Feminist horror has it’s Get Out moment.
One constant throughout the history of the horror film has been its use as a tool for social commentary and diversity. The German Expressionist classics foretold the rise of Hitler; Robert Wise’s terrifying 1963 offering The Haunting presented possibly the first positive LGBT character in a Hollywood movie, while George A Romero’s zombie cycle tackled Vietnam, Racism, empty consumerism and Reaganomics. Our favourite dark genre (and those who work within it) has proved quite adept at planting a very serious idea at the subconscious level while at the same time entertaining our penchant for stabs, shrieks and spills.
2017 has seen Jordan Peele’s seminal horror film Get Out praised for its unapologetic take on the racism embedded in our society, and rightly so. However there has been another very public social commentary taking place in recent months, involving another marginalised group – women, and all they have had to endure at the hands of our perverted movie moguls and politicians - that has finally had a spotlight shone upon it. If only somebody could come along and release a horror movie that speaks to this, it could be a very timely addition to the ongoing debate.
Well, somebody has.
M.F.A. (which, I believe, stands for Master of Fine Arts) is a new release directed by Natalia Leite and written by Leah McKendrick, and stars Francesca Eastwood as Noelle - an art student who taps into a rich source of creative inspiration after the accidental death of her campus rapist.
The film begins almost like a modern Hollywood lRevieove story. Girl meets boy on campus, and a fledgling romance begins. However, any potential happy ending is immediately dashed when the campus heartthrob commits a violent and disturbing sexual assault upon Noelle at his house party. The scene is sudden and visceral and upsetting and so damn relevant in 2017 – the idea that this young woman, this living breathing human being could be used and abused by someone she placed her trust in, then callously cast aside and expected to just deal with it is, unfortunately, an idea that has been concrete reality for so many women in real life, across college campuses, in bars and clubs and in some of our most revered institutions.
“It was one night, one shitty night. Do not let it ruin the rest of your life.”
Noelle is of course advised not to report her traumatic experience. She is treated like a slut, and even finds that an organised support group of liberal feminists seem to think the solution to stopping rape is linked to changing the way women dress and act rather than telling men not to be rapists.
Noelle eventually confronts her attacker, and her revenge (if it can be called that) is swift and accidental…and, it appears, quite liberating. Seeing genuine justice appears to open Noelle up creatively, and becomes the inspiration for some art pieces that start to get her noticed.
Without wanting to give away too many spoilers, this fuels Noelle’s actions throughout the rest of the movie. The writing and Francesca Eastwood’s performance, captured superbly by the director’s lens, gives the horror audience what it needs (a vigilante killer who is not afraid of spilling blood and guts) but balances it with a gritty realism. Noelle is the victim who won’t be silenced, who won’t just go away and be quiet and deal with it. She is of course affected and deeply disturbed by her trauma, and it colours her actions throughout the movie, building to a bittersweet climax that shows her triumph, but ultimately still find herself shackled by a world run by men.
M.F.A. is a tough watch in places, and it will challenge the viewer. Many male viewers (and perhaps some females) will find themselves asking if her actions negate any sympathy the initial assault gifts her, if this ‘makes her no better than her attackers’. As the plot progresses, it further expands upon the narrative of victim as victim, further victimised by others. When Noelle decides she will no longer play the victim, her revenge in fact serves to further analyse how rape victims are treated by society – we always find a way to blame them, to make them take ownership of what happened so that we don’t have to change our thinking.
“Ever hear the saying an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind?”
“The world’s already blind.”
Leite’s movie never stops challenging this thinking. It finds new ways to drag the deeply ingrained misogyny out of us whether we like it or not, but it never preaches – instead, it leaves us face to face with our prejudices, all at once a terrifying and empowering prospect. This writer found himself confronted with the question of whether Noelle had gone too far, of whether she had done so much as to no longer afford her any empathy (or even sympathy) as the predatory men of the movie become her victims and pay the ultimate price. Indeed, as the police begin their hunt for a killer, it becomes apparent that Noelle cannot win.
Here, it is clear that there is a choice to be made by the viewer – to either come to a conclusion based on your own beliefs and prejudices, and project your own version of reality onto victims you can never know or understand (and thus remain in this man’s world, a world in which Noelle cannot win, cannot grow, but will instead be forever vilified for her reaction to an event that was not her fault, irrespective of what her reaction is) or to trust in the (female) voices making the film, to accept that this is a female voice commenting on something that most commonly happens to women and to listen to that voice, to open up your mind and abandon your deeply ingrained preconceptions…
Simply listen, and learn, and try to understand a perspective that is not your own. To change one’s thinking, to try to become part of the solution, not part of the problem, the first step is to listen and to learn.
There will be other criticisms – some viewers have suggested that Noelle’s actions become less believable as the narrative continues. This writer does not agree – indeed, her decisions became less and less ‘sensible’, less and less the acts of a rational, composed person…but why wouldn’t they? Noelle is a young woman who has been subjected to a trauma that could define her for the rest of her life, is almost certainly suffering from PTSD that will colour all her actions, all her choices, good or bad.
“Dare to make the world uncomfortable with your honesty”
One important parallel to make about the movie is about speaking the truth. Following Noelle’s epiphany, her art speaks truth, and therefore instantly becomes a more valuable commodity within the narrative of the film. Similarly, the film itself speaks truth, and therefore, like Peele’s Get Out, becomes more valuable in the process. The difficulty (as with Get Out) lies in accepting that truth.
M.F.A. is a horror film, and a damned entertaining one. It is, undeniably, exploitation, and will sate the ardent horror fan’s lust for blood and violence. It is also, more importantly, a very challenging female story told by female voices and it should be experienced, listened to, and hopefully used to inform a new perspective on what women are forced to go through with alarming regularity. It should be a conversation starter, a gauntlet laid down to challenge the real world narratives that still surround rape and sexual assault (much as those currently being laid down by people such as Rose McGowan, Asia Argento and those others that are doing their best to be brave, to be empowered, and to change the conversation).
Social commentary in horror will always be a powerful tool. M.F.A. might not be the most well-known social commentary horror of 2017, but it just became the most important one.
M.F.A. is now playing in theaters, on iTunes and Amazon. Follow @MFAMovie on Twitter for latest news and availability.
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