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The Cabin in the Woods: Can the male gaze be ironic?

July 1, 2012

*or why The Cabin in the Woods makes me feel belittled as a horror spectator.

The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of “Buffy: The Movie” was the little…blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of “Buffy” was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim. That element of surprise…[and] genre-busting is very much at the heart of both the movie and the series. (Joss Whedon: Welcome to the Hellmouth DVD Commentary)

Recent meta-horror film The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012) has been much lauded for its cleverness about horror as a genre and perhaps film more generally. While there is much to like about the film – strong performances from the cast, horror that isn’t entirely predicated on nastiness – for me there was a central problem from which it could never recover quite from: an insistence on the objectification of female characters in the service of commenting on horror films. Two scenes in particular generated feelings of discomfort about how the male gaze is being used by the film, and raises the question, can the male gaze be used ironically? [1]

 The Cabin in the Woods opens with a scene wherein the main female character, Dana (Kristen Connolly) is only wearing a t-shirt and knickers (and standing near an open window) for no apparent reason, other than the fact this is used as a joke at her expense, as she has apparently not noticed her lack of clothes. Certainly the scene embeds a sense of her vulnerability from the beginning, but other than that it is difficult to see why it was important to introduce her in this way. Later on, once the protagonists are at the titular cabin, a much more direct evocation of the male gaze is offered through the presentation of a dance performed by the other female character, Jules (Anna Hutchinson). By this point in the film, Jules has begun to be identified as the kind of sexually experienced, extroverted and ‘dumb blonde’ archetype that usually dies early on in slasher movies (the film will go on to explicitly label her as such and reveal that she has been drugged to further perpetuate the typology). Her dance begins with a close-up on her bottom as she starts to move it, and the camera gradually moves back, keeping her rear centralized and at about seated head height. In this way, the shot directly places us in a position of watching Jules’ bottom as she wiggles it provocatively, placing us with the other characters whom the dance is being performed for – our awareness of being asked to watch and of her as the sexualized object of our gaze is inescapable. The film achieves an adoption of the male gaze and, in our awareness of the self-consciousness of this via the emphatic framing, a comment on this, placing the male gaze in ironic quotation marks. But, do the quotation marks succeed in canceling out the male gaze? Jules is still objectified by the shot; at this moment we are asked to see her as a bottom and nothing more. [2]

For me, what makes this use of the male gaze specifically problematic (beyond the general concerns of women being treated as objects) is the way in which this objectification is equated with horror movies, and by extension the people who watch them. Being put into the position of enacting an objectifying gaze on this occasion felt like a judgment on watching horror more generally, both a suggestion that this is what the genre is most interested in, and that this is therefore what the viewer (i.e. me) wants. It is clear from an interview with co-writer Joss Whedon that this is exactly the point of this moment and later shots of Jules topless before she is killed, a scene that definitely puts a strain on the quotation marks around it: ‘There was never a question — the nudity had to happen, because the movie is about objectification and identification and that’s what horror is about.’ The slippage between objectification/pleasure/horror being expressed here is worrying, particularly when it is activated for the purpose of superiority. While I’m not trying to deny that objectification is present in some horror films, to say it is the constituent factor of the genre seems to me to wildly underestimate it. Using the male gaze ironically therefore feels like having your cake and eating it – pointing out what horror does and how unpleasant it is (and thus how superior we are for understanding this and being above it), while also offering the opportunity to enjoy some nudity. Later in the same interview Whedon says as much: ‘Drew and I were not unhappy if the hot blonde took off her shirt — hey, we thought it was a good decision!’.

Now, such a remark might not be so much of a big deal, or at least not so much of a surprise, but when self-confessed feminist Joss Whedon is at least partly (He didn’t direct it, but Drew Goddard was also a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a television series which, as indicated by the quote preceding this post, made concerted efforts to present an empowered heroine) behind such mis-appropriations of the male gaze, the problem seems worse, especially when said feminist goes on to say: ‘The thing is, once you call yourself a feminist, it can be damaging to only look through that prism. It can take away the full texture of what you’re trying to create, if you have an agenda that you’ve proclaimed. That’s not to say I don’t have an agenda, but it works best if it’s never mentioned. With Cabin, it’s a bit of a departure, but you can’t create fictions based on politics, otherwise you’re speech writers, not storytellers.’ This prompts me to quote Carol Hanisch ‘the personal is political’, or to put it another way, shouldn’t it be once a feminist always a feminist?

Putting such disappointments with Whedon’s apparent lapse in judgement to one side, this equation of horror with objectification, raises wider issues on the concern with who is watching that frequently belies a stance of superiority; a ‘this is how these people watch it, but we know better’ kind of attitude. In her seminal work on slasher movies and the ‘final girl’ figure, Carol Clover takes the position that horror films are primarily watched by teenage boys, so issues of identification and sexuality are looked at through this bias, an idea that as a female (and long-term) viewer of horror I am acutely aware does not fully account for what is at stake in watching horror films. [3] Not only does it not account for the experience of watching in a way that excludes a plurality of audiences, it reduces the possibilities of what horror is for or about, and therefore permits an ease of dismissal – a kind of equation where the implied audience impacts on judgements about horror that support its limits: these films are only about objectification, and are for one set of people, which explains why the films operate as they do and therefore why they are so horrible etc. In this way, feelings of discomfort or disgust with the genre are more easily parceled away into the sense that they are not ‘for me’ and moreover, disgust with (and superiority over) anyone who does enjoy horror: why would anyone who isn’t a teenage boy wanting to be titillated be interested in them? This progression of ideas leads me to feeling that I have to defend my interest in horror, and particularly when a film is explicitly telling its audience that this is what horror is (objectification etc) and this is why we’re all above it. [4]

So, back to The Cabin in the Woods. My feelings of discomfort at being implicated in a male gaze reminded me of the opening scene of Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I want to end with. In episode 1, we are introduced to Sunnydale via a young couple breaking into the high school, with the typical dynamic of the boy seeking to scare the reluctant girl so that her fear will make her more vulnerable to his advances. The scene plays out a scenario typical of the slasher film, and does so in ways that are consistent with horrors concerns around gender and looking, but not in a way that limits these ideas to objectification alone. The scene starts with a series of views of the dark and empty high school, and then once the couple have gained access via a broken window in a science lab, they walk down a corridor, the girl trailing behind and looking around.

The coercion of the girl into this scenario is made clear by her continued placement behind the boy, her physical reluctance within the space and in relation to the boy, and her vulnerability increased by her consistent looks out of the frame; women looking at an unseen threat (actual or potential) is a staple of the horror genre. Through positioning and performance she is situated as a woman in peril and our concern is for her under these terms. The show is asking us to be worried on her behalf, while also aware of her vulnerability in relation to the boy and to the ominous surroundings. While she might be the object of the boy’s sexual attention she certainly isn’t placed as such for the viewer, and because of how she is positioned we are able to be both with her and distanced from her (empathetic and sympathetic), worried for her and perhaps also scared as she is, but also to be frustrated that she isn’t being more proactive or getting away from the idiot that she is with. As such this opening looks very directly at horror and the way it works, specifically from ideas around gender, but in a way that negotiates the dynamics of this more subtly and allows for a more inclusive watching experience. That the girl then turns out to be the monster, and our feelings of empathy and sympathy are turned on their head as she transforms into a vampire and the boy becomes the prey, brings us back to Whedon’s idea of genre subversion, though not in a way that excludes the possibility of other ways of looking, of experiencing horror or of feminism (without speech-writing), as in The Cabin in the Woods.

[1] my thanks to Faye Woods for articulating the question in our discussion of the film via twitter

[2] The film does offer another example where the male gaze is invoked and then refused: when Holden watches Dana through a 2 way mirror revealed behind a gruesome painting in his room, at first he enjoys watching her unobserved, but as soon as she starts to remove her top he knocks on the glass and lets her know that he can see her.

[3] To be fair to Clover, although she takes this position throughout her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, she does acknowledge this bias and the resulting invisibility of the rest of horror’s audiences to her writing. However, having known teenage boys who watched horror films I remain unconvinced the kind of conclusions she draws entirely encapsulate that sector of the audience either.

[4] An interesting side note is that a great many people who have praised The Cabin in the Woods seem to identify themselves as non-horror fans, which leads me to think that the position of superiority that the film places the viewer in aligns them with it more easily.

2 Comments
  1. July 2, 2012 11:54 am

    I don’t watch horror films, but I thought that the titillation/enjoyment involved for women who watch them is due to empathising with the victim’s fear and the suspense generated by one’s fear on behalf of the victim, while knowing that one is actually sitting in comfort in front of a screen (or behind the sofa/under the duvet or whatever)

  2. July 11, 2012 3:29 pm

    That is definitely one line of thought in amongst the various different theories on the appeal of horror, and works well with thinking about the female audience more specifically. Pleasure is important, but as you point out empathy and vicarious experience of fear, and perhaps the possibility of agency too (in a best case scenario), are important components of the watching experience. I think that’s what shocked me most about the way the women were objectified, the way the film was immediately cutting me off from empathy and enforcing me to enact separation (which was certainly physicalised) from them.

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