|Amanda Young, portrayed by Shawnee Smith|
The premise of the Saw films is quite simplistic: a man, dying of cancer puts people into life or death situations, believing that if they survive, they will appreciate their lives and right their (perceived) wrongs. The victims can only escape these death traps by either injuring themselves or others, which is an interesting look at the whole "What would you do?" theoretical question that media so often likes to pose. The idea behind the films is nothing ground-breaking by any standards, but that is not what makes them special. Ask the casual moviegoer about the Saw films and inevitably it will be described as nothing less than "torture porn" with most people probably being disgusted by the fact that these films are so popular. Though the movies do have their flaws, they have hardly earned the title of "torture porn" that many people are so willing to bestow upon them and are actually quite significant to the horror genre as a whole, as they do something many, many horror films do not: treat women characters -- specifically, the main female villain -- equally. They are pro-women horror films -- a rarity in the genre.
In this essay, I will be focusing my review based on the "original trilogy" (Saw - Saw III), as the series was originally intended to be only a trilogy and once the original writer (Leigh Whannell) stopped writing and Lionsgate kept making films, the quality declined sharply. New writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (who also co-wrote Feast) relied heavily on tired, cliched writing and sexist tropes for their run (Saw IV - Saw 3D), something Whannell managed (or at least attempted) to subvert.
In the original Saw trilogy, there is no so-called "Final Girl," a female character who survives in part due to some amount of ass-kicking, but mostly because of her purity. Rather, the women of Saw are treated just like the men -- which is, to say, they are mostly just normal, average people (a privilege almost exclusively given to men in film; women are usually reduced to tropes). It may sound like nothing special, but in the horror world, women characters usually fall into one, or more, of common stereotypes: the slut (who deserves to die), the bitch (who deserves to die), the homely/weird/token minority girl (used to pad out the cast), and the sweet, morally pure Final Girl. Besides this, the vast majority of the time, these female characters are also unbelievably gorgeous -- especially if they're the main character and/or Final Girl.
There are two narrative choices that horror films tend to choose from when using female leads: the plucky lady (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street) or a macho dude (Hostel or Alien, where Ripley must adopt macho "attributes" in order to win) -- Saw chooses neither. Instead, the women are treated as being "normal," everyday women; in the Saw universe, the female victims are not defined by their genitalia. They're not all well-developed and deep characters, but what makes them special is that they don't fit the typical horror movie casting. They're not all gorgeous models, they aren't bitches who deserve to die, they're not morally pure and good. They're regular, ordinary women, who could have just as easily been male characters with absolutely no re-writing of the script. Likewise, the films do not adhere to the idea that terrorized women are more engaging than terrorized men. Purposefully or not, Saw actually attempts to erase gender.
Sexuality, another huge part of the horror genre, is almost non-existent in the Saw films, something which sets it apart from the horror franchise in general. The killings are not sexually suggestive, there are no characters suddenly stripping off their clothes or girls parading about in bikinis or barely-there clothing, and there are no sex scenes in the movies. There are references to sex, but such references are done only in passing, and unlike in most horror films, characters are not punished for being sexual beings.
"You chose her because she's the best, right?"
Nudity has only ever appeared twice in the Saw films: a scene in Saw where a character, Michael, is stripped naked and covered in a flammable substance, and in a scene in Saw III, where a character, Danica (Debra McCabe), is hung naked in a freezer, while ice water is continuously pumped on her. However, in both cases, the characters's nakedness is not something exploited and made into something sexual. They are naked simply because the trap they are in requires them to be naked. In the original script of Saw III, Danica was clothed in undergarments, as the creators thought her being naked would be seen as an attempt to titillate the audience. However, Darren Lynn Bousman, Saw III’s director, revealed on the director’s commentary that during test shots, the wet clothes actually made the scene much more provocative in nature, something he (and writer Whannell) weren't interested in doing. The scene therefore exists solely to elicit from both the characters and the audience a feeling of terror at being slowly frozen to death, and Danica's nudity is fairly unremarkable.
Another one of Jigsaw's victims is Detective Allison Kerry, who is the Jigsaw "expert" appearing in the first trilogy and is the lead investigator in the second and third films. Kerry grows beyond the stereotype that she could have been: instead of being bitchy and "tough as nails," or passive, see-the-good-in-everyone, Kerry is smart and capable and uses force when nessecary. She's also not written as being perfect either -- she has flaws, just like all the male detectives, but her flaws aren't gender specific (e.g., she's obsessed with the Jigsaw case, a preoccupation that isn't usually associated with female characters who aren't The Bitch or Tough as Nails). She's also sympathetic enough so that when she (inevitably) dies, the audience feels sorry for her. But she's not sympathetic because she's female; Kerry could have been male and there would have been no difference in the audience's attitude towards her.
One of the main protagonists of Saw III is Dr. Lynn Denlon, a woman who is kidnapped in order to keep Jigsaw alive for one final game. Lynn's situation is no different from that of Dr. Lawerence Gordon, who appeared in the original Saw. In both cases, they cheated on their spouses and neglected their family, and they are treated equally. There's no slut-shaming of Lynn, while Lawerence is considered sympathetic. Lawerence is just as protective as his family as Lynn is. Put Lynn into Saw and Lawerence into Saw III and the movies would be exactly the same. Likewise, Lynn is not a morally pure Final Girl, nor does she spend her time fighting with Amanda over a man. And she isn't saved by a man, either: she saves herself. The movie simply treats Lynn like a person, not like a trope or a woman (which, in traditional narratives signifies lesser; being a woman isn't a bad thing, it's being film's or society's idea of women). She could be brave and capable and strong, or she could not be; either way, it isn't because of her gender. We see this here too, to a lesser extent, with Lawerence's wife, Alison.
|Detective Allison Kerry (Dina Meyer), Dr. Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh)|
Amanda Young: Jigsaw's Protégé
It's with its main female antagonist where the Saw films truly exceed, however. With all the Saw films, depth is given to the villains, something that prevents them from becoming the mindless killing machines that are a staple of horror (especially hack-and-slash horror) films. While not condonable, the characters’ actions are at least understandable, and at times, they can be sympathetic. Alongside "Jigsaw" (John Kramer, played by Tobin Bell) is the character of Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), who is the only Saw character to appear in all seven films aside from Jigsaw himself. Amanda is Jigsaw’s protégé, the one who will "inherit" his legacy after he dies.
There are many things that set Amanda apart from most villains in horror movies, the most notable one being that she's a woman. But more than that, she's a woman who is not driven by: jealousy, vanity, or obsession over a man. She doesn't indulge in vampiric, Sapphic tendencies meant to titillate male viewers. And she isn't sexualized: while reasonably attractive, she isn't a young, nubile twentysomething, and she dresses in plain, normal clothes, which neither accentuate nor hide her feminine features. And she isn't demonized either: she's a not a "bitch" or "whore" who deserves what's coming to her. Her mundanity is what makes her so appealing: she's not just an "everygirl," she's an everyperson, who, like Jigsaw, is a character that all genders can identify with and sympathize -- but her femininity isn't taken away from her in order to make her stronger or more appealing (she is not given a boyish nickname like "Chris" or "Billy" and doesn't adopt masculine traits like Ripley did in Alien), which is the most important thing.
Amanda is just as capable as the Jigsaw, but Whannell doesn't make her this unbelievably perfect character who can do everything better than a man, just because she is a Strong Woman. She is able to design traps as well as Jigsaw's and walks a fine line between relishing her ability to commit murder and being terrified at her own coldness towards others. And, like Jigsaw, Amanda is given a nice storyline over the course of the three movies -- and she remains a strong female character throughout all three of them. In Saw, she is a brave survivor; in Saw II she takes power back from a man who victimized her; in Saw III she becomes the strong, main antagonist. And Amanda doesn't just become a villain, but she gets away with her crimes as well, subverting the idea that horror films must end with some sort of justice being served.
It must also be noted that a major identifying factor about Amanda is that she is a self-injurer. Is this a sign of "feminine" weakness? It isn't. Only a passing reference to self-injury is made in Whannell's script; a more significant scene takes place in the movie due to actress Shawnee Smith's insistence, believing it was an integral part of Amanda's character. The film simply presents the fact that it exists, neither glorifying or frowning down upon it; it's part of who Amanda is and it's not at all difficult to imagine a male character in the same situation, doing the same exact thing.
Though Amanda claims to have been "saved" by Jigsaw, she isn't. It's a point the movie strives to make, with Jigsaw even stating it in Saw III. The only one who saved Amanda was Amanda; Jigsaw may have put her in the trap in the first place, but she was the one who chose to fight and better herself. Jigsaw may have played the role of a supporting friend, but it was Amanda who strove to be something more than what she was. And she did it entirely on her own. All of the women in Saw are strong enough to save themselves -- their failure is less due to characterization but to the inevitable circumstance of plot.
Ultimately, what makes Amanda such a great character is that she's essentially a stand-in for the viewer. She isn't written as a "macho" type of girl who guys see as "one of them," but she isn't a sweet, morally pure Final Girl who the audience can take comfort in seeing live. She's a gender neutral stand-in: she's just a person.
Whatever flaws may exist with the original Saw trilogy, it's refreshing to see woman characters treated as people instead of stereotypes. It's refreshing to see gender-neutrality and (at the very least) attempts at gender erasure. There are few horror franchises that strive to do even have as much as the Saw trilogy manages to accomplish.
Elizabeth Ray hold a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and currently resides in Connecticut. A horror enthusiast, she spends her spare time working through her to-read list, watching Photoshop tutorials, and writing.