Virgin/White/Female = Survivor: A Lesson in White Privilege

By BJ Colangelo (@bjcolangelo)

Admittedly, this is a really difficult article to write. I’m a white girl in America.  As far as my life is concerned, I hit the genetic lottery. The only way my life could be any easier is if I was a guy, but that’s an entirely different argument.  I can see girls like me represented in all forms of horror media in complex and unique ways.  I’ve seen girls like me played as villains, as final girls, as the words of wisdom, as a sympathetic symbol, and as a sex symbol.  You name it; a white brunette girl has played it.  This is a privilege that does not carry over for women of color, namely, for black women.

Horror films usually get a bad rap from the more “prestigious” genres as being predictable, formulaic, and lowbrow.  To quote Sidney Prescott in Scream, “What's the point? They're all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It's insulting.”  Insulting, eh? Well, my fellow pale faced sister…I think you need to do a little thing called “checking your privilege.”

When we think of the final girl in a horror film, we all know the rules.  We’ve got ourselves the virgin girl out of her group of friends, a majority of the time she’s brunette in comparison to the “dumb slutty blonde” friend, and she’s usually more interested in being the smart-girl over being the pretty girl.  However, when we think of the final girl, do we ever once question the color of her skin? No.

That, my friends, is white privilege. 

White privilege is never having to question whether or not someone that “looks like us” will survive the horror movie.  White privilege is knowing that the people who look like us will be archetypes and not token.  White privilege is knowing that at the end of the day 99.99% of the people we see represented in horror films will be someone we can identify with.  They say art imitates life, so what does it mean when society is constantly being bombarded with “the black guy dies first” and “the white girl” survives and “the sassy black girl is here for comedic relief” in their horror movies? This so-called fictional interpretation of life is looking a lot more horrifically real by the second.

First off, we need to look at what it means to be an archetype and what it means to be a token character.  An archetype is defined as “a very typical example of a certain person or thing.”  Think of it like being a stock character.  The “dumb blonde,” the “final girl,” “the jock.”  These descriptions are archetypes.  We see these conventional types of characters frequently because it’s a quick way for the audience to identify and understand where this character falls in the status hierarchy of the film.  A token character is defined as “done for the sake of appearances or as a symbolic gesture.”  This means that the character is plugged into the mix out of obligation.  In horror movies, white people have never been token. We’ve been archetypal, yes, but we have never, ever been token.  Our existence has never been obligatory in the sense of horror movies and we’ve never been thrown in last minute to add some hilarious one-liners just because.

Look at a film like Thir13en Ghosts; a predominately white cast with the exception of rapper Rah Digga’s performance as Maggie.  Although Maggie does not die in this film, it would appear that her only purpose is to provide “sassy black woman” commentary, and just about all of her lines are used for comedic relief.  Not to mention, Maggie is the nanny for a rich white family.  The only other black character in that movie is a ghost called “The Hammer” and he’s a blacksmith with an origin story that he was wrongfully accused of theft.  A nanny and a thief…really? 

Or we can look at a film like Freddy vs. Jason.  Kelly Rowland plays the only female black character (hell, she’s the only black character) and what is her purpose? Sassily taunting Freddy Krueger.  In Scream 2, we see Jada Pinkett-Smith in a movie theatre where she screams at the blonde chick on the screen to “hang up the phone and star-69 his ass!”  This is obviously a jab at the stereotypical black-woman-yelling-at-a-movie character and this scene was played for laughs.  Are we sensing a pattern here?  Even in a predominately black horror movie like Candyman, Bernadette’s intelligence makes her the comedic relief sidekick and the baby-saving heroine of the film is a white woman.  They put a horror movie in 1990s CABRINI-GREEN CHICAGO and the heroine is STILL a white woman.

However, there is a silver lining to all of this. As Joshua Alston wrote in his incredible article “First To Die: Evil Dead and Blackness in Horror,” despite all of this inherent racism on screen, black people are still some of the biggest fans of horror. “For black folks, the police blotter from an average July day in Chicago is a horror movie. EVIL DEAD is just a fun night out, gorging on popcorn, yelling at the screen and wondering why these white folks will never learn,” he states.

This brings me back to the previous point made about life imitating art.  With statistics of black men dying in America at epidemic rates and the news outlets skewing missing persons cases towards white girls, it’s becoming more and more obvious that horror films are merely reflecting the social norms of American society.  We are valuing the lives of white girls over just about any other group in the country, and this mindset is reflected in our horror films.  In real life, black men are being shot simply for existing and horror films reflect that by killing off black men at the beginning of the flick.  It’s almost as if films are trying to meet their racial quota by putting a person of color on the bill, and killing them off just to get them out of the way so they can focus on the white story.

So, Sidney Prescott, you find horror films portrayal of white girls insulting?  Until the day your existence in a horror film is simply to fill a quota or placed out of an obligatory desire only to be killed so a film can focus on “other” stories, you have no place to feel insulted.

BJ Colangelo is a contributing writer for Icons of Fright and the creator of Day of the Woman: A blog for the feminine side of fear. She’s also an actress, screenwriter, film theorist, plus-size model, and dessert flavored vodka connoisseur (@bjcolangelo)

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