Arts, Column

Torres: Horror Films’ Female Protagonists Reflect Women’s Real-World Struggles

You’ve probably seen the TikTok video of Mia Goth screaming “Please I’m a star!” in the movie Pearl or Toni Collette yelling “I am your mother, do you understand?” to her son in Hereditary

These audios are often played over slideshows of quotes or photos displaying female rage.

But what is the significance of this trend?

Men in the film industry have historically been able to express their emotions through physical and verbal violence. It is less often that we see a female character unleashing her anger toward the world. Rather we see her crying, staying silent, or suppressing her own feelings before she reverts back to the collected character that society expects her to be.

Movies like Carrie, Midsommar, Hereditary, and Jennifer’s Body stand out with gruesome but honest portrayals of unhinged women reacting to the world around them.

In the horror and thriller genres, the monstrous transformations of female protagonists are a hyperbolized representation of women’s responses to the male-dominated world. 

Viewers end up empathizing with these protagonists, even after they become darker anti-heroines, because it is clear they are a product of society’s cruel expectations and demands from them. Through blood and murder, these female protagonists manifest their feelings of powerlessness in a world that objectifies and subjugates them. 

Exposure to these characters is important, as it shows the often underlooked and repressed emotions of women. Through watching these films, viewers can understand the subtle but poignant ways in which women are psychologically and emotionally affected by the way they are treated in their day-to-day lives.

Here are some movies that explore the female condition in the horror and thriller genres to watch during the Halloween season. 

The Love Witch 

In this horror comedy from 2016, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) has been abandoned by her husband because of her failure to take care of their house and her physical appearance. In turn, Elaine joins a witch cult that promises to teach her how to make any man fall in love with her.

The cult’s methods work, but only because Elaine uses beauty and sex as commodities for love. In this way, the movie satirizes the erroneous belief that a woman can be empowered or find fulfillment by exploiting her physical appearance to get what she wants. Even though Elaine is in control of her many lovers’ hearts, in the end, it is her who ends up being controlled by their desires. 

“You might say I’m addicted to love,” Elaine says in the beginning of the film. “I wonder if all women feel that way.” 

The beautifully quirky sets, careful makeup, and vintage costume designs make the movie a visual feast, reinforcing the idea of beauty’s importance.

Elaine is not a moral person, or even a woman most would like to have as a friend. Her worst crime is when she seduces her only friend’s husband. She feels no remorse when he later kills himself, proving her ruthless nature lying underneath her beauty.

At the same time, her desperation to be loved makes her a character viewers can sympathize with. Elaine joins the witchcraft cult, led by an old perverted man, with the purpose of “taking what [she] need[s] from men, and not the other way around.”

Elaine initially believes that she is learning how to be loved by men, but really, she is learning how to be used by them. Elaine is just another woman who wants to be loved and, like many other women, she is willing to take drastic measures to obtain it.

Elaine attempts to be the ultimate male fantasy, but this mission only caters to male needs and dismisses her own. Her transformation into a murderer is an extension of her desire for love. 

X and Pearl 

A24’s 2022 films X and Pearl are two movies that tell the continuous story of Pearl, a young woman secluded in her isolated farmhouse with a controlling mother and sick father. She spends her days at home, taking care of her father and waiting for her husband to return from the war. She’s a caring person, but she doesn’t feel like her life is fulfilled. 

Pearl wants to be a movie star. This ambition, explored in Pearl, leads her to risk everything. 

On the road to getting a dancer’s audition for a role in the movie industry, Pearl must kill several people who stand in her way. Unfortunately, even after doing all of this, her dreams are shattered when she’s not selected.

Following her failed dream—and set some time later—X shows the story of the same protagonist, Pearl, who now goes by the name of Maxine. She becomes a porn actress and travels to a cabin in the woods with other porn actors and a crew to record a video.

Even if it is a different type of movie star than she thought she would be as Pearl, Maxine’s desire to be seen in the world justifies the unapologetic person she becomes later. 

When facing a horrifically monstrous woman who haunts the cabin, Maxine does not run in fear but instead confronts her with anger.

“I will not accept a life I do not deserve!” Maxine screams in a murderous rage. 

Her character exposes the amount of things a woman may have to sacrifice to achieve her dreams while suggesting a dark side to sexual work. 


In this French drama-horror, viewers follow the innocent, naive, and shy Justine (Garance Marillier) as she settles into veterinary school and leaves home and her parents for the first time.

This surreal movie uses the veterinary school to represent the chaotic college culture and the things that it pressures people to do: drinking, taking drugs, and having sex.

Justine, who has been raised as a vegetarian, begins to develop cannibalist traits while in veterinary school.

It all begins when she is forced, as an act of initiation, to eat a rabbit’s kidney to prove she belongs in veterinary school. Her spiral quickly escalates when she eats her sister’s fingers, and soon, she is tempted to eat—especially in sexual contexts—any man and woman’s flesh. 

The movie doesn’t shy away from grotesque and almost unwatchable scenes. It is only through cannibalism that viewers understand Justine’s desperation to fit in and own her sexuality as a woman. By eating humans, Justine consumes her victims’ identity and becomes in control, a feeling she lacks outside of her cannibalism. 

This metaphor becomes more interesting when Justine’s older sister, who has already been through her first year of veterinary school, is revealed to be a cannibal too. 

In a late scene, the sisters get into a fight over a guy, surrounded by all the other veterinary school students. It begins as a normal physical fight, but then, they begin biting each other brutally, almost eating each other.

The other students watch, excited at first, and then horrified. They eventually leave the two sisters to eat each other. Once they are alone, the sisters, realizing their loneliness and misery, instead comfort each other. They heal each other’s wounds and hug. 

This beautiful bonding scene immediately after fighting best expresses one of the movie’s main ideas: The world forces women to tear each other up competitively, but this competition has no winner—it just ends up consuming its participants. 

This is an unconventional movie about a young woman who is just starting to learn about herself. In this case, the use of cannibalism helps the viewer visualize the protagonist’s inner repressed feelings in an outwardly manner. 

October 29, 2023