Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Friday the 13th (1980)

by Alec ‘Mama WOULD hurt a fly!’ Cizak

Not much has been written about the original Friday the 13th that can actually be called relevant. It’s a thin film, to say the least. An obvious combination of Meatballs, Jaws I and II, and, of course, Halloween, F13 is actually the movie responsible for the wave of slashers that followed. It’s the movie that made money right out of the gate and demonstrated to the studios that a market existed for Animal House/Halloween hybrids. Most critics seem hell-bent on pointing out that the final girl in F13 is “tomboyish,” a claim I’ll demonstrate is ludicrous. There are the usual accusations that it promotes puritanical values. Of course, actually watching the movie reveals those notions to be rooted in ignorance. Oddly, what no one has caught on to is the fact that F13 may be the most powerful pro-post-feminist text ever created.

A few months ago I discussed Halloween with a feminist film professor from Minnesota. She insisted that Halloween was a sexist text because the survivor was a traditionally matriarchal woman. She pointed out that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) protected the children and did not engage in the “juvenile” behavior of her female peers. As I listened to this woman froth at the mouth over the notion that a young woman would not feel the need to participate in “hedonistic” activities along with her cohorts, I began to wonder why the idea of a woman as protector was so offensive to old school feminists. I refrained from getting into an argument, from explaining that every now and then, somebody needs to be an “adult.” As I studied F13 to write this article, I realized that Sean S. Cunningham and screenwriter Victor Miller had responded for me. Whether intentionally or by accident, their rip-off of Halloween answers the very concerns feminists have about the slasher genre at large.

For those who have lived in a cave and not seen the film, let’s do a quick summary:

Kids gathered around in a circle singing songs in 1958 (a set up taken right out of Jaws). Two of them break off to go someplace private and make their own personal Kumbaya. A stranger emerges from the darkness and stabs them. Cut to roughly twenty years later. The camp where the murders took place is being reopened. A group of young people arrive early to set the camp up. Murders start happening again until the final girl, Alice (Adrienne King), dispatches the killer who (spoiler alert! [really?]) happens to be the mother, Mrs. Vorhees (Betsy Palmer), of a boy who drowned at the camp in 1958.

Can you already see how radically feminist this movie is?

Before I make that argument, let’s put a rest to the notion of Alice, the final girl, as either “tomboyish” or a prude. Alice wears pants in the movie. That’s pretty much where the pro-“tomboy” argument begins and ends. Early in the film, she reveals that she does not like doing manual labor. In that same scene, it is hinted that she has been fucking Mr. Christy (Peter Brouwer), the ‘adult’ of the lot who disappears almost right away so that the counselors are on their own. As the film progresses, Alice proves herself more and more feminine. She casually takes over kitchen duties when the cook never shows up (having been snuffed while trying to get to the camp). A snake in her cabin scares the shit out of her. When some of the other counselors decide to go check the generator, a masculine activity if there ever was one, Alice refuses to go with them. To further thwart the claim that her character is a prude, she plays strip Monopoly while drinking beer and smoking pot. And most striking, one of the other counselors, Bill (Harry Crosby), is clearly her boyfriend. Thus, we have a final girl who is fucking two guys!

What the character of Alice adds up to is a progressive, post-feminist American woman. She is sexually liberated, feminine, and decides on her own what work she will and will not do. Coupled with her ass-kicking solution to the problem of the killer (beheading Mrs. Vorhees on the banks of Crystal Lake), we have a prototype for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lara Croft and every other butt-whooping heroine Hollywood has been selling for the last twenty years. One begins to wonder why this film isn’t taught in every feminist course on every campus in the nation.

To cement this theory, the film uses Mrs. Vorhees as a diametric example of the traditional, matriarchal woman, and advances the suggestion that the ultimate mindset of such a woman is not only detrimental to herself, but psychotic and, ultimately, dangerous to those around her. Mrs. Vorhees is a ‘loving’ mother. So much so that she is willing to brutally kill in effort to avenge her son’s death. In addition, she rationalizes her actions in a manner that turns motherly concern into a violent, vicious form of denial (“Oh, I couldn’t let them open this place again, could I?”). Her obsessive tending to her matriarchal duties traps her and her dead son in a roiling, co-dependent relationship that requires the boy come back to life and repay his mother’s vengeance upon her murder, establishing a cycle that spawned eight legitimate sequels, none of which released either mother or son from the horrid grip of pre-feminist societal expectations.

Discard your Laura Mulvey and Robin Wood diatribes! There is only one feminist text to be studied and intellectually digested. It is the battle between the liberated final girl of Friday the 13th and the enslaved mother who kills and loses her own life to maintain a dying status quo. I fully expect Sean S. Cunningham to be a keynote speaker at a future NOW convention…

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