Women and Gender in Cult Films and B-Movies: The Roundup

Slumber Party Massacre came up while I was searching for female directors in the exploitation genre. Although it came off as yet another sensationalistic and gory 80s slasher, it stuck out, mainly due to its ridiculous title or the fact that most of the characters were female. Upon viewing it, what shocked me was not so much the gore and violence, but I was surprised by the clever humor, the funny characters, and most of all the incredibly veiled feminist satire.

Fairytale Prostitution in Angel by Elizabeth Kiy

Angel, a 1984 cult film, attempts to be both a melodrama about a teen hooker forced to face her life choices (as the trailer proclaims it “A Very Special Motion Picture”) and a very 80s crime thriller where a tough-talking street kid teams up with a cop to catch a killer, but the resulting film is a mess of clashing tones that seems more campy than hard-hitting.

Luc Besson: Hero of the Feminist Antihero? by Shay Revolver

For the uninitiated, Nikita was the often too realistic story of a drug-addicted young woman who finds herself in jail after a robbery gone horribly wrong. Most filmmakers would have ended there, a cautionary tale of the woman led down the wrong path who ends up punished for her sins. But Besson took the story further; this broken young woman gets turned into an assassin that is used by her government to kill. The killing takes its toll on her, but she values her life and freedom over the other option provided her: death. She meets a guy, falls in love, and at the end of the day Nikita turned out to not be the same story I was used to.

In terms of gender representations, both men and women are shown as the worst possible version of themselves. Barbra swings back and forth from being near catatonic and unable to communicate, to wild and hysterical. Ben even slaps her at one point to get her to snap out of her state. She is weak and unable to deal with the emotions of seeing her brother attacked. Barbra would have already been killed and reanimated were it not for the über masculine Ben to save her from the perils that lie outside.

A Study in Contrasts: The Hunger by Amanda Civitello and Rebecca Bennett

Perhaps for the movie’s purposes, that doesn’t matter: the story seems to be far more driven by the desire to create an artistic film, rather than an intellectually/ethically/scientifically engaging narrative. The scientific aspect for example—the part of the film I found personally most engaging, that it is possible to tamper with the natural life-cycle, halting the aging process in its tracks—is touched upon but it seems, at least to me, to be more of a plot device for bringing Sarah into Miriam’s life than an attempt to explore an ethically challenging issue. The biology behind Miriam’s present state and the fate of her lovers is similarly irrelevant.

When the movie begins we’re introduced to Brad, a hero (Barry Bostiwck) and Janet, a heroine (Susan Sarandon), two straight-laced representations of the all-American, white middle class Christian boy and girl who are suddenly thrown into a den of loose morals and provocative dancing. At all turns, we’re blatantly reminded of their status as a proxy for a nice boy and a good girl, and it’s reinforced with every cliché possible.

Being set in the Valley in the 80s, the film portrays much of the vapidness and consumerism popular at the time, with two of the film’s songs, “Brand New Girl,” and “’Cause I’m a Blonde,” focusing on changing or criticizing women’s appearances. “’Cause I’m a Blonde” is purposely satirical, however, and really serves more to make fun of the blonde “Valley Girl” stereotype than to support it.

Maude and The Dude: Feminism and Masculinity in The Big Lebowski by Rachael Johnson

Populated by mostly male characters, The Big Lebowski is, to some extent, a tale of male friendship. Nevertheless, the cult comedy should never be interpreted and celebrated as exclusively a guy’s film. The Big Lebowski offers an amusing, subversive portrait of masculinity and features an excellent comic performance by one of the most gifted actresses working today. What’s more, it suggests that the future is matriarchal.

Consistently, then, femininity in men is dangerous. It may be actively dangerous, as in Uncle Monty, who assaults Marwood whilst in near-drag, or passively dangerous, in that it makes the feminine man a target for harassment, as in the lout at the pub who calls Marwood a perfumed ponce. Ultimately, it is dangerous because it marks the other, and to be other is to be in danger.

The Blood of Carrie by Holly Derr

Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.

Birth of the Living Dead: Women & Gender in Cult Films & B-Movies by Amanda Rodriguez and Max Thornton

Birth of the Living Dead is Rob Kuhns’ documentary of the making of George Romero’s 1968 cult horror genre game-changer Night of the Living Dead. Bitch Flicks writers Max Thornton and Amanda Rodriguez discuss both the documentary (BOTLD) and the original film itself (NOTLD).

The ethics of the film are one thing, but it says a lot about the world of the movie that it’s able to go nearly two hours without a single important female character showing up on screen. There are no women cops, there are no women in the mob, there are only a couple of wives or passers-by or maybe a drug-addled girlfriend or two. But no one who matters. The acting characters in the film are all overwhelmingly and vocally male.

Even the ethos of the characters, that they will destroy that which is evil, but leave alone the pure and blameless, is inherently sexist. Because when they say pure and blameless, what they mean is the women and children. In this universe, women are not even people enough to do things wrong. We do not have enough agency even to commit evil.

On any dark and stormy night in the fall, it is a wonderful thing to curl up with a mug of mulled cider and watch Clue. The murder mystery based on the eponymous board game may have been a huge flop when it was released in 1985, but it has gained a passionate cult following in the last 28 years, probably due to its infinitely quotable dialogue and gleeful disregard for the pile of bodies amassed as the movie progresses – as well as being shown on cable about once every two hours.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched Fight Club. Every time I view it, I end up noticing something new. How did I miss that before? This time, Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter) captured my attention. What would the situations in the movie look like from her viewpoint?

The midwestern, puritanical values that American Gothic seems to represent so well win at the end of the film, and quite literally kill difference and sexual and gender subversion. While Riff Raff and Magenta go back to their home planet Transsexual, in the galaxy of Transylvania, Brad, Janet and Dr. Scott are left on the cold ground, crawling and writhing in their fishnets.

Here are some game-changing cult classics, divided into handy genre sections. And while we’re looking at the influence of these cult films, why not check out how they portray and treat women? Almost entirely coincidentally, they’re all from the ‘80s. What can I say? It was a culturally rich period.

So I asked Twitter the following question: “Who’s scarier: Jason or Jason’s mom?” Surprisingly, despite all the movies (12 in total) in which Jason is seen slashing throats and hanging victims, his mom (who’s only alive and running amok in the first film in 1980) is apparently considered the more horrifying killer. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Pamela. Not that I condone the gruesome murders of innocent people (of course not). But, unlike Jason, Pamela committed crimes of passion. Her crazy antics were actually revenge for her young son’s fatal drowning, which she felt was caused by the unjustifiable neglect of the camp counselors who failed to watch him (a longtime rumor has faulted the counselors for being too busy fornicating and not paying attention to Jason’s cries for help).

The Craft presents a lesson that coming-of-age films don’t typically make a point to show. A ballot is cast for prom queen or SAT prep sits on the horizon with college days looming, a girl must get a boy to like her, losing her virginity in the process. But this film is about serving the self—the craft of empowering oneself to surmount the archaic persecutions against women—taking back the threat of female power. But like a genie in a bottle that allows three wishes, this craft must be practiced and understood, respected completely before it can be outwardly used, or else it will perpetuate transgression.

Freaks (1932) is a true cult movie, one that’s ridden a rollercoaster of opprobrium and acclaim since its initial release. Tod Browning’s sideshow-set horror-romance destroyed his career (and several others), caused such disgust in early audiences that one woman (allegedly) miscarried, outraged critics and moral guardians, traumatized some of the performers who appeared in it, languished in obscurity after being banned for three decades, resurfaced on the exploitation circuit in the 1960s, and earned a spot in the National Film Registry archives in 1994 before enjoying its current status as a one-of-a-kind classic. It’s been repeated to the point of cliché, but Freaks, once seen, is never forgotten. Love it or hate it, it will stay with you for the rest of your life.

I was neither a discerning nor an educated viewer, but even so I quickly cottoned on to the fact that certain Italian directors had produced some above-average horror flicks in the 1970s, characterized by a cavalier attitude toward nudity, pervasive Catholic imagery, and lashings of gore. Ignorant of the term giallo, I proceeded to dub this subgenre “spag-horror,” which isn’t actually an awful name for it.

As my initiation into the worlds of sex and violence, many European horror films of the 1970s no doubt occupy a Freudian subspace of my psyche. Probably the Ur-example of this genre and its strange, ambivalent attitude toward women and sexuality is Dario Argento’s 1977 meisterwerk, Suspiria.

Before There Was Orange is the New Black, There Was Roger Corman’s Women in Cages by Leigh Kolb

I found myself wondering about the designation of sexploitation. Female nudity in itself isn’t exploitative. Women fighting and women being abused are things that happen in prison. Are representations of women in these situations inherently exploitative, or are we conditioned to see women’s bodies and women’s actions and think: object? Certainly frame after frame of powerful, complex, awful and good, sympathetic and loathsome women has some kind of effect on the viewer. Since we are conditioned to only really consider the straight white male gaze as the norm, we see these movies as highly sexualized and exploitative.

The Shock of Sleepaway Camp by Carrie Nelson

On the surface, Sleepaway Camp isn’t much different than your average 1980s slasher movie. The comparisons to Friday the 13th can’t be ignored – Sleepaway’s Camp Arawak, much like Friday’s Camp Crystal Lake, is populated by horny teens looking for some summer lovin’, and is the site of a series of gruesome and mysterious murders that threaten to shut down the camp for the whole summer. But unlike Friday the 13th and other slasher films, the twist in Sleepaway Camp isn’t the identity of the murderer, and the final girl isn’t exactly who you’d expect.

Veronica Decides Not To Die–Heathers: The Proto-Mean Girls by Artemis Linhart

Indeed, the social structure of Westerburg High School is unsettling to say the least. Teens there would rather commit actual suicide than “social suicide.” Their alienation from both reality and ethical values is mirrored not only in J.D., Veronica and the Heathers, but also in the rest of the students. Peer pressure and the dream of popularity result in the “Westerburg suicides,” causing a downright suicide craze. Their supposed actions gave the popular kids depth and humanity and made them more popular than ever. When an unpopular girl attempts to kill herself, the new Heather in charge asserts, “Just another case of a geek trying to imitate the popular people of the school and failing miserably.”