Sexual Politics in 80s Slasher Films

If you read my previous piece “80s Slasher Films and the Female” you’ll remember I mentioned writing with someone else, but them not pulling their finger out. Well, Mr Luke Green has finally done that, and given his opinion about Sexual Politics in 80s Slasher Films.

Everyone knows about 80s slashers movies, right? Attractive young girls, taking their clothes off, behaving badly and then being slaughtered, all for the salacious gratification of a rabid, sexually frustrated male audience, right? 

Well, maybe not so right. In fact, there is both casual and statistical evidence to suggest that this preconception is inherently incorrect. Let’s address the main conceit; that the victims in these movies are girls. Anyone with a passing interest in horror is aware of the “final girl” trope and we’ll come to that later. Firstly, though, let’s examine the main victim population – the characters whose job it is merely to die for the audience’s entertainment. If we take a few of the most notable examples from that first cycle of slasher movies and look at their death tolls, they present us with results that are, perhaps, surprising – 

Friday the 13th: Female 4   Male 4

Prom Night: Female 5   Male 3

The Burning: Female 5   Male 5

The Funhouse: Female 2   Male 4

Happy Birthday to Me: Female 3   Male 6

Hell Night: Female 2   Male 6

My Bloody Valentine: Female 5   Male 7

A Nightmare on Elm Street: Female 2   Male 2

Total: Female 28   Male 37

(All figures from Kerswell, 2010)

Of course, in the explosion of copycats and rip-offs that populated the slasher market during this same era, we could probably find innumerable films with predominantly female body counts, as we could also probably find innumerable others with predominantly male body counts. But what this casual evidence alludes to is that the accepted wisdom regarding 80s slasher films is maybe not as rock solid as it first seems. 

So, if there is now some doubt cast over who is actually dying in these movies, it might be a good idea to turn our attention to who is watching them – and why. In his exhaustive study of 80s slasher movies, Blood Money (2011), Richard Nowell applies an industry viewpoint to the problem, which paints a very different picture to that presented by the usual psychoanalysis. As Nowell himself writes, “…by examining the commercial logic, strategies and objectives of the American and Canadian independents that produced the films and the companies that distributed them in the US, this book demonstrates that filmmakers and marketers actually went to extraordinary lengths to make early teen slashers attractive to female youth…” (Nowell 2011, p4).     

So, if producers and marketers were going to “extraordinary lengths” to sell these movies to a female audience, did their work pay off? Here Nowell draws our attention to a New York Times article from 2nd October 1980, which found that 55% of youth ticket sales for Halloween and Friday the 13th were to girls. Nowell goes on to suggest that studios realised that marketing slasher movies toward female audiences gave them a better chance of box office success and that movies such as Prom Night and Terror Train used content aimed at young female viewers in their marketing campaigns accordingly. But I think that’s a blanket, over-simplified approach to audience demographic and people’s individual motives for watching a certain movie.

friday the 13th film with the monster coming out of lake to get girl

So, if we have to accept that these movies appeal to a eclectic audience, what can we learn about sexual politics from them? I would argue that the answer is a big, fat NOTHING. My reason being that film, like any creative industry is entirely subjective – and we can use a slasher film example here; critics universally HATED Friday the 13th when it came out, yet in the summer of 1980, it was the second highest grossing movie in the US, being beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. To paraphrase, that many people can’t be wrong.

Therefore, if something is so subjective, it is impossible to approach with a single, myopic focus. If you take only a radical feminist standpoint, you will find something in these movies that suggests the exploitation of women by men. If you take only a Marxist feminist standpoint, you will find something in these movies that suggest the exploitation of women by capitalism. And if you only take a radical Marxist standpoint, you will find something in these movies to suggest the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Depending on your approach, you could probably also make an argument that these movies contain important lessons about nazism, Christianity, Hinduism or the logistics of log cabin construction. This is why psychoanalysing an entire sub genre of film can only fail; you cannot watch a film and decide that audiences of millions all have the same reason for watching. If anything, it says more about the person psychoanalysing than it does about anyone else – it tells you the approach they took to the movie, not anyone else’s. 

That’s not to say the perceived stereotypical audience doesn’t exist; I once read in a horror magazine a letter from a reader, who argued that there should be more rape scenes in horror movies, because he enjoyed seeing snooty actresses being humiliated in order to get their SAG card. I don’t even know how you would describe someone like that. Sick c**t, perhaps. But they are out there.

Girl from Last House on the Left on the floor covered in dirt

So if we’re working in the realms of complete subjectivity, how do I, personally, approach these films? Any horror fan will know what it’s like to be asked “why do you enjoy watching people being killed?” Which is patently ridiculous. It’s like asking soap opera fans why they enjoy watching people suffer tragedy and hardship in their lives. Of course they don’t; they invest in the characters and they empathise with them. It’s the same with horror; you (or I, at least) empathise with the victims, or good guys. Sure, someone like Jason Voorhees is now a pop culture icon and everyone cheers when he kills people. But Friday the 13th is on a different plane now; it’s not about scares anymore. Forget Scream or Cabin in the Woods, if you want to talk “meta” or “self aware”, the Friday the 13th series has been doing it since 1986, populating their casts of characters with obnoxious bastards, so people can enjoy watching them die. I would argue that in 2001, the average horror fan’s (not general population, but horror fan’s) motivation for going to see Jason X was very different from the average horror fan’s motivation for going to watch the original Friday the 13th in 1980. 

Carol Glover, in her groundbreaking study of gender in horror, “Men, Women and Chainsaws” (1992) suggests that the slasher, with its predominantly female lead protagonist (final girl), is actually quite a progressive genre, in the way it encourages audience identification with strong, female characters. Which is good, because gender should not come into it, in my opinion. Personally, I find the fact that this issue has to be discussed somehow patronising; I can’t see why the gender, race, sexuality or religion of the protagonist should affect one’s sympathies. Certainly it’s not how I assign mine. 

So, to conclude, I think that there are two main points that need to be borne in mind:

1). If there are two characters in a film, one fighting for good, one fighting for evil, and you side with the character fighting for evil because they have the same set of genitalia as you, then there’s probably something wrong with you.

2). For the past 30 years, 80s slasher movies have been decried by critics as socially and culturally  worthless. So why apply big socio/political analysis to them? They were made by different people, from different places, for different reasons. They have been watched by a million different people for a million different reasons. They are supposed to be silly, scary, fun, popcorn movies, so watch them for that. I do. 

Note – this essay is not supposed to be an exhaustive or conclusive discussion on the subject; people have written ENTIRE BOOKS about this (see references in the text above). It is my personal interpretation of things. And, as I say, it is completely subjective, so feel free to disagree.

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