Monday, 27 February 2012

Women in Horror Month: Why Jenny Ringo is not a feminist...

Women in Horror Month is an online event that happens every February in which a variety of bloggers, filmmakers and creative types get together to promote women working in the horror industry. Despite neither being a woman nor technically ‘working’ in the horror film industry I thought I’d try to write something for Women in Horror Month this year anyway, because of Jenny Ringo.

On the off chance this is the first time you’ve come across this blog, Jenny Ringo is a witch who lives with her slacker flatmate Gavin and can be seen getting into all kinds of supernatural hijinks in the film Jenny Ringo and the Monkey’s Paw

…and the forthcoming Jenny Ringo and the Cabaret from Hell which I shot the week before last (sign up to our mailing list at to see the first film in full and to follow our progress on the second one!)

Jenny Ringo is a woman,  so that totally gives me the right to promote my short films even more than I am doing already by talking about her in the context of Women in Horror Month! But what to write about? Do I write about how she’s a strong female character in the vein of Sarah Connor or Lara Croft? Do I write about how my films are empowering for women because Jenny kicks supernatural ass? Do I write about how Jenny Ringo deals with gender issues in a radical and ultra-feminist way?


Because none of those things are true.

I wrote Jenny Ringo’s first cinematic adventure when I was at university. It was a feature in which Jenny was a photographer working for a small town newspaper (like the one where I’d done work experience as a kid) who uncovered a conspiracy involving angels and magic and cool stuff like that. And I thought it was the best thing I had ever written. I was so enthusiastic about it that I handed in my outline six months early in the hope of getting some advance notes from my tutor. My tutor tore it to shreds. It came back covered in red ink with really furious notes like ‘You need to get a better understanding of a woman’s agenda if you’re going to write female characters!’

I was devastated and scrapped the whole idea. I still wrote a Jenny Ringo feature in the end, but rather than the supernatural conspiracy adventure I’d spent three years planning I turned it into a comedy. I came up with the story about a week before I was supposed to start writing it. My tutor still hated it, but luckily for me there was an external examiner assessing the scripts too and he loved it (the start of a love-it-or-hate-it trend which seems to have continued with the short films). I will come back to this later.

The real reason I am not about to declare that Jenny Ringo is totally empowering for women is that I am not Zack Snyder. Yes, I am about to alienate the women reading this even more by defending Sucker Punch.

Zack Snyder’s big mistake with Sucker Punch wasn’t making a film that many regard as being horribly misogynist. As Mark Kermode said when he reviewed the film (as seen here) getting angry about the sexual politics in Sucker Punch is doing it a service it does not deserve.  Basically, to care about the sexual politics in the film you have to be involved in the film itself, and Sucker Punch has so many other problems stopping you getting involved that if you’ve cut through all that and got to the dodgy gender politics then you’re missing a whole bunch of much bigger issues with the story. I am aware that I said ‘basically’ and then explained it in a much more complicated way than Dr. K did.

The problem is, people still got angry about it. But what’s interesting is that the people who seemed most pissed off by all this were men.  I’ll get to this later.

The real issue with the representation of women in Sucker Punch is to do with the fact that the film presents a group of female characters that seem to have walked straight out of a 70s exploitation film but then tries to pass them off as somehow empowering examples of women being awesome. To be fair to Zack Snyder, he never stated that this was his direct intention. What he actually said was things like this

'I really don’t look at it like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make a female empowerment film.’ I just thought that the girls are awesome, and they can do whatever they want. I can only make it from my perspective, and if the goal of the film was to make a female empowerment film, then that’s absolutely debatable whether or not a man is the right choice for that. But the goal of the film is to tell an artistic story that is not bound by reality or anything like that, and if it happens to be at the end that girls feel like hey, I feel like I’m free to be strong in my life, then I don’t know.'

Which isn’t that different from saying ‘Oh, I'm going to make a female empowerment film.’

There is one huge problem with this whole debate. The target audience for Sucker Punch was not disillusioned women, it was teenage boys.

I don’t know any women who went to see Sucker Punch through choice. Those I do know who saw it did so because their boyfriend/husband convinced them it would be good because Zack Snyder did an okay job with Watchmen and made one of the few remakes that doesn't suck with Dawn of the Dead. I know some feminist bloggers went to see it, but would they have bothered if the gender politics issue hadn’t come up in such a public way? And here’s why I'm making a point of this…

In terms of dubious gender politics Sucker Punch is no worse than 90% of Hollywood’s mainstream output.

If you want to get angry about the represenation of women in popular culture, Sucker Punch is not the place to start. Which is why it perplexes me that so many men seemed to be angrily accusing it of misogyny when it was released. Have you seen films before? Any actual films? They’re all like that!!!

Then I realise that the men who complain about the misogyny in Sucker Punch are mostly just trying to get laid. It’s a statement that says, ‘Listen, I totally understand women’s issues, and do not approve women fighting robots in their underwear, despite the fact that most of my DVD collection looks like that.’

The point of all this is that I’m not about to try to get you to watch Jenny Ringo and the Monkey's Paw on the basis that it is a female empowerment film, because I am fully aware that it isn’t. I didn’t create Jenny Ringo because I was pissed off at the lack of strong female characters in popular culture. I created Jenny Ringo because I wanted to be John Constantine...

I didn’t want female empowerment in my life back then, I wanted northern empowerment. Constantine was from Liverpool, just an hours drive from Stoke-on-Trent which is where I’m from. He was super-cool and could do magic and despite being a bit of a fuck-up always managed to talk his way out of trouble at the end of the day. I couldn’t do magic, was not at all cool and struggled with the very basics of human interaction most of the time. So I decided to create a John Constantine-esque character to make myself feel better about not being cool and not being good at magic. But to disguise the fact that I was a) essentially stealing a DC character and b) using that character to deal with my real life issues I decided to switch genders. I took the name from a character I used in an old short story, a female version of Johnny Ringo from the Clanton gang in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

And that was how Jenny Ringo started.

After the first story Jenny stopped being a rip-off of John Constantine, stopped using magic and essentially became an angry version of me. I’d get annoyed about something in real life and then I’d put it into a Jenny Ringo story. After I wrote one about Jenny getting dumped by a guy (after I’d been dumped by a girl) which featured no magic or supernatural hijinks at all I realised I was basically just writing a diary so I stopped.

Until I started the final project for my MA in Scriptwriting and went back to that first story, which is where we came in.

The Jenny I write now has definitely evolved from the Jenny I wrote then. I can’t claim to understand a 'woman’s agenda' anymore now than I did then, but I know for sure that a few of the women I’ve known over the years have found their way into her character. There’s definitely a bit of my wife in there, and Rosie who plays her in the films has brought a lot of her personality to the character too. But if there was a Jenny Ringo pie-chart I’d say the overwhelming percentage of what makes up the character comes from me, and that I probably do still have a very male agenda even if I don’t really know what that means.

The best example of this is the script for Jenny Ringo and the Cabaret from Hell which I did not write, although I did in the end twist the story into one which directly relates to how I’m feeling about life right now. So even when she’s written by someone else, Jenny Ringo is still me at the end of the day.

All this is a very long-winded way of saying that despite the fact that the majority of my output is about a female character in a horror film I don’t have anything to contribute to Women in Horror Month.

Except this.

The thing I find most frustrating about any discussion of gender politics in film is that people are very quick to point the finger at films like Sucker Punch and very rarely celebrate the work of women filmmakers who are making films right now. A couple of years ago, for example, I had a couple of hours to kill before a meeting in the evening and went to see Nicole Holefcenor’s Please Give, which I really enjoyed. And in the cinema at the time were me and one other guy. A film directed by a woman that is about women and probably has a good understanding of a woman’s agenda (I wouldn’t know) gets a major cinema release and at a prime evening timeslot is watched by two men.

This is why Women in Horror Month is important because, as a quick look at their blog will demonstrate, there are lots of women involved in making horror films. And as a virtue of making the Jenny Ringo films I’m married to one of them.

My wife Andrea produced both films, and by produced I mean she went above and beyond what that role would usually entail. If the organisation of these projects had been left to me they would not have happened. Or, like my student films, they would have happened but only at the last minute and they would have turned out badly. I would not have been able to make either of these films without her onboard, so if you really want to support Women in Horror I suggest you stop reading this and follow Andrea's blog and read what an actual woman (and an actual feminist) has to say about making horror films.

And also sign up to our mailing list at because that will make me happy.

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