Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lycanthropy: Ginger Snaps

Ginger: Okay. Search and destroy. Go.

Brigitte: Okay. Trina Sinclair.

Ginger: Excellent selection. Continue.

Brigitte: Trina Sinclair DOA in the hair dye aisle. Perished while seeking matching barrettes on nothing but diet pills and laxatives.

Ginger: Likes her shorts stuck up her ass crack.

Brigitte: Favorite homework excuse? [unintelligible. believe me. I listened to the line like ten times] ate it.

Ginger: Basic pleasure model.

Brigitte: Your standard cum-buckety date bait.


Ginger: Good one.

- "Ginger Snaps"

It's April and I never bothered to do any end of decade lists. It all seems so arbitrary, and I feel like I don't see enough films or read enough current books to make any kind of critically viable sermon from the mount-like top ten decisions. So I'm just going to post here and there about some of my favorite films of the past decade. This post will be devoted to the excellent Canadian teen girl werewolf flick from 2000, Ginger Snaps.

Werewolves are almost universally portrayed as male, which if you think about it for five minutes is super counter-intuitive as the entire idea of werewolves is deeply entwined with the lunar cycle, and who thinks of boys when you think lunar cycle? No one. But there are all kinds of prohibitions at play in turning women into sharp-toothed, hairy, aggressive animals on film. Jezebel touched on a couple of them in a post in February. Werewolves aren't pretty, or more importantly to American movies - they aren't hot. Our culture is deeply uncomfortable with hair on girls, with directly aggressive girls (as opposed to girls who use passive aggressive machinations to get their way), and particularly with sexual aggression in girls. And no one wants to talk about periods in films, right, which would be kind of inevitable with all that lunar cycling. Ginger Snaps knows all this and uses these prohibitions to create one of the best horror movies of the past ten or fifteen years. More than almost any other film I can think of it feels like not just a horror movie about girls, but a horror movie for girls. Boys, seriously - if you are at all squeamish about period blood, this is not the movie for you.

Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald are sisters, less than a year apart in age and possess an almost twin-like closeness and understanding. They live in a horrible suburban subdivision where all the houses look the same and everyone lives in a series of identical, interlocking cul-de-sacs. Ginger is a few months older and more traditionally attractive than Brigitte (as two of the awful boys in their high school say: "You want to do a Fitzgerald?" "Not the little dweeb. The redhead with the rack."), although they are both genuinely weird and alienated in a way you rarely see in movies. The sisters seem to spend most of their time in their bunker-like bedroom talking about suicide pacts and how horrible everyone is except for them. For a school project (I can't begin to fathom what the actual assignment was) they create a series of photographic tableaux of violent death: murders, suicides, accidents.

Late one night, the girls are out in their neighborhood, playing a prank on one of the popular girls who is mean to them (the film is smart about this dynamic, too). Just as Ginger gets her first period, she is attacked by - something. Bear? Dog? Wolf? The girls run through the woods to escape and the thing is run over by a van driven by the local pot dealer who works in a greenhouse. As he says later: Lycanthrope. But Ginger has been scratched and bitten. She doesn't want to go to the emergency room as she's scared she'll get in trouble. Then her wounds start healing with alarming quickness. And then the changes start.

The parallels between lycanthropy and adolescence are obvious, but the way the movie explores them is brilliant. It feels both modern and mythic at the same time - an incredibly difficult achievement of tone that is shockingly difficult to hit, one I go after again and again in my own work and have touched upon briefly elsewhere in this blog. People have been telling the same fairy tales for hundreds of years because they are real. As Ginger's wolfy nature starts taking over, she both enjoys her new power and is scared absolutely shitless by it. Brigitte dashes around, trying to protect her sister both from others and herself, and to figure out what is going on with her, eventually with the help of the pot dealer who, it turns out knows a thing or two about other herbs. Aside from the blood lust and the tufts of hair and the tail (Brigitte helps Ginger tape it down before gym class), she is also suddenly both sexually available and sexually aggressive. Ginger finding her inner hotness is a cliché (in one of the films few lazy moments, she does the traditional babe walk down the hall at school in slow-mo as all the boys check her out), but her aggression is not.

Portraying any sort of sexual aggression in young women is still pretty rare. As Ginger fools around with a boy in his car, her enthusiasm causes him to say, "Just sit back and relax." She immediately snarls back at him that he should be the one sitting back and relaxing, and she pounces. Her aggression is real and it's not played for laughs. There aren't a great many female werewolves to compare Ginger to, but I don't think we can even begin to talk about sexual aggression in young girls and supernatural allegory without talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I read one review a while ago that summed up Ginger Snaps by saying it played like a particularly good episode of Buffy, and they do seem to occupy the same psychic space. I think there are more sexually aggressive young women in the seven seasons of Buffy than were seen in all the rest of the history of television combined. I mean, what other show has the title character embark on an intense sexual relationship that results essentially in a months long hate fuck born of rage and suicidal self loathing during which she blames herself for being a Bad Person but when she fesses up, her friend (likely voicing the feelings of the show's writers) says, "Look, it's always more complicated then that.". Interestingly, there are still people on the internet who blame Buffy (the character, not the show) for emasculating vampires - or maybe men in general, who knows. I loved that they showed men being constantly freaked out by her strength in a kind of primal way. And don't even get me started on the murderous and damaged Faith who seduces Xander, the ultimate beta-male in season three and then nearly strangles him to death. The one time a female werewolf made it onto the show, it was a little disappointing. She was the voice of unrestrained desire, but she was also kind of evil, and was eventually punished for it.

if you start googling terms like female werewolves menstruation, the hits you get most often cite Ginger Snaps and Angela Carter (for real. I'm not just trying to shoehorn in my favorite writer). Her most often read (and her most often taught) book, The Bloody Chamber, ends with three wolf stories. In her most famous story of all, "The Company of Wolves" (later made into an intriguing, but unsuccessful film in collaboration with Neil Jordan), the girl in the red cloak laughs in the wolf's face when he says he is going to eat her up and she winds up in her dead grandmother's bed with him, sleeping between his paws. In her stories, women turn into tigers and wolves and the forests are never safe.

But more than anything else, Ginger Snaps is a story of sisters. The story belongs as much to Brigitte as it does to Ginger. She is smart and resourceful, and the protective love she feels for her sister is truly affecting. It is she that provides the forward momentum for the story as she does everything in her power to make things okay as she sees Ginger slipping away. There is a desperately sad scene late in the movie when Brigitte walks into their shared bathroom and sees her sister covered in blood and in tears as she has tried to cut off her tail. Which sounds silly in print, but it's so awfully sad in actuality. Another kinship between Ginger Snaps and Buffy is they both possess the courage to take one's story to its logical conclusion. Ginger Snaps ends tragically, as it should. There is no reset button.


miconian said...

The issue of sexy female werewolves begs a link to this Trojan commercial. My feelings about the spot are affected by the fact that, around the time it was released, I was dating the actress who plays the werewolf. I wasn't thrilled to see her covered in fur, but the whole getup is still sexy in a general Other kind of way.

A hardcore Trekkie friend told me about the culture of heavy women who self-fetishize by dressing up as Klingons, thus allowing/encouraging men to see them not as fat women, but as appropriately sized aliens. I think that it's actually not so hard for men to accept the idea of sexually aggressive women...what's hard to negotiate is how to react to it, within the framework of masculinity that we're indocrinated with. Viewing the aggressor as non-human makes it easier, because then she's off the grid.

Haven't seen Ginger Snaps, but it will be hard to resist now.

Danny Bowes said...

yeah, you got me convinced. totally watching this movie now.

daniel said...

Alan Moore, of course, went with this in his American Gothic arc in Swamp Thing #40 "The Curse", in 1985.
Part of his re=imagining/updating of horror tropes.

Caviglia said...

Right. Which was still after Angela Carter's writing in '79. I tend to be kind of alone on this, but I've always been pretty deeply unimpressed with anything Alan Moore has to say about girls.

daniel said...

And of course he would most likely have read everything Angela Carter ever wrote. As well as everything anyone else would have to say on the subject.

daniel said...

too late.
Fair enough.

miconian said...

I mentioned The Bloody Chamber in an answer I gave a while ago on Ask Metafilter about the ethical dilemna of spying on a romantic partner.

travsd said...

excellent illustration!

Miss Kitty Boo said...

Hey, the quote for the "favourite homework excuse" that you couldnt hear, is "my nail glitter ate it".

amazing movie. :)