The Phases of Feminism: Black Christmas (1974, 2006, 2019)
Blog post by Jessica
Since coming out as a horror fan the original Black Christmas (1974) has been one of my favourite horror films. When I started to read critical analysis of various horror films, and became fascinated by discussions on the themes of social and political commentary, I came to appreciate this dark holiday film for being more than just a slasher. It is a film that broaches several important topics still being discussed today among feminist circles, as well as being representative of the social changes that women strived for in the 1970s.
When I made the decision to watch Black Christmas on Christmas Eve like I do every year, I also felt moved to put aside my purist beliefs and finally watched both the 2006 and 2019 remakes. It was not just to see if they held a candle to the original, but to see if the same social commentary was being made about women and the gender equality fights we have had to make in each of the various decades. I was not disappointed. While I will say that the remakes are far from perfect, they are a product of their time and their messaging is just as poignant as the original.
Each era in which Black Christmas exists represents a different viewpoint on men’s reactions to female autonomy and sexual liberation. In the 1970s it was about female reproductive freedom and social equality in school and the workplace; the 2000s was a time of women owning their femininity and addressing sexual harassment; and the 2010s has been about fighting against oppression with the #MeToo, Time’s Up movement and toppling the patriarchy.
Black Christmas (1974)
Any horror fan worth their salt knows about the original Black Christmas. One of the progenitors to the slasher genre, it is said to have been the film that inspired John Carpenter to create Halloween (1979). It is also a treasured Canadian gem and stars horror heavyweights of the 1970s and 1980s like John Saxon, Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey and Art Hindle. Its plot is basic: a deranged man terrorizes a bunch of sorority sisters with obscene phone calls during Christmas break. But what is chilling about the film is not only the disturbing sexual phone calls the women get, but the fact the only thing you ever actually see of “Billy” is a hand, shadow or a single eye as he murders each and every one of the sorority sisters. Black Christmas also introduced to us the concept of the “Final Girl”, with Jess (Olivia Hussey) surviving her night of terror despite finding the corpses of her sisters who were murdered. While Black Christmas receives a lot of attention for being one of the very first slasher movies, it also receives praise for being a horror film that does not hold back on showing smart, intelligent, and independent women dealing with real-world issues.
The 1970s was an era of women coming out of the kitchen, going to college and forming their own careers. Women were starting to live on their own, burn bras, and engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage, all while asserting their independence. We are introduced to these women at the start of the film and they are the focus to the very end as this is a story about womanhood. We get to see a variety of personalities, how they relate to each other and how they develop a sisterhood. These women are free with their clothing, language, consumption, bodies and are willing to defend these choices. This happens in juxtaposition to their relationships with the men in their lives, the local authorities, and the insane man trying to kill them.
Each of the women in the sorority portray a different style of female autonomy - Barb (Margot Kidder) and her openness to sexuality and drinking, Pyhi (Andrea Martin) being supportive and protective of her sisters, Ms. Mac (Marian Waldman) the crass spinster - and we then get Jess; a young woman with career goals that has made the decision to abort her unplanned pregnancy much to the displeasure of her partner, Peter (Keir Dulla). The fact that abortion is brought up on film was a big deal in the 1970s, especially in a horror film, as it was a taboo subject to discuss publicly and something women were actively fighting for. But what makes Black Christmas special is that Jess is not portrayed as a monster in making such a decision, and we are privy to her inner conflict and acknowledge her right to choose. We see Peter becoming irrational and aggressive towards Jess when she reveals her plans to terminate the pregnancy, and he becomes a prime suspect in the murder investigation because of his unhinged behaviour. While Jess is shown to be very intune with her emotions and practical with their execution.
Among the horror of Billy stalking and attacking the women, we see the female experience intermixed. The men in the film are at first dismissive of the reports of Claire (Lynn Griffin) missing and the calls that Jess is getting at the house. It is not until Claire’s father and boyfriend make some noise that the authorities finally take notice of the women’s plight. Then Peter, Jess’ partner, is aggressively reactive towards her decision not to marry him and give up her life goals. He is manipulative and attempts to coerce her into his desires, which is a very scary reality that many women still face. In the end, while Jess ends up killing Peter and the police believe she has stopped her aggressor, she is still a victim of the law’s dismissive nature towards women. She is vulnerable, practically comatose from her trauma, and left alone in the house, where the murderer remains. Her fate is unknown.
Black Christmas (2006)
The 2006 remake of Black Christmas was directed by Glen Morgan (Final Destination 3, Willard) and is a part of the teenage millennium cycle (as coined by horror journalist Alexandra West) of horror movies such as Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (1998) and Cherry Falls (2000). These were films that followed a formula of a star-studded cast, ridiculously graphic kills, an outrageous background for our killer and cameos of original stars from the first film. Though I found it to be a disappointing entry in the Black Christmas franchise, it does have something to say about feminism.
Black Christmas (2006) really hammers home the horribleness of women, particularly neglectful and abusive mothers, as it becomes the focus of Billy’s backstory. He was subjected to a horribly dysfunctional family, and we can see this mirrored between the sorority sisters and how they interact with one another. It is a stark contrast from how the women treated each other in the original film, but it does stay true to the complexity of female relationships. Throughout the film the women are dismissive and snippy/bitchy to each other. However, as Black Christmas progresses we see the underlining care that they have for each other and that ultimately they do want what is best for one and another and that is to survive. This is reminiscent of the struggles among third-wave feminists who were ultimately striving for the same goals as the second wave, only through different approaches. Younger women of the 2000s embraced their “girliness” and that being sexy, feminine, and doing what gave them pleasure was not inherently less valuable than masculinity. This is seen in the way the women are costumed throughout the film and how it compliments their actions towards saving each other.
In the 1974 film the women wear feminine yet adrogenous clothing, and in the 2006 remake the women are wearing form fitting sweaters and pants, cleavage revealing, midriff showing, tank tops and as well, for a Christmas break gift exchange among sisters, each of them are wearing full makeup and coiffed hair. They are depicted as women who have chosen physical aesthetics over sisterhood and thus deserve being hunted by the killer in the house. But as the film progresses this window dressing is just that: display. These women, despite their bitchiness towards each other and their clothing in the film depicting them as vapid, actually care for one another. When one of them gets sick from drinking too much wine, Melissa, played by Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), takes care of her while holding her hair back while she vomits and makes sure she is showered and tucked into bed. She refuses to leave her when they discover what is happening and attempts to rescue her. We even get the half-sister, Leigh (Kristen Cloke) who was originally very dismissive and disrespectful to the younger women, staying with them to not only look for her sister, but fight Billy and Agnes alongside our protagonist Kelli (Katie Cassidy).
The only men in Black Christmas (2006) are Billy and Kyle (Oliver Hudson). And while the audience is meant to have sympathy towards Billy because of his childhood, we feel no sympathy towards Kyle as he is representative of the rampant sexual harassment towards women that was very apparent in the 2000s. Megan(Jessica Harmon) discovers a sex tape of her with Kyle uploaded to the internet that had been made without her consent. When her sorority sister, Kelli, Kyle’s girlfriend, finds out about this she doesn’t turn on her sister for having been involved with Kyle, but onto Kyle, when she finds out that he has made more than several of these tapes without his partner’s consent. She throws him out of the house and shows no remorse for his death because he exemplifies how men exploit vulnerable women through releasing sex tapes and nude images online without their knowledge or consent. This ramped up in the digital age and shows how women needed to be careful; what was meant to be private could be exposed online and lead to public shaming and a tarnished reputation. Originally it is depicted to the audience that Megan is mad about Kyle being with Kelli, that she is like a jealous ex-lover of his or that he was having an affair with Megan. When in fact it is about how her life is literally now destroyed because a sex tape existed without her knowledge and it was used as a prank to hurt Kyle by an angry frat brother. She is not angered by his relationship with Kelli but the fact that this exposure of her online places her future and reputation in jeopardy. No one will take her seriously or hire her for potential career prospects if this tape were to resurface. She would carry with her a black mark for the rest of her life - known as the girl in “that sex tape”. This was, and still is, a fear for women in the digital age; that at any point we can be exposed to the cruelty of the world due to the egos of a man.
While Black Christmas (2006) becomes a ridiculous mess of a movie by the end, it is characteristic of the challenges and split in ideology third-wave feminists faced in the 2000s. It shows one of the important transition phases of feminism and the new realities and battles women had to face in a more socially just and equal world. This is done through addressing sexual harrasment as seen in Kelli’s fight with Kyle over the sex tape of Megan, the reclaiming of derogatory words through the sisters spoken language to each other, and the right to wear whatever they want and not be victimized. However, it also shows the lack of cohesion among third-wave feminists who were more individualistic in their approach to opposing the patriarchy as well as the rise of ‘girly’ feminism; which was all about self-expression and preserving the feminine identity in a contemporary world regardless of wearing either a belly shirt or a trench coat. But at the same time still showing that in the end women are stronger when they band together. This then brings me to the latest remake of Black Christmas, the one released by Blumhouse pictures in 2019.
Black Christmas (2019)
Black Christmas (2019) was directed by Sophia Takal (Green, Into the Dark) and received mixed reception from horror fans upon its release. For fans who love the original film, they felt betrayed by the remakes overt feminist messaging in comparison to the subtly of the original. It became attacked as a horror film that took an element of the slasher genre and politicalized it, with the idea that politics need to stay out of horror. Whereas other fans, particularly female ones, praised its director (a woman) for taking a stand and opening up the discussion around major issues like sexual assault.
Just as the original Black Christmas highlighted reproductive rights with the abortion storyline, the 2019 remake tackles head on undisguised misogyny and rape culture. While the 2006 version had been a slight departure from the subtle yet strong feminist origins, we return to it in full force in 2019 with a diverse cast of strong and independent female characters. Takal’s film is unapolgetically feminist; from the women talking openly about diva cups, sex positivity, self care, protesting racism, and educational misgony, to rallying together as sisters to publicially humiliate a rapist. We learn as we watch the film that our protagonist Riley (Imogen Poots) was raped while unconscious by the president of a local fraternity and that when she came out about it she was shamed, ridiculed, and dismissed. This is the case for many women who come forward after being raped during their college years.
While trying to heal from her trauma and seek justice with her fellow sorority sisters, they begin to receive threatening text messages from an unknown individual and friend’s start to go missing. Throughout Black Christmas, Riley experiences gaslighting from every male figure she interacts with. Especially when she goes to campus security to report that her friend is missing and just as in the original film, Riley is not taken seriously. That is because they are college girls, which means they are considered free and wild so they are more likely just ‘shacked up’ with their boyfriend (just like in the original film). At one point, when Riley gives her suspicions of the frat boys of DKO of having been involved with her missing friend, the security guard derides her concerns and states that “boys will be boys”. This is a frustratingly typical line given about men when the authorities try to sweep their crimes against women under the rug.
This highlights the very patriarchal dismissal that fourth wave feminism has been fighting against. With the use of social media women are not only taking the fight to the streets but online as well, with constant activism involving public discourse and debate. Black Christmas (2019) is the epitome of fourth wave feminism because it is queer, sex, and body positive, as well as diverse and digitally driven. The women in this film are part of a movement to hold powerful men accountable for their behaviour. This is a departure from 2006’s version of feminism as it emphasizes the empowerment of women through diversity, intersectionality, inclusion of marginalized groups and overcoming gender norms and this is seen in the diverse casting of Riley, Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse (Brittany O'Grady) - all women of different race, body type, and culture. The sorority sisters in this version are not doing Christmas parties for children, or doing traditional gift exchanges, but using the power of social media to protest the social privilege of a fraternity and the educational institution that protects it.
In particular, Kris uploads the video of Riley and their group coming out about her rape in a Chrismas pagent performance on Youtube, using this as another means of speaking out against the abusers of power and prilvege and seeking justice against assault. While social media has become a powerful tool for fourth wave feminists, this film does highlight some of the damage it can cause. In violating Riley’s right to choose to have the world know what happened (as it is uploaded without her knowledge or consent), and the women’s strive for justice, it begins to alienate the men who support their cause as allies: Marty’s boyfriend Nate and the potential love interest for Riley, Landon. Which then made these two men susceptible to the deceptions of the evil forces driving the men from DKO to kill the women in the different sororities.
This is where I find Black Christmas (2019) at its strongest, but it starts to fall apart for me with the additional element of a supernatural force giving a cult of men power to dominate women. I would have loved it if the film would have been closer to M.F.A (2017) where it’s about women dealing with a regular/average group of misogynistic assholes. It was interesting how the use of dark arts by the men was meant to force women into submission or death as it is very reminiscent of the witch trials and often how women were forced to turn on each other for protection. Especially since it is the men using the dark arts to control the women, when traditionally it has been men accusing women of doing this to them.
But I find the ending of Black Christmass (2019) redeems it with the surviving women rising against their attackers in Amazonian fashion. It reminded me of the scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer season seven episode 22 Chosen when the potential Slayers charge the Uber Vamps. We also get the final moment of catharsis for Riley who not only confronts her rapist but overpowers him, and makes him feel the same fear she once did. To free herself she ends the film with the line “We will never be broken”. While not perfect in its execution, I think the 2019 remake of Black Christmas is a perfect follow up for the original because not only does it highlight what is strong and prevalent in the current wave of feminism, but also highlights the areas we need to work on to bring our forces together. It shows that women have returned to more aggressive approaches to demanding greater gender equality by focusing on dismantling gendered norms and demarginalizing all women in society.
In watching Black Christmas 1974, 2006, and 2019 at the end of one of the most challenging years that the world has faced, I do not see my reading of these films as a coincidence as we move into the new year. This year saw not only a global pandemic but the rise of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and the upcoming end to the tyranny of Trump. And with this, feminism started to transform as well. We are seeing increased voices of women of colour, social background, and religions coming forward, and there is more inclusion of trans individuals and bringing in male allies who support the cause. To me, each of these films represent an underlying current of the feminism of its time, whether directed by a man or woman, and I encourage everyone to engage with them. As much as a treasure the original Black Christmas is for what it introduced to the horror genre, I also value how it became a franchise in which women can tell their stories and show their triumphs and struggles. Honestly, I look forward to what another Black Christmas remake might address / expose in another 10 or 20 years.