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.
Posted by Alexandra at 10:26 AM
TAKE AWAY _____________________
- DePalma’s seemingly ultimate message … is that everyone has the power to be a monstrous and beyond that, we all have our own brand of horror within ourselves.
- Sore point: there seems to be no solidarity between the female characters in Carrie. There are male-dominated horror films like The Thing where no man can trust another man. But pressures working against female co-operation could add something to a game — or totally bring everyone down. Do we want a game about the particular horrors female spectators face?
- the writer of this review seems to enjoy confronting the gendered fear that one of the academic critics is condemning:
>> Bathrick’s article: … claims DePalma "has developed his own brand of sexism … there is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community amongst women”,
>> Creed: Carrie is “a particularly interesting representation of woman as witch and menstrual monster”
>> “alexandra”: 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.
I don’t think the player characters want to play such disempowered women. But they might find some excitement in dealing with NPCs who are.