Monday, July 20, 2009

Ginger Snaps: Women Who Run With The Wolves*

"Something's wrong with you. I mean, more than you being just female."

So: when I was young, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, my favorite thing to do was to get my lady friends together for an overnight party and watch three or four horror movies in a row.

I could never watch horror movies alone - it was too boring - but I loved watching them with other girls. We'd scream at all the same moments; we'd talk about which scenes were the most fucked-up; we'd try to outdo each other with the movies that we chose. There was something about the act of watching and enjoying the movies that felt transgressive. Even though horror movies have always been aimed at teenagers, we felt that we were seeing something forbidden, something that offered us a knowledge of the world that we weren't supposed to have.

Then I grew up, and actually experienced some of the world. After that, I didn't watch horror movies any more.

I am telling you this for a reason, as it turns out! I am telling you this because it is, I have learned, impossible for me to be totally objective about Ginger Snaps. It is made, I think, specifically for women who used to be awkward teenage horror fans, and have ingested a substantial amount of feminist theory since then. When something caters so specifically to your experiences and your concerns, it is hard to tell whether it is any good. Then again, I realize, dudes must feel this way all the time!

So: a bit about the movie. It is about two sisters, Brigitte and Ginger. When we meet them, they are in that awful teenage sex-and-death place - a place it was probably particularly easy to access in the '90s, but which has been around as long as there have been teenagers ("Leader of the Pack") and will be around as long as there are teenagers in the world (um, BrokeNCYDE? For some reason). Ginger likes to play with knives and stage gory fake suicides for art projects; Brigitte, who is younger, goes along with it. Ginger plans to commit suicide (it's "the ultimate fuck you," she says) by the age of sixteen if she hasn't managed to escape the suburbs; Brigitte goes along with that, too. They wear mall-Goth clothes and enjoy thinking up elaborate, violent death scenes for popular girls. You know the drill.

Brigitte and Ginger, like lots of teens, are into death because they think that makes them special. It seems like a way of being above-it-all, naughty, sophisticated, knowing. People are scared of it, so they pretend not to be; people don't talk about it, so they do. It's a mode of behavior particularly favored by those who haven't fucked yet: all that fascination and fear of the body and its messy potentialities can be channeled into something that conveniently allows you to avoid thinking or even talking about sex.

Brigitte and Ginger are fifteen and sixteen, and neither one has ever had a period.

Ginger gets it first. ("You kill yourself to be different, and your own body betrays you.") She gets it, unfortunately, on the very same night that she is attacked by a werewolf. Brigitte manages to beat the thing off of her, so she lives; however, when she gets home, both she and Brigitte are forced to confront some unpleasant facts about Ginger's Changing Body.

One of the major strengths of the film - which a lot of people have commented on - is how it manages to portray incipient werewolf status as, more or less, identical to puberty. Ginger's razors are filled with an ungodly amount of hair; she's withdrawn and moody; she can lapse into unhinged, frightening rage at any time and for no reason, and she seems particularly testy about people who impinge on her bathroom time. Brigitte and Ginger seem just as freaked out about the fact that Ginger is bleeding out of her crotch as they do about the fact that she's slowly becoming a serial killer; a scene in which they discover that tufts of hair are growing out of the claw marks on Ginger's chest is interrupted when Brigitte notices that she's dripping onto the floor.

Yet it's easy, most of this - maybe too easy: a scene in which they visit the nurse to ask whether "hair that wasn't there before" is normal is particularly broad, and not very smart. These girls must have had to sit through a sex ed class, or at least a talk from their mother. And it quickly moves into very problematic territory, when we learn that becoming a werewolf also means wanting to have sex.

Yes, Ginger starts making out with boys: publicly, and enthusiastically, and ferociously. She also starts dressing in a way that makes boys want to make out with her (although she still looks unappetizingly mall-goth, if you ask me; the layered necklaces are a particularly icky touch). This is when we learn that Ginger is evil. This is when Brigitte becomes the movie's hero.

When I say that I don't like Brigitte as the focus of the movie, this doesn't mean that I don't like Brigitte. She's one of the better female leads I've ever seen - and also one the least conventional. Most "ugly," "awkward" girls in movies are neither ugly nor awkward: Brigitte has a wonky nose, and doesn't pluck her eyebrows, and her hair is always in her face, and she has trouble making eye contact, making her one of the more realistic girl geeks in memory, even though she hugely overplays the geekiness in the early scenes. You also get the sense that, although she is always - and willingly - overshadowed by Ginger, she'll make a better grown-up than Ginger could. She's smart, and practical, and she has a strength of will - a coping ability - that Ginger lacks.

Girls like Ginger flame out early: they want the world to change for them, and when it doesn't they're sometimes destroyed. They give up, whether "giving up" means doing too many drugs or joining a sorority. Girls like Brigitte change to fit the world, because they have to, because everyone has to, but they manage to keep themselves more or less intact. Watching Brigitte come out of her shell, and out of Ginger's shadow, is one of the most moving parts of the film.

Still, Brigitte, although wonderful in many ways, is more or less defined by her fear of being a woman: her fear of femininity, of sex, of just plain growing up. She keeps herself wrapped up in bulky clothes, pushes away a guy who is clearly interested in her, and always, always, always talks about sex or puberty or other, girlier girls with queasy, angry distaste. At a certain point, you realize that she lets her hair cover her face, not because she doesn't know better, but because it's a statement - a way of telling the world that she's not going to let it in. And while I'm totally thrilled that there's a movie out there which doesn't oversimplify this kind of girl or turn her into a punchline or give her a miraculous makeover that leads to true love, I feel that the movie elevates Brigitte at Ginger's expense. And Ginger deserves your affection.

Because Ginger is rage, pure rage, a kind of rage you rarely see in the movies: the rage of being female. Here is this thing that's happening to her body, this process she has no control over; here is this hunger of hers that nobody understands, and that makes people hate her, even though boys are lining up to feed it. There's a scene in a car, where she's making out with a boy, and he gets overwhelmed and tries to slow her down. "Who's the guy here?" he says. She cocks her head back, snarls the line back at him ("who's the fucking guy here?") and, basically, mauls him. The movie slips up in its characterization of Ginger, and eventually just makes her into a standard-issue Crazy Slut, but here's the thing: Crazy Sluts don't normally get scenes like this. It's a good scene. I wish there were more like them in this movie.

I'm talking mostly about characters, because it's mostly a movie about characters. For a horror movie, it's not very scary: it gets a little bloodier and faster in the final act, but even then it's not exactly visceral. It's also, unfortunately, not very good at handling characters who aren't Ginger and Brigitte. Her parents are cartoons; the other kids at school are high-school-movie cliches. (The Popular Girl is very mean! The Jock is very gross and sexist! The Rebel is unexpectedly sensitive; also, sexy!) This is exacerbated by the fact that, although Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle are pretty good actors (Isabelle, as Ginger, has some terrific comic timing), nobody else in the movie can act in the slightest, including the film's only recognizable actor, Mimi Rogers. (Yeah, I said it. And what, Mimi Rogers? I ask you: and what?) One boy werewolf, who shows up in the middle of the movie, is notable mostly because the actor made the, um, distinctive choice to portray him as a sort of coked-up, sleazy Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

And yet, and yet: even though Ginger Snaps is too willfully "indie" and quirked-up to be a real horror movie, and too trashy and steeped in horror conventions to be a real indie movie, it may be worth it, just for the relationship between the girls.

Relationships between teenage girls (and teenage girls' relationships with themselves) are hard to pin down or portray accurately and honestly, because they are - how to phrase this tastefully? - totally fucking insane. Those girls I watched horror movies with: I was closer to them than I ever have been, or probably ever will be, with any other friends. I was closer to them than I have been to most of my boyfriends. There's a weird, overwhelming, mind-meld effect that takes place sometimes between girls: you live in each other and through each other, always trying to figure out how you are the same and how you are different, and loving both the differences and the sameness. Then comes sex, and The Patriarchy, to fuck everything up. Suddenly, you're in competition with each other. If another girl is prettier than you, skinnier than you, more popular with boys, then she's worth more. Everyone says so. And how can you love someone when you have to hope she doesn't succeed - when her success makes you worth less?

But you love each other! But you hate each other! But you love each other! So you go ahead, doing both. The scenes of Brigitte and Ginger fighting - Ginger's a monster! No, Brigitte's just jealous! - are the best in the movie, primarily because we've seen how close they used to be, and we want them to be that close again. For that reason, it's disappointing when the movie succumbs to horror conventions and makes Brigitte into Ginger's nemesis. One of their final moments of bonding is also one of the goriest moments: the scene in which Ginger tests Brigitte by inviting her to drink a boy's blood. What she's asking for is solidarity - something all of the women in the movie, at one point or another, say they want - and a world where the girls can be together, and the same, and boys will only be relevant insofar as the girls need them for one reason or another.

Brigitte can't do it. No-one can blame her. Entering a werewolf separatist commune is not exactly a healthy lifestyle choice. But there's a showdown. And it's not scary so much as it is terribly sad.

I've been running the movie's final scene through my head for a few days now - trying to figure out if it's right, or fair, or if it matches up with what the movie seems to want to say. The more I think about it, the better I think it is. Ginger gets her wish: she gets to be different. She gets to tear the town apart and leave it behind. Brigitte, on the other hand, will have to grow up.

* I had to do it! I HAD TO. It was A COMPULSION.


  1. This is a marvelous review, even with what may well be spoilers, of a movie I will probably never see. So thanks.

    I want to note, though, that about midway through, "Brigitte" becomes "Bridget."

  2. Still probably my all-time favorite werewolf movie. And not just because I love the special effects used for the werewolf in the end -- it's NOT a confused-looking dog and it's NOT the actress wearing Lon Chaney-esque crepe hair and fangs. (The werewolf also had, er, very obvious mammaries, which I found appropriate if a little distracting.)

    I agree that the relationship between the two sisters was a major saving grace for the film, though.

  3. Also amazing? Ginger Snaps 2. We get to see Brigitte handling her lycanthropy along with some other alternately hilarious and tragic reactions by society to her.

    Granted if what you really loved about Ginger Snaps was the sisterly bond....not quite as present in the second film. And completely creepy in the third.

    Still, as a horror aficionado, I have to say the Ginger Snaps trilogy is one of the best representations of werewolves. Ever. That it caters to our tastes is irrelevant! Think about the other werewolf movies out there.

    American Werewolf in London? Oh yes because it is so challenging to be an American in a scary foreign country where every single person speaks the same language. Woe!

    Underworld? Ah yes, let's dissect racism by having your minority standins be raging dirty hairy beasts that can't control themselves. Because that's not racist.

    Etc. Etc. Ginger Snaps is the only werewolf movie I can think of that manages to use the lycanthropy to represent something else....without totally missing the point about the something else.

  4. Now I'm curious to see this movie. Never heard of it before.
    One line from your review that stood out for me: Brigitte is defined by her fear of growing up, as evidenced by the fact that she pushes away a guy who is interested in her ? Saying something like that is totally unlike you, Sady, so I'm guessing that it would be clearer if I'd watched the movie. Is it that she pushes away a guy who she's interested in? Cause obviously not accepting the advances of every random dude who expresses an interest =/= being afraid of sex or afraid of growing up.

  5. @Everybody: Yeah, you're right, it totally was not "I Was A Teenage Werewolf," or something. The transformation scene was really good! Especially given the low budget!

    @Jess: You're right, that line came across all wrong. Obviously, you don't have to be into every single dude who likes you. But you really get the sense, watching the movie, that she likes him, but can't quite get past her own awkwardness or social fears enough to act on that. And I get the sense that part of it is that she can't quite believe he's interested in her, and part of it is that she's freaked out. It's played as an attraction that keeps getting thwarted by the awkwardness of one or the other of the people involved. At least, that's what I saw.

    Because I REALLY don't want this to be a movie where one girl is sexual, and is therefore evil, and the other girl is not sexual, and therefore good. I think that if you read it as Brigitte being jealous of Ginger, but also freaked out by her, it's a much more interesting and realistic dynamic.

  6. Looking forward to new comments system with fancy new blog-home, so I can post as Orlando instead of Confused Anonymous Luddite. BUT, in the meantime:
    Re. your description of the relationship between girls during adolescence: have you seen Heavenly Creatures? You must see Heavenly Creatures. The delicious Kate Winslet's first movie; I couldn't believe that a male director (Peter Jackson, of all people) could capture the weird/intense/crucial nature of teenage girls' bond like that. Everything they end up doing is believable, because you see the world and each other through their eyes.

  7. I loved this movie. LOVED. It was filmed not too far from where I was living when it came out. LOVE.

    I haven't seen the sequels. I've been a bit scared to. WHAT IF THEY ARE NOT AWESOME?

    I actually loved the mom in this movie, just because she *felt* like how I felt my mom was when I was a teen. Totally oblivious to REALLY IMPORTANT (all caps) stuff going on in my life, but when push came to shove, my mom would have blown everyone up to save me, and I knew it.

  8. One of the reasons Ginger Snaps seems a little bit rough-hewn is that it was filmed for approximately $150 in the environs of Toronto (Brampton, Mississauga, around there). The area is not especially known for filmmaking resources. However, if you liked this, you might enjoy Jesus Christ, Vampire Killer, filmed mostly in Ottawa proper.

  9. @Orlando, AKA Anonymous Internet Person: OH. My God. I love "Heavenly Creatures." I watched it for the first time around the time when I was having my biggest and most dramatic and final falling out with my best friend from high school, and I cried really, really hard. Which is odd, given that the girls actually beat someone's head in at one point. But, they do it so as not to be separated! And then they are separated! FOREVER! It is so sad! And, yes, it does get to the crazy intensity of some of those friendships, which is a major part of why I love it so.

    Oh, and also KATE WINSLET.

    @Anna: Yeah, I felt bad about dissing the mom, because I got where they were going with the subjectivity thing. She felt a lot like my mom felt around that time, with the intense positivity and chirpiness and Oh My God You Are Now A Woman Here Is A Strawberry Cake For Your Period. And the scene where she's like, "oh, they'll just blame me for all the werewolf killings anyway because I didn't raise you right, let's blow up the house and move on" was great. I actually ended up debating this with my gentleman friend, who watched the movie with me: I thought they were trying to show the world as the girls saw it, and he thought it was cheap and pander-y to do that: inviting audience identification with the girls by not giving anyone else a legitimate and different perspective. But, you know, that is kind of a part of being that particular variety of teenage girl: everyone else is a loser! Because they JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND.