"What would men be without women? Scarce, sir, mighty scarce." - Mark Twain
Before we go any further, there's a pretty nasty section in this post that discusses, in detail, some of the horrible things that real life human beings do to one another. It's not meant to be enjoyable and, in reading the draft, I'm convinced that it is as unpleasant as it is meant to be. I bring this up because it isn't my intention to gross out people who came here for straight out fun. I don't think it's fair to not warn you.
About a fourth of the way into The Screwfly Solution, Joe Dante's '06 contribution the second season of the uneven and oft maligned "Masters of Horror" series, a researcher who is studying an outbreak of lethal attacks against women in Jacksonville, Florida, makes an unusual discovery. He finds similar outbreaks across the globe in a band roughly equivalent to the region between the horse latitudes. To discuss why this is unintentionally (and uncomically) ironic, we've got to work in some backstory. If you've seen the episode, you can skip this intro stuff. I'll put a break in the text with *** when you can leap back in.
Okay, now that they're gone, let's talk smack about them. Just kidding, let's mosey on.
After the surprise mainstream attention Dante got with his ham-fisted and tediously self-righteous anti-Bush jeremiad Homecoming (a low point in contemporary horror's often lame efforts to engage social issues), Dante decided that smart horror built on keen-eyed dissections of complex hot button social issues was the way to make successful horror shorts. But, almost immediately, he decided that was too hard; instead, he'd make really dumb movies built on shallow conventional wisdom around social issues that were little more than excuses for mildly liberal fright fans to engage in some masturbatory moral outrage.
In this case, Dante turns his sponge-sharp political intellect to the issue of violence against women. Based on a story by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), The Screwfly Solution features a strikingly grim and taut premise: Aliens decide to rid Earth of the pest species Homo sapiens sapiens by infecting the male population of the species with a bio-agent that highjacks the male, reprograms them, and turns their normal sexual impulses into murderous homicidal rages. The slightest twinge in the trousers turns into Murder One. The long term result, barring a cure or mass castration, will be the death of all women and the eventual extinction of the species. Scientific questions aside, this premise is as starkly functional and perfectly evolved as a mousetrap. By turning misogyny into a global deathtrap, Tiptree/Sheldon creates a situation as relentless and unsentimental Disch's The Genocides or Blumlein's great short story "The Brains of Rats." Configuring misogyny as an irrational, impersonal, and contagious disease, Tiptree comes dangerously close to excusing anti-female violence as something men can't help; though she reaps thematic benefits in her representation of misogyny as a form of insane suicide. Furthermore, it serves as an emotionally resonant metaphor that strikes deep for anybody who has recoiled in complete incomprehension at news of female life under the Taliban or pondered how their own off-spring seems to pick up potentially harmful gender steretypes despite the their best efforts to inoculate the young against this self-supressing behavior. When the world confronts our self-evident assumptions, it always appears irrational. The extreme other always appears mad. Tiptree's metaphor captures that emotional reality.
Starting with this no-nonsense race chassis and powerplant, Dante expertly precedes to build a family mini-van atop it, complete with faded "Kerry: Ready for Duty" bumpersticker. Running on a half-processed goo of ill-considered engagement with the political subtexts and writing that reads like a Burroughs cut-up of a handful of randomly selected Air America call-in show transcripts, he takes everything that was sharp and lean about Tiptree's premise and makes it sluggish and irresponsive. Dante's characters speak in soundbite non-sequitors, as if they now think in the sorts of clips the staff of the Daily Show regularly lampoons. The acting is wooden, with the exception of Elliot Gould who seems to have lost a bet with his agent. Gould's gay epidemiologist spends the first half of the flick in a semi-camp after-school special mode that makes one wonder if Gould wasn't deliberately trying to distance himself from the project. Dante does frame several powerful moments (the surreal apocalyptic plot finally allows the director to access some of the legacy of his namesake), most notably in a tense and delightfully off-kilter scene in which the passengers and crew of a jetliner start to show the early stages of infection. Though, for the most part, Dante never grasps the magnitude of crisis he's dealing with. Admittedly, he's working within a cable TV budget, but better directors have made starker, more involving visions of dystopia with less. All this would be forgivable, perhaps, if it wasn't for the real flaw of flick: It's inability to conceive of a gendercidal crisis that didn't focus on a white, liberal, middle class, highly-educated woman. Which leads us the unintentionally ironic scene.
Early in the flick, Gould's character tracks out a zone of extraordinary spikes in violence against women. Ground Zero for the murderous contagion is in Florida where, we learn by piecing together sundry clues from the film, 1,100 women have died in the course of a little more than a month (max time span: 32 days - all of June and the first two days of August). He compares this to other killings and discovers a global band of similar violence spanning the globe.
Here's the unintentional irony.
In this film's fictional Florida, the violence we're talking about involves the homicide of 34 women a day. That's two women every hour.
In modern India - in the real world you and I live in - just "bride burning," the act of killing or horribly disfiguring a woman with fire or acid for insufficient dowry or to remove her as an obstacle to her husband's efforts to remarry - occurs approximately every two hours. This doesn't account for non-marital related homicides, death by neglect (because the dowry system pretty much ensures daughters will be a long-term economic burden - in Punjabi there's a saying, "Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor's garden" - some families choose to let their daughters die by restricting their access to medical attention), or other acts of violence against women.
I'm not picking on India because I've got something against the country. Rather, I selected it as an example because the film chooses to cite India as a place where violence spikes to suddenly resemble the violence they are seeing in Florida. As if it wasn't already much worse than anything Dante has imagined for his Florida.
On Gould's map, the Congo also falls well in the infected zone. But, again, daily life in the Congo regularly outdoes what Dante imagines unhinged violence against women looks like. Journalists Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn have dubbed the Congo "the world capital of rape." Warring militias find directly confronting one another too dangerous. Who wants to risk getting plugged in a firefight? So, rather than engaging other combatants, the preferred targets of militia violence are non-combatant women. In a single one of Congo's 26 provinces, an estimated 27,000 rapes occurred in 2006 alone. In several provinces, 75% of the female population has been the victim of rape. In some cases, raped women are taken into slavery. UN investigators report that these women are often forced through a program of physical and mental torture meant to break down their sense of their own humanity in order to make them more compliant to their captors. In some cases, women have been forced to eat their own excrement or, worse, the flesh of slain relatives. Those women who are not taken as slaves are often raped with sticks or sharp weapons, such a bayonets. The idea is to create rectovaginal or vesicovaginal fistulas: holes in the lining of the vagina, rectum, and bladder. Aside from the intense pain and the likelihood of death by infection or bleeding, these wounds cause the women to suffer a constantly slow leak of urine and fecal matter through her vagina. Some militias find the work of knives and sticks too unreliable, so they prefer to sodomize victims with a firearm and then pull the trigger. The youngest recorded victim of this particular variation of the militias' signature move was a three-year-old girl. However, in the context of the film, we're supposed to think that an outbreak of violence like the one Dante depicts as occurring in Florida would be notable.
Violence against women, as it is currently perpetrated on a global scale, is something that staggers the imagination of comfortable Westerners like me and, mostly likely if you're reading this, you. In an effort to put a number on the scale of demographic trauma we're dealing with, the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen applied standard demographic gender disparities to estimates of the global population. In a "standard" world, one expects the male/female divide of the human population to be about 50/50. Actually, in the younger age categories, there are slightly more men because we tend to get weeded out by illness, accidental misadventure, and so on. Comparing the projected demographic split to the actual gender distribution of the globe, Sen found that we're missing an estimated 100 million women. To give you a sense of scale, that's a number of women equal to the populations of California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois combined.
Violence against women is a horror story that actually staggers our ability to tell scary stories. Not only does The Screwfly Solution's vision of a global spike in anti-women violence seem laughable next to the amount of violence women are globally subjected to as a matter of course, but it reveals another issue about horror films that allegedly take a feminist stance: The global status of women might be a horror story, but it's only a horror movie when it happens to middle class, white women.
This is ultimately why The Screwfly Solution fails so profoundly. In it's effort to make a statement about global hegemonic misogyny, it never bothers to grasp anything beyond fear that white Western women might lose what they've gained. That their vision of an apocalyptic nightmare is, in fact, the daily reality of an enormous percentage of the female population simply never occurs to the filmmakers. It uses dispatches from the developing world to reinforce the idea that it is so utterly wrong that the Western world should look like these savage, uncivilized, dark-skinned places. Though even this is done dismissively; the film deploys images of dead exotics in a selfish way - solely with regard for how it will impact our Western eyes - without even the slightest knowledge of what life is like there. There are gorier movies out there, but few so cynical.
Much of this has to do with Dante's own unreflective politics. Dante's is to politics what Billy Joel is to music: the voice of the suburban solipsist. The thrust of Homecoming is that the Iraq War had made America a less pleasant place to live. That's the source of its horror. The issues regarding Iraqis, from the cost of freedom from Saddam to the implications of Saddam's son coming to power to the horrific costs in Iraqi lives, never come up. For Dante, the single worst crime of America's latest Middle East adventure isn't the legal institution of torture or the fact that Iraq is now potentially poised to democratically hand over its government to religious extremists. Rather, he hates - hates hates hates! - the idea that he should be subjects to the rants of a person like Anne Coulter.
Though not all the of the blame rests with Dante. Part of the problem - hate mail goes in the comment section - is the profoundly limited imagination of American feminist horror filmmakers and critics.
In late 2009, a writer for one of the main horror sites, I now forget which one, suggested that there was no such thing as a feminist horror film. His logic, to be honest, was sketchy at best. He argued that since he'd never considered any horror film to be feminist, there was probably no such thing as a feminist horror film. This is the logical equivalent of a color-blind man claiming that, because he's never seen red, the color red does not exist. Rightly, this writer was taken to task for his un-observation. Unfortunately, the much needed correction rallied around a definition of feminist horror that was, in my opinion, the single most Dantesque - and I mean the director of Gremlins and not the man who penned The Inferno - response you could have imagined. The flag was raised on platform that held real feminist horror is would be a movie in which being the protagonist's being a woman was neither a factor in her being threatened nor a factor in her victory over that threat. The result of this approach is to essentially efface the female characters. Boiled down, this approach produces female characters that are basically male horror characters in drag. It steals the structure, concerns, and characterizations of existing "masculine" horror flicks and just swaps out the gender of the hero. It eliminates the distinctions between male and female characters without demanding that attention be given to the real world conditions that are unique to being a women. There's something profoundly wrong with this world and it impacts women in a mind-bogglingly disproportionate way. We're not missing five states worth of men. Those missing women are the accusing ghosts at the table of so-called feminist horror. Where are they? And why should we pretend their story isn't unique and important?
A truly feminist horror film would embrace the fact that, for most women, being unpopular in high school isn't the single most horrific thing most women experience. It would recognize that there's something existentially different about navigating the world as woman rather than man and root the uniquely feminist experience of horror in that fault line. It will recognize that the Buffy-esque conception of horror is both dubiously limited in its ability to speak to a common female experience and grotesquely rooted in what is essentially one dude's stoke fantasy. Perhaps the hardest bit to digest will be that fact that "male" horror doesn't flatter the better angles of man's nature; horror embraces all those things that we don't want to talk about or can't say in polite company. It a reflection of masculinity at its worst, explored by witnesses from the inside. A truly feminist horror tradition won't be a celebration of the importance of flexing one's girl power. It will be an open-eyed confrontation with the crap that scares you. Not only the horror in the world outside you, but the things you're afraid to confront within yourself. In the brothels of the developing world, the former enslaved prostitutes sometimes become the whip-wielding madams. There's more genuine feminist horror in that one sentence than in a million episodes of Buffy.
After long consideration and for very different reasons, I'm going to side with the man who declared that there is no such thing as a feminist horror movie. Admittedly, there are movie out there that are convinced that the issues and troubles of sliver of the female population - notably that segment most likely to pony up cheddar to help some studio's bottom line - are just about the most important things in the world. But this is, most charitably, best described as Western, white, young, middle-class feminist horror. Until somebody makes a movie that genuinely captures the scope of the dread that one feels when one sees the state of women beyond our own limited existence here in the stable, still relatively affluent West, that universal label is just a self-aggrandizing brag.
I don't believe there will ever be a genuine feminist tradition in horror films. Not because of some flaw in feminism. Indeed, the most enduring and most destructive legacy of human existence on this planet has been the widespread oppression of women. Humanity needs feminism.
Rather, I believe this because "-isms" are not the point of horror. Horror upsets. It's a no, not a yes. Even in its most playful and less sinister moods, it is carnivalesque. It overturns that which is supposed to be. It reveals the ugly, the risible, the unwanted, the shunned - without ever truly transforming from the ugly, the risible, the unwanted, the shunned. It's not a revolutionary; it's a trickster figure. Feminist horror, if it existed, would speak the darkest fears of the movement. It would exist not to celebrate feminism's achievements, but to constantly warn us of the things that lurk in the shadows beyond the well-lit village's boundaries. It would act as a Cassandra: an unheeded but incessantly nagging check on the political, ideological, and social ambitions of feminism itself. This is why Dante's Homecoming, while acceptable as liberal agitprop, was crappy horror. It existed to convince the viewer that their conception of the world was spot on. It told liberals, "Hey, every bizarro world notion about your enemies you've ever held was spot on, because you're awesome and they suck." A truly liberal horror flick would have, I don't know, featured a president who pulled out of the conflict on time table to score votes at home only to be invaded by zombie Iraqi corpses angry that we wrecked their country and lives to stop short because the costs of what we were doing was making our fat and comfortable asses unhappy. These zombies would force us to confront the fact that we claim to hold ideas of freedom and liberty as sacred, but would rather not confront tyranny abroad if it means burnishing the war-time prez cred of a candidate we dislike. Horror that confirms an audience's self-congratulatory prejudices isn't worth the label horror. Just call it therapy. Then at least you could charge the going hourly rate for it.
Anywho, The Screwfly Solution is a middling installment in the MoH series. Good premise, flawed execution.