A look into It Follows & the conventions of gendered horror as outlined by Carol Clover.
Within Men, Women and Chainsaws, Clover exclusively focuses her analysis on American cinematic horror of the “1970s to the mid-1980s;” particularly exploring subgenres in which female figures and gender issues are especially prevalent such as slasher horror and rape-revenge films. Although she illustrates the difficulty of analysing audiences for horror films as they are “especially understudied” due to their general independent production and short theatrical runs (if any); she concludes, through her own investigation of the clientele for specific videocassette rentals, that the “majority viewer [is] the younger male”. Although the “proportions vary somewhat from movie to movie,” the “preponderance of young males appears constant” and aligns with the “standard profile of theatre audiences for horror,” whether this be young men in groups or alone; “adolescent males hold pride of place”.
In this respect, Clover’s analysis of the codes and conventions of gendered horror is entirely focused within a context wherein the audience and the slasher film’s implied “object of address,” is chiefly male, in turn allowing for a clearer picture of the current gendered attitudes that were reflected in horror at the time. Fundamentally, she argues how the general independent production and ‘exploitative’ qualities that “locate the slasher film outside the usual aesthetic system,” are also the “very qualities that make it such a transparent source for cultural attitudes towards sex and gender in particular”. Lain “beyond the purview of respectable criticism” and disavowed for its presumed degenerate nature, the slasher film entails a killer who “slashes to death a string of mostly female victims… until he is subdued or killed, by the ‘final girl’ who has survived;” the majority male audience “cheer the killer on as he insults his victims,” yet also “reverse their sympathies to cheer the survivor on as she assaults the killer”.
Using “the appointed ancestor of the slasher film,” - Hitchcock’s Psycho - as a benchmark to further explore the evolving formula of slasher horror with regards to its representation of women; Clover groups the conventions of gendered horror by component category, analysing concepts like the killer, the terrible place, and the final girl. Ultimately, Clover suggests that the horror film presents us with a world in which masculinity and femininity are thought to be “more states of mind than body” as horror “operates partly through a one-sex system in which gender is determined by behaviour rather than anatomy”. This is reflected within Clover’s figure of the final girl who is conceptualised as the ‘female victim-hero,’ essentially alluding to the idea that she is a character who ‘slides’ between pre-existing notions of typical femininity and masculinity that the horror genre encompasses. As Clover argues there is “something about the victim function that wants manifestation in a female, and something about the monster and hero functions that wants expression in a male;” the final girl is effectively both the slasher film’s hero and victim as she “crosses into territories traditionally occupied by the masculine” whilst still expressing her fear femininely through displays of abject terror.
Although, on the surface, It Follows may appear to be an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases or a continuation of the classical conventions of gendered horror that suggest “sexual transgressors of both sexes are scheduled for early destruction;” it can arguably be analysed and interpreted as a complex feminist text that, in turn, reinvents these classical, established truths. A simple interpretation of the monster, or the ‘It’ within It Follows can be seen to embody Clover’s notion that “postcoital death, above all when the circumstances are illicit, is a staple of the [slasher] genre”. The opening sequence depicts the film’s monster as an unknown, invisible threat and this ambiguity is continuous throughout the film - although
deviating from typical convention by its “refusal to assign the monster a particular motive, pathology or origin,” its function remains apparent - to manifest after sexual transmission and slowly pursue its unwitting victims with the intention of murder unless they succeed in transmitting the “supernatural contagion” onto another. This construction alludes to the common idea within classical slasher horror that sex is a sinful act that deserves punishment - especially for women - as the monster’s ultimate goal is to murder sexual transgressors. However, it could be interpreted that at the same time, It Follows “bends the rules of slasher movies to productive effect” as women’s sexual engagements “are not grounds for their death but the means through which they may survive”.
Through the characterisation of the main protagonist Jay Height, It follows essentially alludes to yet redefines what is expected of the final girl as she effectively weaponises her own sexuality and uses it to her own advantage in order to survive. The narrative follows Jay as she goes on a date with ‘Hugh,’ (later revealed as a fake name) ending with what appears to be consensual sex in his car until he renders her unconscious by forcing a rag over her mouth and tying her to a wheelchair in her underwear in an abandoned car park in an attempt to forwarn her about “this thing” - the It that is going to follow her. He explains that he has given her a “curse” that is “transferred from one victim to the next via sexual contact:'' a slow walking human figure that can take many forms that is only visible to her and others it has passed through - reverting back to pursuing its other victims if it succeeds in killing her (Ibid). The film subsequently follows Jay, with the help of her friends, in her attempts to elude It whilst “grappling with the moral capability of endangering others’ lives'' to save her own as Hugh informs her that her “only means of escape is to pass the curse to the next unsuspecting victim”.
Jay exhibits qualities that are beholden to the final girl; she is positioned “from the outset as the main character,” watchful of her pursuer “to the point of paranoia,” registering “small signs of danger” that her friends cannot see and is “intelligent and resourceful” in her pursuit for answers from Hugh, attempted fleeing from It and eventual confrontation with It by luring the entity to her across a swimming pool filled with electrical devices. She could also be perceived as “not fully feminine” with regards to her unisex name that is arguably more thought of as traditionally masculine, however Jay arguably subverts more conventions of the final girl than she abides. As Clover envisions the final girl as a “female victim-hero,” a woman that exemplifies the concept of a one-sex system through her ability to ‘slide’ between initial passive femininity and active masculinity in order to successfully face the “killer;” Jay does not have to reconstitute herself as masculine in order to save herself.
The way that Jay exercises an “active investigating gaze” speaks about the context of contemporary audience identification; as Clover stated in 1992 that slasher horror audiences were primarily composed of young adult males, it is clear that “much has changed for the horror film itself in this postmodern era,” including an “increasingly female viewership”. Clover accentuates how the final girl is not a feminist development and does not focus her research on female spectators of horror and how they identify with the same texts, however, as illustrated through Jay’s ability to knowingly put herself within a threatening situation without being restricted by “social gendering of the acts [she] undertakes;” It Follows does not necessarily follow the tropes that render the final girl as an unfeminist concept. By not acting on the basis of a one-sex body that ‘slides’ between what socialised characteristics are accepted of each gender or functioning as the traditional female victim-hero, It Follows can be seen to position Jay as an active female, independent in terms of her alignment within the contemporary two-sex model of thought, perhaps indicative of the increasing development and representation of feminist and postfeminist texts since the publication of Men, Women and Chainsaws.
Jay cements the notion that women’s sex positivity “are not grounds for their death” as she weaponises her sexuality to her own advantage, in the process claiming a developing sense of active femininity that could be considered empowering, especially in contrast to the naive sense of femininity she initially encompassed when reminiscing with Hugh. This is particularly illustrated after the death of Greg when Jay hurriedly drives out to a lake on her own; after spending the night sleeping on the hood of her car she undresses down to her underwear upon sighting three young men in a boat offshore, she slowly wades into the water towards them - presumably with the intent of having sex with one of them, perhaps in an attempt to pass It on as the entity will now return to pursuing her. The implication of using her feminine sexuality to her advantage in order to survive - which is initially, albeit misogynistically, highlighted by Hugh when he claims it should be easier for Jay to find someone willing to sleep with her as “after all, she’s a girl” - is furthered towards the end of the film after Jay’s final confrontation with It.
It Follows’ ability to occupy a reminiscent space within our collective consciousness that pays homage to and retains features of its slasher ancestors whilst simultaneously rejuvenating classical genre expectations with originality, effectively posits Clover’s concept of the final girl as a metanarrative that has not been so much as rejected but evolved. Perceived established truths are subverted through the representation of a final girl that reflects contemporary audience ideologies; she no longer needs to operate on the basis of a one-sex system that promotes passivity in femininity and heroism in masculinity nor reconstitute herself as masculine in order to survive. Ultimately, It Follows disputes Clover’s idea that applauding “the final girl as a feminist development… is a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking” as an increasingly female viewership in combination with the prevalence of contemporary feminist texts and the complex representation of Jay opens audience identification up to both genders; spectators are not made to undergo gender displacement nor identify with Jay as a male surrogate but are instead positioned as active viewers, invited to feel whatever Jay feels regardless of gender.
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