‘American Mary’: In Praise of the Amoral Final Girl

Screenshot_2014-12-27-21-41-54-1 Directed by the Soska sisters, American Mary features a complicated female protagonist who starts out as a likable badass but ends up as an amoral psycho. The film celebrates the power of bodily autonomy and depicts the horror of taking it away.

Trigger Warning: American Mary is a rape/revenge film and this essay discusses sexual violence.

This post is Spoiler Free! I want you to see this movie. (If you can stomach it.)

The film in a nutshell: We meet Mary (Katharine Isabelle) as she’s carefully practicing her surgeon stitching on a turkey in her kitchen.

Mary is a med student whose financial situation has become dire. She “interviews” to become a stripper and by awesome happenstance winds up entering the underground world of extreme body modification.

After she is suddenly and horrifically physically violated, Mary spends the duration of the film torturing the hell out of her attacker and becoming famous in the body mod community. I want to avoid spoilers, so suffice it to say that eventually, the shit hits the fan.

American Mary’s directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska, are Canadian twin sisters, and they make an appearance in the film as German twins who want to exchange their left arms to remain symbolically together forever. The Soskas’ production company is Twisted Twins Productions, and their first film is titled Dead Hooker in a Trunk.

For an awesome interview with Sylvia and Jen, look no further than this Bitch Flicks piece: Talking with Horror’s Twisted Twins.

The sisters discuss representations of violence against women in film, and they remark on the ability of horror films to inspire conversations that address our critical need to make the world a safer place for women:

Sylvia: The prolonged death of the Hooker in [Dead Hooker in a Trunk] was made with the intention of being very difficult to watch. We didn’t create the term ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’, there is a society wide stigma on these women that devalue them as worthless human beings…We are at a point in time where we need to get a zero tolerance for horrendously vile acts against women. We put these moments in these films because we want to open up a dialogue about it and it’s a lot easier to do with a genre film than other platforms.

The only acceptable way to represent sexual assault is to represent it as horrible and horrifying, and in American Mary, the Soska sisters succeed: their representation of Mary’s rape neither exploits nor glosses over her violation.

 Jen:  The reason we put violence against women in our films is because it is so common in real life. It’s so common that people just turn a blind eye to it. The amount of letters and emails we’ve received from women who’d been sexually assaulted and had their attacker go unpunished was disgusting. They were so happy to see Mary get her revenge because there is so little justice in the world.

The directors also talk about depicting flawed female characters:

Sylvia: There is such a famine of a representation of women, it’s almost like you have to make an excuse for a female character if she does something that isn’t perfect or proper. But women are flawed. We’re human. We’re just like men, and we can be interesting and crude.

I’ll address the film’s depiction of Mary, her flaws and the flaws in her representation (there’s really just one little thing that bugged me) later on in this piece, but first, let’s take a sharp left turn and talk about body modification.

In horror, the mutability of the human body is typically presented as uncontrollable, and therefore terrifying. In American Mary, we get to see the creepy yet beautiful possibilities of controlled bodily mutability. Here, body modification isn’t horrible; it’s aspirational.

Body modification is an ancient practice. Human beings’ adeptness at manipulating our environments is a defining characteristic of our species, so it should come as no surprise that for pretty much all of human history we’ve been manipulating our bodies as well. (Cf. piercings, tattoos, circumcision.)

Courtesy of Bradley University’s Body Project:

We tend to think of human bodies as simply products of nature. In reality, however, our bodies are also the products of culture. That is, all cultures around the world modify and reshape human bodies. This is accomplished through a vast variety of techniques and for many different reasons, including:

– To make the body conform to ideals of beauty

– To mark membership in a group

– To mark social status

– To convey information about an individual’s personal qualities or accomplishments

People may seek to control, “correct” or “perfect” some aspect of their appearance, or to use their bodies as a canvas for creative self-expression.

Our society tends to be accepting of body modification that seeks to attain a look that’s more aligned with our conventional standards of beauty, but we tend to reject modifications that seek to depart from the hegemonic norm.

American Mary asks the viewer to like and root for characters who seek more radical transformations and unorthodox forms of self-expression. Though we are primed to expect these strange looking characters to be scary weird bad people, the body modders are actually the most likable folks in the entire film. They are helpful and thankful and kind. And while their modification choices may seem bizarre, their decisions to seek augmentations are presented in a way that is respectful both to their characters and to the community they represent.

First, we meet Beatress (Tristan Risk):

American-Mary-meet-Beatress Beatress: “I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to make myself look on the outside the way I feel on the inside.”

She explains: “In my travels, I met another girl like me, but she hasn’t been able to find someone to finish her. I want to hire you…She’s a nice girl who wants an unconventional operation.”

Then we meet this nice girl, Ruby (Paula Lindberg), who asks Mary (and by extension, the viewer):

American-Mary-meet-Ruby Ruby: “I don’t think it’s really fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside, do you?”

As individuals, we should all have power over our own bodies, whether we want to shave our legs or dye our hair or pierce our skin or modify our secondary sex characteristics. We as a society should accept and respect the bodily autonomy of every individual, regardless of that individual’s personal choices.

Sometimes people want to make changes to their bodies that deviate from that which is culturally sanctioned. Who are we to stop them?

This guy had his penis and his balls removed and he’s doing just fine. This guy is famous in the body mod community for implanting magnets in people’s fingers. (With a magnet implanted, you can FEEL electromagnetic fields. I WANT ONE — how amazing to have an electromagnetic sixth sense!)

Whether aspiring to become more “normal” or more unique, we should all be afforded the opportunity to safely seek alterations to our bodies. Our bodies are our own.

Or at least they should be. With the terrifying depictions of both Mary’s rape and her revenge, the loss of control over one’s own body is the driving force of horror in this film.

Another facet of the film’s horror is the age-old adage that appearances are often deceiving. In American Mary, everything is the opposite of what the viewer has been cultured to expect: the body mod freaks are the good people, the seemingly respectable doctors are the villains, and the Mary we see at the end of the film is not the Mary we thought she’d become when we first met her stitching up her turkey.

Let’s talk about Mary and American Mary’s representation of an amoral lady protagonist:

American-Mary-prepped-to-perform Mary is depicted by the Soska sisters and portrayed by Katharine Isabelle as smart, strong, resourceful, and funny. She has agency and complexity. She is a fully formed, dynamic character. She propels the narrative. This is her story. No Male Protagonist’s Girlfriend here.

Some reviewers feel that Mary’s sexy attire detracts from her ability to be considered a true icon of feminist horror. Courtesy of I Just Hate Everything:

American-Mary-sensible-shoes In an interview with the Soska sisters, Steve Rose of The Guardian points out that “Katharine Isabelle’s wardrobe in the movie consists primarily of lacy negligees, lingerie and fetishistic surgical outfits.”

In response: “We’re very into third-wave feminism, where a woman can own her sexuality and not shy away from it,” says Jen.

There are moments in American Mary when the filmmakers play up Mary’s sexy sexiness more than necessary, but there are also moments when they utilize women’s scantily clad or naked bodies in ways that are refreshingly subversive.

I don’t think we need two lengthy sequences of the strip club owner’s fantasies of Mary dancing sexy dances for him.

American-Mary-sexy-Mary-dance-gif I’m not so much bothered by the inclusion of these moments; okay, fine, show us that he’s got a twisted thing for her and remind us that she’s hot, whatever. It’s the lengthiness of these sequences, the extended time devoted to showing us Mary’s sexy body on display explicitly for the male gaze. These moments feel especially unoriginal and pandering in a film that’s otherwise so refreshingly transgressive in its approach to representations of women’s bodies.

For example, the scenes in which Mary performs surgery in her stripper outfit are a clever subversion of horror’s traditional representation of sexy lady torture victims.

American-Mary-performing-surgery-in-underwear In these surgery sequences, the sexy lady is a woman with the power to save or take the life of the whimpering man lying (or hanging) in front of her. She might be clad in thigh-highs, but she’s the opposite of a victim.

I also appreciated the unabashed depiction of Ruby’s surgey. I won’t give away specifics, but let’s just say that American Mary takes a much different approach to naked breasts than any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a paradigm shift for tits on screen.

While many reviewers enjoyed the first half of American Mary, they often disliked the ending, calling it a “murkier narrative that lamely sputters to its conclusion” (Hollywood Reporter) in which the Soska sisters “allow their film to turn slack and unfocused after an enticingly lurid, wickedly tense first half” (LA Times).

One reviewer (The Playlist) writes (emphasis mine):

Dreams slip into reality and fantasy assumes a nightmarish plausibility as Mary’s rationale melts away; one could argue her transformation into an avenging sadist takes the teeth out of the film’s medical industry critique, turning it into just another gothic story of one who abuses absolute power.

I suspect that these reviewers’ dislike of the ending stems from their discomfort at witnessing the abruptness of Mary’s transformation from a witty, strong, resourceful rebel into a sociopathic monster. Initially, the violence she enacts stems from a sense of righteous vengeance, but suddenly her violent acts are completely unjustified and totally reprehensible. We all start out rooting for Mary, but we wind up repelled by her.

In a wonderful essay entitled “Not Here to Make Friends,” Roxane Gay writes:

Writers are often told a character isn’t likable as literary criticism, as if a character’s likability is directly proportional to the quality of a novel’s writing. This is particularly true for women in fiction. In literature as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls. There are many instances where an unlikable man is billed as an anti-hero, earning a special term to explain those ways in which he deviates from the norm, the traditionally likable. Beginning with Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, the list is long. An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark, or tormented but ultimately compelling even when he might behave in distasteful ways.

Thanks in large part to feminism, our society now generally embraces representations of Strong Female Characters — at least when these Strong Female Characters are presented as morally upstanding. We’re still wildly uncomfortable with depictions of amoral anti-heroines.

There is a longstanding history in the horror genre of the Final Girl character. Traditionally, she is the most virtuous character in the film, the embodiment of morality, and her defeat of the monster represents Good triumphing over Evil. While the Final Girl doesn’t always win the battle (and sometimes doesn’t even survive), she typically remains virtuous throughout.

In a piece for Indiewire titled “American Mary Sets out to Modify the Way You Think About Women in Horror,” the Soska sisters explain their approach to Mary in the context of the history of the Final Girl:

American Mary evolves the final girl once again where not only is the final girl powerful, precise, and fearless, but she becomes her own undoing and takes on the roles of villainess and heroine simultaneously.

We viewers may want Mary to end the film a righteous hero, but to give Mary’s story a happy ending would be to suggest that there is a simple way to right the wrongs of sexual violation. This isn’t to say that survivors of assault can never overcome their trauma, but to point out that there is no easy answer to the question of how to process such violations of the body. Revenge can’t erase Mary’s experience of assault. Vengeance doesn’t make it all okay. Violence begets violence, and everything falls apart.

The final sequences of American Mary may be something of a surprise, but they make sense withing the larger thematic context of the film: the horror of losing control of one’s own flesh and the devastation of physical violation.

American Mary is a stellar film and I’m excited to see more awesome work by the Soska sisters!


5 thoughts on “‘American Mary’: In Praise of the Amoral Final Girl

  1. I’m sure some surgeons are third-wave feminists who own their sexuality and so on, but I doubt they perform surgery dressed like that. The first scene makes sense because she was expecting just to audition for a stripper job.

    I actually didn’t think of Mary as being a psycho. She only kills one innocent person, and that’s for perfectly understandable reasons of self-preservation.

    She does go after that one stripper, but my problem with that scene isn’t Mary being “psycho”. It’s that previously we hadn’t been given much reason to think Mary gave a shit (and she certainly wasn’t in any position where someone would expect her to object). The unimportance of the club owner character to Mary is why it’s so strange that the film, which otherwise focuses with a laser on her, takes on his subjectivity for those sequences. They are textbook examples of the “male gaze”, which undercut the Soskas’ feminist justifications discussed above.

    The Final Girl trope seems irrelevant here. It’s not a slasher movie with a large bodycount, most of the bodies are killed by Mary herself, and she doesn’t survive (the pointless detective character outlives her!).

    • Calling Mary a “psycho” is flippant, I’ll admit – but she absolutely exhibits psychopathic behavior. Her “perfectly understandable reasons of self-preservation” are exactly what make her (excessively violent!) act of murder so psychopathic. A ruthless, cold-blooded logic fuels her viciously amoral actions. How do you define “psycho”?

      I’m not sure I understand your problem with the stripper scene. You take issue with the fact that Mary’s violence suggests that she gives a shit about the club owner, which is unexpected? When you say the film “takes on his subjectivity for those sequences” that are “textbook examples of the ‘male gaze’” — are you talking about Mary attacking the stripper in the bathroom (which is an example of the female gaze, with both female victim and female monster), or are you talking about the club owner’s fantasies about Mary (which I wrote about in my post as being problematically male gaze-y)?

      The Final Girl trope is relevant here because the women who made the film say it’s relevant.

      • Mary’s killing of an innocent is not something pre-meditated and in cold blood. My recollection was that the guard surprised her and there was a struggle before she killed him. A normal person (who presumably wouldn’t have a mutilated person hung up) might plausibly act in the same way. The protagonists of Excision and May (both movies I like) conclude their films with psychopathic acts: they seek out others to harm, treating them as means to an end. In the tv series Fargo, one character starts out as a relatively normal person who commits an act of violence which, while reprehensible, is not that uncommon. However, later on he becomes increasingly sociopathic. Another character in that series appears to enjoy wreaking havoc and corrupting others, this distinguishes him from those who only use violence more purposefully.

        It was the fantasy scenes I was referring to with regard to gaze. If the movie was more concerned with his perspective or even role in the plot, it might make narrative sense to include such sequences, but since it’s otherwise focused on Mary’s perspective and he’s so tertiary the only plausible explanation for their inclusion is titillation.

        The Soskas can say the trope is relevant, but taking a “new criticism” approach to their “text” doesn’t support that. If the only kind of horror film were those featuring a “final girl” or even if theirs was in the sub-genre in which that’s typical I could see an argument for how not using that trope could be an implicit commentary on it. But the film is so disconnected from that slasher/bodycount subgenre it’s not an “evolution”, just part of a separate strand of film. The Mafu Cage came out the same year as Halloween (often credited with codifying the trope), and I’d say American Mary is much closer to the former than the latter (though I’m certainly not claiming that had any influence).

        • Thanks for listing all of those characters in films and TV shows you like, but I’m going to continue to call Mary a psycho and her actions psychopathic.

          Like I wrote in my post, I take issue with the depictions of the club owner’s fantasies:

          “…the lengthiness of these sequences, the extended time devoted to showing us Mary’s sexy body on display explicitly for the male gaze…”

          So you don’t need to explain to me that these moments are “textbook examples of the ‘male gaze’” or that the “only plausible explanation for their inclusion is titillation.” You’re agreeing with me, not enlightening me.

          We are going to have to agree to disagree w/r/t the relevance of the Final Girl.

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