Cannibals, murderers, telekinetic tormenters, possible co-conspirators, belligerent winos, head-scratching kaiju, plotting partners — women were monsters in 2017. In the movies, at least. After years of calling for multidimensional and (gasp!) unlikable but sympathetic women in film, critics ate up these wicked women like so many poisoned mushrooms. Raw; Colossal; Thelma; I, Tonya; The Lure; Lady Macbeth; Prevenge; The Beguiled; and even the Village Voice Film Poll winner Phantom Thread delivered enough feminine mania, psychosis, and body horror to fill a follow-up book to Barbara Creed’s 1993 essential text, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. That the movies have delivered this many complicated female characters in the same year is a blessing and an anomaly.
The concept of the monstrous-feminine has been defined by Creed and then loosely interpreted over the years as a female character who becomes a physical or psychological threat to the people around her — in other words, a dangerous woman. Sure, we’ve been gifted a few monstrous women onscreen every now and then. But 2017 felt unprecedented, as if the rage of women fed up by their continual subjugation had poured over onto the big screen, timed perfectly with the #MeToo moment and Harvey Weinstein’s public demise. Of course, these movies were in the works before the Weinstein news broke in October 2017. But any woman will tell you this has been a long time coming.
This isn’t the first time women have risen up onscreen to channel real-life rage. The films of the 1990s gifted us with a host of monstrous-feminine vehicles that bottled female rage, from black comedies like To Die For, Jawbreaker, Serial Mom, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Death Becomes Her to horror and action films, including The Craft, Species, Audition, Mimic, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. The decade began, in real life and on TV, with Anita Hill testifying before an all-male panel of senators about the sexual harassment she endured years earlier while working for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. For her trouble, she enjoyed a public assassination of her character, and Thomas was confirmed to his seat despite the protestations of women’s groups. But there were two upsides to the ugly incident: A record number of women were elected to congress the following year. And we got those great movies in the years to come, a decade that culminated in John Fawcett’s cult classic Ginger Snaps, released in 2000, in which a teenage girl turns into a kind of werewolf when she’s attacked by a dog after she gets her first period.
Over the past few years, monstrous women have been making a comeback on the big screen. In 2016, The Love Witch, Elle, The Girl on the Train, and The Neon Demon offered varying views of the monstrous-feminine. In 2014, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night gave us a bloodthirsty vampire woman, and Lucy, a merciless man-killing warrior bent on revenge. The year before that, Under the Skin depicted Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human skin luring Scottish men to their deaths, and in 2011, Hanna showed us a perfectly engineered killing machine in the form of an eleven-year-old girl, played by Saoirse Ronan (who won Best Lead Performance for Lady Bird in this year’s poll).
Many films of 2017 feel like a direct response to the hits women have collectively endured in the age of “men’s rights activists” and, of course, the president. Nacho Vigalondo’s dark sci-fi comedy Colossal vilifies the “nice guys” who expect women to open their hearts and legs to any man who does them a favor. When the film’s men reveal their inner monsters, it’s up to Anne Hathaway’s Gloria to fight fire with fire — or rather, robot with kaiju — and teach the bully a lesson. Similarly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread empowers its female protagonist to match her male counterpart’s cruelty when she realizes the only way to keep her tempestuous man — and her sanity — is to chop up some poisoned mushrooms and feed him just enough to lay him out for a few days.
But for the most ferocious depictions of female monstrosity, 2017’s women-written films can’t be beat. In Alice Birch’s screenplay for Lady Macbeth, young bride Katherine (Florence Pugh) transforms, over the course of the film, from a somewhat timid yet eager partner to a cold-blooded murderess in her own right. Pugh makes that transformation completely believable, and Birch gives it narrative justification: Katherine is locked away in a cold castle of a house and treated like a child, told when she can and cannot go to bed. But the dynamic between two women in opposition to each other really nudges this film to the top of the heap. Katherine’s maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) occupies the station below Katherine’s in the house, and is obedient where Katherine is wild. When Katherine misbehaves, pursuing an affair with a stable boy, Anna witnesses the infidelities. Katherine attempts to forge an alliance with a traumatized Anna — who is black — but the maid rejects her lady’s offer. At this point, Pugh’s relatively sympathetic white character becomes unsympathetically monstrous, and the psychological torture Katherine inflicts on Anna is painful to watch. The film’s message is clear: The freedom to lash out under oppressive circumstances is only afforded to women with a certain amount of privilege.
Julia Ducournau’s Raw (number five, Best First Feature) dissects a different kind of female relationship, that of bickering sisters. The older, Alex (Ella Rumpf), treats the younger, Justine (Garance Marillier), as her plaything, humiliating and hazing her at their French veterinarian school. In a post-screening interview I did with Ducournau, she told me she instructed Rumpf to imagine that Marillier was simply one of her possessions, “a pair of jeans,” and told her to move Marillier’s body around, toss it on the bed or chair, without regard for the other actor’s personal space or boundaries. Do the two women turn out to be cannibals who terrorize the men around them? Yes! But it is their deep familiarity and sisterhood that is somehow equal parts horrifying and heartwarming — rarely do we get to see the monstrous-feminine in opposition to itself.
More often than not, the monstrous-feminine figure is depicted as a direct threat to men, with the woman’s monstrosity manifesting in her reproductive organs. Creed made this argument in 1993, and Species — about a mutant woman on a murderous quest to become impregnated — came along in 1995, as if to prove her correct. But when a man is not the monstrous woman’s main conquest or target of torture, the anxiety of motherhood is usually irrelevant to the story: In the 1996 supernatural thriller The Craft, four outcast teenage girls find solace — and power — in witchcraft. Yet the anger that fuels their monstrosities stems from classism, racism, and ostracism, not their reproductive organs. Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya similarly explores the monstrous-feminine in relation to class, depicting figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, number six, Best Supporting Performance), battling it out, physically and emotionally, on a daily basis in their bare-bones Oregon home — LaVona constantly reminding Tonya of the money she’s spent on her daughter’s pursuits. Would the two of them be so beastly to each other and the people around them if they’d had everything they needed?
One 2017 film in which the monstrous-feminine was directly related to a woman’s mothering felt revelatory in light of its female writer-director-star. Alice Lowe’s under-the-radar slasher Prevenge had a limited theatrical run before silently slipping away to the horror streaming service Shudder. I’m sure Creed would get a kick out of this one: Lowe — who was nearly eight months pregnant at the time of filming — plays a woman, Ruth, whose fetus instructs her to kill.
Lowe has publicly decried the concept of the “strong female character,” which she calls code for “boring woman.” She purposely made Ruth a radioactive ball of hormones who is tipped over the edge of sanity not just by her vengeful fetus, but also by the inane ways we infantilize pregnant women; in one scene, Ruth’s doctor coos, “Baby will tell you what to do.” Lowe twists that bit of pseudo-wisdom into a tale of loss and revenge and pokes fun at the old concepts of the monstrous-feminine.
Last year, Hollywood finally confronted the scourge of sexual harassment that has kept so many women in the film industry in a position of subservience and victimhood. The proliferation of the monstrous-feminine is a response to real-life inequality and injustice, and with no shortage of those to rail against, we might only be in the nascent stages of a long-term trend. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Salma Hayek called Weinstein “my monster.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Hayek’s next move was to match his monstrosity in film. Alas, justice in real life is far more elusive.