Please check out my guest appearance on In the Den with Dr. Jenn where I discuss Twilight from a gender and sexuality studies perspective!
I am excited to announce that the blog created by students in my Feminist Activism class at Cal State San Marcos, WTF!, launched today! Woot woot!
Students felt the creation of such a blog from our campus community was particularly crucial at this time due to the arrival of the sexist and racist paper The Koala (covered by Anna North at Jezebel recently), the presence of pro-life extremists on our campus, and the appearance of “noose grafitti” in campus bathrooms (covered in my earlier post here).
Thus far, the WTF! blog has posts on sexism in the workplace, LGBTQ rights, single motherhood, The Koala and much more (with more posts on the Occupy movement, World AIDS day, and many other topics forthcoming soon!) The anti-Koala poem has already been attacked by pro-Koala commenters, so please visit that post to voice your opinion regarding hate speech vs free speech.
If you could spread the word about the blog and encourage your networks to read the blog and comment, that would be very much appreciated. Students could use the encouragement and feedback as brand-new bloggers!
Also, the WTF! writers will be putting out a “call for contributors” soon and anyone can guest post so if you or people you know are interested in guest blogging, please considering submitting to WTF!
The blog is called WTF! We’re the future and can be found at wtfcsusm.wordpress.com.
(originally posted at this link in 2008)
Today is “Columbus Day,’ a day that has been celebrated in various ways since at least 1792 and was declared a federal holiday by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934. Currently, elementary schools around the nation combine the ‘holiday’ with learning units about Columbus and his “discovery.” The ways in which this portion of history is taught consists of a massive lie.
To start with, most history books claim Columbus “discovered” America. Well, forgive me for asking, but when there are already anywhere form 10 to 45 million inhabitants living on a land mass, why does one conqueror’s greed induced voyage equal “discovery”? (Not to mention Columbus was lost and thought he was in Cuba when he first landed in the Caribbean and thought he was in India when he landed in North America.)
Teaching children Columbus “discovered” American obliterates the history of the indigenous people’s of this continent, it ignores the genocide that ensued, and it suggests that greed-driven imperialism is something to be celebrated. It equates being a “hero” with being racist, violent, power-hungry, and arrogant. Woo-hoo.
Many websites offer teachers lesson plans to help kids “celebrate” the wonderful imperialist genocide Columbus’ “discovery” made possible. You can make tiny egg cups to represent the ships. Neat! You can make your own “discovery map.” (Do teachers encourage children to note the numbers of indigenous people massacred at each of Columbus’ ‘discoveries’?) Or, you can download pictures to color. (I wonder if these include native people’s being eaten alive by dogs – a popular way to ‘kill heathens’ by our hero.)
What if students learned a less glorified version of the not-so-great CC? Perhaps they might benefit from knowing some of the following:
- One of CC’s earliest boasts after encountering the peaceful Arawaks was “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” (Zinn, 1)
- Columbus was on his ‘discovery mission’ for gold and power – he was a power hungry zealot – so greedy in fact that he denied the promised yearly pensions to some of his crew and kept all profits for himself (Zinn, 3)
- At the time of Columbus’ quest for gold, power, and conquest, indigenous peoples numbered in the multi-millions in the Americas (Zinn puts the number at 25 million; Gunn Allen notes the number was likely between 45 million and 20 million and further points out the US government cites the pre-contact number at 450,000)
- Indigenous people’s were not “primitive” but advanced agriculturally and technologically with complex societal systems (so advanced in fact that the notion of democracy was stolen from the Iroquois)
- The majority of indigenous people were not war-like but peaceful and did not have a concept of private ownership – hence the term “Indian Giver” – which became a pejorative rather than a compliment in our ownership crazy society
- Many indigenous societies had far more advanced sharing of power between the sexes/genders – or, as Zinn puts it, “the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent” (20)
- “Contact” with Columbus and the conquerors that followed resulted not only in mass genocide, but continues to have negative effects on the small percentage of remaining indigenous peoples. For example, in the US, 25% of indigenous women and 10% of men have been sterilized without consent, infant mortality and unemployment are off the charts, and many existing tribes face extinction – hundreds of tribes have already become extinct in the last half century (Gunn Allen, 63)
These widely unknown facts (that are certainly not part of most public schools’ curriculum) are vitally important. As Zinn writes, “historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological” (8). The distortions surrounding Columbus serve to bring about “the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress” (Zinn, 9) – an acceptance the USA is practicing today with its imperialist occupation of Iraq. This approach to history, in which the conquerors and corrupt governments shape both how people view the past and how they interpret the present, consists of a massive propagandist campaign to justify greed and power.
In terms of the way Columbus is historically represented, the whole “discovery narrative” not only problematically glorifies (and erases) genocide, but it also passes off lies as truth. Students are led to believe that Columbus came upon some vast and nearly wilderness, when in fact many places were as densely populated (and ‘civilized’) as areas of Europe (Zinn, 21). More prosaically, many people often mistakenly believe Columbus actually set foot on US soil (he never did). Moreover, US inhabitants are encouraged to lionize the man who not only precipitated mass murder of indigenous people’s, but also brought slavery across the Atlantic Ocean. Even ‘revisionist history’ fails to condemn Columbus, arguing he needs to be read in the context of his times. For example James W. Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me,refers to him as “our first American hero.” Well, if he is a hero, I certainly don’t want to be one of those, nor do I want to encourage my children, or my students, to look up to this version of heroism.
If you ask me, Columbus Day should be voided from the Federal Holiday calendar. Instead, perhaps we should institute an “Indigenous People’s Day” or a “Native American Day” to celebrate the true discovers of this continent. Columbus was an arrogant asshole, a murderous bigot, the cause of history’s largest and longest genocide. Who the hell wants to celebrate that?
Gunn Allen, Paula. “Angry Women are Building” in Reconstructing Gender. Ed. Estelle Disch. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006) 63-67.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).
For further reading:
Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminism in American Indian Traditions.
Jaimes, M. Annette. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance.
La Duke, Winona. The Winona la Duke Reader.
Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide.
(originally posted as “What if you could buy social justice? Think Pink: Cancer Profiteering” in 2009)
The pinking of cancer is arguably one of the most well-known examples of the cultural misconception that we can buy social justice. Starting out with the pink ribbon, this consumerized think-pinking has, as Ayelet Waldman details in her Salon.com article, made us “awash in a sea of pink”:
“Pink ribbons, pink wristbands, pink Cartier watches, pink makeup kits, pink Tic Tacs, a pink Delta airplane, pink nail polish, a pink Montegrappa Micra Pen, pink bouquets, pink tweezers, pink candles, pink jeweled key fobs, pink totes, pink shower gel, pink tea, pink moisturizer, pink Lean Cuisines, pink teddy bears, pink Waterford crystal, pink Post-its, pink M&Ms, pink sneakers, pink umbrellas, pink yogurt, pink golf balls, pink pencil sharpeners, and even pink toilet paper. That’s right, wipe for the cure.”
Wipe for the cure?!? Ha! I wonder, are there pink condoms so we can also fuck for the cure?
While this pinking of cancer began with the pink ribbon, the history behind how the ribbon became pink is worth considering in more detail. In fact, the cancer awareness ribbon was originally PEACH. This peach ribbon was part of a GRASSSROOTS ACTIVISM campaign, not a corporate profiteering label. As Sandy M. Fernandez details in her excellent article “Pretty in Pink” (read it in full here):
The woman was 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, the granddaughter, sister, and mother of women who had battled breast cancer. Her peach-colored loops were handmade in her dining room. Each set of five came with a card saying: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”
Haley was strictly grassroots, handing the cards out at the local supermarket and writing prominent women, everyone from former First Ladies to Dear Abby. Her message spread by word of mouth. By the time Liz Smith printed her phone number, Haley had distributed thousands.
Then Self magazine called.
“We said, ‘We want to go in with you on this, we’ll give you national attention, there’s nothing in it for us,” Penney says. Even five years later, her voice still sounds startled by Haley’s answer. “She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial.”
At the end of September 1992, Liz Smith printed a follow-up to Haley’s story. She reported that Estee Lauder had experienced “problems” trying to work with Haley, and quoted the activist claiming that Self had asked her to relinquish the concept of the ribbon. “We didn’t want to crowd her,” Penney says. “But we really wanted to do a ribbon. We asked our lawyers and they said, ‘Come up with another color.”
They chose pink.
So, the real history is that pink was chosen as a way of STEALING and PROFITING from one woman’s idea. Holy pink crap! (And, if you need more proof that Wikipedia is NOT a reliable source, their entry on the history of the pink ribbon does NOT cover this information.)
As Fernandez writes,
“…because of Haley’s ribbon, Self and Estée Lauder had traded in a color that was merely peachy for one that was an icon, a semiotic superstar. “Pink is the quintessential female color,” says Margaret Welch, director of the Color Association of the United States. “The profile on pink is playful, life-affirming. We have studies as to its calming effect, its quieting effect, its lessening of stress. [Pastel pink] is a shade known to be health-giving; that’s why we have expressions like ‘in the pink.’ You can’t say a bad thing about it.” Pink is, in other words, everything cancer notably is not.”
While peach would have been problematic too, given its false associations with being skin color or “flesh” (thanks for nothing Crayola!), it might have been preferable to the bubble-gum faux-female-empowering and infantilizing pink.
Further, the shift from peach to pink, or from somewhat natural to neon, symbolically echoes the shift in cancer activism. As David Bollier notes in his article “The Pink Ribbon Juggernaut”:
“At one time, activists focused on the environmental causes of breast cancer and the importance of prevention. But as corporate marketers came to recognize that breast cancer awareness offers a great way to position one’s company as a champion of women, the ‘social meaning’ of the disease changed. The ‘pink ribbon’ branding of breast cancer has made the disease an upbeat, emotional celebration of ‘survivors,’ women’s fitness, civic voluntarism – and selling.”
Thus, when peach went pink, an activist movement became a consumerist movement. Yet, as noted by Barbara Brenner, executive director of BCA (Breast Cancer Action), ”If shopping for pink ribbon products was truly the path to a cure, we’d have solved the breast cancer problem by now.” Yeah, and if SHOPPING was a CURE for anything, we would have also saved the environment, the economy, and eradicated poverty!
However, instead of “shopping for the cure,” we are ironically “shopping for the spread.” Or, as Ayalet Waldman points out:
“There is a particular irony in this corporate sponsorship. Many cosmetics contain parabens, estrogenic chemical preservatives that can disrupt normal hormone functions, and exposure to such external estrogens has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.
The link between environmental pollutants and breast cancer is also becoming clearer. When absorbed into the body, certain pesticides, plastics additives, and chemicals present in foods, household dust and air act like estrogen, possibly increasing the risk of breast cancer.”
Even more ironic, as pointed out by Professor Julia Mason, is that “The largest drug companies who make cures also make carcinogenic products, which cause cancer.” Wow, talk about lining your own pockets!!! Give em cancer, then sell em ‘cures,’ and THEN sell em PINK products that show just what a caring corporation you are!
Along with capitalizing on disease, the think-pink paradigm also works to “pink-wash” products. Akin to “green-washing,” pink-washing presents products and the corporations that make them as caring about women in general and preventing/curing breast cancer specifically.
Further, even people, it seems, can be pink-washed. As David Bollier reports, “after a series of prominent NFL players were involved in serious crimes such as rape, domestic violence and DUI, the NFL launched a “Real Men Wear Pink” campaign. This PR effort enabled the NFL to showcase its players as community-minded volunteers who care about women and children.”
As this example reveals, there is a serious lack of social critique accompanying the think pink movement. When rape and violence can be pink-washed away, we must question if the pinking of cancer is ultimately doing more harm than good…
In addition to allowing corporations to plaster their image with a pink happy face, pinking also obfuscates critical analysis in favor of feel-good consumerism.
Got cancer due to that toxic waste dump you live near? Forget about it! Put on some Avon pink lip-gloss, some pink tennies, and walk your way to feel good oblivion! Forget that you no longer have the time or energy (and never did have the money) to examine how poverty, racial inequality, and a rabidly unequal healthcare system contribute to unequal rates of breast cancer among different race/class groups. Forget about the economic injustice that translates into you living next to the toxic waste dump and put on your pink happy face already! If the pink ribbon people don’t advocate for federal budgets/laws to prevent cancer, and it they are not pressuring corporations to research and then stop using cancer-causing chemicals, who are you to complain? (A disclaimer – there are campaigns and groups that step away from unexamined pinking – notably Think Before You Pink launched by Breast Cancer Action).
So, while Kristin McDonald argues that the pink ribbon is “a symbol of the new spirit of activism that is changing the way we face breast cancer,” I disagree. I think instead it is a symbol of the new spirit of commodification that is consumerizing the way we face not only breast cancer, but ALL social issues and injustices.
Pinkwashing will not bring the cure let alone bring about prevention. What it will bring about is “healthier industry,” as noted by Penni Marshall in her piece “Pink to Green.” As Marshall indicates, this cancer profiteering is not about saving the planet nor the women who live on it, but about allowing industry to continue to use cancerous toxins as it claims to be working towards a cure. As Marshall argues, “Above all else, the bottom line on breast cancer has to be what’s healthy for the environment and for women’s bodies, not what’s healthy for industry.”
Perhaps in October, when we are again inundated with pink products, we can reflect on the peach history that has been forgotten, or on the ways in which cancer harms the flesh of individual bodies (and disproportionately harms bodies of color due to systematic poverty/unequal healthcare) and DOES not harm, but BENEFITS corporations – the very same corporations that have put on pink happy faces while their products and manufacturing practices rely on known cancer causing toxins…
This October finds many, many people participating in “Occupy Wall Street” protests. Hurrah! Now this in not only non-consumer-based, it’s anti-consumerist, anti-corporatizatoin, and pro-justice. Hurrah!!!
Though I agree with Nancy Franklin of the New Yorker that you can’t judge a show by its pilot, I would counter that, in the case of Pan Am, there is quite a bit we can glean from the season opener. Indeed, just as one can gather quite a bit from a book’s cover–is the book a romance? pulp fiction?–so, too, from Pan Am’sfirst hour.
In fact, the way the show “covers” its four female leads is quite telling. As Franklin puts it, they are “like a team of thoroughbreds, the camera at first showing us only their locomotive parts—their hips, legs, and feet.” While the animal metaphor here is troubling, it is sadly apt–the female leads are held up as “show ponies” to an extent, with an emphasis on their outer surfaces–their sleek bright-blue uniforms, their perfectly coiffed hair, their bright red lips. Yet the show also hints at what is under the surface of their dieted exteriors, insinuating the more sinister underneath of their “show” status. For one, their bodies are objectified. Like the canines at a dog show, they must be preened and prepped, then prance through the airport in perfect step, hat tilted at the right angle, gloved hands just so. On the maiden flight of the “jet clipper Majestic” we see them deliver fancy drinks and banter with the passengers, the only “dirty” work involving lifting a passport from a suspect passenger–a foray into espionage that, like everything else in the show, is given a light touch.
Yes, the show implicitly condemns female employee weigh-ins, as well as marriage and beauty imperatives, and it gently hints at institutionalized sexism, but it also celebrates these woman as of a “certain breed”–hip, intelligent, forward-looking and ever-so-slightly subversive. Though the appearance requirements are made plain, what goes unsaid is that, to qualify for the job, one had to be white and also wealthy enough to afford the type of education that would result in a character like Kate’s tri-lingualism. Here, the show accords with a “sexy feminist” vision of female empowerment, one that toys with issues of oppression only to make light of them.
The focus on marriage and female appearance is key here–two well-worn areas that are “safe” areas of feminist concern. Not many viewers will take issue with the suggestion that marriage is not for everyone or that weigh-ins should not be a work requirement. These “feminist givens,” so to speak, allow for such shows to seem feminist on the surface while continuing to promote counter-feminist notions–for example, that true power comes from individual opportunity and gumption, rather than from societal and institutional change.
The show seems to be saying, “Ah, look at the glamour, the adventure, the fun,” rather than, “Yes, the role of stewardess awarded women certain freedoms, but also involved exploitation, objectification, sexualization and cowed subservience–not to mention classism and racism.”
As noted at AfterElton, the show “openly celebrates” the 1960s era’s “sense of optimism and promise, and the supremacy of the United States.” It is, in effect, hip-feminism, or feminism light, cloyingly revisionist and naively nostalgic–much like one of the most successful films of the summer, The Help. As that film and this new series attest, we like our history lessons doused with large spoonfuls of sugar. Sure, give us a bit about sexism and racism, but please wrap it in pretty packages, lovely fashion and a feel-good nod to female empowerment. To add spice, put some men on the side and make them pine away for our lovely leading ladies–as with Pan Am’s pilot Dean Lowrey (Mike Vogel). Perhaps the best indication of the faux feminism saturating the show is ABC’s own pitch about the women of Pan Am: “They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet.” Ugh.
Even more telling is ABC’s description of the show as “a sleek, globe-trotting romance.” “Join our crew,” ABC beckons, “travel to intoxicating cities … and bump into history along the way.” Or, more aptly, why not drink down nostalgia through this bouncy pop-culture lens, dull your sense of history and haphazardly bump into enough historical detail to make the show seem as if it’s grappling with the past rather than just turning it into nostalgic adventure.
Meghan Casserly of Forbes hits the appeal of such shows on the head: “Sexy Feminists are a safe, well-liked bunch.” Indeed, give us our strong women but please make them hip and hot–or of the type Casserly asserts “would do well in a room full of old-boy TV executives, pitching a show about ‘empowerment’ costumed in corsets, shortened hemlines and the tee-hee-hee of Mile High Club references.”
Though I think Casserly’s suggestion that SlutWalks fall into this “sexy feminism” category is too simplistic, I agree with her suggestion that “girl power” feminism–where nudity, bikini waxing and sexual agency are framed as key paths to freedom–is problematically shaping mainstream attempts to come to grips with feminism. While the show’s executive producer, Chad Hodge, claims that Pan Am is “all about empowering these women to be whatever they want to be,” I would counter that it is more about empowering ABC’s viewing numbers by jumping on the faux feminist bandwagon.
Underlying this trend, as documented at Women and Hollywood, is the lack of female writers, producers and executives. In short, when females are involved in making shows and films, there is a tendency for more nuanced explorations of sexism, racism and other forms of oppression. When privileged white males run the show? Not so much.
Yes, one of the show’s executive producers, Nancy Hult Ganis, was a Pan Am flight attendant for several years, but her role on the show seems mainly to consist of monitoring “her characters’ manners and behavior in scripts and on the set, keeping a careful eye on what they wear, how they speak and even whether they chew gum (they absolutely can’t). While Ganis has noted flight attendants’ large role in the labor and feminist movements, the show as of yet has not incorporated these aspects. Instead, what we have in the current fall line-up was aptly named by Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times as feminist backlash–“How else to explain why, in an era where real-life women are running for president and running men off the road of life by any number of measures, women in serious dramatic television roles are still wearing girdles and gloves?”
Sure, it’s nice to have female leads in a show and acknowledge the importance of female agency in terms of sexuality, work and the institution of marriage. But it would also be nice if such shows offered us more than glossy covers and gave us some meaty, historical pages to wade through.
Instead, what we have is what The Hollywood Reporter calls “revisionist feminism of the strangest sort” that “takes sexism and somehow makes it aspirational.” The closing scene of the pilot, as the post points out, makes this particularly apparent: Our four leading stewardesses “are strutting in slow motion, all swivel-hipped and breezy as they cut a swath through the terminal and get set to board the plane, like models on a runway. Suddenly the camera looks back and focuses on a young girl of four or five, in awe of what she sees.”
We, the viewers, are supposed to embody the gaze of this young girl, to fix our eyes on four female beauties who may take flight but don’t soar above (let alone really resist) the sexism of their era, let alone ours. Like this young girl, we view the scene through glass–trapped on the outside looking in. If we were the figurative pilots, writing and producing more shows instead of just starring in them, perhaps women could truly take flight in television drama.
As today is the 40th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day, it is an appropriate moment to consider the continuing inequalities women face. As a scholar of popular culture that tracks the way culture grapples with changing conceptions of gender and sexuality, I am struck by the profound difference between Bella Abzug, staunch supporter of women’s rights, and today’s most popular Bella, Bella Swan.
The November release of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the first half of the two-part film adaptation of the final book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, will include the much anticipated wedding and honeymoon of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.
Fans, given previous reactions to leaked photos of the vampire-human honeymoon scenes, will likely clamor for these racier scenarios. Parents, depending on their views of appropriate sexuality and relationship ideals, will be variously delighted by the “happy ending” in marriage or dismayed by the film’s sexualized content. Traditional vampire aficionados will scoff at the idea that the lead vampire, Edward, Mr. Sparkly Pants himself, is able to impregnate a human, something that goes against typical vampire lore. But I, as a women’s studies professor, will be viewing the film with an eye to how it romanticizes sexual violence.
From where I sit, Twilight wrestles with gender norms, abstinence imperatives, and that age-old message foisted upon females: true love conquers all. No Buffy the Vampire Slayer nor her contemporary descendent, Sookie Stackhouse, the saga’s female protagonist is instead a rather weak damsel in distress, traipsing after the two leading men, one a domineering vampire, the other a prone-to-violence werewolf.
Though the bruised body of post-coitus Bella in the opening sections of the Breaking Dawn should concern anyone who cares about violence against women, in all likelihood, what instead will interest viewers is Bella’s “morning after” body, which, after a night of Edward’s headboard busting and pillow biting, will be covered in bruises and feathers – a sort of modern day, sexed-up take on being tarred and feathered. But Bella’s battered body, like the bodies of so many women, will likely be largely forgotten in between frames.
Yet the saga, and this segment in particular, begs the question: “Is sexualized violence acceptable?”
Why don’t images of battered women give us more pause, especially on a day like today – Women’s Equality Day.
Bella shares her first name with the initiator of today’s 40-year old holiday, Bella Abzug. But any similarity stops there. The one Bella was famous for her hats and her saying “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives,” the other for her clumsiness, and for promoting the idea that a woman’s place is in the domestic home (whether she be cooking for her father – as in the first three books – or bedding her beloved vampire husband – as in the last).
Sure, Meyer’s Bella gets a super-power at the end, but it is the power to cocoon others in a protective mind shield – a sort of virtual womb space. Yes, you got it: she is allowed the power to mother.
While the Twilight saga has hints of female power– a Wall-Street savvy female vampire and a smattering of female vampire leaders, the overwhelming undercurrent of romance, sexual violence, and female subordination – as well as the “happy” ending of Bella as wed, bed, and bruised – suggests the best path for us women is not the road to equality but true love, a myth as enduring as vampires.
To be sure, the film is hardly the only one to render females as the second sex and proffer such depictions of violence sex as proof that true love is in the air. But, given the rabid popularity of the saga, and the highly anticipated depiction of the sex scenes, we should take a human moment and consider what the other Bella – Bella Abzug– would make of Bella Swan’s treatment in the film. Is the type of equality we seek that in which we can choose to romanticize hot, abusive vampire sex?
I, for one, think we’d be better off wearing a crazy hat and insisting, as did Abzug’s resolution, that women not be treated as second-class-citizens, in life or in film. From the onslaught against reproductive freedoms to the rape-blaming that frames women as at fault for the violence done to them, evidence that Women’s Equality Day is here in name only abounds, and not only in headlines, but also in representations of domestic violence in the pages of the rabidly popular Twilight saga and its film adaptations.
Though it’s been ninety-one years to the day since Congress ratified women’s right to vote, women’s place in the House of Representatives is still far from equal. And, more pervasively, a woman’s body is still not her own.
The following post originally ran here at Ms. Magazine blog.
Debates about whether women’s writing was uniquely female or if there was a “feminine voice” permeated much femininist theorizing in the ’70s and ’80s. While I tend to be wary of claims about difference grounded in biological determinism, I do think that for many female writers their experiences as women, or as what Simone de Beauvoir famously called “the second sex,” often inform their writing. This is partially how I account for the remake of Fright Night being much better–and more feminist-friendly–than the original: The screenplay was written by a woman.
Marti Noxon, known for her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then Angel, is obviously no newbie when it comes to vampires–nor when it comes to vampire narratives that take on gender norms and critique them.
In her version of Fright Night, gone is the girlfriend-as-sweet-virgin and the overprotective-but-ineffectual mother. In their place, Imogen Poots is an independent, savvy Amy, and Toni Colette is the smart, successful single mom, Jane. When things turn violent after nice-looking neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is found to be a vampire, Jane drives the get-away SUV, and then saves her son Charley (Anton Yelchin) by staking Jerry with one of her real estate signs. Later, Amy, no damsel in distress, fights alongside Charley against Jerry and the converted Ed (Christopher Minz-Plass).
In the 1985 film, Amy (Amanda Bearse) didn’t do any fighting–she only sweetly hung by Charley’s side–until she was turned vampire by Jerry and became the typically sexed-up evil female. Evil because she is sexual, as has been the case in vampire narratives since Carmilla and Dracula. Contrastingly, in the remake Amy has far more sexual agency–and is not demonized for it.
Further, the film offers an interesting take on masculinity, exploring the ways violent masculinity (as embodied by Jerry) intersects with sexism. Jerry claims women are “ripe” for picking, an attitude echoed by many other male characters, from the “cool kids” at school to magician/vampire hunter Peter Vincent (David Tennant). The script skewers this type of male–both literally, in Jerry’s demise, and figuratively through jokes regarding Vincent’s inability to sexually please his female lover.
Charley, the film’s hero, is held up as a model of good masculinity–not because he successfully kills Jerry so much as because he cares for his mom, loves his girlfriend and helps his neighbors. The film is framed around his “growing up,” something the outset of the film links to his abandoning his superhero playacting days and becoming “cool” so he can snag Amy as a girlfriend. But he is ultimately punished for this “tough guise,” realizing through his interactions with Jerry (the womanizing vampire) and Vincent (the womanizing fraud) that he does not want to be that kind of guy. To add a cherry on top of this already enjoyable meditation on masculinity, we learn that Amy likes him because he is not cool in the tough-guise way. This cinematic portrayal of a lead female refusing to be seduced by violence is all too rare; in fact, it’s usually just the opposite, with women being attracted to “bad macho.”
This is certainly true of Twilight, the modern juggernaut of vampire stories, which Noxon’s screenplay nods to when Amy reads Wuthering Heights (Bella Swan’s favorite book) and knowingly jokes about how “hot” that type of delayed gratification is. Here, Amy is framed as reading between the lines of romance narrative and understanding what it is about such stories that seduce readers. Likewise, she sees underneath Charley’s attempts to be cool, and loves him for not being the type of guy that sees women as “ripe for plucking.”
In the end, Jerry, who Melissa Lafsky aptly describes as “all id and ego: a walking erect cock” is brought down by Mr. Nice Guy. Destroying Jerry also saves the people he has turned, thus suggesting that not only do evil vampires need killing but so does evil masculinity–and that killing it would benefit all of us, not just the men under its thrall.