Last weekend, Julio and I had a movie marathon of the Scream Trilogy (technically it’s not a trilogy anymore, but old habits die hard). I watch these movies every October and usually at some other point during the year. I love them and it was really fun to share them with Julio because, having only seen the first one a long time ago, he had fresh eyes. Obnoxious as I am, I found myself pointing out references to other horror franchises, and analyzing parts of the films that others have argued make it the first feminist slasher series.
For example, Jamie Frevele at The Mary Sue calls Scream “The Feminist-Friendly Horror Franchise”, arguing that not only does Sidney Prescott prove herself a complex, strong character, “Scream also treats its female characters as more than just a gaggle of pretty targets.” She points out Gale Weathers’ refusal to become a victim and ruthless pursuit of success and Tatum’s balance of sexuality with wit.
“Indeed,” she continues, “Scream has always portrayed women as forces to be reckoned with, who should in no way be underestimated whether they are being targeted, killed, or killing.” So, as we watched the movies, Julio and I played a game where we pointed out feminist or potentially feminist moments. (Admittedly, he tired of it way sooner than I did, but I bought his patience with Halloween candy.)
But here’s the thing about Scream 4, as uncomfortable as the ending made me, I think it was also a sharp commentary on girlhood in a similar fashion to the series’ meta commentary on the horror genre. Both Frevele and Melissa Lafsky at The Awl call the film feminist basically because women are brutal killers and complex characters in a way that is not common to the horror genre, especially in slasher films. In fact, although I agree with her praise of Courtney Cox for busting out of ageist paradigms, Lafsky goes so far to laud the film as feminist because of the way that it marginalizes men in a traditionally masculine genre: “The male characters are bumbling, depth-free distractions, there to look like fools, or look like fools and then get killed, or just serve as continuous reminders of the ‘90s. (It’s David Arquette looking like a washed-up gambling addict! And look! They even cast a Culkin!) Meanwhile, the chicks get to shout and punch and spout out lists of classic horror films and treat boys like dryer lint and generally act AWESOME. And they don’t get killed for doing so.”
While I agree that it is really important that in the Scream movies generally and Scream 4 specifically, female characters do not get punished for their sexuality, vulnerability, or other flaws in a way that male characters do not, I think that there’s something problematic with arguing that the film is feminist because it sidelines the male characters. That feels a bit “add women and stir.”
Instead, I think what is most feminist about the film is the way that Jill comes to her role as the murderer and mastermind behind the latest batch of killings in Woodsboro. Jill kills her friends and her mother, and attempts to kill her cousin, in an attempt to achieve the fame that Sidney had because of her role in the original killings. In this way, I think Scream 4 subverts the role of the final girl— a role that Sidney Prescott herself subverted–by the way she performs it. She is the last girl because she is the killer but she also knows what is expected of the final girl and plays into that role to keep herself above suspicion and earn herself fame. As the killer, on the other hand, Jill takes revenge for being “fucked and dumped” and cheated on by her boyfriend and acts out what could be a nightmare of pent up female aggression.
On another level, Scream 4 critiques the media much like the other films did through Gale Weathers and Cotton Weary. Now, however, new media is added to the mix. As Jill explains her actions to Sidney: “I don’t need friends. I need fans. Don’t you get it? This has never been about killing you? It’s about becoming you. I mean, for fuck’s sake, my own mother had to die, no great loss there, so I could stay true to the original. That’s sick, right? Well, sick is the new sane. You had your 15 minutes, now I want mine! I mean, what am I supposed to do? Go to college? Grad school? Work? Look around. We all live in public now, we’re all on the Internet. How do you think people become famous any more? You don’t have to achieve anything. You just gotta have fucked up-shit happen to you. So you have to die, Sid. Those are the rules. New movie, new franchise. There’s only room for one lead, and let’s face it, your ingenue days, they’re over.” (Watch the reveal here)
To a certain degree, I think this critique is facile. Yes, the emphasis on fame and the surveillance of social media puts a lot of pressure on young people, but that doesn’t excuse Jill’s actions. It felt like a cheap reason until I thought back to Billy and Stu in Scream. Billy becomes a serial killer by acting out after his mother abandons him and Stu’s reason was peer pressure. Peer pressure. The killer’s motives have always seemed like thinly veiled repackaging of whatever is big in pop-psychology, so why should Jill be any different? I think what’s interesting here is that because the killer is an angry adolescent girl, the layering of the aggression, the self-mutilation she inflicts in order to present herself as a survivor instead of the killer, and the critique of the media through her speech and the reporters at the film’s closing creates a portrait of the horror of female adolescence. Not that female adolescents are horrible, mind you, but that the pressures young women face are themselves aggressive and monstrous. To me, that’s the feminist impulse of the film–that it creates a space for the violent backlash against sexual, social, and gendered pressures to emerge and then shuts it down, not by paternalistic forces, but rather by women who have successfully navigated these pressures–Sidney and Gale (and, okay, Dewey’s hot deputy).
I also just want to quote in full Frevele’s point about Randy, because it’s spot on: “Randy was not only an awesome character who made geekdom cool (and useful, really), but for me, he was my introduction to the Hot Geek Boy. He loved Sidney, and if he couldn’t have her, he’d never stop being her friend (or her hero). But he also knew everything. And ultimately he was killed, and it was tragic for everyone. So the fact that the geek was the killer in Scream 4 actually broke my heart. True geeks know where to draw the line.”
Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film