Tragic Feminine Heroism

Carole Ledeux, the flaxen haired virgin of Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion, is repulsed by men, as the title would suggest. A Belgian in London, she shares an apartment with her sister Helen, a vampy brunette who carries on an affair with a married man named Michael. Carole’s experience of “swinging London” is one of brutal alienation. She walks through the streets completely detached from her surroundings and her own body, constantly seeking safe spaces to retreat from the prying eyes of men. Carole also attracts a suitor, Colin, who she repeatedly rebuffs but who nonetheless pursues her relentlessly. She looks to the beauty salon where she works and her shared home with her sister for respite but to little avail. The bitter reality for Carole is that none of these spaces are truly free from the presence of masculinity. The intensity of her repulsion towards men is matched only by the omniscient presence of masculinity in every real and imagined space she inhabits.

When her sister leaves on holiday with her boyfriend, Carole enters a full-on descent into schizophrenic delusion. As the forces of the male gaze invade her space and her mind the threat of masculinity becomes all the more palpable when both Colin and her licentious landlord physically invade her home, a grave misfortune on both their parts resulting in death. After having killed both Colin and her landlord, Helen and Michael return from their vacation to find Carol under Helen’s bed in a catatonic trance. Michael picks her up and carries her over the threshold of the home and it is at this moment that we realize the failure of Carole’s attempts to shield herself from the masculinity that penetrates her space and mind. Carole becomes a feminist martyr, insistent until the cruelly bitter end in resisting omnipresent masculinity and its violations of her personhood. Her struggle is both noble and tragic and her failure to maintain these boundaries is indicative of toxic masculinity’s ubiquity.

 Carole stands in direct contrast to one particularly notable figure within the horror canon, the final girl. The final girl archetype originated as a trope in the slasher films of the 70s and 80s and was recognized by feminist film scholar Carol Clover in the 90s.  Put briefly, the final girl is the slasher film hero, the girl who endures and defeats her monster. She is generally sexless, tomboyish and more resourceful than her oversexed, vapid friends who she inevitably must watch die—hence, the final girl. If Carole can be understood as a rejection of masculinity full stop, the final girl’s embodiment of characteristically masculine traits and a characteristically masculine narrative is anything but. The final girl represents a projected fantasy of allayed male guilt as it conceals their complicity in the suffering of women. Carole may kill her aggressors like the final girl but the monster of masculinity remains undefeated. Her suffering is indefinite and visible and the blood is on everyone’s hands. Not only does Carole refuse the gaze of masculine desire but she refuses to be a vessel for masculine identification as the final girl does, marking her resistance and her suffering in a way that is distinctly feminine.

The film implicates us in Carole’s tragic end through the use of highly voyeuristic cinematography. We follow her through the streets of London, into her personal space and into her interiority. Virginia Wright Wexman in her text on Roman Polanski suggests that we, as the voyeuristic onlookers replicate the violence that causes Carole’s demise (Wexman 56). Because our voyeurism is so bound up in the male gaze, we as viewers, male or otherwise, come to identify with the entitlement associated with it. Even in her revulsion, even in the ways she passively denies consent to any relations with men, her virginal shyness is misinterpreted as sexual availability (Fischer 80). Masculinity is so consumed with its own desirability and entitlement to the attention, affection, and bodies of women that any feminine behavior in their presence is potentially interpretable as sexual availability.

This type of gaze very pointedly does not apply to the final girl, who is purposely marked off as masculine and therefore sexually null to the mall gaze. Instead of being an object of masculine desire, she becomes a vehicle for masculinity itself. Her narrative is a conflict driven one in which a magnificent triumph over her monster is inevitable. The final girl becomes a fantasy that lulls the masculine viewer into the delusion that all issues of gender inequality can be neatly resolved in the two hours span of a slasher movie, culminating with the final girl defeating her male tormentor with all the rage and potency her phallic weapon can channel. The fragile male psyche is (once again) soothed, the dust settles and he can bask in his own self-satisfaction over the victory of the final girl. Gender equality has been achieved and he, the great ally to women that he is, can wash his hands of the whole mess with good conscious. The final girl does not demand he acknowledge the fact that in a patriarchal society (one which endures long after the final girl’s fatal blow), the very presence of masculinity is an act of violence against women.

 In the end, Carole offers us nothing of the traditional experience of masculinity within film and as it views film. The male gaze is not met with sexual acuquiecense but instead sheer tragedy, nor can masculinity find a home in her as it does the final girl. While she lies catatonic on the floor, an exhausted victim having failed to escape the penetrative glare of her tormenter, her insistence on enacting a purely feminine form of suffering remains as the only vestige of an existence beyond the ubiquity of the malevolent male gaze.

Works Cited

Clover, Carol. “Her Body, Himself.” Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. 21-64.

Fischer, Lucy. “Beauty and the Beast: Desire and its Double in Repulsion.” The Cinema of Roman Polanski: Dark Spaces of the Word. Eds. John Orr and Elizabeth Ostrowska. London/New York: Wallflower Press, 2006. 76-91.

Wexman, Virginia Wright. Roman Polanski. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.


about the writer

Meghan King is a writer and future restorer of architecture. She lives in Toronto, Ontario. You can find her on the gram @creamysmoothpopicongoddess