smaller 2It’s hard not to make the comparison: two supernatural teen romances, both adapted from Young Adult novels, both involving a Romeo and Juliet-like attraction between a human and a superhuman. For feminist spectators, the popularity of such genre films warrants an investigation of their depiction of gender roles. So how do the two films stack up?

For the purposes of this analysis, let “feminist” be a film in which 1) The women characters are subjects and not objects–they are not just acted upon, they also act. 2) The ideology of the film, as reflected in its structure and content, at least questions, if not replaces, the constructs of sex and gender that are oppressive to women in our world.

What you need to know: Beautiful Creatures, which opened on Valentine’s Day, is a coming-of-age story of a caster, or witch, named Lena (Alice Englert), who on her 16th birthday will be claimed either for good or evil. In the months before her claiming, she falls in love with a mortal boy, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich). Her family tries to keep her away from him but to no avail, and he soon becomes enmeshed in the spiritual struggle for her soul, along with Lena’s Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), her aunt, grandmother, cousins and the spirit of her evil mother, Sarafine (embodied for the second half of the film in the town’s religious zealot, played by Emma Thompson).

In Twilight, the sexist Victorian notion that for women sex equals death is perfectly embodied in the dangerous love that Bella Swan has for Edward Cullen, a love that does eventually lead to her death. Beautiful Creatures, though it is also about a girl’s coming of age and a forbidden love, is only peripherally about sex. Unlike Twilight, in Beautiful Creatures a woman’s sexual desire will not determine her fate. The main problem with her boyfriend is not that choosing to be with him will kill her, it’s simply that he makes things a little more complicated. Point for Beautiful Creatures.

What about the other women characters in both films? In Twilight, the mother is fairytale-ishly absent (not so feminist). In Beautiful Creatures, the mother is first absent then present, but evil (even less feminist). In Twilight, women vampires are capable of choosing to be either good or evil (feminist), whereas in Beautiful Creatures men casters can choose to be good or evil but women cannot (not so feminist). In fact, the battle for Lena’s soul is largely fought not by Lena herself but between her Uncle and her mother, indicating that her biology and heritage play the largest role in determining her fate (not so feminist). And, though Lena’s sexuality will not determine her destiny, her evil cousin caster is clearly driven largely by a deadly sexual desire (not so feminist).

Finally, in Twilight, the story is told from Bella’s perspective, but the narrative voice is that of a perennial victim–a woman whose own desire repeatedly puts her in the way of danger and violence. In Beautiful Creatures, the narrative voice and initiating action is given to the young man, while Lena is held largely captive in her Uncle’s decaying Southern Gothic mansion. But as the movie progresses, Lena learns to master her powers, which are greater than her Uncle’s, and starts to make her own choices. Nevertheless, according to the supernatural mythology of the story, nothing she does will determine her fate. (You can work out the feminist points here, plus and minus.)

However, at the very end of Beautiful Creatures (STRUCTURAL SPOILER ALERT!), the narrative voice–handles in most of the film by Ethan’s voiceovers, is given to Lena, implying not only that she has become the central character but also that in possible sequels (the book from which the film is drawn is the first in a series of four) her character could become even more of a subject. For diehard feminist spectators, this shift may not be quite enough, but the resolution of the film manages to call into question the inviolability of gender roles in the world created by Beautiful Creatures. Whereas Bella’s death in childbirth is a foregone conclusion in the Victorian world of Twilight, Lena’s future looks bright.

Because the central character’s morality is not determined by her sexuality and because she doesn’t have to become a mother/die to become powerful, feminist fans of supernatural films will definitely enjoy Beautiful Creatures more than they did Twilight. So I say go see it: If it makes enough money, we might get a few sequels, and the more mythologies available to supplant the repressive one represented in Twilight, the better. If that doesn’t convince you, consider this: The acting is better than in the Twlight series, the writing is better (Viola Davis agreed to be in it only after insisting that her part be changed from a servant to a librarian) and the design is better in Beautiful Creatures.

Photo, clockwise from top left: Alice Englert as Lena (Beautiful Creatures), Emily Rossum as Lena’s evil cousin Ridley (Beautiful Creatures), Ashley Green as Alice (Twilight) and Kristen Stewart as Bella (Twilight).

Cross posted at Ms.

Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. …

John Carpenter

My love of horror movies is a product of both nature and of nurture. My mother loves them. My older brother says I ended up in theaters as a child watching movies that were definitely not rated for my age group because he convinced Mom, who already wanted to go anyway, that we could handle it. We could, too–despite some interesting nightmares, we didn’t turn into serial killers or become permanently scarred psychologically. Unless you consider our desire to have the crap scared out of us by a good horror movie “scarred.”

Horror movies provide direct access to what Aristotle called catharsis: the release or balancing of pity and fear. They work directly on the deepest reptile parts of our brains to evoke and then resolve fear. Good horror movies also use plot and characters to draw the audience in on an empathetic level, so that where there is pity there is more fear. And all horror movies contain tropes that can tell us about the deepest fears of the society out of which they come.

As an adult, I watch horror movies as what Princeton University professor Jill Dolan calls a “feminist spectator,” which means that I look at what they tell us about how our culture thinks and feels. Recent horror movies focused on families and children, adolescent women and single women reveal an unsettling persistence of patriarchal norms. (But, then again, horror is supposed to be unsettling, no?). They also suggest that changing family structures–even when change is for the better–can scare the bejeezus out of us.

If you are looking for a good scare this Halloween season, cast your feminist eye on this recent rash of family-centered horror movies in which inattentive fathers leave their children vulnerable to being taken by aliens, monsters and demons.

The Possession, currently in theaters, centers on the character of Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose job distracts him from attending to the needs of his daughters in the aftermath of his divorce from their mother, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). He’s so distracted, in fact, that his youngest manages to get herself infected with a Dybbuk. This pre-pubescent girl in possession of an “open box,” “ring,” and “thing growing inside her,” speaks to our lingering cultural discomfort with women becoming sexually active before marriage. To do so is to marry a demon. The takeaway message: No matter the presence or skill of the mother, children can never be safe without their biological fathers around.

In Super 8 (2011), it takes an alien invasion to get distracted father Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) to engage with his son. The mother in this family is out of the picture before the movie even begins: She died in a work-related accident. Literally, the consequence of her working outside of the home was death. Though both father and son are struggling with the loss, Lamb cannot connect with his son until the child’s life is threatened. That the alien has to take the son’s only remaining connection to his mother–a necklace–before it can cease threatening this community speaks to an underlying belief that mothers are expendable and replaceable; fathers are here to stay.

Finally, if you’ve seen Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, you will recognize his trademark trope of turning real childhood fears into metaphorical monsters in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010). The central child of this movie, Sally, has been sent by her mother to live with her disinterested father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new wife Kim (Katie Holmes). Kim is perfectly clear with her husband that she would not have chosen motherhood at this moment in her life and that she expects him to step up as a father. But, busy with his career, he doesn’t, and Sally’s fear that neither her father nor mother loves her, made manifest by the tiny-but-terrifying creatures that live under the house, threatens to overcome her. Ultimately, it’s up to the only potential mother around, Kim, to do what she can to protect the child–although the consequences of her of taking on this role are dire. The ideology is clear, if not feminist: A mother can be a martyr, but only a father can be a hero.

Stay tuned for more recommendations on how to watch horror movies as a feminist spectator. Who knows, I may even uncover one that is actually feminist. Suggestions welcome!

Photo from Flickr user MamboZ under license from Creative Commons 2.0