The female lead character in the horror and science fiction genres is nothing terribly new. In the last decade however, it has become trendy to have a tough woman protagonist, but I suspect this is largely due to the increased need to appear different and rebellious at a time when film making has become more accessible and desirable to the independent or amateur. The pattern has been to label these characters “feminist” simply because they are “strong” or aggressive and happen to be women. Unfortunately, this is a rather shallow definition of strength and feminism that completely misses a number of important things.
Writer/director Lucky McKee’s latest film, The Woman, is one such film. As far as I can tell, the controversy or confusion that has arisen around The Woman appears to be over differing interpretations of the film as either deeply “misogynistic,” or profoundly “feminist.” The truth is somewhat less dramatic and illustrates my point well.
Any argument that the film is misogynistic seems to rest on the preponderance of psychological tyranny and physical and sexual violence that the main character Chris Cleek commits, either implied or shown explicitly. McKee and co-writer Jack Ketchum clearly intend for us to see Cleek as a villain. He is undeniably evil and at no point is there any indication of ambiguity or duality to his character. Although it uncomfortably and graphically depicts a misogynist this can hardly be seen as an endorsement of misogyny. In fact, much of the film’s unsettling power comes from its frank depiction of behavior which many of us would not like to admit and often pretend does not exist.
In this context it’s quite easy to justify the Woman’s violent vindication at the end of the film. This is The Woman’s primary payoff and there is a definite sense of relief when it comes. Still the assumption that strong females are “feminist” merely because they are leading or main characters or wield power is mistaken. It may be different or rebellious (though decreasingly so) within the paradigm of popular cinema to feature ass-kicking women, but it is hardly transgressive. Again, the problem resides in the assumption that women’s violence, exploitation or oppression is somehow different than men’s; that physical or emotional domination by women is somehow “feminist.” A good example of this misstep is when a strong female protagonist uses her physical or psychological power to coerce or abuse other women. It may be “realistic,” but it is hardly feminist. An excellent example is Neil Marshall’s 2005 hit The Descent, but The Woman does the same thing. The claim essentially states that violence and coercion aren’t in themselves wrong, it’s just the wrong people using them. This version of feminism is easily co-opted by patriarchy because it doesn’t challenge the hierarchies of power that are used to oppress women and other groups, and because it can be used to dismiss the demands of more radical feminists and paint them as extremists.
The Woman makes the same mistake when it permits its resolution to be so easy and so relieving. Both Cleek and the Woman are depicted as anomalies, freaks without any social background or history whose actions can be then interpreted as isolated and individualistic. Once the circumstances of their behavior (his death, her vindication) are eliminated the audience can feel safe knowing that it is all over, the problem resolved and everything taken care of. The fact that we can be led to see female violence as “justifiable” points to our unwillingness to analyze the deeper systemic causes of interpersonal violence in the first place.
I found The Woman to be a well made and entertaining (if that word is appropriate) film to watch and probably McKee’s best so far. Nevertheless, it’s definitely not anything more challenging than Day Of The Woman (a.k.a. I Spit On Your Grave, 1978). Its strongest point is that it brings extremes of male sexist abuse, and the learned nature of that abuse into the light, but it stops well short of doing anything radical with that critique. What a truly feminist horror film looks like remains to be seen, but I hardly expect it to be an easily won victory.