In her seminal essay “The Heroine’s Journey”, writer Maureen Murdock explains that “the feminine journey is about going down deep into soul, healing and reclaiming, while the masculine journey is up and out, to spirit.” This certainly holds true in modern cinema; with only 40% of films released in 2019 featuring female leads. Of these, 26% were horror films, which is a genre that thrives upon the ventures “down deep” to what lies below the surface. Often, female characters act as vessels, showing release (outright terror, crying, screaming etc.) as a consequence of the actions of men. By doing so, female characters transform the world portrayed on screen; they turn it to a place to go “down deep” into, as opposed to the masculine “up and out”, a place that provides adventure. In the feminine “down deep”, monsters become something to be genuinely feared as opposed to defeated, the body becomes unknown, and there is always some form of descent into the uncanny as the female lead unleashes or discovers something within which she previously had not recognized.
Female journeys are not uncharted territory in cinematic and digital worlds. Though not as commonly known as the well-worn and somewhat cliched male versions (the hero’s journey – think Luke Skywalker et al.), their basic iconography is noticeable even from a distance; the heroine is nearly always a strong, independent woman, who doesn’t need a man (though is chased by them regardless) and at some point or another she will nearly always cut her hair, as both a commitment to her cause and a subtle dissent from the patriarchy and the male gaze (as in Mulan (1998) and Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne (2014)). The female’ journey often presents itself in ‘chick-flicks’, or female-marketed films. Rarely can the hero and heroine’s journeys co-exist, often because the hero’s will always trump the heroine’s; the hero’s weight is too much for both to bear, and so the heroine becomes subsumed under the hero’s quest for wholeness.
Ideally, both the hero and heroine could co-exist within the heroine’s journey, but rarely does this occur. The question of what the ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ exists and presents as is entirely dependent on the cinematic genre they operate in; for the purposes of this essay, the feminine in both Twilight and Midsommar exists as over-emotional and unstable, where the masculine is the idealised form to which the heroines aspire to become. Murdock’s heroine’s journey consists of eight basic “beats” that the story must hit, but the essentials occur as so: there is an internal shift from feminine to masculine, identification of or with the masculine, yearning for a reconnect with the feminine, and eventual reconciliation with the masculine. Essentially, the female must disconnect with her feminine side and embrace masculine ideals, before eventually reaching a parity in which she embraces both the masculine and feminine within her. However, this mode of narrative has been appropriated by film culture and ultimately expresses itself as a repression of the female altogether in favour for the “masculine”, and even then it does not exist solely as the masculine – it is haunted by her inherent femininity, and so becomes lesser than male masculinity. The female ultimately becomes a caricature of tropes such as the “strong independent woman”, “the manic pixie dream girl” or perhaps the most dreaded “the Mary Sue”.
Examining the Twilight Saga (2008-2012) and Midsommar (2019) under this scope might not seem axiomatic at first; Twilight is emblematic of female-orientated young adult fiction, and Midsommar has become a hallmark of the emergent ‘horror renaissance’ which often places women at the forefront (for example Hereditary (2018), The Witch (2015), and Raw (2016)). They both operate at different ends of the spectrum: where Twilight is considered mere entertainment, Midsommar is considered art. And yet, they both share similar trans-medial spaces: both films focus on the desire and journey towards a ‘female’ space in a ‘masculine’ place. Both films represent gender from an interesting multitude of angles: both focus on a toxic romantic relationship between the two leads of the opposite sex – Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart) in Twilight) and (Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) in Midsommar – whilst introducing something of a love triangle which places the woman at the crux, and both women transition into something decidedly different to how they began the film in an attempt to reconcile the masculine and feminine, which ultimately becomes a sacrifice of the feminine for the masculine.
In a geography dominated by men, male desire and gazes, the search the heroines undergo for the female space is the desire for the ability to exist within the male geography as a female, and to do so comfortably. Both Twilight and Midsommar set their scenes as being one of certain ‘unhomeliness’, i.e. displacement. Where Bella is transported to the “unknown” Forks, and struggles to connect with her father and her peers, Dani is struck with grief after her family is killed. Both female leads are immediately introduced to a guide to navigate their new environment, which is often a submergence into the uncanny and surreal – in Twilight’s case it is Edward and in Midsommar it is Pelle, who guides and ultimately encourages Dani’s participation with the Harga to the point of sacrifice. In both situations the men are able to identify with the defining ‘female’ aspects of Bella and Dani’s experience: Bella’s feeling of displacement within Forks and, as is later explained, her feeling of being “human” at all, and Dani’s overwhelming emotionality; still reeling with grief from her family’s annihilation, she is quick to cry and become upset. Edward identifies this displacement in Bella, and shares his feelings as a result of his own inhumanity due to his vampirism, and Pelle shares his own grief and similar family story with Dani, and shows her that the Harga can become a surrogate family for the one she has lost. In the same way that Bella can gain vampirism as a surrogate for the ‘at home-ness’ she never experienced while living as a human, Pelle offers the Harga to Dani as a way for her to remain in a family unit.
The transition to vampire and May Queen hold similar weight in the socio-cultural geography in which they are placed: both films focus heavily on folktale and myth, in both there is a degree of inevitability to the transformation that occurs, and it is seen as being necessary so that the elevated supernatural (‘masculine’) world can remain untouched by human (‘feminine’) interference. The mystical worlds to which Bella, and to a lesser extent, Dani, aspire to join are inherently coded as being masculine: Edward is the gatekeeper into the vampiric realm which Bella is desperate to join, and it was Pelle who chose Dani and her friends to join him for Midsommar, and who explains and translates the Hårga to her. They also both take on cultural myth, especially surrounding romantic relationships: in Twilight this reaches its apex with the ideal and often reiterated “big white wedding”, with all the other hallmarks of Western teen romanticism (prom and graduation). In Midsommar, this culminates with Dani burning Christian as a ritual sacrifice – noted by Aster as a homage to the ‘burning a box of your ex’s things’ popularised in the late 20th to 21st century (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friends and Clueless are amongst the more famous propagators).
Although both of these men are masked seemingly in the ‘feminine’ (a heightened ability to feel complex emotions that render other men in the cinematic worlds useless), that is all it is: a mask. They use it as a trojan horse to lure the female leads into what is and always has been a ‘masculine’ place. The mask they wear facilitates the disconnect with the ‘feminine’ as it transposed onto them and their male bodies, but the reconciliation and equal nature can only occur if the woman swears loyalty to the men and their place – resulting in a permanent transformation.
As with anything, there is always some degree of overlap between the masculine and feminine; none more so than in film. Though concepts surrounding the gender binary are in a state of near constant discussion and change, it is still viable to examine how masculinity and femininity are represented when they do feature heavily in any form of art. For the most part, ‘female’ spaces exist solely in, or are at the very least are heavily influenced by, ‘male’ places. It is seemingly inescapable; if not for male characters, then for the ever-present male gaze and patriarchal structures that tinge nearly every aspect of female life. In the end, the only way for women to survive this space is to adapt, ending their stories drastically changed to how they began.