Sockin’ it to Sluts: The Horror Genre’s Troubling Trope

The horror genre has had a few banner years in a row, yet the slasher genre's favorite victim, the slut, remains a constant staple.

“Sock it to me,” Tina Turner sings. All across America, women are getting it socked to them. Hit me baby one more time is the teenage girl’s soundtrack’s perpetual refrain. There’s nothing more our country loves than a slut in sheep’s clothing.

Post-Halloween, post-election, and post-New Year, the slut deserves another look in the horror genre. She’s the woman on whom the audience lingers in the film’s opening moments, like Michael Myers’ older sister, who we see from outside the Myers house, necking on the couch with her boyfriend in Halloween (1978). From a POV shot, we watch her boyfriend beg for more, she acquiesces, and they jog up the stairs. Myers walks stealthily around the house, through the back kitchen door, selects a knife from the cupboard, and proceeds to stab his sister repeatedly across her bare, buxom chest. Violence and sex. Film audiences can’t have one salacious event without the other.

The knife penetrates the proverbial slut with more phallic potency and power than any boyfriend or child possess. This trope is our entertainment. We half-close our eyes, both willing her screams to stop while never fully able to tear our gaze away. Almost 40 years later, nothing changed by the time we reached Jules in The Cabin in the Woods (2012), who must literally bare her breasts to appease the “ancient ones below.” A crew of men sits before the surveillance screen in breathless anticipation. Once their voyeuristic appetites (and ours) have been sated, a crew of redneck torture zombies saw off her head.

If the slut is a common trope of the horror genre, the question is why this trope continues to exist within the genre, post-second wave feminism, post-Take Back the Night marches, post-Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas. Carol Clover argues in her canonical text Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992) that “the slasher film, not despite but exactly because of its crudity and compulsive repetitiveness, gives us a clearer picture of current sexual attitudes.”

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If this is true, what are American sexual attitudes today? Donald Trump jokes about sexual assault and is now president-elect. Brock Turner rapes a woman (with multiple witnesses), and we read countless articles detailing his swim stats. Casey Affleck allegedly sexually assaults women and is well on his way to an Oscar.

We turn a blind eye when heterosexual (white) masculinity merges sex and violence, but when women overtly assert their sexuality, we watch them, desire them, and subsequently revel in their eventual fall from grace. Are we really identifying with the female characters’ individuality, fears, and complexity in these horror films, or does the female body become the featureless site onto which we as a mass culture inflict violence, torture, and death? Is it meant to terrorize or titillate when it embraces the violent elements we and our media otherwise ignore?

Looking back to just after Halloween, during a period when our future president-elect was building his monument to himself on Fifth Avenue, Friday the 13th opened in 1980. That film begins at Camp Crystal Lake with several one-dimensional slut stereotypes immediately taking center stage. The film utilizes the same POV-shot as Halloween, as well as the same shaky handheld camera, with our (filmically) masked character tiptoeing into the cabins of young, sleeping females.

The POV shot leads the audience up the stairs to find a couple cavorting on the floor. “We weren’t doing anything,” the boy sheepishly says, fumbling with his trousers before he’s stabbed. The girl survives for a few minutes longer, but she is mercilessly chased before falling to the floor in freeze frame as the camera closes in on her screaming orifice; it’s a close-up that emphasizes both her terror and the anatomical feature that performed the forbidden sexual acts moments earlier that have resulted in her discipline: death.

But whereas films like Halloween and Friday the 13th foreground the female as the slut, the sexual woman who is meant only to be the object of our gaze, in pleasure and in pain, more recent films like The Cabin in the Woods seek to complicate (however unsuccessfully) the stereotype. Imbuing Jules’ with chemicals via hair dye, a government agency literally transforms her into a bimbo. Blondes really do have more fun. She gyrates in front a fireplace with her new ‘do while three friends awkwardly look on, her boyfriend cheering in oblivious delight. The effect is not titillating, but merely laughable. Yes, she fits the trope, but director Drew Goddard wants you to acknowledge the absurdity of this trope in the horror genre, whether it is utilized for terror or for laughs.

This comical tinge comes to a head when Jules, on a dare, locks lips with a stuffed wolf. She’s Little Red Riding Hood in a push-up bra, but upon fulfilling her boyfriend’s (and the government employees’) sexual desire, her punishment begins.

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It’s a similar position Jennifer fulfills in Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body (2009), a high school cheerleader who makes casual comments about anal sex, flirts with Emo rock band members, and (literally) devours football players and other local boys with a voracious appetite. Also unlike their predecessors, Cabin in the Woods and Jennifer’s Body feature sluts who have been coerced into this position, whether through government interference or a ritual sacrifice gone awry. The “slut” is a stereotype that has been thrust upon these women narratively in order to appease the outdated prerequisites of the genre.

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2015) is murkier in terms of its relationship to the slut in horror. The film begins at twilight as a young woman runs from a house in a sheer shift, short shorts, and heels. The heels clip against the macadam in a frantic percussion. As the sun rises, hours later, we see her corpse, brutally bent, the heels still attached to her broken leg. But our protagonist is Jay, a young woman who “used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates.” As she finishes her thoughts, post-coitus, on dating and the freedom it permits her, the man places a cloth soaked in chloroform over her mouth. She wakes in her pink underwear tied to a wheelchair.

She’s contracted something that’d be the Center for Disease Control’s worst nightmare, except the pain and terror are not internal or of the biological body, but an apparition that follow you until it gets close enough to kill you. What appears to be innocent sex becomes a lingering and omnipresent waking nightmare. Quite simply: sex can kill. “Just sleep with someone as soon as you can,” the man warns her before he later deposits her, still clad only in her undies, on her mother’s lawn. Sex becomes a necessary evil as “it” gets closer and closer to Jay; in preparation for its attack, Jay reluctantly sleeps with more and more men. She’s forced to play the slut, not just for the genre, but so that she can survive.

The horror genre sets up a tricky spectator relationship, one in which Clover argues the “male viewers are quite prepared to identify not just with screen females, but with screen females in the horror-film world, screen females in fear and pain.” It is “that identification [and] the official denial of that identification” that Clover seeks to understand. But is it identification with the woman, the girl, and the slut that the horror genre constructs? Or is our spectator position merely bearing witness to the woman’s recurring torments, fears, and, at times, dismemberment and death?

Laura Mulvey’s famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” similarly pegs audience identification occurring with “the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and recognition of his like.” Yet, this visual identification is with the fully formed male protagonist, not the woman who is seen as spectacle and sexual stimulant, fetishized and fragmented.

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Dismemberment of the female body is another common motif in the horror genre, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Hostel (2005). Carol J. Adams argues the link between women’s bodies, fragmentation, and dismemberment is inextricably linked to meat and pornography in her book The Pornography of Meat (2003). She writes, “With pornography, fragmented body parts become sexualized so that someone can get pleasure from something. Yet that something – the woman used in pornography – was at one point someone, a very specific someone.” Horror films increasingly perform an erasure of that female individuality when they segment female bodies into pieces, especially when the woman moments before was enjoying and negotiating her own pleasure.

It is not just the physical degradation of the female body that is problematic for Adams, but the ways in which directors position the audience to look at the female body as fragmented breasts or fragmented thighs – or fragmented lives. Porn seeks to break up the female body, resulting in liminal moments of recognizing bits and pieces of the female anatomy. The pieces of flesh constitute the horror.

Torture porn is the chic nomenclature for this subset of the horror genre, though we could argue this genre didn’t emerge with sensationalist Eli Roth, but with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). In the opening scene, Janet Leigh sprawls on a bed in her white bra and slip. Not even 45 minutes later, she is dead, but not before Norman Bates has voyeuristically savored her preparing for a shower from his office peephole. It is her naked body that offends, even as it titillates. The knife again becomes the phallus in the face of Norman’s impotence, penetrating her over and over to Bernard Herrmann’s violins’ screams.

As Clover, Carol, and Mulvey suggest, the female in Hollywood narrative films, specifically the slut in the horror genre, serves as an erotic spectacle, but one who is routinely punished for acting on her sexual impulses. While films such as The Cabin in the Woods, Jennifer’s Body, and It Follows rework the slut trope as something artificially constructed (whether through government interference or a ‘haunting’ STD), the trope creates the same results as the slasher films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Our female heroines or protagonists are still sexualized (even if the attempt is tongue and cheek) and reduced to their parts, rather than the sum of them.

After the Game of Thrones episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” aired, many viewers complained about the graphic rape scene. The incident was covered by Variety and by Dave Itzkoff in The New York Times. Itzkoff writes, “Critics of Game of Thrones fear that rape has become so pervasive in the drama that it is almost background noise: a routine and unshocking occurrence.” Melissa Silverstein reiterates this sentiment in her essay “Hollywood’s Rape Culture is a Reflection of Our Culture,” writing, “rape is a device in TV and films with such regularity that we are almost immune to it… Movies are not just movies. They are touchstones, reflections of our culture of where we are, of who we all want to be.”

In this article, Silverstein looks not just at rape as a narrative device in films, but also at sexual assault, such as Last Tango in Paris when director Bernardo Bertolucci conspired with Marlon Brando to assault the unsuspecting 19-year-old Maria Schneider on-camera. Whether it is rape, or cruel and unusual punishment, or murder, the woman in pain, still sockin’ it to the slut, is a pervasive (and perverse) form of “background” entertainment.

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No matter how ironic the slut trope in 21st century cinema, the effect still perpetuates a 1950s sterile ethos. Good girls don’t kiss boys. To think otherwise is to wed the “aggression and eroticism” that Camille Paglia champions. Eros begets Thanatos. Slutdom begets the spectator’s desire for female death. Though Jennifer eats men like air, she still dies, punished for reversing the gender playing field. When will the horror genre relinquish the slut, the dismemberment, and the rape to the purgatory of our filmic past? Likely not in 2017, given how this year is already shaping out.