“Don’t Breathe” and the Power of Women

In a disappointing summer for movies, and especially genre movies, Don’t Breathe is a refreshing change of pace (I refuse to say “breath of fresh air”). It’s innovative, elegant, pleasingly nasty, and most of all subversive, when too many recent horror movies are all-too-familiar.

Critics have agreed that one of the film’s biggest selling points is its ability to subvert horror tropes in simple yet effective ways. It’s a home invasion movie in which the invaders are terrorized rather than the other way around. It stars a blind man who isn’t a victim or a wise sage, but a bad-ass ninja. It defies expectations at every turn–with one notable exception.

HUMONGOUS SPOILERS FOLLOW!

At the climax of the film, Stephen Lang is revealed to be a sexual predator who keeps women in his basement and impregnates them to replace his dead child. But here’s the “twist”: he says he’s “not a rapist”–he just impregnates women with a turkey baster and a huge vat of semen.

On its face, this is subverting horror tropes. In most films, Stephen Lang would have just tried to rape Jane Levy, but instead he tries to inseminate her. Like the rest of the directorial choices, this subverts a tired horror cliche in a way that makes it even more horrifying.

But at the same time, it’s not more horrifying. Rape is rape, whether it involves a penis, finger, or turkey baster, and it would have comparable psychological consequences regardless. This “subversion” is little more than cheap sensationalizing, not to mention that Lang’s assertion that he’s “not a rapist” isn’t challenged by the narrative nearly as much as it should have been. (And it doesn’t help that the actual rape victim in the movie is literally silenced and then killed off before she can say a word.) One thing’s for sure: this is not a movie that is interested in the psychological and social ramifications of rape.

This scene has become controversial among many critics, and I felt somewhat conflicted about it myself. So I was curious to see what director Fede Alvarez would say to AV Club about the role gender played in the movie:

Jane Levy, my direction to her was, “Be Bruce Willis. Do what a leading man would do. Don’t think about the stereotype of what a leading lady would do.” In some moments, she’s not terrified. When her instinct as an actor would be, “This is the part where I cry or scream or run away,” I was like, “No, just be focused.” If it was a guy playing your role, he wouldn’t be screaming and crying. It would be unacceptable. No leading man will be doing that. So why would a leading lady do it? Don’t do it. Just be strong and go for it.

Okay. So far, so good. Yes, it’s a little problematic that so many iconic female action roles were originally written for men, or with a man in mind. And there’s probably a little bit of toxic masculinity at play when he says that no male action star would be “screaming and crying.”  But at the same time, he’s somewhat right. He goes on to say that all of the characters do cry at some point, when it makes sense and isn’t detrimental to their survival. That’s what any reasonable person–male or female–would do. I’m with you, Fede Alvarez.

But then again, if he wanted to subvert horror tropes surrounding women, why would he subject Jane Levy’s character to gendered violence? Here’s what he has to say:

What I love about the whole insemination scene, is that usually antagonists and villains in movies are looking for power. They never look for something that doesn’t give them power.

All right, I’m still with you. You’re actually critiquing toxic masculinity, right? You’re saying that rape is about power, rather than sex (a very feminist perspective), and that subjection to gendered violence doesn’t make a character any weaker or less feminist. Right??

(Wrong.)

I’m a dad now. Two years ago I had my first kid, and I’ve been through the process of childbirth.

If you think you know where this is going, you don’t.

I was fascinated by the simple fact that men, we don’t do anything. We just give the woman some sperm, and she’s able to give you back a human being. It’s insane. It’s the most powerful thing ever. That’s the way I saw women in this film. They’re portrayed as the most powerful thing ever. They’re able to create life.

HOLY GOD. That’s some condescending, offensive shit right there.

As [for Lang], the gimmick, the machine, the thing he’s looking for—it’s not a bomb to destroy the world. What he desires is a child. In order to do that, he needs a very powerful thing, which is a woman.

Oh really, Fede Alvarez? Is a woman a “powerful thing”? And childbirth is the source of her bear-like strength? Even disregarding the fact that the cult of motherhood has contributed to the oppression of women since as long as any of us can remember, pregnancy LITERALLY REQUIRES SPERM FROM A MAN.

But no, no, I get it. It’s because he “doesn’t rape her,” right? Because then the power of women doesn’t lie within a man, but within a turkey baster. Shut up, Fede Alvarez.

I was like, “That’s what he wants. And that’s why he thinks she’s powerful.” That’s why the lead is a woman as well, because she’s the one that’s able to do that. That’s why he’s not looking to kill her most of the time. I don’t think he wants to kill anybody, he just has to.

So… your goal was to subvert stereotypes, and instead you chose a “final girl” as your protagonist, one who specifically manages to survive because she’s a woman, and whose primary strength lies within her lady parts. A for effort, F for execution.

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