Siskel And Ebert Made The First “Tropes Vs. Women”
So it turns out Siskel and Ebert were cool as fuck: In this 1980 episode, they address the rash of exploitation horror movies released in the very late 70s and early 80s – and continued through the 80s — that used violence against women as the foundation for the film. I love the horror genre, and I’ve seen almost every single one of the movies that they mention in the course of the 30 total minutes of their “Women In Danger” episode, and I can verify everything they’re saying.
The episode gets really good about halfway in, when Siskel says the following:
“Why now? Why is this happening? I have a theory… I’m convinced that it has something to do with the growth of the women’s movement in America in the last decade. I think that these films are some kind of primordial response by some very sick people, of men saying, ‘Get back in your place, women.’ These women in the films are typically portrayed as independent, as sexual, as enjoying life, and the killer — typically, not all the time, but most often — is a man who is sexually frustrated with these new, aggressive women. And so he strikes back at them, he throws knives at them, he can’t deal with them, he cuts them up, he kills them. ‘Get back in your place’ — it’s against the women’s movement.”
Horror filmmakers — always men — justify their films by saying, “Oh, no, it’s not about punishing women for their sexuality, it’s just that the killers are attacking teenagers and teenagers are sexual.” So why are the “heroines” consistently virginal? (See “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” for a funny take on that trope.) They then claim that these movies are about female empowerment simply because men die and women live, but that’s the same fucked-up logic that says that Elliot Rodger killed men and therefore was not a misogynist. Women are rewarded for their purity, for their moral goodness, with traumatic violence and their lives. Other women aren’t so lucky.
It’s gotten worse since then, too: Most rape scenes in exploitation films in the ’80s were implied. Graphic rape scenes are pretty consistently deployed in more recent horror films – the last I saw was the director’s cut of the Halloween remake (which was a travesty anyway). Violence against women is, as in video games, used as a moral trump card that allows the viewer to simultaneously violate women vicariously and feel morally distinct from the killer.
The number of elegant points Siskel and Ebert make about these “women in danger films” is pretty astounding, as is the prescience of their support for the women’s movement. I recommend watching both this first half and the second, also available on YouTube.