It is a pretty common belief that horror films, especially slasher films, sexualize violence against women and acts out judgment on certain behaviors, especially sexual behaviors. For those unfamiliar with the idea, sexualizing violence is when a woman is killed after an erotically charged scene. She may be naked, undressing or she could have just been having sex. Then the killer shows up and adds her to his (slashers are almost alway male) body count. A lot of people accept this idea as fact, but is it true? If it is true what messages does it send? Does it really matter?
A study by Gloria Cowan and Margaret O’Brien looked at this empirically. They had four undergraduate women (they acknowledge this bias and regret that they could not find at least one man to also code) code 56 slasher films with a total of 474 victims. To sum up their findings, they found that males and females are more likely to die if they have certain negative traits. The female victims tend to be sexy, dress provocatively and have sex more often than the survivors. While female survivors tend to be smarter and more independent. The male victims are more likely to be cynical and follow closer to the hegemonic male ideal (which could argue to be shifting, but that’s another post for another time). The male survivors are more likely to be empathic and thoughtful and what we would consider a “nice guy”.
Parts of this sound great. I love that the female survivors are usually strong women, more in modern movies, who can take care of themselves. But why can’t they be sexy, too? I do not know about you ladies, but I like to think of myself as both! So, why this difference? I believe that it is a case of art reflecting life and life reflecting art. Our society judges “slutty” women harshly. You may disagree, but all you have to do is look at rape and molestation court cases and you will see it is true. These trials become about the women’s actions and not the defendant’s. These cultural beliefs are shown in the movie and it reinforces our established notions about women’s sexual practices. If you step out of the sexual bounds our society sets then you are punished. Possibly by death.
Now, does this actually matter? Does it actually affect people? There are studies that prove that slasher films like this affect how men, at least, view violence against women. In 1981, Malamuth and Check found that, immediately after viewing rated R films, were more accepting of violence against women. There was also an insignificant trend (which means that the researchers thought it might be significant with more participants) that men were more likely to believe rape myths*.
The fact is movies affect us (who hasn’t walked out of Harry Potter imagining themselves casting spells?). They reinforce the beliefs so strongly ingrained in our culture and normalize them. People are more comfortable when the “slut” dies, than when the “good” girl dies.
*If anyone is unaware of these, let me know and I can do a post on them. They are pretty important.