Where the Boys At?: Tipping the Gender Balance in CARRIE
2 September 2012
If you have seen Carrie, more than likely you remember pig’s blood, a fiery prom, the bloody hand, and (of course) Piper’s Laurie’s unforgettable Mrs. Margaret White, Carrie’s Jesus-loving mother from hell. In the supernatural horror flick, these are the horrifyingly memorable moments. Yet, there is more to Carrie than these terrors; in fact, much of Carrie slides under the radar because most of the film pales in comparison to the aforementioned frights. One rather obvious but easily missed fact about Carrie is the film is incredibly female heavy; there very few male characters leaving a tremendous disbalance in gender representation. And, upon closer consideration, the few males in Carrie are only there to enhance the characterization of the film’s females and to act as pawns for these female characters.
Directed by Brian DePalma in 1976, and adapted from Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie tells the story of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a high school senior, in the days leading up to her senior prom. Carrie has two big secrets: the first is her mother (Piper Laurie) puts religious fanaticism to shame, and the second is she is telekinetic (she can move objects with her mind). As a result of her differences from the norm, Carrie is an outsider at Bates High School (yes, Bates, as in Psycho), and she is often the target of cruel and malicious bullying. However, after one particular prank on Carrie goes too far, Sue (Amy Irving), one of the popular girls at Bates, has a change of heart and wants to rectify her poor treatment of Carrie. Sue persuades her boyfriend, Tommy (William Katt), to take the dateless Carrie to the upcoming prom. Just as Carrie’s lucks seems to be turning around the unthinkable happens, and prom night ends up more gravely thrilling than anyone, including Carrie, was prepared for.
Aside from a few minor characters, which will be discussed shortly, there are only two significant male roles in Carrie: Tommy and Billy (John Travolta), Sue and Chris’ boyfriends, respectively. Tommy Ross plays the larger role of the two, as he becomes Carrie’s date for the prom. Yet, when his more sizable part is boiled down to its core, Tommy’s role is merely pawn, a pawn who actually strengthens Carrie and Sue’s characterizations. First, Carrie is an outsider and has no boyfriend, so, of course, the popular girls (Sue) all have boyfriends (Tommy). These boyfriends are primarily there representing something Carrie lacks. (Well, that is a loaded statement but let us not digress.) Moreover, Sue is the sole survivor of prom night thanks to her upstanding moral character. That is, the audience accepts Sue’s survival in the film’s conclusion because she acknowledges and attempts to rectify her bad behavior toward Carrie. Therefore, the people around Sue, namely (but not exclusively) Tommy, also have to be morally elite characters who support Sue’s character growth in the film from bully to heroine. Sue dates the only boy at Bates who would take Carrie to prom, and Tommy’s honorable behavior reflects positively on Sue in the audience’s eyes. Thinking back, all of Tommy’s actions are driven by Sue, and had she not wronged Carrie in the film’s opening Tommy’s character would be unnecessary; within the film’s narrative structure, Tommy is Sue’s pawn.
The other male character is Billy Nolan, Chris’ boyfriend. Billy is the antithesis of Tommy, as Chris (Nancy Allen) is the antithesis of Sue. And, just as Tommy made Sue a more admirable character, Billy makes Chris a more abominable, divisive character. Billy, essentially, serves as Chris’ lackey; Billy does all of Chris’ dirty work: drives her around, kills the pig, and rigs the bucket. If Chris were not the film’s villain, Billy would not have a place in the film; Billy is Chris’ pawn because his character is contingent on Chris’ in every way.
Aside from those two characters, there are only very minor male roles left. One is the male English teacher, Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick). Keeping with the idea of males as pawns in Carrie, Mr. Fromm acts as a foil for Ms. Collins. Ms. Collins is the involved, caring teacher who takes Carrie under her wing. Conversely, Mr. Fromm is the teacher who mocks Carrie in front of her peers. His purpose in the film is strictly to draw attention to what a kind, respectable teacher Ms. Collins is by comparison. Like Tommy and Billy, Mr. Fromm’s character is present to strengthen a female’s characterization.
Even Freddy (Michael Talbott), the boy who helps Norma collect and distort the ballots for prom king and queen, is a pawn who serves Chris. The day before prom, as he volunteers to collect ballots, Chris stands in the background watching him, commanding his actions. Even in prom, he does not actually collect or submit the ballots himself; Freddy kisses Norma and drop the real ballots for her to kick out of sight; Norma both collects and submits the ballots.
Curiously, Carrie does not have any developed male characters; Carrie seems to include its male characters as pawns to enhance female characterization. And while unbalanced and unequal gender roles, whichever way that pendulum may swing, may not be as thrilling as an emotionally disturbed telekinetic scorned, the silent ramifications can be just as scary.