More Women in Horror Less Toxic Masculinity
The past couple of years have been revolutionary in some ways for our cultural understanding of gender, from bathroom bills to the #metoo movement. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the representation and interaction of gender and sexuality in society is changing. I’m interested in the way these same kinds of issues appear in the media we at Signal Horizon are concerned with. It’s important to consider gender roles and the interplay between sexuality, gender, and horror – whether a certain film, TV show, or text reinforces harmful stereotypes, subverts them or does neither (or both).
A great example of subversive sexuality in horror is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In this classic novel, vampirism is a thinly (very thinly) veiled metaphor for sex. During the time Stoker published, content laws prevented homosexuality from having any place in media, but Dracula’s act of penetrating flesh with an exchange of fluid is a *pretty* close stand-in. This fusing of sexuality within the monster is not uncommon and still lingers today, although I would argue that much of the nuance is lost in the more popular examples.
In the same way, however, there are tons of examples of folks in horror movies who are punished for their subversion. There are some great studies and analyses (including the book and documentary The Celluloid Closet) that shows how characters on the LGBT+ spectrum are often the villain, or the villain is later found to have these qualities to explain why they did bad things throughout the film. 80’s Slasher films famously included the morality tales of those who have sex before marriage. I could go on, but the connection between gender, sexuality, and horror is pretty clear.
This brings us to my main focus for today, which surrounds the more recent conversation of toxic and fragile masculinity in horror and sci fi. While this concept is not without its complications, the basic premise is that there are ways that men in the U.S. and western Europe are conditioned to behave and that this can be damaging to them and to society as a whole. Toxic masculinity includes those traditional attributes that are ascribed to “manly men” – insensitive, gruff, aggressive, impulsive, stoic. This is the man who does not cry, hug other men, or eat a lollipop without first removing the stick (this literally was a kid in my high school, who was afraid he’d look “gay” if he ate a sucker the normal way). This is a cursory explanation, though – the idea of toxic masculinity, of course, has a lot of nuance. My interest lies in its effects on characters and whether or not it is recognized, subverted, or upheld within the narrative. I’ll be looking at a few different examples of sci/fi horror to help illustrate these points.
If you keep up with our weekend Post Mortem articles, you’ll know I’ve recently finished the first book of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. Women’s roles in this particular book are scant but engaging; they are demons, acolytes of the Man in Black, sad bartenders, and wisps of memory to torture the protagonist. Roland Deschain is the consummate man’s man: muscular, stoic af, mission-driven, etc. He’s also deeply damaged by the things that he has experienced. This novel does a great job of showing how Roland’s personality has been shaped by the expectations of his culture. His memories of lessons with Cort include some of the classic hallmarks of manliness – being able to tolerate pain and injustice without crying, for example. Roland’s stoicism is central to his personality; it is the only way he manages to survive the loss he experienced in the time before the novel begins and the way he manages to pursue the elusive Man in Black at any cost. This is not to say that he is a paragon of benefits of the masculine, though.
Roland does embody many of the “ideal” man’s traits, but he is not without complications. His love for Jake nearly upends his need for answers from the Man in Black. He is protective of the boy, even though it puts his mission at risk. He is obviously capable of feeling powerful emotions, even sensitive to the feelings of others (though he typically won’t spare them, especially when there are bullets to shoot). He manages to block out most of the traits that would round him out as a human, though, in response to the trauma he’s experienced.
One of the undeniable truths about Roland is that he is profoundly damaged. The memories he flashes back to show his loss in pieces, but the audience is aware that everything he once loved is gone, and he is left with nothing but the Man in Black and the Tower as he wanders through the desert. His interactions with people are mostly simplistic – food from one, sex from one, beer from one shoot them all eventually, etc. This stoicism is in direct response to the horror he has gone through, and his coping mechanisms for it (or lack thereof).
Ultimately, Roland’s complexity keeps him from being a true paragon of toxic masculinity – meaning that no MRAs can hold him up to be their icon, but he does demonstrate some of the damaging qualities of the toxic masculine. Some of these traits, however, are in response to trauma rather than societal conditioning, and one could make the argument that the stoicism he is taught by his conditioning is the only reason he is able to withstand the trauma he later endures. Roland lives in one of the other worlds than this, but there are characters who exist in our world and much closer to our time.
Black Mirror, Season 4, Episode 1: “U.S.S. Callister”
Generally, Black Mirror is 100% terrifying. The episode “U.S.S. Callister” somehow managed to dial it up to 11 and beyond as it explores the possibility of becoming “king of space”. We have a full review of the episode if you want to read more about it. The pro/antagonist, Robert Daly (beautifully performed by Jesse Plemons) is the quintessential “nice guy” – constantly snubbed by his better looking peers, never brought his vanilla latte, and constantly bettered by his business partner. He’s about one step away from donning a fedora and making mean internet comments about how no women are nice to him (looking at you r/incel). But rather than take out his frustrations at feeling emasculated by those around him in a healthy way (is there one of those?), he uses his gaming code skills that have made him rich to build a fantasy world for himself.
He bases this modified game system on his favorite TV show, Space Fleet. The facade of heroism and perfect masculinity quickly crumbles, however, when his violent abuse of the other characters in the game is revealed. This is where we see the effects of toxic masculinity on Robert – his inability to live up to the expectations of manhood in the real world are juxtaposed against his full embodiment of toxic masculine traits on the Callister. He surreptitiously acquires the DNA of those people who work around him, those by whom he feels slighted, and uploads them into the game. Here, he is free to dominate them in ways that he cannot outside of the game.SLXLM
In different scenes, he forces one character to *literally* be his footrest, takes the face of another character which renders her unable to breathe or die (or talk, literally removing her voice), and turns even another into a horrifying space monster. No matter what he is doing, the message is clear: your body is under my control, and I will do what I want to it. While this is not explicitly sexual (Daly has made the characters look like Ken and Barbie below the belt), the implications of these various violations serve as allegory for the horrors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. These characters are the victims of constant terror and shame at the hands of a suppressed man.
Robert Daly represents an interesting character in the world where toxic masculinity exists; he is both a victim of it and a perpetrator of the conditions that damage men and women alike. He feels the effects in his daily life, but rather than interrogate the problems with a society which upholds only certain types of behaviors in men, he becomes a hyper-example of it in the world of his own creation. The end of the episode fades out with the abused characters having escaped (thanks to one of the female characters leading resistance to Daly), and being sucked into the regular game where the public is playing. Immediately they are threatened by an anonymous male player, who proudly declares himself “king of space”. Ultimately, that’s really what the ideals of masculinity create: men who are kings of…well, space. Robert ends up beaten and stuck in the darkness (probably dead), unable to escape and without anyone to help him. His toxic masculinity has ruined him literally and figuratively.
Both of these characters are worth spending time with and learning about, not only in relation to their gender politics, but also because the ones who crafted them made them so interesting. The Gunslinger is the first book in the “Dark Tower” series by Stephen King, and “U.S.S. Callister” is available on Netflix. Who else can you think of – what other characters embody problematic constructs? Let us know!