Cult cinema is a genre both adored and misunderstood. Categorized by niche audiences and offbeat themes, it’s often difficult to fully define. Female characters, both as plot devices and as archetypes, have been vital to the success of cult cinema because they serve as cultural mirrors that were relevant at the time of the film—whether that’s reflective of a trend or, more commonly, a societal fear. Female cult characters tend to turn into the iconic, lasting personalities that make the genre timeless; so what makes them so compelling?
What Makes a Film “Cult”?
Cult film is a genre characterized by garnering a “cult following,” or a group of devoted viewers who appreciate and celebrate the quirkiness of these films. Films usually become “cult” due to their non-mainstream releases, which can usually be blamed on censorship from film studios or box office flopping. While many films achieve cult status by failing to attain commercial success, the most significant aspect of a cult film is its “enduring appeal to a relatively small audience,” meaning these films acquire a loyal fanbase over a number of years. For fans of cult films, obscurity is a good thing. We may think of cult films as having the “so-bad-it’s-good” effect. Despite their silliness, we can view this subgenre as a case study for gender in film as a whole, in how they treat the fictional women that carry their films.
To understand how gender politics have affected cult cinema in the past, we need to understand the audiences of cult films themselves. Cult movies have no target audience, because they can’t be made on purpose. They are developed through a systematic rejection by mainstream audiences and are then pushed to the fringe. There’s an inherent secrecy in cult film due to limited access and lack of advertising, especially because most cult films gain popularity through word of mouth. Is there a correlation between the fact that cult movies have a better track record for showcasing strong, multifaceted female characters and that cult film is notorious for performing poorly during mainstream releases? In other words, many cult films, whether satirized or celebrated, are produced in rebellion to the mainstream—so could it be that the general public doesn’t respond well to narratives about women in non-traditional roles? Why are these stories thrown to the wayside to become jokey and campy?
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show stands as the quintessential cult film—boasting the title of longest running theatrical release as it continues to be shown in midnight theatres and live productions to this day! What continues to draw audiences to Rocky Horror is the experience, which brings us to the idea of supply and demand. Rocky Horror has enduring appeal by being a complete subversion of traditional Hollywood, and it wouldn’t have the lasting power that it does if audiences weren’t craving these unique representations of gender performance. It serves as a satire of traditional sci-fi tropes that parodies the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s. The movie uses its main characters as symbols of the all-American couple corrupted by sex and raunchy musical numbers. The male lead, Brad Majors, is introduced as the strait-laced, dominant male figure that the audience may assume is the hero of the story. The female lead, Janet Weiss, is a modest and meek woman who faints at every crack of lightning. Together they are the caricatures of a 1950’s conservative couple. But, in a non-traditional twist, Janet embraces her newly liberated sexuality, while Brad remains fearful and resistant for the majority of the film. Rocky Horror pushed traditional boundaries by presenting the audience with a proper, white-bread couple, and then destroying them at the hands of a gender-fluid scientist in lingerie, Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Dr. Frank especially is used as a vehicle to blur the lines of gender expression in his clothing and performance. There’s even a classic “pan-up” shot that begins at his stilettos and travels all the way up his legs and chest, a camera angle usually reserved for the female eye-candy. This was obviously a subversion from the heteronormativity of the time period, and young audiences flocked to it.
Because the cult genre contains both the exploitation and liberation of its female characters - no differently than mainstream Hollywood does - the difference between these two subgroups is the way that cult audiences adopt exploitive films as satire rather than reality. By labeling a film “cult” when that film has attempted to portray something realistic or genuine, it’s a recognition that this attempt has failed and instead become an example of camp. Films centered around women often became popular in the cult genre for two reasons: for being such a misplaced representation of what womanhood really is that it becomes satirical, or for having a female character in an interesting, nontraditional role that would rarely be seen in mainstream Hollywood.
Consider Heathers, where audiences are treated to the iconic Veronica Sawyer and her friends, the Heathers, all of which have multidimensional character design and personalities. Many film critics consider Heathers to be one of the first portrayals of high school girls that gave them legitimate characterization rather than caricature. This is no coincidence of the time period. What made Veronica a compelling protagonist was her attitude toward popularity, something that other teen girl characters viewed as the unattainable goal they were always striving for. Veronica saw the social structure of high school for what it was from the inside and felt suffocated by it; she brought an honesty and a darkness to the shared trauma of girlhood. She didn’t have to be either interesting or popular, beautiful or smart, rebellious or kind; she was all of these things. Heathers broke the “vacuous/pretty/popular versus clever/in need of a makeover/unpopular mold”, and paved the way for realistic female characters both in the cult genre and in mainstream Hollywood – see Jawbreaker, Mean Girls, The Craft, etc. – making space in film culture for dialogues about women’s relationships with other women. Particularly in a high school setting, these stories of feminine toxicity were rarely brought to light, let alone in the serious, horrific tone that Heathers brings. The symbol of the red scrunchie being passed from the queen bee to her successor is just one motif that drives home this idea of a cyclical, inevitable competition of women - a cycle that is very difficult to break.
There can also be a subversion of traditional horror tropes in cult films like Carrie, a story about a girl who discovers her supernatural powers shortly after getting her first period, in a way that tells the audience that sexual repression can be incredibly destructive to others as well as the self. There is a natural connection here to feminine power after Carrie “becomes a woman” and retaliates against her bullies by harnessing what once made her ashamed. When film professor Shelley Stamp analyzes Carrie, she explains that “in many ways horror films bring to the fore issues that are otherwise unspoken in patriarchal culture – which itself constructs female sexuality as monstrous”. Carrie and Veronica Sawyer, though vastly different, both represent the same revenge fantasy for girls who don’t see themselves in the beautiful bubbly teens of the mainstream. Carrie is evocative of an underserved teen girl audience as well as the cultural fear of female puberty - taking the stigma around a menstruating woman and attaching it to the violent paranormal creates a strong cultural reflection even now.
Cult films are a way to both escape the clichés of mainstream film as well as mock them, including the clichés of gender. Cult classics are playfully ridiculous in their celebration of weirdness and quirk, yet they’re often relegated to the shadows and tossed aside. The goal in cult cinema, and film culture at large, is to create realism in its characters - which cult cinema has historically done better, by showing audiences realistic, multifaceted female characters, who were both reflective of culture and relatable in ways that mainstream teen girl characters were not. I invite you to give cult cinema a try, not only to enjoy the plots that are weird-for-weirdness-sake, but to see women portrayed as what Hollywood rarely lets them be: human.