Gender & Horror: Teaching Horror, Week 6

Obviously, I got kind of behind with my posts about my horror course as the semester went on. My best intentions weren’t enough, clearly. I do want to write about the rest of the semester, however, and this post is a start. I left off with Week 5, so I’ll pick up with Week 6: Gender and Sexuality. This week included Halloween (1978), Teeth (2007), and a short story by Shira Lipkin called “The Final Girl.”


We began our discussion on Tuesday by trying to define the slasher film and talking about what the class already knows about the subgenre. They were familiar with its masked killers, with the tendency for murders to be committed up close (knives rather than guns), and (somewhat) with the trope of the final girl. I placed slashers in the larger international context of giallo films for them (taking the opportunity to recommend Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which I love) and related them to exploitation and grindhouse films.


I also gave the class a little bit of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1993) to help define slashers and to have them consider her argument about how gender is represented in the subgenre. She writes, for instance,

The fact that female monsters and female heroes, when they do appear, are masculine in dress and behavior (and often even name), and that male victims are shown in feminine postures at the moment of their extremity, would seem to suggest that gender inheres in the function itself–that there is something about the victim function that wants manifestation in a female, and something about the monster and hero functions that wants expression in a male. Sex, in this universe, proceeds from gender, not the other way around. A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers. And a figure is not a psychokiller because he is a man; he is a man because he is a psychokiller. (12-13)

Students weren’t entirely convinced of this, but it was an idea we productively returned to on later days as well. Clover also writes,

One is deeply reluctant to make progressive claims for a body of cinema as spectacularly nasty toward women as the slasher film is, but the fact is that the slasher does, in its own perverse way and for better or worse, constitute a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representations. (64)

This question of whether slashers represent “a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representations” or, to put it more simply, whether slashers are or can be feminist, on the other hand, was one we spent a great deal of time on.

teeth poster

Thursday’s class, on Teeth and “The Final Girl,” was one of the days I had been looking forward to since I designed the course. Teeth, a horror movie about vagina dentata, is funny, disturbing, and complicatedly feminist. We began this class with more from Carol Clover, this time on rape-revenge narratives. After outlining the typical structure of such films and giving a couple of other examples (I Spit On Your Grave and The Last House on the Left), I introduced Clover’s argument that

although the practice of remarking male sadism in a film (like the practice of showing male sadism in a film) may be intended to align the remarker with feminism, it also works to naturalize sadistic violence as a fixture of masculinity–one of the few fixtures of masculinity remaining in a world that has seen the steady erosion of such. It is a gesture, in other words, that ends up confirming what it deplores. (226)

Again, as with Halloween and slasher films, one of our central questions became whether Teeth (and rape-revenge films more broadly) are or could be feminist. Teeth both plays into anti-feminist ideas – vagina dentata itself reflecting a fear of women’s genitals and sexuality – and into feminist ideas – sexuality as empowerment, women’s ability to defend themselves, anti-rape statements. I am also fascinated by how often Teeth shows penises. Seeing a penis in a non-pornographic or non-NC-17 film is rare, unlike seeing naked female parts, so this gendered reversal was notable to me. It’s also interesting to observe that the penises shown in the film are all severed, so these moments are either horrific (oh my god, what just happened!) or comic. The film’s penises are not sexual objects.


I am pleased to say that we had an excellent discussion about how to balance these things in our interpretation of the film and its effects. Students dealt with serious issues like rape intelligently and maturely. We also laughed a lot. The movie is, after all, part comedy and slightly ridiculous and we were able to laugh about some of its ideas. I laughed harder in that class than I have laughed in most classes I’ve taught, and I think that class day was memorable for the students as well as for me.

Finally, we discussed Shira Lipkin’s “The Final Girl” for just a few minutes. I wish I had taken more time to set this story up and left more time for discussion of it, because I think most students didn’t quite understand its central idea – the way final girls are left hanging at the end of their narratives and the way the trauma that they must suffer after their stories’ end is effaced – or the weight of that idea. Lipkin writes,

The final girl is disinterested in katabasis. She knows how important it is to everyone that those who go into the underworld emerge into the light. No one, however, tells the stories of those who stay down there, lost in tapering fractal tunnels, stumbling through the darkness. Push them down, leave them there, draw in the dark around them. The world does not want lost girls who cannot be found, so the Final Girls must pretend at all times that they have risen to the surface, even if they have not, especially if they have not.

The final girl knows that some have made the dark their home, though. She knows that the dark can hold you safe. She knows that sometimes you need to not be seen or heard.

I love this recognition that not everyone recovers from trauma or, if they do, they don’t do so in a way that others like to see. For all we talked during the week about the power of survival itself, the films ignore the damage that surviving does to these women, and I think it is important to recognize that. We tell stories about fighting back and glorify the survivors, but we don’t want to see the aftermath. It’s not nearly as much fun, after all.

Music this week was “This Is Halloween” from The Nightmare before Christmas (probably one of the most popular choices I made all semester) for Tuesday and Halloween and, for Thursday, Fiona Apple’s “Limp” and Lady Gaga’s “Teeth.” This pairing with Teeth pleased me immensely.