Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Women, Cannibals, and the Horror Movie Zeitgeist

It's always interesting to observe the different zeitgeists in horror. Though you'll see particular horror movie creatures come and go, it's interesting how one seems to catch on for a time and suddenly they're everywhere. In the late 90s/early 00s, it was vampires. Then it was zombies. Today, according to Kate Robertson of the Atlantic, it's female cannibals:
Having spent the last five years studying the female cannibal (an admittedly odd subject even in academic circles), I’ve been fascinated by how the subject has gained more mainstream visibility of late. While the female cannibal isn’t new to pop culture, she’s relevant in ways that go beyond shock value, by capturing ever-present social anxieties about gender, hunger, sex, and empowerment. These new works center on women who, in addition to eating humans, negotiate and subvert expectations for how women should look and behave. They’re motivated by physical hunger but also by sexual desire, making them an extension of the femme fatale—the beautiful woman who deceives and ensnares men. In eating flesh, characters like Justine simply redirect this fear from the metaphorical to the physical. There’s a persistent stereotype that women will “suck men dry”; well, these ones will literally devour you.

It’s significant that the grotesqueness of these women’s eating habits—their proclivity to gorge on human flesh—is rendered through beautiful bodies. Portrayals of female hunger in visual culture more broadly are tangled up in social expectations about how women manage their bodies, expectations shaped in part by fad diets, targeted advertising, and celebrity culture. Eating is thus not just about nourishment, but also about appearance. It’s why when celebrities admit that they like fast food, too, or that they don’t like dieting either, they seem relatable in a way that can feel carefully orchestrated. When these “rule-breaking” women happen to be gorgeous, their rebelliousness becomes that much more appealing.
Robertson discusses the portrayal of the female cannibal in two recent movies, Raw and The Lure, as well as a recent show Santa Clarita Diet (which is actually a zombie show, so it's not truly cannibalism, because zombies were once human but are now, well, zombies that feast on humans, but I digress). In these instances, the notion of hunger is explored as a metaphor for awakening and sex. It's not altogether different from the metaphor used by Joss Whedon in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the literal monsters she faced were stand-ins for the figurative monsters we encounter in a traditional coming of age story.

That's probably one reason why I find the genre of horror to be so fascinating - it can be straightforward, yes (because these movies make a lot of money), but it can also be nuanced and full of symbolism. It can be used to explore hard social issues, especially in climates where such commentary might not be possible. It can be a way to camouflage statements that might be at best frowned upon and at worst censored and attacked. Think of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as less of a monster story and more of a commentary on scientific ethics and the thin line between breakthrough and playing god. Scratch below the surface of the some of the best horror, and you'll find many different messages underneath.

I'll admit, the gore/grossout subgenre of horror is one of my least favorite, though there are definitely movies in that subgenre I love (Evil Dead 2, The Thing). So I wasn't sure on first reading about it whether I was interested in seeing Raw. But it sounds to me like a thought-provoking work that gets to the heart of what I love about good horror - as symbolism and commentary.

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