The Misogynistic Nature of the 2004 Slasher Horror Film Saw

The Misogynistic Nature of the 2004 Slasher Horror Film Saw

Jessie Hem

English 117


The Misogynistic Nature of the 2004 Slasher Horror Film Saw


The genre of slasher horror film has many compelling qualities, especially when looking at it through a feminist lense. In her 1992 essay “Men, Women, and Chainsaws,” Carol Clover makes the argument that horror movies are inherently feminist in that they portray women as equal, if not superior, to men. She argues that, compared to other movies, scenes in slasher horror films are often shot from the female victim’s perspective giving us insight into her world. Another key part of Clover’s argument is that there is gender fluidity in the horror genre. She describes the idea of a “Final Girl,” the killers last target who typically ends up defeating him through her bravery and wit. She points out that killers often have feminine qualities and the Final Girls often have masculine qualities. While Clover’s argument applies to some slasher horror films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, it does not apply to all movies in this genre. Take, for example, the 2004 slasher film Saw. The movie is about an unknown killer who is called “Jigsaw” as he puts his victims in situations where they have to solve some puzzle, usually inflicting bodily harm upon themselves, in order to escape a certain and painful death. The movie centers around two of his victims, a photographer named Adam and an oncologist named Lawrence, who are trapped in a room together and chained at the ankle to opposite walls with a dead body between them. Through a series of tape recordings and puzzles, they discover that in order to escape, they need to cut off their own feet. The movie cuts back and forth from the past to the present giving background information about these men as well as the stories of Jigsaw’s other victims. Ultimately, Lawrence cuts off his foot and is able to escape (but will most likely bleed to death before he reaches help) leaving Adam in the room alone. The dead body then rises up off of the floor and is revealed to be Jigsaw who is also one of Lawrence’s patients with a terminal brain tumor. He likes to have a “front seat to his own show,” and thus has been observing the men the whole time. While this movie fits the genre of a slasher horror film – lots of blood, many deaths, long kill scenes – it does not fit Clover’s model of a feminist horror film.

Saw is shot almost entirely from a male point of view, opposing Clover’s idea of a female centered cinematic style. Clover argues that the long kill scenes present in slasher movies are shot from the female perspective, exposing the woman’s wit and bravery to viewers. While the main victims in Saw are male, the scenes involving the few female victims, such as Lawrence’s wife and daughter, are shot from their killer’s point of view. This is in opposition to the kill scenes of the male victims which are shot from their point of view. Although, in terms of feminism, it would not really matter if they were shot from the killer perspective as he is also male. The absence of a female point of view and establishing shot immediately puts viewers in the male position, opposing Clover’s idea of feminist cinematography in horror films.

Similarly, there is a distinct difference between how the male puzzle victims and female puzzle victims are portrayed. During a flashback early in the movie, detectives interview one of the victims who escaped who happens to be female. Her name is Amanda and she escaped her puzzle through following Jigsaw’s direct order, given to her by a videotape, to extract a key from her drugged cell mate’s stomach. This key will unlock a contraption on her head with the capability of crushing her skull. She is portrayed as a quiet, frail, almost mousey women who can barely speak at an audible volume, a far cry from the strong, dominant, witty women Clover describes in her essay. The only other female characters in the movie are Lawrence’s wife and daughter, Alison and Diana, who are held hostage by Jigsaw’s “helper” Zep, who is solving a puzzle of his own. At one point, Alison is able to grab Zep’s gun, but is too scared to pull the trigger, thus allowing him to escape. This is in strong opposition to the portrayal of the male victims. They are portrayed as strong and confident even in their times of vulnerability when they are trapped in a room. Unlike Amanda, their decisiveness, confidence and proactivity is exemplified by how they make continued attempts to outsmart the Jigsaw – playing dead, switching poisoned cigarettes, attempting to reason with him by talking to the camera videotaping their situation – to avoid cutting off their feet. The movie therefore takes a misogynistic viewpoint through the portrayal of men as smarter and stronger than women.

Clover might argue that this aspect of the movie actually has a feminist tone because Amanda escapes, while Adam does not and the fate of Lawrence is unknown. However, she is not one of the “Final Girls” that Clover describes in her essay as she is not the killer’s last victim, she does not take down Jigsaw, and she is not a central character in the movie; she has about five minutes of screen time. Also, the idea of Final Girl itself is not all that feminist. A study done by Andrew Welsh on the nature of gender in horror films found that Final Girls were often, “female characters who were not involved in sexual activity and were depicted more positively” (Welsh). The fact that sexual activity is a deciding factor in determining the survival of the Final Girl puts emphasis on the wrong aspect of femininity. Whether or not a woman is sexually active has no correlation to her intelligence, bravery, or other aspects that would allow her to get herself away from a killer. Thus, the idea of a Final Girl is in part sexist because horror movies tend to imply that sexual purity is key to survival. In terms of Alison and Diana, Clover might also argue that the movie is feminist because they escape with their lives when the male victims do not. However, even though they fight back, Alison and Diana are still portrayed as trembling, weak and submissive. Their scenes are shot from above with them cowering in a corner at the total mercy of Zep. Alison also has a chance to kill Zep to save herself and her daughter. However, she doesn’t pull the trigger in time and Zep escapes, leaving viewers with the question of: “why didn’t the dumb women just shoot him?”

Jigsaw is also hypermasculine which opposes Clover’s point about gender fluidity with serial killers in slasher movies. She uses examples such as Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs who skins his female victims to make a dress for himself so he can appear feminine, and Leatherface in the Chain Saw series who “Jiggles in baby fat” making him appear to be far from masculine. In his book In History No One Can Hear You Scream: Feminism and the Horror Film, Robert Mehls states that, “In the horror film the killer with a gender identity issue is fairly commonplace…gender roles have been challenged and used as a source of terror”(Melhs, 24). Jigsaw opposes both Clover and Mehls idea of gender fluidity by being the epitome of masculinity. He adheres to male stereotypes such as being violent and reckless. This is exemplified by how he kills his victims by making them inflict bodily harm upon themselves or others – walking through barbed wire, killing a cellmate, killing a mother and child, cutting off their own feet – as he watches. In the main puzzle portrayed in the movie with Adam and Lawrence trapped in the room, he lies on the floor in a pool of blood for hours on end just so he can witness his victims harm themselves and others. He also has a deep voice and large body, which is another reference to his masculinity. These expressions of hypermasculinity are a far cry from the rather girly killers that Clover uses as examples in her essay.

Clover might argue that the fact Jigsaw does not physically kill his victims diminishes some of his masculinity as he is not committing violent acts himself. However, he tortures his victims by putting them through incredibly painful situations that typically leads to him getting to watch their slow and painful deaths. This shows that his love for violence, blood, and gore is stronger than that of a killer such as Buffalo Bill who kills his victims quickly with a shot in the head. In the case of Saw, male violence demonstrates the enhanced masculty of Jigsaw due to the stereotype that it is socially acceptable for men to be violent.

While Clover’s ideas of feminism in horror movies are true for some slasher films, it is not true for the entirety of the genre, as shown by the movie Saw. The movie opposes aspects of Clover’s argument of the feminist horror film: scenes shot from the female perspective, Final Girls, and fluid gender identity. Saw is shot almost entirely from the male point of view. Even the scenes involving the few female characters are not shot from their perspective. Also there is a sharp contrast between the portrayal of the female victims, who are shown to be weak, dumb and submissive, and the male victims, who are shown to be strong, smart and dominant. Additionally, this movie does little to demasculinize Jigsaw, who, through both his physical stature as well as his love of blood and violence, is viewed as hypermasculine. The movies Clover discusses in her essay were from before the 2000s. Saw, on the other hand, was released in 2004. It is a common belief that our society has become less misogynistic over time as we now see women increasing in socioeconomic status. However, even though it was released at a later date, Saw appears to be ideologically backward in terms of feminism compared to the movies Clover discusses. So what does it say about the progress of our society if movies like Saw weaken the trend of feminist progression?


This essay imitates the style of Ellen Willis .

This essay was read by Oriana Cruz. It is not a first draft.


Works Cited

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University, 1997.

Mehls, Robert. In History No One Can Hear You Scream: Feminism and the Horror Film 1974-1996. ProQuest, 2016.

Wan, James, director. Saw. Lionsgate, 2004.

Welsh, Andrew. “On the Perils of Living Dangerously in the Slasher Horror Film: Gender Differences in the Association Between Sexual Activity and Survival.” Sex Roles, vol. 62, no. 11-12, Feb. 2010, pp. 762–773., doi:10.1007/s11199-010-9762-x.