Feminist Flashback: Were-girls Gone Wild in Ginger Snaps (2000)

By Johanna Isaacson

Ginger Snaps rights a long-standing wrong in the history of horror film. The werewolf, a deeply embodied beast that waxes and wanes with the cycles of the moon, and therefore should be logically associated with female menstrual cycles, has nevertheless been generally depicted as male. In Ginger Snaps, the werewolf is violently, gloriously female, and yet the film does not fully reject the traditions and tropes that the werewolf film has left in it its wake. Rather, it gleefully mutilates them to fit the needs of its own era of sexist double standards, white flight, and carceral capitalism.

The werewolf film presents a varied lineage of political commitments, at turns siding with a sympathetic monster who rebels against what Robin Wood classifies as repressive normality or championing a conformist reaction to monstrosity. In the inaugural lycanthropic film, 1941’s The Wolf Man, the monster serves as a critique of both European class oppression and U.S. fantasies of progress as a naive American falls into the clutches of premodern European magic. The campy I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) presents the werewolf as rebel without a cause, unearthing the authoritarianism, class biases, and repressiveness of the adult world. 1981 brought three of our finest modern werewolf films: Wolfen, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London. Wolfen associates the werewolf with both Native American revolutionaries and agents of anti-gentrification revenge. The Howling’s politics are ambiguous, but can be seen to locate the monster in both the repression of sexual outsiders and the rise of new age self-centeredness after the death of sixties-era social experimentation and collectivity. An American Werewolf in London continues the tradition of showing the monstrosity of American faux-innocence while highlighting a connection to toxic masculinity. On the heels of this early-eighties abundance came a rare female-werewolf predecessor to Ginger Snaps, the haunting feminist fairy tale The Company of Wolves (1984), adapted from Angela Carter’s short-story. Here, the monster at first seems to be a predatory man, but the tables turn when the young girl he stalks becomes the alpha and comes into her own sexual agency. This feminist and political leap forward regresses with the Reaganite Teen Wolf (1985) that depicts the monster’s masculine bravado as a necessary step to adjusting to heteronormative, capitalist adulthood, using the conservative associations with Michael J. Fox to cement its message of right wing revanchism. The most obvious 90s predecessor to Ginger Snaps is the pop feminist horror comedy series Buffy the Vampire Killer (1997-2003). But the only significant female werewolf in the show is Veruca, a minor character, albeit an empowered, libidinal one. 

Overall, the werewolf myth has been flexible and indeterminate, but full of critical potential. Films that align the viewers’ sympathies with the werewolf allow for explorations of rebellion. However, when the werewolf is depicted as truly evil, a racialized conservatism is not far behind. Ginger Snaps is the rare werewolf film that privileges gendered rebellion as key to understanding more generalized forms of subjugation. Here, the impasses of female maturation in a sexist society are riotously explored by snarky, radiant Katherine Isabelle as Ginger, a goth girl attacked and infected by a werewolf on the first day of her first period. Initially, her accelerated sexuality and aggressiveness seem to be merely exaggerated signs of puberty, but soon she becomes a full blown murderous animal. It is up to her sister, Brigitte, to find a cure, or nearly die trying. All this occurs in Bailey Downs, a homogeneous Canadian suburb. 

ginger 6

One of the Ginger Snaps’ greatest strengths is its depiction of this suburban wasteland. The film opens as classic satire, setting off the conformity of the nuclear family against the violence that it represses. We see a devoted mother hovering over her child in a well-mowed yard, only to discover the horribly graphic remains of Baxter, the now torn-apart family dog. Running screaming out into the street, the mother is faced with unfazed children who immediately return to a casual ball game. We learn that these attacks have become commonplace in Bailey Downs and that the suburb’s civilized streets sprouting stark, homogeneously earth-toned buildings, are threatened by something wild. With nods toward Blue Velvet (1986) in the form of bloody dismembered human parts on a well groomed lawn, and Heathers (1988) with its bad boy Christian Slater type, the film satirizes white-flight and revanchism, the late nineties hope of the middle class to barricade themselves from the “animals” that lie beyond. 

Ginger 4

The film came out in 2000 and as we were reminded during Hillary Clinton’s recent run for president, this was a moment when children were explicitly seen as wolves, animalized as superpredators, incarcerated and tortured in the name of protecting suburban spaces such as Bailey Downs. In the U.S., Bill Clinton’s jovial, friendly demeanor toward African-Americans masked a murderous regime in which vulnerable kids were compared to mindless, predatory beasts with, as Hillary famously stated, “no conscience, no empathy.” 

This tendency toward neoliberal criminalization was prevalent in Ginger Snaps’ home country as well. As Michel Rozworski argues, the attack on and dehumanization of working class people has been a long-developing Canadian project, with austerity measures in the 1990s at the fore, “one of the most severe in the Global North, [that] remains the foundation for the Right’s strategy of death by a thousand cuts.” [1] As we know, contemporary capitalism has no borders and Canada’s carceral austerity formed a reciprocal relationship with Clinton’s regime. Todd Gordon notes how this austerity and neoliberal restructuring went hand in hand with intensified policing alongside a Canadian war on drugs whose discourse centered on the dehumanization and discipline of Canadians with non-European backgrounds. [2] The paranoia of this discourse was mobilized by a perverse “defense” of white women: “Looming large is the trope of the overly sexualized, racialized, other, ready to prey on and contaminate the purity of white women, and, by extension, the white race.” [3] As in the US, this ideology fueled a carceral capitalism that disproportionately punished people of color. 

In the US context, the link between these “criminals” and the canine was made explicit in Hillary’s statement: “We can talk about why they ended up that way but first we have to bring them to heel.” The depiction of demonized “wolf packs” led to “broken windows” policing, stop and frisk policies, and a war on drugs that resulted in near-ubiquitous intimidation of young men of color, as well as many other marginalized groups. 

In Ginger Snaps, the link between this racialized other and the Fitzgerald sisters can be seen in  the transmission of the curse to Ginger via the “Beast of Bailey Downs.” While Ginger appears as both a young woman and a monster, the Beast—an outsider to the community—is nothing but an animal who is swiftly killed off. Mobilizing classic horror tropes pitting civilization against its antithesis, the beast lurks in the untamed woods that sidle up to the well-groomed lawns and parks of Bailey Downs. After being bit by this creature, Ginger begins to take on its grotesque characteristics, standing in for the repressed and oppressed that were “brought to heel” in order to protect the suburb’s calm boundaries. Perhaps this substitution of a white woman insider/outsider for more severely marginalized sectors of society is itself symptomatic, but at the same time this representation helps us understand that insular suburbs are founded on the repression of anyone outside of their logic of homogeneity, and that racial and gendered tropes are similarly mobilized as moral panics intended to discipline and punish the populace.

The Fitzgerald sisters are seemingly chosen to bring this outside force into the community because of their gendered estrangement. As the town’s monstrous goths who enjoy filming themselves as corpses, the girls actively set themselves apart, somehow managing to forestall having their periods even though Brigitte is fifteen and Ginger is sixteen. As Aviva Briefel has noted, in horror films menstruation is often associated with a naturalized feminine violence linked to passivity, in contrast to the active violence of the male monster. [4] The girls’ disavowal of menstruation recognizes this and additionally enforces a separation from the basic teens in their high school whose girls play catty popularity games while the boys leer at the girls’ hockey team. The sisters’ prolonged prepubscence is coded queer as they distinguish themselves from the “breeders’ machine” that is highschool, full of “basic pleasure model[s],”“standard cumbuckety date bate,” and “cave boy[s]”—their insulting feminist lables for the normies.  For them, menstruation is paired with consumerist banality, as we see when they stand in front of an oversized wall of sanitary napkins in a bland flourescent store. 

Once she does begin to menstruate, Ginger’s sexuality will leapfrog the normie breeder state and become murderous. She still rejects the banality of gendered evil but now as a riotous were-grrrl she can do something about it:  “I get this ache. I thought it was for sex but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces.” Her newfound destructive recklessness will kill the bully Trina and sexually infect the sexist jock Jason. Far from assimilating her into gender binaries, Ginger’s transformation upsets norms as she becomes so sexually aggressive that Jason feels emasculated—“who is the fucking guy here?” Later he will find himself infected and the blood spots on his pants will be ridiculed as male menstruation. Ginger overtly recognizes gender stereotypes, comments on them, and uses them to her advantage. After accidentally killing Trina she dismisses the consequences: “No one thinks girls can do shit like this.”

Ginger 1

The girls’ disavowal of their periods, then, is a refusal to enter a gendered sociality that does not offer a feminist form of maturity. This is underscored by Pam, the girls’ sartorily infantilized mother who tries to bond with her daughters as a feminist, producing a red dripping strawberry cake to celebrate Ginger’s first period and admonishing her husband for reacting queasily to a discussion of menstruation at the dinner table. A goofy school nurse also tries to reach the girls by frankly discussing the mechanics of menstruation and producing condoms, advocating that the girls “play safe.” Despite their superficial feminism, these older women cling to “safety” and are cluelessly oblivious to the darkness the girls are experiencing. 

Here, the tensions between second wave and third wave feminism are staged as the girls assert a difference that cannot be reduced to the unified or essentialized category of “woman.” Rather than assume her “natural” place, Ginger embraces an undefineable transmogrification closer to trans experience than the binaristic fantasy of womanhood. As opposed to the celebratory innocence of these older women, Ginger embraces a sexualized danger that dares to be threatening, akin to the 1990s aesthetics of riot grrrl when young women appropriated slurs such as “slut” and “whore,” by inscribing them on their bodies.  

The sisters’ relationship also ventures beyond the pale of accepted feminism by threatening to break the ultimate taboo, incest. A scene where Brigitte pierces Ginger’s belly button is staged as a kind of sex scene and another moment has Brigitte peeking under the sleeping Ginger’s blanket and intensely observing her sister’s phallic tail, suggesting potential queer, intersex, and trans narratives. This phallic growth underscores the sisters’ rejection of the definition of woman linked to the biological reproduction of “breeders.” While this nonconformity is liberating, it inevitably leads to Ginger’s demise. As Jules Joanne Gleeson argues, the measures taken against “gender deviants” is a “regulatory violence,” that stands as a warning to all women. [5] In the end, Brigitte will take on this regulatory role herself, breaking from Ginger’s transgressive lure, and ultimately killing her. 

The film asks us to identify with Brigitte in this moment and this seems to be a betrayal of the sisters’ resistance. Instead of a partner in crime Ginger comes to represent the dark side of Brigitte, which the latter has no choice but to purge. The final confrontation takes place in their family home, and involves the destruction of their childhood bedroom and momentos. Brigitte finally stands up to her sister and rejects her nihilism. During this scene Ginger fully shucks her “hot girl” body and becomes a wolf with grotesque dugs on display. In a phallic gesture, Brigitte thrusts a knife into her dehumanized and yet still feminized sister, asserting her right to life—“I am not dying in this room with you.”

I find this ending unsatisfying. It seems to favor a superficial form of empowerment over genuinely resistant power. John Patrick Leary diagnoses the recuperation of “empowerment” by noting the difference between power, “a collective form of insurrection that counters deprivation,” and empowerment, a branded feminism “aligned with women’s individual, material success.” He worries that “the rhetoric of empowerment can disguise oppression, serve as a euphemism for deregulation or other forms of individualist bootstrapping.” [6] Brigitte’s final claim to power seems to betray the feminist collectivity she formed with her sister in favor of this depoliticized individual survival. 

Brigitte’s affirmative decision to live undercuts the thrilling negation at play in the rest of the film, implying that Ginger’s insurrectionary violence was simple terrorism. However, to fully appreciate the movie’s potential as feminist crticism we must recenter our focus on Ginger’s glorious rebellion, even if this is done at the expense of the film’s coherence. Ginger is dead. Long live Ginger!

 

[1] Rozworski, Michal. “Canada’s Austerity Consensus.” Jacobin, 04 Sept. 2015. 

[2] Gordon, Todd. “Neoliberalism, Racism, and the War on Drugs in Canada.” Social Justice, vol. 33, no. 1, 2006. 59

[3] Ibid. 64

[4] Briefel, Aviva. “Monster Pains: Masochism, menstruation, and identification in the horror film.” Film Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 3,  Spring 2005. 16 

[5] Gleeson, Jules Joanne. “The Call for Gender Abolition: From Materialist Lesbianism to Gay Communism.” Blind Field, July 31, 2017.

[6] Leary, John Patrick. Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism. Haymarket, 2019.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s