“It could also be argued that women were associated with [Gothic horror] novels on the basis of cultural stereotypes that inscribed both the female body and the body of a mass-consumed fiction as trashy and tainted.”
Dani Cavallero, Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror, and Fear
Despite featuring women in lead roles for centuries, horror has always had a fraught relationship with gender. When it comes to onscreen depictions, horror often reinforces deeply rooted gender roles: men are strong stalwarts and women are tortured victims (and gender non-conforming people are either nonexistent or villainized). Even when the face onscreen is female, she is often framed through a male gaze interested in the eroticism of her torment. Lately, we’ve been seeing more and more horror interested in picking at preconceived notions of masculinity, such as Robert Eggers’ 2019 folk horror hit The Lighthouse.
When it comes to exploring the female/feminine perspective (I’ll get into the difference later), horror has traditionally fallen short. Female horror leads are often either tortured victims (a la Marion from Psycho and Wendy from The Shining) or androgynous/masculine Action Girls whose relationship to womanhood remains unexplored (think Ripley from Alien and Vasquez from Aliens).
Films like Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman offer a unique perspective, framing their narratives with feminine signifiers. Rather than existing in a societal vacuum, these movies showcase terrors recognizable to contemporary women, challenging preconceived notions of what horror can look like and who it’s for.
Always The Victim
According to Mathias Clasen, author of Why Horror Seduces, “Horror fiction targets ancient and deeply conserved defense mechanisms in the brain…[it] allows audiences to project themselves into the fictional world and feel with and for the protagonists.”
We live vicariously through our horror protagonists. When they are powerful, we are powerful; when they suffer, we do too. Traditionally, the protagonists of horror films are two things: reactive, and active, in that exact order. While their initial arc is often a reaction to sudden terror, they must eventually make the decision to act. In Cam, for instance, there is a marked difference between first-act Alice trying to understand the mysterious force that has taken over her cam account and third-act Alice deciding to hunt it down.
The reductive roles traditionally ascribed to women in horror limit the audience’s ability to truly align with them. They often exist in relation to male characters or the male gaze, meaning they cannot stand as their own characters, or are viewed through a masculine lens. There are two female archetypes within horror that I am particularly keen on exploring: Swooning Maiden and Final Girl.
“We remember the monsters – but what of all those ladies, often in nightgowns, dragged out of bed by mummies or zombies, carted across the countryside, too often tantalizingly helpless and unconscious and dependent on the hero?”Daniel Shaw, Power, Horror and Ambivalence
A floorboard creaks. Her breath catches, her face pale. She shudders, refusing to look over her shoulder. There is a soft skittering noise. The darkness behind her blooms like a lily. She turns, hesitantly, her shoulders bunched. Then she sees it. Oh God. Oh dear God. Her eyes go wide and she lets out a blood curdling scream.
The problem with the Swooning Maiden is that she is more plot device than character. She is probably the “girliest” archetype in horror, the least likely to fall into androgyny, but she is rarely an active character. She is a victim, a projectionist’s blank canvas, a catalyst.
In stark opposition to the Swooning Maiden, the protagonists of Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman are all multidimensional characters who make active choices that push the plot along. In an interview with Nightmarish Conjuring, Cam writer Isa Mazzei stressed the importance of creating a realistic female character: “I feel like often times in horror, in particular, we… don’t let female protagonists make the smartest decisions and I think that’s problematic.”
By critiquing the Swooning Maiden trope, I’m not suggesting that the women of horror shouldn’t be vulnerable. My quibble is with how that vulnerability is being used. To what effect? “Women occupy a privileged place in horror film,” explains Erin Harrington in Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror, “the horror genre… leverages the narrative and aesthetic horrors of the reproductive, the maternal and the sexual to expose the underpinnings of the social, political and philosophical othering of women.”
Some of Promising Young Woman and Neon Demon’s tensest scenes highlight Jesse and Cassie’s clear physical disadvantage; they are small and delicate whereas their potential threat is physically large and powerful. It captures the same feeling of vulnerability I feel, say, when I’m walking down the street alone and a dude in a Jeep wolf-whistles at me. Will he suddenly pull a U-turn, drag me into an alley, and murder me? Probably not. But the tension of existing as a woman in contemporary society lies within that “probably”.
The Swooning Maiden is also limiting because she is often boxed into a virginal, “pure” role: she swoons because the depravity around her proves too much for her delicate sensibilities. Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman all actively reject the “Madonna-whore complex”.
By design, Cam’s protagonical sex worker is never shamed for nor reduced to her sexuality; the writers “didn’t want to derive the negative stakes of the film from the protagonist’s decision to engage in sex work.” Neon Demon takes an opposite approach, freeing its characters to engage in a sexuality that is salaciously unwatchable. In a Medium article about the sexual content of Neon Demon, Elisa Chavez explains, “most of the time in horror, men get to do the depraved and interesting shit. While we deconstruct their macabre methodologies, women have to stay grounded in the expected human reactions of screaming, crying, and cowering… [the sexual scene] is also a scene about a woman unapologetically experiencing a kind of pleasure the viewer finds disgusting.”
The Final Girl
In Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol J Clover writes of the Final Girl that she is our vantage point to watch the action, the character who brings down the big bad and lives to tell another day. She takes an active role in her own survival, but this doesn’t inherently make her an active character. Often, she is caught in the realm of the reactive. Clover explains, “tortured survivor might be a better term than “hero”. Or, given the element of last-minute luck (she happens, in her flailing, on a cup of hot coffee or some other such item, which she throws in her assailant’s eyes), “accidental survivor”. Or, as I call her, “victim-hero,” with an emphasis on victim.”
The Final Girl is often boyish. Ripley from Alien. Clarice from Silence of the Lambs. Both are excellent characters, I’m not saying they aren’t, but neither is particularly gendered. Additionally, their androgyny tends to lean away from traditional femininity: suits and science, guns and fight scenes: traditionally masculine signifiers. The Final Girl’s strained relationship with femininity is, according to Clover, deliberate. “She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality.”
Often, to survive, we see female heroes slowly lose their feminine signifiers. Though not horror, Game of Thrones offers an excellent example of this process: both Cersei and Sansa, the series’ most effeminate characters, “outgrow” their femininity in the process of gaining power. Their ability to claim a stake in the world comes at the cost of pastel dresses and flowing locks, apparently.
Women in Horror: Feminine Versus Female
One of the biggest differences between the three films I’m exploring here and their women-led predecessors is that they are not just female, they are also feminine. When I say “femininity”, I don’t mean the biological experience of “femaleness” nor the societal experience of “womanhood,” but the hallmarks traditionally associated with femininity. Think high heels and makeup, bubblegum pink and glitter shine.
Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman deviate from the traditionally grungy, dark, or monochrome color palettes of horror. They lean into traditionally feminine colors: pinks and purples, pastels and neons. When explaining the effectiveness of Neon Demon, Lauren Wilford of Gradient calls it, “a mad, shimmering celebration of the young female id, a trip into a hot pink hell, a horrible gorgeous thing about horrible gorgeous things.”
Beyond their bright color palettes, Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman also make active use of feminine signifiers such as makeup, feminine clothing, and female-forward career paths. This isn’t to say that there aren’t male models and cam boys, nor that men can’t wear lipstick or pink skirts. However, these visuals are traditionally associated with femininity. They are rarely taken seriously in common parlance and they rarely feature meaningfully in horror.
Promising Young Woman’s Cassie sports rainbow nails and flowy pastel clothes in most of her scenes; her femininity is a critical feature of her character. In all three films, makeup is used to offer insight into characters’ inner psyches rather than as a “way of making them attractive to a straight male audience.” When discussing Cassie’s climactic (pun intended) “blow-up doll-inspired” look in an interview, makeup artist Angie Wells explained, “She’s spiraling. It’s not supposed to be pretty…for Cassie, makeup is both armor and a weapon.”
For each of the three protagonists, femininity is not a costume that she sheds when it’s time to bring out the big guns, but a series of active choices that enable her to access a deep well of power.
The Limitations of “Traditional Femininity”
It is worth noting that, throughout this article, I’ve been referring to a very specific view of femininity that is not necessarily universally accessible. To quote bell hooks, “Many feminist film critics continue to structure their discourse as though it speaks about ‘women’ when in actuality it speaks only about white women.” The women in Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman are all white, small, and traditionally attractive. They belong to a delicate “protected” class of white femininity often inaccessible to women of color and gender non-conforming folk.
Part of what drew me to these three films was their pink-fuelled aesthetic; it was only retroactively that I realised the limitations of these views. For a further exploration of the role of black women in horror, I recommend reading Tai Gooden’s “Where Are the Black Final Girls in Slasher Films?”. For an exploration about the social relationship between femininity and women of color, I recommend watching Shanspeare’s “Femininity and Intersection of Race and Class”.
Also, if you know any horror that stars women of color/non-binary leads, and still leans into the “feminine” aesthetic I’ve talked about in this article, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always open to learning more.
Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman: What is Female Rage?
“One of its [Carrie’s] main donations to horror, I think, is the image of an angry woman – a woman so angry that she can be imagined as a credible perpetrator (I stress “credible”) of the kind of violence on which, in the low-mythic universe [of horror], the status of full protagonist rests.”Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film – Updated Edition
Where the protagonists of Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman diverge from their “traditionally feminine” packaging is in their unrelenting, unabashed rage. In “I Used to Insist I Didn’t Get Angry. Not Anymore. On female rage”, Leslie Jamison explores how femininity is traditionally associated with self-control, with rage placed in opposition to being a ‘good woman’.
“Angry women are messier. Their pain threatens to cause more collateral damage. It’s as if the prospect of a woman’s anger harming other people threatens to rob her of the social capital she has gained by being wronged. We are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.”Leslie Jamison
Promising Young Woman’s Cassie is furious and it shows. Her ‘female anger’, caused by victim-shaming rape culture, is not civilized. She is an anti-hero, crossing socio-ethical lines with little-to-no remorse. What is alluring about the women in Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman is that they use their rage to propel themselves past the bounds of what is acceptable. They sacrifice life and limb to their anger. These movies scratch that itch that forms the first time you’re told to not do something because it is “unladylike”.
Female Fears: How Horror Explores Contemporary Anxieties
In Femicidal Fears: Narratives of the Female Gothic, Helene Meyers outlines the unique relationship women have with bodily harm. “For feminist critics concerned about violence against women, the challenge is to analyze cultural formations that underwrite femicide without essentializing women as victims.”
In Promising Young Woman, this gendered difference is textual. Speaking towards the possibility of being accused of assault, a male character whimpers, “that’s, like, a dude’s worst fear.” “Oh yeah,” Cassie responds, “wanna know what a woman’s worst fear is?” The message is clear. Men fear the loss of their societal position; women fear the loss of their lives.
Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman must walk a fine line, exploring the genuine threat to bodily security that is familiar to most women without reducing women down to “potential rape and murder victims.” For the most part, they are successful, both by tackling the themes head-on and by developing nuanced depictions of women.
In other words, the protagonists’ experiences and fears are not, exclusively, “women’s experiences and fears.” The movies pair the particular with the universal to effectively round out their female characters. Neon Demon is about female vulnerability, but it is also about narcissism and beauty obsession. Promising Young Woman tackles rape culture, and also explores the relationship between revenge, catharsis, and healing. Cam’s main theme is identity and the self in an online world.
It is worth noting that women are not just the subjects of these films, but also the creators behind them. Promising Young Woman was written and directed by Emerald Fennell. Cam’s screenplay came from former cam girl Isa Mazzei. Although directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Neon Demon brought on Natasha Braier to do cinematography and offered lead actress Elle Fanning ample creative liberty.
In an interview with Vulture, Madeline Brewer (who plays Alice), explained that the boundary-pushing and exploitation explored in Cam is personally familiar to her: “This is every single woman’s experience in… any workplace… Where is the line where I’m being disrespected? Everybody has to contend with the fact that someone might call them a bitch for being assertive or a diva for taking what they want.”
March is Women’s History Month, a fact I didn’t realize until I was halfway through writing this article. It is pure serendipity that I found myself interested in the relationship between women, horror, and femininity. As usual, I worry that by writing about female creators creating “uniquely female” content, I am being reductive. So often, we limit the works of female creators to two categories: the autobiographical or the deliberately feminist/female. Neither has a particularly pleasant implication: the former implies that female creators are incapable of true creation or imagination, pulling only from their lived experiences; the latter implies that the female experience isn’t universal, that women can only ever write about “women’s problems”.
Then again, what initially caught my attention about Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman was that they were fantastic films. They were tense, alluring, and offered satisfying pay-offs. Their use of feminine signifiers and unique take on “women-centric” issues is just one of many frames I can use to analyze them. It is certainly a somewhat unique frame; it called to me because it’s something I don’t see much of in horror today, and something I would like to see more of in horror tomorrow.