The time-honoured tropes of gender-based violence and the construction of masculinity in old-school horror films have generally been replaced by more nuanced portraits since Wes Craven’s intertexual and self-reflexive SCREAM series. However, every once in a while a film surfaces that supercharges the old slash and rape style favoured in the 1970s and 1980s, bringing with it a healthy reminder that the USA is far from where it should be in its treatment of women as well as how its masculinities are constructed.
While I’ve been watching a steady stream of horror films researching for my upcoming sequel to American Monsters, one film in particular has stuck out with reference to the rekindling of these gender issues and the construction of masculinities. Deadgirl is about two 17-year-old boys who find a beat-up and naked woman chained in the basement of an abandoned mental hospital. Instead of calling 911, as any decent human being would do, they proceed to use her as a live sex toy only to discover that the woman can’t be killed. More boys get involved in her repeated rape, one gets bitten and starts turning into whatever she is. Because of the extreme violence enacted against her naked body, which starts getting ugly and smelly from the abuse, the boys decides they’ll kidnap a live girl to replace their “dead girl” sex slave.
I mentioned in a recent post that I see horror is a pulsepoint on society, telling us where we are at, how much have we learned, how we treat women and children. Horror offers us a unique insight as a cultural text in its presentation of what frightens us and how we survive. I do love horror as entertainment, but I can’t watch without putting on my cultural anthropologist and film theory beret, allowing me in parallel to examine these horror films and books for relevant commentary on modern society.
In many ways Deadgirl is a predictable film, as is the ending. What struck me the most was the fact that the boys had no qualms about having sex with the “dead girl” while their friends watched, and delighted in the act. They encourage each other to penetrate her in all orifices, including gunshot wounds (YUCK!), and even her gnashing mouth (much to the disastrous end of one boy’s manhood, pun absolutely intended).
Homosociality is the theory that because masculinities are constructed so strictly and disallow men to show feelings of tenderness and love for one another without appearing to be gay, men then proceed to use a woman in order to connect with their friends. For example, friends who all date the same girl, “gang bangs”, strip bars, and of course, the situation I’ve described above from Deadgirl. Homosociality, in the cultural studies sense, is the result of men’s inability to safely express feelings that are considered outside the bounds of “being a man”. In the construct of homosociality, not only is there an extreme hatred and fear of being perceived as homosexual, but women cease to be human and exist purely for the objectification needed for the man to relate to another man through her, and through her body.
The behaviour in Deadgirl is classic homosociality, and it is certainly present in other films such as Donkey Punch and The Hangover. Here we see it taken is taken to an extreme seeing that the woman is shackled to an operating table, bleeding, festering, and yet the boys still go at her repeatedly.
“You know she’s not a real human being, right?” Says the ringleader as he taunts his friend to rape her. “She’s just a dead girl, that’s all.” Even though the woman is very much alive, angry, in pain, and struggles whenever physically possible.
This is exactly the kind of (homosocial) mentality that leads to, for a real life example, the young Richmond woman who was gang raped after a school dance last year. It started with a few friends who attacked her, then there were up to 20 children watching her brutalisation; some even filmed the incident and took pictures with their camera phones.
Since a hard core masculinity is constructed in such severe opposition to femininity, homosexuality, and otherness of all kinds, and its opposition is tenuous at best, it must then be defended fiercely and violently.
In spite of this being a very gruesome and hard film to watch, not to mention quite sub-par in terms of plot and character development, the importance of Deadgirl lies in the cultural ramifications: Until American masculinity starts being constructed in a more flexible and humanistic way, there will always be real-life equivalents to the Deadgirl. The scary thing about this reminder is that the monster lurks inside and it doesn’t take much for him to wake up. Just one single opportunity. And that will be all she wrote.
©Sezin Koehler 2010, image via Creepy Los Angeles