Thursday, October 7, 2010

Monstrous Musings: Letting the Representation of Gendered Violence In: A Review of Let Me In

This is a guest post from Natalie Wilson

I am a literature and women’s studies scholar and author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. I am currently writing a book examining the Twilight cultural phenomenon from a feminist perspective. My interest in vampires and werewolves dates back to my childhood fascination with all types of monsters.

Warning: spoilers

Vampires have become so common in contemporary texts that they have lost some of their bite. With most of falling them into the emo, brooding, love struck and angst-ridden variety (Edward of Twilight, Damon of The Vampire Diaries, and Bill of True Blood), the female vampire featured in Let Me In (the US remake of the Swedish Let the Right One In) presents a refreshing change – Abby (Chloe Moretz) the twelve-year-old lonely yet resilient vampire in a world populated by male violence, is a feminist vampire worth routing for.

While the original film was also excellent, it lacked some of the more overt gendered analysis of the US version. Though this may be due to discrepancies in translation (I saw the film both in Swedish with English subtitles and dubbed in English) the bullying theme running throughout the narrative was framed very differently in the Swedish version. In it, the young male protagonist Oskar was repeatedly told to “squeal like a pig” by his tormentors. In contrast, in the US version, the male protagonist, now named Owen (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is attacked by bullies with taunts such as  “hey little girl” and “are you a little girl?” 

Owen’s burgeoning friendship with the young vampire Abby furthers this gendered meme when she advises him “you have to hit back…hit them back harder than you dare.” When she promises to help him, he says “but you’re a girl,” exhibiting the belief the bullies have instilled in him – that girls are scared and weak. Even though an earlier scene showed Owen watching the three bullies that torment him picking on a girl and smiling as he views her punching the lead bully in the arm, this approval of female resistance has not erased the anti-girl taunts the bullies have pollute his brain with.

With an existence shrouded by the aura of his parents’ ugly divorce, the film suggests Owen has turned to voyeurism as an escape from the prison-like existence he experiences at home and school. As he watches the world from his bedroom telescope and from behind his wide-eyed gaze, we see the daily injustices humans enact upon one another – bedroom fights, schoolyard torture, sibling abuse, interpersonal violence. Much of this violence is linked to codes of masculinity – from the male bullies to the film’s focus on the muscling-up men do so as to have bodies capable of violence. In comparison, vampire Abby’s thirst for blood becomes less violent and a lesser evil – killing is something she resorts to in order to survive in contrast to a sport (as with the bullies) or a means to secure and keep a mate (as with her “father” figure). This representation of daily violence and its knock on effects (as when we see the lead-bully taunted with “see you at home little girl” by his older brother), results in an atmosphere where everyday violence is more horrific and has more lasting effects than Abby’s monstrous thirst.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to further the suggestion that “average humans” are plenty monstrous is rendered less horrific in the American version by removing the references/suggestions of pedophilia of the original novel and film. Nevertheless, the remake provocatively suggests that our cultural proclivity to focus on exceptionally violent crimes of the “stranger danger” variety allows enduring, daily acts of violence to go comparatively unnoticed. Owen, we see, has adopted this view as well – he never mentions evil until he learns Abby is a vampire, failing to see that what the bullies do to him is actually more evil than Abby’s blood thirst. 

Though the film drips with gendered representations (although ones not as graphic, nor as queer as the original novel, as discussed here), reviews such as those in The New York Times and at MovieFone offer no gender analysis – an omission that seems particularly odd given the highly misogynistic bullying the film depicts as well as its focus on a girl vampire – a rarity in our male-dominated vampire tales of late.

To find such analysis, one most go back to reviews of the original film as here, at Feminist Review. Noting the tendency for a “queer sensibility about female vampires in film, whether explicit or subtextual” Loren Krywanczyk argues the “gender non-normativity” of the two young protagonists presents us with a queering of gender as well as of childhood sexuality. Such queer readings are even more apt if Abby/Eli’s castration (cut in the American film and only alluded to in the Swedish version) into account.

While there has been much rallying against the necessity of remaking the film to appease Americans subtitle-avoidance (as here), I feel this new version offers yet another useful spin on a very complex tale – one a bit less queer (due to its avoidance of the castration portion of the narrative) but also one that productively links the cultural disdain for femininity to the ubiquity of horrific daily acts of violence. If only our mainstream news media would similarly let that argument in…