In this essay I will be exploring the representation of women
in both the horror and sci-fi genres. With close reference to A Texas Chainsaw Massacre
and Alien. The aim of this essay is to deconstruct the conventions of both
genres to show the way they prescribe such roles.
Both films that I have decided to explore represent strong
female leading roles. Thus, allowing me to investigate the representation of
women from a wide spectrum of theory’s and angles. Therefore, enabling a varied
argument where I will be able to create a persuasive text, but also allowing
room for counter arguments and reflective thought.
Firstly, I will start with the representation of women in
horror. The basic narrative to a horror story is that its themes are firmly
planted in the premise of: good vs evil. With the usual narrative being that
you have an innocent pitted against a villainous monster. What I will be
considering throughout the first part of the text are two main concepts in the
horror genre which are, “male gaze” and “the final girl”. This will help me to
discover the rationale behind their structures, target audience and most
importantly the ideologies behind representing women this way.
“The final girl” is a theory introduced by Carol J. Clover in
her book Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. This theory
and the particular use of it, has had a great impact upon the history of horror
in film. Typically, “the final girl” is the last one standing. She has defied
all odds and made it to the end of the film, overcoming her pursuer. However,
this is not before she has witnessed brutal, mindless killings of her friends
and endured terrifying events. Although “the final girl” survives, the audience
are still witnesses to the usually horrendous deaths of the other females in
the film, quelling the appetite of the audience in being passive spectators. In
contrast, “the final girl” empowers the female spectators with their ability to
triumph over the monstrous male villain.
When divulging the ideas behind “the final girl” in films,
the best example of this I believe is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This story
begins with five American teenagers heading out on a quest to find as they put
it, an “idyllic day out”. The tone of the film begins with a carefree attitude
between the adolescents, this is established through the frequent use of a hand-held
camera shots and upbeat dialogue used. This in turn creates a relaxed
atmosphere for the audience, which is short lived. Through this seemingly
casual tone it is all the more surprising when the horror does begin. When the
group come across a home that looks derelict, along their journey, one of the
male characters is quickly dispatched when investigating. As soon as he is
killed, he is out of the shot, his body quickly being dragged away. As a viewer
this scene startles you, in contrast though it is vastly different to how the
first female character is killed.
The female character receives a far more gruesome death by
being planted onto a meat hook. “the murders of women on the other hand are
filmed at closer range, in more graphic detail, and at a greater length”1.
The scene runs parallel to the earlier conversation that the teen had, when
mocking the animals in the slaughter house being butchered. This draws you to
the notion that in horror films the women are usually punished for their lewd,
sexual or inappropriate behaviour. This function echoes the ideology of the
times from when the film was made. (which was 1975) In this era you only just
started to see progress for women with how they were viewed in society. As in
this scene the woman is punished for what was deemed un woman like behaviour.
In contrast to this particular ideology the only character
that survives leather faces terror is “the final girl”. This is reflective to
the changing social climates of that decade, with women becoming more empowered
and gaining a more influential outlook on the world. There is still a lot of
the film though that still goes along with the age-old conventions of horror
and its convictions of women being seen as merely sexual objects therefore
being “rightfully” punished for their “sins”. Though the woman survives her
truly terrifying ordeal, she is till shown to rely on a male right at the end
of the film, when getting away on the back of that male’s truck. What this
particular scene reminds me of is when in old fairy tales you would have the
prince saving the damsel in distress, hinting at the male’s dominance in the
The second concept that I would like to explore so to gain a
better understanding of the way women are represented in horror, is the “male
gaze”. This theory regarding gender spectatorship and how women are portrayed
in horror films by the way the audience views it. ” There are circumstances in
which looking itself is a source of pleasure”2.This
quote briefly explains the idea of watching a film as it is a simple affair of
a person engaging with a visual entertainment in the purpose of escapism, and a
way to enjoy themselves in a relaxed environment. It is the next stage where
things become a little bit more complex, as we ask.
Who is the viewer?
Why is the film viewed that way?
The purpose for what I am about to discuss is to figure out
why the female is viewed in a particular way by an onlooking spectator. I will
then go further to discover the answers behind these ideologies, arguing that
in cinema, film is directed with the notion of a male audience i.e. “male gaze”
in mind, striving to know why this is such a popular and effective way of
viewing a film in correlation of female representation.
“The male gaze” you would like to think would now be an out-dated
theory. That many films are viewed with the sole purpose of looking through
eyes of a male protagonist. If you look at horror films specifically, for the
majority of the time you are actually looking through the eyes of the male
killer and not from any of the female characters. This male character is the
person that the plot actually evolves around, as it is almost like watching his
journey, pursuing whichever characters it may be in that film. This is the
driving force behind the movie going forward. In this context the theory evokes
the notion of sexual politics and the way the women are seen, helping to
control a hierarchal society in where men are the superior force and the women
looked upon as merely objects therefore dehumanised.
The fact that women are dehumanized in this way allows her to
be seen through “the male gaze” simply as a sexual entity and whatever happens
to the female character onscreen doesn’t register with the emotions, as the
objectification results in the theory of scopophilia in where one takes
pleasure in viewing.
Following on from the discussion of why the “male gaze” is used
in visual entertainment. I will now be looking at this theory within horror and
in particular The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
If we look back at the history of the horror film, the
principal point and when cinema was at its most fruitful, was in a period when
men and women lived in a time, constricted through set social codes regarding
“The clichéd idea of horror films was being scripted and
edited to fulfil the role of the dating couple on a Saturday night”.3
During this time, the cinema was a place for young couples to
go as a form of escapism on a date. Men were expected to be chivalrous and act
out the role of the protector for the female that they were with. Through the
horror that unfolded onscreen, the male would get the opportunity to be a
protector or form of support as the woman felt vulnerable to the torment her
female counterpart onscreen would receive. Thus, allowing him the opportunity
to become closer with his date.
From these series of events you can conclude that the female
becoming the victim was allowed to evolve. As a connection occurred between the
female watching and her onscreen counterpart. The female could only watch on in
horror to the suffering the female counterpart endured. In the majority of
horror films and in particular The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was a random man
at the very end of the film that comes to her rescue, when she flees on the
back of his truck. Once again highlighting the social codes and conventions of
society during those times. However still empowering the female audience as she
made it through all the trials she came across.
You could say that the deaths of the male characters in the
film again establish a fear of vulnerability as the male protagonist deaths
serve as another factor, in the ideology of the female not having a male protector,
that society was enforcing on the social senses.
In conclusion horror films seem to represent women as being
inferior to men. This I believe has improved since the time of the The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre being made. You only have to look at the sequels and the remake to
discover that film is evolving in conjunction with political and social
constructs. Another argument to be had over what I have previously discussed is
that, visual entertainment was simply following the attitudes that evolved
around cinema at that time. A female who was going to the cinema with her date,
is going to feel a slight bit of terror when her onscreen counterpart loses
that male protagonists protection. Coincidentally if we were to watch a scene
where a monster or killer was trying to hunt down a male character, who was
better equipped in defending himself, would we be as scared? If you consider
this question, it underlines the consensus view of women in horror
entertainment and more painstakingly highlights a worrying view of women in
society as a whole.
In the second part of my essay I will be looking at gender
representation in sci fi and how I believe, in the more modern films gender
representation is evolving with a specific look at the film Alien. Sci fi
represents women in a totally different way then that of horror. Especially in
Alien where the film at times looks to deconstruct the social restraints of
past films and in particular the horror genre, showing a female lead becoming
the dominant force and going as far as destroying the “male gaze”.
Alien is one of the first films to revolutionise the female
role within cinema, the film helped to broaden the scope of what a woman could
be in a film and how she could be viewed. This film told classic Hollywood to
listen up. When taking a closer look at Alien and not simply excepting the
entertainment but to divulge the themes and concepts that are paramount
throughout, you start to get a feeling that the films conscious, is that to use
the film as a metaphor for social gender constraints. A prime example for this
is the imagery that is used during the film of genitalia and wombs which all
become central themes for Ripley. Placing Ripley in the middle of a male driven
world with nightmarish consequences.
I have deconstructed the film into three possible scenarios
for how the Director Ridley Scott was able to develop a feminist visual: The
use of a female protagonist that is not sexualised for the audience but is
however very independent and self-sufficient. By changing the way that the
audience views cinema itself, doing this by subtlety shifting a male viewpoint
to female therefore halting the concept of “the male gaze”, allowing her the
ability to overcome her antagonists be that male or female without the help of
a male character.
Ridley Scott used identification in allowing this change of
dominance in cinema. What filmgoers where used to before this, in classical Hollywood,
was to watch a film through the eyes of a male protagonist therefore allowing
the viewer to identify with this charter over the females being shown. This
established a clear dominance in male viewing and objectified the women in the
film by simply using this technique because they are then made to become less
In Alien the changing of this usual practise is shown when
the camera moves through the different compartments and hallways of the
Nostromo, before the crew have even got there. Following on from this, later on
in the film this same shot is repeated, when it is given that Dallas has become
the main protagonist in the film. Once again you are being shown the ship
through the viewpoint of an outsider. That is until Ripley appears onscreen indicating
that it is her that the camera is following. Therefore, telling us as an
audience that we are looking through her gaze and that she is the main
protagonist. This is a clever way to prelude that the dominance of the film
will now be awarded to Ripley and foreshadows the events to happen.
When watching the film, I found two key scenes that highlights
through the use of a sexual gaze; a metaphor for pre-historic views in cinema.
The first key scene is when Ash forcibly shoves a porn magazine down Ripley’s throat,
the accompanying shot of his face filmed at close up, showing his pleasure in
the actions he is taking. In this scene the film condemns the ideology behind
the “male gaze” as Ripley is being abused we are forced to watch this from this
perspective and by doing so, associating the enjoyment the audience takes from viewing
a film in this way, therefore making the audience guilty by association.
From the scene that I have just discussed the next scene that
I will mention I believe uses this same technique but is a lot loss subtle in
its delivery. After an intense show down with the Alien by literally blowing up
the Nostromo with the Alien on board. Ripley begins a sequence of undress, in
this sequence she is left with nothing but a small white t shirt on and particularly
small underwear, this happens whilst in a long shot making the viewer feel like
a voyeur. Some people over time have stated that Alien doesn’t represent a feminist
breakthrough because of this scene as it reasserts the female as an objectified
entity and places her back as something of a spectacle to be viewed at from a
distance. However, what I believe is that this sequence was shot purposely so
that the viewer can return to the standardized sexual gaze so that people would
be able to realise the way women are viewed in a social construct to be inappropriate.
However upon viewing Ripley she is a not overtly sexualised and a realistic portrait
of a woman, “Ripley’s body is pleasurable and reassuring to look at. She
signifies the ‘acceptable’ form and shape of woman”4.
The viewer now looks on Ripley from the Aliens point of view and by doing so
the audience becomes the very monster Ripley is trying to destroy throughout
the film, a metaphoric nod to the shameful way the audience has always viewed
women in cinema. From this shot, Ripley subsequently quickly puts on a space
suit, which works in connotating the opposite with her previous state of dress,
only moments ago, where she finally launches the Alien off the spacecraft and
finally denounces the oppressive male sexual gaze.
“Reaffirm her sexuality but instead of being detrimental to
her character’s gender, it would appear, based on the relevance of narcissistic
visual pleasure, that this is actually a celebration of the strong female role,
and an underlying of that fact”.5
In conclusion Alien uses different camera shots to establish
a dominant female character that needs no help from a male protagonist. Using
age old techniques in cinema, like the “male gaze” to denounce the very concept
itself and explores the concept of women in social structures, by imploring a
sense of freedom and self-sufficiency. Sci-fi films have not always been this
way and previously you would get films depicting the female to be someone who
is in constant need of help from a monster of male villain, sci-fi has made
significant strives to improve this, with films like Alien showing a strong
female lead able to overpower her male antagonists. Sci- fi is a brilliant
medium to establish the belief of women’s rights as most is shot in the future,
tying in with the notion that as time progresses, people have become more aware
of their social tendencies.
Carol J Clover, Men, Women And Chain Saws (Princeton (N.J.): Princeton
University Press, 2015).
Mulvey, Visual And Other Pleasures (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire
England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Jancovich, Horror, The Film Reader (London u.a.: Routledge, 2009).
Creed, Media Matrix (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003).
Stephens and others, “Essay: Women In The Horror Film – Ripley, The Alien
& The Monstrous Feminine – Top 10 Films”, Top10films.Co.Uk, 2018
17 January 2018.