Movies with angry men are not at all hard to find. After all, rage (alongside its manifestations in aggression and violence) has long been treated as natural for male characters. In Westerns and war films, losing your cool can even be good and heroic — as long as you’re a man.
The same can’t be said with women characters, which is why watching Mia Goth shriek, stab, and slash her way through last year’s Pearl felt not only novel but also strangely cathartic.
In a time when the scariest kind of horror viewing is the news, let’s dive into how and why female rage found its home in horror and which films do female rage best.
From Victim to Villain
Female rage in horror can be better understood with a little context, and this is where the three tropes of women in the genre come into play: the Damsel in Distress, the Scream Queen, and the Final Girl.
The Damsel in Distress
The classic role of women in horror is the Damsel in Distress — someone to desire but also to save. This trope uses female weakness as an opportunity to show off male strength and has been around for a while.
I wish I could say the Damsel in Distress is someone exclusive to early horror, but 2017’s It also had one in Beverly Marsh (played heartbreakingly by Sophia Lillis). The film adaptation deviates from the book by having Pennywise abduct Beverly, which prompts her friends to go into his lair, save her, and defeat him.
Not only does this water down the novel’s original message: Author Stephen King wrote that the kids consciously go down the sewers to defeat him together because if they don’t, then no one else will. But the filmmakers’ choice to have Beverly abducted also turns her right back into a passive victim right after she manages to kill her abusive father.
The cherry on top of the sewer cake? One of the boys saves her with, of all things, a kiss.
The Scream Queen
A derivative of the Damsel in Distress is the Scream Queen, whose role is, well… to scream. Prettily, of course.
One of the first actresses to be called a Scream Queen was Fay Wray in her role as Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933), but the trope really kicked into high gear in the ‘70s with Sandra Peabody (The Last House on the Left, 1972), Marilyn Burns (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974), and Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas, 1974). In these movies, Scream Queens were often also the leading lady and the object of the protagonist’s desire.
In others, however, the Scream Queen is often among the first to die, usually after (or even during) sex — as in the case of Friday the 13th (1980). They are survived by their less promiscuous peers, which brings me to the third trope for women in horror: The Final Girl.
The Final Girl
The Final Girl is smart. She doesn’t do drugs, drink alcohol, or have sex. Crucially, she is able to stay alive until the end of the film.
The term was coined in 1992 by Carol Clover and has come to represent the woman who manages to stand up to the evil (usually male) antagonist and walk away — but not unscathed. More than any scars or limps she might have as the credits roll, we know that she’ll forever be haunted by the trauma of witnessing her friends die and the guilt of surviving them.
Famous Final Girls include Adrienne King’s Alice Hardy in Friday the 13th (1980) and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).
The key thing in these tropes is that none of these girls actually do anything that warrants any kind of violence from the killer. But as the music swells and the lighting dims, they experience unthinkable brutality, at times screaming prettily before being saved by a hero, splaying out sensually in death, or otherwise surviving the ordeal.
And Then Came Female Rage
So, we’ve watched women be slashed, chopped, suffocated, and so on. In all these stories, things are done to them.
But, increasingly, we’re seeing more women do the slashing, chopping, and suffocating. Instead of crying quietly, screaming prettily, or enduring resiliently, women in horror films are using their rage at being victimized to become the villains themselves.
In Us (2019), Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide is tormented by her doppelgänger, Red, whom she first met as a child at a funhouse. The audience doesn’t know it for most of the movie, but Red is actually the real Adelaide, and her fury is justified: After all, her whole life was taken away from her when she was forced to live in the Tethered’s underground home.
The cult classic Jennifer’s Body (2009) shows this, too — first through Jennifer herself, who brutally disembowels boys, and later on, her best friend Needy, who murders the band members who made Jennifer into a succubus in the first place.
The reasons behind a woman’s anger doesn’t have to be supernatural, either.
In Pearl (2022), the titular — and evidently unstable — woman succumbs to her anger and murders most of the people in her life as a reaction to very human conditions: She feels trapped by her paralyzed father and domineering mother; bitter towards her husband for going off to war and leaving her to a homestead she doesn’t want; and disappointed that she is deemed unworthy of reaching her dream.
The One Genre Women Are Allowed To Rage
“Almost every woman I have ever met has a secret belief that she is just on the edge of madness, that there is some deep, crazy part within her, that she must be on guard constantly against ‘losing control’ — of her temper, of her appetite, of her sexuality, of her feelings, of her ambition, of her secret fantasies, of her mind.”Elana Dykewomon
Today’s rise of angry women on screen — including Jennifer’s Body, only appreciated a decade after its release — reflects something crucial in this cultural moment.
Last year, data analyzed by the BBC found that while men and women had similar levels of anger in 2012, women were more angry than men in 2022. And it makes sense. There is, after all, a lot to be angry about.
Progress in gender equality and women’s rights seem to be going backward in many places in the world, with the US overturning Roe v Wade in 2022. The pandemic has also disproportionately harmed women.
Every day, there is a Sarah Everard (abducted and killed by a police officer), a Fabel Pineda (a 15-year-old murdered after she complained about police harassment), and a Katherine Holmberg (a pregnant woman shot by her husband just last June).
It’s telling, too, that the gender rage gap first began in 2017, the year of #MeToo and Donald “Grab Them By The Pussy” Trump.
Pragya Agarwal, author of Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions, explains that men and women have the same capacity for anger — it’s just that girls are taught to express it differently: “Women internalize that anger and it’s expressed in terms of despair or sadness,” she said, in an interview. “We learn that crying is seen more sympathetically.”
In contrast, anger and hysteria — especially for women of color — means losing respectability at best or attracting violence to ourselves at worst.
The expression of women’s rage, it seems, has found a home in horror, the one genre where women characters appear and speak as often as men do. Though a lot of these roles have been The Damsel in Distress, the Scream Queen, and The Final Girl, we’re beginning to see more women being angry angry on screen.
And Honestly, Good For Her
For a genre that’s long been fascinated by the destruction of women, horror is now becoming a temporary and fictionalized space to express and explore a rage I can only describe as understandable.
And it really doesn’t need to be pretty (like Beyoncé artfully smashing her cheating lover’s car in Hold Up) or even justified (like Carey Mulligan’s Casey killing rapists in Promising Young Woman, or Elliot Page’s Hayley torturing a pedophile in Hard Candy). After all, nobody digs too deeply into why Michael Myers has slashed his way through 12 films or whether Pennywise the Dancing Clown is right to terrorize people or not.
8 Horror Movies Featuring Female Rage
In the films below, women are not at all chill, giving in to the hysterical fury we’ve all been taught to deny.
1. Pearl (2022)
Official synopsis: Trapped on an isolated farm, Pearl must tend to her ailing father under the watch of her mother. Lusting for the glamorous life she’s seen in movies, Pearl’s temptations and repressions collide.
2. Titane (2021)
Official synopsis: A woman with a titanium plate fitted in her head and murderous intent on her mind embarks on a bizarre journey of identity and unconditional love when she’s forced to go on the run.
3. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Official synopsis: When a demon takes possession of her, high-school hottie Jennifer turns a hungry eye on guys who never stood a chance with her before. While evil Jennifer satisfies her appetite for human flesh with the school’s male population, her nerdy friend, Needy, learns what’s happening and vows to put an end to the carnage.
4. Raw (2016)
Official synopsis: Stringent vegetarian Justine encounters a decadent, merciless, and dangerously seductive world during her first week at veterinary school. Desperate to fit in, she strays from her principles and eats raw meat for the first time. The young woman soon experiences terrible and unexpected consequences as her true self begins to emerge.
5. Us (2019)
Official synopsis: Accompanied by her husband, son, and daughter, Adelaide Wilson returns to the beachfront home where she grew up as a child. Haunted by a traumatic experience from the past, Adelaide grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen. Her worst fears soon become a reality when four masked strangers descend upon the house, forcing the Wilsons into a fight for survival. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them.
6. Promising Young Woman (2020)
Official synopsis: Nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be — she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs from the past.
7. Barbarian (2022)
Official synopsis: A young woman discovers the rental home she booked is already occupied by a stranger. Against her better judgment, she decides to spend the night but soon discovers there’s a lot more to fear than just an unexpected house guest.
8. Fresh (2022)
Official synopsis: FRESH follows Noa, who meets the alluring Steve at a grocery store and – given her frustration with dating apps – takes a chance and gives him her number. After their first date, Noa is smitten and accepts Steve’s invitation to a romantic weekend getaway.