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Barbarian: Masterpiece in Nonconsensual Horrors

By Mary Leer

This article discusses sexual assault, incest, and violence, and spoilers for the film.

The chill in the air and early sunsets are the ideal conditions for settling in with a scary film. While these movies are enjoyable to most, some even comforting, it’s unsettling the violent pattern the genre has towards women. Even determined and powerful final girls frequently withstand nonstop torment from (most often) male antagonists. Frankly, I often find myself experiencing burnout from this barrage of gendered victimhood. Yet 2022’s Barbarian falls into the oasis of campy feminist horror we’ve been looking for. And now that a video game adaptation is in the works, it’s the perfect time to revisit the film.

Barbarian is progressive through its expression of consent, victimhood, and violence in contemporary horror. It actively defies gendered expectations of victimhood in the horror genre through strategically structured kills, character introductions, and stereotypes common in horror. The film centers on Tess (Georgina Campbell), who discovers a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) has already been renting the Airbnb she is supposed to stay in. When she discovers frightening rooms in the basement of the home, she and Keith go to investigate, leading to Keith’s brutal murder and terrifying introduction to a towering, deformed, nude woman.

At the height of the horror, the film cuts to a Hollywood actor, AJ (Justin Long), receiving the news of his co-star's sexual assault allegations against him. In a desperate attempt to get quick cash, he sells his rental estate. Surprise! Said rental is also the Airbnb where Tess is trapped. AJ brazenly wanders into the basement system, where he is also captured by the creature who is only known as the mother in the film. In what has become the film's most infamous scene, the mother forces AJ to breastfeed—watching the grown man fight until he succumbs. The film brilliantly uses the shock value of something unfamiliar to audiences to showcase the violence and horror of nonconsensual actions. Audiences are accustomed to seeing rape and violence towards women as a standard of the genre and most parts of entertainment. Through the reversal of anticipated consent at this moment, Barbarian gives audiences a fresh perspective and a chance to reflect. The film does not argue that AJ is suffering a worse fate. Instead, it showcases the irony of a rapist being the victim. Additionally, it forces audiences to examine why they feel more discomfort when AJ is a victim.

Punishment for sexual activity has traditionally been reserved for female characters; Barbarian reverses this by killing off its men who do not respect consent. Even Keith, who dies first, is only bludgeoned by the mother when she sees him grabbing Tess’s leg as she’s begging him to stop. Upon first viewing, it is intentionally overwhelming and shocking to see both of them in so much fear. However, from the mother’s perspective, she sees a man grabbing a woman while she screams for him to stop. Consent dominates the mother’s life. In the second act of the film, it is revealed that she is the product of rape and incest brought on by the first owner of the home, Frank, who would routinely kidnap and impregnate women in the basement. So when she happens upon Keith, she very graphically bashes his head in, which also deviates from traditional horror tropes.

This film features significant graphic violence, yet it is reserved only for male characters. Heads being bashed in and eyes being squeezed out of their sockets are juxtaposed with the implied but never shown sexual violence towards women. This occurs most notably in scenes with Frank (Richard Brake, above). Instead, tapes of Frank’s assaults are simply mentioned, and AJ never details the rape he committed. The conscious choice to show violence towards men but not the kidnapping and sexual assault of women flips standard practices in Hollywood.

The Mother is horrific, but only as a result of the violence she’s faced from men. Her inhuman 7-foot frame and severely limited understanding of life limit her, but it is all a result of Frank’s incestual reproduction and entrapment of her in a cavernous basement. In one scene, she cowers from Frank’s room when AJ seeks refuge. If she is the established villain and frightened of Frank, he is the more severe threat and true monster. Her violence is justified through the lens of the trauma she has endured. Her attacks all stem from men demonstrating violence, something that she’s known her whole life. Even the scene where she breastfeeds AJ results from her being confined to a room playing a parenting video that showcases breastfeeding as a form of connection and love on repeat. It is worth noting that her inhuman appearance and violent actions still result in her being an incredible villain. Yet, it’s not difficult to realize that rapists are the true barbarians.

The protagonist of the film, Tess, is the only character who sees the mother as a victim herself. Being a Black woman directly impacts her power in the film. She is condescended to by Keith, shot, and used as bait by AJ, and when she looks for help from the police, they dismiss her and consider her a potential threat due to her appearance. As the only other prominent female character, Tess reciprocates sympathy towards the mother while the men only see a monster. In the climax of the film, AJ pushes Tess off of a water tower to save himself. A selfish move that fails on both counts, as the mother jumps to cushion Tess’s fall and promptly kills AJ. Although Tess ultimately ends up killing the mother, she does so with tears in her eyes. Her endurance through the film is a strong contrast from horror films, as well as it is a genre notorious for killing off Black women as soon as possible.

Barbarian is a film that goes against many of the common practices of horror films to reverse expectations regarding consent, victims, and violence. These themes culminate in a progressive film discussing the consequences of the patriarchy in reality and the horror genre. Equally important, it’s a thrilling movie and a hell of a time. So, if you’re looking for an exciting (and surprisingly funny) horror movie with nuanced gender politics, watch Barbarian.

Pro-tip: Make a glass of warm milk to sip on while watching.

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