Countless things have been written about 1974’s Black Christmas; I, myself, have written about the film before. Not enough has been written about how the film both rejects and perpetuates gendered ideologies, especially at a time during the rise of second wave feminism, constant battles over reproductive rights, and the struggle for queer rights. Though most see Black Christmas simply as an unsettling slasher, one of the earliest of its kind, the film’s likewise an important instance of social horror long before the label became a prevalent one in more recent times.
On the one hand, Morten Feldtfos Thomsen writes that Black Christmas “is overtly feminist, seemingly championing women‘s rights in the face of abusive patriarchal authority” (31). On the other hand, Clark’s film also, at times, helps to reinforce and perpetuate certain discourse when it comes to heteronormative values, such as when it comes to the killer Billy’s gender fluidity in his phone calls which queer code him and at the same time that queerness is expressed through monstrosity. Black Christmas simultaneously takes steps forward while taking two steps back in its representation of gendered ideologies during a time of sociopolitical upheaval across North America.
At the time of Black Christmas‘s release in ’74 there were big things happening in Canada and just across the border in the United States regarding reproductive rights. Most famously in Canada, Dr. Henry Morgentaler opened an abortion clinic in Montreal during 1969 and was later raided in ’70. He’d be brought up on charges and wound up in an extensive legal battle. Still, in ’73, Dr. Morgentaler announced he’d successfully performed over 5,000 abortions, and between then and ’74, when Clark’s film was released, he was acquitted on the earlier charges.
On top of that, just one year prior to the release of Black Christmas in January ’73, the verdict in Roe v. Wade was handed down, giving women a legal right to choose whether they want to seek an abortion or not. It’s in this general climate of increasing rights for women that Black Christmas sits, allowing the story and specific characters, like Jess (Olivia Hussey), to strike back against patriarchal ideology.
There are a number of ways women in the film challenge the patriarchy, largely when it comes to the sexual liberation of women and women’s reproductive rights. Though Black Christmas features a bunch of young women being murdered by a misogynistic killer, it also depicts Jess’s struggle prominently as she must deal with the desires of controlling and violent men, between the unseen murderer Billy and her man-child pianist boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea).
One of the film’s first noticeable representations of the sexually liberated women in 1970s America is Barb (Margot Kidder). She throws around the word “fellatio” and doesn’t mind filthy language in general. Most important about Barb is her lowkey bisexuality. In an early scene we catch a glimpse of Barb reading a Playboy magazine; sure, sure, she’s reading it for the articles! We also hear her talk of ex-boyfriends. Safe to assume Barb’s probably bi. For a horror film in ’74 to reference a woman’s bisexuality so casually is an indication of how progressive it was for its time. On top of all that, Barb’s wearing a choker that reads YES across it, carrying with it an air of sexual permissiveness, as if wearing it to give affirmative consent to any man or woman who wants a bit of fun.
Then there’s Jess’s struggle after she discovers she’s pregnant and has to deal with the male rage of Peter, who’s upset to discover she wants to get an abortion. Peter completely disregards Jess’s bodily autonomy, calling her a “selfish bitch” and saying that she’s “killing a baby“; he piles it on further saying that she’s treating the supposed murder of a baby “like having a wart removed.” One of the more chilling moments is when Jess tells Peter she won’t be changing her mind and he only replies with “We‘ll see,” illustrating the patriarchal male’s confidence in denying a woman’s bodily autonomy, believing he can somehow change her mind about what to do with her own body and reproductive system.There’s actually a bigger, queerer element than Barb’s highly likely bisexuality, found in Billy’s gender fluidity that’s displayed during his disturbing phone calls. Black Christmas actually steps backward in progress from its feminist moments because of how it portrays Billy as, effectively, a monstrous and unstable queer. The film’s phone motif “function[s] as a site for the collapse of established cultural boundaries and the production of monstrous difference” (Thomsen 21). Thomsen goes on to write:
Black Christmas implicitly understands cinema as a device for the reproduction of ideology … a representational machinery employed to enforce certain hierarchies of social and political power as well as the categories of knowledge and identity that underpin them. (22)
The problem is that “the telephone‘s dissociation of voice from body is ultimately a deadly danger, because it allows identities to become unstable and detached from any definite or stable point of reference” (26), instead become “a site for the production of monstrous difference” (30). The key to where the monstrous difference emerges is in the genderlessness Billy displays over the phone. Billy’s “identity fluidity is clearly coded as dangerously pathological, with the voice functioning as the signifier of a monstrously unstable and incoherent psyche, liable to violate the norms and morals of the reigning social order” (30). The killer provokes an uncanny sense of unease, apart from his misogynistic, sexualised rantings, because Billy does not reside in “a safely gendered body” with “a stable and acceptable gender identity” (30). And in a way, for the audience, that unease never rests as Billy’s never fully seen, so his identity remains a mystery even at the end of the film.
Furthermore, because Billy’s unseen throughout the film and his voice runs the gamut of gender over the phone, he’s the invisible queer who’s able to slip in amongst the heteros, unable to be picked out of the crowd, thus even more dangerous to the dominant culture than already perceived. It gives the queerness of Billy an even more nefarious quality than the film already presents and even echoes how queers, especially gay men, were represented in the media/fiction a decade later during the AIDS crisis.
Black Christmas is progressive in terms of how it portrays women—Jess, specifically—pushing back against the patriarchy’s misogyny and its gamut of expectations. But the film’s progressive leanings only lean in up to a certain extent at which the film tips slightly towards reinforcing the negative attitudes and ideology of a dominant heteronormative culture. Even some of the strong feminist whims of the screenplay get the wind knocked out of their sails a bit when Barb, a sexually liberated woman, quips: “You can‘t rape a townie.” As Thomsen writes: “Black Christmas anxiously engages with its own capacity for subverting the very system of power that it attempts to enforce” (22).
Ultimately the ideological work Black Christmas does, though strong at many turns, goes off the rails because it essentially trades in one weary ideology for another, giving strength to a conversation about women’s issues while allowing its slasher villain to be queer-coded and defined as monstrous. None of this changes the fact that Black Christmas is one of the best slashers to exist, and one of the holiday season’s finest frights. It’s just unfortunate that the film couldn’t resolve some of its own ideological confusion, which certainly wouldn’t have hurt the film.
Clark’s film remains a powerful one, not only for its slasher horror but for its willingness—albeit unintentionally, as per screenwriter A. Roy Moore and Clark—to engage in a debate about reproductive rights that, in ’74, was not as open-minded as today (yet we still have a long way to go). To set a horror film on Christmas is one thing; for a Christmas horror film to tackle patriarchal ideology, specifically abortion, is a whole other thing. Clark contributed a legendary work to the horror genre and to cinema itself, proving the slasher horror can be far more than people being hacked to death for the sake of violence.
Thomsen, Morten Feldtfos. “Body, Telephone, Voice: Black Christmas (1974) and Monstrous Cinema.” Film and Media Studies, Vol. 20 (2021); pp. 20-35.