Written by LiverAlone for Scream-Trilogy
There are two specific things that slasher movies aren’t exactly noted for: biting social commentary and female fanbases. So it’s a testament to the phenomenon that is Scream that it manages to capture both, and I suspect that they’re not mutually exclusive.
Film scholars for the most part haven’t held slasher movies in high regard, but they have taken an interest to a peculiar trait they tend to share: the bad girls—the ones that drink, have sex, and do drugs—always die and the one good girl—the chaste and comparatively modest Final Girl, a term coined by author Carol J. Clover—gets to survive at the end.
In the near two decades between Halloween and Scream, horror flicks themselves had taken notice of this theme and sometimes winked at it, but what really set Scream apart was that it did something with it. You might even call Scream Kevin Williamson’s master’s thesis on the gender politics of the slasher film.
Sidney and the Slut Label
By now we all know that our heroine Sidney has sex in Scream and lives to see another three sequels, but there’s a lot more going on in here than that. Remember that the major background plot of the movie is Sidney’s steadfast belief that Cotton Weary raped and murdered her mother, despite reporter Gale Weather’s speculation to the contrary. The reason Sidney hangs on to her beliefs so strongly is because if her mother merely had sex with Cotton, Sidney feels that would confirm her mother’s reputation as being a “slut,” and deep down, it would mean she “deserved it.”
On the other hand, Sidney’s being pressured from boyfriend Billy into having sex, and her reluctance becomes a source of tension in their relationship. Finally, she gives in to Billy, and the resulting sex scene comes off cold, as if Sidney isn’t doing this so much for her own sake but as an appeasement offering for having accused him of being the killer earlier in the movie. Sidney is caught in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation women often find themselves in: she could have sex and be a “slut,” or she could be a cockblocking ice queen.
It all comes to a head at the end, where Billy reveals that he indeed killed Sidney’s “slut” mother for sleeping with Billy’s father and ruining his parent’s marriage, and now that he’s taken Sidney’s virginity he’s going to kill her, too. The finale becomes Sidney’s fight for her right to fuck: she’s not a “slut” deserving of death for having sex, nor will she again give her body to a man simply because he demands it. Sex is Sidney’s own prerogative, which she will have on her own terms.
A Final Girl for the Female Persuasion
I haven’t done any scientific analysis or conducted any polls, but on my own anecdotal experience, I would say that the Scream movies defy conventional wisdom that a horror movie’s fanbase would be dominated by men. Scream, more so than any other horror franchise before it, seemed to bring in female audiences in droves.
I’d argue that the sexual themes present in Scream are largely why women like it. Although many slasher movies have had butt-kicking heroines with Laurie Strode and Nancy leading the way, Carol Clover noted that most Final Girls were designed, intentionally or not, so that male audiences could identify with them: the Final Girl is defined by “not being a slut” and would become take-charge and destroy the killer with a phallic weapon like a big knife, chainsaw, or machete. I imagine Clover would have a field day with Sidney’s momentary donning of the male Ghostface identity herself and her subsequent finger-raping of Billy’s wound at the climax. I submit, however, that because the context of the end is that Sidney does not deserve to die for having sex, she is claiming ownership of her sexuality and becomes a Final Girl that is meant predominantly for female audiences to identify with.
I don’t want to come off presumptuous, but I think a large part of the reason Scream’s themes on sex come together so successfully is Kevin Williamson’s being gay and the perspective that comes with it. While obviously Williamson’s a man, he doesn’t naturally view women as sex objects and I think that kind of removed perspective shaped Scream into something more female-friendly: despite swimming in babes, the Scream movies are rarely exploitive and to date, there hasn’t been any gratuitous nudity in the series.
This topic can go on and on—I haven’t touched on the significance that Sidney remains the center point of the whole series and not the killer, or what it means that the boyfriend that’s usually the protector in these movies turns out to be the monster—but I think I’ve made my case well enough: Scream attracts more women because it’s one of the few horror movies about the female experience.
LiverAlone is a freelance writer and runs the site Watch Night of the Living Dead