Sense of Wonder: Horror Porn and Prick Flicks

Elisha Cuthbert in the “torture porn” flick CAPTIVITY

What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. Apparently quite a lot, as I happened to run across two posts recently (one by Chris Stangl, one by Gloria Steinem), both of which object to particular labels applied to certain films.

First, Chris Stangle, at the Exploding Kientoscope, objects to the term “torture porn,” even though he did not particularly like HOSTEL and has little interest in HOSTEL PART II. His objection is that the phrase is not a “meaningful genre designation” but a way for critics to dismiss a film without bothering to engage it in any meaningful way.

Stangl may have a point, but I don’t think he quite makes the case that “torture porn” movies deserve to be engaged. More important, from my point of view, is the fact that words “torture porn” have a fairly clear meaning. As a general rule of thumb, if a phrase is recognized and understandable, then it is useful. I don’t think one can object that “torture porn” is too vague; it describes a fairly clear sub-genre of movies that include not only HOSTEL but also TURISTAS, SAW, and the upcoming CAPTIVITY.

To be fair, a phrase can catch on and yet still be a misnomer. Stangl argues the later case by insisting that we take the word “pornography” literally: “The defining genre identifiers of pornography are that it explicitly depicts actual sex acts.” I think this sets the bar a bit too high, identifying so-called “hard core” material as the only pornography. It is worth noting that the word “pornography” originally referred to written texts, which can never explicitly depict an actual sex act in the manner of a movie or even a photograph.

Stangl goes on to argue that there is a more substantive way of addressing movies like WOLF CREEK or SAW. By way of example, he offers this post by Joss Whedon (of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER fame). Stangl may be right: it is possible to address the underlying issues of “torture porn” in depth, but that’s not quite enough reason to eliminate the useful shorthand inherent in the phrase itself, and we cannot expect everyone who comments on these films to write a doctoral dissertation just to prove that that they are not “glib and dismissive and hysterical at the same time” (although I have no doubt that many of them are).

Second, Gloria Steinem does not like the term “chick flick.” Her basic point is relatively sound:

Just as there are “novelists” and then “women novelists,” there are “movies” and then “chick flicks.” Whoever is in power takes over the noun—and the norm—while the less powerful get an adjective. Thus, we read about “African American doctors” but not “European American doctors,” “Hispanic leaders” but not “Anglo leaders,” “gay soldiers” but not “heterosexual soldiers,” and so on.

Unfortunately, working from this premise she comes up with some rather dubious conclusions. The first is that much of the classic literature we read would be called “Chick Lit” if it were written by women: The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina, A Doll’s House, The Glass Menagerie. Steinem suggests that, had the authors been women, their work would be forgotten, “only to be resurrected centuries later by stubborn feminist scholars.”
She goes on directly to say:

Indeed, as long as men are taken seriously when they write about the female half of the world—and women aren’t taken seriously when writing about themselves much less about men or male affairs—the list of Great Authors will be more about power than about talent.

Somehow forgotten in all this are the likes of Mary Shelly, the Bronte Sisters, Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Daphne DuMaurrier, none of whom required resurrection by feminist scholars – because, miraculously enough, their work survived on its own merits. I also find it rather dubious to assume that the works of Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Flaubert, Ibsen, and Tennessee Williams are around only because of the authors’ “power” as opposed to their talent.

But never mind. The point Steinem is building up to, with heavy-handed irony, is to offer “a modest proposal” for an alternative to the term “Chick Flick.” To wit: “Prick Flick.”

One cannot deny there is a certain justice to putting the shoe on the other foot, but it really only works if the shoe fits. Steinem suggests that “prick flick” could apply to the following

  • All the movies that glorify World War II
  • All the movies that glorify Vietnam, bloody regional wars, and the war on terrorism
  • All the movies that portray violence against women, preferably beautiful, sexy, half-naked women
  • All the movies that insist female human beings are the only animals on earth that seek out and even enjoy their own pain.

It’s the last two that concern us here. Steinem describes that “violence against women” category like this:

These feature chainsaws and house parties for teenage guys, serial killers and sadistic rapists for ordinary male adults, plus cleverly plotted humiliations and deaths of powerful women for the well-educated misogynist.

I’m not sure exactly what Steinem is describing here – this sounds like an amalgam conjured up by someone who has never seen a horror movie but only heard them described by someone else who probably hadn’t seen them either. In any case, I don’t believe there have been many movies made about “sadistic rapists,” and I certainly don’t believe that such films are made to appeal to “ordinary male adults.”

Also, I have apparently been missing out on all the movies designed for the “well-educated misogynist.” Perhaps tellingly, Steinem offers no examples, suggesting that she may be battling the demons in her own mind, rather than anything in the real world.

As for films that portray women seeking out and enjoying their own pain, Steinem does a little better offering one example, BOXING HELENA, “a man’s dream of amputating all a rebellious woman’s limbs,’ after which “she falls in love with him.” Steinem asserts that these films “provide self-justification and how-to manuals for sadists.’ Ironically, BOXING HELENA was written and directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch – a woman. Perhaps future generations of stubborn feminist scholars will resurrect this film from obscurity.

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