Greatest Feminist Icons in Horror #1: Jess Bradford
Jess isn’t a feminist because she wins, but because she doesn’t give up on her sisters or herself.
When you think of the first slasher movies and the origins of the final girl trope, it’s easy to think of 1978’s Halloween by John Carpenter. But what most people don’t know is that 1974’s Black Christmas, by Bob Clark, heavily inspired the film. Both movies feature a relentless killer, whose true face you never see; both movies feature a group of women being picked off one-by-one until the final girl fights back; both movies feature their antagonist hiding inside the supposedly safe home while the unsuspecting victims lie in wait. (And before you’re quick to think that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by Tobe Hooper influenced Black Christmas, it should be noted that both movies came out only ten days apart in October of 1974.)
Although it’s not always given the credit it deserves in the industry, Black Christmas is a seminal work in the genre, and without it, we wouldn’t have plenty of the slasher franchises we love today. So while you might be tempted to skip out on this Canadian horror darling, we can’t urge you enough to watch it. (Seriously, it’s one of the best movies of all time.)
The Story of ‘Black Christmas’
The movie follows the story of the Pi Kappa Sig sorority girls as they prepare for the Christmas holidays. The film opens on an unseen man, who later refers to himself as Billy but who’s unnamed in the credits, sneaking into their attic while the girls host a small party on the first floor. While celebrating, they receive a call from a man they’ve dubbed the Moaner, a man who’s been harassing them over the phone by slinging lude insults at them and making sexually suggestive noises over the line. Jess (Olivia Hussey) answers the call and tells the other girls to listen, however, Barb (Margot Kidder) instead takes the phone and insults the man who then threatens to kill her. While most of the girls don’t take his threat seriously, Clare (Lynne Griffin) is troubled by it and heads upstairs to her room to finish packing for the winter break. Her fears turn out to be warranted, as the man sneaks into her room and suffocates her with a plastic bag before hiding her body in the attic. Although the sorority sisters don’t realize she’s missing at first, they’re quickly alerted to her absence when she fails to meet her father to be picked up for the holidays. Things go from bad to worse as the girls are slowly picked off from within the sorority house one-by-one, including their house mother Mrs. Machenry (Marian Waldman), as they look for Clare and try to leave for the holidays. The cops—who have been trying to trace the killer’s call—realize that he’s been phoning the girls from within their house, and tell Jess to run. The movie ends with a climactic showdown between Jess and her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), who’s been suspected of being the killer for the bulk of the movie. The cops find Peter bludgeoned by a fire poker with an unconscious Jess beside him. The movie ends with a final unsettling shot taken from the killer’s perspective as he looms over a sleeping Jess, the cops downstairs unaware of the danger lurking above.
While this might seem like your generic slasher (even though it’s widely considered to be one of the first films in the genre), it invents and subverts a lot of the tropes we know today.
The Real Killer Is Patriarchy
An especially interesting element of Black Christmas is its depiction of the killer. We never see his face (the most we catch is a glimpse of an eye as he watches the sorority girls), but we see a lot of the narrative from his perspective without ever being made to empathize with him. When he’s looking around corners or preying on the young women from his spot in the attic, we witness a fair number of their murders as if we were the killer. And because the antagonist is faceless, we have no choice but to imagine ourselves as the villain as the camera forces us to watch the violence being exerted from the murderer’s point of view.
But what if we told you that the killer was actually the dangerous personification of patriarchy, and seeing things from his perspective was meant to illustrate our complicity in this system?
While this might seem like a stretch, Black Christmas goes out of its way to illustrate how women are victimized, controlled, and disbelieved. We look at everything from violence towards women from explicitly violent antagonists, to the passive ways in which institutions of power belittle and dismiss them. And while this is demonstrated throughout the film, it’s expressly shown through Jess’ character.
Before we’re even ten minutes into the film, two major things have happened to the women of Pi Kappa Sig. The first is that the sanctity of their home has already been violated by the killer and the second is that they’ve already been sexually harassed and threatened over the phone. The film is establishing that these women are victims before it has the opportunity to establish them as characters. We’re also seeing that even in an exclusively female space, the male gaze is still able to find and exploit them. There’s also a clear indication that these women are being luridly objectified, and while they continue to passively accept this harassment they’re safe. But once they push back against him (beginning with Barb telling the killer to stick his genitals in a wall socket), he begins violently targeting them.
One thing that’s also interesting to note is that the sorority sisters are safe when they’re together, which can act as a metaphor for women’s solidarity. Collectively, they’re safe from the ire of Billy, but once they fraction off and find themselves isolated do they become easy targets. Arguably this is reflective of the real world, in which change can only happen when women band together and push for social and transformative justice.
There’s also something to be said about the targeting of women in the film. Unlike Halloween, Friday the 13th, or even Nightmare on Elm Street, where women are punished for deviating from the socially accepted morals of the ’70s, Black Christmas treats all women as equal opportunity. Clare is killed first, and by all stereotypes would be the ideal final girl. She’s virginal, timid, and fears the killer’s imposed authority. While Barb taunts the Moaner on the phone and is dismissive of his calls, Clare is vocal about being concerned about the violence he might enact and the threat he posses. Whereas Barb is antagonistic, Clare is decidedly cautious. Despite this, she’s the first to be murdered while Jess—whose character we’ll look at shortly—is left alive at the end of the movie.
The Patriarchy of Power Structures
Although it may seem like patriarchy is only being demonstrated through Billy’s actions, this theme is reinforced by the power structures established throughout the film. When Barb goes to the police with Clare’s father she tells the dismissive officer, “I really don’t think you’re taking this as seriously as you should.” When he gets annoyed after she asks him what the police are going to do about her missing friend, the officer points a finger directly in her face and says, “You, shut up.” He then addresses Clare’s father and dismisses his concern as Clare likely being in a cabin with her boyfriend. Later, when Jess calls to let the police know that her sorority house is still being targeted by the lude caller, the same office claims he’s too busy to take her call and that it’s likely “It’s probably just one of your boyfriends playing a little joke.”
“It’s probably just one of your boyfriends playing a little joke.”
Even though a woman is missing and another is being harassed, the officer is willing to dismiss their concerns because he assumes the two instances are just the results of their boyfriends trying to have a little fun (nevermind the fact that the women aren’t enjoying it). The officer’s attitude is very much emblematic of the dangerous logic we still see today. It’s not uncommon for women to come forward with concerns about their partner’s behaviour or with allegations of harassment and abuse, only to be told it’s just “boys being boys.” It’s patriarchy at its most insidious because it’s designed to look innocuous. It’s only when Chris (Art Hindle), who’s been dating Clare, comes down to the station and confronts the officer for besmirching his reputation—angry not just at Clare’s absence, but that he was accused of shaking up with her—that they begin to seriously investigate.
So what does Jess Bradford have to do with feminism in Black Christmas?
Jess as Feminism
Jess is a cinematic feminist revolution in a brown sweater-vest. She’s every woman who’s fought back against patriarchy (with admittedly ambiguous results). From the film’s onset, Jess is a strong woman who’s unashamedly autonomous. She’s in a relationship, is sexually active, and begins the movie with the newfound knowledge that she’s pregnant. Our first visual introduction to Peter is her telling him that she’s pregnant and is going to be getting an abortion. To which he says, “You can’t make a decision like that, you haven’t even asked me!” Even though it’s her body, Peter is trying to exercise his authority over her and convince her not to get an abortion.
Later in the movie, he tries yet again to enforce his anti-abortion stance by proposing to Jess. He tells her that his goals have changed and then says, “I’m quitting the conservatory and we’re getting married.” Peter isn’t asking for her hand in marriage but is telling her that she will be marrying him. He’s trying to impose his will on her and subject her to his control, but masking it as a grand romantic gesture. However, she counters the offer by saying that while his dreams have changed, hers haven’t. She stresses that she doesn’t want to marry him, that she’s not giving up everything she’s worked towards, and that she’s going to be having an abortion. At this, he smashes an ornament on the nearby tree and says, “You selfish bitch.” He then promises that she’ll be sorry if she aborts her pregnancy.
“You selfish bitch.”
Peter is the classic “nice guy.” At first glance, he seems like a decent man trying to do right by his partner. He’s willing to leave his studies to raise a family. But upon closer inspection, it’s obvious that he’s trying to dictate Jess’ future. He’s not being kind, he’s being domineering, and then turns to physical displays of aggression (and violent threats) when he doesn’t get his way. By contrast, Jess doesn’t back down. Even though Peter tries to intimidate her, she’s assertive and stands up for herself. She tells him to leave, refuses to concede when it comes to her body, and faces the patriarchal oppression head-on. And we mean that pretty literally!
Headfirst Into Battle
At the end of the movie, when Jess has been told that the caller is inside the house and she’s trying to rescue her friends (who she soon discovers have been murdered), she arms herself with a fire poker and throws herself towards the danger. When she sees the killer’s eye in the sliver of an open door, instead of retreating she throws open the door into him, injuring the man and causing him to cry out in pain. When Peter breaks into the basement where she’s hiding and corners Jess, she beats him to death with a fire poker. Although he doesn’t turn out to be the killer—just a sh*tty boyfriend who makes suspicious choices—he’s still one of the main sources of oppressive patriarchy in Jess’ life. And it’s this oppression she destroys at the story’s conclusion.
Even though the results of her feminist revolt are ambiguous at best and unsuccessful at worst (we never find out if Jess survives or is murdered in her bed), she still fights back. She’s relentless in the pursuit of her goals and in her quest to define herself by her standards. While we never find out if she’s punished for her transgressions against the patriarchy, the fear of repercussion never stops her from fighting. Jess isn’t a feminist because she wins, but because she doesn’t give up on her sisters or herself.
And, at the end of the day, that’s the most badass feminist thing anyone can do.
For the full list of Tilt’s Greatest Feminist Icons in Horror, click here.