Horror Week 2012: Patriarchy in Crisis: Power and Gender in ‘The Stepfather’

This is a guest review by Allison Maria Rodriguez.

“Wait a minute . . . who am I here?” is the central question posed by Jerry Blake in the 1987 slasher film, The Stepfather. It is a story of patriarchy in crisis. In a world in which “traditional” and “old fashioned” (both characteristics attributed to Jerry) notions of male dominance and the nuclear family are thoroughly challenged, the patriarchal order is undergoing a desperate identity crisis. The film is about a man who marries into a family that eventually disappoints him by not living up to his expectations of the perfect family, so he kills them and moves on to another town and another family. In The Stepfather, it is patriarchy that is broken and unable to find a reality in which its conceptualization of self exists. Without the structural order “the father” is accustomed to, he simply does not know who he is, and rather than deal with this and evolve, he chooses to deny reality, destroy it, and recreate it in his own image, which, ultimately, always fails.

“Am I Jerry, or Henry, or Bill?” — patriarchal schizophrenia in The Stepfather
The Stepfather (the 1987 version) is not like most slasher films; it is a uniquely feminist horror film. Carol J. Clover’s theory of the “final girl”*, the trope in horror cinema that leaves one unique girl as the sole survivor, is brilliant and generally accurate. But our heroine, Stephanie, is not like other final girls. For one, she is one of the ONLY girls in the film. The film is full of empty, impotent signifiers of male power: the male lieutenant, the male therapist, the male high school teacher, the male hero/amateur detective, the male reporter and, of course, Stephanie’s dead father. More importantly, throughout the duration of this film no women are killed. Let me repeat that: NO women are killed. It may not be obvious to some viewers, but it is strikingly obvious to me, a feminist who loves horror films. When the film opens, Jerry (or Henry Morrison, his identity before Jerry) has already killed his previous family, which we know contained a wife and at least one daughter, but during the film only men are slaughtered. They are men who attempt to rescue Stephanie and her mother Susan, but the only person who actually rescues Stephanie is Stephanie.

Stephanie’s character is portrayed as a strikingly healthy, good-natured, 16-year-old girl. The first time we see Stephanie, she is riding her bicycle toward the camera, over hills, the wind in her hair; she is strong and independent. She arrives home to have a playful autumn leaf battle with her mother in the backyard. Both are vibrant and laughing, and the bond they share is evident: these women genuinely like one another and enjoy each other’s company. When Jerry arrives home and Stephanie’s mother, Susan, runs off to greet him, Stephanie is blatantly disappointed. She tells her (male) therapist, “If he wasn’t there, Mom and I’d be alright.” It is important to note that Stephanie is not portrayed as a damaged child who will not permit anyone to replace the unmarred memory of her dead father. Though she misses her father, she knows there is something fundamentally wrong with Jerry, and every time he refers to the three of them as a family or himself as her father, it feels intensely creepy and inappropriate.

The American family, weird and creepy

In Clover’s “final girl” theory, she states that the final girl is identified early on in the film as different from her peers: she is more intelligent and perceptive than her friends, and, among other attributes, she has sexual hang-ups. In fact, these sexual hang-ups are the key to the final girl’s power in that they allow her to identify enough with the killer to overpower him. There are many examples of this in the slasher genre (Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream, etc.), but Stephanie isn’t one of them. Stephanie’s awakening sexuality is portrayed as natural, romantic and exciting. Stephanie knows she likes boys and she knows that is perfectly normal, a fact her mother reinforces on the porch after Jerry accuses Paul, Stephanie’s new boyfriend, of attempted rape. “He just kissed me goodnight Mom, and I wanted him to,” Stephanie says. “Of course you did,” her mother responds reassuringly, confirming that, despite what Jerry thinks, female sexuality is completely normal. Though Susan later slaps Stephanie when Stephanie says of Jerry “He’s a creep, how can you let him touch you,” it is also the first time Susan reprimands Jerry, and it is the beginning of the end. She slaps Stephanie out of defensiveness of her own sexual desire for Jerry. The only sex scene in The Stepfather is instigated by Susan and focuses on her pleasure, emphasizing her moaning and showing her face in close-up. In fact, when the camera cuts to Jerry’s face, we can see he is not really enjoying himself at all. He is doing what a man is supposed to do, and obviously has severe issues with sex that the women in the film do not have. In fact, other than Stephanie’s lackluster friend Karen, the only other woman we really engage with is Annie, the records desk clerk who assists our pseudo-hero Jim because she doesn’t like her male boss (patriarchal figure), and she is somewhat attracted to Jim. Though we only see her for less than a minute, it is significant that within 60 seconds her sexuality and rebelliousness are highlighted.

Jerry starts looking for a new family after the confrontation over Stephanie’s sexuality

In his current identity in the film, Jerry Blake is a real estate agent – he sells houses. The audience is given no opportunity to miss this metaphor when, at a family barbeque comprised of the first five families Jerry sold houses to in the neighborhood, Jerry declares “I don’t just sell houses. I sell the American Dream.” The film is basically about the nuclear family, the American Dream, and a dying patriarch trying to force everyone to “play house” with him. The actual physical structure of the house functions visually in the film to illustrate the psychological space of the characters’ power struggles. The basement is relegated as Jerry’s safe space; Freud would call it his unconscious, where he blows off steam by throwing on a flannel shirt and playing with his gender appropriate toys – construction tools, hammer, saws, etc., – implements used to build and create structures, to create order, to fix things. Oh, and he also periodically yells at himself, violently. Stephanie enters this space during the barbeque and witnesses one of Jerry’s rants. Symbolically it demonstrates Stephanie’s ability to see through Jerry’s facade and his promise of familial love and security. The staircase is rendered as an iconic image utilized over and over in the film, usually featuring Jerry at the top via a low camera angle looking up. There are multiple staircases in the film, but they all function the same way, to demonstrate Jerry’s positioning of himself in dominion over the domestic space. The climax of the film is on the staircase, with Jerry trying desperately to climb to the top to reach and kill Stephanie.

Jerry finds Stephanie in the basement witnessing his freak-out session

Both of the murders in the film also feature a house structure. The first is when Jerry kills Stephanie’s therapist who, posing as a potential client, is beaten to death with a wooden beam from the construction of the house Jerry is showing him. The second is Jim, poor Jim, the stereotypical ruggedly good-looking pseudo-hero. Jim’s sister was Jerry’s last victim (when Jerry was Henry), and throughout the film we watch Jim playing amateur detective, hot on Jerry’s trail. He finally figures out where Jerry is right at the end of the film and rushes over to save Susan and Stephanie. He walks in after Susan has been pushed down the basement stairs, right when Jerry is climbing the main staircase to kill Stephanie. Though Jim has been preparing for this moment with firearms training, he is ridiculously ineffective when he cannot even get the gun out of his jacket pocket before Jerry stabs him to death at the bottom of the staircase.

Though Stephanie has not been training for several months to kill Jerry, and does not have a gun, she is quick and resourceful. She picks up a piece of glass with a towel and stabs Jerry in the arm. She then leads him into the attic where, while pursuing her, he falls through the ceiling. This is significant because it is the actual structure of the house that protects Stephanie. During the climax on the staircase, Susan has survived her fall. She retrieves Jim’s gun, crawls to the bottom of the staircase and shoots Jerry twice (misses once) before the bullets in the gun run out (why Jim goes to kill Jerry without a fully loaded gun nobody knows; he doesn’t seem like the over-confident type). Jerry continues to climb the stairs. In the final moment, Jerry’s hand and Stephanie’s hand are both on the knife, the symbol of phallic power. Stephanie stabs Jerry and he falls down the staircase. The last shot of the scene is Stephanie standing at the top of the staircase, a low camera angle looking up. But rather than looking down triumphantly, she calmly sits down on the top step. She seems to be analyzing the scene, and we look at her looking and feel the power of her gaze.

Stephanie is her own hero

Throughout the film, Jerry has been making a birdhouse – a miniature version of his idea of the perfect home. Susan and Stephanie help Jerry erect it mid-way through the film, and we are given a distorted shot from the top of the birdhouse, looking down, emphasizing how high and unreachable Jerry’s idea of family really is. In the closing scene of the film, Stephanie cuts the birdhouse down. We see it lying in the foreground while Stephanie and her mother walk arm-in-arm, happy and complete, back into their home. They do not relocate as many families in horror films do after tragedy because of the symbolic significance of reclaiming their house, their structure. The film shows us that these two women are a complete family. They do not need a patriarch, and they do not need the conventional notion of the nuclear family to be happy – in fact, they are better off without it.

Stephanie and Susan, happy without the “American Dream”

The Stepfather is not only about the collapse of the traditional patriarchal social order, but it is also about the strength of alternative notions of family. You do not only see “evil” destroyed, but you see something positive replace it. I really like Stephanie as our heroine, not only because she is strong and smart and resourceful, but also because she is not represented as an anomaly, as most final girls are. She is a normal, likable, regular teenage girl that takes down the patriarchy. A strong message like this cannot help but be subversive.

*For more on the final girl theory, see Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover. It rocks.

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Allison Maria Rodriguez is a visual artist and a writer. She received her BA from Antioch College and her MFA is studio art from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Some of her art work, and her contact information, can be found on her website: http://allisonmariarodriguez.com/

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