Starting off with colorful flowers, enchanting rituals, and a lush landscape of Halsingland, Sweden, not to mention the bright, friendly faces all welcoming, Midsommar (2019) by Ari Aster initially seems to be another trippy film about an ancient pagan festival.
However, deep beneath its layers, Midsommar holds a psychological horror as well as a representation of female’s rage, sexuality, and critics over how patriarchal society fractures females in every step of their lives.
From a feminist point of view, Midsommar is a film celebrating the most primitive ideas of womanhood; where sexuality is embraced and considered as a sacred attribute of a woman, empathy is elevated, and female is a wisdom-wielder amidst society. The Midsommar festival itself is closely linked with Pagan beliefs, where goddesses are always the center of nature. Females and nature share a bond true in historical and cultural realities and it is the main theme that Midsommar always tries to depict (“Monstrous Womanhood and the Unapologetic Feminism of ‘Midsommar’”, 2019).
Midsommar starts off gloomily enough, with Dani, an anxiety-ridden college student who is grieving over a sudden loss of her family. Her egocentric anthropologist scholar boyfriend, Christian, is invited to a cultural festival in Sweden for a month unbeknownst of her. After a rocky argument between both of them, Christian finally invites Dani to the trip along with Mark, Josh, and Pelle. When they arrives, they never expected an ephemeral view of Halsingland and the village, the Harga, the blood-ridden consequences revealing the tribe’s true color coming afterwards, or how Dani, the anxious, oppressed main character will finally metamorphoses into the May Queen; an annual status for the winner of Midsommar festival, metaphorically and literally transforming her status, visions, and most importantly, how she places herself amidst a society where patriarchy no longer holds value.
This piece is mainly concerned with the reconstruction of female’s—specifically Dani—sexuality and hysteria through the perspective of The Monstrous Feminine by Barbara Creed. Known for her cultural criticism, she is a Professor of Cinema Studies in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Creed’s famous work, Monstrous Feminine, was published in 1993 and focused on women’s portrayal in the horror genre through patriarchal ideology (“The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film”, 1997). Moreover, Creed also combined her study with Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, covering a great number of Freudian symbols, castration anxieties, and similar themes. The writer considered Creed’s theory would be applicable to this research framework on Midsommar. Aside from being categorized in the horror genre, Midsommar also holds subjects about feminism and psychoanalysis that may be relevant to the study.
The Monstrous Feminine by Barbara Creed and Female’s Sexuality
Throughout history, women in horror films are often pictured as weak, sexual, and highly promiscuous. Creed argues that this is caused by the consistent male gaze and patriarchal ideologies. For instance, the virtuous female characters often survive because of the absence of her sexual desire—which is seen as a threat to men, whereas a sexually modest female is usually straight off disposed because of her promiscuous nature. In fact, Creed used the word ‘feminine’ to emphasize how gender is important in a female’s construction of monstrosity (Peters, 1994). She refused to use ‘female monster’ as it only creates a suggestion that it exists out of its male counterpart (Creed, 1993).
Creed’s Monstrous Feminine challenges the one-dimensional and patriarchal prototype that every concept of horror is retracted back to the female’s reproductive system. She argued that this concept stemmed from male’s inherent fear of castration and female’s sexual difference. Quoted from The Monstrous Feminine:
“…Lurie challenges the traditional Freudian position by arguing that men fear women, not because women are castrated but because they are not castrated. Lurie asserts that the male fears woman because a woman is not mutilated like a man, might be if he were castrated; a woman is physically whole, intact and in possession of all her sexual powers.” (Creed, 1993).
Moreover, Creed also noted that man’s fear of castration has created another monstrous phantasy in which women are the castrators. Linked more directly to questions of sexual desire than reproduction, the images of woman as castrators take at least three forms: woman as the deadly femme castratrice, the castrating mother, and the vagina dentata—the toothed vagina or the vagina that castrates; linked to the image of sexual intercourse in which male’s penis ‘disappears’ into female’s vagina. She mainly discussed Freud’s idea in which women are inherently different from men, and that women suffer from a penis-envy due to the fact that their penises were castrated in birth and became what they know as female genitalia. The idea of female as castratrice departs from male’s fears of being castrated; making them penis-less, thus as lacking as women.
The first and only mental disorder that has been attributed to females, the term ‘hysteria’ came from a Greek word, hysterika, which was used by Hippocrates to refer to an illness related to the movement of the uterus. The symptoms range from anxiety, emotional outbursts, nervousness, loss of appetite, and a variety of sexual urges or lack thereof, among many others. Hippocrates also argued that women’s bodies are physically colder than men. Thus, to warm it up, they need to engage in a sexual activity. In a way, it was insinuated that hysteria in female was caused by incomplete sexual activities or a lack thereof. In a psychoanalytic context, women are seen as disadvantaged for being unable to master oedipal tasks, thus are disposed to hysterical behavior (Gilman et al., 1993). Gilman also argued that hysteria is as destructive for men as it is to women. Hysteria has always been considered as an ‘effeminate’ disorder. Men who showed this symptom was considered unmanly, womanish, or homosexual as if a feminine quality in their masculinity is a disease. Nevertheless, the public’s treatment of male hysteria was divergent from its counterpart. Men were still able to impose reasons in their emotions and masquerade it as logic, unlike females whose feminist attitudes were considered as the hysteria itself. Thus, although hysteria was, in a way, destructive for both sexes when it comes to its societal outlook, females’ position was always more oppressed.
In the nineteenth century, the understanding of hysteria has changed due to an uprising in feminist points of view, seeing hysteria as a protolanguage that holds all women together; connecting them through a language that cannot be verbalized (Gilman et al., 1993). Feminists also began to reclaim the term and redefine it as a way to systematically oppress females. They argued that hysteria in females is beyond their natural psyche, and that it is caused by the oppressive social roles that are imposed on them instead.
Female hysteria can also be traced to Creed’s famous theory of the Monstrous Feminine. According to Creed, hysteria is apparent in one of the archetypes, which is a woman as a monstrous womb. Creed argued that the concept of women having connection to natural events such as birth and menstruation is what insinuated male anxiety. Aside from that, the uterus has always been associated with devilish and grotesque events such as sex and birth, especially during the Renaissance era. It was believed that the womb could wander around a woman’s body and create certain illnesses, one of which is what they assumed as hysteria.
Gaslighting and Codependency in Midsommar
During the first 20 minutes of the movie, the audiences are shown by Christian’s discussions about the shortcomings of his relationship with Dani, who constantly relies on him for emotional support. He’s exhausted from listening to Dani’s constant anxiety over her mentally ill sister. Christian’s friends, who are just as supportive of his concern, encourage him to break up with her. Claiming that his current girlfriend is nagging, dependent, and most probably ‘hysteric’, they tell him to find a girl who ‘actually enjoys having sex’ since Dani does not. However, just after he elaborates on these concerns, Dani calls and tells him that her biggest fear has just been realized; her sister killed herself along with her parents. At that time, Christian is sure that he can’t break up with Dani since she needs him; though what she actually needs is a loving, considerate boyfriend and not an indifferent one.
Dani and Christian’s relationship goes even more astray when Dani finds out that Christian is planning a month-long trip to a cultural festival in Sweden unbeknownst of her. Dani confronts him, and Christian decided to gaslight her instead, believing that she’s the one who is wrong for being forgetful and not paying attention. Throughout the movie, it becomes apparent that Christian habitually gaslights Dani. This behavior is shown by saying that she’s hallucinating or imagining things, undermining her worries, and so on. As a result, the Sweden trip that was supposed to rekindle their bond creates more distance between them.
In addition to Christian’s gaslighting behavior, his relationship with Dani is also a codependent one. The audience could see the narcissism in his way of responding to Dani’s grief. Christian refuses to leave Dani because he believes that she needs him more than anything; that his absence will severely affect Dani’s wellbeing. On the other hand, Dani isn’t entirely innocent as well. Quoted from Ari Aster’s interview regarding a toxic relationship—which pretty much described Dani in her: “You build your life around a person, and all of a sudden, you find yourself in this very existential situation where you’re alone again.” (Ransome, 2019). Her codependency to Christian blinds her from seeing Christian’s toxic behavior. She normalizes it and bleakly reassures herself that everything will be okay; that her relationship is okay although it is not. Even her decision to go to Sweden isn’t completely hers, it is a justification to stay with Christian because she’s dependent on him although she didn’t find consolation nor love after following him.
Reconstructing Sexuality: The Monstrous Feminine in Midsommar Females
In Midsommar by Ari Aster, we are served with a women-driven society; from Siv, the cult leader of Halsingland who is a female, the sexually-assertive women who look and choose who they want to mate with, to the May Queen, which is an annual status of a chosen women celebrating the peak of Midsommar in Harga village. If we put it into Creed’s perspective, the Harga women are the ‘vagina dentata’ which frightened the males who came there due to their dominant nature and sexual behavior.
The change of behavior between the visiting men and women differs when they learn the true nature of Harga villagers. In the beginning, the males are excited and even explicitly pursue the women there, unlike Dani who is anxious, shocked, and alienated. After a few weeks of bloody ceremonies and odd behaviors, the men—Christian, Josh, and Mark—began to fear the women of Harga; thinking they’re monstrous. At the time they sense that there is something wrong, they’re too late. In contrast, Dani’s character evolves differently; she felt more empowered among the Harga women although she doesn’t speak their language nor understand their culture. She is not frightened by the ‘savage’, ‘monstrous-like’ female, unlike her male companions.
Another example is when Christian is drugged and participates in a sex ritual with Maja, one of the Harga females, while other Harga females watch and interact with them. Maja, in The Monstrous Feminine, could be categorized as the femme castratrice. Christian has sexual intercourse with her under the pressure of drugs and fellow cults. In a way, this image plays with men’s fear of being symbolically castrated. The pressure and voyeuristic experience given to Christian disable him from dominating the sexual intercourse. Therefore, in that scene, it seemed as though Christian was being castrated by Maja and the rest of the female cultists as he wasn’t able to assert his “power” during the intercourse.
In contrast, another look to Midsommar helps us to reconstruct Dani’s sexual disinterest, in which she is sexually liberated by the cult after being oppressed so long. From the beginning of the movie, although neither Christian nor Dani show a sign of sexual frustration, they are distant both physically and emotionally. Mark, a particularly obnoxious friend of Christian, alleges that Dani doesn’t like sex and insists that Christian should find a woman who does. This assumption could be considered as a form of oppression toward Dani and most women; that a woman’s worth is measured from her sexual desires, and that she doesn’t worth as much when she is unable to please her male partner.
Although Dani doesn’t have any sexual encounter with any of the Harga people, her sexual liberation is symbolically delivered through the pinnacle of the Midsommar celebration, the May Queen dance. Set circularly around the May Pole, a flower-adorned pole resembling a phallic symbol, the women are barefooted and stomping their feet on the grassland, dancing until they’re out from the circle or ‘dead’. At one point, the maidens’ formation turns into a circular shape, resembling the womb symbol in psychoanalysis, which means birth (“The Freudian Symbolism in Your Dreams”, n.d.). With the help of excellent cinematography, the audience could see the gradual metamorphosis of Dani throughout the ritual dance. Dani’s initial confusion is soon replaced by harmony and finally, she, who used to be an outsider, manages to merge herself in.
This is shown in Dani’s sudden understanding and ability of the Swedish language, despite never learning it. Soon, the audience could hear sounds of breathing, accompanied by images of Dani being out of focus. However, amidst all of that, she is found smiling; raising her hands and heads up in pleasure with the rest of Harga females. The expression shown in her face could be considered as ecstasy, deriving from the Greek word ekstasis which means ‘standing out of oneself’ (Gilman et al., 1993; “Definition of ECSTASY”, n.d.). The writer assumed that, for the first time, Dani felt gloriously whole in her own psyche; separated from Christian, away from the restriction that used to bound her to the ground. Being metamorphosed into a new self, the May Queen dance helped her to achieve her ‘ecstasy’, an orgasmic-like experience birthing her anew. Dani is no longer a girl who ‘doesn’t like sex’.
Crowned as the May Queen, Dani’s successfully strips herself away from her toxic boyfriend and peers. Her separation from Christian is showed just after her coronation; Christian watching her from a distance and her hesitantly asking whether he could join her in the carriage. However, as the Harga maiden says, “Nej, the queen must ride alone”, no more doors are open for Christian. The May Queen’s ordination is for Dani and Dani alone. Thus, without any glance back, she steps up the carriage’s stairs and as if it was something that’s destined for her, she—the May Queen, rides on freely and wholly, alone.
Reconstructing Hysteria: Hysteria as a Form of Oppression and a Protolanguage in Midsommar
As noted in the previous point, feminists have reclaimed the term hysteria and redefined the term as a way to systematically oppress females due to their biological nature. Moreover, they also argued that hysteria is a protolanguage that holds all women together, communicating through a language that cannot be verbalized (Gilman et al., 1993).
In Midsommar, it is apparent that hysteria is a label that Christian and his friends tries to employ on Dani. She is mentally unstable, lacking sexual desire, dependent, and often hallucinating. Therefore, in their male perspective, she must be hysteric; as noted in Christian’s friend remark, “Dude, she needs a therapist”, proving that women’s mental health is still stigmatized within the male gaze. From a feminist point of view, Dani’s hysteria was a form of oppression. Her oppression was apparent in Dani’s journey of grief while her boyfriend downplayed her and his friends tried to cover up the poor action he’s done. Not to mention that his boyfriend constantly gaslighted, lied, and at one point cheated on her.
Furthermore, hysteria as a female’s protolanguage is also apparent in the movie. After Dani finds out that her boyfriend had ritual sex with one of the female cultists, she is completely devastated. She vomits, wails, and is distraught over the bitter reality that, no matter how she tries to rekindle her relationship with Christian, their relationship is never going anywhere. In the middle of her grief, the Harga females surround and join her in grief. During her lowest moment, she feels validated and empathized. Amidst Harga females, her individuality is set aside, leaving only a collective feeling of grief that is felt and shared, holding all of them together.
Concluding from the aforementioned ideas, the men—Christian, Josh, and Mark—are intimidated and horrified of Harga females who represent ‘castrators’, identified by their sexually aggressive behavior, unlike Dani who felt sexually liberated and in tune with herself. Moreover, from the same perspective, Dani’s hysteria is a form of oppression which silenced her through gaslighting and downplaying.
As an addition, hysteria also played as a protolanguage within women in Midsommar, served as the collective crying of Harga female after Christian’s infidelity. From a feminist point of view, Midsommar (2019) by Ari Aster is a feminist film criticizing how females’ sexuality is oppressed and their emotional beings are downplayed through a horror lens of what would happen if the role is reversed; in a setting where female’s sexuality is praised and the females share collective emotions and the idea of the individual disappears.
Creed, B. (n.d.). The monstrous-feminine: Film, feminism, psychoanalysis.
“Monstrous Womanhood and the Unapologetic Feminism of ‘Midsommar.’” 2019. Screen Queens. July 13, 2019. https://screen-queens.com/2019/07/13/monstrous-womanhood-and-the-unapologetic-feminism-of-midsommar/.
Ransome, Noel. 2019. “‘Midsommar’ Is Actually Supposed to Be a Breakup Movie.” Vice. July 2, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/bj9k5m/ari-aster-wants-midsommar-to-be-your-favorite-breakup-movie.