The Horror of Coming of Age: Films Subverting the Teen Girl Experience

Growing up can be a bit of a bloodbath for everyone, regardless of gender. And when it comes to how the actual gory details of the process are portrayed on film, young female characters don't often get the same freedom to explore the dark side of the process that young men do, unless you happen to be watching a horror film.

Horror has traditionally been thought of as a male domain, and perhaps rightly so. There is a startling lack of consistently of work for female horror directors. This lack of has resulted in a surplus of horror films told principally from the male point of view, making for a genre that mainly reflects patriarchal fears of female sexuality and power.

When it comes to films that use horror tropes as metaphors for coming-of-age, it's pretty clear that unlike other "traditionally lady-centric" genres, horror offers the chance to truthfully explore female rites of passage that are otherwise virtually ignored by mainstream cinema.

The most obvious example is in the way that sexual awakening is handled in cinema. Young men and their pursuit of losing their virginity is an endlessly covered topic in just about every genre you can name. The same cannot be said about the female version of the experience. Aside from a handful of examples the portrayal of the realities of what it's like for a young woman to attain her own sexual agency seems to only exist in a genre that allows for say, the existence of a teen girl sporting a set of mutant teeth between her legs. Rather than showing the initial sexual experiences as romantic or sweetly awkward, Teeth allows for the main character to face the more ugly truths, like becoming acquainted with her own, occasionally scary, anatomy and figuring out that her pleasure may not always be at the forefront of her potential partner's mind.

Similarly, The Company of Wolves pits a teenage Red Riding Hood against the frightening unknowns of the dark labyrinthine forest of puberty and the forbidden sexuality of a man-beast lurking within. Despite being warned about the dangers of men's desires, Red forges ahead anyway, facing her fears of sex, marriage and adult responsibilities, and finally finding personal freedom in the process.

Speaking of puberty, it's no wonder that mainstream cinema shies away from accurate depictions since the major hallmark of the experience for teen girls isn't even frankly discussed in tampon commercials. That's why it's no surprise that a genre comfortable drenching the screen in blood would eagerly take the topic on. In Ginger Snaps, the changes that often accompany the onset of menstruation are cleverly paralleled with lycanthropy and the transformation from human to beast. Lead character Ginger deals with increased sexual desire, an insatiable appetite, violent mood swings and yes, a whole lot of blood. Much like the scene in Carrie, wherein the title character gets mocked for getting her first period in the girls' shower room, it's hard to imagine that any other genre would handle the tiny traumas of "becoming a woman" with such visceral truth.

In fact, if you were to look at that same scene in Carrie and apply the Bechdel test, you see that it and several other female-centric horror films pass with flying colors. In The Craft, a group of teen girls dabble in magic as a way of rebelling and declaring their own feelings of empowerment just as Ginger embraces becoming a wolf as a means to escape her dull suburban life in Ginger Snaps. Although male/female interactions do play a part in all of these films, the larger conflict revolves around how teen girls relate to one another, a wide-ranging spectrum that can include everything from extreme loyalty to extreme competition – sometimes all within one school day. Within the horror genre, these young women are allowed to operate outside of socially accepted boundaries and explore their darker sides without necessarily being punished for being misfits. It's also refreshing to see examples of complicated female kinship — a reality that mainstream cinema rarely gets right.

Does all this mean that the horror genre is the true home of reflective feminist cinema? Not so fast. It, like the rest of the film industry, has a long way to go to in learning to regularly tell stories that women can relate to. What horror films do have going for them is their tendency to revel in the dark side of humanity, subvert gender roles and poke holes in traditional society — all key elements of what it takes to produce interesting and insightful movies about the female experience.


This piece originally appeared on Women And Hollywood. Republished with permission.

Kristal Cooper has been a film buff since the age of two when her parents began sneaking her into the drive-in every weekend. Since then, she's pursued that passion by working for the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the Canadian Film Centre. She's also a freelance writer specializing in pop culture and feminist issues, has written for multiple websites including Toronto Film Scene (where she acted as editor-in-chief) and We Got This Covered, and continues to slog away at her day job as a small cog in the giant machinery of the Toronto film community. Reach her on Twitter: @mskristalcooper