After a midnight showing of horror director Lucky McKee’s The Woman at Sundance this past Sunday, right before the scheduled Q and A with the director, one irate moviegoer stood up to denouce the film, the director, and Sundance itself. According to film blogger Drew McWeeny, who was there, the unidentified man shouted:
“THIS MOVIE DEGRADES WOMEN! THIS MOVIE DEGRADES MEN! YOU ARE SICK! THIS IS NOT ART! YOU ARE SICK! THIS IS A DISGUSTING MOVIE! SUNDANCE SHOULD BE ASHAMED! HOW DARE YOU SHOW THIS!”
Ultimately, after a bit more of this sort of ranting, he was escorted out of the theater by security guards. You can read more about the incident, and see a couple of videos that capture its aftermath, here; you can read McKee’s response to it all here.
So what’s the connection to this blog? At this point, many of my regular MRA and other manosphere readers will no doubt have concluded that I will be joining the irate moviegoer in denouncing McKee’s alleged misogyny. If so, this will not be the first time (or even the first time today) that they have been utterly and completely wrong.
No, It’s because the incident provides such a clear example of a “White Knight” in action: someone who seems to think that women are delicate flowers that he, as a man, needs to protect from images of women being brutalized.
MRAs and other manosphere men love to denounce feminist men as “White Knights.” And sometimes they are justified in their complaints: there are men who consider themselves feminists who do indeed put women on a pedestal, and who talk about women as if their shit smells like roses. But that’s not really feminism; it’s a patronizingly traditional view of women masquerading as feminism. Real feminists don’t pretend that women don’t have flaws. White Knights do.* Real feminists don’t assume that women are too sensitive and delicate to see harsh images. White Knights do.
The irony of the kerfuffle at Sundance is that McKee is about as far from a misogynist as any director I know. Though, as far as I know, McKee doesn’t actually call himself a feminist, his films reflect a subtle, nuanced, and sympathetic view of women — at their best and, just as importantly, at their worst — that can only be called feminist. As McWeeny notes, McKee’s
sensitivity towards his actresses, and the perspective each of his films takes, is practically political. He returns to themes of power inequality and gender struggle, and he externalizes his subtext. He has been consistent in his interests, and as a result, he hasn’t been making $50 million studio films.
His films May and The Woods, and his Masters of Horror episode “Sick Girl” all center around female lead characters. But he doesn’t, as a real “white knight” would do, portray women as angels or innocent victims. No, he portrays them as, well, human beings. That is, as messy and complicated characters with flaws and evil impulses.
In May, while he is empathetic towards weirdo loner May, he also makes clear she’s out of her fucking mind, a creepy stalker and a violent sociopath to boot; she’s both the protgonist and the villain of the film. Nor does he portray men as mindless evil thugs: in Roman — which he wrote, but which was directed by his frequent collaborator Angela Bettis, who played the lead in May — he plays, er, Roman, another strange outcast and creepy stalker, and manages to render him quite sympathetic, despite the fact that the socially stunted, sexually and romantically frustrated character (SPOILER ALERT — highlight to read) actually kills a woman while trying to rape her early on in the film.
In The Woods, a more mainstream horror film, McKee portrays the almost-all-female world of a private girl’s school in the 1960s; he does a marvellous job getting into the head of the troubled girl at the center of the film, and plays with female stereotypes in a way that challenges and surprises the viewer. (I’m being deliberately vague here so as not to give too much away.) The villains in the film? All female.
Still, I can see how a less-than-careful viewer might get the impression that McKee hates women: many of his female characters, both women and girls, are crazy, violent, and sometimes simply evil; he isn’t afraid to show women being brutalized — or brutalizing others. In this view, if you portray a female character as evil, you therefore think all women are inherently evil; if you portray violence against women you aid and abet real-world brutalizers of women.
That’s the essential complaint of one putatively feminist critic on Pajiba, Dustin Rowles, who saw The Woman at Sundance:
The more images of sexualized and subjugated women we see, the less likely things are going to improve. They perpetuate steretypes about women. Lucky McKee’s The Woman is the perfect example of this.
Correction: Rowles saw PART of the film at Sundance, then walked out:
I’m certain that, like many rape-revenge fantasies, the men get their commuppance in the end, both the father and his son, who has taken after his father. I wouldn’t know — I couldn’t make it past the scene where the woman is power washed.
Criticizing a film without watching the ending — particularly a horror film based around a rape-revenge plot — is a bit like criticizing a joke without hearing the punchline.
Now, again, I haven’t seen even a minute of The Woman either, so maybe it is really a long exercise in violent misogyny. Given McKee’s past work, and the nature of the complaints against the film, this seems about as unlikely as Sarah Palin sprouting wings, reading a book, and/or endorsing a handgun ban.
What really strikes me is that the complaints directed at The Woman are similar to those directed against numerous other horror films in the past, particularly those centered around rape and revenge, like the notorious low-budget shocker I Spit On Your Grave, which inspired a infamously indignant, and rather White-Knighty, column from Roger Ebert that completely and utterly missed the point of the film. It was, he wrote,
a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters. … an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures, Because it is made artlessly, It flaunts its motives: There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering. As a critic, I have never condemned the use of violence in films if I felt the filmmakers had an artistic reason for employing it. “I Spit on Your Grave” does not. It is a geek show.
Ebert was angry about the brutal and graphic sexual violence directed at the female lead in the first part of the film — that is, before she sets out on her (brutal, graphic, violent) revenge against the men who brutalized her. Never mind that the central plot of, say, your typical Western movie features a hero who has to endure horrific violence and pain before exacting his revenge at the end — and that this formula has produced a vast library of amazing films.
Ebert rightly considers The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to be a “masterpiece.” You may recall some of the crazy and brutal shit Clint Eastwood’s Blondie had to endure in that film — you know, like that walk through the desert that left his skin looking like pulled pork. Why is violence against men, in the context of a revenge drama, artistically justified, while violence against women, also in the context of a revenge drama, not?
By allowing its brutalized heroine the same chance for revenge that Westerns offered many generations of heroes, I Spit On Your Grave is, while hardly a great film, a feminist one. Indeed, it offers one of the most memorable depictions of what has come to be known as “the final girl,” a character familiar to horror movie fans — that is, the one victim, invariably female, who manages, through wily evasions and sheer force of will, to survive the assaults of the monster or psycho at the center of the film. Here’s how feminist film critic Carol J. Clover described her in the legendary essay “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” which first introduced the notion of the”final girl” to film criticism:
The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face; but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). She is inevitably female.
|Halloween 2: Final Girl in action|
As Clover notes, in some horror films, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, the final girl merely endures; in others, like A Nightmare on Elm Street, she triumphs. Most of these final girls don’t start out as badass in the slightest; if anything, they tend to be nerdy, awkward introverts. The brutality they endure is necessary to understand their transformations.
“Protecting” female film characters from violence also “protects” them from having agency in their own stories. Portraying them as free of evil thoughts and urges is similarly patronizing and ultimately disempowering. Women in the real world aren’t angels, and there’s nothing feminist about portraying them as such. Like McKee, most feminists are well aware of this. True “White Knights” — male or female — do the women they hope to uplift a disservice, treating them as one-dimensional characters in some simplistic morality play. Women, like men, deserve better than that.
* This is not to say that we should overlook the simple fact that women are more likely to be brutalized by men than vice versa — that men commit far more violent crimes and sexual assaults against women than women do against men, that men cause the majority of serious injuries associated with domestic violence. Women, like men, have violent impulses. But they are less likely than men to act upon them in ways that seriously damage others, male or female. To point this out is to recognize reality; it is not a case of White Knighting.
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