Dir: Brian De Palma
Gen: Looking at Women
Carrie (De Palma, 1976) sits between a horror and a coming of age film. It recounts the relationship between a teen outcast named Carrie and her religious fanatic mother Mrs White at the moment that Carrie begins to menstruate, thus entering womanhood in her mother’s eyes. The film is stylistically inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and is narratively akin to films such as Marnie (Hitchcock, 1964) and Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940) in sight of its interest in woman centred issues. However, the way in which De Palma tackles these issues, which include beginning menstruation, attending senior prom and getting to grips with the female beauty industry, is morally questionable and often driven by a phallocentric gaze that distances and mystifies the female sex.
Indeed, it is hard to un-see the fetishistic, hazy and daringly pornographic camera shots of young female bodies that open the film, not to mention Carrie’s steamy shower scene. By repeatedly offering the viewer a sexualised image of woman, one that has historically defined her as subservient to man, De Palma’s film “either obscures women or reproduces…classic representations of women”, such as the femme-enfant or the monstrous feminine, thus repeating a masculine refrain that sees woman as the (morally) weaker, more vulnerable sex (Cixous 1976, p.876).
When Carrie’s menstrual cycle begins, she is faced with exactly this problem. On the one hand, having been denied a sexual education she experiences the onset of her menstrual cycle as a visceral and terrifying event, which is only made worse by the social stigma attached to her sexual naivety. On the other hand, the beginning of Carries’ menstrual cycle marks the arrival of her telekinetic powers that, like her menstrual blood, begin to leak out of her body to monstrous effect.
The stigmatism surrounding Carrie’s period is exacerbated by her mother who, terrified that Carrie may now succumb to the temptation of sex, maniacally recites passages from a biblical text entitled ‘The Sins of Women’. Unsurprisingly, the text attributes the onset of a woman’s menstrual cycle to Eve’s lustful fall from Eden, stating that “the Lord visited Eve with a curse [to eternally punish her, no less], and the curse was blood” to explain the biological phenomenon. For Mrs White, the act of menstruating aligns her daughter with an innate sin that is carried by all women, reinforcing in Carrie’s mind the idea that “the curse of humanity is passed through woman’s blood” (Creed 1992, p.80). Carrie is terrified of becoming an adult woman, the signs of which she reverts at the end of the film when she removes her make-up and slinky prom dress to put on a dowdy, child-like blue gown and collapse into the arms of her mother.
This stigmatic approach to female excretion “draws on superstitious notions of the terrifying powers of menstrual blood” that have historically shaped beliefs about women and thus irreversibly affected contemporary perceptions of the female body. As Barbara Creed notes, in Judaism “menstruating women are still regarded as unclean”, whilst in pop-culture the adverts of the period company Bodyform have only just stopped showing menstrual blood as a blue liquid (Ibid, p.81). Evidently periods are a taboo topic, but in De Palma’s film they are elevated to the ranks of the monstrous.
To further elaborate on the complicated relationship between anglo-american culture and the female body, it is interesting to analyse Carrie’s transformation from social outcast to prom queen (albeit a brief rein). This has been remarked upon by theorist Shelley Stamp Lindsey, who states that “the bodily repression demanded by Mrs White is ultimately analogous to the physical make-over promoted by Miss Collins [Carrie’s gym teacher]. The culturally sanctioned femininity proffered by the girl’s teacher is as repressive as her mother’s fundamentalism” (Stamp Lindsey 1991, p.38). That is to say, both Carrie’s mother and gym teacher (a field associated with bodily aesthetics) impose an image of femininity onto her body that ties her to patriarchal institutions and ideals.
Miss Collins proposes that womanhood is defined by the performative act of making oneself up, with the eventual outcome that a man will be sexually tempted by, in Carrie’s case, her exposed breasts, bouncing curls and rouged lips. That is to say, Carrie must perform the social expectations of her gender to be deemed attractive to a man, which her gym teacher associates with her transformation from girl to woman. For Miss Collins, the moment at which Carrie realises, or rather exploits, her sexual power is the moment that she becomes a woman, which highlights a series of issues concerning how a woman should look, behave and feel about her own body.
Indeed, Miss Collins subscribes to a particularly capitalist form of ‘feminism’, described by the feminist theorist Naomi Wolf in her seminal text The Beauty Myth (1990) as “a currency system like the gold standard”, which is “determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance in tact” (Wolf 1991, p.12). That is to say, by conscribing to Miss Collins’ idea of beauty, Carrie submits herself to a patriarchal value system in which woman will always remain subservient to man, he who decides Carrie’s worth based on her “beauty”. In the film, Miss Collins repeats the patriarchal refrain that a woman is valued with respect to a sexualised and performative “beauty myth”, in which she effaces herself to become an object of fetish for the eyes of others.
Thus, whether the pure, virginal and naive femme-enfant, or the made up, sexualised woman to be, Carrie’s body will always be an assertion of male ideals. Appearing to come from within, what Carrie represents is the pernicious ways in which patriarchal power has constructed the contemporary female body.
Where to watch
Cixous, H. (1976) “The Laugh of The Medusa.” Signs 4: 875-893.
Creed, B. (1992) The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London, Routledge.
Stamp Lindsey, S. (1991) “Horror, Femininity and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty.” Journal of Film and Video 43: 33-44.
Wolf, N. (1991) The Beauty Myth. London: Vintage, 12.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathryn is a fourth year student of a joint degree in History of Art and Art Practice at The University of Edinburgh. Her interest in feminist cinema comes from her belief in political, cultural and social equity, a set of values that she says have often felt uncomfortable alongside popular feminist movements such as "fourth wave" or Taylor Swift "girl gang" feminisms. Kathryn has found that by understanding the roots of female "types", consolidated through literature, cinema and art, she has been able to understand how they are constructed and how her own sense of femininity and womanhood differ.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcasts, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.