Roger Ebert: Not Just a Movie Critic, a Social Critic

Yesterday we lost a movie legend, Robert Ebert.  Ebert is remembered for many things and one is his willingness to make sharp social commentary that went beyond movies themselves.  One episode, which aired in 1980, is a wonderful example.  In it, he and Gene Siskel offer a feminist critique of a group of slasher movies.

First they describe the typical movie:

A woman or young girl is shown alone and isolated and defenseless… a crazy killer springs out of the shadows and attacks her and frequently the killer sadistically threatens the victims before he strikes.

They pull no punches in talking about the problem with the films:

These films hate women.

They go on to suggest that the films are a backlash against the women’s movement:

I’m convinced it has to do with the growth of the woman’s movement in America in the last decade. I think that these films are some sort of primordial response by some very sick people… of men saying “get back in your place, women.”

One thing that most of the victims have in common is that they do act independently… They are liberated women who act on their own. When a woman makes a decision for herself, you can almost bet she will pay with her life.

They note, too, that the violence is sexualized:

The nudity is always gratuitous. It is put in to titillate the audience and women who dress this way or merely uncover their bodies are somehow asking for trouble and somehow deserve the trouble they get. That’s a sick idea.

And they’re not just being anti-horror movie.  They conclude:

[There are] good old fashioned horror films… [but] there is a difference between good and scary movies and movies that systematically demean half the human race.

It’s refreshing to hear a straightforward unapologetic feminist analysis outside of a feminist space.  Their analysis, however, isn’t as sophisticated as it could be.

In doing research for a podcast about sex and violence against women in horror films (Sounds Familiar), I came across the keen analysis of Carol Clover, who wrote a book called Men, Women, and Chainsaws.

Clover admitted that most horror films of the time sexualized violence against women — meditating on the torture and terrorizing of beautiful female victims — but she also pointed out that the person who ultimately vanquished the murderer was almost always alsofemale. She called this person the ”final girl.”

The final girl was different than the rest of the women in the film: she was less sexually active, more androgynous, and smarter.  You could pick her out, Clover argued, from the very beginning of the movie.  She was always the first to notice that something frightening might be going on.

Boys and men watching horror films, then (and that is the main audience for this genre), were encouraged to “get off” on the murder of women, but they were also encouraged to identify with a female heroine in the end.  How many other genres routinely ask men to identify with a female character?  Almost none.

In this sense, Clover argues, horror films don’t “hate women.”   Instead, they hate a particular kind of woman. They reproduce a Madonna/whore dichotomy in which the whores are dispatched with pleasure, but the Madonna rises to save us all in the end.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the principle writer for Sociological Images. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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