The Feminism Massacre:
How The Slumber Party Massacre Perpetuates Misogyny in the Slasher Genre
Parody is often used to poke fun at the ideals and tropes of a concept or genre. When used properly, it can make believers of the parodied idea laugh at themselves and understand why others do not share a similar viewpoint as theirs. However, when used poorly, those on either side of the argument cringe as neither finds joy in what they are watching. Originally the writer of The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), Rita Mae Brown, a well-known feminist novelist, wanted the film to critique the rampant sexulization of women in early ‘80s slasher films. However, according to film historian Chris Nashawaty, the film, “really belongs to New World editor-turned-director Amy Holden Jones. After all, [Roger] Corman had shelved Brown’s screenplay, and it gathered a thick coat of dust before Jones rescued and reconceived it.” In the reconceiving, many of the film’s satirical elements were taken out or softened. As a result, the film fails both audiences by being neither an insightful parody nor an entertaining slasher. Because of the blatant sexualization of the film’s female characters, and the emphasis placed on the inherent power of the phallus, The Slumber Party Massacre perpetuates the misogyny of the slasher genre because the film fails to make clear to the audience that it is poking fun at these tropes rather than profiting off of them.
The narrative of The Slumber Party Massacre does not distance itself at all from the typical plot of a slasher film. Set in the suburb of Anytown, USA, the film follows a group of high school girls as they have a slumber party so they can indulge in sex and drugs while their parents are out of town. Unfortunately for the girl who throws the sleepover, Trish (Michelle Michaels), serial killer Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) has escaped prison and armed himself with a power drill. As the film unfolds, the audience is introduced to the boyish “final girl,” Valerie (Robin Stille), who kills Russ by cutting his drill with a machete after he disposes of most of the film’s cast.
In order for a film to challenge the misogynistic ideas of the slasher film genre, it must somehow find a clever way to poke fun at how blatantly the female body is sexualized in Cinema for the male audience. Not only is The Slumber Party Massacre incapable of doing so, but it also parades partially nude women in front of the camera, serving as a prime example of the concept of the male gaze. First coined by film scholar Laura Mulvey in 1975, the “male gaze” is a term used to describe how women in cinema are meant to be looked at by the heterosexual male viewer and are objectified. The first example of the male gaze being utilized occurs during the film’s opening title sequence when Trish, who is getting ready for the day, takes off her shirt and exposes her breasts. While it is common to use the “getting ready for the day” routine to introduce a character at the start of a film, in this instance, nothing is revealed about Trish except that she has breasts. In fact, Trish’s breasts are in the center of the frame and visible for over fifteen seconds as her undressing serves as the centerpiece of the whole sequence. By having this much attention devoted to a female character’s body in the title sequence before exploring who the character is, it is clear to the audience her character arc is irrelevant and she is just meant to be eye candy. Nevertheless, the parade of female nudity does not end there. Less than eight minutes into the film, the film introduces the rest of the film’s female characters through the use of an extended gym shower scene that lasts over three minutes. During this scene, many of the film’s characters are introduced to the audience while their buttocks and breasts are exposed. By having another sexually charged scene so early on in the film, the filmmakers look to make clear that not only is Trish supposed to be eye candy, but so is every other female character in the film. Together, both scenes work to sexualize the female cast of The Slumber Party Massacre, which is the direct opposite of what the film should do in its opening ten minutes if it is trying to challenge misogyny.
The Slumber Party Massacre asserts the idea that Russ’ phallus-shaped weapon is a symbol of male power over women. In order for the film to explore this idea, it first must connect the idea that Russ’s power drill is a symbol of male genitalia. In her essay “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” Carol Clover states that, “the preferred weapons of the killer are knives, hammers, axes, icepicks, hypodermic needles, red hot pokers, pitchforks and the like” because such weapons are phallus-shaped. Those familiar with this trope are thusly aware of the idea that Russ’s drill is representative of the phallus. Even in the film’s poster, the drill is placed between Russ’ legs to make the weapon look like his erect penis, which he displays in front of the four female characters. The fact that this deliberately composed shot is used as the marketing image for the film all but confirms the drill is meant to serve as suggestive imagery. While at this point it is near impossible to argue the power drill is not a phallic object, what is the significance of the drill being the phallus? Based on the way Russ is defeated, it can be understood that the drill represents power. Therefore, having a penis means that men have inherent power that women do not, and therefore a woman cannot defeat a man unless she appropriates a phallic object. In the film, the female characters are unable to injure Russ without using a phallic object. For example, only when Coach Jana (Pamela Roylance) uses a fire poker, a phallic object, is she able to successfully harm Russ. This weakness is further exploited in the climax of the film when Valerie cuts off the power drill bit with a machete, yet another phallic object, which she then ultimately uses to defeat Russ. By relying on phallic weapons to kill Russ, it is understood that the phallus can only be defeated by another phallus, implying that women are unequal to men. If the film wanted to challenge this convention of horror films it could have easily done so by having Valerie kill Russ with an object that posses yonic features. Because the female characters are only able to defeat the film’s antagonist by appropriating a weapon that represents the male genitalia, the film implies the idea that men are inherently more powerful than women.
Many may attempt to argue that even though The Slumber Party Massacre contains all of these horror tropes, it is really showing how ridiculous they are. But this argument does not work because the film does not show them in an extreme sense and instead uses them in the same way any typical slasher would. In order for a parody to work, it must in someway make the audience understand that the film is in on the joke. However, in The Slumber Party Massacre, there is no allusion to this idea. In Scary Movie (2000) the filmmakers behind it laced the narrative with the same tropes as The Slumber Party Massacre except there were aspects of it that you would not find in a traditional slasher film. For example, in Scary Movie when Drew (Carmen Electra) falls while being chased by Ghostface, she falls perfectly onto a crime scene chalk outline of her body. By having a gag like this in the opening sequence the audience early on is able to tell that they are watching a critique of the horror genre. With The Slumber Party Massacre, there is never a gag like this in the film suggesting that the audience should take what they are watching at face value.
The final staple that proves the film is not meant to serve as a critique of slasher films is that it fails to capitalize on any moment where it could reverse tropes. As aforementioned, the filmmakers missed out on having Valerie kill Russ with a yonic weapon, but there is a more glaring example even earlier in the film. About thirty minutes into the film there is a voyeuristic scene that would make even Alfred Hitchcock proud. As the female characters undress and put on pajamas during the slumber party, two schoolboys, Jeff (David Millbern) and Neil (Joe Johnson) watch them from outside the window. During this sequence, the audience takes on the point of view of the two boys as the camera shifts to shots from their perspective. While this is going on, Russ is creeping around the neighborhood looking for victims. If the film wanted to challenge the ogling of women, they could have easily done so by having Russ punish the boys by sneaking up behind them and killing them while they are distracted. Instead, the scene ends with the two boys high fiving one another and leaving unharmed after the peep show is over.
Ironically, a woman who strongly believed in feminism wrote The Slumber Party Massacre, but the repurposing of the script by the producer/director instead litters the film with many of the issues feminists critique cinema for. In a sense, one could say that this just shows how men silence women writers, but the fact that the script was changed by a woman producer/director quickly destroys that argument. As a result, the only thing left to say about The Slumber Party Massacre is that it only fuels the misogyny of the slasher genre further instead of being an interesting case study during the height of the slasher genre. The constant exploitation of the female body and chauvinistic emphasis placed on the power of the penis not only makes the film near impossible to watch for a female audience today, but also hurts the feminism movement as opponents are able to point to a film written, directed, and produced by women and say that even they exploit women.
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