Inspired by those plucky Pussy Riot gals and their ‘being sent to a penal colony for a peaceful protest’ hi-jinks in Russia last year, I set out to find tracks from riot grrrl bands around the world. And just to shift the focus for once, I’ve ignored the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Europe and other super wealthy places.
‘Are there grrrls in the majority world?’ I wondered. The answer is yes, and they rock. In fact I’ve made a Majority World Riot Grrrl playlist which can be found for your delectation. Big shout out to Riot Grrrl Berlin and their fantastic compilations, on which lots of these bands feature.
The first band I found was an anarchafeminist outfit from Nepal called Tank Girl. Nepal has a deeply traditional patriarchal society; marital rape was outlawed only in 2006 and still carries just a six month sentence. Rape survivors are often ostracised, having ‘brought shame’ to their family and wider community. Dalit (or ‘low-caste’) women face additional discrimination and extremely high levels of violence.
One of Tank Girl’s members, Sareena Rai, is involved in two other feminist DIY punk bands, Rai Ko Ris and Naya Faya, and works to help Dalit women to protect themselves from gender-based violence, delivering self-defence training in her house. Which is pretty awesome.
Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia
I found a few more Asia-Pacific riot grrrl bands, including the adorable Fatal Posporos from the Philippines and Pretty Riot from Indonesia. As well as bands Hellsister and Dance On Your Grave, the scene in Malaysia was (and hopefully still is) large enough to support a zine distro called Grrrl:Rebel. “Through zines, people in the scene are much more exposed to stuffs that were somewhat limited to them and the public before” founder Carol told GrrrlZines.net in 2001. “In countries like Malaysia and Singapore, you would get arrested if you write any articles that can be considered as threats to the government.”
It’s comments like that which I find so remarkable, dropped into interviews about the role of girls in the punk scene and the best local bands which could kind of be about anywhere.
Africa and the Middle East
While I couldn’t find any trace of a riot grrrl scene in Africa, I did happen upon a 2011 documentary called Punk In Africa which sounds good. And in the Middle East, grrrls are thin on the ground, but judging from the cracking MidEastTunes website there are plenty of women active in dark metal and goth, including Bahrain’s first all-girl metal band Scarlet Tear.
Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil
South America does seem to have a sizeable riot grrrl base – my cursory search turned up bands in Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia and Argentina. Le Butcherettes from Mexico are definitely worth a listen, and I’d like to find more by a Venezuelan skapunk outfit called 7 Potencias who have a song called ‘Feminista de Bolsillo’, which I’m led to believe translates as ‘Pocket Feminist’.
Bit of context: while Brazil is the world’s sixth largest economy, there is still vast inequality. And although it currently has a female President for the first time in Dilma Rouseff, women make up just 8.6% of the seats in Parliament. Abortion is legal only to save a woman’s life or in cases of rape, and in 2010, it was reported that 200,000 women a year are hospitalized for complications of illegal abortion.
The reasons behind riot grrrl’s popularity in Brazil are even the subject of an academic paper by Calla Hummel, who recognises the political significance and adaptability of this particular bit of shouty youth culture:
Brazilian riot grrrl is one of the sites where Western cultural hegemony is being called into question… As it moves across borders, riot grrrl becomes a form of transnational feminism – and grrrls must address how ideas and material originating in a given locale may resonate, change, or delegitimize ideas and work in another.
Gender inequality is a global problem which varies in its expression across different cultural contexts. It’s not an ‘over there’ issue, but in some places it’s more severe than in others. Similarly, riot grrrl anywhere is awesome, but the courage and kickassness of the grrrls in these bands is pretty inspiring.
As a band member called Isabella quoted by Hummel says:
As long as we keep getting letters from the middle of the jungle, from a tiny, three person town in the Amazon, from some girl saying, ‘Feminism saved my life, thank you,’ we will keep doing it.
- Today we’re honoured to welcome Lydia Harris of feminist DJing duo Girl Germs and other awesomeness back to BadRep Towers. Wanna join the party? Send your pitch to [email protected]!
Everybody has an opinion about Quentin Tarantino. Is he racist for using the ‘N’ word so often in his scripts? Is he a genius, or a copycat? Is he some sort of sicko, in love with violence for its own sake? Can he act? (No, he can’t.)
But underneath the gore, profanity, and wooden cameos, is there anything for feminists to celebrate? As unlikely as it sounds, I think there is.
Tarantino has written some pretty amazing parts for women. He puts them on screen, not just as eye candy or the girlfriends of the heroes, but as people with stories of their own to tell. They know how to defend themselves and their friends, and they do their own stunts. They fight (and dance) barefoot, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.
This isn’t to say that the man himself is a feminist icon, or that his films are entirely unproblematic. Some of the violence perpetrated against the women characters has an uncomfortably voyeuristic feel to it, and every now and again his films feel more like depictions of his own sexual fantasies rather than true fiction. He professes a love for ‘strong women’ (he grew up with a single mother), but this sexualisation of women characters does call his motives into question.
It’s worth bearing in mind though, that these characters haven’t sprung new and fully formed from Tarantino’s imagination – they’re loving reimaginations of the deadly but beautiful women of the B-movies and exploitation flicks Tarantino watched as a youngster. These women were usually a bit too ‘empowered’ for their own good, and often ended up getting their comeuppance. Dodgy source material, sure, but Tarantino regularly flips this trope on its head. The rapists, murderers and crooks in his movies rarely escape without feeling the wrath of their female ‘victims’.
Try watching Zoe Bell playing ‘Ship’s Mast’ at 100mph without feeling a heart-swelling sense of sisterly pride. And I don’t know a woman who has seen Pulp Fiction and not thought Mia Wallace would be a pretty sassy best friend (if it weren’t for the cocaine abuse).
As feminists, we sometimes have to dig about in the mud of misogyny to find some empowering gold dust. In honour of that, here’s a rundown of the baddest, sassiest women in QT’s weird world.
Mia Wallace (Pulp Fiction)
Did her husband Marsellus really throw a man over a balcony for giving her a foot-rub? Maybe not, but it’s easy to see why he might. Everybody in the movie is afraid of him, and perhaps so is Mia (she asks Vincent not to tell him about the overdose), but she seems to do pretty much what she wants anyway.
She flirts with Vincent over dinner, and we never find out what might have happened between them had she not mistaken his heroin for cocaine. Something of an enigma, she’s a sassy, straight-talking woman with a preference for silence over chatter (“That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”) This combination of beauty and brains seems to have a profound effect on the men who meet her, and enables her to survive in her world populated by crooks and murderers.
Jackie Brown (Jackie Brown)
Jackie Brown is a black woman in her forties, and the star of the movie that bears her name as its title. In the youth-obsessed, whitewashed culture of Hollywood, this is exciting and unusual in itself (depressing, huh?).
The legendary Pam Grier plays a flight attendant, who works for a crappy airline. She makes some extra bucks on the side by smuggling in ill-gotten cash for a gun-dealer named Ordell, until she gets busted.
As she says: “Well, I’ve flown seven million miles. And I’ve been waiting on people almost 20 years. The best job I could get after my bust was Cabo Air, which is the worst job you can get in this industry. I make about sixteen thousand, with retirement benefits that ain’t worth a damn. And now with this arrest hanging over my head, I’m scared. If I lose my job I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with. I’ll be stuck with whatever I can get. And that shit is scarier than Ordell.”
But Jackie is a survivor in the truest sense of the word. When things look bad for her, she takes matters into her own hands, using her brains and courage to rip off the gangsters and escape a jail sentence in one outrageously brave scheme.
She plans everything herself, knows who she can trust, and isn’t afraid to turn a gun on a man who she knows to be a killer. She’s a smart, older, black woman who, despite being a total fox (Foxy Brown, geddit?), doesn’t use her sexuality to get ahead. With media portrayal of black women usually relying heavily on sexualized stereotypes, Jackie Brown is a breath of fresh air.
The Bride / Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill)
When people talk about ‘empowered’ female characters in Tarantino movies, Beatrix Kiddo is who they’re usually thinking of. The woman is dragged through hell backwards, and still manages to exact bloody revenge on everybody who hurt her, or kept her from her child.
The trope of the vengeful woman is not a particularly progressive one. But Beatrix Kiddo is no ‘bunny boiler’. She was shot in the head and left for dead, raped whilst in a coma, and led to believe that her unborn child had died. As much as we might find the gore and violence hard to stomach, it’s hard to argue with her motives. From Beatrix herself: “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality.”
She’s a woman who knows how to protect herself, and believes her life is worth fighting for. Even when she’s been buried alive, it’s still impossible to see her as a victim. And she’s not the only strong woman in the film (although she’s the only one you’re rooting for).
The women in Kill Bill are scrappy. The fights between The Bride and other female ex-members of the Deadly Viper Assasination Squad aren’t sexy ‘girl fights’. They fight with skill, knocking seven shades of shit out of each other with terrifying ferocity. They’re fighting for their lives, and it isn’t pretty.
But The Bride isn’t just violent and vengeful. She’s a mother who longs to be reunited with her child. Somehow, this duality doesn’t cause the dissonance you would expect. She’s a three-dimensional character, more than capable of being many different things at once. The shock of that highlights just how rare it is in a Hollywood film.
Zoe Bell, Kim and Abernathy (Death Proof)
Death Proof is a film of two halves, linked by one gross, murderous ex-stunt driver. In the first half, he stalks and kills a group of beautiful friends with his car. But we know that in Tarantino’s world, creeps don’t get away with things like that. When he attempts to do the same thing with another group of women, he makes a fatal error by messing with a stuntwoman, stunt driver, and their super-cool make-up artist friend.
I have some serious qualms about the first half, as the violence perpetrated against the victims is fetishised to an almost ludicrous degree. But things take a turn for the better when Zoe Bell and her pals (played by Tracie Thorns and Rosario Dawson) arrive on screen.
Zoe Bell is a real-life stuntwoman, who plays herself in this movie. When you see her perched on the bonnet of a car being driven at 100 mph, that’s really her, and she’s really doing that. Which is wicked cool.
Stuntman Mike grows tired of chasing these women who refuse to be victims, but they haven’t finished with him. Instead of letting him get away, they go after him. And their intentions are clear, with Abernathy declaring “Let’s kill this bastard.”
In the real world, women rarely receive justice for the violence they experience. Although this vigilante-style justice is probably not what we want for our own society (however satisfying it might be), watching it on screen is incredibly cathartic. When Abernathy puts the final boot into Stuntman Mike, the urge to cheer is almost overwhelming.
Shoshanna (Inglourious Basterds)
Shoshanna is the self-styled “face of Jewish vengeance” in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s ‘creative’ re-imagining of World War Two. She escapes the ‘Jew Hunter’, who kills her whole family whilst they are in hiding. When we next see her, she’s running a cinema in occupied Paris, where the Nazis want to screen their latest propaganda film.
As painful as this is to her, she sees it as an opportunity to exact revenge for what was done to her family, and other Jewish families across Europe. Her single-minded resolve, and calm in the face of extraordinary pressure, is the perfect foil to the disastrous exploits of the Basterds.
Women in war films are usually relegated to the roles of tearful wife or showgirl. In Inglourious Basterds, it is a woman who changes the course of the war, and thus history. This epitomises one of the key attributes of Tarantino’s women: agency. They make decisions for themselves that change their lives, and the lives of others around them.
Of course, we know that women made a huge and valuable contribution to the war effort, in many different ways. It’s just a shame that it took a film with a fictionalised version of history to depict a woman having any sort of meaningful involvement in the conflict.
So, there you have it. Those are my own favourite Tarantino women. Broomhilda from Django Unchained didn’t quite make it in, as I’ve only seen it once. But I think she should get an honourable mention here, if only for surviving.
Obviously, Tarantino’s movies are far from perfect feminism-wise, and the man himself doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to saying sexist douchebag things. But with so few interesting or positive representations of women on-screen, we should celebrate the few characters who break the mould. Especially if they make us leave the cinema feeling a little cooler, a little braver and a little more willing to stand up for ourselves.
- Lydia Harris likes to think of herself as a grownup Wednesday Addams. Her pasty complexion is the result of watching movies and snacking during the day with the curtains closed, instead of going out to enjoy ‘fresh air’. She tweets as @lydiasquidia, and blogs (infrequently) about pop culture and feminism at myswimsuitissues.blogspot.com.
- Emily McQuade takes the guest post slot now as part of our February Women in Horror Recognition Month blogfest. Do you have a pitch? Pitch that pitch to [email protected]!
For a stylish, slinky and subversive depiction of a bloodsucker, Daughters of Darkness (directed by Harry Kümel, 1971) is well worth a look. It’s a hypnotic cocktail of horror and arthouse. The DVD has a campy Hammer-style cover and the tag line, ‘An erotic nightmare of vampire lust!’ Subtle. For some reason, there were a lot of lesbian vampire movies released in the 70s. However anyone looking for straight-up naughtiness will be disappointed with Daughters of Darkness. The vampires are beautiful women, but it’s not about titillation. It’s a lot weirder than that.
The story: a pair of newlyweds arrive at an out-of-season hotel in chilly Ostend. The bride – Valerie – is dressed all in white and appears to be the picture of naïve innocence. The groom – Stefan – has a handsome face, but there’s something not quite right about his smile. It almost looks like a sneer.
Their relationship appears to be a bit, well, peculiar. She’s concerned that he hasn’t told his mother about their marriage. He seems to be in no hurry to do so. Prior to their unscheduled stop-in at this beautiful but lonely place, they have both confessed that they don’t love one another and both seem okay with this. And then, during dinner, the sapphic vampire aristocrat arrives with her assistant/lover.
The Countess Bathory, played with otherworldly grace and just a hint of vulnerability by Delphine Seyrig, tells the couple that she is a descendant of the infamously murderous Hungarian countess. (A real historical character and template for the ‘glamourous female vampire’ archetype, Elizabeth Bathory was supposed to have been a serial killer but apparently wasn’t really into drinking virgin’s blood. That was a rumour that came about years after her death. The real Countess was never a vampire, just as Catherine the Great probably never even got to first base with any horses.)
Her loving description of the horrors her ancestor inflicted on young ladies gets Stefan a bit excited. Valerie is horrified. At first. And then the couple are drawn into the vampire’s world. In which the notions of victim and monster get turned sideways. And then the film briefly shows us Stefan’s ‘Mother’. (As the the none-more-seventies voiceover man enthuses in the film’s trailer, ‘She’s something else!’).
And there are some deaths. Including death by bowl.
Yes, bowl. And a lovely crystal bowl it is too. And someone knocks an entire lobster on the floor in the act. Such decadence! The film could be read as a mediation on power and relationships. (In their own ways, Countess Bathory and Stefan are both bullies.) Or an exercise in playing around with genre tropes. Or a daft-but-enjoyable confection of crazy featuring some splendid outfits (sequins, feathers, PVC capes!).
Actually, it’s probably a bit of all of these. It’s a strange and beautiful work. Even the bits that make you snigger might crop up in your dreams a long time after you’ve seen it.
- Emily McQuade is the co-author of Film Burble, where she likes to discuss all things cinematic. She’d like to live in a world where action figures are manufactured for all Mike Leigh characters. When not thinking about films, she likes to skulk around London in search of books, comedy and mandrills. She can also be founding loafing about on Twitter: @missmcq.
- I once had to walk through a cinema foyer full of Twilight fans and had to restrain myself from bellowing, ‘It’s not as good as The Lost Boys.’ In a couple of decades hence, they’ll probably have to resist the urge to be similarly snarky about some future vampire boy-fest. [↩]
- Yes really. I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle is a British horror/comedy from the late 80s. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it, so can’t comment on its quality. [↩]
- Next up in our Women in Horror Recognition Month series, we’re super stoked to welcome award-winning author Lisa Tuttle to the guest slot. (Wanna join the guest blogging fun? Send your pitches to [email protected].)
In the dim and distant past, I edited an original anthology of horror stories called Skin of the Soul. Most of the stories were new (there were two reprints) and all of the contributors were women. What sparked my decision to do it was an all-male horror anthology published a couple of years earlier to much acclaim: Prime Evil, edited by Douglas E. Winter, was a showcase for “the masters of modern horror”, and Winter’s introduction was dedicated to the argument that horror is not a genre but an emotion, to be found throughout all literature,from high to low.
I agree; I don’t care much for generic “horror”, even if I prefer it to generic “romance”, and although I’ve written a lot of horror stories, and most of my novels have some element of horror in them (one, Lost Futures, published as horror in the US, was nominated for a science fiction award in Britain) I’m not that comfortable identifying myself as a “horror writer”.
The writers Winter invited to contribute to his anthology included nearly all the big names of the time (Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker) but also lesser-known writers (Jack Cady and Paul Hazel). Even the introduction, pointing to the many sources of horror in the mainstream, gave a name-check to just one woman writer throughout literary history.
Who was this paragon? You might guess Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, Christina Rossetti, Edith Wharton, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates… but no, the solitary example the editor chose was “…the best-selling novels of V.C. Andrews.” (I did wonder if he knew her first name was Virginia rather than, say, Victor.)
So I was horrified – not in a good way – by this compilation of horrors, and daydreamed about selling my own anthology, inviting a list of excellent writers to contribute, writing my own erudite introduction about great horror fiction of the past. If anyone pointed out that all of those writers were women, I’d act surprised, pretend it was just the luck of the draw, these were the best stories submitted and naturally the examples I chose were my personal favourites.
I certainly did not set out to deliberately exclude men; there were lots of good male writers, but now that I came to think about it, not many of them wrote horror. I mean real horror, genuinely well-written and original, not that childish gross-out stuff, not those tired generic clichés, not dreary old male fantasies, but the kind of thing I wanted to read, because, after all, it only counts as horror in my book if it fits my definition… and I reserve the right to change the rules whenever I like.
Over years of going to conventions, and reading and writing and reviewing (even teaching classes) in the fields of science fiction, fantasy and horror, I’ve noticed how much time is devoted to definitions of genre. Any genre. Once you start putting labels on books, you must justify the inclusion of one and the exclusion of another. This is science fiction, of which I approve, while that is merely fantasy. (I remember Charles Platt defending his choice of interviewees for his first Who Writes Science Fiction? – Kate Wilhelm was the only woman, and she was interviewed in tandem with her husband – but, he explained, Ursula LeGuin had refused his request, and he couldn’t think of any other woman who wrote what he considered to be proper science fiction.)
“Literary” authors are given a pass time and again, not tarred with the genre brush (it’s “magic realism” or “speculative fiction”) and it pops up in discussions and reader reviews all the time: “I don’t call this horror.” “This is all about atmosphere and character and not scary at all.” “Maybe works as literature, but not as horror fiction.” “Vampires wouldn’t do that.” Etc.
Critics may praise authors who “push the boundaries” or subvert expectations, but these are the very actions that can make the dedicated genre fan feel cheated, and respond angrily, as if when they ordered chocolate ice cream, they’d been served a bowl of extra-hot chilli.
When, more than twenty years after the publication of Skin of the Soul (“which proves indisputably that horror fiction is not a male preserve”, or so said Clive Barker in 1990) , I find that women are still fighting that old battle, still having their contributions to horror ignored or forgotten, I wonder if this isn’t – at least partly – something to do with definitions and expectations of genre. And with who is defining it, and why.
Myself, I’ve never limited my reading to one type of fiction, and I don’t write novels that fall neatly into a narrowly defined slot, either. (Maybe this is my problem!) There are some readers for whom genre fiction is comfort food, and they don’t want any nasty surprises when they’ve snuggled down to read – even in a genre celebrated as the purveyor of nasty surprises. Maybe, for some readers, it doesn’t count as horror unless the author plays by certain rules, unless the story is purveyed via the male gaze, and the name on the title page does nothing to break the illusion that we’re all boys together in this clubhouse.
Born in 1863 and a celebrated author in her lifetime, Sinclair has, like so many women writers, been largely forgotten, despite her close friendships with some of modernism’s poster boys: Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Frost, and others. She was an early champion of T.S. Eliot and the first critic to use the term “stream of consciousness” to describe a literary technique.
Rather brilliantly, Sinclair also campaigned for women to get the vote, and in 1912 wrote a pamphlet called ‘Feminism’ which argued for women’s equal potential for intellectual endeavour and political engagement. Her feminism seems to have been rather essentialist, but she was still a powerful voice for equality at a time when women were routinely denied the vote, an education, economic independence or sexual agency.
Sinclair had no formal education, although she read widely and developed an interest in psychoanalysis, philosophy and mysticism in particular. She attended Cheltenham Ladies College for a year before leaving to care for her four brothers who all had a hereditary heart defect. In spite of this, she wrote a dozen novels including bleak bildungsroman The Life and Death of Harriett Frean, essays, poems and short stories before the onset of Parkinson’s disease prevented her from writing.
She died in 1946, having already drifted into obscurity. However, her literary significance as a pioneer of feminism and modernism is starting to be recognised, as this great post points out: “Her work is good, even great, and it covers all the stops. It fits quite neatly in between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and she can serve well as a missing link.”
I stumbled upon Sinclair entirely by accident when I picked up her 1923 collection Uncanny Stories, which is where the horror connection comes in. There’s a near-complete copy available on Google Books if you want to check it out, although it’s missing one of my favourites.
Sinclair’s letters show that her idea for the title predates the publication of Freud’s essay The Uncanny by nearly a decade, but she seems to have welcomed the coincidence and it’s certainly fitting. Her stories are intensely psychological; there is no gore or ghouls, but instead a creeping horror and eerie imagery, and a sense of claustrophobia which lingers long after you’ve finished reading.
Some of the stories are intensely sad, such as ‘If The Dead Knew’, in which a son realises his dead mother has heard him tell others how he had secretly hated her:
Something compelled him to turn round and look towards his mother’s chair.
Then he saw her.
She stood between him and the chair, straight and thin, dressed in the clothes she had died in, the yellowish flannel nightgown and bed jacket.
The apparition maintained itself with difficulty. Already its hair had grown indistinct, a cap of white mist. Its face was an insubstantial framework for its mouth and eyes, and for the tears that fell in two shining tracks between. It was less a form than a visible emotion, an anguish.
Hollyer stood and stared at it. Through the glasses of its tears it gazed back at him with an intense, a terrible reproach and sorrow.
Then, slowly and stiffly, it began to recede from him, drawn back and back, without any movement of its feet, in an unearthly stillness, keeping up, to the last minute, its look of indestructible reproach.
And now it was a formless mass that drifted to the window and hung there a second, and passed, shrinking like a breath on the pane.
But other tales are comic. In ‘The Victim’, a ghostly visitation to a murderer isn’t full of reproach, but thanks – for freeing the victim from his debts.
Sinclair’s themes and imagery chime with many of the ideas popularised by Freud. Earlier in ‘If the Dead Knew’ the central character Hollyer is alarmed to discover he wishes his mother would die:
In the dark, secret places of the mind your thoughts ran loose beyond your knowing: they burrowed under the walls that shut off one self from another; they got through. It was as if his secret self had broken loose.
You are the unconscious mind and I claim my five pounds.
Founding a literary tradition which would later include Elizabeth Bowen and Margaret Atwood, Sinclair’s uncanny stories feature divided and dislocated selves, the dance of impulse and resistance and the hidden tracks and traces of memory and unspoken desire. And as Philippa Martindale explains, these stories are particularly concerned with feminine and feminist experience:
Sinclair’s uncanny fiction is a subtle tool for feminist expression, deconstructing patriarchal paradigms of power… Her uncanny stories serve as a forum for ‘deviant’ subjects, addressing cultural issues such as female desire, sexuality, and gender roles.
When I first read the collection, it reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories, and especially ‘The Apple Tree‘ – in part because most of the stories concern relationships between men and women. Martindale highlights the “sense of struggle for mastery between Sinclair’s male and female protagonists, typically played out in the sexual arena.” One of the best examples is ‘Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched’, which deals at once with the fantastic and the horrifically mundane as a former couple are compelled to eternally repeat their loveless affair in a shabby hotel room in the afterlife.
On the subject of ghost stories, Sinclair herself said:
Ghosts have their own atmospheres and their own reality, they also have their setting in the everyday reality we know; the story-teller is handling two realities at the same time.
For me it is this touching of two worlds which makes ghost stories so thrilling. The idea of something surfacing or reaching through, reaching back is unsettling and deeply uncanny. Sinclair’s protagonists find themselves at points where the membrane between the natural and supernatural, life and afterlife, the conscious and unconscious has grown thin.
- Next up in our Women in Horror Recognition Month series, we’re thrilled to welcome author Alison Littlewood to the guest slot. Alison’s debut novel, A Cold Season, is out now. (Wanna join the guest blogging fun? Send your pitches to [email protected].)
I was delighted when Bad Reputation asked me to recommend the work of five women working in horror, to coincide with Women in Horror Recognition Month. It’s the perfect time to celebrate each other’s work and shout about what women have achieved in the field. So here are five personal picks…
1. Thana Niveau, short story writer
I first came across Thana’s work in various anthologies, including several editions of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, where her work had rightfully been selected as among the most outstanding of the year.
From Hell to Eternity is a wonderful read. I particularly loved the opening story, ‘The Curtain’, with its eerie underwater world, and ‘Stolen to Time’, with a photography session that captures more than is bargained for. This is a strong debut, and definitely marks Thana out as one to watch.
Furthermore… this is a lady who really lives the life. As her bio says, she ‘lives in a crumbling gothic tower in Wicker Man country. She shares her life with fellow horror scribe John Llewellyn Probert, in a Victorian library filled with arcane books and curiosities.’
Her online home (‘a little dusty, little dark, a little strange,’) is at thananiveau.com.
2. Marie O’Regan, anthologist
Marie is another talented short story writer as well as a top-flight anthologist. She has also worked behind the scenes of the FantasyCon gathering, putting programming together and bringing some fantastic guests of honour to the event.
One of her latest titles is The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women (published by Robinson), a project aimed at showcasing the work of women writers in the field. It includes stories dating back to the nineteenth century through to contemporary ghostly tales. I have a story in there too, and can vouch that Marie is a pleasure to work with.
With husband Paul Kane, Marie also edited Hellbound Hearts (Pocket Books), a Clive Barker tribute anthology that includes stories by Neil Gaiman, Sarah Pinborough, Conrad Williams, Tim Lebbon, Barbie Wilde, Kelley Armstrong and many more, and features a foreword by Clive Barker.
Next up on my ‘to be read’ pile is The Mammoth Book of Body Horror (Robinson), which includes more big names and potentially more visceral fare…
Find Marie at www.marieoregan.net.
3. Sarah Pinborough, novelist
Sarah Pinborough has published a number of novels, including The Hidden, Tower Hill, The Reckoning and Breeding Ground, a wonderfully chilling book that reimagines motherhood and birth in an entirely different way.
Her novella, The Language of Dying (PS Publishing) is an intimate and harrowing account of a father’s terminal illness. The fantasy elements are interwoven with the lightest touch – this is more akin to true-life horror, and brought me to tears. It won the 2010 British Fantasy Award for Best Novella.
The Dog-Faced Gods series (Gollancz) is a widely acclaimed trilogy combining crime with the supernatural. Coming up is a duology of historical novels that again combine crime with horror: Mayhem and Murder (Jo Fletcher Books). Sarah also has a movie, Cracked, in development, and is making inroads into writing for television, with an episode of New Tricks under her belt. Her short story ‘The Confessor’s Tale’ was among my favourites in the Marie O’Regan/Paul Kane anthology, Hellbound Hearts.
See more from her at sarahpinborough.com.
4. Angela Slatter, short story writer
Winner of a British Fantasy Award and two Aurealis Awards, Angela Slatter is an Australian writer of dark fantasy and horror. She has a Masters (Research) in Creative Writing and a PhD in Creative Writing.
Sourdough is full of dark fairy tales, where babies are fashioned from bread and dolls are given souls. The Girl with No Hands has retold stories, including The Little Match Girl and Bluebeard.
I tend to think of fairy tales as the original horror stories, and Angela’s work is ideal for anyone who likes their dark fiction with a good measure of the magical and folkloric.
It’s good to hear that she is currently working on an urban fantasy novel, Brisneyland by Night.
5. Muriel Gray, novelist and TV presenter
Muriel Gray was a special guest at FantasyCon last year, where she brought boundless enthusiasm to the role (and the biggest grin that I’ve ever seen!). She originally hails from East Kilbride, Scotland. She graduated from the Glasgow School of Art, played in a punk band and went on to be a successful TV presenter as well as an author. She also founded one of the UK’s leading independent television production companies.
Her writing career began in 1995 with the bestselling horror novel The Trickster, which was followed by Furnace and The Ancient (all HarperCollins), which Stephen King described as “scary and unputdownable”.
She has also contributed many short stories to anthologies and magazines, the most recent including The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women and A Carnivàle of Horror: Dark Tales from the Fairground (PS Publishing).
Apparently Muriel was a horror fan from childhood, when she hid The Pan Book of Horror Stories under her bed covers and read it with a torch.
- Alison Littlewood’s latest novel, Path of Needles, will be out in June 2013. Her first novel, A Cold Season (Jo Fletcher Books) was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, where it was described as “perfect reading for a dark winter’s night.” Her short stories have been picked for the Best Horror of the Year and Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, as well as The Best British Fantasy 2013 and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 10.
- Next up in our Women in Horror Recognition Month blogfest (and taking the torch from Maura McHugh) is writer Chris Farnell, who is our go-to consultant for bespoke zombie apocalypse contingency planning. (Wanna join the guest blogging fun? Send your pitches to [email protected].)
I love zombie movies. I run a blog about them, I just helped run an event at the Science Museum about them, and I once sent BadRep writer Hannah Chutzpah to get arrested just so I could write about a zombie flash mob.
One of the things about being a fan of all things zombie is that on a regular basis I come across articles declaring the end of the ‘zombie craze’, saying that all the stories about zombies have been told, that the genre is exhausted. These articles will usually involve puns.
It’s an argument that essentially misses the point of how both people and stories work – we don’t tell a story and then move onto the next one, we tell the same story over and over, from every possible angle, trying to tease out something new or rediscovered each time. One of the reasons I love zombie movies is they’re full of opportunities for that.
But that said, there is one zombie story that I have yet to see told anywhere (and if it has, and I missed it, please tell me. I wanna see). Particularly, it involves a group of people that zombie movies have led me to believe could make up as much as a third of the global population – women.
Zombie movies have, on the whole, managed to avoid most of the standard horror movie tropes when it comes to women. The amount of alcohol and sex a woman enjoys doesn’t usually directly correlate with their survival chances. Chase scenes rarely take place while female zombie fighters are in their underwear.
Yes, the first proper zombie movie, 1968′s Night of the Living Dead did star a woman (Judith O’Dea, right) who switched between being hysterical or catatonic, and another who gladly let herself get stabbed to death by her own daughter, because that’s what good mothers do. There was another woman in that film as well, but nobody ever remembers either her or her boyfriend, so we can safely ignore them. However, after that initial outing George Romero actually seemed to learn, and the way women in zombie movies are portrayed generally has improved as a result.
By 1978, and Dawn of the Dead, the main female character (Gaylen Ross’s Francine) may have found herself in the role of “house mom”, and not just because she was pregnant. But she fought against that role, insisting that the others teach her how to fire a gun and fly the escape helicopter, skills which led to her being the movie’s only survivor.
Day of the Dead (1985) had only one female character, but Sarah (Lori Cardille) was also very much the brains of the film, a badass, level headed under pressure, and again, one of the three characters to make it through the film.
When Night of the Living Dead was remade by Romero in 1990, Barbra, our alternately catatonic/screaming heroine from the first film, was now – played by Patricia Tallman – also a badass who knew her way around a firearm.
This is a pattern that’s replicated across the genre. You can see it in Selena in 28 Days Later (and yes, that is a proper zombie movie), in Ana, the lead protagonist in the Dawn of the Dead remake, in Wichita and Little Rock in Zombieland (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, right), and in Kelly, the lead protagonist in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set. Even in Shaun of the Dead, Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is the level-headed straight woman to the comedy antics of the rest of the cast.
And now we’re getting to the nub of the matter. Liz is the straight woman.
You see, zombie movies come in many different flavours. They can be war movies, economic parables, satire, or an examination of the violence inherent in human nature. They can even, with their “bunch of people locked in a building together” format, be a sitcom. But in most cases, one thing you see a lot of in zombie movies is wish fulfilment.
It’s the reason why so many perfectly sensible, realistic people have more detailed plans for a zombie apocalypse than they do for a fire breaking out in their home. There’s an appeal in the idea that real life, with its bills, jobs, relationships and traffic jams, might one day give way to the sort of massive catastrophe that would finally reveal the inner badass you’ve been all along.
Zombie movies are filled with guys who lead boring or screwed up lives before the outbreak hits, only to rise to the occasion and become the hero. Shaun is stuck in a go-nowhere job and has just been dumped by his girlfriend when the zombies turn up. Zombieland’s Columbus is a phobic shut-in who plays endless World of Warcraft and has “perfectly justifiable to speculate on” virginity. 28 Days Later’s Jim is a bicycle courier who goes from being a liability at the start of the film to single-handedly taking down a house full of armed, trained soldiers by the climax. Even Ash Williams, famed zombie killer extraordinaire (despite the Evil Dead films, I’m sorry, not counting as proper zombie films. I don’t make the rules) started out as a shop clerk.
But it’s always the guy. The guy is allowed to start out hopeless and go through the learning curve required to reach the point where he’s massacring zombies with a lawnmower (Braindead, incidentally, is another example of this trope). Female characters in zombie movies nearly always start out with their badass qualifications already in place. Only guys get to use the zombie apocalypse to escape how little they can cope with day-to-day life.
And it’s not because this is an exclusively a male fantasy, not by a long shot. If you doubt me, do a quick search for “zombie survival” among the women of OKCupid. Talk to Mary Hamilton, one of the brains behind Zombie LARP, or Naomi Alderman of Zombies, Run!. Talk to my own sister, who has an imaginative, if fatally flawed zombie survival plan that involves stealing a train. Even with my fairly limited social media following, I was able to find five women with zombie survival plans in the space of an hour (and one of them had three plans, depending on her circumstances).
So, going back to the beginning, this is the new zombie film I want to see. Show us a zombie film with a hapless female protagonist caught in a shitty dead end job with mounting bills and a disaster of a love life. Then, over the course of the film, have her discover she has a knack for clean decapitations and barricade building.
It’s not particularly groundbreaking, but I can’t find that film out there, and I’ve looked hard. If you make this film, I’m telling you, there’s a huge readymade audience for it.
If you’re big into horror, feminism or both, you might already know that February is Women in Horror Recognition Month.
We recently kicked off a set of posts on Women in Horror with a return to our soapbox by Irish horror author Maura McHugh, who returned to BadRep Towers to spotlights some women she admired working in the genre across a range of media.
Before we go further, though, we’d like to share the Women in Horror Month Mission statement.
This Mission Statement is taken from the Women in Horror Recognition Month website. They’ve asked that it be shared, quoted and spread about as much as possible, so we’re giving it the spotlight in itself for a moment, before we get down with our horror-nerdy selves in these pages.
Women in Horror Recognition Month (WiHM) assists underrepresented female genre artists in gaining opportunities, exposure, and education through altruistic events, printed material, articles, interviews, and online support. WiHM seeks to expose and break down social constructs and miscommunication between female professionals while simultaneously educating the public about discrimination and how they can assist the female gender in reaching equality.
A world in which all individuals are equally given the opportunity to create, share, and exploit their concept of life, pain, and freedom of expression.
IT’S THE YEAR 2012, NOT THE 1950s. IS THERE REALLY A NEED FOR WiHM?
Absolutely. Otherwise, WiHM would not exist. Women are still not offered the same pay and opportunities as their male colleagues in many industries, particularly the arts. Discrimination runs rampant in Hollywood and it’s very difficult for females (even well-known actresses) to get their films funded by major studios.
Statistics prove that women are still not offered the same opportunities as men due to an array of reasons, from discrimination to female professionals accepting less than they are worth in order to receive the same opportunities as their male colleagues.
In other parts of the world, women are still stoned to death for speaking their minds, excommunicated when they are sexually violated, and not offered proper education. Atrocities continue to happen that force the female gender to be subservient to a patriarchal system that tells them how to dress, who to marry, and what they should do with their lives. All discrimination must be exposed and obliterated for the female gender to truly achieve equality.
WiHM focuses on supporting the achievements of women who utilize the most extreme mirror available in storytelling: horror. We encourage women to explore and represent these horrors constructively, in positive environments.
WHAT ARE THE INDUSTRY’S STATISTICS?
- In the 1920s there were no more than 10 women working in Hollywood in leadership positions.
- In 2009, the mainstream film industry’s ratio was 16% women to 84% men.
- In 2011, women made up only 5% of directors working in Hollywood.
SO WiHM IS ALL ABOUT WOMEN. WHAT ABOUT MEN?
WiHM was created with no exclusion. Men play a vital part in the female gender reaching equality. There are many male WiHM Ambassadors and artists who choose to assist and work with professional and talented underrepresented female practitioners. Be a guiding example of a man who respects both genders equally.1
WHAT CAN THE PUBLIC DO TO ASSIST WOMEN?
We all must take personal responsibility for our beliefs, values, and actions. Participating in positive, constructive environments that encourage and provide a safe platform for women to share and explore is vital.
Education is essential. Knowledge is power. Understanding history and where that puts us today, politically and socially, demonstrates how we are interpreting each other and ourselves.
Work with Women
Finding professional women to work with in leadership positions is one of the most important actions you can take to assist the movement. Don’t just work with a woman because of her gender, work with her because she has a lot to bring to the table.
Banish social constrictions
Stereotyping, judging, cattiness, competitiveness, comparing, and gossip – all of these actions hurt men and women. We are all on our own path in life, careers, and personal relationships. We are encouraged to play into these cultural expectations when we are young, which can create judgment of those who are different. Stop it.
Be a WiHM Ambassador
Every February, WiHM Ambassadors host charity events (blood drives, film screenings, art shows), write blogs and articles, conduct interviews, and create videos and podcasts for mass consumption. All of these events and content specifically represent and assist the underrepresented female genre artist and are for philanthrpopic reasons only. No profit is made from WiHM, or the Viscera organization.
Go to the events, read the articles, watch the videos. Be conscious of the fact that you are consuming different perspectives of a movement that is assisting a struggle that women have experienced for at least the last four thousand years: equality. We have incredible potential right now to destroy discrimination. It deserves your attention.
Donate to WiHM. All funds go directly into the organization to improve the events, materials, and outreach. WiHM needs the support of the public.
Support other organisations
Organisations such as CARE, Women for Women International, RAINN, and WIF. All these organisations work hard all year round to assist women in achieving equality. Visit their websites and educate yourself.
The Board of Directors for WiHM is comprised of women from all facets of the horror film industry, including WiHM founder Hannah Forman, Debbie Rochon, Jovanka Vuckovic, Heidi Honeycutt, Jen and Sylvia Soska, and Shannon Lark.
WiHM is a service provided by the Viscera Organization, a 501(c)3 non profit organization expanding opportunities for contemporary female genre filmmakers and artists by raising awareness about the changing roles for women in the film industry.
- Ed’s Tiny Note: Our team are in full support of this; given the diverse make-up of our own team’s, we would likely expand this phrase where it occurs to “all genders” and “all gender identities, presentations and expressions”. [↩]
Editorial Note: Deep Silver have, since this post was written, apparently issued some sort of apology for this. Which is progress! Hooray! Nonetheless, we’re not seeing a reason not to post this anyway, because it’s not as if this kind of shit isn’t part of a wider stream of crap that makes us feel pretty endlessly tired when we’re trying to get on with consuming our pop culture. And a retraction doesn’t really answer the question of why this crap was and is so often considered OK in the first place, and is only reconsidered when some sort of hullabaloo is made. And also, Mia wrote this very promptly, and I, the ed, was under a pile of Stuff and couldn’t get to posting it on the day. But what she has to say about how she felt remains pretty on-point about the issues in general. So: let it stand.
Dear Deep Silver,
I have just seen the parody ad for the collector’s edition of Dead Island: Riptide. While violence against women and graphic dismemberment are fairly cheap, extremely tasteless and far too easy targets for “shock value”, I’m impressed by your provocative attempts to further the dialogue about the sinister and ingrained misogyny of videogame culture by taking it to a disgusting extreme.
Oh… wait, hang on, I’ve just heard from Rock, Paper, Shotgun that you’re actually serious about this. This apparently isn’t just a misguided pastiche of publicity stunts. Oh. Oh dear.
You claim that this hunk of resin will:
… make a striking conversation piece on any discerning zombie gamer’s mantel.
Well, as someone who has notched up damn near 1,000 hours of zombie killing in recent years (thanks, Steam, for keeping track of that. I was starting to worry that I was wasting my life), let’s have a conversation about it. I’ll go and brew up a steaming cup of Sityourassdown while you perch on the naughty stool and think about what you’ve done.
I can hear it already, the rumbling of defensive PR managers approaching.
“But it’s a zombie game! The whole point of it is to commit heinous acts of violence against the undead in self defence! A zombie torso with its limbs severed is a trophy that represents your prowess!”
Before I address this, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not a qualified physician. However, from my forays into the study of human and zombie biology, I can confirm that the healthy, warm-tanned skintone, obvious freshness of the blood, the lack of any sort of necrosis or decomposition of the flesh indicates that this torso was certainly not a zombie at the time of her dismemberment.
Exposure of the lower ribs suggest traumatic chest injury; however, it’s not clear whether this occurred before or after the time of death. My working hypothesis is that her death had something to do with either decapitation or the loss of all her blood. Even without formal medical training, I am fairly confident in positing that there is no coming back from complete removal of the head.
There isn’t even any artistic merit in what you’ve created, which is almost as offensive as the glorification of horrific violence against women. You have the gumption to describe it as:
…Dead Island’s grotesque take on an iconic Roman marble torso sculpture.
No. Stop. Please. The skies are filled with the anguished cries of Classics and Art History students, joined by the despairing sobs of everybody with a functioning pair of eyes. There are several salient differences between your abomination and classical works of art, but I’ll set out a few of these for your convenience:
- Artistic merit. Marble sculptures are exquisite works by highly-skilled craftspeople demonstrating the depth of their abilities. Weeks of work go into a marble sculpture, creating something dynamic and evocative from a chunk of something cold and unyielding drawn from the earth. These are not pieces that can be “designed” in an afternoon by a gaggle of fratboy marketers over their weekly office keg.
- Anatomy. Sculptors who work with marble show an intimate and thorough knowledge and understanding of human anatomy. Every muscle, every curve, every millimetre of skin is honed to a perfect representation of the human form. What you have done is plonked two tennis balls on a solid block of resin, doodled in a crude cleavage with a Sharpie, then splashed raspberry sauce all over it and called it a day. Which brings me neatly onto my next point…
- Overt sexualisation and glamourisation of violence against women. Classical torso sculptures are not without limbs due to some horrible run-in with a horde of undead and a crazed survivor with a katana. If any Classics types would like to weigh in on this, I’d be interested to learn. However, I’m pretty sure that the motivations of those classical sculptors was not “Hurr, violence is EPIC. You know what else is epic? TITS! Yeah! But you know what’s not epic? Any part of a woman that isn’t tits or crotch. Let’s put, yeah, some tits and a crotch in a string bikini, and like, cut everything else off. Gamers will eat that up. Oh man, I’m jizzing my pants already. Tits and extreme violence. We’re geniuses.” (Again, classics students, if there’s any evidence of the great Graeco-Roman sculptors having had this discussion, I will withdraw this point. Let me know.)
In summary: what the hell? After the first Dead Island game failed to quite live up to its own teaser trailer, do you just feel like you need to continue along this trajectory of disappointment? Were you hoping to hit rock bottom with today’s sick display in the hope that thereafter, the only way would be up? If that’s the case, I’d be tempted to applaud your shamelessness, had it not been such a swing and a miss.
Now, I’m a feminist, but I also don’t believe that every catastrophic misunderstanding of how to exploit the “desirability” of anything that vaguely resembles a woman’s body (usually one that conforms to narrow standards of Western beauty) is born of true misogyny.
I believe it’s quite possible that you “just didn’t think” of the implications and repercussions of showing a violently dismembered female torso and selling it as an ornament. For those of us – women and some men – who actually live in bodies like the one messily represented in your collector’s edition, it isn’t possible to “just not think” about the possibilities and the realities of violence.
Women are disproportionately more likely to be the victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse, both by people they know and by strangers. We are taught from childhood that our bodies are weaker, that if we don’t want to be attacked we have to dress demurely, to know our limits, to keep our mouths shut and to do as we’re told.
We live in a victim-blaming world that constantly promotes the idea that the only way to not be a victim is to not provoke those strong and burly menfolks, who cannot be held to account if they attack you because you were obviously “asking for it” if and when it happens. Although this line of reasoning was born of institutionalised misogyny, it doesn’t exactly paint men in the most flattering of lights either.
The discussion is thankfully broadening, so this is not an issue I’ll go deeper into here. But Deep Silver, consider yourselves called out. There’s a wealth of resources, information, blogs, zines, articles, and opinion pieces out there. You have no excuse for not educating yourselves about why what you have done is damaging and irresponsible.
Everybody fucks up sometimes when it comes to the way they think about or treat people less privileged than they are. What really proves whether or not they’re capable of meeting the criteria for being a decent human being, or a company with any integrity, is how they handle and learn from their fuckups. My advice? Apologise. Be humble. Be grateful to people who have called you out on this. Make the choice to educate yourselves. And for the love of all things zombie, don’t do it again.
I do, however, have one thing to be grateful to you for about this. Should I find myself romancing a fellow gamer in future, and we go back to their house, this statuette will be an immediate and unmistakable red flag that this person has questionable taste in games, décor and attitudes towards women. This information will be a clear indicator that this isn’t somebody I should be spending time with.
Perhaps your statue could replace the endless whining about “the friendzone” as the hallmark of somebody utterly clueless about human relationships and endlessly disrespectful to women. Then I would laud you for your achievement, because that shit is getting very, very tiresome.