Masculinity, Femininity and other Curiosities in Tod Browning's 'Freaks' and 'Dracula'

Term Paper 2008 19 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. Horror and the Horrifying Emancipation of Women

3. Power Relations in “Freaks”
3.1. Similarities and Differences of Women and Monstrosities
3.2. Social Discrepancies in “Freaks”

4. Power Relations in “Dracula”
4.1. Fear and Power in “Dracula”
4.2. Masculine Rationalism, Female Submissiveness and Animalism

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Ever since the horror genre has established, it has fascinated viewers around the world. Despite (and to some degree also because of) its controversial status, the horror film has gained much popularity. At the same time it has also been the target of critics. Especially in academic writing the horror film seems to have been neglected. Nonetheless, the horror film has this one peculiarity that other genres don’t have. As Rick Worland correctly stated, “A given phase of the horror film often reveals something about the times that produced it, exposing anxieties and outright fears of those days, though doing so in a roundabout or thoroughly unintentional way.” (Worland 55-56). Thus there have been many approaches on the horror film and the cultural fear in it. Among other interpretations, the theory of the cultural fear of war has become significant. The connection between war and cultural fear is definitely not arbitrary. To a great part, this expression is the product of the fearful events that occurred in western society.

But the content of most horror movies not only indicates the fear of events that took place. These expressions in the horror film have often been understood as metaphors of the fear of a social reconstruction, hence as the fear of things to come. Wars have always existed, and the horror genre has not, at least not as a unique genre. Compared to other genres in literature, the gothic novel – nowadays recognized as the predecessor of the horror genre - came about very late. The emancipation of women, being an important factor in the social construction of modern times, has also established very late. Is this just a coincidence, or does this indicate a stronger connection between cultural fear and the emancipation of women?

With respect to that, this term paper will specifically deal with two of Tod Browning’s most popular movies: “Freaks” and “Dracula”. The first part of this term paper will consider the expression of fear in horror movies as an unconscious reaction to the emancipation of women. Particularly Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas in Masculine Domination and Norbert Elias’ schemes in The Established and the Outsiders will help to understand the impact of the emancipation of women on the horror genre.

In the two chapters that follow, Bourdieu’s and Elias’ ideas will be applied on “Freaks” and “Dracula”. These two movies were released in the early 1930’s, in times where economic issues are often considered in cultural analysis. In this term paper, gender-theoretical reasons for the differing commercial feedback on “Dracula” and “Freaks” will be examined. Having this in mind, the third and fourth chapter will complement the thesis of the cultural fear of a feminine society.

The chapter on “Freaks” is divided in two parts. The first part will examine the similarities and differences of women and freaks. The second part will deal with the depiction of freaks, men and women in the film. Here, the focus will especially be on the social discrepancies in “Freaks”, and to what extent this is connected with the reaction of the film’s critics. Additionally, the technical means for the expression of fear - in respect to the power relations of the sexes - will be illustrated.

In the fourth chapter, the success of “Dracula” will be explained on a gender theoretical basis. The first part will consider what constitutes the horror in “Dracula”, how fear and power are connected with alienation (which is sometimes depicted intentionally, and sometimes not). In the last part, we will take a closer look on the depiction of the sexes, the depiction of vampires, as well as the depiction of the sexes within the realm of vampires, will be analyzed and compared to the power relations of the sexes in western society.

2. Horror and the Horrifying Emancipation of Women

The horror genre – as a unique genre - and the emancipation of women show many similarities, as far as the establishment of both is concerned. If we consider all of the following aspects a coincidence, we must still consider that coincidences are not any, the more they occur. As the social construction was changing in the beginning of the twentieth century, the emancipation of women became more significant. At the same time, the horror genre was establishing. If we look closer at both aspects, an equation of the power relations of the sexes appears to be an important factor of the cultural fear in horror movies. This becomes clearer when we first connect the ideas of Bourdieu and Elias, and try to explain how and why the emancipation of women was established. Concomitantly, we can look at the rise of the horror genre.

In his book Masculine Domination, Pierre Bourdieu argues that the social construction of our world accords to the physical constitution of the sexes. The primacy of masculine principles is justified because of our social construction, which appears as natural (Bourdieu 8-9). Furthermore, Bourdieu observed the homologous oppositions, which are based on the constitution of our bodies, as it is the case with “inside” and “outside”. Bourdieu associates the inside/outside opposition with “private” and “public” in the social body. To bear traditional norms in mind, men are thus more in public while women are much rather in the household (Bourdieu 7-8).

If we connect Bourdieu’s arguments to the established and outsider scheme of Norbert Elias, the inferiority of women, their social position as outsiders, as well as their retaliation can be explained. Elias has observed that established groups - in this case the masculine group - can maintain or even increase their power because of their cohesion and their collective memories. The outsiders on the other hand, lack of both aspects (Elias, Established and the Outsiders 18).

The lack of cohesion in the female group is obvious, if we consider their isolation from each other. Predominantly, women were in the household, doing the stereotypical tasks of the female sex. Men could increase their cohesion and have shared many memories because they were in public and not isolated (for instance because of the division of labor). In respect to that, we can start to compare the rise of the emancipation of women with the gradual formation of the horror genre.

The eighteenth century was a period full of improvements in the postal-system. Benjamin Franklin established the United States Post Office in 1776. It has been neglected that this improvement fostered the emancipation of women. Thus women - as outsiders in a world based on masculine principles - must have built more cohesion by sharing their thoughts and memories by writing letters. Cohesion is fostered via communication, and the improvement of the postal system fostered communication. Meanwhile, the gothic novel gained more popularity.

Essentially, people in more powerful positions had the privilege to use the mailing system. But in the nineteenth century, the postal system became yet more sophisticated and widespread. Additionally, the mail secrecy was established, just to reinforce the cohesion that women were gaining. The rapid industrialization implicated rapid communication, and consequently a rapid rise of cohesion within the group of women. Another great acceleration of their cohesion was the invention of the telephone, while groundbreaking books such as Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel Dracula were published in the realm of horror. In the late nineteenth century, the first wave of feminism started. This was also the period, in which the first horror movies were produced.

In 1919, the women’s suffrage was established. One year later, the constitution of the United States was extended with the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. Also at that time, the horror movies became more popular. The unauthorized film “Nosferatu” was released in 1922. This movie has not only fascinated European viewers, but also western society. To a great extent, the films of Tod Browning are responsible for the breakthrough of the horror genre. Movies such as “The Unknown” have contributed to the evolution of the horror film. In 1931, “Dracula” was released and became a success instantly. This was shortly after more political liberation of women, who could now vote at the age of eighteen. In 1932, the controversial movie “Freaks” was released. The actors in this film were real deformities, which is why “Freaks” was prohibited in various states of America. As the hype of feminism diminished, the horror genre was losing significance, too. Moreover, the production code was established in 1934, restricting visual means for the expression of fear in horror movies.

It was not until the 1960’s when Browning’s “Freaks” and the horror genre generally became more significant. The sixties are also known as a period full of retaliation and liberation. As the second wave of feminism started, the focus in horror movies was now more on humans that embody a monster as it is the case with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, and accordingly “Freaks”. The sixties are known for the women’s sexual emancipation. Among the people who are engaged in the history of the horror film, this decade is significant because of the rise of the splatter movie, with “Night of the Living Dead” as the probably most important film of this kind. While feminism was on its peak, it was also the time of the demise of the production code in 1964.

Of course, there have been protests and some kinds of retaliation of the female sex prior to all of that. Without a doubt, there have been horror tales long before the above-named means for the cohesion of women, simply because fear has always existed. However, the emancipation of women, as an establishing movement of women in society, and the horror genre came about very late. A good example that goes in the other direction might be the trial of Anne Hutchinson, a piteous woman who seized for religious freedom and individuality. She was wrongly indicted for heresy. Subsequently, she was banned from Massachusetts. Her retaliation failed because there was too much power of the masculine group and a lack of cohesion within the female group, since at that time there were not enough means to gain cohesion (when later the telephone and other means of communication were established). The cultural fear of a feminine society becomes even clearer if we consider that at that time the horror genre did not establish either.

Browning’s version of “Dracula” was a commercial success, while “Freaks” was only later recognized as a significant movie. The fact that “Freaks” was less significant in an age, in which the success of the emancipation of women diminished, as well as the fact that “Freaks” became more significant thirty years later - when the second wave of feminism fostered the emancipation of women in an unprecedented way - makes it conspicuous that this aspect of social reconstruction had a very effective impact on the horror genre. Keeping this in mind, the next chapter will deal with the depiction of men and women in “Freaks” and its implications concerning the reactions to the film.

3. The Depiction of Men and Women in “Freaks”

3.1. Similarities and Differences of Women and Monstrosities

As the title of the film already indicates, the main focus of this movie is on human deformities. They are depicted as victims of people who seem to be established because of their physical constitution. However, not only the freaks play a role that was unusual for a Hollywood film. Neither are women in their traditional inferior role. If we consider Bourdieu’s ideas, the freaks in “Freaks” have their social position because of the same reason why women have theirs, namely their physical constitution. The social positions appear as natural as the constitution of our bodies do, because the social construction is structured according to this constitution.



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ISBN (Book)
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Institution / College
University of Frankfurt (Main) – Amerikanistik
Horror Gender Dracula Freaks Feminismus Tod Browning Emanzipation Film Frauen Popkultur Hollywood




Title: Masculinity, Femininity and other Curiosities in Tod Browning's 'Freaks' and 'Dracula'