A Home for Fear:
Barbarian and the Horror of Male Privilege
by Meredith Eget
To the untrained eye, Zach Cregger’s 2022 Barbarian is merely a story of outlandish coincidences, otherworldly monsters and casual chaos with its multiple points of view, elaborate special effects makeup and decades-long time jumps. Some critics of the horror film marvel at its unapologetic embrace of mystery, imagination and gore, while others have argued that the project fell short on account of its implausibility and so-called gullible characters, namely the film’s female lead. At its core, however, I believe that the film pursues an intentional, feminist critique of white male privilege, gendered power dynamics in dating and our expectations of the horror genre itself. Thus, Barbarian plays up the audience’s expectations of the genre in order to subvert them in a brilliant portrayal of the everyday horrors of gendered interactions under the patriarchy. In this paper, I argue that in centering our gaze on the bloody surface of a film like Barbarian, we ignore its functionality as a home for female fear. I explore my argument in the opening sequence of Barbarian supported by the intersectional feminist commentaries of bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center and Sarah Ahmed in Living a Feminist Life.
male privilege, horror, feminism, domestic violence, relationships, fear
Horror movies are one of the few places women are told their fears are real.Gita Jackson
Horror, the film genre that aims to “create and manipulate” emotional responses of “fear, shock [and] disgust” in audiences, is rarely the first genre that comes to mind in the conversation of feminist filmmaking (Alcala). As Sarah Hankins highlights in “’Torture the Women,’” the genre has historically depended upon the “intimidat[ion], [abuse], [rape], and [killing]” of its female characters in order to produce the heart-pounding thrills it is known for (Hankins 1). To this day, Hankins argues, it “favors a problematic masculine view that derives visual pleasure from violence towards women” (3). The horror stage, then, generates fear through its portrayal of the sexualized and dominated female subject (4-5). In objectifying its female characters, the horror genre explores fear with a passive, male-centered gaze that privileges the consumption of the physical feminine form over the actual fear of its female subjects (4). For a genre that capitalizes off of its audience’s relationship to anxiety, fear and expectation, horror does not place a great deal of care into exploring women’s authentic relationships to these emotional states. When the fear of women is misconstrued and cheapened through a male lens, it is erased altogether.
Zach Cregger’s 2022 Barbarian functions as a different kind of horror. Centered on the story of Tess Marshall, a documentary researcher attempting to escape the ghosts of her past, Barbarian plays up the audience’s expectations of the genre in order to subvert them in a brilliant portrayal of the everyday horrors of life as a woman in the patriarchy. On the outside, Barbarian is a story of outlandish coincidences, otherworldly monsters and chaos with its multiple points of view, elaborate special effects makeup and decades-long time jumps. At its core, however, I believe that the film pursues an intentional, feminist critique of male privilege, gendered power dynamics and our expectations of the horror genre itself. In this paper, I argue that in centering our gaze on the bloody surface of a film like Barbarian, we ignore its functionality as a home for female fear. I explore my argument in the opening sequence of Barbarian supported by the intersectional feminist commentaries of bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center and Sarah Ahmed in Living a Feminist Life.
Expectation and Horror
It begins like so many others: a woman drives up to a house on a cold and rainy night, alone. Once she finds the key box before her empty, she rings the doorbell. A man greets her in confusion. Where there should only be one, there are two. And we hold our breath; we’ve seen this story before.
The opening sequence of Barbarian makes an especially unique use of its audience’s expectations by inciting and promptly diffusing our fear in a way that mirrors women’s experiences with self-protection against strangers. We are first introduced to Tess Marshall, played by Georgina Campbell, in a moment of panic. She has booked a stay at 467 Barbary Street, a fictitious neighborhood in Detroit, for a job interview as a documentary researcher. 467 is the only house like it on the street; illuminated in a glowing, amber light, the home possesses an aura at once menacing and alluring for the promises of safety it makes in the dark, rainy night. With the house’s key box empty and its owner unreachable by phone, Tess decides to ring the doorbell in a panic and is met by Keith, played by Bill Skarsgård (00:04:40).
Skarsgård’s distinct look, made recognizable by his iconic role as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the popular 2017 film adaptation of Steven King’s It, grounds the audience’s distrust of Keith. Still, we cannot be sure if it is monster or friend that hides behind his eyes. This is because we’ve been presented with a Skarsgård many haven’t seen before: human and, by Hollywood’s standards, conventionally attractive. Interestingly enough, the same deep-set eyes and sculpted cheekbones that helped grant Skarsgård the role of Pennywise established him as a model. The audience’s familiarity with Skarsgård as a horror villain, then, is undercut by the shockingly human presentation of him now. As a result, the audience can’t be sure what to expect from Keith, an effect that allows them to experience the night alongside Tess in a mutual state of confusion, trepidation and weariness. Has Tess met her monster? Or perhaps a romantic interest?
Tess’s anxiety and defensiveness are palpable from the moment she enters the home. Though Tess and Keith establish that they have both been scammed by the same home rental service, the audience is keenly aware that the playing field between the two is far from even. Tess asks to see Keith’s reservation confirmation, to which he replies: “In case I’m some kind of weirdo who’s broken in here to sleep?” (00:06:57). In the context of a horror film and Tess’s point of view, this scoffing reply feels more like a premonition than a joke or statement of disbelief. The camera mimics this anxiety, sweeping slowly from Tess to the silhouette of Keith staring behind her as she leaves the room (00:07:23). Though his curiosity may be just that, the camera paints Keith’s stare as ominous and threatening while the absence of music and sound contributes to the audience’s expectation of unease. In the same way, Keith’s simple compliments and hospitable offers to make Tess a cup of tea or pour her a glass of wine read as calculated and uncomfortable (00:09:45).
However clueless Keith may be to the eeriness of his actions, he is also aware of Tess’s position as a woman. After he notices that Tess doesn’t drink the cup of tea he prepares for her, he waits for her under a glowing amber light with a bottle of wine, telling her that “[she] wouldn’t want any if [she] didn’t see [him] open it” (00:13:53). In this way, Keith’s expectations and movements are guided by the course of his interaction with Tess: he learns and adapts his actions in the moment in order to make her more comfortable. Tess, however, cannot afford to do so, as she walks into the house with a set of her own expectations just like the audience. Tess, in the words of Sarah Ahmed, has been “taught to be careful,” meaning “if something happens, [she has] failed to prevent it” (Ahmed 24). Violence, then, is par for the course. Guided by her experiences and socialization as a woman, Tess locks every door behind her, refuses every drink and even photographs the ID of her new roommate out of an abundance of caution, or, perhaps, as a self-soothing method (00:11:44; 00:12:07; 00:12:35).
In any other movie genre, her precautions might be seen as overkill. Perhaps if her on-screen partner were a Brad Pitt or a Channing Tatum, Keith’s efforts would even be seen as endearing or charming. In this way, Tess is aware of the expectation placed on women to assess their own safety. Under the patriarchy, it is her job to maintain the impossible balance of decorum, grace and caution.
We feel Tess’s hesitancy now in these moments of simultaneous distrust and interpersonal fascination. We sit in our seats and whisper “no.” This is the horrific set-up we have learned to anticipate: the stranger will imprison her, torture her, sacrifice her to some maleficent spirit. As a woman in a horror movie, Tess must trust no one.
Expectation and Blame
Tess is a protagonist who understands the importance of safety assessments such as these. A survivor of an abusive relationship dynamic, Tess is acutely aware of the threat that men—both strangers and those most familiar—can pose to her. The mention of the abuse itself is casual: we the audience interrupt Tess in the middle of her sentence, and the abusive ex-partner is never addressed outright in the film again. She describes her inability to leave “the guy who thinks love and control are the same thing” as “cliché” and “boring,” and tells Keith that “[she] can’t believe it’s happening to [her]” (00:16:59-00:17:02).
Tess’s unsympathetic perception of her abusive relationship cycle reflects what bell hooks describes as a cultural “celebrat[ion][,]…acceptance and perpetuation of…violence,” one explained in part by “patriarchal rule supporting male domination of women through the use of force” (hooks 120-121). Though Tess does not celebrate her abuser by any means, she does facilitate her own self-criticism and judgement, perpetuating a culture of victim-blaming and shame in the process. Moreover, her casual attempts to make light of the situation and poke fun at herself only work to minimize her own feelings and normalize the violence she’s endured further. Her acceptance of the situation is one that argues: we deserved this. Subconsciously, then, Tess has participated in the cultural acceptance of violence, a participation that permits such a structure to survive.
Particularly fascinating is Tess’s almost instant willingness to mock herself, an inclination that presents more as a reflex than a deliberate decision. It speaks to what Sarah Ahmed describes as performance within the gender system; as she states, “once you have properly accommodated to this system…you can pick up the right card automatically” (Ahmed 55-56). The “right card” in the case of conversations on the domestic abuse of women, as bell hooks might concur, is one of normalization and the redirection of blame. In declaring her suffering cliché, Tess substitutes the pain and anger of her experience for self-blame and ridicule as part of this performance. Moreover, it is one she carries out with careful attention to the comfort of her male audience, perhaps in anticipation of Keith’s response itself.
It is important to note that Keith does not refute Tess’s self-assessment of blame, and at first, one may believe his silence to be a display of solidarity. In a markedly more comfortable and nearly romantic conversation on the couch, Keith declares: “There’s always gonna be people that project some type of dynamic onto us that serves them. It’s up to us if we wanna play ball or not” (00:17:12-00:17:22). He advises Tess not to limit herself or, as bell hooks describes, “[to] [reject] the powerful’s definition of [her] reality…[as] the exercise of this basic personal power is an act of resistance and strength” (hooks 92). Though the patriarchy would have Tess believe that she possesses no power of her own as a Black woman and a survivor, hooks argues instead that her power is intrinsic (92). Denying it— alongside “positive self-concepts” like confidence and sympathy for herself—only entrenches Tess deeper in the false reality of self-blame and normalization that the patriarchy has crafted for her (92).
Tess is more than the suffering she has endured, and believing so, Keith argues, will enable her to break the cycle of her abusive relationship. She is not a cliché nor a statistic but a person who may take back her power as a Black woman and a survivor with an active rejection of society’s treatment of both. In this way, Cregger asks his audience to see Tess not as a trope or a mere horror victim, but as a complex character influenced by her own internalized misogyny. In the process, he asks us to analyze our own prejudices as well: would we the audience have agreed with Tess’s assessment of blame and victimhood in a conversation such as this one? And what does that say about our socialization?
However, as much as Keith’s response works to remind Tess of her agency and worth, it equally displays his privilege as a white man as well as his white savior complex. The idea that ending an abusive relationship is as simple as deciding not to “play ball” or “mov[ing] on” and “find[ing] someone else” reduces her experience to a lack of self-discipline or strength rather than acknowledging the pain and complication of romantic love turned abusive (00:18:27-00:18:30). Moreover, the fact that such advice is coming from Keith—a white man who, to the audience’s knowledge, has never been involved in an abusive relationship—contextualizes his words in a white savior framework. In reframing Tess’s experience for her, he seeks to simplify her pain and save her from her own decisions. Just like Tess’s performance of self-mockery, Keith’s display of white saviorism is carried out to privilege his comfort and his ego; Keith believes, as Tess might herself, that he can save her.
Though Keith’s declaration that he “get[s] it” because “there are a lot of bad dudes out there and it sucks” seeks to establish some kind of shared understanding and separate himself from the aforementioned “dudes,” it diminishes the gravity of Tess’s experiences all the same (00:18:15-00:18:21). In other words, it is a response that shrugs its shoulders at the reality of male violence against women in accepting it as an unfortunate fact of life. Knowing that there are a lot of “bad dudes” in the world does nothing to protect women when they have to guess who is dangerous and who is not. Moreover, the verbiage of “out there” conveys the idea that violence against women only occurs in the dark by a stranger. In reality, women “are generally murdered by people they know,” as a mere 10% of female murder victims from 1993 to 2007 were killed by a stranger, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates (Catalano 3). This figure is made all the more complex by the higher rates of intimate partner violence that Black women face specifically, as they were “four times more likely than white [women] to be murdered by a boyfriend or girlfriend” in the same study (3).
Keith’s white male privilege protects him from this reality because it allows him to ignore the lived experiences of marginalized communities and interpret his perspective as the baseline of human experience. As such, “bad dudes” are mere bad apples in his eyes, an exception to the rule rather than an all-too-common byproduct of the patriarchy. Because Keith does not experience the same kind of substantiated, perpetual terror that Tess does, he assumes that the threat of violence against women isn’t as grave as it’s made out to be. As Ahmed describes, his privilege is an “energy saving device,” a representation of “the experiences [he] [is] protected from having; the thoughts [he] [does] not have to think” (Ahmed 181). It is the reason, Tess highlights, why “if [she] had been the one who checked in first…and was dumb enough to let [him] in, [he] wouldn’t even think twice [about entering]” (00:17:54-00:18:08). In this way, Keith’s clueless response works to the film’s favor by representing his privileged perspective and portraying the nuances of these conversations as women experience them in real life.
In some ways, Barbarian appears to both condemn and perpetrate the same violence against women that typical horror films rely upon, though admittedly in a far less bloody manner. Here, the violence reflected is systemic, as the audience watches Tess and Keith minimize the subject of her abuse while he makes no effort to correct her, console her or assure her that the abuse she has suffered isn’t her fault. Such a setup doesn’t feel like a safe haven against the everyday terrors of the gender system and the performances it asks us to play. And yet, in featuring such a conversation, the audience can’t help but feel compelled and, in many ways, represented. I believe that the representation of these introductory conversations, alongside the feminist development of the film’s plot, validates the experiences of many women in recognizing the horrors of white male privilege and the gender system as they surface in conversations recognizable to female audiences. Whereas the male-gaze-dominated horror film celebrates violence against women by portraying it in a “glamorized[,]…entertaining[,]…sexually titillating” and therefore thrilling light, Barbarian instead contemplates the real-world implications of those celebrations and the gross disfigurations of agency and self-esteem that they produce (hooks 123).
Expectation and Romance
In the moments of silence, our eyes cannot discern what is brewing romance or impending doom. It is a balance that women know all too well: the assessment of danger in spaces of unfamiliarity. Is this a glance of desire to know me or to possess me? To love, or to harm?
Though the first ten minutes of Barbarian would have its audience anticipate a horrific, albeit predictable, turn of events, Cregger instead elects to complicate the traditional horror dynamic with romantic tension in order to further explore the foundations of relationship violence.
After Tess learns of Keith’s identity as one of the founding members of a popular jazz group relevant to her documentary research, the two bond over their similarities, and the camerawork quickly reflects this change. The lingering anxiety of slow, looming camera pans are replaced with quick cuts that flip excitedly back and forth between Tess and Keith’s faces with every animated line of dialogue exchanged between the two. No emotion is left in the dark as every smile, laugh and lingering glance is highlighted by this technique (00:16:46-00:18:40). The excitement of the conversation discards any of Tess’s previous fears about the drinks as Keith pours her a glass of wine and she drinks it enthusiastically (00:16:48). Still, the audience cannot so easily forget her anxiety of just minutes before from the objective position of a theater seat. In this way, Cregger seesaws between apprehension and romantic intrigue in a confusing display that mimics the dating scene for women attracted to men.
When Keith shows Tess his perfect technique for putting on a duvet cover, he cloaks himself in the duvet so that he resembles a ghost, a poke at the audience in a playful callback to traditional horror ghouls (00:18:44-00:19:47). This scene is one of intense laughter and chemistry, and the audience can’t help but root for the new unconventional couple. In fact, we are made to feel foolish for ever doubting Keith at all. With the threat of Keith dissolved, Tess goes to bed without locking her door (00:20:36). It comes as a shock, then, when she awakens suddenly in the night to a creaking floorboard, a distant squelching sound, and an open bedroom door (00:20:45-00:22:33). The horror has arrived once again with a vengeance and chastised us for ever feeling comfortable at all. Though Tess later discovers that Keith did not open her door, the incident acts as a painful reminder for Tess and the audience alike that, in our protagonist’s words, “girls have to be careful” (00:17:51).
Cregger’s choice to mix terror and romance in the same opening act does not function to undermine the mood of the film or sexualize our protagonist as other horror films do, but to highlight the very real terror that underscores romantic interactions for women dating men and the influence of violence on dating culture. As bell hooks describes in chapter nine, “love and violence have become so intertwined in this society that…women are encouraged to believe that violence is a sign of masculinity and a gesture of male care” (hooks 124-125). Under this cultural acceptance of violence, women are called to embrace displays of extreme jealousy, possessiveness and control as passion and the absence of these behaviors as apathy, disinterest or weakness. For this reason, male aggression, violence and even abuse are pardoned by the patriarchy and accepted by many women as a trade-off of sorts for romantic care (125). In order to receive romantic love from men at all, the patriarchy tells women that they themselves must draw the line between socially-accepted aggression and abuse. This so-called responsibility not only forces women to take on the intense mental labor of perpetual surveillance, but assigns them the blame should their partner become abusive. After all, it is easier for society to ask what a survivor could have done differently to “avoid” their abuse than to destroy the system that permitted it in the first place.
As a survivor of abuse who has not yet broken the pattern of “going back,” Tess is especially vulnerable to this societal acceptance of violence, yet we witness her active resistance in moments of caution and distance with Keith (00:17:32). What may one moment appear unnerving in the context of dim lighting and silence becomes romantic a minute later with amber lights and a smooth jazz track in the background. In another context, the interactions of Tess and Keith may even resemble that of a first date: two strangers meet, apprehensive at first, and eventually find common ground on which to bond as their walls slowly come down. The result is a dynamic as confusing as it is relatable, one that argues against victim-blaming statements by asking of its audience the impossible task of assessing Keith’s danger alongside Tess. When the course of the film’s mood changes as quickly as it does, the answer is far from obvious.
Our expectations of female horror characters are not at all unlike our unrealistic societal expectations of women. When watching a film entitled Barbarian, we expect blood, gore and terror, but that is not a reasonable expectation for anyone to have entering a rental house or a new relationship. Yet as members of film audiences and patriarchal societies alike, we are not often understanding towards women or the ways in which they process these circumstances. The audience that criticizes Tess’s so-called carelessness for her entry into the house would just as easily criticize her carefulness or, as hooks describes, her “’uppity’…defiance” in a romantic context (hooks 124). Cregger places the audience in Tess’s shoes and subverts the horror genre’s expectations, then, in order to ask us to sympathize with her past and present experiences with male terror. Thus, Barbarian functions as a home for female fear because it explores that which others dismiss or reject altogether: the routine terror of male privilege and the way in which it may enact emotional and physical harm.
Ahmed, Sarah. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.
Alcala, Elizabeth. “Defining the Horror Genre.” The Acronym IMSAs Official Student Newspaper, MH Themes, 29 Oct. 2020, https://sites.imsa.edu/acronym/2020/10/29/defining-the-horror-genre/.
Barbarian. Directed by Zach Cregger, performances by Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgård, 20th Century Studios, 2022.
Catalano, Shannan, et al. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Female Victims of Violence. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Sept. 2009, https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvv.pdf.
Hankins, Sarah, “’Torture the Women”: A Gaze at the Misogynistic Machinery of Scary Cinema” (2019). Copley Library Undergraduate Research Awards. 1.
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 2nd ed., South End, 2000.
Jackson, Gita. “Horror Movies Are One of the Few Places Women Are Told Their Fears Are Real.” Polygon, Vox Media, 29 Apr. 2015, https://www.polygon.com/2015/4/29/8490019/horror-films-women.
I would like to thank Cecilia Herles and Erin McDermott for their invaluable guidance in this project.
Citation Style: MLA