Dario Argento – misogynist or feminist?


“I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man. I certainly don`t have to justify myself to anyone about this. I don`t care what anyone thinks or reads into it. I have often had journalists walk out of interviews when I say what I feel about this subject.” – Dario Argento

Dario Argento is a director who has often been accused of misogyny and when reading a quote such as the above, it’s easy to see why.  I’m a woman, and I love Argento’s movies (well, the good ones, anyway).  Does this make me anti-feminist?  No, it doesn’t, because to me, there’s very little misogyny present in Argento’s films.

Before I go ahead and argue the lack of misogyny in Argento’s films, let me make a quick run through the reasons why people might argue that the Italian director takes a less than friendly attitude toward women.  In Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) a woman’s underwear is ripped off before she is knifed.  In Profondo Rosso (1975) a woman is axed in the back before having her head smashed through a window.  In Suspiria (1977) a young girl falls into a pit of razor wire before being stabbed, mutilated and reanimated.  In Tenebre (1982) a woman has pages from a book forced into her mouth before being killed.  In Phenomena (1985) a girl is choked, stabbed and decapitated.  In Opera (1987) a young soprano is forced to witness brutal killings by having needles taped near her eyes.  In Mother of Tears (2007) a woman is strangled with her own intestines.  These are examples taken only from films of his that I’ve seen.

Taken out of context, it may appear that Argento enjoys torturing the women in his films.  Frankly though, context is everything.  Let me take Suspiria as an example.  The film’s opening set piece is of the death of a young dance student by stabbing and hanging, an elaborate and drawn-out sequence in which she is chased before being killed.  Her friend, simply a bystander, dies when glass and metal debris land on her.  The whole set piece is elaborate and drawn out, and shot in Argento’s typically garish style.  It’s been criticised for this, with claims made that the death and suffering is stylised.  I’d argue that Argento’s position on the line between art and horror works in his defence.  Argento’s unique vision doesn’t stylise the violence, because it’s a vision that’s consistent through the film.  The garish colours and camera work are present throughout the film’s entirety, not solely during moments of violence.  Additionally, I don’t believe that the idea of ‘art’ legitimising any of the violence should be given any credence – just because a death scene is beautifully shot, it is not any less horrific.

Suspiria features one of Argento’s greatest heroines – Suzy Bannion.  She is targeted by the teachers of the dance academy because she begins to figure out that they are witches.  Despite this, she shrewdly figures out the reasons behind the strange occurrences at the academy, and seeks out the answers, defeating the powerful witch Helena Markos at the end of the film.  Carol Clover’s idea of the ‘final girl’ in slasher movies is bandied around often enough, but is more than applicable to Suzy.  The difference is, she is not singled out because she is any less feminine than the other female characters (something Clover argues can be true of some final girls), but simply because she takes a more active interest in the events around her.
Suzy isn’t a lone example of this strong, female character.  My personal favourite is Gianna Brezzi from Profondo Rosso.  She’s a journalist, who joins the film’s hero in investigating the murder of a psychic.  Not only does she challenge his own sexist views, become romantically involved with him and drive him around everywhere, she rescues him from a burning building.  Other female leads – Phenomena’s Jennifer, Opera’s Betty – are less obviously heroic or strong, but nonetheless survive horrific ordeals intact.  Even female characters who are killed off – Giulia and Mira in Opera, Helga and Amanda in Profondo Rosso – are portrayed as strong, talented or intelligent in their own right.

Argento even passes comment on the criticisms levelled against him, with the brilliant Tenebre.  The film features gratuitously naked lesbians, a questionably treated female police officer, a crazy ex-wife and a long-suffering personal assistant.  The film is full of references to gender roles and feminism, often with a tongue-in-cheek approach.  Perhaps most obviously playing on this are the many flashback scenes to a traumatic event in the killer’s life, where he his humiliated by a woman wearing red high-heeled shoes in front of other young men.  Although less tongue-in-cheek than other scenes in the film, the flashback scenes play with ideas of gender, with the woman pushing the killer to the ground and pressing the heel of her shoe into his mouth.  The sequence is loaded with further gender play when one takes into account the fact that the actress – Eva Robin’s – who plays the role of the woman in these flashbacks, was born male.

If Argento is criticised for the suffering he inflicts upon his female victims, then a great portion of his female characters are ignored – several of his films feature villains who turn out to be female.  I won’t state which films, as I don’t want to spoil any of them, but six of Argento’s films feature a female main villain.  Rather than this being an aspect that promotes the idea of Argento as a misogynist, I’d argue it clearly supports the case that Argento simply finds women interesting.  I don’t think it’s fair to accuse a man of being a misogynist simply because he finds a woman more interesting to film.  Not only does charging Argento with misogyny often miss the point of his use of women in his films, it conveniently ignores the various cruel and unusual ways the men of his films are dispatched.  Even though the camera may not linger quite so lovingly on the deaths of Argento’s male characters, their killings are often no less brutal or shocking than those of female characters in the same film.

I don’t believe it’s fair to single Argento out as a director who particularly mistreats women.  Sure, the women of his films suffer, are tortured, and/or killed – does this alone make Argento a misogynist?  I don’t think it does.  Horror as a genre is generally quite nasty toward women, and if anything, I would argue that Dario Argento gives them a lot more to do and treats them with a lot more respect than many more mainstream horror directors do.  I dare say misogyny is quite a subjective matter at the best of times, and it’s no surprise to me that Argento is criticized the way he is, but I think he needs more vocal defending in the fact of such criticism.

Editors Note: This is a guest editorial by StoneCypher. As our site is dominated by male voices it is nice to have a female voice in horror and we appreciate StoneCypher contributing a female perspective. We hope you enjoyed her guest editorial and will leave some feedback in the comments below. - Meh

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