Helpless vs. Fearless: The Women of Home Invasion Films

Traditional horrors like ghosts, monsters, mutants, and aliens are all subjectively frightening, but part of what mitigates their impact is the fact that these threats aren’t even remotely real. However, thieves and murderers make the news every day, which is one reason home invasion movies are so popularly terrifying. It is also a genre that uniquely focuses majorly on women, both as the intended victims and sometimes also as the eventual heroines. Perhaps because the home has historically been viewed as more of a feminine domain and shelter, women tend to be the protagonists in this genre. Despite the heavy handed sexism sometimes visible in their portrayal, these are also films in which the victim has the opportunity to show herself to be anything but.

RECURRING THEMES

A common theme in home invasion movies is that of a single woman, unprotected by a man, who has to fight for her life against an invader. She is somehow prevented from exiting the home or calling for help, and is on her own against stronger and more ruthless adversaries. At one point or another in the film these women are shown screaming, crying, or cowering in fear – not exactly a flattering image.

On the other hand, although these movies like to create drama by highlighting the vulnerability of the female characters, sometimes those same characters emerge victorious in the end. This David and Goliath portrayal of women can be offensive from a certain viewpoint but from another angle, can also be seen as empowering.

Nor is female weakness the only stereotype employed. Even when the attacker is also a woman, filmmakers tend to fall back on negative tropes. 2007’s Inside is the perfect example of this. The victim is made especially vulnerable by her pregnancy, while the attacker is unhinged by her own desire for a baby – taking a common perception of women as baby-crazy and taking it to an extreme conclusion.

Single White Female is another film that advocates mental instability in women and is often embraced and exaggerated. In this film, not only does the victim have to fight for her life, she has to fight for her very identity against a crazed former friend. 1997’s Funny Games differs somewhat in that there is in fact an equally helpless husband in the picture, but at least he is injured at the beginning of the film, thereby excusing his weakness. The wife is offered no such absolution for her frailty.

TURNING THE TABLES

The woman doesn’t always die, though. In fact, sometimes she prevails against pretty astounding odds. Wait Until Dark is one of the best examples of this. Audrey Hepburn shines as a blind woman who has to outfight and outsmart a trio of sighted men with only some minimal help from a female neighbor. You’re Next is another film where the main female character turns out to be tougher than the invaders expected, in this case because she was raised as a survivalist. Yet another example of a more egalitarian invasion film is 2008’s The Strangers, not because the female protagonist survives – though she does – but because there is a female antagonist who is treated the same as the male ones. Equally evil is still equality.

In fact, all three of those movies also fit well into the “final girl” trope. This is when every other line of defense has failed, all the other characters are dead, and it is up to the last remaining woman to defend herself. The negative side of this stereotype is that the surviving character is also generally shown as unusually virtuous, something that seems to imply that women who are less than perfect are also less deserving of survival.

Nevertheless, the “final girl” often does manage to make it through the film alive. In fact, Jodie Foster in Panic Room was able to not only survive but save her daughter as well. Unlawful Entry presents a slightly more regressive version of this trope. Though the female character does reject her stalker’s advances and try to fight him off, her husband is the one who comes to her rescue and kills the intruder.

FINAL THOUGHTS

In the end, the home invasion genre is a mixed bag for women. Some of the victims are shown as terrified and weak. Others are shown as resourceful and brave. The women who eventually survive do so by using their wits, though it may be noted that a working cell phone or security system may have served them just as well and saved considerable grief. Regardless, in an industry where few films pass the Bechdel test, at least the women of the home invasion horror genre have better things to do than chat about men.

What are some of your favorite home invasion films? Who are some Women in Film that you admire? Let us know in the comments below.

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2 Comments

  1. Cindy Bruchman February 19, 2016
  2. David February 19, 2016