The Unfair Business of Being a Woman Director in the Boys Club of Horror Filmmaking

The Journalist/Editor

Inequality, particularly when it comes to the filmmaking industry, isn't a one-gender-only concern. As several of the women who've just spoken have made clear, giving more opportunities to women directors will benefit all moviegoers, regardless of what's in their pants. Fresh perspectives mean interesting and original storytelling.

As the editor-in-chief of Fangoria, the world's leading source for horror news, reviews, and interviews, veteran journalist Chris Alexander appreciates cinematic creativity more than most—hell, covering an endless stream of cookie-cutter remakes and ripoffs has to feel soul-crushing after a certain point. That's why, whenever the right project emerges, Alexander makes sure to dedicate as many Fangoria pages as possible to the genre's best female voices.

He's just not about to show that kind of love to Women in Horror Month. In the February 2012 issue of Fangoria, the Toronto resident—who's not afraid to keep things real and filter-free—railed against WiHM in his editor's letter, writing, "Listen, women should be celebrated as people in this industry and in this world, and should be feted not just in February, but all year round, which we do and will continue to do...in February, in March, April, May, June...you get my drift."

Today, Alexander—who recently gave the Soska Sisters' American Mary 3.5 out of 4 skulls (or stars) on Fangoria's website—has plenty more to say about the issue at hand.

Does the women filmmakers in horror topic still bother you?
Everyone always talks about the quote-unquote "horror industry," and we should be clear about that. This is my opinion, but if you observe it, there is no such thing as a "horror industry." It exists within wide borders. What you consider to be a horror film, I may not consider to be a horror film. I consider Ken Russell's The Devils a horror film, even though it's not widely considered to be one and Ken Russell himself didn't consider it as one. So there's no horror industry—there's a film industry, and women have obviously been ghettoized in the film industry and every commercial industry for the past century, for a myriad of reasons.

It's always been a boys club, right? And again, there are socio-political reasons for that, but when it comes to the horror genre specifically, I've always found it interesting because there shouldn't be any politics in horror. Horror boils down to the fear of death, and it doesn't matter what our plumbing is—we're all going to die. Death unites us all. We are all bound for the grave, and we all have the same basic needs and anxieties surrounding the ends of our lives. To me, horror shouldn't be about girls and boys. The only thing that maybe made the boys club run with it more is that they've been holding the keys to the kingdom.

The movie industry, like politics, is traditionally run by very old-at-heart men who are generally afraid of everything, and femininity has been one of greatest male anxieties. Sex is such a mystery to all men, and women being the hub of what sex is, we grow inside women. It's this fantastical, phantasmagorical mystery to us, and so because of that, we're afraid of that. We objectify women, we sexualize them, and we try to simplify them. It gives us great anxiety to really personalize them.

Because of this, men haven't let women into their boys club unless it's on their terms. You've seen very few opportunities for women in the industry, period, unless they're sexualizing themselves or packaging themselves in such a way that appeals to the guys who are holding those keys and the big wallets and running the show. I'm thankful we're seeing that turn everywhere, not just in the film industry or the horror genre. I'm Canadian, and we have a Canadian Premier now who's not only a woman but a lesbian, and she's being embraced. This is great news, this is creating role models for women, to say, "Look, if you have a brain but also have some different naughty bits, you can judged and respected the same ways that men are on that brain."

Editing Fangoria, is this issue often presented to you? Many of the discussions surrounding this issue center on the lack of publicity female directors get.
There are few things that do bother me about this issue, as the editor of Fangoria, and I'll be very frank about this. I took over Fangoria four years ago, and I love women. I love women's stories and I love horror films because I love women in them. If anything, women own horror. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, for fuck's sake, and that's one-half of the greatest iconography in horror. And scream queens, from Fay Wray all the way on up, have been the driving force of appeal in horror. It's beauty and the beast: Man is the beast and woman is the beauty, and she must be protected. The strongest images in the genre are feminine.

So to me, women are always there—they're a fabric of the genre. And, over the last four years, I've always made a point to feature women, because I think women offer a brilliant perspective into the arts, period. I've made sure that I include women in the magazine, and I don't include them because they arewomen—I include them because they're interesting artists and offer interesting perspectives. I try not to divide those lines between the sexes.

Last year, I ran this editorial basically giving the middle-finger to Women in Horror Month. I found it ludicrous, ridiculous, and counter-productive that people were out there saying, "Yay, we're girls! And we're going to take this month to remind you that we're women in horror!" Come on, an entire month? The same month that Black History Month hits? It felt so trendy and hipster. Good art is good art regardless of gender, and if I was a woman making good art I wouldn't want to be lumped in with other women making, perhaps, inferior art. I think it's ridiculous.

This editorial became very controversial, and people jumped on it, started calling me "sexist," which is about as far from the truth as you can get. My end point was, you can say that there's sexism in the film industry, there's sexism in the music industry, there's sexism in the streets, there's sexism in the domestic family set-up, but you can't say that there's sexism in horror. A great horror story is about one thing, and that's death. If we're going to make that kind of entertainment, we should concentrate on that which unites us, not that which divides us.

The majority of audiences for mainstream horror movies is female, so you'd think that producers would want more women to tell these stories, to cater to that audience.
One of my favorite filmmakers is Lars von Trier, who's often accused of being a misogynist, which is completely erroneous. He tells women stories, of course from a male point-of-view, but there's nothing wrong with that. We're the yin and yang of the planet, we all belong together. I live with a women; I've lived with a woman for 20 years, and I'm fascinated by her. I'm always trying to figure her out. She's a mystery to me, yet I know her and understand her, and I would feel very comfortable telling a woman's story because I empathize with her plight, put myself in her shoes, and see the world through her eyes.

Still, it does seem harder for women to get more notice.
It hasn't been just women being ghettoized—it's people of color and people who aren not a part of the inner circle, as well. It's not a boys club—it's just a club, period. It's about who you know, how much money you have, how many connections you have. It's about how much shit you're willing to shovel in order to get into that club, especially in an industry as expensive as the entertainment one. Since day one, it's been virtually impossible to break into, and you needed a shit-ton of luck and a lot of talent to do so.

If you look at the old videos, it was always the old bastards like Louis B. Mayer and other guys who weren't filmmakers at all—they were just dudes with cash who were setting up shop. And all they really wanted to do was get laid, if you look at it, because it was something they couldn't do on their own.

And now with the advent of technology and the video revolution, everybody in any part of the world can become a star. They can design their own myth via Facebook and social networking, and they can go out there and shoot a movie with an iPhone and cut it on their laptops and have it be seen in a week on YouTube. That's broken down so many barriers for everyone, not just women, to tell their stories, which is a double-edged sword, though, since not everybody's a storyteller or a filmmaker, but they all think they are now if they get enough "Likes" on Facebook.

But, nonetheless, there's been a smashing of the gates, so now women can go out there and not have to rely on the fat-cats with the big bank rolls. They don't have to think about that thing called "the casting couch" anymore. They can just say, "Fuck this, I'm going to do this with my own bread," and they've got as much of a shot to do it as anyone else. That's why you're seeing this shift happening, because of social networking and technology.

Are you a fan of all-women film festivals, like Viscera?
I think that's great. The Viscera Film Festival is great because it's broad-based and has an end-game. It's giving a platform to female filmmakers but it's not just throwing them into the festival because they're females. You still have to meet a certain criteria—your film still has to show some semblance of craft and have a personality.

Women in Horror Month, though, sometimes makes me laugh. You look at some of the women and it's all about how many tattoos they have, not about their work. It serves its purpose, though, in helping them feel like they're part of a community. But, really, what is it doing besides feeling like a bit of social club? And I would be fine with that if it wasn't for the fact that they have Seals of Approval, so if you want to do an event, you have to write to them and get their approval to have your event sanctified by the Women in Horror Month. That's creating parameters around things that shouldn't have parameters, and that's gender in the arts. If I'm a woman and I want to celebrate Women in Horror Month with my film, I should just be able to do it, I shouldn't have to have their seal stuck on it and jump through fire hoops in order to get that.

Putting rules on something that's so formless, as the horror genre, does bother me, but at the same time, I did learn something after that editorial's little micro-drama. It's all about role models, and it's all about who you look up to to create the template of who you want to be. I've been spoiled in my life because I've had these incredible role models. Being a male, I've never once second-guessed what I can do because everywhere I look there are these amazing men doing incredible things. I've never had to think about that. When it comes to being creative and creating an identity for yourself, we need role models, and women filmmakers don't necessarily have that yet.

Everything's moved so quickly in the last century, on every level. It's amazing to see how long people have been put in this Judeo-Christian set-up, where it's all based on gender. That's a lame-ass, one-dimensional set-up that nobody ever questioned. In the last 40 years, it's amazing to see how rapidly we've been able to extend our middle finger to that set-up.

It goes for men, too. There are so many expectations for what it means to be one of us, right down to that old expression, "Be a man!" What the fuck does that mean? I'm a human being first, and I bleed. There are a lot of expectations for us to be that. I just want the shift to keep pushing so that we're on an even keel, socially at least, since biologically we never will be. I can see that happening.

And Jen and Sylvia Soska could be the ones to help kickstart that change. Do you think they have that kind of potential?
They're tenacious and they're excellent branders. I didn't think much of their first film [Dead Hooker in a Trunk]—in fact, I found it unwatchable, but I think American Mary is a contemporary classic. There's something uniquely feminine about it, while also still being this phantasmagorical look at body horror. It's campy and bizarre. A male could have made that movie as well, but there's a certain kind of sensitivity in the movie that adds that extra dash of something I've never seen before in a movie like this. It's not cold and alien; there's a warmth about it, and it's not all that exploitative.

 
You can't say that there's sexism in horror. A great horror story is about one thing, and that's death. If we're going to make that kind of entertainment, we should concentrate on that which unites us, not that which divides us.
 

They've been fantastic at marketing themselves since day one, but now they actually have the product to back that up. In this age of Twitter and social media, everybody's a rock star, and only very few people can actually back that up with quality content, and these girls totally have it. They're way up there, high on my list of people I'll be watching in the near future. They're very, very important people in the genre now.

At the same time, yes, they are women in horror who are bucking trends, but they're also clearly playing a certain kind of game. They're not hard on the eyes. Would the Soskas be as recognized and fan-friendly if they showed up to events in a pair of track-pants and a sweatshirt? No. They're very manicured, they're playing up the sexual attraction of being twins, the male fantasy of that. They're completely manipulating a certain preconception of what men want from women.

They're creating these icons of themselves, where it's, "Women, you want to be us, and boys, you want to bang us." They're very smart about it. They're aware of the landscape and know how to work their way around it. Otherwise, they would show up to festivals and conventions wearing tracksuits and dungarees, saying, "Hey, look at our movie because of our brains," and you'd have asshole guys who'd say, "Ew, fuck that! I don't want to see what those slobs made." And then you're going to get the young girls who are looking for role models, and they want to look up to somebody's who's just stopped off at Old Navy on their way to the film premiere.

Girls want to be them, guys want to be with them, and then, on top of that, they're creating good art, so in a lot of ways they're revolutionizing the genre on that level. I'm a big KISS fan, so I've always been a big fan of, "Get the brand out first as your hook," then you spend some time with the brand and realize, "Wow, this music's actually pretty fucking good." Jen and Sylvia are operating the same way. You look past their style, and their curves, and you say, "Wow, this is actually a good movie." They've got the full package.

At the same time, the men in this industry must be aware of the fact that they're beautiful women who dress provocatively. They respond to that. At Fantastic Fest last year, most of the male bloggers and journalists were extra excited to hang out with Jen and Sylvia, more so than, say, a Brandon Cronenberg.
Let's do a little sociological experiment. Let's create two fake Facebook profiles: Let's have one of them be a gorgeous woman with everything in its right place, with great tattoos and a great look, and then let's have a guy who's 300 pounds, wearing a "Who Farted?" T-shirt, and let's see which Facebook profile gets more friends by the end of the week. Who's going to have the bigger reach? If anything, when it comes to horror, the dude has a tougher time getting noticed. It seems like every guy in horror these days is some fat, bald guy in glasses, living in a basement.

Women have a much better reach, as far as being seen and heard, because they can package themselves as they see fit. They can exploit what people want, they can take control of that and use it to maneuver the landscape. Whereas guys have a limited arsenal—we have to work a little harder to make our presence know, unless we're physically cut a certain way.

Could Jen and Sylvia's ability to do that be a source of jealousy for other up-and-coming women directors?
It depends what their end-game is. Jen and Sylvia are going the rock-n-roll route. They're rock stars of filmmaking, and the next film will be the one that determines what they'll be able to do, moving forward. Was American Maryjust a bit of luck? Were there other chefs in the kitchen? But they're not just creating a film—they're creating a brand. It's much bigger than that.

You can close your eyes and envision what they look like, from the way they pose with the one eyebrow raised. They've got a shtick. It's an act, and that's the hook. It'd be interesting if you removed that hook from American Mary, would it stand on its own? I actually think it would, totally. Are women who don't play that game hurting themselves by not doing it? Not at all. The interesting thing would be making a movie and then putting a male pseudonym on it and then reveal at the end that you're actually a woman, to see if that actually matters.

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