“Watch Housebound,” they said. “It’s feminist,” they said. I can safely say, after one hour and 49 minutes of watching with furrowed brow, I have no idea what just happened.
Marketed as a horror-comedy, I definitely see the absurdist themes, but at the end of the day it felt like the movie was trying to do too much. What could have been a clever plot tactic, the protagonist being under court-ordered house arrest, got mostly ignored for the rest of the movie. But, folks, Roger Ebert I am not. Let’s talk feminism. The film is meant to be silly, but Housebound definitely inhabits some toxic female stereotypes without enough clarity about what they’re trying to say. Combine this with the fact that the writer-director is male, and we’re in rocky terrain. While I don’t believe Gerard Johnston is a misogynistic, the movie is wracked with female stereotypes and sexism occasionally veiled by half-hearted commentary.
Kylie, the protagonist, is the sneaky kind of sexist. To the untrained eye, you might see a badass chick who takes no shit and gets what she wants. In reality, we’re faced with another common female archetype; the heartless bitch. Kylie is a burglar, arrested several times, maybe an alcoholic, a manipulator of the system, cruel to everyone without reason, careless, emotionless if not dead inside. But, wait! She looks mildly hurt at the mention of the father that left her! Great, we can make a woman dynamic if that dynamic is Daddy Issues. The only other time she shows emotion? When her parole officer slaps her and tells her to stop being a baby. Let’s break this “badass chick” down, shall we? A heartless trouble-maker who turned out this way because her daddy left, who only changes her tune when she’s physically assaulted. Doesn’t feel very empowering to me. Simply because we don’t employ the usual female stereotypes does not mean we’re empowering a character. What empowers a character is depth, an understanding that women are complicated people, not a collection of virgins, sluts, and bitches.
Miriam is Kylie’s mom, and immediately she is used as legal punishment for her daughter’s crimes, because nothing’s more punishing than being stuck with a nagging woman. What, at first, I thought, was some kind of commentary on how we portray women, turned out to be lost when the character never redeemed herself. The entire movie finds Miriam being the butt of insults while being painted as a gossip, a simpleton, and useless in times of crisis.
Authority figures are, go figure, all male! Throughout the film, the female characters are disbelieved, called crazy, surprisingly helpless, and eventually… saved by a man. It seems as though they were going for commentary about the dynamics between male authority figures and women, but once again, nothing was consistent enough to make the distinction between dispelling and enforcing stereotypes.
The average movie-goer is not going to look at these characters through the lense of social commentary. Average Americans are going to the theatres for thrills, chills, action, and escape, especially those seeking horror films. So, realistically, if Johnston wanted to say something with this movie, he needed to be a lot clearer. The mess we’re left with will, at best, leave viewers noticing nothing of commentary or, at worst, leaving having laughed at the expense of women because their ideas were enforced, not challenged. While no one is assuming movie-goers are stupid, we have to understand that many don’t conflate entertainment with social justice. Until we live in a perfect world, vague and shallow commentary by a man who will never experience sexism can do a lot more harm than good.
There is a line about punching ectoplasm in the face, though, so I’ll chalk that one up as a win. Who doesn’t love ectoplasm?