Friday, February 3, 2012

Carrie White and the Monstrous Feminine

Carrie is one of the most polarizing films I can think of, especially in terms of gender victimization. For my February WiHM series I wanted to tackle Carrie first not only because it is such a rich subject matter but because it is one of my favourite films. For me it is heartbreaking, terrifying, beautiful, funny, ironic and hugely enjoyable.

I think we live in an age where characters like Carrie have become so iconic they represent something beyond their original intentions. Most young people, unless they had actually seen the film, would recognize her as the crazy girl who gets blood on herself. However, Carrie functions as a realistic modern day fairy tale which takes a terrific dark turn. Thinking of the film in fairy tale terms, Carrie is the princess locked away by an evil witch (her mother) and eventually frees herself with the help of a handsome prince (Tommy Ross). Carrie breaks the pattern by having multiple villains in the evil Chris and her boyfriend/ minion Billy. That's the way I read the film. It can also easily be read as a religious morality tale, a product of subversive counter-culture and a predecessor to torture porn.

In her review of the film for New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael noted that prior to De Palma's film, "no one else has ever caught the thrill that teenagers get from a dirty joke and sustained it for a whole picture," deeming Carrie a "terrifyingly lyrical thriller." Roger Ebert wrote "Brian De Palma's Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that's the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It's also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn't another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she's a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who's a lot like kids we once knew" Carrie was well received by critics and audiences and earned stars Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie Best Actress and Supporting Actress Oscar nominations.  It was both a thriller and a coming of age drama, moving and horrific. Carrie is an example of what horror movies can be at their best.

Made in 1976 the US was going through massive social changes and working out how to deal with them. This is the era that brought about the New Hollywood where filmmakers took charge and set about doing work that was not simply fantastical but dealt with real issues in ways audiences outside of Europe had not seen. (check out Peter Biskind's amazing Easy Riders Raging Bulls if you're interested in this topic) Brian DePalma was a young filmmaker still looking to make his mark. Due to long periods of uncertain financing he sat and story boarded nearly the entire film. It is interesting to note that horror films generally follow the pattern of subduing an uncontrollable force. In Carrie, her telekinetic powers do not seem to be of any threat to anyone unless provoked. Her powers are used sparingly and as Tommy and Carrie begin to enjoy each others company and the dance itself the audience (or certainly me) gets caught up in the romantic aspect and feels just as wronged as Carrie does when Chris pulls the string releasing the barrage of pig's blood.

In Serafina Kent Bathrick's article Carrie: Ragtime: The Horror of Growing Up Female she claims DePalma
"has developed his own brand of sexism”. She writes, “there is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community amongst women”, and that ultimately, “like all the women in the film…[Carrie] is punished for being a woman”. Another academic Barbara Creed developed the notion of the Monstrous Feminine in her aptly titles essay Horror and the Monstrous Feminine. Creed writes that Carrie is “a particularly interesting representation of woman as witch and menstrual monster” If we look at Carrie's powers as a force for evil then yes, perhaps. But Carrie is a young woman wronged. All the women are in Carrie. They are the product of repression. Heck, even Chris has to give John Travolta a blow job to get him to do anything without getting slapped. They are limited by their lack of agency, by their perceived inability to affect anything other than each other.

I think Bathrick and Creed overlook Sue Snell (Amy Irving) in these contexts. Sue has agency and feels guilt for not knowing better and rightfully tries to make it up to Carrie by asking her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. Sue even attempts to thwart Chris's sabatoge of Carrie only to be pulled away Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) before she can stop Chris. There is an inherent self-loathing that the female characters seem to feel and only Miss Collins and Sue are able to act on it. They feel uncomfortable with the way Carrie makes them feel and they've been given few other options on how to deal with these feelings. Mocking, hate and disgust and easy feelings to pile on to someone who can't stand up for themselves.

In re-reading these articles it feels as though the scholars and critics are attempting to deal with Carrie in horror movie conventions. There are either heroes or villains. Any power is something indicating evil that cannot be controlled. Before reading these articles I never thought Carrie was a sexist film. It felt honest and brutally unflinching at the horror people inflict on other people. I think DePalma is trying to show his audiences that there is good and evil in all of us. DePalma's seemingly ultimate message (in my reading of the film) is that everyone has the power to be a monstrous and beyond that, we all have our own brand of horror within ourselves. That and don't piss off the chick who can move things with her mind.


  1. You really have to be reaching to consider Carrie a new brand of sexism. I understand the importance of feminist criticism and often view films in throught feminist lens myself, but it seems some cultural critics just try to dig for the meaning they want to find. In this case, the critics just want to take a film that is obviously sympathetic to women and discover that it's really the opposite.

    Forgive me if I'm ranting, but I get so sick of people trying to force this whole us against them false dichotomy. There's a whole lot of men out there who love and respect women; deal with it.

    Great, thoughtful post, as always, Alexandra

    1. Thanks Marvin! I agree that Carrie is an interesting examination of female community, I think it's a shame that conflict within that community tends to be labeled as sexist which demeans the conflict itself.

      Sexism is still alive and well, though I think it's a more complicated and intrinsic problem then most people will let on...

  2. Hi Alex...been catching up on your blog to shake the February blues and horror of horrors found your article on what is probably my favourite flick of this genre CARRIE ... and has been since it came out! Like what you say about the monstrous in each and everyone of us. In its day, I thought it revolutionary that girls/women were getting their own "coming-of-age" films and, thinking back, isn't it interesting that they took the form of the horror/thriller format.

    1. The teen films that come to mind are either horror films or rom-com nonsense because being a teenager generally means existing in either of those extremes.
      Thanks for reading :)

  3. "All the women are in Carrie. They are the product of repression. Heck, even Chris has to give John Travolta a blow job to get him to do anything without getting slapped. They are limited by their lack of agency, by their perceived inability to affect anything other than each other."!

    I was never a fan of Creed's essay. Every time I considered using it in a paper, I thought it to be way too essentialist. The best thing about modern horror is that hack critics can't conclude these characters in binaries. Even when they try.

    1. I love horror because it deals with oppressed and repressed feelings. I love that it shows us the ugly side of humanity when we're too scared to face it ourselves. Carrie is a perfect depiction of this. I think it's small minded to brand this film as sexist.