. Notably, Wes Craven’s cult classic Scream (1996) explains the derogatory “rules” that a horror film must follow, and a female’s status of sexual activity is almost always a determinant of their fate within the narrative.
Even in more conservative examples of horror films, such as Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958), sexuality is still a present concept, shown instead though imagery and symbolism in a character's appearance (e.g. hair colour), rather than portraying a physical and vocalised desire for sex. Since the days of Gothic horror dominating the box office, however, the Horror genre has become much more daring in its ways of presenting female sexuality, making sure it reflects the unfair, yet truthful, opinions that are held by modern day society.
The subversion of shame that is shown within the films I am about to mention demonstrates how the Horror genre is not afraid to poke fun at the taboos of sexuality, all whilst providing a narrative that showcases the hyperbolic consequences that may occur if we continue to oppress women from celebrating and embracing their sexualities, and this is achieved by transforming woman into monster.
One may argue that this approach is somewhat ironic — turning a woman into a monstrosity as she begins to discover herself, yet it’s the power she has and the fear she evokes from men that makes this presentation so fascinating. Film is an exploitive medium, and within the Horror genre, and in particular the films I’m about to discuss, women for once have the upper hand, becoming a threat to a power that has spent an eternity trying to hold them back.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
A cult classic, and likely to be the most notorious film on this list. Released in 2009, Karyn Kusama’s dark comedy tells the story of a popular high school student who becomes possessed by a flesh-eating demon after a virginal sacrifice gone wrong. The film offers much more than a cheerleading Megan Fox gone bad, exploring themes such as teen angst, revenge and the complex workings of female friendships, examining the binary oppositions between women who explore their sexuality, and those who have yet to. Jennifer’s sadistic need to kill and feast upon her fellow male classmates is soon realised to be somewhat necessary for her survival. Jennifer soon becomes irresistible to those around her, and here we see a feminist backlash against the ever-present male gaze. Both the characters in the world of the film, and the real life spectators of the narrative, are meant to feel a magnetic pull towards Jennifer’s character, enforced through intimate close-ups, dialogue and performance, making it all the more shocking when we see her female form transcend into a demonic, man-eating monster. Another angle one could take when analysing Jennifer’s Body is through acknowledging it’s slight tragedy regarding consensual sex and violence against women. There are strong allusions to Jennifer’s Body being abused and sexually manipulated during and after the gory sacrifice. The film does not hold back when presenting a group of men violently attacking a young and vulnerable teenage girl for their own personal gain, and Jennifer’s demonic possession is perhaps the character’s chance to avenge her own violation, and regain control of her sexuality, which had been since brutally stripped from her.
2) Raw (2016)
Julia Ducournau’s coming of age horror does not shy away from its themes regarding female sexuality. In fact, it can be said that the film’s gore and subject matter of cannibalism are all comparable to the ways we treat female desire as a dangerous taboo, much like how we regard humans eating one another. Of course, this comparison sounds rather ridiculous on paper, but Ducournau’s film stylishly manages to pose a tangible similarity between sexual desire, and the desire to eat human flesh, and how the young, inexperienced Justine feels like she is unable to approach anyone about these urges, and has until this point been none the wiser that they exist. The film cleverly uses vegetarianism as a metaphor for female sexuality — having not eaten meat for her whole life, budding veterinary student Justine is initiated into her class by being made to eat rabbit kidneys, thus beginning a turbulent journey into newly discovered cravings, that she feels ashamed of, and keeps to herself, which only leads to disturbing consequences for both her and her more reckless older sister, who she attends school with. Justine’s desires for meat coincide with the sexual lust she begins to feel towards her male classmates, which is presented through a very powerful sex scene, that proves to the audience that they are witnessing a young woman become empowered and in control of her body and its desires, as Justine looks directly into the camera, all whilst biting into her own arm. Sharing slightly controversial means of expression, as with Jennifer’s Body, Raw manages to display an arguably more mature, and confident exploration into how denying a woman access to her own body and the desires it has, may, in fact, create something more taboo than female sexuality.
3) Ginger Snaps (2000)
Despite being another cult classic, you might not have heard of John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps, but that does not take away from its importance in being a solid example of film depicting female sexuality as a literal monster—a werewolf to be exact. Likening lycanthropy to that of puberty and newfound sexual desire again sounds a bit far-fetched, but the most surprising thing about the film—amongst its many bizarre features—is that the metaphor works. Observing two sisters, Ginger and Brigitte, who are deemed outcasts due to their obsession with death, we see the eldest of the two, Ginger, begin her journey into womanhood as she receives her first period, the blood catching the attention of an unknown beast that has been terrorising the town, leading to her being attacked and bitten by said creature. Already we’re seeing a connection between a werewolf bite, and the societal condemnation that women face as they begin menstruation. One feature of the film that works particularly well, is the connection between the menstrual and lunar cycles. Ginger ’s aggressions intensify once a month, causing devastation for both the sisters and their classmates as the film progresses. The excess hair growth , sexual urges, and unstable attitude that Ginger endures since receiving her bite make for a comic, yet an obscenely effective comparison between the act of young girls “becoming women”, and that of becoming a hellish monster. By having unprotected sex with one of her classmates, Ginger “passes on” her lycanthropy, which of course acts as a symbol for the dangers of STIs, as said classmate begins to suffer similar symptoms, despite being a male, and is seen to not handle it as well as his female counterpart, who just has to “get on with it”. Again, female bonds are also a strong point of Ginger Snaps, with Brigitte doing everything in her power to get her sister back, and the girls’ mother’s determination to protect her daughters from the monstrosities they’ve committed. The film portrays power within female relationships, and the ways in which they come together when society shuts them out. It may not be a film that is known to all, but Ginger Snaps is both essential for feminists and horror fans alike, as it draws a scary comparison with something all women experience, to something that pretty much everyone fears.
The horror genre might not be for everyone, but it would be ignorant to try and argue that films that want to evoke fear cannot hold meaning. Amongst all the gore, monsters and suspense that these films — and many more — have to offer, is a crucial message that reflects the truths of our society. In this case, the way we treat women and their sexual desires to be evil, as something that should not be discussed. In the examples given and many more within the horror genre, these films mock such discourse, and instead offer women a sense of empowerment that derives from patriarchal fear, when they become aware of the power they can possess.
Female sexuality is not something that should still be deemed controversial or brave when shown on our screens, but until mainstream media understands this, the horror genre will continue to provide a conversation that needs to be had, and it’ll entertain us along the way.