horror

Good For Her

WARNING: This entire thing is Spoiler City for bunches of movies, but especially: The Babadook, Midsommar, The Witch, Ready or Not, The Invisible Man, Gretel and Hansel, The Descent, No One Gets Out Alive, A Classic Horror Story, His House, Censor, Saint Maud, The Perfection, A Promising Young Woman, The Other Lamb, various Halloweens, Nightmare on Elm Streets, Screams, Texas Chainsaw Massacres.

In a flashback from the original run of Arrested Development, Disney villain-grade matriarch Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) is watching the news, her son Buster drumming incessantly nearby in a deliberate cartoon of postpartum depression. Then, when the anchor turns to the story of a young mother driving her car into a lake, Lucille pauses and salutes the other woman’s suicidal-filicidal initiative. “Good for her.” There’s something special about the way Jessica Walter delivers that line, the admiration weighed in it. Lucille’s not tired. She’s not angry. She’s not blustering at the end of her rope. She’s eating a cupcake and hating her life with sublime, well-bred nonchalance. But she’s happy for the mother who tried to end it all. She really means it. Good for her. 

Born from Lucille’s extremely wrong take on Girls Supporting Girls, the Good For Her meme crops up every few months, as sure as the change of seasons or an antibiotic-resistant skin infection, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on how some horror heroines make sociopathy look good–heroines like Ready or Not’s Grace (Samara Weaving), Midsommar’s Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), The Invisible Man’s Cecelia Kass (Elizabeth Moss), The Witch’s Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy). Also like an antibiotic-resistant skin infection, this meme irritates the hell out of some, is frequently misdiagnosed, and gets inadequately, sometimes harmfully scratched– “scratched” here meaning Internet Discoursed. Scratching is only going to make it spread, you know. 

Fun etiologic metaphors aside, I am not unlike Lucille when I look at these films. I think there’s a reason so many contemporary horror films depict heroines who survive not just by embracing their own brutality, but their own insanity, their own monstrousness. They don’t only survive, but they are freed by these terrible things, directly opposing them to the Final Girl trope with which they are often conflated. It’s not simply a gender flip of traditional action hero roles either, although the individual versus society dynamic that fuels a majority of action-adventure stories is clearly in play here, too. There is something else though, and that something centers on the refusal of the Good For Her heroine to shutter her own pain. Traditional sympathetic heroines at the outset, it may take them a whole movie to get to this point, but they’ll get there. In this way, Good For Her films reflect an evolution of social conscience, not a transgression against it, in the sense that anything that can be destroyed by the truth…or a pissed-off woman who refuses to be victimized…deserves to be destroyed.

Let’s take an example. It’s not one that is often put together with the films in the meme, but I think it’s actually a great outline of the formula, even if its arc doesn’t bend as close to filicide as Lucille Bluth might like: Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). In The Babadook, widow Amelia (Essie Davis) is exhausted and desperate, barely balancing her dreary nursing home job with care for her disturbed 6-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), all the while suppressing the constant thrum of grief for her husband Oskar, who was killed in a car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver Sam. Heavy, heavy stuff. Adding to the pile, Samuel has become obsessed with a monster he calls the Babadook, an obsession that sees him fashioning weapons and traps like an Elm Street kid and, also like an Elm Street kid, refusing to sleep. Soon, Amelia–who was a children’s book illustrator before Sam’s birth and all the terrible things that came with him–discovers a horrifying picture book among Samuel’s things. Amelia’s genuinely disturbed by the story of the child murdering Babadook, but throwing the book away helps nothing. The book comes back, scarier than before, and so does the Babadook.

In the end, after possessed Amelia has killed the family dog and attempted to kill Sam–the suspicion with which Sam’s doctor grudgingly surrenders a sleeping pill prescription to Amelia lives rent-free in my head forever–she and her son face off against the monster. She renounces it, she threatens it, she is amazing. It should be enough; in a lot of movies, it would be. Nope. The key is in the book itself: “If it’s in a word or in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook.” Amelia and Sam realize that the monster can’t be exorcised. It is part of Amelia forever. 

The Babadook here can stand for Amelia’s grief for her husband or more generally the depression that grew out of that grief, but what is important is how she resolves the haunting. Amelia will never banish the monster in a satisfying wind-machine buffeted, strobe lit exorcism scene, but she accepts it. She will live with it. The film ends with Amelia and Sam celebrating Sam’s birthday–the anniversary of Oskar’s death–but taking a moment to bring an offering of earthworms to the Babadook, now living like a dog on a chain in the darkest corner of their basement. In this strange supernatural compact, we have the Good For Her resolution at its most poetic. Amelia must embrace her pain and her grief, literally giving it a place in her life, or it will destroy her and everyone she loves.

This is the formula. A Good For Her movie always opens with a tragedy, a trauma, an intransigent problem that precedes the conflict of the film itself. Grief is a big one. In The Babadook, Amelia is grieving, and so is Dani Ardor in Midsommar (2019), Sarah in The Descent (2005), Ambar in No One Gets Out Alive (2021), Rial in His House (2020), Cassie in A Promising Young Woman (2020). Charlotte in The Perfection (2018) is not only grieving the death of her mother, but like Amelia, she is also coping with the forfeit of her artistic career. Selah in The Other Lamb (2019), never having known her mother, dwindles in the awareness of her mother’s absence.

If she’s not grieving, then the heroine must be vulnerable in other isolating ways. Cecelia in The Invisible Man (2020) is literally being kept prisoner in an abusive relationship. Elisa in A Classic Horror Story (2021) is bracing herself for an abortion she isn’t sure she wants. Maud in Saint Maud (2019) wrestles with her responsibility for a patient’s death. Grace in Ready or Not (2019) is an orphan out of her depth among her fiance’s estranged family. Thomasin in The Witch (2015) has literally been exiled with her family from their Puritan community for heresy, while Gretel in Oz Perkins’ Gretel and Hansel (2020) gets the feminist fabulist version of the same when she refuses to be sexually exploited and is thrown out with her little brother to fend for themselves. 

Cut to the movie itself, and these women are all moving on, doing their best, quieting their fears and simply getting on with it, as you would expect of them. As you might expect of yourself. And then terrible things happen. Amelia finds the picture book. Thomasin’s baby brother disappears from her lap. Dani witnesses a shocking ritual on the second day of the Swedish Midsommar trip. Suddenly there is conflict and lots of it. All of the films I’ve thrown in here differ wildly in many respects–the nature of the threat, the tone of the piece, the reliability of the heroine’s senses–but the Good For Her recipe scrolling in their DNA makes them as different from other horror films as they are similar to each other. I alluded to this earlier in contrasting these heroines with Final Girls. There is an expression I find abhorrent in real life, but in Good For Her films, it’s valid. Everything happens for a reason. The harrowing that these women experience forces them to face a necessary truth about themselves, their grief, their false friends, their real feelings. And to a one, they will accept the truth and become stronger for it.

Becoming stronger at the end is the important distinction. Self-acceptance is the resolution to the formula, the stinger that makes Lucille nod in approval. In Amelia’s case, it’s a supernatural-metaphorical pact with her personified grief; in The Witch, Thomasin inks her own pact with everyone’s favorite goat after her family is slaughtered; Midsommar’s Dani embraces her emotionally-supportive found family while sacrificing her emotionally-distant boyfriend; The Invisible Man’s Cecelia kills her abuser with plausible deniability thanks to the very technology with which he has been making her life pure gaslit hell. Final Girls may find themselves taking up the serial killer’s knives to defend themselves, but their power is on loan, and the price of wielding it will leave them poorer. It’s a key difference that often gets glossed over in the simple unification of one kind of female sole survivor with another. I will concede that the Final Girl trope has evolved; contemporary Final Girls are not the vestal virgins you’ll find in slashers of the late 70s and 80s, and as filmmakers were influenced by the trope, they have challenged and complicated it and called it by name. You can see this everywhere from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the entire Scream franchise. But Final Girls still stand for a restoration of order, whereas Good For Her heroines represent the virtues of disruption.

We know the Final Girls suffer, too, because even if their films didn’t end on an ominous note, and they always do, the franchises keep inviting us back to see more. There are three versions of four timelines of Halloween’s Laurie Strode. The 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre gave us a final chapter for 1974’s Final Girl, Sally Hardesty. Nancy Thompson’s fate as a Final Girl followed her out of the Elm Street movies and into a fictionalized version of the actress portraying her in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. All of these films show us women who are very much not okay after the credits roll, who become paranoid and delusional, who resort to substance abuse, who retreat to the masculinized action hero life of isolation, guns, and ammo. The price, it would seem, universally paid by Final Girls is a life of depression and repression, a life that isn’t much of a life at all. That’s the kind of life Good For Her heroines are walking away from and transcending. Even when the ending is ambiguous or controversial–cue Dani’s horrible-beautiful smile at the end of Midsommar–we are left with a heroine who is healthier and happier having done terrible things in a broken world than she ever could have been otherwise. 

I’m not sure when I first noticed this, but once I started noticing, it was everywhere, like red cars after you buy one. Suddenly, every horror movie I saw told the story of a traumatized, grief-stricken, or persecuted woman, sometimes all three, who is forced to do something bad, at least by conventional moral standards, in order to make things right. I will say that the imagination is not an assembly line, and every film anywhere is a collaborative effort that should be appreciated first and foremost within its own context. And yet, the natural drumbeat of such a frequent repetition of elements and themes is interesting to consider. There is a story, apparently, that we keep wanting to tell and wanting to see and it has to do with a girl, a woman, starting out very hurt and eventually growing powerful from the source of the hurt, not like an athlete who runs up and down stadium steps or a stutterer who learns to speak clearly, but rather a witch who rises into midair on the strength of her desire and her rejection of the world that would keep her grounded. She may kill to do it, she may die to do it, but doing it is the lock and key of her character’s fulfillment. At the beginning of their stories, few of the Good For Her heroines would be as unapologetic as Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), herself more the Woman at the End than the Final Girl of X (2020), who ritually promises herself and her reflection: “I will not accept a life I do not deserve.” By the time their stories are told, I think every one of them would say it unabashedly. They might even do a Lucille Bluth.

And honestly? Good for them.

~~~

Angela would very much like to live deliciously, thanks.

1 reply »

  1. You did such a great job of categorizing this and differentiating Good For Her heroines vs Final Girls! I anticipate having a similar red car experience going forward…

    Like

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