Neil Marshall’s The Descent, remains one of the most empowering feminist horror movies to this date. While throughout the genre, most female characters are overly sexualized and killed off first, The Descent rejected overused horror clichés and all societal stereotypes of women, deciding to bring a group of female protagonists to the scene (alongside some of the decade’s scariest creatures), who embody bravery and completely badass energy.
The critically acclaimed movie follows six old friends who reunite after the death of the protagonist’s husband and daughter, whom she lost in a tragic car accident. As Sarah is still healing and full of grief, she and her friends decide to take a trip to the remote Western Appalachians and go cave-diving. The gang has intentions of a fun, estrogen-fueled bonding trip and, contrary to social assumptions for a gals night out, a testosterone-filled adventure.
Their descent into the murky depths of the earth takes a claustrophobic and terrifying turn, however, when they are confronted with blood-thirsty, humanoid creatures. They’re not only the monsters they have to fight, though, as it’s the people who seem worth saving that can cause just as much damage.
Women Are Strong, Right?
Although women are often portrayed as passive, weak, and reliant on their male counterparts, it is interesting to see how The Descent shows its feminist intentions by creating female characters who are incredibly strong and brave, while simultaneously showing the more ‘real’ side, where they are actually messy and selfish. In your classic horror movies, the male protagonists are portrayed as heroes, who of course are the strong muscular white knights and protectors of women. The Descent argues against this by giving us a glimpse of a more realistic story, where not every woman needs saving or even can be saved, and where the situation is messy and scary; they handle it like true badass women.
Our leading ladies are thrown into a situation that we like to think would bring out the best in us, our strong feminine powers, where we can fight and survive, but it is simply not realistic; women are strong, by all means, but not everyone is a hero. Instead, they make mistakes, people get hurt, and yet they push their way through to the very end and fight for their lives as best they can, not always succeeding, which is extremely representative of real, every day life.
Kill Or Be Killed
Having a solely female-led cast allowed more possibilities for the storyline of female friendships, specifically focusing on the dynamic of Sarah’s relationship with everyone else. This illuminates the feminist intention of the movie, which would not have been conveyed as well with a mixed-gender cast, where men and women can rarely be shown in a purely platonic relationship without any romantic or sexual tension thrown in there.
While at the beginning, viewers are given the impression that it is a movie about friendship and how women must stick together, it quickly becomes apparent that it is a movie where women are simply fighting for survival, and the brutal lengths they must take to do so. The best part of The Descent is that it does not shy away from showing how women can be violent and cruel. The movie is a perfect representation of “kill or be killed,” where even in everyday life, women have to look after themselves and protect themselves from the cruelty of the world, others, and sometimes even their closest friends.
In The Descent, particularly with Sarah and her closest friend, Juno, the women are not afraid of savagely fighting for survival. We may be accustomed to seeing violence directed towards women who cannot fight back and rely on a male protagonist to jump in to their rescue, but these brutal, eye-gouging women are fueled by rage and grief. We eventually realize that these women have tuned into their survival instinct, and it becomes a literal “you or me” situation, which we cannot blame them for. It appears to be very evident that we tend to underestimate women’s power and abilities. They are great examples of how women can be both mentally and physically strong and capable of surviving alone.
The Descent is a great, empowering feminist movie that spurred an array of other female character based movies. It’s inspirational for the possibility of more horror movies being female-led and introducing more tough, empowering women into cinema. Amongst the powerful themes of feminism, there were also important, underlying themes of grief, loss, and friendship that also tug at our heart-strings; the film could be considered a cathartic allegory for the process of surviving grief.
In general, it’d be a shame to ignore just how much The Descent makes for an incredibly tense horror film, generating feelings of genuine fear and claustrophobia. It without a doubt had the audience holding their breath, and then releasing it with the screams from some excellent jump scares (which most horror fans absolutely love) from the grotesque monsters described as ‘crawlers’ that roam the cave. We all love a good ol’ scary movie, but we love them even more when it has a group of strong, independent women kicking ass.