Gender, sexuality and representation throughout each Carrie adaptation

Stephen King’s 1974 debut novel, Carrie, continues to be one of his most heartfelt stories to date. In tradition with many horror stories of the past, it places the audiences’ compassion conflictingly with the monster of the story, reflecting our own anxieties about how we fit into our rigid cultural norms. Carrie is particularly special because of its ability to capture women’s complex community structures within our greater society. However, the many film adaptations have fallen short in recognizing what Carrie, the character, represents in that structure

The Prom

The events of Carrie take place firmly in a microcosm. The setting is a community ruled by feminine social structures and policed by women. In all iterations of Carrie, the women are the driving force of action in the film. The story begins with Carrie being punished by her women classmates for not knowing about her period and, more importantly, for not being able to deal with her period on her own like women are supposed to. The gym teacher, Miss Desjardin, is the one who controls the girl’s detention. Chris, the number one mean girl, is the one who pulls the rope at prom, dumping the pig’s blood on Carrie. Carrie lives with her mother as the only ruling force of her home. However, the scene that best captures the idea of Carrie as a story within women’s internal community is when Miss Desjardin confronts Sue Snell and her boyfriend, Tommy, about their plan to take Carrie to the prom. Tommy should be a key player in this discussion. He is the one who is taking Carrie to prom. Additionally the structure of most films put emphasis on the male characters, especially the ‘boyfriend material’ men of the film. However, in this scene Tommy could be non-existent. It is clear that Sue and Miss Desjardin are in charge of where the story goes next. Miss Desjardin tells Tommy he can’t take Carrie to prom, and Sue insists that he will keep asking Carrie until she says yes. Miss Desjardin is eventually the one that gives in to the plan, letting Sue get her way. Tommy never had any power over what was going to happen. The lack of male influence in the film is reinforced by the lack of control the male leaders of the film have over most situations. In the 2013 remake, the principal becomes a bumbling fool at the mention of periods, and an English teacher makes fun of Carrie to gain the favor of the women students he is attracted to.

All the punishments of Carrie throughout the film are to maintain the social order of this community. The bullying in the shower is to teach her that her period is something she has to deal with on her own. The punishments at home are to remind her of the guilt she carries as a woman. The pig’s blood is a punishment for stepping outside of her place by going to prom.   The examination of how a feminine community can create horror within itself is unique when we look back at this time in horror. Horror films of the 70s, such as The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, have an overwhelming masculine presence that causes a lack of social order in the film. A feminine presence is tied to the maintaining of order and social rules. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, three generations of men are left without a woman’s influence to become murderous cannibals. Carrie, however, shows that maintaining rigid social order can create its own horror.

My gut instinct when watching Carrie is to criticize the idea that a magical night out with a boy will be a beautiful life changing moment for Carrie. I always challenge this idea when it comes up in films. The idea that a young woman’s most important moment is created by a man showing interest in her is always silly to me. However, if you look past the shining spotlight on the handsome Tommy, going to prom isn’t actually about him at all, it is about Carrie’s need to connect to other women. The whole story from Carrie’s perspective is about the desire to connect to other women.  

 

 

 

 

Prom is an important cultural event in a teenager’s life, and the story enforces the idea that prom is particularly important to young women. When Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher, lectures the girls who bullied Carrie, she says she wanted to refuse their prom tickets. In the 1976 version, Miss Desjardin says refusing them prom tickets would “get them where they live.” The girl characters are the ones shown decorating for prom. Sue Snell’s decision to give up her prom for Carrie is understood as a big sacrifice. It is significant for Carrie to participate in a social event that is important to other women. As an outsider in the community it is important that she gets to exist in a space of normalcy created by women. Carrie knows her mother will never accept her decision to go to prom yet she tries to seek her approval. In the 1976 version, Carrie proudly shows her mom her corsage. In the 2002 version, Carrie asks her mother which dress she should make. In the 2013 version, Carrie asks her mom to pin her corsage on. In both the 1976 and 2002 films, Carrie gets a taste of what companionship with her peers would be like in the department store while trying on lipstick. Sue sees her and teaches her how to put the lipstick on. In all versions of the film, most of the positive interactions Carrie has at prom are with other women. She gets compliments on her dress and she has a nice conversation with Miss Desjardin. In the 2002 version, it is a compliment from Sue, said by Tommy, that gets Carrie to agree to prom. Carrie refuses Tommy’s prom invite until he reveals that Sue finds Carrie really cool.

In all of the adaptations Carrie expresses her desire to fit in with the other kids to her mother, however, the 2002 version goes the extra mile in showing Carrie’s desire to fit in. When Carrie’s mom finds out about Carrie getting her period she locks Carrie in the closet to pray. The 1976 and 2013 versions feature Carrie looking very upset to be in the closet, but the 2002 Carrie, resigned to the fact that she will be spending the next few hours locked up, pulls out a hidden pile of fashion and teen magazines to read, these being an easy symbol of teenage girl culture for the audience to recognize.

 

The Change

One of the main reasons I continue to regard Carrie as a near perfect example of the “young woman gaining power against those who ostracized her, usually through puberty” subgenre, is that Carrie didn’t have to change to become powerful. Yes, her power’s growth is connected to her first period, which is often considered a transformative experience, but the other changes that usually come with the period in this subgenre of horror are glaringly absent from the story. Two horror films that contrast with Carrie are Tamara (2005) and Ginger Snaps (2000). Just like in Carrie, both of these films feature an outcast teenage girl who is bullied by their peers and eventually gains a power that allows them to take revenge. However, the way that Tamara and Ginger change in their films is very different from Carrie. Tamara becomes more sexually attractive after she gains her power, and both Tamara and Ginger become very sexually active when they hadn’t been previously. While I don’t have a problem with linking women’s sexuality to power, it is strange to see this sexiness pushed on teenage girl characters, especially when the film is asking the audience to see these girls as sexy too.

In order for Tamara to have power she has to start looking like the normal girls. She has to first become attractive and desirable. There is an idea that an outcast gains power by becoming normal. This is still a trope we see often, think of the recently scandalous Netflix show Insatiable, where a fat teen girl can only get revenge on her bullies when she becomes thin and hot like them. Having their power connected to their ability to become society’s ideal version of themselves, really undermines the significance of giving power to an outcasted individual. Carrie gets dressed up nicely for prom, but it is done in a realistic way. She doesn’t magically become the girl every guy fantasizes about. The prom crowd doesn’t start lusting after her the moment she walks in.

Throughout Carrie’s story, she does become more comfortable in her body, and powers, through exploration. Unlike Tamara and Ginger, who explore through sexual encounters with (mostly) boys, Carrie conducts a private exploration. Carrie is shown researching her power and experimenting with it in her home. This research and experimentation mimics that ways many young women learn about their body. Not many places in the world educate women about their body, therefore women often have to go out and seek answers by doing their own research. Teenage years are an especially vulnerable time for women sexually, because of the different messages they receive about sex. This conflict is shown in Carrie: Carrie’s mother’s constant rantings about intercourse being women’s sin and her shaming of Carrie’s body by calling her breasts “dirty pillows” on one hand and Carrie’s classmate’s punishment of her being a late bloomer by bullying her in the locker room on the other. It is harmful for young women to think they HAVE to have sex in order to learn about their sexuality, which is a message seen in a lot of media, horror or not. Carrie shows a comfort through learning about her body, or powers, and exploring them on her own, and her power is still present without having to engage in sexual activity. The 2002 version of Carrie chose to include an important scene from the book the other versions did not. The scene is a flashback to Carrie’s childhood. Carrie sees her teenage neighbor sunbathing topless in the next yard and goes over to speak to her. Her mother comes out to pull her away from the young neighbor and drags her inside. As Carrie’s mother drags her inside, Carrie struggles and her powers end up causing small meteors to rain down on their house. This scene is very valuable to the story. It allows a moment where Carrie connects to another woman. It allows her to see a women’s body in a healthy way, devoid from any sexualization. Lastly it allows the audience to see that Carrie has been powerful her whole life, no transformation gave Carrie her powers.

 

The Actress

Now that I’ve talked all about how great Carrie is, it is time to get into what the movie adaptations did terribly, terribly wrong, and why I think they made the choices they did. When we are first introduced to Carrie in the book, Stephen King describes her as “a chunky girl with pimples on her neck, back, and buttocks”(pg 4). Carrie is fat. Carrie has bad skin. Have you ever seen a version of Carrie in a movie that fit that description? Unfortunately not. In the book this description comes as Carrie is showering in the locker room. Carrie’s head is bent under the water. She is letting the water run off of her while lost in thought. This is a far cry from the scene of the sensual washing of a flat stomach Brian De Palma gave us, a tradition all other versions have continued. Why can’t a fat actress be cast for Carrie?

Towards the end of Carrie, Carrie is meant to look beautiful in her prom dress. Tommy tells her how beautiful she is. He even gives her a kiss in the 1976 film. These scenes are sweet and sincere. I can’t help but feel one reason Carrie doesn’t get to be fat is because the people making our films don’t think that the audience would find these scenes believable if they contained a fat girl. We see it over and over again in our media, the outcast woman doesn’t get to have her fairytale unless she loses weight, or is already thin. Think of the classic nineties teen rom-com She’s All That (1999), where the girl too tragic to ever be prom queen was really a super conventionally attractive girl, just with glasses and weird hobbies. Can you imagine the reveal of Laney Boggs’ hot new look if she was the fat girl of her high school? As a fat woman myself I wish I could say I can imagine it, but I can’t, because it is not an image we have been taught to see. When I see Tommy compliment Carrie, I see the filmmaker’s doubt that a fat Carrie could possibly look beautiful in a prom dress, seeping through. Furthermore, when I watch Carrie, I see the filmmaker’s doubt that they could stay true to their own aesthetic vision for the film while working with a fat Carrie. Brian De Palma without a doubt gave us our most beautiful version of Carrie in 1976. His film features dreamy sequences in the locker room at the beginning, and during the prom. Would De Palma have felt his vision came to life if, after panning over a mass of gorgeous women getting ready in the locker room, the camera landed on a heavier Carrie washing her body? Would he, and the audience, have found the scene as dreamy if she had slid her hands over a stomach with rolls instead of a flat one?

While it is sad that Laney Boggs doesn’t get to be a 250 pound girl coming down the stairs in a sexy red dress as Freddie Prinze Jr. ogles her, Laney’s thin form is not nearly as impactful a casting decision as Carrie’s. Carrie is supposed to represent what is ostracized within our society. Our connection to her is meant to connect us to the traits we wish to suppress, and even oppress. Carrie’s experiences are firmly rooted in the oppression of women. All versions of the film have a scene where Carrie faces sexual taunting from the boys in her school. She faces being shamed for her body. Her mother’s rules about decency in clothing reflect the rules many schools have for the way young women can dress. She is unable to be helped by the male leaders around her because of their lack of understanding of what women go through. She is called “Crazy Carrie” – crazy being a term used to silence women for decades. She is accused of witchcraft, an accusation that was, and in some places still is, used as an excuse to kill women. She is unable to accept compliments and has been taught to be overly humble. All these situations should sound familiar as things we are still addressing today. We are connected to her. She is a part of our circle of experiences. However, we are also supposed to see Carrie as outcasted even within that circle. She is the most vulnerable, discounted member of our own community. In the 2002 film, when Miss Desjardin talks to Carrie at prom she tells her that after high school Carrie will do just fine, but the beautiful, thin girls and the jocks will be fat by her high school reunion. This is said as if becoming fat is the biggest failure one can have. It is said as if being fat is just a punishment for an unsympathetic character. When we don’t portray Carrie as fat, then we aren’t forced to empathize with the women we outcast in our community, which defeats the purpose of creating a sympathetic “monster.”

 

The Future

The newest Carrie is the most disappointing, because it moves further away from who we need Carrie to be in this time period. Carrie forces us to see ourselves reflected in the abnormal, here meaning the unconsidered or ignored, but instead the 2013 Carrie pushes Carrie further into the normal. Our community is being held back by a structure created by patriarchal norms. Carrie is about the harm this structure does, therefore Carrie should be fat. Carrie should be a woman of color. Carrie should be a trans woman. We should be seeing Carrie as a narrative that places our emotions with the women who are harmed the most by our social structure. I want another Carrie remake, one that features the Carrie we should have been seeing this whole time.

 

by Vincent Bec

Vincent Bec is a recent graduate of North Carolina State University in Psychology, Media Communication, and Gender Studies. Their life is currently dedicated to getting into a Film Phd program so that one day their ramblings about gender and sexuality in Horror films can be officially backed by a doctorate. They currently contribute to Anatomy of a Scream and Grim Magazine. Their favorite movies include Pride & Prejudice, Daisies, A Question of Silence, Sleep Away Camp, and A Texas Chain Saw Massacre. You can follow them on twitter at @slasherdaysaint.  

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