The End Run

(left to right) Tarana Burke, civil rights activist and founder of the Me Too movement; director Sophia Takal, film theorist Laura Mulvey, director Kathryn Bigelow. (Illustration by J. Brooks Robinson)

The myth of gender as a genre

There was perhaps a time when the notion of the “male gaze” — a dominant, sadistic masculine viewing perspective that reduces representations of women on-screen to objectified, sexual spectacle — was wholly the terrain of academic films studies. But Laura Mulvey’s foundational concept, defined in her famous 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, has since bled beyond the parameters of academia into the critical lexicon of film, television, video games and the visual arts more broadly.

Over the last twelve months, I’ve thought a lot about the critical dominance of the male gaze, a starting point that brings with it a myriad of assumptions and implications about its alternatives. But this process of gendering may be more reductive than the good intentions behind its analysis might suggest.

Take for example, the terrain of genre filmmaking. In late 2017, I began work on my forthcoming book from BearManor Media, 1000 Women in Horror, which seeks to bring to the surface a whole range of women film industry practitioners who made a notable impact on what is traditionally assumed to be a male-oriented domain. While many of these 1000 women worked in front of the camera as actors, I also wanted to emphasize the diversity of women’s labor behind the scenes as editors, screenwriters, sound technicians, cinematographers and directors.

An unreliable narrative

Of immediate interest here is the way certain types of films are viewed in relation to their authors (and the audience, another future topic of discussion). We need only consider the ubiquity of a term like ‘chick flick’ to demonstrate how the idea of linking gender to certain kinds of movies is ingrained in our viewing habits.

It works the other way, too; think of the machismo hyperbole hovering around the  discourse about war movies, action films or crime and horror cinema – then think of Kathryn Bigelow, who renders such biases irrelevant with a filmography that consists almost solely of these kinds of films, from K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) to Point Break (1991), The Hurt Locker (2008) to Near Dark (1987).

Bigelow’s vampire film Near Dark can by no means be considered the first horror film directed by a woman, or even a particularly early one – for that, go back to 1913 with films like Alice Guy’s The Pit and the Pendulum or Lois Weber’s Suspense. As films such as Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) clearly reveal, films that retrospectively fit into horror film history are not hard to identify. Across these examples, a notable diversity emerges: literary adaptations, split-screen proto-home invasion movies, surrealist psychosexual nightmare dreamscapes and good old-fashioned serial killer films.

What unites these examples is not so much a singular, unified directorial gaze dominated by the shared gender of these filmmakers, but rather the fact that – as women directors – they all made films in an industry that was, and in many way remains, distinctly male-dominated and structurally defined to actively exclude women filmmakers.

Matters of cultural identity, and the artistic and industrial contexts of a given historical moment get in the way of sweeping generalizations about the gender bias these women might have experienced, but that is not the point. What is significant is the empowerment of historical reclamation, of digging up histories that were buried because they didn’t fit the ideological narrative of the male author as a god-like visionary.

Always shining

With horror in particular, women filmmakers effectively disrupt that narrative. Just as exciting as the fact that women-made horror films today are increasingly getting more mainstream attention – from The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) to Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016), The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015) to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Aminpour, 2014) – is the fact that that women have always made horror films, despite the male-biased film history that has sought to eradicate them from the material archive and from popular memory.

As we begin to reevaluate the cultural clichés that influence how we see movies, it remains essential to keep an open mind regarding the kinds of films women horror directors seek to make. Women filmmakers can make profoundly disturbing and memorable films based on their lived experience – Sophia Takal’s breathtaking 2016 psychological thriller/horror film Always Shine incorporates her experiences as an actor into a dark tale of professional envy and personal vengeance.  

[Ed. Note: Always Shine used Endcrawl, which publishes this site.]

There’s a critical tendency to privilege women’s stories in films made by women due to a perceived lack of depth in how those stories have been told by their male counterparts. It’s worth underscoring that women horror directors are just as capable of making powerful films about men and masculinity, Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) being a notable example.

The only thing that unites horror films made by women – the only thing that unites women’s filmmaking in general – is the fact that they’re not made by men, which is itself an astonishing achievement in an industry so widely dominated by the latter. Despite popular critical assumptions, women horror filmmakers aren’t handicapped by anything except the prejudice of industry gatekeepers towards the things women filmmakers are capable of achieving.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an Australian film critic and academic who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film with an emphasis on gender politics and representations of violence. Her research has recently focused on women's filmmaking, co-curating the 2017 "Pioneering Women" program at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and co-editing a forthcoming book on Elaine May. Her sixth book, 1000 WOMEN IN HORROR, is due for a 2019 release.

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