October Misogyny: Deadgirl & Martyrs (Spoilers)

So October is over and I didn’t get to watch nearly as many horror flicks as I would have liked.

I did see a bunch of good ones though.  Zombieland (the only movie I actually saw in a theater all month), Trick ‘r Treat, Splinter, [Rec], Death Bed, and a few others.

I also got to see two of the more controversial films making the rounds this past year: Deadgirl and Martyrs.

Both have relatively simple set-ups (and some contextual similarities).

In Deadgirl, you have two boys who stumble onto the bound-up corpse of a young woman in the basement of a dilapidated hospital.  Only the woman isn’t dead…she’s a zombie.  One of the boys immediately concludes that she’d make a great live-action version of a blow-up sex doll, and the other struggles with the basic humanity of the whole scenario.

Martyrs also features young women locked in basements, this time as the subjects of a secret cult’s plan to gain insight into the afterlife.  They believe if they torture someone – and twenty-something females seem to make the best someones – long enough and brutally enough, they’ll see Heaven (or whatever awaits beyond Death’s Door).  Interestingly, you don’t know any of this until midway through the film; the first half sets the movie up as a straight female revenge flick*…so it works as a bit of a bait-and-switch, and a pretty effective one if you haven’t been exposed to any spoilers (like this paragraph).

Both films give me pause.  As someone who volunteers as a rape and domestic abuse crisis counselor, the real-world implications of violence-against-women in media is very much on my radar.  When even our jean ads portray women as disposable products, you have to wonder where we are as a society.  We talk about “objectification” all the time, but we don’t really give thought to what that means: To see someone not as a person, but as an object…a thing to be used however you want.  It’s how people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer see people…it should scare us that much of the world shares some of that viewpoint.  And you can’t say it doesn’t because right there are the jean ads…someone in the advertising department at Wrangler thought that up, and someone else thought it was a great idea and gave the go ahead to do a whole line of ads just like that.  But it’s not just Wrangler…snuff advertising is tres chic right now.

You could ask the question, which came first: Is popular media a reflection of how women are thought of, or is it the cause of it?  It doesn’t matter though…one perpetuates the other, and it’s all bad.

That said, I don’t believe there’s any subject matter off-limits to art.  I think there is a place for this in our films and television and literature and painting.  All of those things give us a lens through which to view and reflect upon these issues.  It’s just a question of what biases the artist brings with them to the piece.

Which finally brings me back to Deadgirl and Martyrs.

Deadgirl uses rape imagery to tell a coming of age story about two young men and the friendship they share.  Is there a worse way to tell such a story?  Is rape such a part of our culture that it has become integral to a boy’s journey from childhood to manhood?  Oh sure, the filmmakers try to distance themselves from that idea by pointing out that “deadgirl” isn’t really a person…she’s just a thing.  But that just makes it worse; rather than deal with the idea that women can be and often are objectified my men who want to have sex with them, they just wrote it into the storyline so that everyone – the characters, the audience, everyone – can be in that place without having to do the emotional work to get there.  They take you to point B without ever going through point A (showing us how “deadgirl” became “deadgirl”, and possibly giving us an opportunity to empathize with her), and it’s a little scary…not because the film is especially frightening, but because you have to wonder why the filmmakers decided that part wasn’t important.  Even the violence is a little too titillating – in that way horror movie violence can be – to do the subject matter any justice. This film needed to be hard and challenging if it was going to deal with these issues, and it just wasn’t.

Martyrs, on the other hand, is.  All of the emotional heavy-lifting that Deadgirl is afraid to do, Martyrs is not.  It starts at point B, takes you to point C, then takes you all the way back to point A, and from there you somehow end up in Point D.  I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s what the the movie does.  It puts you in the victim’s shoes and shows you everything…the abuse, the longterm damage of that abuse, the violence perpetuated by violence…everything.  Perhaps what it shows isn’t realistic – hyper-realistic might be a better description  – but not a moment of it is titillating or fun.  Our final understanding of the film is complicated  by a late twist suggesting that the torture our heroine has endured might possibly be meaningful in some way (presuming you come down on the side that Anna did gaze into the beyond and that it wasn’t a hallucination, which I don’t necessarily).  But we don’t have to understand the film to know how it makes us feel, which for me could be best described as sick and angry.  Sick and angry because unfortunately much of what writer/director Pascal Laugier portrayed isn’t that far from reality.  That’s the lens I was talking about, and sometimes it isn’t much fun to look into.


* This is a lie…it only seems like a “straight female revenge flick” in retrospect.  Watching it the first time, spoiler-free, it’s not obvious at all that Lucy, our vengeance-seeker, has exacted vengeance upon the right people and by the time it is obvious, the movie has moved in about three directions that keeps you from taking any satisfaction in the revelation.  Such a film is Martyrs.


3 Responses to “October Misogyny: Deadgirl & Martyrs (Spoilers)”

  1. For those who have seen Martyrs, I’ll ask this one question: Did she or didn’t she see Heaven at the end? The cultists certainly think so, and there is that one visual cue that suggests she does. If so, does that mean the film is thematically justifying it’s violence? I don’t think so…it doesn’t feel like reveling to me…but I still can’t quite wrap my head around the ending.

  2. Renee, excellent review. I haven’t seen Deadgirl or Martyrs yet, but that is getting rectified soon. Those Wrangler ads are interesting and I’m a little concerned about how that idea was born and given the go-ahead… the ad execs do research, and I’m sure they must have come up with a statistic that verified there was an audience waiting… wanting that imagery. Disturbing. But then, it might be the same audience that rents movies like Deadgirl and Martyrs. To be honest, I will be renting these movies to be titillated. I hope though, after reading your insightful thoughts, I might view it with a little more clarity and sensitivity, and recognize it for what it is – misogynistic entertainment.

  3. I’ll be curious to see if you think either of them really are misogynistic. I think Deadgirl definitely is. Martyrs…well it clearly shows misogyny, but I don’t think it comes down on the side of it. It’ll be fun to discuss though.

    It’s such a strange line, too. There are some films that just strike me as being *wrong* in that way…like Bloodsucking Freaks. God I hate that movie. And it was just strange to me that I could walk into Blockbuster and rent it when so many other, much greater horror films couldn’t get on their shelves. But then there’s the tree-rape scene in Evil Dead, and while it still give me the heebie-jeebies, I don’t ever find myself sitting around after the movie is over wondering whether Sam Raimi hates women.

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