Monday, September 07, 2009

Stuff: "Viva la femme" or "Rob Zombie hates you right back; but, unlike you, he gets to talks his smack in the Times."

For the first time ever, more women buy tickets to horror flicks than men. This interesting detail is somewhat buried in an otherwise unremarkable piece in the NY Times.

The Grey Dame of Journalism has posted a piece on the state of the fright flick. The article checks in with Jennifer's Body writer Diablo Cody, her co-conspirator Karyn Kusama (that somebody would think following up Girlfight with a scare pic starring Megan Fox is a positive career move says something about the mainstreaming of horror, but I don't know what), and Halloween exhumer Rob Zombie.

It starts off with the popular "why should chicks dig horror question" which is really only interesting in light of new data that suggests women are now buying more horror tickets than men.

Long before the first big-screen vivisection of a female breast, the novelist H. P. Lovecraft wrote that horror was "supposed to be against the world, against life, against civilization." But the delight that the genre’s filmmakers, especially those behind the Saw franchise and its torture porn kin, take in depicting a steady stream of starlets being strung up, nailed down or splayed open, makes it clear that modern horror is against some more than others.

And yet recent box office receipts show that women have an even bigger appetite for these films than men. Theories straining to address this particular head scratcher have their work cut out for them: Are female fans of "Saw" ironists? Masochists? Or just dying to get closer to their dates?


The article evokes the perennially popular Clover theory of the "final girl," supported by a Cody anecdote:

"When I watched movies like 'The Goonies' and 'E.T.,' it was boys having adventures," she said. "When I watched 'Nightmare on Elm Street,' it was Nancy beating" up Freddy. "It was that simple."

By far the best quote comes from Rob Zombie, who has decided to give a great and glorious middle finger to the hordes of bloggers who felt his reimginamakethingy of Halloween II didn't measure up to the original (a charge that is somewhat like accusing somebody of not being developmental challenged enough to be in the special Olympics).

"The '80s are the decade that ruined everything for everybody," he said. "The soul went away, and it became gore for the sake of gore, and kids were cheering at killings and yelling and screaming. It became a roller coaster ride. And of course once something becomes a roller coaster, all you can do is build a bigger, more extreme roller coaster. That’s where I think horror movies really got perverted."

I'm actually sympathetic to the views expressed by C, K, and Z in the piece, though I find this particular line a bit off-putting:

For Ms. Cody this was great news, an opportunity to re-educate a jaded audience about what a horror film is.

The incessant impulse of horror fandom to school the ignorant masses around them is, I think, perhaps the worst aspect of being a horror fan. The ceaseless rants of some fans are not only monotonous, but inevitably tinged with a sort of nostalgic myopia. It's a shame to see to such a statement in an otherwise inoffensive article.

That line aside, I think the article points to a interesting, if unasked, question about the changing nature of horror and its fandom. If women are, for the first time, eclipsing men in horror fandom, is there something new and distinctly "feminine" about modern horror? And if so, does the backlash against modern horror reflect some sort of old boys versus new girls conflict?

[UPDATE: Reader Madelon wisely points out that the claim that women are buying more tickets than men should, given the article's lack of hard data, be looked at with some skepticism. Even if it is true, what would it mean? Are women buying more tickets or are men buying fewer? Are the audience numbers the same, but the cost of tickets being distributed differently?

We do have some anecdotal evidence of the shift. The LA Times reports that Final Destination's performance edge over Halloween II had a gender angle:

Fifty-three percent of theaters played "Final Destination" in 3-D, helping its overall take since 3-D theaters typically charge $2 to $3 more for tickets. That can't explain its entire $10.9-million advantage over "Halloween," however. Tracking had indicated young women were more interested in "Destination," while young guys preferred "Halloween," and it seemed girls came out in bigger numbers and were able to persuade their male friends to join them.

EW gives us a slew of data going back to 2002's remake of The Ring:

Today, however, the genre's biggest constituency of die-hard fans is women. Name any recent horror hit and odds are that female moviegoers bought more tickets than men. And we're not just talking about psychological spookfests like 2002's The Ring (60 percent female), 2004's The Grudge (65 percent female), and 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose (51 percent female). We're also talking about all the slice-and-dice remakes and sequels that Hollywood churns out.

''I don't think there was anyone who expected that women would gravitate toward a movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,'' says Chainsawproducer Brad Fuller of the 2003 remake, which became a female-driven $81 million hit. ''For us, the issue now is that it's harder for us to get young men into the theater than women.'' And female audiences stay loyal. ''I've seen married women who are, like, 35 years old at horror movies and they're like, 'Oh, our husbands are with the kids and we all came out together,''' says Clint Culpepper, the president of Screen Gems, which is releasing a remake of the 1987 slasher film The Stepfather in October. ''Men stop seeing horror at a certain age, but women continue to go.''

Even the movies popularly known as torture porn, in which hot babes in hot pants are often subjected to medieval torture devices, apparently hold an appeal for young women. Executives preparing to unveil the video-on-demand channel FEARnet didn't expect women to have the stomach for a subgenre often considered exploitative. ''When we launched the network, we went out and did focus groups and it was the women in the room who really wanted a horror channel more than the guys did,'' says FEARnet president Diane Robina. ''I actually thought that the women would be less into the Saw films, but they were much more into them.'']

I can't help but think on the vast and bizarrely infantile reactions the horror blog-o-shpere has had towards the Twilight franchise. Not only is there a weirdly playgroundish "ewww girls" thing at play, but anti-Twilight critics seem pretty quick to appeal to gender coded insults: I'm thinking specifically here of references to "Twatlight" (which makes the woman/franchise connection about as explicit as it gets) and the constant refrain that the male leads of the franchise are homosexual (which seems to assume that all gaze is male and to show hardbodied young male flesh couldn't possibly a reflection of female desire, but must be some perversion of the correct straight male way to look at things).

The fanbase of Twilight clearly skews female. (I once asked a neighbor's kid which he'd be more embarrassed to be seen carrying through the school halls: the Bible or a copy of Twilight. He said he'd get teased less carrying the Bible.) But, data shows, so does the audience for Saw - a fact that considerably less is made of. Still, criticism of Saw occasionally follows a weirdly similar pattern. Both are criticized for their "soap opera" aspects. The tangled love stories of former and the endlessly recursive backstory of latter are both consider failings rather than strengths. People propose that interest in either franchise is symptomatic, or a byproduct of some intellectual deficiency, rather than the wholesome "fun" interest fans have in other horror franchises. Twilight fans, we're given to believe, are simply stupid young women who will "grow up" and learn to like real entertainments. Saw fans, we're told by critics who assume to be in the know, are perverse gore hounds who get sick kicks from suffering. Nothing, we can be sure, like pleasure of fans that enjoy watching the mass murder perpetrated by Freddy, Michael, Jason, and company.

Perhaps this is all coincidence. Maybe there an essential form to the Interweb rant that makes attacks on Twilight and Saw seem weirdly similar. Further, are we really in a notably period of fandom backlash? One could easily make the case that fan communities usually tend towards the artistically conservative and dismiss the new. All that's different is the ability of such fans to spread their message. The idea that we're in an unusually important period of retrenchment would then be simply an illusion of the Interweb.

Still, somebody smarter than I (and that's most of y'all out there) should look into the rise of a female-dominated horror fandom, its impact on the product, and the reaction of older fans and self-styled old school protectors of the faith. The results might come to nothing; or they might just cast an interesting on the future of the genre.

9 comments:

Sean T. Collins said...

FWIW, Twatlight is also the name of a pretty boisterous and self-mocking all-female Twilight fan community offshoot of the very popular LJ gossip site Oh No They Didn't. I guess the word has been reclaimed.

CRwM said...

Sean,

Thanks for the head's up. I wonder which usage came first.

Madelon said...

I wonder if the "why do women like horror" viewpoint is actually a valid one. Currently, I'm taking a PhD, which focuses on the reasons behind the enjoyment of horror, looking at the entire audience instead of gender groups.

If we look at the existing body of theories as to why horror is enjoyable, there are still a lot of skewed ideas out there. The best (or worst) I came across comes from James Twitchell (writing in 1985), who identifies the horror audience as adolescent male. Women are not supposed to have any interest in the genre whatsoever, and any men who still likes to watch horror movies after he turned 20 for anything other than academic interest is dubbed a pervert. Even in more scholarship we still find descriptions of the horror audience as a whole being 'atypical'.

Besides these classic (and still prevalent) stereotypes, horror theory rarely extends beyond the discussion of novels and movies, leaving out areas of theatre and scare attractions, which pose their own problems (and are the focus of my research). In my opinion, there is still a lot of work to be done regarding horror theory in general, before we focus on the gender issues. Secondly, speaking as a female horror fan, I sincerely doubt as to whether the motivations of women for watching and enjoying horror will turn out to be all that different from those of the male audience.

As a final thought: where does this shift exists? Are the actual numbers of female viewers growing, or are those of the male audience declining..?

CRwM said...

Madelon,

Good points all. And that last point especially, given that we don't have a source for the writer's claim or the raw data to look at, deserves a comment in the post itself.

Shon Richards said...

it is a fascinating trend. I have a few first impressions.

One, I think that the sexism that women deal with makes them sympathetic to a movie where people are victimized.

Two, I think Cody actually has a good point about the Final Girl syndrome. My wife and I watched a marathon of 70's horror earlier this year and we were pleasantly surprised how many heroines there were.

Three, I'm going to annoy people by suggesting that Horror, even bad Horror, is a cerebral thing. It is a mood and a condition. I think while stereotypical male audiences want Michael Bay, stereotypical female audiences want a freaking plot.

Jeff Allard said...

Is it really news anymore that women are into horror? Since author Carol J. Clover exposed the feminist undercurrents of the horror genre in her 1992 book "Men, Women, and Chainsaws", I thought it was established that the horror genre was far from being strictly a "boy's club."

As for RZ's laments about the state of horror, well, they'd have a lot more weight if he could create some films with some soul of their own instead of recycling the same trash-punk aesthetic over and over.

Jeff Allard said...

...Just read the actual article. At least they reference Clover's book. This does seem like a trend that's been a long time coming, and not hard to understand, given how many horror films boast strong female leads.

CRwM said...

Jeff,

Thanks for stopping by. It'll be interesting to see what, if any, the demographic shift has on horror.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Shon,

Interesting proposals. I must admit I only started pondering the issue myself and I'm hesitant to theorize with so little data.

I do find it interesting for a bit of conventional book sellers wisdom that the trend would seem to overturn: namely, girls will read books about boys but boys won't read books about girls.

In horror, to a degree, that doesn't seem to hold true.