Published: Aug. 1, 2003 By

“Popular culture is the politics of the 21st Century”
Gale Weathers, Scream 3

1] The 1990s might well be remembered as the decade of Girl Culture and Girl Power. New phrases began sounding in the air and new images surfacing in our media, changing the face of popular culture in a decidedly more youthful and feminine direction. In 1994, Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia helped put the issue of teen girls on the national cultural agenda. Indicting our “media-saturated culture” for “poisoning” our girls, the book sold 1.6 million copies. In cinema, teen girl audiences emerged as one of the most powerful demographic factors of the late 1990s, creating surprise hits out of movies ranging from the low-budget romantic comedy Clueless (1995) to the slasher parody Scream (1996). In 1997, teen girls saved the romantic epic Titanic from financial disaster when groups of them flocked to theaters for repeat viewings of it. Clueless’s success was followed by a TV spin-off and a wave of teenflick romances, and the cult aroundScream led to two sequels. On television, more programming than ever began featuring teen girl protagonists in situations ranging from the everyday (Felicity and Dawson’s Creek) to the fantastic (the highly rated Buffy the Vampire Slayer, based on a 1992 movie of the same name). In music, phrases such as “Girl Power,” first articulated by the underground “riot grrls,” moved into the mainstream with the international if short-lived phenomenon of the Spice Girls, adored by very young girls (if reviled by almost everyone else). “By sheer bulk,” according to one studio executive, “young girls are driving cultural tastes now. They’re amazing consumers” (Weinraub).

[2] Girls now control enough money to attract attention as a demographic group. This may or may not represent an advance in terms of girls’ actual social power, but it does indicate that girls are being listened to by cultural producers who are taking them and their tastes very seriously. That hasn’t necessarily been the case, however, for people with far more compelling personal and political stakes in understanding young women and what drives them: that is, their mothers, their teachers, and feminist thinkers in general. And while more academic feminists are beginning to follow British scholar Angela McRobbie’s lead in examining the relation between feminism and youth cultures, these investigations (in special issues of Hypatia and Signs) have more often focused on alternative, independent and subcultural venues, such as riot grrls, rather than mainstream popular culture. Like Mary Pipher, educated and liberal-minded adults from widely differing backgrounds have more often felt a deep unease about the connections between girls and popular culture, especially youth-oriented genre films and TV.

[3] Let me cite a few examples. As a teacher and researcher of film studies and television and the mother of three daughters in early adulthood, I’ve been following the emergence of girl culture since the mid-nineties. Recently I spoke to a large group of academics and other professionals who work with girls about the ways such media icons as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess and the Spice Girls challenge familiar representations of femininity by affirming female friendship, agency and physical power. While my audience was entertained by my examples, many could not see past the violence, overt sexuality and commercialism in the clips I showed and in fact were troubled by my argument. At the same time, I’ve taught educated and involved mothers in my classes who have battled with their daughters over their tastes in popular culture. The film Scream has been a particular flashpoint. Despite its influence among teen girls, these women have discouraged or even forbidden their daughters from watching it, and they have certainly avoided watching it with them.

[4] These responses speak to real fears about the damaging effects of popular culture on young people, and to real desires to protect girls from those effects–fears which increased dramatically after the wave of school shootings in the 1990s, with worries about violence focused on boys and about sex on girls. More important, however, the responses to Scream stand as poignant examples of missed opportunities for women of my generation—the “mothers” of contemporary feminism, or feminists of the Second Wave—to learn about where our daughters are today and to mend or at least better understand some of the rifts and fissures that divide us. For despite the preferences of many educated adults for more refined examples of culture, for Jane Austen’s Emma over Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein over Wes Craven’s Scream trilogy, popular culture infuses the world in which today’s young women live, and the face of feminism today, for better or worse, is being written across media culture. A startling image on the cover of a 1998 issue of Time magazine depicted succeeding generations of US feminism with the faces of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem in black and white, followed by Calista Flockhart’s in “living color.” (Flockhart is the actress who plays Ally McBeal, the most popular female character on TV that year.) The headline on the cover, “Is Feminism Dead?” suggests that if feminism lives, it does so in the fictionalized characters of popular culture.

[5] The tension I’ve observed between mothers and daughters on the issue of popular culture resonates elsewhere in the US feminist movement today. Carol Gilligan describes a “relational crisis” (25) about how to foster authentic connections across real differences of experience, values and identity, while Carol Siegel notes how ideological and generational differences have eroded feminism’s “shared sense of purpose” (3). The challenge of making feminism represent more than a class of privileged white women is not new, of course, and inspired productive internal conflict within feminism’s Second Wave. What appears new, however, is the generational dimension to this tension. On the one hand, “Girl Power” and “Girls Kick Butt” are familiar phrases on magazine covers, bumper stickers and T-shirts, one sign of the ways the Second Wave has changed the world young women are growing up in. On the other hand, feminism itself seems most evident as a “structuring absence” for middle class young women attempting to define their identity. “I’m not a feminist, but. . . .” has become the most ubiquitous reference to feminism today, heard in university classrooms, the popular press and a wave of recent books on contemporary feminism. Brought up during a period of social conservatism, young women today are reluctant to identify themselves with any social movement and instead more likely to place their faith in free-market individualism. This resistance to thinking collectively, however, has serious political consequences at a time when collective action remains necessary not only to advance feminist goals in an age of globalization but to protect its still-vulnerable achievements in the areas of abortion rights, affirmative action, education and healthcare. For example, feminists have failed to protect the social safety net for poor women and the families of illegal immigrants.

[6] Thinking collectively requires both real and imaginative models of productive relationship, which have been hard to come by for girls and women in high art as well as popular culture. While representations of sisterhood or female friendship have begun to appear with more frequency in popular culture, especially with the new presence of female sport teams after Title IX, the mother/daughter bond, a key model of female connection remains, as Adrienne Rich has argued, invisible, unexplored or taboo. With a few important exceptions (the Alien films, especially Aliens [1986] and Alien Resurrection [1997]; and Species II[1998]), movies tend to dispatch mothers with a vengeance, relegating them to sentimentality (Stepmom[1998]), hysteria (American Beauty [1999]), monstrosity (Titanic [1997]), or mere invisibility (Rushmore[1998]). Similarly, as Lucy Fischer has argued in Cinematernity, film criticism itself is characterized by a kind of “amnesia” about the maternal. As a result, girls have been hard pressed to imagine what female collectivity might look like, among women of their own generation or across time. Sentimentalizing sisterhood as an ideal of false solidarity among women is not the answer, especially when that ideal obscures real differences among women and the power differentials that accompany those differences. However, without models of common goals and action, the liberal ideology of free-market individual power can and does thrive.

[7] My purpose here is not to mount an unconditional defense of popular culture, but to argue that women who care about the next generation of girls need to learn more about the popular texts they’re drawn to, whether Ally McBeal or Buffy, Y/M magazine or MTV. If a productive conversation is going to happen among women of all ages about the future of the feminist movement, it will have to take place on the terrain of popular culture where young women today are refashioning feminism toward their own ends. As Australian feminist Catherine Lumby argues, “If feminism is to remain engaged with and relevant to the everyday lives of women, then feminists desperately need the tools to understand everyday culture. We need to engage with the debates in popular culture rather than taking an elitist and dismissive attitude toward the prime medium of communication today” (174). Catherine M. Orr similarly warns that academic feminists may find themselves “positioned uncomfortably” against the populism implicit in the Third Wave (41).

[8] This paper takes a step in that direction first by mapping out the connections between Third Wave feminism and popular culture, then by illustrating those connections with a reading of the Scream trilogy. As I will show, these films provide a rich opportunity to study the contradictions and possibilities of feminism in a postmodern age. Scream (1996) stands as a key text in identifying girls as a powerful audience, and as Jonathan Hook and Steven Jay Schneider have argued, it had a major impact on the Hollywood film industry. The cult following that developed around the film led to two sequels (Scream 2 [1997] and Scream 3 [2000]) as well as the parody Scary Movie [2000] and Scary Movie 2 [2001]) and contributed to the wave of movies and TV shows targeted to teen girls in the late 90s. Built around themes of female empowerment and narratively driven by the ambivalent but powerful connection between mother and daughter, the trilogy raises the issue of bonds among women across time, gesturing toward a way out of current feminism’s “relational crisis.” Unabashedly postmodern in its celebration of B-movies, it provides keen insights into the tastes, desires and issues that move young women today, as well as the cultural landscape from which Third Wave feminism, or the feminism of our daughters, is emerging.

The GAP(S)

[9] One of the most puzzling elements in recent public discussions about feminism is the degree to which young women have disavowed a social movement intended to benefit them. Before proceeding further, I would like to define a few terms of my argument as well as its methodological limits. As Amanda D. Lotz and others have argued, contemporary feminism has preferred the concept of “wave” (first attributed to Rebecca Walker in 1992) rather than “generation” to discuss its history, in order to avoid the overdetermination of “generations” and the ambivalences evoked by the mother/daughter relation, as well as to suggest the cumulative impact of these phases. Generation, however, remains a useful concept, especially when viewed not as a biological term but as an indicator of political values held in common. I do not wish to draw strict parameters around the terms “girl” or “young women,” although market researchers have created increasingly refined distinctions among groups of females (such as 8-12, 13-18, 18-25 or 18-34) in order to determine their viewing habits, spending and politics; and important institutional and ethnographic research needs to be done on these groups, as well as on the overall impact of the kind of market fragmentation Joseph Turow analyzes in Breaking Up America. However, the questions that interest me here I invite a qualitative methodology based on cultural history and critical readings of media texts.

[10] It is even more difficult to pin down the meanings of such widely contested terms as “Girl Power,” Girl Culture” and above all “feminism.” What is—or was—feminism? Who has the authority to define it? What was the Second Wave, and how historically accurate are current understandings of it? What is the Third Wave? The generalizations that follow are not intended as definitive answers to these questions but as tools cautiously employed to explore a thesis about the current state of what is broadly understood as feminism.

[11] Finally, while I refer anecdotally to actual mothers and daughters, I use these terms metaphorically. I also use them with political intention. First, the mother/daugher relation ties a nexus of cultural representations that “erase” mothers into a broader political order that erases history or historical consciousness. Second, given our culture’s tradition of mother-blaming as well as its expectations that older women “disappear,” feminist scholars should not shrink from this metaphor, despite its inadequacies, as a means of conceptualizing women’s relations across time. Not all of us are mothers, but we all have mothers. And we all have a stake in the future of girls and young women, whether we see them as our daughters or not.

[12] One of the most puzzling elements in recent public discussions about feminism is the degree to which young women have disavowed a social movement intended to benefit them. Feminism has become an easy target for women who do not feel that they have benefited from the highly-touted booming economy of the late 1990s, and who in fact are working harder than ever to get by, with less time to enjoy the rewards of family life and domesticity. At the same time, while young women of all races and social classes appear to be uncomfortable with the term “feminism,” most agree with many of the principles associated with it, such as equal pay for equal work. Most young women also have little knowledge of the history of the woman’s movement, or of the restrictions on women’s lives that existed a mere generation ago.

[13] Explanations abound for this apparent turn against feminism, from the notion of backlash identified by Susan Faludi in 1991 to probing critiques of the Second Wave from within. In Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Faludi argues that feminism became the target of a massive effort during the socially conservative 80s and 90s to reverse the gains achieved by the women’s movement since the mid-60s. From her perspective, if today’s young women believe in their unlimited freedom and opportunity as individuals, reject structural analyses of social power, and avoid questioning the unequal effects of the period’s economic boom, that is because of they came of age in a conservative political environment. This environment also accounts for the wave of highly publicized books by women such as Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe, and Rene Denfield who identify themselves as feminists but according to a new set of definitions built on an array of rhetorically savvy terms and misleading oppositions: “victim feminism” vs. “power feminism,” “gender” or “difference” feminism vs. “equity” feminism. Young, white, educated at elite institutions, these women conform to Time magazine’s choice of Ally McBeal, a narcissistic, Ivy League-educated lawyer, as the “face” of popularized feminism. Other conservative voices with more established academic credentials have joined the chorus, including Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Camille Paglia, and Christina Hoff-Sommers. While Debra Baker Beck, Alyson Cole and others have refuted their ideas in more scholarly venues, the mainstream press has embraced these authors as the new voices of the women’s movement, using their work as the basis for sensationalized discussions of the state of feminism today. While claiming to refashion a “new” feminism, however, these women have not learned the lessons about racial and class privilege so hard won by the old. (See Ann Oakley and Juliet Mitchell, Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake, and Nan Bauer Maglin and Donna Perry, with women of color, such as bell hooks, Angela Davis and Rebecca Walker, particularly pointed in their critiques.)

[14] If Faludi has looked outward to the social formation explain the current challenges to feminism, others, such as psychologist Carol Gilligan, have turned inward to the psyche. Gilligan argues that girls’ socialization, especially during adolescence, causes them to develop a “different voice” or sense of identity, ethics and values from boys. Her work, which influenced Mary Pipher’s bestseller Reviving Ophelia, has been widely criticized for its essentialism, especially early in her career, but scholars such as Cressida J. Heyes are now calling for a reevaluation of its contributions to feminist scholarship. In “Getting Civilized,” Gilligan extends her previous work on the impact of relationship in women’s lives to broader debates about feminism today. She suggests that the problems besetting current feminism arise from our culture’s pervasive ethos of alienation and separation and its effect on women and girls, who learn as they mature that success in our culture requires them to “dissociate” or disconnect from their authentic perceptions and desires. The issue, she argues, becomes how to maintain our connections with the power structures of the social world while remaining connected with each other and ourselves. The solution, for feminism and for the culture at large, is a model of “relational psychology” that would privilege relationship or connection with ourselves, each other and the world itself.

[15] This argument resonates on several levels with the gap young women feel between the feminism of their mothers’ generation and themselves. First, it identifies the psychological underpinnings of young women’s desire to maintain connections with the existing power structure, especially at the cusp of adulthood when that power structure begins to appear within reach. As Gilligan notes, this identification with the status quo is particularly strong for girls already privileged by race, class, sexuality or education. At this same developmental phase, conversations between mothers and daughters increase in volatility. As girls become “acutely concerned with what women know” (22), or with the wisdom and history of a previous generation, they also resist hearing it, and begin their experience of the doubleness or contradiction of female life under patriarchy. Americans are notoriously lacking in an historical consciousness, a condition exacerbated by postmodernity’s erasure of history, and young women are no exceptions.

[16] Most provocatively, Gilligan notes from clinical psychology that “when faced with the new, people often feel the tug of the familiar” (26), and when patients find themselves on the cusp of major transformations, they often hesitate. Feminism has wrought massive changes in Western society, and its effects, especially on family and domestic life, have been complex. Whereas for previous generations of middle-class women, work represented a longed-for freedom to participate in public life, and family life meant forced confinement within the private sphere, these categories for many young women today have come to mean the opposite: work is a necessity, and family life (or their fantasies about motherhood and domesticity) an option or “luxury” that may appear frustratingly out of reach. At the same time, both spheres remain fraught with inequities that continue to weigh heavily on women’s shoulders, as Michelle Sidler has argued about work, class and the Third Wave. As a result, the movement has become an easy scapegoat for problems originating elsewhere, from the economic restructuring brought about by globalization to the incomplete actualization of the feminist project.

[17] Gilligan’s work suggests a psychological and ethical basis for the kind of coalition politics needed to preserve and advance the women’s movement. For her, the debates raging about and within feminism—or “relational conflict among women”—are not troubling in themselves, but only when they are used to prevent or reverse radical social change. As Gloria Steinem suggests, with an apt use of metaphor, “It will take awhile before feminists succeed enough so that feminism is not perceived as a gigantic mother who is held responsible for almost everything, while the patriarchy receives terminal gratitude for the small favors it bestows” (Walker 1995, xix).

[18] Perhaps the most challenging analysis of feminism’s current conflicts locates their source within the Second Wave itself, especially in aspects of it which have been perceived as dogmatic, censorious and out-of-touch with the everyday lives of women. In New Millenial Sexstyles, an exhilarating effort to chart the territory between the Second and Third waves, Carol Siegel describes the alienating effects of the Second Wave’s “concessions to conventional morality and its role in the regulation of sexuality” (2). Her critique of the Second Wave zeroes in on its failures to address love and sexuality, especially heterosexuality, in ways that many women could relate to. Not only did the Second Wave’s orthodox analysis of sexuality leave no place for “non-complicitous heterosexuality,” it reinforced larger structures of bourgeois capitalism in policing the anarchic power of Eros. For Catherine Lumby, on the other hand, disagreements within feminism point to the failure of older feminists to acknowledge their own power as feminism has become absorbed into the establishment. (Tensions related to this issue erupted at the national Women’s Studies Conference in 1995.) This stake in the establishment, according to Lumby, has helped blind second generation feminists to important changes in the landscape of politics and public life, which today are being enacted in the realm of technology, mass communication and everyday culture. In particular, by failing to articulate a feminist vision of the place of new technologies in our lives, Second Wave feminists have inadvertently aligned themselves with conservative social forces.

[19] Building on a tradition of cultural studies which examines the ways class and other social hierarchies are maintained through categories of high and low culture, Lumby shows how high culture has invariably served the needs of the elite, and new forms of culture, such as the Internet, evoke anxiety because—like feminism itself—they help destabilize old power structures and boundaries between the public and the private. Just as the liberation movements in the late 1960s followed the penetration of television into middle class households in the 1950s, the Internet at the turn of the 21st century has become the flashpoint of struggle between those who view access to information as a means to social power and those who wish to restrict that access. Indeed, as Henry Jenkins has argued, the inflammatory issue of pornography has been used in campaigns to control the Internet by groups interested in attacking gay and lesbian rights.

[20] Seigel’s and Lumby’s books, combining critique with manifesto, typify a body of new work now becoming associated with the Third Wave, a movement first named by Rebecca Walker in a 1992 article published in Ms. (“Becoming the Third Wave”). This work, which includes collections of personal testimonies as well as more academically oriented anthologies, is provocative, wide-ranging and difficult to characterize because its views and modes of address differ so widely. (See Ednie Kaeh Garrison for a helpful overview. See also Carlip; Green and Taormino; Walker; Heywood and Jennifer Drake; Maglin and Perry on Third Wave feminism; and Gateward and Pomerance on “cinemas of girlhood”). Despite these differences, several threads run through it. Unlike the popularized feminisms of Roiphe et al, the Third Wave tends to be racially and sexually inclusive, global and ecological in perspective. Young campus feminists today see environmental and international labor issues as deeply connected, and the anti-sweatshop and workers’ rights movements as central to feminism today. Third Wave feminism also shows the influence of poststructuralist theory on its notions of identity and subjectivity; an interest in consumerism; a postmodernist orientation toward popular culture; and a focus on sexuality. In this context, a film such asScream provides an opportunity to sort out the relation between the highly commodified “Girl Culture” (of popular magazines, TV, film, music, zines and the Internet) and the real empowerment of girls.


[21] In Third Wave feminism, popular culture is a natural site of identity-formation and empowerment, providing an abundant storehouse of images and narratives valuable less as a means of representing reality than as motifs available for contesting, rewriting and recoding. This perspective rests on a poststructuralist critique of the relation between language and the “real.” If young women reject the label of “feminist,” that stance may have less to do with the meaning of the term itself than with their skepticism about the capacity of language to represent the “truth” of who they are. According to writings from the Third Wave, young feminists today resist the positivist epistemology of the Second Wave, and consider such categories as “male” and “female,” “black,” “white,” and “lesbian” and “heterosexual” pragmatic bases for identity politics more than transparent signifiers of “the real.” While uneasy about the political consequences of abandoning these categories, many 3rd Wavers also view them as markers of identity that can be borrowed, performed and pieced together ironically, playfully or with political intent, in a mode typical of postmodern culture.

[22] According to critics such as Fredric Jameson, postmodern culture lacks the potential for political critique because its “pastiche” of signifiers and intertextuality no longer refers to a shared historical reality. However, for youth culture, the appropriation of diverse cultural labels, motifs or other signifiers may express an aesthetic and politics of hybridity consistent with its consciousness of multiculturalism and sexual diversity. And so young women of all races and ethnicities borrow from hip hop, the preeminent movement in youth culture today, even though its roots are in urban, male African-American culture, in order to take up its politicized stance toward racial injustice (Neisel). Similarly, young women freely engage in masculinity—within themselves as well as in male-oriented music and violent action films—in order to “take up” the sense of power our culture still identifies with boys and men. And the Scream trilogy enables girls to reject codes of femininity familiar to them from the highly conventionalized genre of the teen slasher film in order to rewrite them in more empowering ways.

[23] As Nina Maglin and Donna Perry argue in “Bad Girls“/”Good Girls“, sexuality has become a “lightning rod for this generation’s hopes and discontents (and democratic visions)” (xvi) in much the same way that Civil Rights and Vietnam mobilized their mothers. The regulation of female sexuality is deeply ingrained in our culture to hold the structures of patriarchy and heterosexuality in place, with mothers—even feminist mothers—who have internalized these lessons teaching their daughters from an early age about the need to police their sexuality. Indeed, much adult concern about young women and popular culture arises from the treatments of teen girl sexuality in movies, MTV, magazines, advertisements, clothing, TV shows. As a result, Third Wavers focus their attention on sexual politics as well as cultural production, viewing society’s “construction, containment, and exploitation of female sexuality in the 1990s . . . as a model for women’s situation generally, particularly in terms of agency or victimization,” two of the key topics of debate among the “popular” feminists (Maglin and Perry, xvi).

[24] While the Second Wave generally tied (hetero)sexuality to oppression, the Third Wave is less conflicted about sexuality in any form. Through her own encounters with youth subcultures and provocative readings of alternative music, Siegel finds a movement toward fluid categories of gender and wide-ranging sexualities (or “sexstyles”). This movement challenges power structures threatened by sexual practices such as S/M or fetishism that resist the ideological frameworks of both mainstream culture and the Second Wave. The insistence of young feminists on their right to define their political strategy as “[making] use of power and danger” (Howard and Drake, 3) or as guided by desire, pleasure and anger may well unsettle older women concerned about girls’ vulnerability to exploitation by men or experimentation outside the social norms of heterosexuality. However, older women need to understand more fully the intention that motivates this strategy, whether they agree with it or not. As Lisa Jones writes of the Third Wave, “We are smartass girls with a sense of entitlement, who avail ourselves of the goods of two continents, delight in our sexual bravura, and live womanism as pleasure, not academic mandate” (To Be Real, 255).

[25] Part of that pleasure involves reclaiming the right not only to the term “girl” but to “girly pleasures” trivialized by the culture at large, such as shopping and dressing up. According to Susan Douglas, popular culture directed to girls, from the girl bands of the 50s to the Spice Girls of the 90s, has provided them with pleasurable opportunities to negotiate the contradictions of patriarchal culture. In a punchy and knowledgeable survey of girl culture in Spin magazine, Ann Powers describes how girls aggressively flaunt traits formerly viewed as demeaning by both feminists and misogynists: prettiness, brattiness, and sexual flamboyance. And so, while retaining the critique of beauty culture and sexual abuse from the Second Wave, young women have complicated the older feminist critique of the male gaze as a weapon to put women in their place, and instead exploit the spotlight as a source of power and energy. Thus girls do not see a contradiction between female power and assertive sexuality. Girl Power icons can dress in provocative clothing while demonstrating fierce physical prowess (Buffy) or chant the virtues of female power and solidarity while wearing Wonder Bras (The Spice Girls). Powers’ sharpest insight into the new girl culture describes its strategy as neither rational or analytic, like the Second Wave, but “mythic,” manifesting itself in the symbols, rhythms, and motifs of a media-infused age.


[26] If any recent popular text works on a mythic rather than rational level, it is the Scream trilogy, which is as drenched in generational guilt, excess, violence and sexuality as any ancient Greek or Renaissance drama, while at the same time exemplifying the postmodern aesthetic and cultural values of its time. And if any popular text brings together the issues of power, danger, desire and anger for girls of the 1990s, it isScream. Understanding the place of these issues in girls’ lives today provides a helpful context for assessing the meaning of sensational material that adults might well find disturbing. Indeed, the Screamfilms demonstrate the potential of the highly commodified popular texts of Girl Culture to yield meanings consistent with Girl Power. Like popular culture itself, the trilogy is built on familiar old narratives; but in its effort to capture and address changing audiences, it bends those narratives in new ways.

[27] The plot of the first Scream film, like many current teen movies, is set in an affluent, predominantly white, bucolic community being preyed on by a masked, serial killer. It begins with the stalking and violent murder of a blonde teen girl, then shifts its attention to another girl, Sidney, who becomes the killer’s next target. Sidney, whose mother had been raped and murdered a year ago, has been left alone by her father for the weekend. At the same time, because of unresolved grief for her mother, she resists her boyfriend’s ongoing pressure for sex. Meanwhile, Gale Weathers, an ambitious TV newscaster, pursues the story of the new killings. Gale’s appearance on the scene rekindles Sidney’s anger at her coverage of the events around the mother’s death. The subplots culminate at a party during which Sidney decides to have sex with Billy and the killer lays siege to the gathered teens. After a violent battle, a wounded and battered Sidney learns that the killer is Billy, who claims to have killed her mother as well because her affair with his father caused his own mother to abandon him. With the help of an equally battered Gale, Sidney kills him.

[28] The Scream trilogy raises key issues in the lives of teen girls: (1) sexuality and virginity; (2) adult femininity and its relation to agency and power; (3) identity as it is shaped by the cultural narratives expressed in popular culture; and (4) identity as it is shaped by the family romance—in particular, a daughter’s relationship with her mother. The Scream trilogy confronts each of these issues head-on, resolving them in powerful and innovative ways which allow a teen girl to occupy center stage, defend herself and assert her agency and identity according to her own desire.

[29] Scream zeroes in on virginity and sexuality as a source of anxiety for young women. It does not shrink from the realization that sex is dangerous, and tied to violence and power. It can cause a girl or woman to lose not only her reputation (“your mother was a slut bag,” Sidney hears throughout the trilogy) but her life. The enduring cultural myths of heterosexual romance, as in the film Pretty Woman (1990), also highly popular among young women, perpetuate female fantasies of Prince Charming boyfriends who will rescue them. However, Scream radically revises that myth. Recent work on female adolescence such as Carol Gilligan’s (see also Mary Pipher, and Joan Brumberg’s The Body Project) explores how coming of age into heterosexual adulthood “kills off” young girls’ confidence and strength and suggests how for girls the boyfriend (or desire for a boyfriend) is a killer. Scream literalizes the metaphor. Drawing on literary and cinematic traditions of the Gothic, it narrativizes a girl’s sense of boys as mysterious and unknowable entities, who like the killer wear can wear masks that disguise their true identity. For a generation that gave a name to date rape and acquaintance rape, Scream shows the ease with which a trusted friend can become a potential rapist. The principal of the high school, cleverly cast as old teen idol Henry Winkler (“the Fonz” from the 70s sitcom Happy Days) touches Sidney to reassure her but in doing so conveys a creepy sense of sexual entitlement. Heterosexuality can be deadly for growing girls, and adult masculinity not only mysterious and unknowable, but capable of manifesting itself in ways that are potentially psychotic. Sidney doesn’t know who the killer is, and—as the film-savvy character Randy reminds the other teens—everyone in the film, including her absent father, comes under suspicion.

[30] Undercurrents of danger run through Billy’s efforts to seduce Sidney, who is a virgin when the film begins. In one scene, he invades her space when he climbs uninvited into her bedroom, a visual metaphor for his desire to penetrate her body first sexually then with a knife, reenacting the violent penetrations he inflicted on her mother to punish her. Sexual urgency and aggression are implicitly tolerated or even valued in teen males, and we don’t know until the film’s final moments whether Billy’s “edge” merely reflects that urgency or is something more threatening. Yet the film also acknowledges the ambivalence of female desire for the sexual other, and the fine line that divides the crazed killer of Scream from the brooding, bodice-ripping romantic heroes of women’s pulp fiction. Sidney remains in control of her own sexuality, however, and chooses when to have sex with Billy. The film does not romanticize or sensationalize this rite of passage, showing only her agency in initiating it and its unexceptional aftermath.

[40] Scream’s treatment of sexuality arises from its identity not only as a teen film but as a horror film. The horror genre has generated a tradition of scholarship in film studies by scholars fascinated by the powerful emotional effects these films produce. The genre took on new life when it began to absorb the concerns (and audiences) of the teen flick, beginning with Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the many sequels they spawned. Barbara Creed and Carol Clover first established the importance of the horror genre for feminist criticism”a challenging task given the aversion of many women toward cinematic violence and its status outside the purview of more respectible criticism due to its association with B-movies. For Clover, Creed, Linda Williams, Rhona Berenstein, Vivian Sobchack, Kate E. Sullivan and others, the genre’s graphic excesses provide opportunities to explore cultural connections between violence and sexual difference. Their scholarship both anchors Scream in its generic tradition as well as highlighting its departure from it. According to Clover, in her influential Men, Women and Chainsaws, horror films, like fairy tales, provide raw and unmediated glimpses into unconscious fears and desires, especially around sexual difference. The killer is invariably male, like Billy, and his victims female”young, beautiful and sexual (or sexually transgressive), such as Casey. He is eventually killed by a “Final Girl” who, like Sidney, is “boyish” in name, appearance or behavior and uses an active, male gaze to hunt down the killer. Unlike Sidney, however, the Final Girl remains a virgin, allowed to kill the killer because she has not yet discovered the more threatening power of her adult sexuality. For Clover, the horror film is primarily a male discourse, with the Final Girl a point of identification for the male adolescent viewer. However, other critics, such as Isabel Pinedo in Recreational Terror, see in the genre the potential for female and feminist appropriation, a potential which Scream develops.

[41] Scream depends on an easy familiarity with the generic conventions out of which the film is built, and the trilogy’s most noted formal characteristic is its self-reflexivity. The films abound in references and in-jokes about popular culture, from the conventions of the teen slasher film to debates about violence in the media to references to trends in pop sociology (“Teen suicides are out this year. Homicide is healthier”). This self-reflexivity increases as the trilogy progresses and the films begin to build a dense layering of narratives-within-narratives and intertextual references. In the first film, the killer repeatedly quizzes his victims on their knowledge of the horror films. “Do you like scary movies?” he taunts. The young couple describes the degree of their sexual intimacy in terms of movie ratings (Sidney struggles to keep their relationship “PG-13”), and when they have sex, the scene is intercut with shots of their friends watching movies downstairs. The trilogy finally highlights the place of popular culture in teen lives by making knowledge of it the defining characteristic of those who live and those who die. Indeed, in a world infused with media culture, it is hard to dispute the implications that knowledge of how media work is a crucial survival skill.

[42] The use of self-reflexivity in these films marks them as hip, ironic and of the moment, enabling them to reinforce subcultural bonds among their teen audiences by highlighting their shared knowledge of a film genre alien to viewers of their parents’ generation. The Scream films have become popular fare for slumber parties, and like the Titanic phenomenon, reinforce the place of cinema and video as a communal experience and social ritual for teen girls. Scream depicts that ritual by showing teens picking out videos together, then gathering around the TV to watch them together. This communal viewing becomes an occasion for social interaction and shared commentary. The trilogy also uses self-reflexivity to interrogate its own generic conventions, examining in particular how those conventions are tied to cultural ideals of femininity and masculinity. At one point in the film, a flippant teen notes that in movies, “there’s always some reason to kill a girlfriend,” foregrounding the misogyny of US culture as it is reflected in Hollywood film.

[43] One of the most troubling aspects of the Scream trilogy for many adult women is its apparent approval of violence, especially in the hands of its teen girl protagonist. This violence cannot be understood, however, apart from the narrative and generic conventions which give it meaning and which the films challenge in important ways. Young fans are also likely to bring an auteurist’s understanding to these films and interpret them in the context of Wes Craven’s body of work, which has consistently challenged dominant ideologies of gender and bourgeois family life (The Hills Have Eyes, 1977) as well as those of race (The People Under the Stairs 1991). (See Lehman and Luhr, Heba, and Markovitz.) Scream is structured around two very different kinds of female protagonists, whose differences lead to radically different narratives. The female protagonist in most narratives plays a familiar and unchanging role: she is the passive object of the active male hero’s quest or the prize at the end of his journey. Action, agency, movement, change belong to the male hero, and action—even violent action—is not only sanctioned for him but serves as a means of proving his courage and strength. The slasher film exaggerates this opposition according to its own highly stylized generic requirements: blonde female victims (“some big-breasted girl” as one character in Screamobserves) and male psychopaths. Male fear of female sexuality becomes encoded in the slasher convention that only female virgins can survive—a convention that Scream notably rejects.

[44] Scream begins with a graphic and exaggerated display of those conventions in order to undermine and rewrite them for the remainder of the film. Its first joke on viewers’ expectations is its witty casting of Drew Barrymore, the film’s biggest teen star attraction, to draw on her personal history of exploitation and victimization then kill her within the first fifteen minutes. In the film’s most sustained sequence of suspense and gory violence, Casey Becker, the character she plays, is ruthlessly trapped by the killer’s threatening gaze and taunting vocal address, as well as by the camera’s complicitous, voyeuristic gaze. Most important, the film hinges her death on her ignorance of popular culture: when the killer quizzes her about knowledge of slasher films, she falters, and her ignorance of the rules”where the killer is hiding, how to elude him and so on”takes her right to his knife. By killing off this character so decisively, the film also kills off a certain model of femininity—dumb, passive, dependent, victimized—in order to replace it with another that is more knowing, less glamorous and far more capable. Sidney, played by Neve Campbell, a lesser known model and star from TV, knows the rules but resists her assigned part and in the end succeeds in unmasking and killing the killer herself. In effect, she usurps the male role in the narrative for herself. She resists the passivity of the traditional female protagonist and the model of femininity on which it is based.

[44] The film constructs Sidney’s character with quiet visual references to icons of Girl Power, such as the poster of the Indigo Girls in her bedroom, and shows her techno-confidence when she uses her computer to signal for help. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena Warrior Princess, Sidney is physically active, strong, resourceful, and capable of taking care of herself. (Campbell, in fact, is an athlete who performed some of her own stunts.) She has sex according to her timetable, not her boyfriend’s, and the loss of her virginity doesn’t mean the “end of the story” for her, as it does in the traditional slasher film as well as an enduring tradition of romantic comedies and melodramas which conclude the woman’s story when she reaches the altar. Instead, it marks the beginning of her real power as a adult woman. She doesn’t depend on male authorities to rescue her, whether the school principal, the cop, her father or her boyfriend.

[45] One of the most telling moments of the film occurs in a brief moment of calm when the battle to kill Billy and his partner has apparently ended. One of the surviving teens—Randy, the film buff, who has given a metacommentary on the action throughout the film—warns Sidney that the killer always rises once again from apparent death, and Billy lurches up to attack one last time. “Not in my movie,” Sidney claims, before killing him for good. With that remark, she claims her place not only as a new kind of female protagonist, but as the “auteur” or author of her own movie, or in fact her own life, in an age where the movies and life are indistinguishable. As the killer says, “It’s all a movie, just pick your genre.” The happy ending of this script does not require the union of a heterosexual couple, the staple of Hollywood films and most traditional narratives. Following the lead of Heathers (1989), another important teen girl film which refuses the romantic ending, Scream concludes with the teen girl heroine independent and unattached.

[46] According to the logic of realism, Scream might well be considered an endorsement of violence in the hands of a teen girl. But when viewed in its cultural and formal context, the film, like the slasher genre in general, provides an opportunity to examine cultural and individual fantasies as they relate to gender and power. The film’s particular revision of the genre invites female viewers imaginatively to “try on” a new model of femininity more suited to young women of the Third Wave. Moreover, its generic license for excess and exaggeration enables it to make its points with bold strokes: the boyfriend can be a killer quite literally, the girl can defend herself boldly and take on power formerly off limits to girls. Interestingly, our culture has yet to create such exercises in female imagination in the genres of realism, which continue to consign girls and women to traditional roles. “Supergirls” like Buffy, Xena, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Sidney, remain thinkable only in the realms of fantasy.

[47] Teen films from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to Clueless have traditionally addressed issues of generational tension, but this tension takes on a new dimension in the 90s when it is played out against the social backdrop of divorce, single-parent homes, and houses empty after school. Indeed, the empty house signifies more than an opportunity for a wild party but the occasion for terror, and parents no longer stand as towering figures of authority against which to rebel, or even neutral absences, but haunting specters of impotence and loss. The film’s title is taken from Edvard Munch’s famous Expressionist painting of 1893, evoking the inarticulate anguish of an alienated age, and the killer always wears a mask bearing the image of Munch’s “Scream.” However, the Scream trilogy uses this image to evoke the angst of its own historical times, where it manifests itself in deep-rooted fears about changes in the family and the desire to blame women for the consequences of these changes, especially as they relate to boys and men.

[48] These themes are set up during opening sequence, when Casey is home alone. Her parents return but too late, as she is near death. In a horrific image of botched communication and the limits of technology to substitute for real contact, parents and child are within close proximity, screaming to each other into cordless phones, but cannot “connect.” Similarly, Sidney’s father has left her alone and so put her at risk. He has also rendered himself a suspect, tapping on recent cultural awareness of violence and sexual abuse in the home and fathers as figures of potential risk to their daughters. He returns during the siege, but is unable to help his daughter. In an exaggerated image of paternal weakness, the killer ties him up with duct tape, rendering him even more powerless until Sidney rescues him. Indeed, the film’s critique of idealized figures of masculinity is as telling as its reconstruction of femininity: from father to principal to boyfriend to cop, male authorities are suspicious, silly or weak. As the trilogy progresses, the cop develops stature as a new and gentler model of masculinity, but in the first film, the only male who is both trustworthy and able to approach the killer on his own turf is Randy, the teen cinema buff who draws on his vast knowledge of pulp film to provide a metacommentary on the unfolding events both for characters within the film and for viewers without.

[49] Despite the presence of failed father figures, however, it is absent mothers who provide the underlying narrative enigma in the Scream trilogy. The first segment of Scream concludes with Casey’s gasping “Mom” as she dies, and the remainder of the trilogy becomes an investigation of the mystery of Sidney’s mother and the events of her life and death. This mystery is only heightened when the killer discloses his motives and we learn that Billy lost his mind when he lost his mother”all because of Sidney’s mother, whose affair with his father drove her away. The film highlights the depth of Billy’s obsession with his mother by having him refute current conventional wisdom about what creates violence and all other contemporary social ills: It is not “movies,” he insists, but mothers. Movies only make killers “more creative.” Quoting pop psychology, he informs Sidney that “maternal abandonment creates psychopathology.” This loss sends him on a rampage to punish all mothers and potential mothers for the loss of his own.

[50] “Maternal abandonment” triggered by maternal sex lies at the core of the films, and both evoke powerful cultural taboos. Our culture likes its mothers “immaculate” and maternal sexuality unacknowledged and unrepresented, so Sidney’s mother has ensured her own violent punishment and death by having sex outside marriage. (The same rules, of course, do not apply to fathers, and Billy’s father doesn’t warrant a mention for his role in the affair.) Throughout cinema history, a mother shown as sexual, especially outside marriage, is certain to suffer and probably die by the end of the film. The 90s have been particularly fixated on the missing mother, who like feminism itself, becomes a scapegoat for the malaise of a generation brought up with divorce, low economic expectations and empty houses. However, a more careful look at the trope of maternal abandonment exposes it as a stunning ideological inversion of the social reality of teen lives, where in most cases of divorce and blended families, it is not the mother but the father who is missing from the home.

[51] Initially, the films provide very little information about Sidney’s mother. Billy accuses Sidney of being a “slut” who is “just like her mother,” and Sidney acknowledges her confusion about who her mother was and her fear of turning out like her, suggesting her own vulnerability to the power of the double standard, especially as it applies to mothers. Her struggle, like that of all girls, is to know her mother not only as her mother but as a person in her own right, and as the trilogy advances, the focus intensifies around Sidney’s quest for her own identity as it relates to her mother’s.

[52] The trilogy takes its first step toward that understanding with the relationship between Sidney and Gale Weathers, played by another popular TV star, Courtney Cox. The character of Gale brings together stereotypes of the ambitious career woman and bloodthirsty tabloid TV, both targets of derision in our culture, but revises them in interesting ways that redeem this culturally unpopular figure without domesticating her. Gale is allowed the film’s only successful romance when she falls in love with Dewey, the dim but endearing cop. She, not Sidney, was right in her suspicions about the first trial, which left the real killer at large and an innocent man in prison. And by the end of the film, it is Gale—not any of the film’s well-intentioned but helpless boys and men—who comes to Sidney’s aid.

[53] An accomplished woman a decade or so older than Sidney, Gale stands as a displaced maternal figure, a locus of the conflicted feelings teen girls often feel toward their mothers. This is clear when Sidney punches her the first time the two face each other early in the film, and again when they meet in Scream 2. Sidney’s relationship with Gale, however, not only paves the way for the renegotiation of her more complex relationship with her mother but also models a kind of solidarity among women who despite their differences can unite toward common goals. In the first two films of the trilogy, Sidney and Gale never come to like each other. But they develop an uneasy alliance as they recognize the common goal of survival, and in that way they suggest a kind of coalition politics for the Third Wave.


[54] Scream 2 takes place a year later, in a college town where Sidney is studying drama and attempting to put her past behind her. She has a new boyfriend and a close girl friend who is encouraging her to join a sorority. She is also preparing for her role as Cassandra in the college production of Agamemnon, the blood-soaked Greek tragedy which like the Scream films, hinges on issues of maternal rebellion and adultery, the primacy of mother/daughter bonds, and the struggle between patriarchal and matriarchal orders. The film begins in a movie theater with the opening of “Stab,” a film based on Gale Weather’s book about the Hillsboro slayings. The film triggers a series of copycat killings which end when Sidney kills the killer, after learning that it is Mrs. Loomis, Billy the boyfriend’s avenging mother (ian allusion to Friday the 13th, in which the killer is also the mother of dead son).

[55] Scream 2 is moodier and darker than the first film, with Sidney and other returning characters bearing the emotional scars of the events of the first film. It is also more ambitious in scope, making bold claims for popular cinema as a serious means of enacting a culture’s most profound anxieties and myths. Most dramatically, in its use of Greek mythology and drama it links the teen horror film of today with a long tradition of respected dramatic and narrative antecedents. As literary critics such as Northrop Frye and others have shown, popular audiences have always been drawn to sensationalistic treatments of highly charged subject matter on stage, page and screen, from the tragedies and comedies of antiquity to the violent dramas of the Jacobean stage, the melodramatic fiction of Dickens and the action-packed, emotionally charged cinema of Spielberg.

[56] Following the rule of sequels”spelled out in an early scene set in a university cinema studies class”not only are the stakes raised in Scream 2, but the self-reflexivity even more layered and complex. The film includes overt visual allusions to such classics of the genre as Nosferatu (1922) and Psycho (1960). “Stab” replays the events of the first film with its characters played by yet another set of actors. At its opening, an unruly audience surrounded by huge “Stab” posters and brandishing fake “Stab” knives (reminiscent of Star Wars light sabers), points to the ways popular culture commodifies real life tragedies and turns them into entertainment. The first characters introduced by the film are a young black couple who argue over Hollywood’s racial politics on their way to see “Stab.” The woman, a cinema studies student, criticizes the horror genre for its exclusion of blacks and its violence against women. As if to underscore her point, the couple becomes the new killer’s first victims, violently re-asserting the genre’s, and Hollywood’s, narrative privileging of white characters, while at the same time exposing these cinematic mechanisms of racism to a teen audience already familiar with Craven’s earlier treatments of race. The casting delves even deeper into teen culture, drawing more stars from TV teen hits such as Dawson’s Creek and Felicity, with teen icons Tori Spelling playing Sidney in “Stab” and Sarah Michelle Geller, the star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, cast against vampire-slaying type as a defenseless sorority girl.

[57] Masks—both literal and figurative—become an even more prominent narrative and visual motif worn to sinister effect not only by the killer but in the two spheres of “Greek” culture evoked by the film: actors performing Agamemnon according to traditional style, and the “Greek” social world on campus, which connotes an outmoded gender system based on ritualized performances of femininity and masculinity. The sorority girls “put on” femininity as a mask of silliness, superficiality and the desire to please men at all costs. “Everyone thinks sororities are just about blow jobs, but that’s not true,” one vacuous-sounding girl explains to an unconvinced Sidney. The fraternity boys exemplify a kind of masculinity defined by “animal house” carousing, violence and loyalty to the exclusive all-male group at all costs. They wear actual masks when they abduct Sidney’s new boyfriend Derrick, one of their brothers, to discipline him for giving a charm bearing his fraternity letters to his girlfriend. Derrick represents the possibilities of an evolving masculinity that must be excluded from the older order, and his ritual punishment by his “brothers” leaves him carved and bloodied, strapped crucifixion style on a stage prop suspended high over the stage.

[58] With the use of Billy’s mother, Mrs. Loomis, as the new killer, the trilogy deepens its investigation into the place of motherhood in the cultural myths and narratives of the 90s, suggesting once again that even before the movies could be blamed for kids gone wrong, there were mothers. Hovering over the trilogy is Clytemnestra, the tragic queen of Agamemnon who is remembered for her many transgressions: her rebellion against her husband for killing her daughter, her eventual adultery, her death at the hands of her son and the curse he must bear for killing her. “I’m sick of everyone saying it’s all the parents’ fault,” Mrs. Loomis rages, and acknowledges that the weight of that blame falls more heavily on mothers than fathers. “I was a good mother,” she says, adding, “You don’t know what it’s like to be a mother.” To be a mother is not an easy task in a culture where mothers are liable to be blamed for loving too much or not enough, for being too present or not present enough, for leaving their homes to work if they are middle class or for staying home to care for their children if they receive public assistance. Played by Laurie Metcalf with the kind of controlled hysteria she brought to her role in the sitcom Roseanne, Mrs. Loomis does not fold in despair over her losses, however, but rears up as a demonic fury who becomes readable and even sympathetic within the horror genre. A crazed Clytemnestra seeking revenge for the loss of her child, she is neither pitiable nor weak but a figure of superhuman strength who refuses to be a victim. Muscling herself to the center of the narrative, she usurps the place of the villainous male serial killer and stands face to face with the new Girl Power hero.

[59] In Scream 2, Sidney also develops into a more mature and complex hero for the Third Wave. By casting her as Cassandra in the production of Agamemnon, the film identifies her with a figure of mythic stature, described by Sidney’s drama teacher as one of the “great visionaries of literature” who was fated to see the truth but not to be believed. As in the first film, Sidney battles her own demons, which would wall her off from other people as a result of her emotional trauma. When Sidney attempts to beg out of the production, her drama teacher refuses to let her do so, reminding her and the film audience that she is a “fighter,” someone who has the courage to “face her fate” and embrace it. In a highly dramatic scene depicting a rehearsal of the play-within-the-film, a crimson-clad Sidney as Cassandra stands out against the masked chorus, a powerful image of a new girl hero who not only has the wits and physical courage to defend herself but a growing capacity to understand herself and the cultural scripts that would write who she is. This time when she defeats the killer, she puts an extra bullet in her head for good measure, and walks away with a cool self-assurance.


[60] The ghost of Sidney’s mother, a structuring absence in the first two films, becomes the focus of the final film, which zeroes in on the mystery of Maureen Prescott’s life and its meaning for Sidney. Scream 3finds Sidney isolated once again in a bucolic setting where she takes calls for a women’s Crisis Center. Meanwhile, “Stab 3” based on the Windsor College killings, is in production in Hollywood. On the studio set, the masked killer strikes again, leaving photographs of a young Maureen Prescott, Sidney’s mother, with each victim. When the killer starts calling Sidney, she travels to Hollywood where she begins to learn about a missing chapter in her mother’s life: when her mother was her age, she had appeared in several horror films under the name of Rena Reynolds. In her final showdown with the killer, Sidney learns that he is Roman Bridges, the director of “Stab 3,” who also turns out to be her half-brother. He tells her that their mother ended her career and began a new life after she had been raped and left pregnant by studio executives. Roman tracked her down four years ago, only to have her reject him as the child of someone who no longer exists. In rage, he turned on her and Sidney, the daughter she acknowledged, and masterminded the murders to follow. Sidney puts an end to the horror by killing him, then returns to the mountains to take up her new life in the company of Dewey and Gale, who decide to get married.

[61] As the mother’s story moves into the foreground in Scream 3, so does the story of Hollywood with which it is so closely intertwined. As if to signal the scope of its critique, the film begins with a helicopter roaring over the “Hollywood” letters in LA. and the film’s self-reflexivity deepens to include practices within the film industry itself. Like the earlier films, Scream 3 abounds in references to other films and most of its action takes place on a Hollywood studio set that recreates the settings of the earlier films. Randy the video buff who died in Scream 2 addresses the characters on a videotape to let them know that the final chapter of a trilogy differs from a sequel in its inevitable return to the beginning. Like Freud’s return of the repressed (“The past will come back to bite you,” Randy warns) and the trilogies of classic Greece, film trilogies uncover past secrets and “unexpected backstories.”

[62] In a more subtle variation on this theme, a detective new to the story explains to Sidney that Hollywood is “always about death,” a statement resonating with the very essence of cinema according to classic theories of film, which have speculated on the ability of film’s flickering images to evoke life where there is none, thereby satisfying viewers’ desires to defeat death. Similarly, cinema has also been theorized as vampiric in its ability to feed off the living in order to create images which appear in fact “undead.” Indeed, “Stab 3” is more a ghost story than a horror film, haunted as it is by Sidney’s dead mother. Maureen Prescott appears as a narrative device in the photographic images, as a ghostly hallucination in Sidney’s mind, and as an key to Sidney’s identity finally to be faced. Throughout the film she appears as a monstrous ghost, expressing the daughter’s ongoing struggle to reconcile her conflicting ideas about who her mother was. On one hand, Sidney experienced her as “the perfect mother” at the heart of a “perfect family.” On the other, she has learned about her extra-marital affairs, heard her judged a “slut,” and discovered that she had a secret life in her past. This monstrous mother is the mother as seen by the social world and the woman Sidney fears she will become herself. However, the film eventually provides a “backstory” to that judgment that redeems the mother and points an accusing finger where it belongs.

[63] Sidney’s final discoveries about her mother occur in a sequence that imagistically returns the viewer to the maternal body. Her struggle with the killer in the paternal mansion takes her down secret passageways suggesting the birth canal, and she and Roman confront each other in a dark, womblike room. In naming Sidney’s brother “Roman,” Craven evokes Roman Polanski, the Polish migr director renowned for his masterful horror films (Rosemary’s Baby [1968]) but also for the scandals of his personal life, including the sensational murder of his wife by Charles Manson, and his flight from the country following charges that he raped a13-year-old aspiring starlet in circumstances similar to what we soon learn is Roman’s own backstory. The real villain and bearer of Polanski’s legacy, however, is not Roman, but John Milton, the powerful studio mogul and emblem of the patriarchal power Roman both exposes and aspires to possess. (His name alludes to the arch-patriarchal author of the17th century epic poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, suggesting Hollywood’s place as a purveyor of paradises and dreams, both false and real.) As a legendary director of horror films, Milton made millions of dollars on young women like Maureen only to destroy them. Sidney learns that he was renowned for hosting wild parties for powerful men and young women seeking careers in the movies. At one of those parties which Rena attended, “things got out of hand,” and Rena ended up leaving Hollywood for good. Other references to the casting couch add weight to the film’s critique of Hollywood’s sexual politics, which continue to the present. Carrie Fisher in a cameo role says her famous part of Princess Leia in the Star Wars films went to another actress who looked like her but agreed to have sex with director George Lucas, and the young woman playing Sidney in “Stab 3” bitterly acknowledges having had to sleep with Roman to get the part.

[64] By unmasking Milton as the real killer, Roman emerges at this point not so much as a monster but as the male victim of a cruel and exploitative gender system, an Orestes figure driven by the patriarchal order to commit the sin of matricide. The film portrays Sidney’s killing of her brother as yet another dimension of a fate that deepens her character, and the two clasp hands as he nears death. By linking his mother’s subsequent sexual behavior to the sins inflicted on her by a paternal figure who “gave away” her innocence, Roman demystifies the term “slut.” “She never got over it,” he says of her Hollywood experience. And so Hollywood is “about death” not only in the capacity of its flickering, ghostlike images to defy death, but in the costs of putting those images on the screen. As Milton said in trying to defend himself, Hollywood is “not the city for innocence.” While focused on Hollywood, however, the Scream trilogy points to the very essence of a culture in which women, from Monica Lewinsky to the sorority girls of Scream 2, see sexually servicing men as their most immediate access to power or even survival. When Sidney learns about her mother’s past, she also learns that they are connected not only biologically but through shared experiences of betrayal or violence against women.

[65] Rena Rowlands, however, is not only the victim Roman describes but a fighter like her daughter. “The bottom line is, Rena Reynolds wouldn’t play by the rules,” Milton says. Just as Sidney refused to follow the script of the classical horror film in Scream, her mother resisted the script for success in Hollywood. Moreover, Rena succeeded in rewriting her identity in order to create a new life for herself—one that represented success for a woman of her generation. By the end of the film—and the trilogy itself—Sidney has completed a horrific journey into her own past and put the ghost of her mother to rest. The knowledge she has gained of her mother’s history enables her to redeem her mother’s life and expose the systemic injustices that had brutalized her. As such, she moves from protagonist or film star to auteur or director of a new movie with a new script.


[66] The trilogy concludes in the pastoral setting of Sidney’s mountain retreat, where shots of Sidney walking alone in a setting bathed in golden light return the film to an Edenic beginning. Dewey and Gale are present, along with the golden retriever who was Sidney’s only companion at the beginning of the film. When Gale accepts an engagement ring from Dewey, the film reconstitutes the lost nuclear family, replacing the family of origin”with the repressed secrets and horrors implicit in the very structure of the nuclear family”with one that has battled openly and hard for its rewards. Sidney has conquered her demons of isolation, and leaves the door ajar signaling her openness to a new life. For director Craven, according to Kate E. Sullivan, the moral center of contemporary culture lies with girls, and in this trilogy Sidney has been assaulted on all sides not only by physical violence but by corruption and compromise. By locating Sidney’s most dangerous threat within her family and requiring her to commit fratricide to survive, the film dramatizes a devastating vision of female isolation and vulnerability. The trilogy suggests that female adolecence is a lonely place to be, especially for young women such as Sidney who are willing to confront the sexual politics of their world. The trilogy’s success in capturing that loneliness suggests one reason for its appeal to young female audiences. Sidney is a “Final Girl” who stands as a figure of identification for girls not boys, and in that way the trilogy stands firmly outside the tradition of horror Carol Clover documented.

[67] The ending of Scream 3, as with most Hollywood films, reasserts the ideological promise of the perfect, white, straight family, at home in a rural paradise. But the mise en scene renders the resolution surreal after the darkness and horror that have preceded it. In its generic context, the open door connotes not only Sidney’s new security and openness to life but the possibility that some new ghost can rise up again to cause yet another sequel. No happy endings are permanent, no closure guaranteed.

[69] Feminism is never mentioned in the Scream trilogy, but the films address head-on the issues of representation, power and sexuality that speak to Third Wave audiences. Like the Girl Power phenomenon, they operate in the realm of myth rather than rationality, acting out scenarios of female desire, pleasure and anger. The films abound in female characters who refuse to play by rules that would diminish them, from Maureen Prescott to Gale Weathers to Sidney. In Sidney, the trilogy provides a new model of femininity for Third Wave audiences: a girl who is active, who can protect herself through physical resources, who can claim power over her own sexuality, and express rather than repress her rage. This new girl hero knows her culture, from the legends underpinning its institutions to the popular culture and technology of her own generation, using the tools it offers as a means of rewriting old narratives that no longer serve her.

[70] Most important, the film’s model of a daughter’s struggle to come to terms with her mother is a suggestive one for contemporary feminism. In Hollywood, collective histories are always retold as personal stories, and the story of the missing mother might well be seen as the repressed history of the women’s movement itself and the injustices that brought it about. Sidney’s journey has forced her to face the historical realities of her mother’s life, when they erupted as horrors in her own. The trilogy suggests the necessity of facing history because the failure to do so threatens the security of the present, and the subtle erasure of historical consciousness is the surest way to take the teeth out of any liberation movement Without knowing and remembering the world of their mothers and grandmothers, young women remain vulnerable to having to fight old battles once again. The film teaches Sidney about the bonds that connect generations of women, but without sentimentalizing her acceptance of her mother and Gale. Instead it shows her growing in her own strength through her experiences with these figures of motherhood or displaced motherhood.

[71] At the same time, the films remind women of the Second Wave of the need to remain conversant with the culture of today’s young women. The Scream films are not unambiguous treatises on feminism and sexual politics. Like all popular culture texts, they are riddled with contradictions which account for their emotional power and appeal. These contradictions, however, also beg careful analysis based on an informed understanding of media culture and representation, of history, and of the issues that matter to young women today.

Acknowledgements: With thanks to Julia Lesage, Chuck Kleinhans, Karen Ford, Louise Bishop and James Earl for helpful comments; to Catherine Earl for introducing me to Scream; to Kate Sullivan for crucial help with the horror genre; and to Carol Siegel for her work on feminism and youth culture and her editorial advice.

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