It’s a question I sometimes found myself asking back in 5th grade – though not in those exact words, because I didn’t learn the term “misogyny” till I got to college.
But the realization that certain films were kind of… mean to the women in them was definitely there in my head. How could it not be, with my father taking me to see such intense fare as A Clockwork Orange and the original Death Wish?
Not that either of these two titles really qualifies, to my mind as a horror film. But another that I saw with my father around that time does. That movie is Deliverance, and it’s in that film, if you ask me, that all the big questions about why horror films treat women the way they do are most effectively answered.
Like so many of the best classic and modern horror films, Deliverance is a descent narrative. A group of people stumble off the path of ordinary life and into a “subterranean” world of horror which destroys some of them and leaves the others forever changed.
Bow-hunting tough-guy poet James Dickey knew when he wrote Deliverance that he was telling a story as old as time. And by making all his heroes men, he was, in a way, making the story even older, as it hearkened back to an age when groups of young men would go off into the woods to be initiated into manhood by enduring various and sundry tests that usually involved extreme violence.
What does it mean to become a real man? For the world’s primitive cultures, paradoxically enough, it usually meant becoming a woman. In order to negotiate the initiatory perils of the forest/underworld and become a true adult, it was often necessary for young male initiates to undergo violent procedures that turned them into androgynous figures who were neither simply men or women but both at once.
That’s what happens to Jon Voight in Deliverance. When the two intense, method-acting rednecks tie Voight’s character to a tree by his neck, the first thing they do – after talking about his “pretty mouth” — is make a long, vertical cut in his chest.
“Did he bleed?” Redneck Number One says to Redneck number Two after this procedure.
“He bled,” he answers.
Mission accomplished: Voight has now been symbolically transformed into the only kind of character who is truly able to negotiate the world of initiatory horror: a being who is neither simply male or simply female, but both at once. For the rest of the film, Voight’s character will take over the role of hero from Burt Reynolds, who minutes later will have his leg broken in the falls and from then on become essentially powerless.
“What now?” Voight’s character asks Lewis, Burt Reynolds’ character, when they’re wrecked at the bottom of the falls.
Burt’s answer — “Now you get to play the game” — says it all. Voight’s job is now to use the larger, masculine/feminine identity he has achieved to navigate the rest of the hell-journey, and return to ordinary life a truly whole person.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether the hero of a horror film – the one who makes it through – is male or female — at least on the surface. Because if you do make it through, it means you’ve "played the game" successfully. And that means that you’ve transcended your gender and become something more than just male or female — you’ve become (like the cross-dressing initiator figure Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw) both at once.Read More