This movie is probably racist, sexist, and homophobic. And I'm gonna talk about it, even though it's not remotely current.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Horror V Romance #2: Horror Encourages Fluid Identification

A monster is a being who refuses to adapt to her circumstances. - Bhanu Kapil

We have already seen that when one does not subscribe to compulsory systems such as heterosexuality and monogamy, the conflicts and outcomes of a vast proportion of romance films can feel extremely contrived. But there is more to my love of horror and dismay for romance than this. Horror offers, for me, an opportunity to suspend disbelief, and in turn produces a much larger world. In terms of finding characters I can identify with, even the most contrived horror flick offers something far more complex and messy than romance is able to do*.

Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, was kind enough to put this into words for me. There is already a tremendous feminist body of criticism of the slasher genre in terms of tired tropes, particularly with respect to psychoanalysis and gender: the slasher genre is the very origin of the girl in the tank top screaming. And commercial horror may be no less complicit in the gendering of monsters (masculine) and victims (feminine) than commercial romance is complicit in the coding and enforcement of gender roles. On one level, they are equally culpable in the enforcement of gender norms that tacitly shapes a sexist culture that harms both women and men, as well as erasing anyone who does not fit neatly as either. The difference is that horror offers multiple ways of relating.

As Clover puts it, "We are both Red Riding Hood and the wolf; the force of the experience in horror, comes from 'knowing' both sides of the story." This means that I may not spend my time watching a horror movie rooting for any one particular entity: I can shift from empathizing with being the monster, the outsider, the hero/ine, the victim, indeed, any archetype that is present. Sometimes the camera does this work for us: whether by default, to build suspense, or by necessity of storytelling, we are often treated to the perspective of the monster as well as the authorities, the victims, and the heroes--and these roles may all blend with one another as a plot progresses, illuminating an identity that is more hybrid. Take The Cell: a lush, oversaturated, intensely symbolic story about what makes humans into monsters; a large portion of the story takes place within the interior world of a demented killer. Here the idea of shifting identity is even more elucidated when the killer is fragmented into selves at odds: one, the monstrous, conflated MC of power and violence, the other, a child, pliant, and vulnerable. Within the world of these conflicting selves, Jennifer Lopez's Catherine embodies the empathy that horror demands of its viewers. In doing so, she herself is transformed into a monster, into one who kills.

Horror has gender roles, racism, sexism, transphobia, homo-antagonism galore, but it still makes identity a site of multiplicity and shifting roles. By contrast, romance encourages weddings: especially for women, the ultimate gridlock of identity. Even romances professed to take a women's point of view, or marketed to women as such, films like Bridesmades, Juno, Knocked Up, and whatever Tina Fey did last, fall into these heteronormative family-oriented traps. Indeed, the women actors and comedians actually manage to achieve some semblance of humor and humanity in these films. But it is only by some incredible acts of accomplishment and/or godforsaken miracle, and not by virtue of writing. In Bridesmaids, every woman wants a man and in the great tradition of straight women, the principal characters can only relate to one another via competition. In Juno and Knocked Up, pregnancy is treated as this wacky catalyst for enforcing romance & coupling (rather than a practical opportunity to asses a situation, get to Planned Parenthood, and delete Seth Rogen's number).

I am not saying that married women don't have complex shifting identities or that no film treats them as such. Frida, while not a perfect biopic, is a great example of a bisexual, non-monogamous activist with a complex and shifting marriage. However, you'd be hard-pressed to find Frida's primary categorization as romance. Romance as a genre may occasionally capture nuances of intimacy and create characters worth rooting for, but leaves me wanting when it comes to my urge to be able to see something of myself in a film. Where horror would seem to treat women even worse, that is when I'm usually relating as much to the monster, at once capable of great destruction and by design an outsider; this is, to me, a secondary definition of my womanhood. It's a matter of taste for sure: I am a person with a complex relation to identity. When I watch a film, I am looking for mirrors. With horror, the mirrors are not necessarily in obvious places, but they are there.

*Even one of those God-awful celebrity medley romances that offer multiple perspectives & storylines as everyone falls in love on the same fucking day

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