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April 17 2012

(SPOILER) Is The Cabin in the Woods a step backwards from Buffy? That's the question critic Alyssa Rosenberg poses in this piece for Think Progress. (Her headline is different, but the one here is the more provocative way she tweeted the piece.)

I kind of disagree with this. The teens sent to the Cabin are supposed to be stock characters, each being assigned a specific role, namely they have to die as part of a ritual to keep their world (namely the Cabin-verse) alive. Also notice they were affected by pheramones and special effects provided by the Human Sacrifices Inc. crew, and Jules' blonde dye was drugged from the start. It made her the dumb blonde, or at least dizzy enough to want to french kiss a stuffed animal. If all were clear-headed, it would have turned out differently.
Joss and Drew were making pointed comments about the traditional horror movie by including the dumb sexy blonde who was made that way through the dugged dye and pheramones, which represents the typical horror movie script. That's why in 1992, Joss, like Marty, thought it was time for a change.
If you note, though, her point was the movie spends almost no time offering a sense of who Jules was beforehand, certainly as compared to Curt, Dana, and Marty. Clearly she gets the archetype/stereotype thing. While I disagree with the provocative "step back" thing, she's not wrong that we don't actually get to know much about the real Jules.
But Julesí character is the one thatís least-played with, the least-subverted, and the one we see suffer the longest

Surely Dana was the one who suffered the longest? She endured more than the rest of the students.
It seems like a necessary evil of how the narrative is constructed, though. To meet Jules before she goes blonde is to start the movie way, way, way too early.

And for what it's worth, I feel like we do see a progression with Jules. She has less screen time than the other four kids, so of course we don't get the same degree of subversion as they do. But at the start of the film, we see her being witty and funny and bantering with everyone. It's only once they get to the cabin that she starts to be overtly sexual (and nothing else).

I can see where the author's issues stem from, and I think to some extent they're definitely there. I think it ultimately comes down to an issue of interrupting the narrative to flesh her out more, or accepting her as something of (though not entirely) a typical horror movie blonde for the sake of the larger story. Joss has often said (major paraphrase) that if the issue gets in the way of the story, he'll go with the story, and that's where I personally stand as well. But I can see how that would be an unsatisfying answer to some.

ETA: Yeah, I was gonna comment on that too, Simon. In fact, I'd say her suffering is the shortest of all the kids--she's the only one who actually dies fairly quickly after her initial injury, yeah?

[ edited by Jobo on 2012-04-17 19:23 ]
I do think the movie could have used an extra 15-20 minutes of time for fleshing out the kids both before and after they start being affected. I could have used a little bit more attachment to the characters before they started dying off... And it doesn't help that I knew Marty wasn't dead thanks to the trailer, so during the movie it made me start thinking no body was dead, but was experiencing a second round of horrors in the basement. (Which kind of gives me a neat fic idea actually now that I think about it... too bad I don't/am not good at that sort of thing)

I mean, by the end I was caring a lot about Marty and Dana, but I felt like I never got enough time to care about the other three... And the people in the basement for that matter... I had more of a chance to connect with everyone else.
Cabin heavily implies that we are being dropped right into the scenario (she has already dyed her hair blonde, it's chemical effects have already started), and that structure plays a huge role in our expectations, thrills and enjoyment of how the rest of the movie plays out.

I think the movie is brilliantly paced out and I wouldn't change a thing. We get enough indication that Jules isn't ACTUALLY a dumb blonde, there's no need for 20 minutes of character background on what is essentially supposed to be a fun wild rollercoaster ride of a movie.
@DreamRose311 I agree on both counts. The trailer totally blew what I should have felt was a terrible far too soon murder. Also, I think a good 10 min more of them packing up ect could have helped the story because we would have seen more of what they were before thus enabling us to really see the shifting and subverting in a bigger way and really get us attached to the people. I can see the bigger picture though. Joss wanted us to ask ourselves why were not attached. It is the put them in the box extrapolation that made this above par. However, I think it is easy to argue that all of Whedon's projects should be at least 10 min longer lol
I don't know that I agree with Rosenberg's theory that it's a step back but I will agree that I had trouble attaching to some of the characters. Perhaps, the intent was for me to be less attached and I didn't like that part?

I felt more attached to the people in the control room. I must be a closet sadist.

I was surprised that Whedon killed "the dumb blond" so quickly, and after such objectification, but I figured it was part of playing with the genre.

Plus, if the blond "stupider" one was the end heroine, he would have been remaking Buffy. I don't think it was a step back, it was just a slightly different step from Buffy.
Curt, the giant jock, turns out to be a pre-med smarty.

I'm not sure if I'm remembering this wrong, but wasn't Jules the pre-med student and Curt the sociology major? If she's going to make the criticism (which is fine, it would have been nice to know a little bit more about the characters before they were slaughtered), she could at least get her facts straight.
I'm not really seeing her point. I kind of feel bad for Joss because when he created an iconic strong female character like Buffy and dubbed himself a feminist, a chunk of his fanbase immediately tried to pigeonhole him into someone who's work can never objectify women. I saw this happen all the time when Dollhouse was on the air, and people spouting off about how it was a step backwards from Buffy etc. And now this. I mean the whole point of this film was to take these teenagers and in a way turn them into the generic characters that fit a certain category. That was the point of the film.

With Buffy he wanted to turn the trope of a blonde woman in an alley who can't defend herself. With this he wanted to turn the horror genre on its head, which required him to create characters that you would see in a typical horror movie. That didn't require much of Jules character or for us to spend much time learning about her backstory. All we needed to know was formerly a smart med student, turned horror movie stereotype.

A filmmaker has different goals in each story he/she wants to tell. Unfortunately for Alyssa Rosenberg, and other like-minded people, not every female character he creates can be Buffy Summers over and over again. Not if it doesn't fit the story that is trying to be told.

[ edited by bloomyself on 2012-04-17 20:56 ]
Well, I never cared much about anyone's survival in the run-of-the-mill slasher films I've seen, except for Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Drew Barrymore in the original Scream (both exceptions) because of their expendability factor/stereotypical nature (shallow, shrill, dumb, you name it). Cripes, their shirts could not be redder. I did actually care about four of the five sacrificial lambs in CiTW (not Jules) but more because I knew who the actors were before the film and yikes, didn't want to see them die. I think if, as mentioned, Jules had gotten a little more screen time I might have felt a twinge, but that simply wasn't her purpose for this film. Yes, she was duped, and ultimately made far less interesting than everyone else but that's the point.

There's only one Buffy, and that's also the point. That's one unique story. CiTW is another. I also wish people would let Joss exercise creative freedom rather than try to stick him into the uber feminist category.

[ edited by Tonya J on 2012-04-17 21:03 ]

[ edited by Tonya J on 2012-04-17 21:03 ]
I'm just going to make the counterpoint here, that an extra 10 to 15 minutes to flesh out character's would have bordered on wasted screen time for me. Because I got what I needed about each character with the screen time they had and I didn't feel I was missing anything.

I have only seen the film one time, and in that initial viewing I took away immediately that Jules was acting "out of character" because both who she is at the start and what Marty says about her are at loggerheads with the character we see for the rest of the movie. The thing that holds this script together better than many others, is that it's believable that they are friends where often the archetype movies make no sense on that front. When they start acting like people who shouldn't be together, we already know they're being heavily influenced.
Jules is the pre-med student, not Curt.

@bloomyself I completely agree with everything you've said. Truth be told, I was really happy with the way Joss handled Jules. I was worried that he'd be pulling punches throughout the movie given his past work, so the scene where Jules went out really shocked me. She's manipulated (arguably the most), completely objectified, then slaughtered. The movie up to that point was mostly funny, then it became poignant in a f*cked up sort of way. Even though we didn't see who she was before, I had more sympathy for her death than anyone else's. The poor girl never got a fair shake.
azzers - I'm with you -- extra setup time would've broken the pacing in my opinion and I already got what I needed to understand what I needed to about the kids, their world, etc. I imagine we'll see a lot of 'controversial' articles/titles over the next few weeks while CiTW is a trending topic. Good times.
Well, I think that Joss and Drew would be the first to admit that nothing they do is ever perfect. Art is like that. *sigh*

I think that if there are people here who have seen the film and feel like they had trouble connecting with the characters and if one of the main points of criticism in the negative reviews is the same, then perhaps it should be taken as evidence that this part of the film that could have been better executed. It doesn't take anywhere near 10-15 minutes to make the viewer care about a character. Somewhere between 30 seconds and 2 minutes can be enough (depending on the scene) for writers of the high caliber of Joss and Drew.
I felt connected to all the characters and thought Jules, Holden and Curt died way too soon only because I wanted to spend more time with them. Thats not how I usually feel from watching slasher movies.
I agree with a lot of the comments already made here.

I think that the distance and not getting to know the characters better is deliberate. We have enough information to know that they are being forced into roles that don't fit who they really are. We are distanced from them in a way that made me uncomfortable throughout the whole movie (in a good art way, not an I-have-a-squick way).

Like hann23, I felt more invested in the people in the control room. Again, I think that's deliberate. We open the movie with them, not with the stock characters. It's their story as much as anyone else's, if not more so. Their deaths are kind of the most heart-breaking.

Honestly, I'm tired of this question. Like so many of us have said, it's unfortunate that Joss is, by some fans, not allowed to do anything new or different if it threatens his feminist status.

People can be feminists and do other stuff, too.
I do agree with the author to some extent, but I can also see the lack of more info about Jules as an intentional misdirect - so as not to give away too much about the direction the story was heading (even though the backroom techies were already pushing us in that direction). I think, though, that the scene could have implied she bared her breasts, rather than actually showing it. It could all have played out exactly the same way, without exploiting her body. That Joss (or Drew... can't recall which interview) joked about having to cast a woman from New Zealand, because American actresses wouldn't bare their breasts, reveals some little inkling of truth that maybe they took that scene too far. Even the dumb blonde has to be more than the sum of her body parts. (Granted, nude scenes have happened to men on "Buffy" and "Firefly," but the average movie goer isn't going to know this; but men have not been routinely objectified the way women have.)
I guess for me Kiba, I don't like it... but that's what happens when you allow someone to foist a mantle on you. Joss is a feminist like many men are feminists. But because he's carrying this huge "Created Buffy" badge, there are some that seem to feel his only function should be creating creating feminist hero mythologies. I flash back to Dollhouse which was exceptionally interesting, challenging, and just odd (in my estimation the mistake was in not making someone else the protagonist UNTIL Echo picks up the mantle.) But it strikes me that until his themes got really blunt, it really bothered people. He seems to get judged (whether people like Ms. Rosenburg realize it or not) accordingly and I can see why he was annoyed by the question and the fact he got cheered for his response.

He understands what he's doing, and he is often cheered or jeered by people who completely misunderstand the point.
"I think, though, that the scene could have implied she bared her breasts, rather than actually showing it. It could all have played out exactly the same way, without exploiting her body."

I think that scene is important for two reason:

1) Horror movies objectify women, and have nudity. I think it would feel dishonest for Cabin to ignore that fact and gone with an implication, when horror movies very rarely do that.

2) I think it diminishes the impact of Hadley's reaction to it. The audience becomes complicit in the moment. Especially since many men in the audience probably had similar thoughts as the two lab guys: "Ohhh nice, boobs." Critiques both the genre's history of objectification, and also the audience's.
When Dana tells Holden that Jules is pre-med, that's our clue that she's definitely NOT a dumb blonde (not to mention that she's apparently NOT even blonde to start with). Likewise, when Lin (Amy) explains how her behavior is going to be affected by her hair dye, we are set up to know that she's going to be acting abnormally.

Heck, someone came over to talk to me for several minutes and I forgot what I was going to write. I think I was basically just going to agree with what Azzers said, by reason of the above.
"1) Horror movies objectify women, and have nudity. I think it would feel dishonest for Cabin to ignore that fact and gone with an implication, when horror movies very rarely do that."

So, in order to deconstruct, critique, or satirize the horror genre, the exploitation of a woman's body has to be overt and genuine? I got that some of it was over-the-top to highlight how much she's been manipulated.)

It's the only aspect of the movie where I question the choice that was made. (And for the record, I caught that Jules was pre-med - thus it was clear she didn't start out dumb. None of the characters did.)
"So, in order to deconstruct, critique, or satirize the horror genre, the exploitation of a woman's body has to be overt and genuine? I got that some of it was over-the-top to highlight how much she's been manipulated.)"

Yeah, I guess this is one of those YMMV moments. I think the commentary is enhanced by the nudity, and would be significantly weaker without it--we'd have a satire of a horror movie that doesn't fully acknowledge and tackle one of the most noteworthy (and unpleasant) elements of the genre.

I can see where you're coming from, too, but I really do think that the deconstruction/critique/satire would be weaker if they hadn't gone all-in for that moment.
For me, I do think that spending an extra 15 minutes or so in the company of the teens before they embarked on their journey to the cabin would have helped the idea that they were acting out of character. To be honest, the only real reason that we knew they were acting out of character was because we were directly told this. There may have been indication that Jules was not stupid, but there wasn't anything to say her being drunk and getting sexual was out of the ordinary until Dana says it was.

However, I don't think this would have improved the film. The snappy start is much more in keeping with the style of film they wanted to provoke and you would probably have lost the audience if there was too much background story going on. Just knowing that she has recently dyed her hair blonde was enough to know what you needed to, as well as that she would be the first to snuff it.
To me the credibility of the film as a subversion or critique of horror movie tropes doesn't fall apart with the too-too build-up to Anna Hutchison's naked breasts, but rather in the half minute or so of Kristen Connoly preposterously and without even a hint of winking self-awareness by the film prancing in front of her completely open and unobstructed windows in her panties. Because actual people do this all the time in their second floor massive windows that overlook an intersection.

Honestly, I was pretty disappointed with the film on most levels. Wasn't scary at all, and while it had some memorably clever bits, it had even more memorably it-thinks-it's-clever bits. But the idea that this film somehow averts horror movie tropes, especially sex tropes, is just funny. Near the end of the movie, I kinda thought maybe Marty would be revealed the *actual* virgin and would gank Dana, who would have (for her various oversights) been the actual Fool, and the world would be saved. But, no.
I liked the interview where Joss had said that he and Drew were very uncomfortable asking an actress to go topless in order to fit the parody of the Horror movie objectification. He even said that many actresses they talked to would have done nudity for an artistic film, but wouldn't consider it for a Horror film (because clearly Art is beautiful and obnoxious objectification is just... obnoxious). So Joss said that he and Drew were thrilled to meet an Australian actress who was cool with it, she had no qualms and no embarrassment.

Frankly I think it would have undercut the moment to only show the reaction in the underground lab, but not show the actual nudity (which is what they will probably do if and when the show is on American TV.... not in the UK because boobs aren't even really nudity in Europe).
I thought the article had a valid point. I also think it's entirely fair for people to consider Joss' (frequent and public) self-identification as a feminist when critiquing his work.

However, I also thought Jules' death and the circumstances around it were appropriately disturbing ... the film made the audience very aware that she was being drugged, manipulated, and coerced into (a) acting like a "dumb blond" and (b) having sex in the woods. This isn't who Jules is; it's a role the Puppeteers have forced her to play. So it worked for me, I guess.

And I agree with KingofCretins ... the panty scene at the beginning was just weird. I could buy the fact that Dana's not wearing pants in her bedroom while packing (though the massive windows do make it less plausible). But when Carl walks in, and she doesn't *immediately* go "oh crap, I''m not dressed?" That's not exactly normal.
I haven't seen many horror films, so when Jules took off her shirt as the zombies approached, I assumed it was an example of the torture porn type movies that Joss has criticized. I was extremely uncomfortable throughout the entire scene- however, I think it helped hammer in the point that Jules was being manipulated into a stereotype (contrasting with some of the ambiguity we're feeling with regards to Dana's pantsless escapades- I thought it was funny, but also didn't quite make sense).

And I agree, bloomyself. I think it's frustrating that to some, all of Joss Whedon's female characters from Buffy onward need to be feminist icons. At some point, characters, even Buffy, cease being icons and are simply people, or in Jules's case, intentional stereotypes.
Because actual people do this all the time in their second floor massive windows that overlook an intersection.

Having lived in several college towns, I've seen many many stranger things that you would find even more unlikely. Also, if they had done it on the main floor, it would seem weirder to me, but it's not inconsistent with things I've observed. This may be my strangest comment ever and I'm sure that some of you think I'm BSing you or being an apologist, but I honestly couldn't be bothered to do that :). There are weird psychological effects that we don't think about -- another is that if you pass through a doorway on the way to do something in another room, you are more likely to forget what you were doing and it happens at the point you cross the threshold. We are weird creatures.

I'm kinda with Jobo on the nudity here, also. I liken it to Dollhouse where potentially exploitative things have to be done/shown to break them down. As said above, your mileage may vary, but hints and implications are rarely enough to make the target audience of a deconstructionist/explorationist piece see the light.
It wasn't 'torture porn', although I can see how that mistake is an easy one. Torture is the porn of "torture porn" -- i.e. lengthy scenes of someone being boiled alive, just for example. What happened to Jules was actually profoundly conventional, just with the wink and a smile of having chemicals inducing the cliched behavior.

Zeitgeist -- lived seven years in both on- and off-campus housing at one of the most renowned party schools in... well, the world, really. In that time, I found nothing typical about a coed totally unselfconsciously standing around in a shirt but no pants in front of multiple, unblinded, unsheered, uncurtained windows in full light for the benefit of a city intersection.

For me, the thing about "exploitative things being shown/done to break them down" is that, first and foremost, they are being done and shown, and the presentation is deriving every typical and cliched benefit of them being done and shown. It is the last word in having it both ways, to stand on a soapbox decrying exploitation, stereotyping, and cliche while still using the very devices to amuse and titillate. I've always appreciated it most when I know that Joss, or whoever, realizes that they should "smile when they say that", vis a vis the politics and imagery. I think they do a good job of that in the context of, say, a "Dollhouse" episode commentary, or Joss' infamous "have you seen the women on our show?" about "Buffy"'s ability to draw male viewers, but when horror movies have so long been the target of his criticism, I don't feel there is that self-awareness.

[ edited by KingofCretins on 2012-04-18 02:40 ]

[ edited by KingofCretins on 2012-04-18 02:44 ]
There's actually a line in the film about Jules' nudity when Truman, the new guy, questions if they really need Jules to show her breasts, and one of the operators (I think it's Hadley) says, "We're not the only ones watching." Having a female character show breasts is part of the horror film ethos, therefore part of the ritual (within "Cabin's" logic).

And for the love of all that is bananas and balloons, *Dana* is an intelligent character (just not blonde). Marty is blond (just not female). There are a whole bunch of female characters in the film. All of them seem pretty smart. Jules is *drugged* and she doesn't do anything dumber than flirt with an old friend and want to have sex with her boyfriend. Dana is the one who reads the Latin. Jules is unaware that she's showing her breasts to anybody except Curt, who has seen them before, and they have no reason to think the woods are dangerous. Aspersions are being cast on *no one* as a group in the film. (Okay, maybe aspersions are cast on pain-worshipping hillbilly zombies, but they have it coming, gosh darn it!) Joss Whedon is being hit with a narrative/character burden - he can't ever write female victims? - that nobody should have to carry.
Shapenew, I frankly am offended by your comment. It is uninformed viewpoints like yours that are keeping the Pain-Worshipping Hillbilly Zombie community downtrodden. I for one stand by our undead, S&M brothers and sisters, and respect their right to maim me with a bear trap.
Shapenew, they were also talking about us -- we were watching.
Shapenew - Giles_314 beat me to it :). Also, yes! What you said -- people far too often mistake character x or line y for the writer's final statement on issue z. It's a silly, silly thin to do, but it gets attention. Not everything a character says or does has to support the creator's personal beliefs on an issue.

For me, the thing about "exploitative things being shown/done to break them down" is that, first and foremost, they are being done and shown, and the presentation is deriving every typical and cliched benefit of them being done and shown. It is the last word in having it both ways, to stand on a soapbox decrying exploitation, stereotyping, and cliche while still using the very devices to amuse and titillate. I've always appreciated it most when I know that Joss, or whoever, realizes that they should "smile when they say that", vis a vis the politics and imagery. I think they do a good job of that in the context of, say, a "Dollhouse" episode commentary, or Joss' infamous "have you seen the women on our show?" about "Buffy"'s ability to draw male viewers, but when horror movies have so long been the target of his criticism, I don't feel there is that self-awareness.

KoC - of course, its having it both ways, but as I said above those who are party to the exploitation by watching aren't, I don't think, as likely to get dragged out of themselves and their frame of reference to receive the soapbox-y goodness without getting the hook and line first. I'm sure there are plenty of folks who would disagree with you (and have, here, loudly) about how well Dollhouse did it, but for my personal mileage, Cabin does it similarly well.

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2012-04-18 04:44 ]
Ah, thanks for the clarification, KoC.
Wandering around one's apartment without a skirt or slacks on is not that unusual for a woman, especially in an apartment not on ground level. Maybe Dana was waiting for her jeans to come out of the laundry while she finished packing and forgot when she walked into that room that she was half-undressed. I certainly did not think it was a 'major' intersection and I don't think her lower half could have been seen from the street.

It also led to making a point about Curt, as he comes in and talks to Dana about books to read for a couple of minutes before he suddenly realises that she's not wearing pants - and she seems startled to remember. At the time my thought was, "what a nice guy." I saw it as a contrast with his behaviour later with Jules at the cabin.
I forgot she took her top off. Meh.

Now, Chris Hemsworth without a top. Oh, baby.
It's not a step backwards from Buffy because this isn't some sort of linear progression. Cabin is coming at the "helpless blonde woman is attacked by a monster in a dark place" scene from a completely different angle. Buffy inverted the trope by having the woman kick the monster's ass and be the thing the monsters fear. Cabin had the monster kill her brutally, and made you think about what it means that we tell and watch these stories where people are objectified and slaughtered over and over again.

Of course it's not like Buffy. It's really not supposed to be.
Is it supposed to be ironic that the movie kills the woman brutally and makes you think about what it means that we watch women getting killed brutally? I mean, the woman still got killed brutally. That's many levels too meta for me, the reader response guy.
What Sunfire Saidtm.

Dana5140 - having it be ironic too would almost (see also the Sunfire exemptiontm) definitely be too many levels of meta :).

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2012-04-18 16:34 ]
It's not too meta for me, but I guess you could say I respond to meta.
But what does that say about you, and more importantly people watching you respond?
I don't know. I think I may need a diagram at that point.
|irony? |
+-------+ +--^----+ +-------+ +---------------------+ +-----------------+
|Sunfire<----+------+viewers<------------+ movie commenting <--+| movie w/woman |
+-------+ | +-------+ |on this via lab chars| |brutally murdered|
| +---------+-----------+ +-----------------+
+----v----+ +---------v------------+
| Sunfire | | movie simultaneously|
|Exemption| | commenting on viewers|
+---------+ +----------------------+

All --- lines == meta
Also - bad admin (self), don't encourage this
hehe, that is kinda awesome. Particularly the note to self discouraging encouraging :o)

I forget how long 15-20 minutes can be, so I'll make it more like 5-10 more minutes with the characters... again both pre and post manipulations (at least on-site ones) (not 5-10 each though, just total). Also I can totally change my mind on this when I see it a second time, as I said it might be partially affected by my thinking maybe nobody was dying due to the one damn trailer I watched (the first one).

I've definitely walked around naked in my room without noticing right away my blinds are open. It happens. I think her not realizing she is still pantless when Curt comes in can come from how close of friends they all are. She was pretty engrossed in conversation with Jules and could've easily forgotten the pantslessness. I know I had until Curt pointed it out.

As for the JulesNudity, I was pretty uncomfortable but also just shocked because I didn't expect Joss to go there. Some of the comments on here caused me to link it to Scream when they're watching Halloween downstairs and Randy says something about the 'obligatory tit shot' and then it cuts to Syd taking off her shirt, but she still has a bra on. I'm very ok with her not showing her breasts, but I think it would have fit the joke better if she had, and I think that's the same logic here. If Jules hadn't shown her breasts, it wouldn't have fit the "joke" (less literal) as well.

Oh, also wasn't she quite hesitant about doing anything in the woods at first? It was only with Moon and Pherimones that she lost her inhibitions? So actually showing them kind of shows how much she was manipulated.

[ edited by DreamRose311 on 2012-04-18 19:40 ]
Yeah, she was basically roofied with pheromone-fog.

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