Why female coming of age in horror movies means getting hungry.
While many got nauseous watching Raw, I got curious. After I sat with it a little bit, I realized three of my favorite horror films from the last two decades were cannibal coming of age films starring women. Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Raw all had the same fascination with cannibalism. Further, these films aren’t the only ones. Why are there so many teenage girls feasting on human flesh? Also, why do I love these three films in particular?
Like most navel-gazing, answering this was a journey that some internet searching and a lot of reading. Just like when it comes to true crime, there is no right answer only a bunch of opinions. So let’s start macro and get micro. In ethnographer and folklorist Arnold Van Gennep’s book “Rites of Passage” rites of passage have three stages: separation, liminality, and incorporation. Van Gennep defined the stages as “rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world postliminal rites.” What coming of age horror movies Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Raw have in common is that they demonstrate female cannibalism as part of a transition into womanhood and what that transition means in a patriarchal society.
Separation: Leaving Girldom
As Van Gennep put it, separation signifies a “detachment of the individual or group … from an earlier fixed point in the social structure.” In Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Raw separation occurs between the female cannibal and others. In the case of Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body, the separation is from a female relationship. Ginger Snaps revolves around the sibling relationship of timid Brigitte and the more aggressive Ginger. Jennifer’s Body is similar except that it revolves around a friendship between straightlaced Needy and the sexually assertive Jennifer. Meanwhile, Raw deals with reserved Justine’s parental and interpersonal separation.
Ginger Snaps embraces rituals of womanhood by connecting werewolfism and menstruation. (One has been tied to monthly cycles, mood shifts, and body-altering physical carnage, the other with wolves.) Ginger’s period starts the same day she is bitten. Following that bite, Ginger begins to bleed heavily, grow a tail, and gain a taste for human flesh. The two then go to every teen girl and immature dad’s embarrassment nightmare, the feminine hygiene aisle. In Jennifer’s Body, Jennifer’s transformation is also tied to menstruation. Needy notices that Jennifer complains of feeling “ugly” and having hair with less luster when she hasn’t consumed a boy. Further, Needy likens Jennifer’s hungry demon anger with PMS.
However, menstruation is not the only ritualistic separation from girlhood that Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps concern themselves with. Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body depict that subtle female-centric separation that occurs often when girls become women. Sexual awakenings don’t sync up like menstrual cycles sometimes one friend bounds above the rest. In the case of Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps, that divergence comes and helps create separation.
In Jennifer’s Body, it is a prioritization of male affection over personal relationships that lead to the trouble in addition to the jealousy that comes when both friends realize that patriarchal structures make women compete for men. Jennifer, played by Megan Fox, is the more promiscuous of her film’s duo. She takes more commanding charge of her body as a vehicle for her pleasure. She sees her body as a source of empowerment. Early on, she encourages the timid Needy to use her boobs to get what she wants and sexually dismisses men considered viable partners in favor of shady band members. Much to her detriment as her sexual empowerment and dishonesty get her killed and then possessed. Jennifer seems to be slightly punished for her aggression but given her kill list, it seems as though her voracious hunger can punish as well.
In Ginger Snaps, a separation between the sisters occurs when one prioritizes sexual and literal appetite over sisterhood. Ginger develops an insatiable hunger which she mistakes for sexual appetite stating “I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces.” It is Ginger’s mistaken belief that sexual longing is what she’s craving that causes tension between the two sisters during the film.
The outlier in this batch of boy-eating ladies is Raw which starts with the separation of Justine from her father and mother as they drop her off at veterinary school. She is then thrust into various rituals of initiation. Despite the fact that we know Justine’s sister, Alex, is meant to help her move in we don’t see her with her right away. Whereas Ginger has her sister immediately and Needy is depicted with Jennifer, Justine get’s a lot of solo screen separation early on. The preoccupation instead is that of the ritualistic hazing of Justine and her newbie classmates that takes place. She’s awoken in the middle of the night to have her room tossed, her bed thrown out the window, and made to party in her PJs. Raw‘s rituals are tactile and as visceral as its violence. Raw‘s focus on ritualism that is done to everyone makes Justine’s reaction sit in contrast. Everyone eats rabbit liver, but only Justine and her sister become cannibals. Everyone has sex, but only Justine wants to take more than a playful bite out of her partner. The idea that puberty is a singular and unprecedented experience unique to the teenager is a core source of teenage anxiety. Justine’s cannibalism is the classic, “my body is hideous and changing in a way no one else’s is” assertion pushed to its cannibalistic extreme. Tying Justine’s cannibalistic coming of age to ritual is a further way to highlight that her cannibalism is intrinsic to her womanhood, a point the film underlines clearly at its conclusion.
Thus, in these films, separation can be physical, mental, and ritualistic or some combination of all three.
Liminality: Embracing the Hunger
Liminality is no stranger to the horror monster. The failure of a monster to be easily defined is the secret sauce of the scare. Much discussion has been had about depictions of a woman as monster. Often, monstrosity is expressed as a metaphor for a sexual appetite. Female monsters are marked by either the grotesque or sexually viable. Female cannibals often straddle these categories. They are both an illustrious lure and brutish monster. This is expressed in their sexual appetite and proclivity for arousal. The girls of Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Raw, through being both girl and monster can consume men as men consume women.
Jennifer stands as the most obvious example of this. Her beauty allows her to have her pick of whomever she deems attractive and she wields this power to serve her. Sometimes it’s getting someone to let her copy their homework other times it’s to get free drinks. Even when it has failed her and results in her death, her rebirth is aided by sexual aggression. Had Jennifer been a virgin at the time of her sacrifice, like she claimed, she would have died by Devil’s Kettle not risen to eat the foolhardy sex-obsessed boys of her high school. Jennifer is comfortable with reversing and asserting her gaze even though it is ultimately to her detriment.
Ginger Snaps has a similar note, Ginger kills classmate Jason believing that her hunger is for sex, not flesh. She also expresses her outward aggression toward Brigitte and Brigitte’s friend Sam as the two try to cure her. Ginger and Jennifer are similar in that they both want sexual and actual autonomy. They want the freedom to express their sexuality and cannibalism. When their respective companions refuse that request, they are willing to separate from them by any means necessary.
In these films, it’s not just sex these women crave: it’s autonomy. Autonomy is a universal desire for teenagers in cinema. What cannibalism does in these films is connected sexuality, cannibalism, and risky behavior with autonomy and power. Justine’s sexual awakening coincides with her cannibalistic preoccupations but the focus of the film is more her reaction to that hunger. She never completely embraces it for fear that it could destroy her, a fact her sister proves at the conclusion of the film. This does not mean that Justine doesn’t begin to be sexually aggressive. She aggressively kisses numerous strangers and she has sex with her roommate. Justine’s cannibalistic awakening is not as sexually explosive as Jennifer and Ginger’s, it’s more quiet and slow. Justine’s sexual journey is one of slow discovery.
In these films, women are not consumed, they consume. In short, the separation serves in these films to make women realize that their body is different now. They realize that men can look lustfully at them but they too can also stare right back.
Incorporation: Being a Woman in A Man’s World
To be more accurate, this stage of maturity is characterized by reincorporation. The individual, after jumping through the necessary hoops into adulthood, becomes invited back into the next social group. In real life, gender and sexual appetite have long been governed by gender constructs. The medium of film is no different. Since that seminal work of Laura Mulvey, “The Male Gaze,” we have connected the act of gazing with sexual desire as a demonstration of power. The way a camera glides up and down the fragmented bodies of women is about power. Filmmakers sectioning women off to high ticket cuts like butts, boobs, and faces. If Harvey Weinstein reminded us of anything, it’s that Hollywood is a woman-as-meat-packing-factory.
Personally, what resonates with me about all these films is that the coming of age for young women in them involves the realization that you have autonomy but the patriarchal structures of the world will not always respect that autonomy. Coming of age is a realization of not just one’s self but of the system. Although, women can look there is no female power structure with which to support that gaze. Each film handles this realization differently.
In the case of Ginger Snaps, the reincorporation Ginger receives is that into the loving arms of her sister. After Ginger, in wolf form, is fatally stabbed. Her sister is injured as well. As Ginger lays dying, Brigitte lowers her head onto her dying chest. Despite Ginger’s transformation, Brigitte will always allow her to return to her side. In this way, Ginger Snaps envisions a world of female empowerment contingent upon the bonds of sisterhood is the only welcoming force in the face of liminal monstrosity. The scene is a commentary on the bonds of sisterhood not the structure of society. We don’t see whether Brigitte makes it. Nor do we see the fallout from the mess made by Ginger’s death. Just a small moment of two women meeting on the other side of girlhood.
Jennifer’s Body is similar in that the film ends on a personal note with Needy stabbing her demonized friend, Jennifer. During the tussle in Jennifer’s bed, Needy rips off the friendship necklace symbolic of their childhood connection. It’s a misdirection, Needy’s statement that “sandbox love never dies” is still true at the end. Needy ends the film by killing the rock band that murdered human Jennifer. While much has been said about the toxicity of Jennifer and Needy’s relationship, I would agree that it is a manipulative female friendship in the way that some female friendships are manipulative. It falls into that Absolutely Fabulous episode in which a character states that every female friendship has racehorse and a donkey. It’s a false dichotomy grounded in sexism. As much as Needy and Jennifer could have fought being incorporated into the larger toxic structure of the patriarchy, they never quite get to escape.
Raw has it’s own kind of reintegration only it’s tangentially engrained in sisterhood. Justine at the end of Raw is literally reincorporated into her own family unit. Her reincorporation comes after the murder and consumption of her roommate by her sister, Alex. Justine is shown washing the blood from her and her sister. We then see Justine visiting her sister in prison with her family. Finally, Justine’s dad lets it be known that the business of boy eating is a familial trait. Justine and Alex’s mother is also suffering from the same hunger as her daughters. Like original sin, it is a mark passed from mother to daughter.
For Raw, Justine’s sexual and cannibalistic appetite which is in line with the film’s larger commentary on how women relate to food in light of sexist beauty standards. I think of that bathroom scene after coughs up all that hair in the bathroom. When her fellow classmate tells her to, “use two fingers” to puke faster she looks so proud of herself. She beams as if the secret of womanhood is to suffer conformity efficiently. There is no perfect solution to Justine’s predicament. There is no roadmap to follow.
In these films, reincorporation is damn near impossible. Freedom has been tasted and it can never be forgotten.
The Other Side of Feasting
At the heart of these cannibalistic films are a group of girls in the process of becoming women. Womanhood is a challenge each character has to meet head-on. These characters never achieve pure actualization. They all suffer in some way for their liminality. I’m among the many that feel that salacious joy from seeing women driven horror where women don’t just receive violence they partake in violence. Further, I’ve always been more than happy when horror takes on societal issues in bold and inventive ways. It’s one of the reasons all these films appealed to me. They didn’t do things to undermine their female characters, they grounded themselves in their female characters.