Noah Berlatsky / October 8, 2020
John Fawcett’s 2000 Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps is usually discussed as a feminine and feminist allegory: “the most complete feminist horror film ever made,” as this site’s K.E. Roberts puts it. There’s no doubt that the linking of the werewolf cycle to menstrual blood, and thus to female adolescence and female stigmatization, demands a feminist reading. Hidden inside the story about women, though—like a dirty secret, never to be spoken—is a story about queerness. The tragedy of Ginger Snaps, in fact, is that patriarchy makes queerness unspeakable and unthinkable. As a result, the film can imagine no future for women in patriarchy other than death.
The movie starts, in fact, with imagining death. The Fitzgerald sisters, Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), live in a dreary, lower-middle-class, mostly white Ontario town, which they hate, and which hates them. Disgusted at the thought of being normal, they swear to each other to die together before they get old. To seal their love affair with death, they create a kind of slide-show horror movie as a school project, with images of Ginger impaled on suburban fences and run down by suburban lawn mowers. The bloody show is successful in nauseating their instructor. It’s also a winking ironic foreshadowing: the sisters are about to experience the horror movie story they long for, and it’s not going to be fun at all.
But beyond that, the film–within-a-film is a camp signal to the viewer that all is not as it appears. Or rather, it’s a signal that all is exactly as it appears. The movie shows the Fitzgerald sisters as they use fake blood and special effects to stage bloody scenes of death, just as the filmmakers of Ginger Snaps stage their dog disembowelments and nightmare janitor eviscerations. The truth of the movie, which you know going in, is that it’s fake. And the thing that is most obviously fake is not the blood and gore, but the pretense that the Fitzgerald sisters are sisters.
Obviously, the actors, Isabelle and Perkins, are not sisters. They look nothing alike. Isabelle as Ginger is a conventionally attractive movie lead, while Perkins as Brigitte is mousy, big-nosed, and human- rather than Hollywood-shaped. You’re supposed to suspend disbelief about their blood ties. And yet, the movie pushes at the edge of that suspension, as if it wants you to notice the artifice. The girls are not twins, but are in the same grade: Brigitte skipped a year, Ginger too casually explains. The boys in the film notice and comment on the fact that the two don’t resemble each other. And in a queasy scene towards the films end, Ginger, more than half-transformed into wolf, leans into Brigitte and husks, “We’re almost not even related any more.”
If sisterhood is a convention, rather than a truth, then the girl’s intense friendship, and indeed their shared room, takes on a different valence. So does their alienation from their peers. The narrative provides no real reason why the Fitzgeralds feel like outsiders, or why they’re hated by their classmates. But if you accept what you’re actually seeing, then the dynamic is obvious. Two girls who really are not sisters are engaged in a passionate, intense, open same-sex relationship. Their peers hate them for it.
In this context, Ginger’s transformation isn’t just a metaphor for female adolescence; it’s a metaphor for queer adolescence, in which increasing evidence of deviation in gender and sexuality must be pushed ever further into the closet. Ginger grows a tail—a penis metaphor, surely—and hair on her chest, even as she gets her period for the first time. She becomes more femme, wearing tight clothes, redoing her hair, flirting with boys. At the same time, she becomes more masculine. She just about sexually assaults Jason (Jesse Moss), a boy she’s making out with, after he asks her who the guy in their relationship is.
The chaotic confusion of gendered presentation and gendered desire could be a metaphor for trans experience, for lesbian experience, for male gay experience. The common through-line is social ostracism, shame, and a need for concealment. Most of the movie is devoted to Brigitte and Ginger’s efforts to keep Ginger’s condition closeted, so that she can pass.
Part of obscuring Ginger’s condition involves hiding it from the film’s viewers. It seems likely that Brigitte and Ginger were made sisters in the script specifically to defuse queer possibilities. The erotic tension between them is expressed through misdirection, and routed especially through relationships with guys. Ginger has unprotected sex with Jason, infecting him. Werewolf Jason later almost assaults Brigitte, who stabs him with a phallic needle to cure him. In a parallel triangle, Brigitte has a possibly more than platonic relationship with local drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche), who Ginger then tries to sleep with. And most explicitly, Ginger viciously murders a school janitor who she believes has been staring at Brigitte. “I don’t like the way he looks at you!” she hisses. That could be read as the anger of an overprotective sister. But it could also be jealousy.
Brigitte and Ginger’s desires aren’t just hidden from onlookers, diagetic and otherwise. They’re hidden from themselves. When Brigitte first approaches Sam for help with a werewolf cure, she tells him that she’s the one infected, rather than Ginger. That’s an admission as much as a lie; if the curse in the movie is queerness rather than lycanthropy, then it touches both (supposed) sisters. Brigitte, notably, still has not gotten her own period, even though she’s 15. Her femininity is queer too.
Ginger, for her part, says that she has a hunger inside her that she at first mistakes for a desire for (heterosexual) sex. But then she realizes that what she actually wants is “to tear everything to fucking pieces.” We learn what that means in practice when she claws two men to death, and then suggests to Brigitte that the two of them “swap fluids” and go away together. You have to wade through apocalypse, blood, death, and the destruction of all things to get to a place where you can love that girl who is not your sister.
There’s a moment when the movie seems to foresee a plausible happy ending for that love whose name it never speaks. The sisters’ mom, Pam (Mimi Rodgers), discovers that Ginger is killing her way through her classmates. She’s understandably upset, but she doesn’t turn them in. Instead, she reacts the way you’d hope a small town mom would on learning that her kid is queer. She offers to burn down her house and chuck her mediocre husband to support her child.
The filmmakers aren’t as supportive, alas. Brigitte does agree to swap blood with Ginger, making some feeble denials to Sam about how it’s the only way to lure Ginger out to cure her with the good heterosexual injection Sam’s whipped up. But, inevitably, the taste of Brigitte causes Ginger to rage ever more out of control. Brigitte, knife in one hand, injection in the other, tries to save her, but Ginger again chooses the wrong thing to impale herself upon, and expires in the arms of her sister, who can’t be her lover.
“I’m not dying in this room with you!” Brigitte shouts right before the end. It’s a rejection of the teen sisters’ suicide pact, and an embrace of adulthood and possibility. Or, alternately, it’s a stifling acceptance of heteronormativity. “To die” is a standard double entendre, especially when it’s used to refer to what you’re doing in a bedroom. Ginger is beckoning, with bared fangs, to a realm of monstrous difference, where the girls can admit they are unrelated, and still wrestle and thrust and experience release together. Brigitte says no and kills her rather than be consumed by queer desire.
Ginger Snaps is about how patriarchy destroys women. But, as its callous title indicates, the film itself is only ambivalently opposed to that process of destruction. The movie cares about Ginger and Brigitte, but it’s also invested in denying some of the possible ways they might care about each other. In Ginger Snaps, death is better than, and the natural result of, girls loving each other intensely, or too well. Ginger wants to tear down the whole world. Ginger Snaps tears down Ginger instead.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.