By: Anoushka Varma
Abstract: The objective of this article is to identify and elaborate on the cultural anxieties that are coded in two feminist cult classic movies; Jennifer’s Body and Bulbbul.
Horror cinema reflects and reproduces anxieties that inherently lurk under our society’s collective cultural consciousness. More often than not, the monsters in horror cinema are metaphors for what haunts our society. Bulbbul and Jennifer’s Body give an insight into the cultural anxieties that were long brewing in India and the United States, respectively when they were released. The objective of this article is to identify and elaborate on the anxieties that are coded in these movies and understand how these movies aptly juxtapose these cultural anxieties against their ‘monster’, which is a Chudail and a Succubus (demon) respectively.
Bulbbul is a 2020 Bollywood film directed by Anvita Dutt and produced by Anushka Sharma. The movie is set in the late nineteenth-century Bengal Presidency and focuses on a family of Thakurs with a ‘chudail’ running ‘havoc’ by killing men in the backdrop. The chudail, mythically, is said to be an ‘impure’ demonic revenant of a woman who died due to pregnancy, during childbirth, or at the hands of her family in her marital home. She exists mainly in folklore and mythical legends in the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The chudail is an extremely antagonized demon in South Asian legends. She is said to particularly target men and is claimed to be a monster that is hungry for revenge, vengeance, and bloodlust. The characteristic feature of a chudail is her backwards-facing feet.
Bulbbul as a horror movie reflects the anxieties of the patriarchy and the patriarchs of an Indian household (especially of an upper caste, upper-class household) about controlling ‘their’ women (along with their sexuality and purity) and ensuring the maintenance of the familial hierarchies within the ‘ideal’ Hindu family. Although the movie is set in 1881, the overarching themes of the movie and the cultural anxieties behind it are more or less relevant in the contemporary time period as well. With the rise of Hindutva post-2014, the need to reorganize the ‘Westernized’ Hindu family along the line of Brahminical patriarchy has become massive political anxiety and is, hence, a jingoistic national and cultural mission as well. The movie showcases how benevolent patriarchy turns dangerous for women when they don’t conform to the roles that have been set up for them. Bulbbul’s disgrace from being the doted wife to the ‘vicious’ chudail happens when her (much older) husband, who is the patriarch of the family and the flagbearer of toxic masculinity, falls under the assumption that Bulbbul might be romantically (and hence, sexually) involved with Satya, her brother-in-law. This anxiety over the need to regulate a woman’s sexuality emerges from the need to keep the woman’s womb completely pure and untainted by other men (for the bloodline of the family to be ‘uncorrupted’) and remains prevalent even in 2020. This anxiety has led to the popularity of concepts like Love Jihad, which are fundamentally patriarchal and strive to control the sexuality of Hindu women.
However, the burden of this assumption falls entirely on Bulbbul who is subsequently beaten to the point of death and then brutally raped while Satya manages to remain unscratched. This sheds light on the culture of impunity that men have. Through Satya, we see how seemingly nice, ‘woke’ and progressive men have the same patriarchal anxieties. Such patriarchal cultural anxieties manifest into reality either by violence or by the creation of the dichotomy between the ‘good woman’ and the ‘promiscuous woman’ (the Bhartiya sanskari naari vs. the Modern Indian woman and the Chudail vs. the Devi which features in the film as well), which is a task that Satya undertakes. The idea of the promiscuous woman (someone who seduces and sleeps with men and then takes advantage of them) has only gained notoriety amongst men after the #MeToo movement (late 2018). Men in India and around the world, who have historically enjoyed immunity for their actions due to the culture of silence that women are subjected to, started getting anxious as tales of sexual violence erupted everywhere. These anxieties lead to the villainization and branding of sexual assault victims (and other victims of the patriarchy) as ‘promiscuous women’ (as opposed to the ‘good women’) who seduced and took advantage of the ‘helpless’ men.
Satya and Binodini’s character also reveals the deep-seated anxiety of the need to reinforce the hierarchies of patriarchal power in the family and to ensure the fact that the household has a man as its head and women are limited to the domestic sphere. Through their subtle jabs at Bulbbul (‘Thakur-Thakur khel rahi hai, Bhabhi?’, ‘Thakurian hai aap, Thakur nhi’), Satya and his fragile masculine ego act as a reflection of how the contemporary society struggles with the idea of women (who are increasingly leaving behind traditional roles) leading successful careers and not being limited to the domestic sphere. There is also a need to regulate the behaviour and mundane life of women, especially if she doesn’t conform to the patriarchal norms that are laid down for her, which we see perpetuating through the garb of customs and traditions, which in Bulbbul is depicted through the idea of the bichiya or the toe ring. Not only are these traditions prevalent in the 21st century, but the anxieties about the need to regulate woman’s clothing, behaviour, company, etc. are also only heightened since women have more independence than they did in the past. Women becoming independent and standing up to their abusers leads to cultural anxiety as it would mean the collapse of the Indian family structure as the institution of marriage is an extremely patriarchal institution since often, the abuser and the ‘protector’ are the same. This unease is a clear reflection of the anxieties that are present in contemporary Indian society about conversations about marital rape.
Jennifer’s Body is a 2009 Hollywood movie written by Diablo Cody, directed by Karyn Kusama, and starring Amanda Seyfried and the unwilling sex symbol of the mid and late 2000s, Megan Fox. The movie explores the relations between two best friends and is set in a small town where after a local tragedy, young men wound up dead. The demon in the movie which Jennifer transforms into after her botched sacrifice and wreaks ‘havoc’ is a succubus. The origins of the succubus are in Jewish folklore and traditions and the succubus is described to be a demon in a female form that preys on young men by appearing in their dreams and seducing them. The succubus is a Lilin demon (Lilin demons are children of Lilith, the first wife of Adam who was later demonized and turned into a succubus when she refused to comply with Adam exercising dominance over her) and is notorious for being bloodthirsty, evil and malicious. Jennifer’s Body, although first dismissed as a trashy sexploitative movie when it came out, gained a cult following after the emergence of the #MeToo movement in 2018 for accurately representing the flaws of patriarchy and American society along with depicting the cultural anxieties that plague the United States (and pretty much all other patriarchal societies).
The movie draws into cultural anxieties by emphasizing the binary of the ‘good’ woman and the ‘bad, promiscuous’ woman. This binary is heavily featured in horror movies and Jennifer’s Body, too, plays into this by typecasting Needy as the chaste, innocent, ‘pure’ girl (until she loses her virginity and starts becoming ‘edgier’) and Jennifer as the bossy, seductive debauched girl. This reflects the cultural anxieties of a woman having complete agency over her sexuality and regulating her desires. Jennifer’s ‘debauched’ behaviour is a cause for anxiety for American society as she doesn’t conform to society’s Christian ideals of morality and uses her sexuality (despite being sexualized and objectified by the same society, just like Megan Fox was) to her advantage. However, the lines of this binary blur in the overtly feminist movie by showing Needy’s transformation from being the ‘good’ girl to the ‘bad’ girl, hinting towards cultural anxieties that emerged post the #MeToo movement. These anxieties point towards the underlying misogyny of society which warns men to be ‘cautious’ of all women (and not just of bad women) as their culture of impunity is in a state of danger.
The movie also explores the underlying anxieties that society and men have about women becoming independent and refusing to act as supporting characters in a man’s road to success. The indie Satanic band Low Shoulder by sacrificing Jennifer as a means to achieve success showcases how men have stepped on the backs of women to further their lives and careers. The movie emphasizes how for the tiniest potential of gaining power, men will go so far as to sacrifice women, who are, of course, expected to simply take it and be okay with it. But Jennifer coming back as a demon reflects women’s refusal to conform to traditional roles fixed for them by the patriarchy. This rejection is a cause of massive cultural anxiety as patriarchal societies will face complete upheaval if women don’t continue to conform to their subjugation. The movie hence highlights the anxiety around men losing the privilege that patriarchy grants them as women become independent and have agency over themselves and their bodies. This goes against the perceived or even expected ownership over girls and their sexuality which is the norm in America and other patriarchal societies.
Jennifer’s Body also looks into the complex relationship that women share. In the movie, Jennifer and Needy, despite being best friends, were engaged in a constant toxic struggle to outdo each other. Despite there being love (quite literally) in the relationship, there is also animosity and destructive competition between them. This hatred between them and the need to do better than the other (while still pining for the success of the other) is something that acts as a cultural anxiety. However, this anxiety is only limited to women. Due to the limited space for women to succeed in patriarchal institutions and spaces that are dominated by men, women are forced to get in a rat race with other women to be successful and look after themselves. This is also evident in Bulbbul with Binodini trying to preserve her position within the patriarchal household by sprouting seeds of doubt in the minds of the patriarchs. While the kiss between Needy and Jennifer was marketed as a fetish, it reflected deep cultural anxieties about homosexuality that exist in American society. Lesbian sexuality would undermine men’s claims of women and make them irrelevant, further subverting the conventional gendered order of society.
In a culture where males are in charge, the concept of women expressing their sexuality and wielding their power against men is completely abject. Bulbbul and Jennifer, by distorting the lines separating men’s and women’s power dynamics harm men’s superior position in society and lead to the formation of anxieties. An empowered sexual woman with the agency is viewed as an abjection because it threatens to emasculate the masculine self and poses a challenge to the status quo. She is villainized and is made into a monster by those she might displace in the social hierarchy. This anxiety, which has existed for generations, is rooted in the secret dread that men would someway lose to women and be ultimately destroyed by them. Bulbbul and Jennifer’s Body, hence, completely revamp the image of the female ‘demon’. The movies subvert the patriarchal trope of the chudail and the succubus by reimagining the monster as a wronged person and a victim (a victim, nonetheless, despite not being the ‘perfect victim’). For the two ‘monsters’, gendered rage and wrath become an instrument of freedom and emancipation rather than destruction. Bulbbul and Jennifer are both women who were wronged and their abuse becomes their destruction, yet their becoming. Not allowed to have agency when they were alive (along with being criticized and punished for having desires and seeking self-fulfilment), the ‘demon’ women snatch it out of the clutches of the patriarchy leading to violence that erupts as the status quo is disturbed. The two movies act as backstories (which are more often than not untold) to a woman’s violent and unwilling transformation from a simple girl to a ‘demon’ and pose the possibility of the human being the monster.
Author’s bio: Anoushka Varma is a third-year BA. Political Science student from JSIA. Her area of academic interest revolves around Gender and Sexuality studies, especially the intersection of gender and sexuality with other social identities.