We’re all familiar with the trope, especially in horror films. The confident woman who likes sex, spends time on her appearance, and has a stereotypically feminine or “girly” look about her is considered vain or shallow. In horror movies this character usually is killed first, while the “final girl” who survives is typically timid (at least toward the start), bookish, and sometimes straight up masculine in appearance. In reality there’s nothing wrong with either, and yet we’re aimed to root for women who reject stereotypical femininity and find masculine-coded strength.
Even in other genres, such as romantic comedies, these are our protagonists. The ones who don’t realize they’re beautiful until they take out their ponytail and remove their glasses. That doesn’t need to be the case. In fact, female characters who instead find power and strength in their sexuality and more specifically, in their image, present us with a different type of “hero” — one with a whole new level of control and empowerment. In 2017’s Raw by Julia Ducournau and 2018’s Holiday by Isabella Eklöf, we see two young women trying to come into their own and being continually shut down by the toxically masculine environments around them. Two scenes in particular show them taking control of their image and finding power and satisfaction in their own appearance, through watching themselves dance in the mirror. These dances portray the awakenings of their strength and sexuality on their own terms — something that has been stifled, or alternatively exaggerated, by society. This time, the male gaze is eliminated, since the women are the ones performing, as well as the ones watching.
Raw follows Justine (Garance Marillier) as she starts her stay at the veterinary college where her sister currently attends, and where her parents are also alumni. Justine is thrust into the party environment of college, undergoing strange hazing rituals, being forced to sleep outside, eat rabbit kidneys, and partying until the early morning. Lifelong vegetarian Justine even begins to develop a craving for meat, which is further exacerbated by a bikini wax accident involving a delicious severed finger. From then on Justine, a previously soft-spoken wallflower, begins to exhibit a ravenous hunger for human flesh, both sexually and for consumption.
Mid-way through Justine’s transformation from timid girl to hungry woman, we see her in her older sister’s dress (a change from her typical casual wear), dancing in front of a mirror alone in her dorm room. The song she’s listening to is “Plus putes que toutes les putes“ by ORTIES, a female rap song with lyrics talking explicitly about drugs, sex, and fucking the dead. Justine gyrates her hips and doesn’t break eye contact with her reflection in the mirror. At one point she takes out a tube of hot pink lipstick, aggressively applies it, kisses her reflection twice, and then smears the lipstick across her mouth and chin ferociously. This scene in front of the mirror can be seen as a step forward for Justine, illustrating her newly found confidence and intensity. The girl dancing in the mirror is an evolution of the quiet, unsure Justine we first meet at the beginning of the film. Although her new needs are wild, violent, sexual, and unconventional to say the least, she is aware of them now.
In an interview around the time of the film’s release, director Julia Ducournau readily admits that this is the moment where Justine “starts being empowered by her needs and desires, and…finally accepts them. [Justine] becomes conscious of her body for the first time.” She looks herself directly in the eyes as she dances to the music. She’s wearing her older, more experienced sister’s dress, and experimenting with makeup. She applies the hot pink lipstick and she smears it — disrupting the typical narrative. Justine is now in charge of her own sexuality and identity, no matter the consequences to those around her.
Although Holiday isn’t a straight-forward horror film, you could argue that it portrays a more realistic terror, one of abuse and control. Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) meets her big-time drug dealer and much older boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde) and his friends for a vacation in the Turkish Riviera. Their environment is one of glitz and glamour — an unending party at a fancy seaside mansion filled with booze, drugs, and expensive clothes. It isn’t long before Sascha’s seemingly perfect life shows its cracks. Michael manipulates and violently lashes out at those in his social circle, oftentimes physically and sexually abusing Sascha. We watch as she struggles to keep in control of her own narrative apart from her role as Michael’s “trophy girlfriend.”
One night Sascha and Michael’s friends go to a club, where Michael seems to be conducting business and ignores the affections of Sascha. Bored, drunk, and feeling herself, she begins dancing in front of a mirror at the far end of the room. As the music pulses, she slowly moves her body in the neon lights, and tries out different facial expressions, almost as if she’s trying to seduce herself. She gets close to the mirror, caresses her face, and continues to dance. In this scene Sascha fully embraces the character we’re initially presented with — a young girl that’s a bit naïve, eager-to-please, materialistic, vapid and shallow. She looks that girl straight in the eyes and flirts with her own image. This is one of the first times we see Sascha take control of her own objectification, and soak in the power of her image, alluding to the possibility that she has much more agency than she lets on to those around her.
Both Raw and Holiday utilise mirror dancing scenes to explore how these women can find satisfaction and strength in their own image, and on their own terms. After a whirlwind experience adapting to the misogynistic frat-party environment of her vet school, and dealing with her newfound hunger, Justine finds herself taking the wheel and admiring her image. Sascha spends her days poolside and her nights at the often violent whim of the men around her, but dancing with herself at the nightclub shows her embracing her carefully made-up reflection and finding strength in her vanity.
In both films the important aspect is that their audience is also themselves, meaning these women are controlling the gaze that is typically imposed on them from the men in their lives. The fact that Raw and Holiday were both directed and written by women even further removes the male gaze from these scenes, powerfully showing that self-examination and ownership of beauty, sexuality, and image is an essential part of feminine growth.
by Emalie Soderback
Emalie Soderback (she/her) is a digital content writer and social media coordinator, as well as Scarecrow Video employee. She lives in Seattle, WA and has a passion for all things dealing with horror and feminine identity, especially when they intersect. Follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter.