Women in Horror: We are Not Meant to be Labeled Victims

And so we come to the post that I’ve been dancing around for a long, long time. I wasn’t sure if I was going to open my mouth and go here, and I wasn’t even sure that I’m qualified enough to do so. Like everything else, all I really have are my opinions and how I view the world as a writer, a horror fan, and a woman. But this is also a trend that really, really hits a nerve with me, so I feel like I wouldn’t be completing my exploration unless I go here.

You probably already have a good idea of where I’m headed by the title. The thing is, there are a lot of kinds of victims in horror. We could probably do a month’s worth of posts dissecting what it really means to be a victim, the types of victims, and all the rest. Rest assured, I’m not waving a banner to take all the victims out of horror; it’s my viewpoint that you need them to show the lead character (and the readers) what the actual danger is. This also isn’t about final girls and their relevance, or anything like that.

We’re going to get a little serious for the moment and continue down the line we’ve been following: we’ve discussed nudity in horror, sex in horror, and now we’re going to touch on sexual violence in horror.

I’m going to be very, very honest. This is not a topic I like to watch, like to read, and can even tolerate for any amount of time. I’m never going to be a fan of titles that rely on rape, molestation, or even torture bordering on fetishism to prove a point.

With that in mind, I do understand that certain sub-genres of horror make a point of pushing the limits. I understand that if you’re dealing with a plot that involves a serial killer or rapist, yeah, that kind of opens the door to include graphic scenes. I get that this kind of thing is probably on the edge of as far people can go in terms of what they can legally write and show. But does that mean people should actually do it?

Yes, I know movies like Last House on the Left and Spit on Your Grave are supposed to use the topic to show the extremes normal people can go to (though I’ve also heard the first handles it better than the second – I haven’t been able to get through either). Here’s where things get muddied for this and a lot of other titles that include a rape in among all the other violence/action/gore sequences. Same for movies that include really slow and graphic torture of women. At what point does this help the story along? I mean really, really help the story along? If you’re primarily concerned with the victim getting revenge, how come a lot of those plots involve a very graphic description of the actual event and less about the revenge in question (or treat it as so over the top we can’t really relate to it?)? Why is it that in a story that isn’t about rape per say, that it has to even crop up?  It gets to the point that these sequences are so graphic that yeah, it becomes less about the issue and more about another way to show a woman in a sexual situation.

Here’s my problem with this. This is still a really, really taboo subject in daily life. Victims still are not treated fairly (There are all sorts of theories about what rights victims of sexual assault actually have and there are news reports coming out this past month about rape kits not being tested and left to get dusty on shelves), they’re still made to feel powerless. It’s still a stigma for victims to admit that they’ve been assaulted. This is something that is not about sex and is all about power, and so often when it’s portrayed in horror it borders on becoming sexualized. To be fair, it is very, very hard to present this issue in any form of entertainment. While I’m not saying ban any use of it as a plot element all together, I feel like it’s become the next go-to place in horror for a way to up the stakes. Usually I’d  mention that outside of Deliverance, I can’t really recall a title where a man suffers that same sort of fate. But here’s my thing – that’s not a scene I want to watch at all, involving either gender as the victim.

If it’s really, really necessary to your plot, I wish film makers and authors would realize that you don’t have to linger forever on the actual sequence of violence (or show it at all). Nancy A. Collins’ character Sonja Blue is transformed into a vampire via rape. Yes, it’s a very VERY hard scene to read. That’s still a scene I skip when I reread the series, because it is really hard to get through. But once through it, it isn’t revisited all the time. It shapes Sonja, she definitely is affected by it, but the plot is about HOW she’s affected and the hell she goes through to survive and reclaim her new self and her sanity. It isn’t twenty or fifty pages of watching her struggle under a vampire. There is also the thing with the Governor and Michonne in the Walking Dead comics. Granted, you don’t see anything per say, but you hear every word thanks to thought balloons and location settings. It’s not pretty. It’s horrible. I get that it shows how sadistic the Governor is, but it also made me stop reading the comics because I wasn’t sure how much more of that I could take (and it’s a long series).

If sexual violence isn’t a necessary plot element (ie your story won’t fall apart without it), why are you using it at all? I get the argument for extreme horror, I get the whole splatterpunk thing, but extreme doesn’t have to automatically equal abuse. And let’s face it, it IS abuse. And I don’t want to pay money to sit and watch or read someone be abused when the plot could go on without it. Repeated use of this (and extreme violence) to women in the genre is just leading towards more desensitizing. It makes it that much harder for there to be any headway for real life victims, especially when if it comes down to it, I’m sure a writer or film maker is creative enough to come up with alternatives.

Think of it: as women, we already have to be on edge and careful of who we go out with, who we go home with, who we open the door for, what’s going on with our drink if we walk away from it, where we go by ourselves, where we drive alone, and who might think we’re “leading them on” and decide to do something about it.  It’s already a fear or a nervousness we have to live with every day of our lives, and you want to gore it up to the maximum because it’s the last place to go? Do we really need to be exposing ourselves as society to something like this as entertainment?

There are a lot of ways a woman heroine can overcome the odds. There are a lot of ways to be a final girl, a survivor, a badass chick character, or any woman in a horror story without having to be demeaned and subjected to that. My other problem is if it isn’t integral to the plot, you’re asking us to believe that every random alien/monster/mutant/evil spirit/tree/male horror character is running around just waiting to get on someone. Short of Alien, I just feel like that line of thought is demeaning to guys as well, because you’re pretty much asking me to buy that every guy character is just a fine line away from being a raping maniac.  If the roles were reversed, I wouldn’t want to write a female character acting that way to men, necessarily, either, because there are a lot of ways to write freaky chick without going there. It’s my job as a writer to be different, to freak people out, but also to find new ways to do it. Yes, I get that a lot of horror is all the bad things that can happen….but there are a LOT of ways to take a plot without going there. This is doubly true if you’re doing it for effect or for comedy. Just…why? Seriously, what is the purpose of this? What does that kind of scene do over some other type of scene that might show character or plot development in a different way? Even if you’re trying to seriously explore the issue of sexual violence in a horror movie or book, this is a very hard subject to do well. You run the risk of going way over the top in an effort to keep to the horror vibe, you also run the risk of stereotyping the victim (she wanted it, oh she’s the slut character, oh she’s a bitch so she deserved it, oh she’s a good girl so she was asking for it), of alienating readers who were with you up until that point. And unless you have a really, REALLY clear idea of WHY you want to use that kind of an element, of WHERE you’re going to go with it, HOW you’re going to get there, what the outcome is, and that you know for a fact that you have a real reason to explore that territory respectfully to move your plot forward or explain a character…well, there’s no reason to go there.

I write horror for a lot of reasons. Yes, people die in my stories and there are high stakes. I’ve always said that horror is about possibility, and there are a LOT of possibilities out there. There are lot of ways to scare people without sexual violence. There are also a lot of ways to show a strong female character, a crazy female character, or any other type of female character without saying she got that way by being molested, assaulted, raped, or anything else. Like any other genre, we should have great women characters for a variety of reasons, women who show us parts of ourselves, who show us what we could be, for better or worse. Every woman knows there’s the possibility of violence against her somewhere in the back of her mind. We don’t need to define characters by that in extreme ways to drive the point home.

We want to women characters who grow, who fight, who figure things out, who overcome odds, who go after others, who freak others out, who entrance us the moment they come onto the screen or page. We women are many, many things in real life, and we’re many things in the horror genre, but there’s one thing we don’t need to be anymore. We don’t need to be defined as victims. Maybe if there were less of these glorified or flaunted, we could have an actual fair talk about violence and what needs to be done about it. Maybe we could stop being so wary and look over our shoulders. Maybe we could help work to do different things with the horror genre, take it in different directions, and press it even further.

9 thoughts on “Women in Horror: We are Not Meant to be Labeled Victims

  1. I don’t think any form of art or expression should be banned at any point whatsoever, because it’s really just a form of expressing what is in our collective psyches. I think the problem of how women are treated and the problem of the severe disconnect between sexual partners or who we are as sexual beings needs to be addressed.

      1. Exactly. I feel like it’s time for horror writers to honestly start having these kinds of discussions, or else the genre is going to rely on the same plot points or cliches, even though they may do more to alienate an audience than explore real ground.

    1. I think the point of Selah’s post may have been missed here. It isn’t about censorship in any way, shape or form. What she’s talking about is the inappropriate use of victimization and the relevance of the act as it relates to the storyline. Granted we are talking about fictional situations, but there still needs to be a limit as to what can be allowed. Even as artists, we have to have standards.

      As a published author, I know that there are three subjects I absolutely cannot discuss in my writing or every reputable publisher in the industry is going to throw my story out. Those things are incest, bestiality, and rape for titillation.

      I’m sorry if I offend anyone, but the simple truth is this: any way you spin it, rape is ILLEGAL. Portraying it in a way that’s supposed to engage and/or excite an audience is not just legally but morally wrong. There is a distinct level of insensitivity among members of the horror craft when it comes to victimization, and that’s something that needs to change. Using it as a tool to empower a character is one thing. Showing in explicit detail what’s happening in real time is something different. Yes, it can be done, but if it isn’t done well, you just have an unnecessary and violent action that lowers the overall integrity of the piece and alienates the audience.

      For example: take the original Friday the 13th movie. While the psycho lady is out killing people, two of the characters sneak off to get it on. Let’s face it…teen scream slasher flicks don’t live up to that title unless somebody’s boobs are flopping around. HOWEVER… if the killer were to cut the boy up then decide to pin the girl to the floor and rape her before killing her… that’s not necessary. The death alone is horror enough without adding the degradation of the female gender. Speaking not only as a woman but an author of horror fiction, that’s insulting. it’s unnecessary. And if you really want the psycho to get his rocks off before he kills her, we don’t need to see or hear it in real time. Again, relevance is the key.

      Stepping away from the horror genre for a minute – another example would be BDSM relationships. Yes, everyone has read 50 Shades of Grey now and while the plot itself is questionable, it handles this sort of situation very well. That particular BDSM relationship is vicious and at times violent, but it’s a consensual setting and a safe, controlled environment. Often times those playing in the BDSM world use that four-letter tag as a way to disguise a rape scene. You can’t have a woman tied up and screaming “NONONO!!!” while begging for her life as a man is having his way with her then suddenly clear it up with the aloof “you didn’t use the safe word” comment. That sort of relationship has to be carefully constructed, just as an attack scene in a horror story does, otherwise you run the risk of alienating your audience and putting a big, black mark across your artistic reputation.

      I’m not saying that it can’t or shouldn’t be done… but like any scene where sex and violence mix, there needs to be a lot more thought and consideration beforehand because in the world of the arts, PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING. If you portray sexual violence in any sort of light that makes it appear even remotely acceptable, then you’ve done something very wrong.

      Like Selah said, this is about removing the chance to desensitize the public to serious issues. If it’s a necessary then use the tool. But if it isn’t needed, then don’t do it. People need to understand the consequences of a sexual attack, whether it’s in real life or fiction, and there are better ways of accomplishing the same goal without the senseless violence.

      1. You say it better than I probably did or could, and much more concisely. I don’t necessarily LIKE reading about it, but I will give it a chance as a plot point if it works. It works in Sonja Blue so I tend to use that as my go-to example. I know Stephen King’s done this kind of plot, but I haven’t read it yet so I can’t comment on his take. Apparently in Locke & Key there is a rape, but I went through the entire volume it was mentioned and I couldn’t tell you where it actually happens – I have a guess, and if that’s so, then it was handled almost a little too quietly, though I don’t think it’s necessary for the plot, either.

        I’m on the fence about Walking Dead, mainly because of how the woman is portrayed. Michonne is introduced in vol. 4 I think, and her main character traits are that she’s badass with a sword and she breaks up two characters who were together, full well knowing they’re together. Suddenly in the next volume she’s joining an exploration mission,where the group ends up at the mercy of the Governor. Suddenly, her whole reason for being is to be tied up and become a victim for him and his cronies. I get that it fits his character, and it fits the world, but still…the only things we really know about her have to do with sex, unless there were pages I somehow missed. Plus, the Governor is SO brutal anyway, I really don’t think it’s necessary for his character. It’s one of those examples that…it makes sense, and thank God they didn’t really show it,but I don’t know if it does much except making me want to give up the series.

        You make some really valid points across the genre board. Plus, you bring up the important fact that most major (and small, and up-and-coming publishers) won’t accept something like that for kicks. Like you said – because it IS such a social issue and one that’s still so unresolved, I feel like it should be handled with way more responsibility in the horror genre. It’s not even that I’d calm down if there were more male victims (although I think that would up the uncomfortable factor for male audiences) – I wouldn’t want to watch that, either. It’s become a good way of reinforcing stereotypes and sexualizing something that doesn’t deserve to be sexualized or glamorized. I think people tend to let it slip because of the reasoning of “oh, it’s the horror genre,” and I find that line of thought ridiculous and a little offensive, too. We should be striving for creative standards across the board, regardless of what we write.

    2. I’m not about banning anything. I’m not a big fan of censorship, but in general in publishing, an author is going to have a really, really hard time getting a work published if it includes rape for titillation, incest, or bestiality. Those are illegal acts and publishers do not want to support anything that’s going to drag their names down. Beyond that, rape has nothing to do with sex. You can’t sit down and have a conversation with an attacker or person who means you harm. I agree that in terms of sexuality, yeah, socially there needs to be discussion, but I consider rape and assault something different,entirely – it’s about power, not a sexual relationship. My problem with how a lot of this is done is that it makes the opportunity to have real discussions about the topic harder. In horror, which relies on cliches and stereotypes at times, scenes of over-the-top victimization do more to reinforce those stereotypes, which I find a disservice not only to women, but also to the horror genre. Yeah, you may get a reaction out of your audience, but so what? Writing and film-making are about more than a cheap, momentary visceral reaction. I rarely go back to titles with extreme torture or sexual violence for repeat watching or reading, so how is that helping the author or director, especially if I wouldn’t recommend them to people because of it? I think there are other ways to get in people’s minds and getting under their skin. If a writer/director really wants to address the issue, fine, but I don’t think you need a ton of shock factor that demeans the victims to do it.

  2. I can proudly say I have never read 50 Shades of Grey. 🙂

    Anyway, I agree. While I have no issue with these topics being touched on, there are very few reasons to get seriously in-depth with the physical description of the act. Too many times, this kind of thing is made to seem sexual…sexual torture and rape are not about getting your rocks off. They are about power, complete power over another human being, degrading them, making them feel disgusting. If you are writing a story which has one of these sexual issues as a scene, you as a writer, should focus more on those emotions and the drive and less on the physical act.

    For an online role-playing game, I used to write a character who had been molested by her father for years, while her brother and mother were beaten. But for a long time, she didn’t even remember it. She had blocked it all out of her memory in order to cope and live a normal life. Then she overhead a telephone conversation her brother was having and it triggered her memories. I VERY briefly described some of what she remembered without ever once talking about the actual physical sexual act of what he did.

    1. I love how you backed up your statements here, Jondi. For me, I do have a problem with the subject matter, but like everything else, I’m actually willing to give it a chance if it works. I think it should be discussed, but not for sensationalism. You’re absolutely right – it’s not about sex or sexual choices and all about power. I think I’d be perhaps a little more okay with it if a lot of movies that center around it as a major plot point didn’t show it up close and personal. If it’s about the recovery (like you pointed out in your rpg example), then make it about the recovery and that person’s journey. You make some very good points and I appreciate your own writing example.

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