TW: mention of sexual assault, gore and contains film spoilers.
The Scream series have been a longstanding favourite of mine and a regular October watch. With spooky season truly upon us, I feel myself reaching for this much-loved scary film series. But, as my feminist third eye is opening wider and wider, I can’t help but critique Scream through a feminist lens.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, let me fill you in with a brief synopsis: Sydney is our heroin, a brooding teen whose thoughts are simultaneously occupied with sex and death (like all modern teens, it seems). We are introduced to Sydney a year after her mother’s death, when a ‘ghost-face’ killer appears in her town, threatening Sydney and her group of school friends, and we soon discover all the murders are connected. In comes Deputy Dewey, the quirky cop who helps Sydney unravel the spooky mystery, alongside headstrong news reporter, Gail Weathers, who is keen to elevate her career on the back of these news stories.
There is an interesting mix of personalities among the characters. Sydney poses as a frightened young woman still very much in mourning of her mother’s death. However, as the film progresses, she becomes a valiantly defiant opponent for the ghost-face killer. In my opinion, Sydney is something of a feminist icon insofar as she doesn’t run away crying, like many of the female victims we see in horror films old and new. While she has the support of the male policeman, Dewey is rarely in the same room as Sydney when danger comes knocking, testing her independence and showing the viewer that she doesn’t need a man to protect her. Gail Weathers, too, is portrayed as a cold woman who isn’t afraid to push others out of her way to get what she wants: she’s good at her job and, as we discover later, good at standing up to bad guys.
In fact, several of the other female victims are shown to fight back in Scream: Drew Barrymore’s character is sadly among the first to go, shortly after she is made to watch her boyfriend die at the hands of Mr. Ghost-Face. She puts up a fight, threatening the killer right back when they engage in the well-known phone conversation – “What’s your favourite scary movie?” However, the deaths of Barrymore, and the later gruesome murder of Sydney’s best friend, Tatum, are both represented as the result of a sick game made to test the women. Can the girl outsmart the villain and escape with her life and limbs intact? It seems to me as if director Wes Craven wants us all to explore how women respond to the stereotypically male chase of hunter vs. hunted. It is both incredibly psychological and physical, satisfying our horror movie needs.
With most (if not all) classic horror films, we watch the scenes through the male gaze. But who is the desired viewer of Scream? Every female death scene is slow: we watch the struggle of the hunted and the bloodthirst of the hunter. There is undoubtedly an emphasis on the voyeurism of murder. Are female viewers, then, supposed to enjoy watching our on-screen women being savagely cut open? Although, admittedly, several male characters also die, their death scenes are much quicker than those of their female counterparts.
I believe Craven wishes for the spectators to sympathise more with Sydney. She is haunted by the death of her mother (who, we later learn, was raped and murdered by an unknown man). So, it follows that she fears not only her own safety, but is also highly sensitive to the uncertain safety of other women. By watching two key female characters fall savagely victim to the slasher, the viewer gets closer to feeling the sort of fear Sydney herself would feel, knowing that, in her immediate circle, women are not safe from the elusively clever male killer. The viewer can empathise with this female lead and, rather than support the killer (as is often the tendency in corny horror films), we want Sydney to get out alive and condemn the bad guy.
Without giving too much attention or thought to the deaths of the male characters, first Barrymore’s jock boyfriend, then the principal, I suggest Craven wants the viewer to truly appreciate the threat the women face.
Ultimately, I am always rooting for Sydney throughout the film, although I know the plot well. It is oh-so-satisfying when she coolly out-wits the ghost-face killer(s) at the end. Gail Weathers, too, is another favourite for me, her professional drive and strong survival instincts making her a fierce female character. (Although, I think it’s fair to say she really comes into her own later in the film series).
So, despite the fact that Scream is another Halloween classic that stays true to horror film tropes – mainly sex and graphic violence – I think it attempts to subvert the damsel-in-distress cliché by introducing not one, but two determined, clever and resilient female protagonists. It certainly couldn’t be called a feminist art piece, but I do appreciate the fact the woman wins, and she is deemed throughout the film as the most interesting and worthy opponent for the male killer and the camera man. All horror films I’ve seen follow the same formula, and I think it is considered a necessary evil to stick to certain inherently sexist tropes (sex, the virgin female, the voyeuristic male gaze, to name a few). In this case, will it ever be possible to find a horror that can be truly deemed feminist?