Can a horror film be feminist?

2015’s It Follows (directed and written by David Robert Mitchell) offers up a rarity for horror film fans: an enticing story concept that potentially holds subtle feminist undertones.

Could a piece of entertainment nestled within a genre with the sole purpose to terrify really challenge the issues that surround female sexuality?

The very premise of the film, paired with its shrewd choice of focus adds weight to this notion. In It Follows, sex becomes a life-threatening indulgence, speared by the threat of supernatural forces thirsting for human blood. Women are hunted doggedly and literally ripped limb from limb just for partaking in the pleasures of the flesh.

Mere minutes into the film, a female corpse lies torn and blood-spattered on an anonymous beach, like a lost, broken play-thing.

Maika Monroe and Jake Weary in It Follows

Our blonde, delicate-limbed, female protagonist ‘Jay’ keeps a subdued and minimal performance, working as an almost blank slate for the watcher. We easily find ourselves slipping into her white tennis shoes and wondering the ‘what ifs?’ that usually surround our own First Time. So many women are burdened by the pressures of sex and virginity from a very young age. Most young women come to be haunted by a ‘Damned if you do damned if you don’t’ paradox. During our youth, there’s an insidious pressure to stuff as much adult experience into ourselves as possible. Everyone seems to be doing ‘it’, and a natural, primal part of you wants to try it too. But is it worth the potential social stigma, or the risk of putting ourselves in the type of danger that’s found in the murky, intimidating world of first-time sex?

Jay is also largely characterised by her image of purity. We are reminded again and again of her naivety and innocence – whenever she pauses to relax, she is immediately taken advantage of. She sweetly dresses up for the evening that she loses her virginity, and introduces her date to a cute people-watching game. At heart, she is still a child, despite being 18. It is jarring to see her one-timer lover drug her and force her to come to terms with the consequences; she will now be followed by a malevolent force until she ‘passes it on’, by sleeping with someone else.

 …for many victims of sexual abuse, time does indeed become an inconsistent visitor. …I remember feeling stunned when I recounted how long ago I underwent a traumatic encounter. It felt like an age, when in reality it had only been a handful of years.

Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography respects the pace of the film, with lingering shots of Jay’s scrutinising stare as she scours the distance for the appearance of her unwelcome pursuer and its ill intentions. The moments of panic, as the silent demon catches Jay unawares at close quarters, are often filmed in slow-motion – drawing out the intensity to nearly unbearable levels. That is what true fear feels like: as though time has stopped. And for many victims of sexual abuse, time does indeed become an inconsistent visitor.

Speaking from personal experience, I remember feeling stunned when I recounted how long ago I underwent a traumatic encounter. It felt like an age, when in reality it had only been a handful of years. The time between now and the event had been mentally stretched, of my own accord, as I repressed, then emotionally processed the experience. It’s hard for the human brain to deal with sudden moments of unexpected pain and trauma – it takes us a while to mentally keep up, and eventually rejoin the present again. This all too clearly happens to our heroine Jay. A glaze slips over her eyes, and her normal daily routine is banished to a long-forgotten yesterday. All that’s left for her now is the pulse of danger, throbbing quietly and copiously in the background like a stubborn wound.

The film also cleverly plays with the idea of losing something so intrinsic and basic to our sanity; safety. Jay cannot stop, or rest, not for one moment. The evil force following her never stops. It always follows. The loss of the ability to simply ‘be’ and ignore our anxieties for a moment is a lucid link to sexuality and the close correlations of prejudice and sexual abuse. The horrific impact of sexual abuse is a colossal blow to the emotions and mental health of an individual. And the prejudice that tarnishes rape and abuse only serves to alienate and dehumanise victims. It is hard to be at rest, when an individual’s very core has been so brutally shaken and unsettled.

Mitchell’s direction smartly gives us all the clues to know that it is a glaring, insufferable injustice that Jay has been thrown into a nightmare of constant danger. And we have already been grimly told what could happen to the innocent young woman that we are rooting for. From the very beginning we are given a chilling glimpse into the consequences of a young women letting her guard down for the most fleeting of moments. Mere minutes into the film, a female corpse lies torn and blood-spattered on an anonymous beach, like a lost, broken play-thing. A woman flayed asunder for performing the most natural act.

It Follows doesn’t hold back on showing us painful flashes of the ideas and images that frighten us the most. It also offers a fascinating new perspective glimpse of the vulnerability that many young women are forced to contend with as they grow and explore their sexuality. And all in the guise of a gratuitously terrifying horror flick. Watchers may be lured in by the potential frights, but in the end will be truly haunted by the cruel connotations of what we associate with female sexuality. We need more films like this.

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