Slutty Until Proven Innocent

Or, “Five Characters In Search Of A Little Human Empathy.” Copious unmarked spoilers for The Cabin in the Woods, discussing how it mocks not just horror movies’ stereotypes, but the audience’s own.

Alyssa Rosenberg posted an article to titled “How Much Is Cabin In The Woods Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”, where she says she was disappointed that the movie didn’t do enough to subvert the stereotype of “blonde sexpot” Jules. The other characters are developed enough to show how they don’t fit the stereotypical roles assigned to them, but the movie doesn’t provide enough evidence that this beautiful young blonde pre-med student isn’t, in fact, a whore.

Obviously, any time I find myself having an even more knee-jerk feminist reaction than a blog post on ThinkProgress, I become alarmed. After re-reading and then re-re-reading Rosenberg’s article, I think it comes down to an over-simplification of what the movie’s trying to do, and a stereotype that (like some plucky young college students) just refuses to die.

How Horror Movies Work

Rosenberg includes an extended quote from an interview with Joss Whedon on Vulture:

Cabin isn’t overtly a feminist work necessarily, but it is built on the same question that built Buffy the Vampire Slayer: If you have a blonde who is perfectly nice and funny, why are you intent on her coming to a bad end? What is the purpose of the final girl, as she’s called? All these people, all the characters behave a certain way, and there is a progression of what they have to do, to allow themselves to be written off as sex fiends or druggies or bullies or complete idiots in the face of true danger, and you just don’t get in the way of that. It’s about being stereotypes versus fleshed-out people.

The mechanics of slasher movies and horror movies in general are well-worn introduction-to-cinema-studies material, and one of the best aspects of Cabin in the Woods is how it exposes and criticizes those mechanics without being too obvious or too self-referential. (As Whedon says earlier in that interview, “A nod is fine, but a wink is not.”)

The screens in the control room remind us that both the filmmakers and we in the audience are voyeurs complicit in the suffering of these characters. When a slasher movie has the pretty blonde bare her breasts and then immediately afterwards be “punished” by the killer, it allows the filmmakers and the audience to get both the titillation of sex and the rush of violence, without having to feel guilty because we can claim both that it’s a primal study of basic morality and also that she had it coming to her for doing something wrong. Congratulations, here’s your B+, for next week deliver an essay on the use of window frames as movies-within-movies in Rear Window.

Whedon’s quote is in response to a question about including an exploitative scene in a movie that’s supposed to be skewering such exploitative scenes. And his response is, essentially, “Yes, it’s gross, but that’s how horror movies work.” (But worded much better than that, because he’s Joss Whedon).

How Not to Be a Whore

But instead of asking the questions the movie wants you to ask — Why do horror movies work like that? What is it really saying about us when we accept that that’s how they work? — Rosenberg (along with the Vulture interviewer) objects to unequal representation in subverting the stereotypes:

But Jules’ character is the one that’s least-played with, the least-subverted, and the one we see suffer the longest. We learn that Dana isn’t really a virgin—she’s just the best the people orchestrating the sacrifice have to work with. Curt, the giant jock, turns out to be a pre-med smarty. Stoner Marty’s protected from the malign influences of the people manipulating them because the pot he’s smoking ends up inoculating him to the pheromones they’re pumping into the cabin, and he’s the one who figures out how to get them into the complex. (Holden doesn’t get much of a fair shake either, and it’s too bad that both of the characters of color in the movie are somewhat quiet and detached). But we don’t get a clear debunking of whatever stereotypes we’re supposed to have about Jules. Clearly, she’s being influenced by the chemicals, the heightened moonlight. But we don’t know what her base behavior is like, whether she and Curt were already sleeping together (though I assumed so) before the trip, why her actions here are surprising—when we meet her, after all, she’s bugging Dana to be less of a prude.

I’ve got several problems with this, but what first set off my alarm is just how much the language Rosenberg uses here — the language, if not the overt intent — sounds like, “Did you see the way she was dressed? She was asking for it.”

Just from an Internet Feminist perspective — which I think is fair, since the article has the “feminism” tag attached to it — the argument sends a weird message. It’s enough to convince the audience that the big, ridiculously good-looking, football-tossing, letter jacket-wearing Curt isn’t just the giant jock, simply by having another character say “he’s a sociology major” and having him make a reference to a book that Dana is reading. But somehow, we don’t know enough about beautiful, dyed-blonde, short shorts-wearing pre-med student Jules to be properly convinced that she’s not just some whore.

For some reason, we don’t need to know Curt’s GPA to believe he’s not a dumb jock, but we do need to establish Jules’s base-line behavior before we can accept her as a positive representation of young women. We can assume that she and Curt are totally doin’ it, but is that supposed to make a difference? At the beginning of the movie, Jules isn’t “bugging Dana to be less of a prude,” she’s trying to convince Dana to get over an unhealthy, unreciprocated, and explicitly sexual relationship with one of her teachers. And yes, Jules is setting Dana up for some potential action in the woods — but with a smart, good-looking, and nice young man her own age, instead of fostering a misguided crush on an authority figure.

In what passes for morality in traditional slasher movies, all pre-marital sex (and illegal drug use) is bad and deserves to be punished. The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t devote much time to overt moralizing — if anything, it’s more interested in criticizing that over-simplistic “morality” — but it does distinguish between healthy sex and unhealthy sex. Sex is great! Just have some common sense about it.

Which leads to the game of truth-or-dare and the wolf make-out. In the update to her post, Rosenberg says that “both the sexy dance and the wolf makeouts read to me like plausible weekend away showing off, not wildly aberrant, since I had no sense at all of her prior personality.” Each viewer is going to have his or her own interpretation of a scene, of course, but I have to say I’m baffled as to how anyone could interpret that scene as a simple case of naughty girl’s night out.

The scene is tense, degrading, and creepy, even more than the murder that followed. The murder, we could all see coming, and it followed the standard rules of the Slasher Movie First Murder Template. But the make-out scene was a clear, even accusatory, condemnation of the Slasher Movie Titillation Scene. What we have is Whedon’s “perfectly nice and funny” young woman writhing about the room in front of her friends, making inappropriate come-ons that no one is comfortable with, and slowly — almost agonizingly slowly — french-kissing a decades-old stuffed and mounted wolf’s head. The camera cuts between the wolf’s snarling expression, its sharp teeth (is it going to suddenly come alive and attack?), the horrified expressions of Jules’s friends. And it ends with her tongue touching the dead wolf’s tongue. I thought it couldn’t be more clear what the filmmakers were saying: “You want a sexy, sexy drunk wild-girl make-out scene? How about she frenches a gross dead wolf head? How does that turn you on?”

Even if my prudishness is somehow showing, and the overall grossness of that scene weren’t enough of an indication that this was “wildly aberrant,” then how about the fact that each of the characters explicitly says that this is wildly aberrant? Or the scene that delivers the blatant punch-line, where Amy Acker’s character in the compound explicitly says that it’s chemicals in the blonde hair dye that are affecting Jules’s brain.

Rosenberg says that Whedon seemed “kind of irritated” when she raised her concerns at the movie’s screening at SXSW, but I’m not convinced she entirely understands the source of the irritation. Her post has an accusatory undercurrent to it, as does the question posed in the Vulture interview. To paraphrase: “You are one of the most vocal proponents of the positive portrayal of strong women in pop culture. But isn’t The Cabin in the Woods guilty of doing the exact kind of exploitation it supposedly criticizes? If the movie is intended to satirize the objectification and shaming of women in slasher movies, isn’t that undermined by having the sexy blonde bare her breasts and then immediately be punished for being a whore?”

But the question isn’t “Why didn’t the movie do more to show us that Jules wasn’t a whore?” The question is “Why would anyone in the audience assume that she was?” Horror movies work by playing off of the audience’s preconceptions; how much of your own preconceptions are you bringing to the movie?

Contrast the character of Jules, the kind and funny pre-med student, with Rose McGowan’s character in Scream, who played up the role of “blonde sexpot” from scene one (as she was supposed to). Or for that matter, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s non-Buffy role of the superficial ex beauty queen in I Know What You Did Last Summer. They have absolutely nothing in common apart from being pretty, blonde, and the friend of the non-blonde protagonist. Why did the people in the control room — and by extension, we in the audience — so quickly label Jules as “the whore” and not, say, “the scholar?”

It’s not particularly subtle that the control room assigns roles to the men based on their personalities and capabilities — athlete, fool, scholar — but assigns roles to the women based solely on their sexual history — virgin, whore. The message is clear: assigning value to a woman based solely on her sexual history is outdated and stupid.

Rosenberg never says exactly what the question was that she posed to Whedon, but regardless, I think his response is still very telling: “I don’t think Jules comes off as dumb.” It’s clear where his priorities lie: Acker’s character says that the hair dye chemicals are affecting her brain by lowering her intelligence. In the Whedon universe, being stupid is the most unforgivable offense, not being sexy.

The question people should be asking isn’t whether or not Jules was sufficiently shown to be promiscuous or not in her “real life.” The question is why anyone should even care.

Being Like Buffy

Focusing on Cabin in the Woods as if it were an overtly feminist work misses the much larger point that the movie was overtly trying to make: what does it say about us in the audience that we’ll happily pay to watch characters suffer as long as they fit into simplified, well-defined roles?

Rosenberg says that the movie is in some ways a regression from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because that series took the traditional horror- and action-movie stereotypes and subverted them.

…a movie is always going to offer less time to develop its characters and debunk simple tropes than a television show is. But I was sorry there wasn’t a little more detail in there, something that would have heightened the sense that even if, in the balance, the world isn’t worth saving, there’s some real pain in the loss. If anything, Cabin in the Woods feels like it’s coming from Willow before Xander talks her down at the end of Buffy season six, rather than Buffy herself.

But Buffy wasn’t about debunking simple tropes. It rarely, if ever (it’s been a while since I’ve watched any of it), took the American Beauty route of substituting one stereotype with a different, slightly less obvious one and passing that off as “depth.” “I’m not like this, I’m like that.” Instead, it said that its characters adhered to stereotypes, but weren’t limited to them. “I’m like this and also like that.”

At least for the first few seasons, Buffy remained sarcastic, flippant, and more interested in fashion than in schoolwork. She still wanted to be popular, and if I remember correctly, tried to get back on the cheerleading squad. Willow remained shy, bookish, and nerdy for most of the series. Xander stayed goofy and kind of dense. Giles was predominantly reserved and stuffy. Cordelia remained bitchy and self-absorbed. The show’s formula was to take familiar teen angst and not subvert it, but heighten it: slacking off on your studies could mean The End Of The World. Your mom dating a new guy could mean The End of the World. Losing your virginity could mean The End of the World.

It’s true that, as Rosenberg points out, Buffy had much more time to flesh out its characters. But it’s not the case that The Cabin of the Woods just made the best of what little time it had. It was trying to do something entirely different. Cabin isn’t a regression from Buffy; in a lot of ways, it’s a rejection of Buffy. Instead of showing the audience that there’s more to its characters than the most obvious stereotypes, it asks the audience why its characters need to be stereotyped at all.

To put it more simply: why should a perfectly smart and funny, beautiful young woman have to be a superhero before we’re willing to take her seriously?

The Black One

Criticizing the movie for not doing enough to subvert the audience’s own preconceptions is as much a case of reverse-stereotyping as, say, singling out the movie’s treatment of characters based solely on their race. As Rosenberg says: “(Holden doesn’t get much of a fair shake either, and it’s too bad that both of the characters of color in the movie are somewhat quiet and detached).” But the only black man in the control room is the conscience of the entire group; he’s the only one who shows any sign of trepidation over what they’re doing. He’s the one character meant to represent the audience’s better nature! And he even gets his John Shaft moment when the control room is overrun.

And the only way that Holden doesn’t get a fair shake is that he’s never allowed to fit squarely into any of the predefined roles he’s supposed to fit in. He’s not The Black One, since he survives pretty late into the movie, and he’s the only one who’s presented as a suitable love interest for the white protagonist. He’s not The Action Man, since he yields that to Curt for most of the movie and spends most of the time afterwards just trying to get away. And he’s not The Scholar, both because Marty and Dana are the only characters who actually figure anything out, and because for all the trepidation over Jules taking off her shirt, Holden is the only character that the movie genuinely objectifies.

In the only overtly sexy scene that takes place in movie reality, as opposed to artificially manipulated control room reality, Dana watches as Holden takes off all his clothes, and the camera cuts between her should-I-look-or-shouldn’t-I naughtiness and his ridiculously perfect abs. Keep in mind that he’s stripping immediately after finding out that there’s a one-way mirror installed between the rooms, and he’s supposed to be The Smart One. And for that matter, The Virgin and The Scholar are the only characters who demonstrate any non-chemically-enhanced interest in sex.

And if it were the movie’s intention simply to subvert stereotypes, it did a far worse job with Curt and Marty. For most of the movie, Curt really is the group’s equivalent of Fred Jones, and Marty is the group’s Shaggy. One was the jock, right down to his final motorcycle leap over a canyon; the other was the group’s comic relief throughout. I’d be a lot more disappointed in their treatment, if I actually thought that they were trying to convince me that “but he’s a sociology major” and “but his conspiracy theories turned out to be true” were in any way insightful.

For most of the final act, I was absolutely convinced that I’d figured out the final plot twist. I just knew that the ritual was going to backfire once it was revealed that nerdy stoner Marty was the real virgin of the group, not Dana. And I’m so glad they didn’t go that route, because not only would it have been unforgivably stupid and obvious, it would’ve undermined the entire theme of the movie.

Give the People What They Want

Earlier I said that the group in the control room represented the audience. For most of the movie, that’s the case: just like them, we’re intently watching the carnage play out on a screen in front of us. We’re not invested in the lives of the people we’re spying on, but instead curious about how the spectacle is going to play out. We’re placing bets (figuratively) on what exactly the monster’s going to be, who’s going to die first, which of the characters will survive until the end. When we see a young woman get brutally murdered, we’ll make a token show of remorse, and then get right back to watching the rest of the story play out.

The Cabin in the Woods has been compared to Scream a lot, although they don’t intend to do the same thing at all. What’s clever about Scream (which is still a movie I like!) is that it calls out each of the familiar tropes of horror movies, and then carries them out while still getting a visceral reaction out of them. What’s clever about Cabin in the Woods is that it says, “Yeah, Scream, that’s cute and all, but it’s ultimately meaningless.” And it does so without being pedantic, and it actually manages to be funnier and more clever, although never quite as scary.

By the end of The Cabin in the Woods, we learn that the audience isn’t represented by the people in the control room — if anything, they represent the filmmakers. No, we in the audience are the horrible, never-seen monsters that live beneath. The ones who demand that the filmmakers put innocents through hell for our entertainment. We’re the ones who must be placated.

I don’t believe that Jules is the character we see suffer the most, as Rosenberg claims. In fact, I’d say that Jules’s death is the only one that the movie cinematically treats with anything approaching genuine compassion — it’s the most overtly horrific, and it’s the only one that shows us the reactions of the people in the control room. It’s the only one for which the movie seems to tell us: This is bad. You should feel bad about this.

I didn’t have my stopwatch handy, but I got the impression that the attack on Dana was much longer, more brutal, and more drawn out. We see her knocked to the ground over and over again, trying to crawl for help before being pulled back, coughing up blood, and repeatedly beaten.

The difference is that Jules’s death is filmed in the traditional slasher movie style, with all the ghoulishly mixed messages that implies: here’s the two-for-one tits and violence that you paid to see! Are you not entertained? The attack on Dana, however, is relegated to the background. It never leaves the frame, of course — we did pay good money to see this young girl get tortured, after all, and we’d better get our money’s worth! — but it’s not given the focus, since the people in the control room have stopped caring.

Because the rule is clear: the virgin can survive, but she doesn’t have to. The people in the control room have already broken out the champagne, because their job is done, and they’ve once again satisfied the demands of their masters. (Us, in case we’ve forgotten).

In other words: all the talk about the “rules” of horror movies, and all the attempts to describe them as modernized morality plays, are complete bullshit. It’s not about punishing the sinful or rewarding the pure, because ultimately, we don’t really care. The idea that these characters are being punished for something they did wrong is bogus; that’s just one of the ways that we distance ourselves from the realization that we want to watch them suffer.

And it’s why the characters have to be forced into a predefined set of stereotyped roles, even if those roles don’t fit. It’s so that we can remind ourselves that this isn’t real, these aren’t people, but types. That way, we don’t have to spend any time thinking about what is real: no matter whether the movie’s a masterwork of modern horror or a cheesy slasher flick, no matter how good we say we are at separating fiction from reality, the one thing that’s undeniably real is that we’ve demanded to be entertained by the sight of young people being tortured and murdered.

That’s why the suggestion of giving just a little more detail to Jules or Holden’s characters is ultimately ghoulish. Why would it be any more or less sad to see Jules being snared by a bear trap if only we knew whether she was a smart independent young woman or a promiscuous party girl? What does it matter whether she’s a positive representation of women in popular media when we know that she’s going to get slaughtered either way, because that’s what we came here to see? Why can’t we feel “real pain in the loss” of Holden getting a spike through the throat unless he gets more dialogue? How do we rationalize the idea that sex, race, or even whether we’ve gotten to like a character, makes their senseless murder any more or less poignant?

When Dana and Marty release all the monsters, that’s when the movie makes it explicit how much the “rules” actually matter. There aren’t any rules to any of this; it’s pure chaos. We laugh at it because it can’t hurt us, and we enjoy it because it’s movie justice — the bad guys are finally getting what’s been coming to them. But that sense of over-simplified morality is shown to be every bit as false here as it was above ground: the “conscience” of the control room is one of the first to get killed. And the monsters take out Amy Acker’s character just as easily, without stopping to think about whether or not she’s smart and how much sex she’s had. And more significantly, without stopping to consider whether she’s been complicit in all this.

The best horror stories are the ones that don’t make any half-assed attempt to justify what they do with a set of “rules,” or try to establish a safe distance between the audience and the characters. Real horror comes from the realization that horrible stuff happens for no reason at all. It’s not because you got drunk or stoned, or because you had sex, or because you’re a woman, or because you’re a minority, or because you’re the selfish guy who ran away from the rest of the group, or even because you’re particularly good or evil. Those are the things we tell ourselves, to reassure us we have some control over it. But we have absolutely no control over it. The catharsis we get from horror stories doesn’t come from seeing people being punished for bad behavior, it’s from seeing horrible things happen to people who aren’t us.

That, in itself, is pretty horrible. Which is why we’ll go to great lengths to keep from having to think about it.

Like Rosenberg, I went away from The Cabin in the Woods believing that the ending was something of a nihilistic cop-out — maybe this world isn’t worth saving. But after thinking about the movie (and writing what has become a novella about it), I now believe that’s too simplistic an interpretation. Obviously, the movie is an indictment of horror movie cliches — not the cliches themselves, but the need for them at all.

The message isn’t that life in a world like this isn’t worth living. The message, if anything, is that life is precious. None of the characters did anything to deserve having their identities stripped away from them so that they could be systematically murdered. And Dana refuses to kill Marty even though all of the “rules” of storytelling tell her she’d be justified in doing so. Sure, the monsters are going to be upset that they didn’t get the logical, expected outcome of their story, but satisfying that just isn’t worth the cost. It’s better for the virgin who slept with her teacher to sit and have a joint with the illegal drug user, while the outdated and morally bankrupt notion that there’s a just and proper method of murdering people crumbles around them.

4 thoughts on “Slutty Until Proven Innocent”

  1. Speaking of things I don’t agree with on the internet: Rich Juzwiak’s review on seems to get that the movie’s asking deeper questions than Scream, but still just dismisses the questions as invalid:

    The resolution is not just underwhelming – it’s hypocritical. The idea that primitive bloodlust draws audiences to horror films (“Remember when you could just throw a girl into a volcano?” asks a producer) is disingenuous. There is at least a segment of the horror audience that doesn’t seek catharsis or some kind of primordial thrill when watching depictions of death, but that sees them for what they are: depictions. For some of us, the real fun of horror movies comes from divorcing yourself from character empathy […] and, as a result, viewing this stuff as a collection of ways a group of movie makers are attempting to make you squirm, scream and vomit. The question isn’t, “How will they scare me?” but, “What will they think of next to try?” One’s relationship with the macabre doesn’t have to be reflexive, and smart-talking characters aren’t the only ones who are capable of consciousness.

    Or: “You think you’re smarter than me, movie? HA! The joke’s on you, because I don’t go to these movies to think!”

    I think we all get that these are depictions, and that audiences distance themselves from what’s happening on screen. Scream just acknowledges that this is what you’re doing. Cabin in the Woods asks why you do it.

    You can’t really accuse someone of being hypocritical if they’re asking a question that you refuse to answer.

  2. Finally saw the film and so could read this essay: excellent. I especially loved the way the security footage of the cabin had the blown out colors of an aging film print. I’m with you on the wolf make-out scene–whoever designed that rubber tongue deserves an academy award.

  3. Darren: thanks for saying so!

    Matt: I’d been wondering about what’s shown on most of the security monitors, especially the shots of the other compounds around the world. The ones from Kyoto are obviously references to The Ring, The Grudge, and so on. And the one from Spain (Madrid, I think?) had a burning castle on a hilltop that seemed to be shot in 60s Technicolor, which I assumed was a reference either to “European B-movies” in general or some specific thing I didn’t quite get. What I didn’t understand at all were the shots of the other stations — one had a horned ape monster running over some wreckage, and the other just looked like a destroyed compound. But they each somehow seemed familiar, like they were a reference that I just wasn’t getting.

    As for the wolf: watching the movie a second time made me think they did an even better job of showing Jules “losing herself” than I’d given them credit for originally. The dare is just to “make out with that moose,” but instead of just walking up and doing it, she does the whole pick-up bit first. “I couldn’t help noticing you looking at me” etc. That shows her being clever and funny, which quickly degrades into her licking the thing over and over again while her friends’ reactions go from laughing to horrified stares.

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