So here's the thing with Women in Horror Month—I mean, beyond the same conversation we've been having about anything earmarked For Women since I was literally in high school (Random High School Guy: “But why do we even need a Women's Day?” Girl Whose Name I Can't Remember, speaking for every other girl in the class: “Because every day is Man's Day, asshole.”). I mean, I certainly know it works for me, and always has...it's a spotlight aimed at fellow female-identifying creators, something I can use to bring forth those I feel have been forgotten or overlooked while simultaneously discovering new reading/viewing/listening matter for myself, along with new potential friends, fans and allies.
As we move further into the 2020s, however, what with the very idea of gender becoming a far more culturally slippery thing than it used to be, I have to wonder if slapping the word “women” on WiHM doesn't end up accidentally excluding people beyond the traditionally privileged white/cis/straight/male default—people who might well be just as eager to consume and create horror, if only we were a bit more welcoming with our labels?
A (slightly) older cis white lady friend of mine and I were chatting the other day, when she suddenly asked me, as if she really thought I was more likely to know: “Why do you think so many young people these days don't seem to want to be men or women anymore? I mean...like how sometimes they say they're male one day and female the next, and maybe nothing the day after that? Why do you think that is?” To which I replied, without even really thinking about it much beforehand: “Well, look at how polarized and toxic and stressful identifying as either sex is, these days—performative heterosexuality, gender-essentialism, biological determinism, people constantly policing each other's fantasies like thinking of something is the same as doing it. Who the hell wouldn't choose to opt out of that whole mess, if they really believed it was possible?”
And given my age—I was born in 1968, y'all—I'm sure some part of how I just expressed myself up there sounds like I'm minimizing or dismissing genderqueer and non-binary people's identities, for which I apologize, because that truly wasn't my intention; I'm very aware that almost everything is a spectrum, not least since I'm already on at least one of those myself, if not more. It's simply that I envy anybody who can actually persuade themselves it's an option to life hack one's way around the bigender ties that bind, especially in a world so goddamned bent on making sure we all fall neatly on either the pink or blue side of things.
For some people, it means a lot to be identified as a woman, so much so that they've fought for it. But for me it's Tuesday, because being a woman was handed to me at birth: AFAB, and ever after. Not to mention how, much as I love to roleplay as someone I'm not and cisswap the characters I supposedly shouldn't be able to imagine myself inside just because of the fact that I once cooked an entire larval human being almost to term inside my uterus, I just don't think I'll ever be able to free myself entirely from looking at life through a gendered frame. Which doesn't mean I'm sitting here in the corner muttering about kids getting off my lawn or plaintively wondering aloud why everything these days has to be so gosh-darn COMPLICATED, either...just that I often find myself wondering about not just women in horror, but gender in horror. Is it necessary? Is it escapable?
Whenever I think about the “necessity” of gendered horror, my mind always goes back to that highly-applicable Margaret Atwood quote about the difference between men's and women's fears, most recently in context with this particular article, which caused me to reblog it and comment: “Men are afraid that women [won't stop laughing] at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” But that's just the surface, as ever; there are female-identifying narcissists just as quick to hammer down on anyone who tries to puncture their toxic sense that only they truly exist, and while a lot of them tend to do it a bit more slyly than the guy in the article, some of them don't. There are also male-identifying people who spent their lives well aware that if they step out of line socially, if they give anyone around them the impression that they aren't living up to the right sort of masculine standard, they risk either being murdered, or being made into a murderer. And then there are the people who feel like they're both at once, or neither, or whatever—do you think they aren't sometimes made hopeless and hateful by ridicule that denies and denigrates who they literally are, or immersed in a terror that seems inescapable over the prospect of being “found out” and eradicated by the very culture that surrounds them?
Self-policing is very much a thing, after all, and if someone's allowed to get away with being the “wrong” sort of man or woman, then what does that make the rest of us bigendered folks? Just people, I guess. Which is, for some reason or other, apparently not enough.
Or, to put it another way—pronouns aside, we're all pretty much afraid of the same shit, and that doesn't change. Which is why, whenever default-adhering people ask me why I feel like I have to “shoehorn” diversity into my/their horror, I find myself answering: “Because life is diverse, and everyone deserves to be able to find themselves reflected in the media they consume.”
Now, back when I started writing horror, in the later 1980s/early 1990s, I had three quote-quote female role-models: Kathe Koja, Caitlin R. Kiernan and Poppy Z. Brite. Brite is now Billy Martin, and just as awesome as he always was; when I first heard about his transition, I thought: “Ah, this explains a lot about our shared interests.” But never have I ever had the figurative-to-literal balls to follow the knowledge that I LOVE to write about guys fucking each other from those guys' POV up by thinking: “So obviously I'm a gay guy, and I should probably do something about that.” Because I'm just not, and never will be. Billy is, and always was, the same was Caitlin's a queer woman, and always was. The same way Kathe and I are...whatever we are.
“Identity” is a bit of a difficult word for writers, I think—no matter the genre they're drawn to—because, to some degree, of its similarity to word “identify.” I get to place myself inside the people I write, which is my joy, my both-senses-of-the-word privilege; I get to think myself into patterns of thought, emotion and experience I both share and don't share, to wear those identities for a while and then discard them when the story I'm telling is “done,” and walk back into my own life grinning. If I do it well, I sometimes get praise, and that's beautiful; if I do it badly I get criticism, and I should. My intent, aside from simple narrative creation, is to hopefully create characters that my readers can enjoy seeing themselves in, or be surprised by seeing themselves in. But can I also damage other people, real people with real lives, by briefly pretending to inhabit an identity they exist inside every moment of every IRL day in order to usher readers through a fictional beginning, middle and end?
Much like pronoun protocol—“Are we just supposed to call people whatever they hell they tell us they want to be called, now?” “Um, yes. Yes, that is pretty much exactly how things are now supposed to go.”—I simply have to accept that this idea, however odd it may seem to me based on when I was born and what I was taught, is true. And that as much as I never mean to, the mere fact that I work primarily in a genre which deals with disturbance, offence, pain, means that I will disturb someone, offend someone, hurt someone. It's inevitable. I'll wound someone, and that wound—however fictional its cause—will have to be treated as if it's exactly as real as they feel it to be. Not only can I not debate the concept, at this point in my life, I don't even want to.
So here we are, women of all sorts alike and everybody else likewise: mutually responsible for both the harm we might do and the care we owe ourselves in turn, on either side of the page. As we always were, most probably, but now we have almost enough language to try to acknowledge it directly, along with—hopefully—the moral willpower to do so. “An outsider knows an Outsider,” as Holly Gibney says; we've all been called monsters by somebody, after all, just like we all know how we want to be treated, especially while still carrying deep wounds from being treated the exact opposite way. Just like we all know how it can feel, the sheer power of the term: awful in every sense, elevating, denigrating.
And yes, change can feel hard, but this? It seems far easier than most people seem to want to treat it, to me. Like a conversation I'm fine with having as many times as I need to so long as it helps me get back to telling stories in the dark, any given month of any given year, ad infinitum. There being so many far scarier things to discuss, after all, than how the people you're telling stories about refer to themselves.