The faux feminism of the hagsploitation boom

This year's biggest horror titles have frustratingly pointed to women's ageing bodies as a source of ridicule and fear.


Billie Walker

So far, 2022 has been a disappointing year for horror. Every highly anticipated horror that has been lauded as ‘female-led’ has ended up rife with horror’s most misogynistic tropes. Ti West’s X, Alex Garland’s Men and Zach Cregger’s Barbarian have all been promoted with the insinuation that there will be positive female representation, as they tackle the porn industry, the threat of male violence and promised to extrapolate the gendered difference in experience in patriarchal society.

Unfortunately these films have as much to offer female empowerment as the bizarre 2014 trend in which male celebrities posed in ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts – that is, nothing at all. The female-led horror films these male directors have produced not only fail to offer the catharsis I seek from final girls, but they return to the tired trope of the feminine as monstrous.

This trifecta of pseudo-feminist films come after the roaring success of female-led horrors such as Midsommar and The Witch, in which Ari Aster and Robert Eggers demonstrated the restrictions of patriarchal society, through gaslighting boyfriends and puritanical fathers, and we watched as the female protagonists were eventually freed of sexist societal pressures. What we see now is a dilution of this trend.

Ti West’s X may claim to promote sex positivity, but its empowerment has an age limit. The psychopathic killer chopping up sexy teens is revealed to be the horny old hag from the creepy house, because what could be scarier than an older woman with a sex drive? One scene involves the killer caressing Pearl (Mia Goth) as she sleeps, her sagging skin juxtaposed with Pearl’s perky body, seemingly designed to evoke a feeling of disgust.

A few months ago, a TikTok circulated of Mia Goth transforming into Pearl, the elderly killer in X, with viewers commenting on the remarkable, unrecognisable result. It is a devaluing of older women in society, as it’s intended to tickle the audience to watch the youthful Mia Goth be transformed into an old woman. Goth’s casting as both Pearl and Maxine has no bearing on the film’s plot, other than to devalue older women by reducing them to a punchline, as we watch the youthful, beautiful Goth transform into a wizened, shuffling crone. Pearl is not even a role to be cast in X, instead reduced to a layer of prosthetics.

Men is Alex Garland’s attempt at ham-handedly saying ‘Yes All Men’, but its final scene revolves around a series of bloody vulvas forming on men’s bodies, with a rapidly repeated graphic birthing sequence. As this is the most prolonged bloody scene of the film it shows that while Garland wanted to jump on the feminist bandwagon, as Men focused on the constant threat of male violence, it’s a performative misfire. Garland only succeeds in demonstrating his Freudian fear of the vulva, which he portrays as a gaping wound.

Zach Cregger’s Barbarian started off with an awareness of the gendered difference in response to a stranger, shown with Tess’ (Georgina Campbell) conscious locking of every door and suspicion of Keith (Bill Skarsgard) who she encounters when they both book the same AirBnB. The film’s feminist angle is quickly kneecapped by the reveal that the horrifying monster that hunts the sub-basement lair is a naked middle-aged woman, with greying hair and sagging breasts.

The clinching scene to induce terror being when AJ (Justin Long), an accused rapist, is forced to suckle from the sagging tit of the monstrous woman who has trapped him. It’s supposed to be a punishment, but all I see is a reminder that even when men agree rape is wrong, their fear of being confronted with the ageing female form outweighs the threat of male violence.

While these thrill films attempt to enter the female-led horror canon, all that they succeed at with their ‘feminist’ fawning is performativity. Any attempt at a position that understands how misogyny affects women’s lives is brought down by their wielding of the female body as a tool to horrify. Sagging breasts and bleeding vaginas are not their horror obsession – they are our naturally occurring reality.

This year’s highly anticipated horrors have been a torrent of male directors patting themselves on the back for broaching the topic of sexual assault. But the one film that has deftly handled this subject – Charlotte Colbert’s She Will – has for the most part flown under audiences’ radar. It’s an empowering piece where Veronica (Alice Krige) taps into her magic at the burning site of Scottish witches.

In the Highlands, away from the discriminatory eyes of Hollywood, Veronica finds new life and realises she is not the withered hag the press portrays her as. In many ways these are not the same kinds of horror films but it’s notable that a film where the ageing female body is handled with respect has been largely ignored. Veronica’s body in She Will is not cause for overt celebration because it doesn’t have to be. The ageing body can simply exist on camera without abjection.

In the last ten years we have seen a surge of unique horror films that do not rely on cliches to terrify their audiences. So why then are these films, with their outdated tropes still heralded as the best horrors of this year? Is it simply that they cannot undo the objectifying gaze in their head and that male privilege still allows older women to be the most monstrous thing they can imagine? Ageism against women is not exclusive to the horror genre. From Kim Kardashian’s drastic statement that she would ‘eat poop every single day’ if it restored youth, to the popularity of memes concerning the young age limit of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dating history, it is still a major part of popular culture. Our age is still largely detrimental to our sexual viability.

I am disappointed by the directors who have taken Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine as a blueprint instead of critique. This year’s most anticipated horrors succeeded in having me writhe in my skin, but their reliance on the hag delivered a crushing blow. I don’t want to see our bodies contorted, our wrinkles exaggerated, our breasts drooped for cheap jump scares. The hag’s rise from the cinematic dead, and the popularity of the films in which she features, serves as a tragic reminder that fear of the ageing woman is deeply ingrained in our minds. We don’t question her sudden appearance, we only scream as she emerges from the dark.

The best of horror doesn’t reinforce societal discriminations and we shouldn’t praise it when it does so, we should demand better. Horror is capable of exploring gender and sexuality and yet when it relies on its misogynistic crutches, it debases and demeans a genre oozing with terrifying creative possibility.

Published 4 Nov 2022

Tags: Alex Garland Ti West

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