By Johanna Isaacson |
Misogyny is a shape-shifter, a shadow, an “It” that follows and mutates to fit the culture’s demands. “It” follows the gains in women’s rights by limiting and individualizing them, discluding vast abjected, feminized populations from meaningful freedoms. The film Starship Troopers (1997, Verhoeven) cannily sketches out a future world where women and men have achieved complete parity in social status and sexual relations. The only problem is that the context for this equality is a militaristic fascistic society. In place of cis women, it is alien bugs who are feminized and slaughtered mercilessly. To drive home the message that a sexually egalitarian world can be based on patriarchal logic, the enemy-bugs’ faces are made to resemble vaginas so precisely that they could be used as an anatomy lesson. In case the viewer still doesn’t get the joke, the sexualized violence that the film condemns becomes explicit in the final coda. Here, a scientist in a hazmat suit thrusts a probe into a bug’s vaginal mouth, but the insertion is covered with a black censorship bar generally reserved for X-rated images. A takeaway message from this film, then, (which, sadly, a lot of people didn’t get) is that without a historicized critique of social relations as a whole, the achievement of sexual equality alone cannot combat patriarchal violence. “It” (patriarchy/the name of the father/capital/militarism) follows.
An example of this problem from recent political history: In the same month that Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her defense of girls’ education in Pakistan, thirteen-year old Pakistani, Zubair ur-Rehman testified in Washington about his experience in a U.S. drone strike that injured his sister and killed his grandmother, Momina Bibi:
I just remember seeing an explosion and everything became dark, maybe because of the smoke from the drone… Later, I found out that my grandmother was blown to pieces and then I felt like I was on fire. I was in a lot of pain, later I found that piece of shrapnel was found in my leg…
Malala’s award was intended to communicate that the civilized global community supports the goals and dreams of women and girls subjected to patriarchal (read Muslim) cultures. Yet, when one investigates the role of US imperialism that contributed to gendered violence in Pakistan, the Nobel Peace Prize must be seen as a hollow symbol that can’t begin to cover up a legacy of complicity. As Adaner Usmani argues in his discussion of U.S.-Pakistan policy, the show of concern with human rights and democracy belies the fact that the US has historically consistently and ruthlessly adhered to its own strategic interests in relation to Pakistan. Structural imperial violence and a Cold War legacy ties the US to successive Pakistani dictatorships that have consistently deflected attempts at democratization and fostered austerity for Pakistani civilians. The social crises that arise in the wake of austerity, authoritarian dictatorships and anti-democratic campaigns lead not only to the widespread drone strikes on innocent civilians but to the violence Malala herself experienced. Nobel Peace Prize for one girl aside, the fundamentally patriarchal dynamics of geopolitical power machinations remain. “It” (gendered imperial domination) follows.
It might seem simpler to understand how structural patriarchy works within the US, but it’s not. The forms of neoimperialism that structure global geopolitics also shape social relations within the US. The horror film It Follows (2014, Mitchell) helps us think about historicizing misogyny in relation to new capitalist logics. Here, enduring myths and fears surrounding women, adulthood, and sexuality are articulated to emergent logics of feminization in contemporary social forms.
In the face of tectonic shifts in the logic of capital, It Follows recodes the well-worn generic trope of sexual panic and sexual disease to stand for a larger fear of futurelessness. Jay, the film’s nineteen year old protagonist, lives in a suburb that looks like it was once solidly middle class, but is now run-down and unkempt. The film follows her as she begins to date Hugh, who seems nice and normal enough despite some nervousness. They have consensual sex but as soon as it’s over he chloroforms her and she wakes up to find herself tied to a chair in a spookily re-greened abandoned car park. There he informs her that she has contracted a sexual curse from him. She will be slowly and remorselessly followed by a shape-shifting murderous entity who only she can see. “It” can be stopped only by passing the curse along sexually to another victim. As soon as that next victim is killed, “It” will resume stalking the previous person in line.
On the surface, this plot seems to retread the hopelessly banal equation of sexual promiscuity and threat. Critics see it as a film about “teen confusion” (Kohn) intended “to explore what it is to be young.” (Lyne) In the least subtle reading I came across, it was championed, in The Catholic World Report, as an admonitory message against promiscuity that could have been made by Pope Paul VI himself. Director David Robert Mitchell has stated he had more than one thing in mind when making the film, and that he doesn’t want to discount the many interpretations people have offered. However, he has admitted that he finds this anti-sex reading annoying and that the sex in the film is meant to have a hopeful dimension, something that that is made in clear in the framing of the sex scenes, where the mood is restrained, hovering carefully between tenderness and menace.
The superficial symptomization of the anti-sex reading belies a more historically attuned register of the film. It Follows feels fresh and exciting because it does not dismiss a legacy of feminized abjection in horror film, but rather maps this layer of the film onto contemporary urban-based capitalist logics. Traditionally, this kind of film depicts a dread of the transition from innocence to knowledge. The post-lapsarian fall entails an understanding of the fundamentally unsatisfiable sexual and social desires of adulthood. It Follows historicizes the transitional period of adolescence by staging Jay’s insertion into the social order according to the new logics of precarity. The fear here is not of motherhood or housewifery as in the classic horror films, Rosemary’s Baby, The Brood, and The Stepford Wives, but of futurelessness: the new planet of slums in which productive and reproductive workers and spaces are no longer seen as integral to the reproduction of capital and are rather used up and cast out into the void.
The sexual encounter that transmits “It” from Hugh to Jay is depicted ambiguously, filmed from a shadowy, neutral, distant, point of view, allowing for multiple interpretations. Although Jay’s innocently decorated bedroom and child-like features code her as virginal, we find out later that she is experienced and capable of thinking of sex as “no big deal,” puncturing the reading of this moment as one of sexual initiation. Afterward she lies on her stomach, in the back seat of Hugh’s car. This is her last moment before she finds out about “It” and the only moment in the film where she is allowed introspection uninterrupted by terror. Unaware that Hugh is preparing to knock her out and tie her up, she talks to herself, thoughtlessly twisting a half-dead blade of grass:
It’s funny I used to daydream about being old enough to go out on dates and drive around with my friends in their cars. I had this image of myself holding hands with a really cute guy, listening to the radio, driving on some pretty road, up north maybe, and the trees starting to change color. It was never about going anywhere anyway. It was just about some kind of freedom I guess. Now that we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?
Here, the wistful hope of adolescence is integrally entangled with death and stagnancy in the late capitalist city. Detroit, once “a poster child of Fordist urban growth” and now “a benchmark of urban shrinkage in an age of fiscal austerity” is the context for this horror (Newman and Safransky). This sets up a parallel between gendered violence in which women’s bodies comprise a kind of “sexual fix” and fiscal violence demanding a spatial fix. “It,” the remorseless following monster can be seen as the speculative spatial growth and capital accumulation that plunders an ever-widening terrain of life in the face of the shrinkage of resources and urban fragmentation that structures what David Harvey and others call “subprime cities.”
The formation of “It” as a chain which can be passed down sexually leads to a superficial reading of the film as an allegorical narrative of sexually transmitted disease. However, it can also be seen in light of what David Harvey refers to as the Ponzi character of asset markets that structures the neoliberal city, a chain effect in which:
one person invests in property and prices go up as another invests and so on. If and when over investment is either feared or becomes apparent than the whole thing crashes. It is now difficult to see where for all the surplus liquidity can go and where it will find a profitable outlet for investment.
In this way, the metaphor of the chain conveys a Ponzi form of being in the world, allowing for what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” a hopefulness of the damned who are allowed temporary make-shift forms of survival but who are never guaranteed reliable sources of social and economic stability, giving new heft and centrality to Marx’s assertion and prediction, “all that is solid melts into air.” No matter how many times liquidity is invested in a new site, capital devours this solid host, leaving it a bloodless husk, as it returns to its form of insatiable financial liquidity. The solid forms “It” takes serve only to taunt or misdirect the characters.
“It” sometimes takes on the form of lost loved ones, but, for Jay, more frequently takes on the shape of nude women who look like they’ve seen better days. Jay is at various times pursued by aggressively nude older women; the most monstrous of them moves leadenly towards Jay while peeing herself and, as a punctum, we see she is wearing only one dirty athletic sock. These concretizations of “It” as a depleted, abused, degraded and over-sexed woman plays out the surface allegory in the film, fear of the transition to sexual knowledge and adulthood. However, this fear is intrinsically linked to poverty, and the appearance of these women, who are coded as homeless or prostitutes, parallels the spatiality of the film, which reviewer Charlie Lyne claims is structured around Eight Mile road, a boundary that bisects the city into rich and poor sectors, “as a metaphor for another great divide: that between childhood and adulthood.”
This division between suburb and city, however, is something the characters mention with a kind of nostalgia, a fantasy that belongs to childhood. In the world of It Follows this boundary has eroded and the suburbs are seen to be in continuity with the “ruin porn” of the city. Detroit’s desiccated streets echo the deserted and overgrown streets of the suburbs; urban regreening and suburban degradation mark the symbiotic futurelessness of capitalist space. After Jay’s gang realize that she is indeed being followed by a supernatural entity they set out to find Hugh, who might have more information on how to fight “It.” This is the first time we see the city. The camera lingers on the empty streets, burnt-out abandoned, graffitied warehouses and homes, and overgrown shrubbery. They go to Hugh’s “house” which turns out to be a squat he had been staying in in order to pass along “It” while remaining anonymous. The squat is notable for its similarity to Jay’s house. It looks like a future vision of Jay and her friends’ world: a large, filthy, empty husk of middle class life.
This continuity deflates the parental warning not to go south of Eight Mile. Parents and adults, in general have little to offer the adolescents in the film and appear, if at all, as fragments and blurs. This adult impotence is foreshadowed in the opening scene of the film that shows the horrific end of a young woman who has clearly been stalked by “It” past the point of endurance. We see her running in terror from her suburban home and deciding to drive to her doom, waiting on the beach for “It.” Her last act is to call her dad, who we earlier saw passingly and indistinctly, clueless as to how to shield her from the unfathomable horror of her predator. In her last conversation she reassures him that he was a loved protector and preps him for her death, showing the role reversal inherent in this brave new precarious world.
This prelude sets the scene for the film as a whole. The adults in the film are largely absent and totally impotent. The only time an adult makes his or her presence known and agential is when “It” takes the shape of Jay’s dead father who violently and remorselessly throws domestic appliances at her while she treads water in an indoor pool, here recoding feminine liquidity as a respite from and target of male violence. “It” takes the place of the father, who is voided of any nurturing or protective impulses, similar to the paternal state, existing only to drain life.
Jay and her sister Kelly’s mother is alive but also absent. However, she is not figured as a symbol of a callous or cruel adult world. Rather, she can’t help her kids because she must work endlessly to keep up even the husk of a previous form of middle-class domesticity. At several points the girls decide not to disturb or tell their mother about the horrors they are undergoing because it would only worry her: “She wakes up at 5:15. That would kill me,” says Kelly, pointing to the mundane fears of the future that subtend the spectacle of “It.” Far from a symbol of cruel authority, the mother, who is never shown, represents the teens’ futurelessness, an absent presence of abjected feminized labor which no longer promises anything beyond minimal survival. The futureless future is one where even the right to basic maternal care-work is forfeited.
Unlike their mother, young Jay and Kelly along with their friends do have the time to band together to fight “It.” This gets at another side of the feminization of late capitalist subjectivity, pointing to the gendered logics of solidarity and what Nancy Fraser calls “border struggles,” as the young protagonists form a non-patriarchal unit of struggle, care, and mutual protection whose “liquidity” and non-attachment is also a form of free time in which to build alternate forms of sociality. The disappearance of industry necessitates a peek “beyond Marx’s hidden abode of production,” as Fraser puts it, and a serious consideration of the “background conditions” for capital accumulation such as feminized social reproduction. And these background conditions are a source of oppression but also of potential solidarity. Jay and Kelly’s mother represents the hyper-exploitation of feminized workers, who are spread so tautly across all of their responsibilities that they are rendered invisible. Jay’s group of supportive adolescent friends, not yet fully inserted into the system, symbolize the latent potential in these feminized formations.
We see this in the group’s battle with “It” in an indoor pool. Here, the teens cobble together a jerry-rigged battle plan that entails luring “It” into the water in order to electrify it with TVs, irons, and other anachronistic household appliances. The plan doesn’t work, but in the end they are able to shoot “It” in the head, transforming the monster into a blood-colored cloud of liquidity. From what we have seen, it seems unlikely that this victory against “It” is final. However, the end of the film is ambiguous; there is a chance that the monster has been eliminated. This register of the film redeems and elevates the many instances of care we have seen between the teens who have slept, eaten, and travelled in a tight knit group in order to protect Jay from “It,” and more importantly, believed her story that “It” is real and that she is not insane. This recognition of and “border struggle” against an enemy that cannot be explained away by psychology or liberal rights discourse serves as the utopian pole of the film’s political unconscious.
The “It” that keeps following, even as capital allows for band-aid expressions of concern for women and girls, is the abjection and feminization of productive and reproductive labor (whether or not this position is inhabited by females). The horror genre has always been a good medium through which to move beyond superficial critiques of sexism and look at the libidinal, structural dynamics of patriarchal logic. The articulation of gender to the spatial politics of the deindustrialized subprime city in It Follows performs a kind of cognitive mapping of this libidinal economy in its most recent formation. This counters the discrete, moralizing critiques of sexism that make neoliberal forms of feminist rhetoric complicit in structural subjection.
Fraser, Nancy. “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode” New Left Review, 86 March-April 2014
Harvey, David. “The Urban Roots of Financial Crisis” in Aalbers, Manuel B. Subprime Cities: The Political Economy of Mortgage Markets, Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. xvii
Kohn, Eric. “Cannes Review: ‘It Follows’ Is a Teen Horror Movie Like You’ve Never Seen it Before” Indie Wire May 24, 2014
Lyne, Charlie. “It Follows: Love and Sex are Ways We Can Push Death Away” The Guardian February 21, 2015
Olszyk, Nick. “Pope Paul VI Makes a Horror Movie” The Catholic World Report April 14, 2015
Newman, Andrew and Sara Safransky, “Remapping the Motor City and the Politics of Austerity”, Anthropology Now Vol. 6, No. 3, Austerity and Resistance in the Midwest (December 2014)
Usmani, Adaner. “The Evolution of U.S..- Pakistan Policy”, International Socialist Review Issue #78 July, 2011
8 thoughts on ““It Follows”: Contemporary Horror and the Feminization of Labor”
Johanna, this is an excellent reading of It Follows!! Thank you so much!! I’ve been thinking a lot about this movie as well and incredibly gratifying to read your article. I just wanted to point to elements of the movie: the first one is the music. The soundtrack is a mixture of an usual fast-paced music for horror movies, with a series of synthesizer themes that make a clear allusion to a nostalgia for 80s (when, coincidentally, the economic growth in cities such as Detroit was booming). When the characters go out to “Detroit’s desiccated streets [that] echo the deserted and overgrown streets of the suburbs” it’s the 80s synth that plays as the background music.
The second element, is that there is another time when an adult shows up in the film. But it is once again “it” who has taken the form of Greg’s mother (also half-naked); she knocks on Greg’s room and says “Open the door to your mother,” right before killing him by draining his life out.
Again, thank you so much for your article!! It was great to read it! 🙂
Dear Gustavo, Thanks for both of your great points. I loved the Carpenter-esque soundtrack and think you’re exactly right to tie it to 80s Detroit. May I incorporate your comments into further drafts of the piece (and cite you of course)? I really appreciate your comments!
Fascinating interpretation that gives me a greater appreciation for the film and its cultural relevance! Do you have any thoughts on the presence of the male gaze? That’s one aspect of the film I found problematic. As much depth and symbolism as the film may hold, there is still the fact that the protagonist is a beautiful girl dressed in a bathing suit or underwear in many of her scenes. As a result, one gets the impression that the filmmaker was concerned with providing the audience with the “eye-candy” that is a mainstay of the horror genre. And that tends to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. It’s almost as if the “It” becomes not this supernatural creature, but rather the voyeuristic viewer of the film who “follows” Jay into intimate places where she is exposed and vulnerable, and I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not, but either way it seems problematic.
(I’m aware this is quite late to the game, but I’ve only just watched the film and am seeking some clarity with regards to my reaction to it, and your essay struck me as the most intelligent interpretation.)
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Yes, I agree with you on that. I do think the male gaze is prominent in the film, and that it could be looked at productively through that lens, as you have. I haven’t fully worked out my response, but I think that horror films are so founded on the male gaze (as is much of cinema) that its almost a ubiquitous problem, and not very unique to It Follows. I tend to agree in some part with the original Mulvey/ de Lauretis critique of this problem but to disagree with the conclusion they come to, that the only solution is to look away from Hollywood film and towards a formally experimental, explicitly feminist work that is attempting to disrupt narrative as it disrupts the gaze (although I am very interested in these films!). I feel like ignoring mainstream cinema just gives over the bulk of culture to liberal, partriarchal analysis. I do think that If Follows has its cake and eats it too, by advancing a critical message and indulging the male gaze, although the figures that actually follow Jay are women who fail to attract the gaze, or both attract and repel the gaze, which is interesting. When we actually do see a breast in the film it is more disturbing than titillating. The followers also seem to suggest the fear of becoming unworthy of the gaze through poverty. It also might be interesting to think of Carol Clover’s notion that male viewers identify with the “final girl,” and fear the same feminization that she experiences.
However, I actually don’t think the director is very conscious of what he was doing. What I was trying to read was more the political unconscious of the film that linked the failures of futurity in the context of feminized labor and postindustrial neoliberalism to the failures of adolescence, and I think these things are often just in the air or in the logic of the moment rather than what the director explicitly has in mind. However, I think that adolescence, here, is depicted in fairly conventional gendered ways. This is also true with race. The film is set in Detroit and yet there are no African American characters or overt signs of troubling problems of race.
Near the end of the movie I was frustrating because the “passing on” wasn’t working for Jay and I started asking why having sex didn’t work for her and it had worked for Jeff. “It’s like prejudice FOLLOWING women for having free sex” I answered to my self. And that’s the double damn opression women suffer in capitalist and patriarchal societies.
The other thing I noticed is that this movie reverses the logic of the 80’s horror movies. In movies like Jason or Freddy those teens who had sex were the first ones to die. So, if you had sex you lost, if you were innocent you survived. Now, if you have sex you survive… except for women. And that’s a twist in the critics to protestant and catholic morals. But Jeff is still afraid and paranoic anyway. So that means men are no longer safer than women in capitalism and they are begenning to become sexually objectified too. I’m not trying to diminish the severe grade of violence women suffer at the hands of men. On the cotnrary, the rules of the game would be leading men to take it on women for their economic stress or failures, or either to submit women to be succesfull and survive in a world that is becoming a nightmare for the entire humanity. The worst part is this abomination we call society is our own creation. The good thing is the last generations are realizing we don’t want to feed this monster anymore.
Your work is great. I found it trying to confirm this thoughts the movie provoqued on me XD
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