During the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s in the United States, sex moved to the public sphere. Yet, with proclamations of ‘free love’ and progressive strides like the introduction of the birth control pill, women and LGBT individuals were branded “Other” in relation to their heterosexual and male counterparts. The changes of the Sexual Revolution were not changes for all —those who fell outside of that were not offered the same freedom. These people were censored and controlled by powerful social discourses that discouraged non-traditional lifestyles while still encouraging sexual freedom for the privileged: white, upper middle class, heterosexual, often married people.
There was not simply an absence of other representations, but a codification of non-normative identities into characters to be feared — monsters, demons, ghouls, and the like. The way monstrosity is gendered in 1960s horror films reflects societal attitudes toward the transgression of gendered lines. The monster functions as a stand-in for marginalised people, especially women. Horror theorist Barbara Creed calls this ‘the monstrous feminine’.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film Psycho, the villain, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is a character based on fear of queerness and the crossing of gendered lines. The film is an adaptation of a novel based on the story of real-life murderer Ed Gein. Like Gein, Norman Bates has a troubled relationship with his mother that takes a very unusual form: after killing her, Bates crafts a skin suit out of her remains. Wearing his mother’s skin, Bates, in some sense, becomes her while he stabs Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower. The gruesome scene is meant to be scarier because Bates is cross-dressing. Unpacking Bates’ identity any further is complicated. It is unclear how he identifies but what is clear is that his relationship with his mother has a sort of sexual nature in that Bates kills while literally inside his mother, causing discomfort not only due to the taboo subject but also because he is becoming feminine in order to murder. Bates’ monstrosity comes from both the gender transgression and the presence of the female body, so Bates’ monstrosity is compounded, making him a prime example of a feminised monster. Though Bates does not declare himself as transgender, his character is a projection of societal fears about transgender people, specifically of the “man in a dress” or the “feminised man” that is a threat precisely because of their ambiguity in the eyes of the binary gender system.
Psycho directly addresses the topic of transgender people, using the word “transvestite” and “transsexual” which were more common at the time of the film’s 1960 release. After Bates is apprehended for murdering Marion, a police officer and psychologist discuss Bates’ motives. The officer declares ”He’s a transvestite,” but the psychologist responds “Ah, not exactly. A man who dresses in women’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change, or satisfaction, is a transvestite. But in Norman’s case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive.” So, the film itself tells its audience that Bates is not a transvestite, but that does not prevent the negative association of murderous tendencies with transgender women or even men who wear dresses and embrace femininity. Because both the murderous violence and femininity are viewed as fear-inducing, it makes sense that the two would be linked. This trope has persisted over time and appears even in newer films, with a cross-dressing ghost appearing as a villain in the more recent film Insidious Chapter 2. The influence of Norman Bates character is far-reaching, making it essential to examine the way Bates is presented as a character and the way other characters discuss his presentation of gender in relation to his violence.
Psycho changed the standards for showing violence and sexuality on-screen so directly, but, the film is still very much a product of its time — the association of murdering with cross-dressing means the film is skeptical, even fearful of the act. It is also worth mentioning that Norman Bates is a very human monster. He does not have an animalistic or superhuman form, something common in other horror films of this period.
Eyes Without a Face, directed by Georges Fanju, was highly influential to the horror genre internationally, inspiring films such as Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), both of which take visual inspiration from Christiane’s eerie face mask. Eyes Without a Face tells the story of a young woman, Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) who lost all the skin on her face from a car accident. Her father, Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), is a renowned surgeon perfecting a surgery to transplant facial skin. With the assistance of Louise (Alida Valli), Docteur Génessier captures a young woman to remove her face to try a skin graft on Christiane. Though much of the time is dedicated to the surgical process, but the heart of the story lies with Christiane’s silent struggle against her father.
Christiane’s father, though he does not explicitly state it, has strong issues with Christiane’s appearance after her accident; this is implied through his actions and the film’s presentation of Christiane. The score sounds carnival-like, acting as a reference to freak shows featuring people with physical disabilities and deformities. For much of the film, Christiane’s face is not seen on-screen. Instead, shots show only the back of her head or her face under the white mask her father made for her. Christiane’s eyes are the only part of her face that are visible, the rest of her face covered by smooth, white porcelain. Docteur Génessier’s dislike of the mask may have to do with the fact that the mask makes Christiane’s face too perfect, bordering on the uncanny and otherworldly. Docteur Génessier wants Christiane to look like a beautiful, real woman and will not settle until that standard is met. When her face is revealed, it is used as a scare tactic, causing another character to scream in fear.
The central problem of the film stems from Docteur Génessier’s perception of his daughter’s appearance. The disgust at Christiane’s facial disfigurement is amplified because she is a woman, the gender associated more with beauty and held to higher standards of physical appearance. Historically within the horror genre, physical differences like this have been viewed negatively and as signs of inner problems, whether that is a character flaw or even the presence of a demon or other spirit.
When Christiane discovers that her father has conducted surgeries against other women’s wills to get her a new face, Christiane becomes violent, stabbing Louise with a scalpel and freeing the dogs and birds her father kept captive. The dogs eat Docteur Génessier’s face, leaving it resembling Christiane’s disfigured face. The final shot shows Christiane walking into the night wearing her mask and carrying a white dove, free at last but leaving a path of destruction behind her. By this point, the viewer is meant to identify with Christiane and sympathise with the controlling nature of her father’s actions. Christiane is both monstrously feminine and heroic because she escapes her abusive father through violent means.
Throughout the course of the film, Christiane’s femininity is rendered as hyper-visible. The plot of the film is entirely centered on regaining Christiane’s beauty and maintaining appearances. Even when her face is disfigured, the mask Christiane wears is meant to make her presentable to the people who must look at her, once again reinforcing that her beauty is of the utmost importance. These beauty standards are specifically female and her father’s enforcement of them is gendered. If the same happened to a son, the father may try to complete a skin graft but the underlying reasoning for achieving beauty that was once held would not be the issue. Because Christiane’s appearance is such a key issue of the film, Christiane’s femininity is considered hyper-visible. The legacy of the film is highly concerned with the visual aspects of the surgery scene and the uncanny mask Christiane wears, but upon re-examination, the film can be read as a story about a controlling father and beauty standards.
In Psycho and Eyes Without a Face, monstrosity is paired with femininity. All of these films are directed by men, so the male gaze plays a role in the presentation of femininity as it reflects sexual inequalities of the time that the films were produced. The monstrous feminine displayed in these classic horror films is not part of the male “fantasy,” rather, it stems from fear of what happens when the neat boundaries between male and female are crossed.
The perception of breaking gender roles and the binary itself as a threat is still a major issue in American society. The trope of the monstrous female is alive and well even now, half a century later. It is not exactly the same, though. It has reshaped and evolved and, in some cases, the monstrous feminine has become a place of possible empowerment. When the monstrous feminine and the abject are embraced by female directors, things can change. For example, in Julia Ducournau’s film Raw (2016), the protagonist is a female cannibal but rather than demonising her monstrosity, the movie embraces it, making it the source of her empowerment. Of course, not every film with a female monster ends up being empowering, but films like Raw demonstrate the possibility of feminist horror. Because horror is a reflection of the historical context in which it was created, the societal shift toward a more positive attitude towards femininity is a much needed step forward.
by Jenni Holtz
Jenni Holtz is a film critic, illustrator and master’s student in Media and Cinema Studies. They are a staff writer at In Their Own League and Flip Screen and have contributed to FilmEra and 14East Magazine. They are currently the staff illustrator and podcast host at 14East magazine. Their passions include transgender representation, genre cinema and cooking shows. They can be found on twitter, instagram and letterboxd @queerxoh.
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