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Evaluation of Female Roles in the Horror Genre

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2416 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Long live the Teen Queen: A victim and monster to socio-political constructions of womanhood

The alienated female youth of the late 1960’s challenged society’s constructions of womanhood. From their defiance grew the need to represent their point of view in films. These new female voices paved the way for a new representation of women on screen, one that differed from the traditionally submissive role played by Judy Tyler in Jailhouse Rock (1957). This shift is predominantly due to the rise of second and third-wave feminism. I intend to explore the representation of female youth in Brian De Palma’s teen-horror adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie (1976) and Sofia Coppola’s independent biopic, Marie Antoinette (2006), to argue that women are represented as either the victim or the monster, each caused by the other.

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Female roles within the horror genre dramatically shifted from victim to monstrosity with the rise of second-wave feminism. This can be seen through Carrie’s development as a anti-heroine and her twisted mother as the antagonist. The film actively critiques the traditional female roles played by Carrie’s mother and her classmates. De Palma gives Carrie an ultimatum; she can either become the “distant and abstinent mother or the angry and sexualised teen, the Madonna or the Whore” (Mehls 2015, p. 47). These representations remain popular as seen in the 1999 sequel, the 2002 tv flick and the more recent reimagining of the film by Kimberley Peirce in 2013. The mean girl trope is often made fun of, but still serves its function as an extreme warning aimed to control all young women’s interpersonal and social behaviour. Though, the remakes were all poorly received in the film circle, Carrie (1976), with a budget of $1.8 million, was a box office hit earning thirty-five million in its opening weekend (Mitchell 2017, sec. 1, par. 4).

Images of the Madonna and the Whore coincide with the many depictions of Marie Antionette. Contemporary portraits of Marie Antoinette highlight a “third-wave feminist aesthetic focused on youth, fashion, sexuality, celebrity, and consumerism” (Ferriss & Young 2010, p. 99). Coppola’s film is no exception, her third-wave revision of Marie Antionette focuses on her as a “lost girl, leaving childhood behind” who accomplished “the final dignity of a woman” (Ferriss & Young 2010, p. 100). In doing so, she accepts her role as a sacrificial victim. This depiction of Marie Antionette ironically reinforces the “essentialist view that woman, by nature, is a victim” (Creed 1993, p. 7). Coppola employs strategies of chick culture to aid in the younger audiences’ identification with Marie Antoinette. The emergence of chick culture as a popular phenomenon radically transformed Marie Antoinette’s malicious reputation. The opening sequence of the film uses an early twenty-first-century music score to engage with an audience of “real girls” (Ferriss & Young 2010, p. 100). Here, Coppola presents a false representation of Marie Antoinette only to dispel it later in the film. This strategy creates a sense of realism, reminiscent of American indie film practices. The film’s PG-13 rating granted a younger third-wave audience access to her revision. In both films, the female form is exploited. From Marie Antoinette’s rituals surrounding dress to Carrie’s shower scenes, the female protagonists undergo victimisation. The audience sympathises with Marie Antoinette and Carrie, both ordinary girls caught up in extraordinary albeit horrendous circumstances.

Following classic Hollywood narration, Carrie is a film that has a double causal structure. One of its two plot lines involve a heterosexual (unrequited) romance between Carrie and Tommy Ross, while the other line involves another sphere of action; murder. While each of these plot lines has rather obvious goals, (becoming prom queen and removing the social hierarchy), another line of development moves towards a less clearly defined conclusion. This is what David Bordwell regards as the “tendency of the classical syuzhet to develop toward full and adequate knowledge” (1985, p. 158). As auteur to the New Hollywood, De Palma’s use of the spilt screen technique and split diopter in Carrie is synonymous with his own narrative style. Unlike De Palma’s film, Marie Antionette is an independent indie film with which Coppola employs an “abundance of intelligent dialogue” that does not necessarily advance the plot (Staiger 2013, p. 21). Instead, it takes a hybrid form often “syncretizing past and present, memory and myth, the written record and the spoken word” (Samuel 1994, p. 453). Here, the comic mythos serves as the basis for Coppola’s biopic.

A significant factor that contributed to Carrie’s popularity and success was its presold premise which marketed to couples via the date movie approach with taglines such as: “if you’ve got a taste for terror, then you have a date with Carrie” (Mitchell 2017, sec. 1, par. 1). Coppola, alongside the film’s marketers and producers, sought to “capitalise on the consumerist possibilities inherent in such a production” (Ferriss & Young 2010, p. 111). Their efforts ultimately manifested into a “companion CD, Coppola’s published script, and a new cover for Fraser’s book featuring Kirsten Dunst” (Ferriss & Young 2010, p. 111).

Following in a tradition set by films such as Carrie, the modern monstrous-feminine provides insight onto greater representations of adolescent womanhood through “girl-on-girl crime” (Chappell & Young 2017, p. 136). After the slaughter of her fellow classmates, Carrie claims her own agency and power. Yet, Lauren Oliver’s 2017 film Before I Fall shifts away from this formula by framing the monstrous-feminine as a “victim of societal expectations” (Chappell & Young, p.136).

The monstrous-feminine is first seen in Margret White, Carrie’s mother, who is an embodiment of abjection. According to Kristeva, the mother is a paradox of “judgement and affect, of condemnation and yearning, of signs and drives” (1982, p. 9). In much of the film, Margret’s influence as a mother, dictates Carrie’s perceptions of womanhood. Margret is also an analogue of the past with her adherence to traditional gender roles. Carrie’s attempts at breaking away from her mother are violent and often bloody, as she falls back under a “power as securing as it is stifling” (Kristeva 1982, p. 13). The absence of paternal authority highlights Margret’s failure to instil in Carrie the “ideal of the submissive woman” (Collins 2015, p. 3).

Like mother like daughter, Carrie also transforms into the monstrous-feminine. Her terrifying experience of menstruation in the film’s opening sequence signifies her transition into womanhood. However, it isn’t until the prom scene when Carrie is covered in pig’s blood, that she experiences total abjection. Mother and daughter become one as they spill each other’s blood, . The film’s motif of blood is connected to Carrie’s supernatural powers of telekinesis. These powers can be traced back to the mythological representation of “woman as witch” (Creed 1993, p. 79). This particular scene plays into the audience’s cultural memory of American witchcraft and witch trials. In past caricatures, Marie Antionette is illustrated as a “heartless, elitist, anti-revolutionary wicked witch” (Ferriss & Young 2010, p. 98). The labelling of Carrie and Marie Antoinette as witches, a traditionally accepted role for women in society, foreshadows their tragic demise. If witches or rather women with power must die, then any feminist message is ultimately diminished and the patriarchy continues. Yet, Marie Antionette’s historical death by guillotine is not explicitly shown by Coppola. Instead, she merely alludes to it in the final shots of the queen’s ruined chamber. Her primary focus was not Marie Antoinette’s image as queen, but the fourteen-year-old girl’s struggle into womanhood.

Unlike De Palma who equates the feminine with all things monstrous, Coppola insists women are too often overshadowed by such misconceptions on screen. De Palma’s Carrie stems from an “uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality” (Collins 2015, p. 1). The empowerment of women and the male fear of it, play a key role in the oppressive representation of women in cinema. De Palma’s male gaze and use of invasive camera angles to film Sissy Spacek (Carrie) bathing, essentially objectify women and their intimate spaces. De Palma’s construction of femininity in Carrie can be traced back to the “racist, sexist, and commercial nature” of the Miss America 1969 Pageant (Zeisler 2008, p. 49).

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On the surface, both films can be considered as feminist texts since they are about giving women their own power to wield. Yet, Carrie and Marie Antoinette’s powers are regarded as an “outside force rather than an internal expression of personal empowerment” (Melhs 2015, p. 50). If we consider Marie Antoinette as a “fallen, defenseless object of beauty,” we diminish her depth of character and thus any sense of agency (Ferriss & Young 2010, p. 98). Rather Coppola’s glamorisation of feminine delicacy and innocence serves as an inspiration to many of her third-wave audience, as opposed to history’s image of her as a “black queen” (Fuson 2018, p. 16). However, many French critics were outraged by her glamorisation of the incredibly unpopular royal. As a result, it failed to be popular, with critics labelling it a “royal flop” of its time, grossing a mere five million (of its forty million dollar budget) in its opening weekend (Fuson 2018, p. 13). To this day, the French view Marie Antoinette with opposing passions. The criticism doesn’t just end there, Coppola’s use of a contemporary pop soundtrack of “hit songs and incongruous dialogue” were frowned upon for their “jarring intrusions of the Now upon the Then” (Ebert 2009, p. 429). The film did, however, manage to win an Academy Award for Best Costume Design following its release. This gave the film’s marketers the opportunity to exploit its celebration of fashion, as seen in the “September 2006 Vogue Magazine spread … that included one image of the cast in their sumptuous costumes” (Ferriss & Young , p. 111).

Interestingly, Coppola’s deliberate choice to exclude politics presents itself as an unconventional biopic:

“It is not a lesson of history, it’s an interpretation carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.” (Semlyen 2015, sec. 1, par. 5)

Like Coppola, third-wave feminists seek their own definitions by making their own choices. It was Carrie’s choice to become the monstrous-feminine, just as it was Marie Antoinette’s choice to be the victim. Both female protagonists were in some ways third-wave feminists themselves. These character choices and the power they have over the syuzhet reinforces the feminist message.

These representations of female youth are a reminder of the current gender constraints womencontinually endure. Both De Palma’s Carrie and Coppola’s Marie Antoinette can be seen as one and the same, both victim and monster to the socio-political constructions of womanhood. The popularity of these tropes in cinema today are a reflection of our imperfect, and at times conflicted society.


  1. Bordwell, D. (1985), ‘Narration in the fiction film’, University of Wisconsin Press, p. 158.
  2. ‘Carrie’ (1976), Dir. Brian De Palma, Perf. Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, United Artists, DVD.
  3. Chappell, J. & Young, M. (2017), ‘Bad Girls and Transgressive Women in Popular Television, Fiction, and Film’, p. 136.
  4. Collins, M. (2015), ‘Carrie’s Choice: Contemporary Feminism and Sociopolitical Constructions of Womanhood in Film Adaptations of Stephen King’s “Carrie”’, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, p. 1-3.
  5. Creed, B. (1993), ‘Horror and the monstrous-feminine: An imaginary abjection’, London; New York: Routledge, p. 68-76.
  6. Ebert, R. (2009), ‘Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2009’, Andrews McMeel Publishing, p. 429.
  7. Ferriss, S. & Young, M. (2010), ‘Marie Antoinette: Fashion, third-wave feminism, and chick culture’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 38(2), pp. 98-116.
  8. Fuson, O. (2018), ‘Marie Antoinette’s Sacrifice and the Fragmentation of French Femininity’, Aisthesis, vol. 9, p. 13-16.
  9. Kristeva, J. (1982), ‘Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection’, Columbia University Press, p. 9-13.
  10. ‘Marie Antoinette’ (2006), Dir. Sofia Coppola, Perf. Kirsten Dunst, Columbia Pictures, DVD.
  11. Mehls, R. (2015), ‘In History No One Can Hear You Scream: Feminism and the Horror Film 1974-1996’, Art History Theses & Dissertations, vol. 28, p. 43-50.
  12. Mitchell, N. (2017), ‘Carrie: five films that influenced Brian De Palma’s teen-horror classic’, BFI, accessed 11 October 2018, < https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/carrie-films-influenced-brian-de-palma-sissy-spacek>.
  13. Samuel, R. (1994), ‘Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture’,

Verso;London; New York, p. 429.

  1. Semlyen, P. (2015), ‘Sofia Coppola: Film by Film’, Empire, accessed 11 October 2018, <https://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/sofia-coppola/>.
  2. Staiger, J. (2013), ‘Independent of What?’ in Geoff Kind, Claire Molloy & Yannis Tzioumakis (eds) American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond. London & New York: Routledge, p.21-22.
  3. Zeisler, A. (2008), ‘Feminism and Pop Culture’, Berkeley: Seal Press, Print


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