October Musings: The Unexpected Feminism of “The Mummy” (1932)

I make no secret of my love for the horror movie classics released by Universal Studios in the 1930s, but by and large they’re the last place to go if you’re looking for active, interesting heroines, let alone any trace of feminism. (The horror classics produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, particularly 1946’s Bedlam, are far more satisfying in that regard.) Memorable characters abound in these films: Bela Lugosi’s despicable Count Dracula and Dwight Frye’s manic Renfield; Boris Karloff’s poignant Monster, Colin Clive’s haunted Frankenstein, Ernest Thesiger’s sinfully camp Dr. Pretorius, and O.P. Heggie’s gentle Hermit; Claude Rains’ invisible madman Jack Griffin; and Lon Chaney Jr.’s tragic werewolf Laurence Talbot. But none of them are women, unless you count the drive-you-crazy screechers played by Una O’Connor; she’s infuriating but not very forgettable. The female leads are, for the most part, dull damsels easily preyed upon by evil and very given to tears and screams — with one exception.

That exception is Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), the object of Imhotep’s (Boris Karloff) desire in 1932’s The Mummy.

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: the movie itself isn’t for everyone. It’s a short film, only 73 minutes long, but it takes its time. Even fans of classic cinema, used to the acting styles and black-and-white cinematography that alienate quite a few post-Generation X viewers, sometimes complain of this movie’s slow pacing, with one YouTube critic complaining that too much of its run time consists of “men talking in drawing rooms.” I can’t say these criticisms are unfounded, though I’m fond of it. The most crucial element that carries it for me is Karloff’s Imhotep, a “monster” in a fascinating situation — executed for a crime motivated by love, reborn suddenly into a world he doesn’t understand, wanting nothing more than to be united with the woman he still adores. He’s almost a sympathetic figure, though his actions can’t be condoned. Karloff, one of my favorite actors, endows the role with a darkly charismatic presence, with his deep, resonant baritone voice and his mesmerizing eyes. Helen, the beautiful young reincarnation of his ancient beloved, is realistic drawn to him.

But the second element that draws me to the film is Helen herself, far more interesting than the pallid, weepy damsels we see in the other Universal horror classics. While ordinariness is a feature rather than a bug with the latter women — since they’re meant to represent the domestic normalcy threatened by the monsters — Helen has an exotic mystique of her own. We first see her sitting at a window and gazing out at the pyramids, a look of rapt fascination on her face. It is with the utmost reluctance that she turns away from what she calls “the real Egypt” and toward the dance to which Dr. Muller (every-mentor Edward van Sloan) has brought her. (I have no trouble empathizing with the introvert pulled out of a daydream and encouraged to socialize.) We lean in the next minute that she comes by her attraction to “the real Egypt” honestly, since her mother is an Egyptian with “a family tree a mile long.” This too sets her apart from the WASP ladies we see in the other films. Moreover, this first scene establishes her as someone indifferent to the prospect of romance, since her thoughts, as Muller says, are “far away from the dance and these nice English boys.” We’re led to expect that when it comes to love, she’s not going to be a pushover.

Since this is a horror movie from 1932, however, a love interest she must find, and the bland, callow Frank Whemple (David Manners) is not among the movie’s strengths. Why she would be attracted to so generic a man while all those “nice English boys” at the party did nothing for her is a mystery the movie never manages to explain. But in their opening conversation, she challenges him in ways that again make her unique among Universal’s horror heroines. Trying to impress her, he tells her how he and his team of archaeologists took apart the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, culminating in unwrapping the princess herself. Yet she reacts not with admiration but with disgust, turning her face away and saying, “How could you do that?” His reply — “Had to! Science, you know!” — is hardly convincing, for either Helen or the audience. She calls him out for cultural appropriation and men’s invasion of a woman’s space long before such things were commonly scrutinized.

Nonetheless, Frank manages to win Helen over, though we’re never shown how or why, and the movie presents him as the “good choice” she must make in order to save her soul from the looming threat of Imhotep, now calling himself Ardath Bey. As the love triangle intensifies, the interesting parts of Helen’s personality start to flatten out; after a fascinating scene in which Bey gives her a glimpse of her past as Anck-es-en-Amon and his own failed attempt to resurrect her after she died, Muller and Frank keep her confined to her house “for her own good” so she can’t respond to Bey’s hypnotic pull, reducing her to a state of protected passivity. But when their scheme fails and she gets away, the stage is set for a climax that first echoes, then subverts the pattern set by Dracula a year earlier.

In both Dracula and The Mummy, the hero and the mentor (played by the same actors) enter the villain’s lair to rescue the hypnotized heroine from his unholy clutches, but at this point the stories diverge. In Dracula, Mina (Helen Chandler) is in a trance, every ounce of her will drained away. In The Mummy, Helen has been drawn back to ancient Egypt, to her old identity as Anck-es-en-Amon, still in love with Imhotep. But her will remains, and when she learns he means to murder her mortal body and turn her into a living mummy like himself, she immediately resists, with all the dignity and determination of a Pharaoh’s daughter and priestess of the goddess Isis. The men burst in, but Imhotep holds them at bay with his death-dealing magic ring and wicked Karloffian glare. They become the imperiled, which gives Anck-es-en-Amon time to pull free from his grasp and raise a prayer that Isis might teach her the forgotten holy spells that can destroy her once-beloved, now enemy. The goddess obliges, the priestess chants, and Isis’ golden statue strikes the menace dead with a lightning bolt. Rather than being rescued, Anck-es-en-Amon becomes the rescuer, destroying Imhotep before he can harm the men. Female magic, the power of the goddess and her priestess, is presented as heroic, in a day and age when it was nearly always framed as evil.

Sadly but inevitably, Helen ends the movie in Frank’s arms; having her leave him to pursue her own career in Egyptology is simply too much to ask of a 1932 film. All the same, the elements of feminism are there, and Helen remains one of the very few horror movie heroines prior to the rise of the slasher film’s “final girls” to deal the monster his death-blow. This alone puts it miles in front of the abysmal 2017 remake, in which a modern-day damsel is reduced to the ultimate passive state while the female “straw feminist” mummy is overpowered by that most egoistic Alpha of all Alpha males, Tom Cruise. (The hope that this film might contain any trace of feminism was pretty much blown sky high the moment Cruise was cast.) So I’ll be sticking with the original, flaws and all.

Villainesses Revisited

“What about female villains?” an audience member asked the panelists leading a DragonCon discussion about female-character representation in SFF. “Do they hold us back?”

How I wished this question hadn’t come only ten minutes from the end of the discussion. There’s so much to say on the matter that it could easily have supported a panel of its own. I would have welcomed the chance to air my complicated feelings about villainesses, previously expressed on this very blog, and to be challenged in ways that would make me think. But the question by itself was enough to give me pause. Is my feeling that female villains might “hold us back” the root of my ambivalence, and is that really fair? How do I reconcile this ambivalence with the delight I’ve taken in crafting villainesses in my own work, such as the venomous Southern belle Liza Twigg in my radio play The Horseman of the Hollow?

Inspired by this question that didn’t get sufficient consideration, as well as the appearance of female villains in a number of books I’ve enjoyed over the past year, from Ifueko’s Raybearer to Clark’s A Master of Djinn to Gratton’s The Queens of Innis Lear to Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, I’ve decided the time has come for me to revisit my “villainess problem.”

First, where does the question come from? Why might we have the idea that female villains might “hold us back,” when no one to my knowledge has ever wondered if characters like Darth Vader or the Joker or Loki might hold men back? If the world and its popular culture were as they should be, we wouldn’t be asking this question of any gender; the idea that an individual’s behavior might reflect either well or badly on a whole gender or race the individual may be part of is inherently problematic. But sadly, we’re carrying the baggage of centuries of pop culture in which women’s challenges to gender roles have been framed as villainous. In most fiction from years past, as an essay from an old textbook of mine put it, “good women were never powerful, and powerful women were never good enough.” The evil woman either possessed or desired more power — political, magical, and/or intellectual — than was deemed natural for her gender, while the good woman, the passive object of the male hero’s adoration, was content with her subordinate position.

Moreover, the task of defeating and neutralizing female villainy nearly always — with a few exceptions — fell to men. Evil women challenged masculine preeminence, while good women stepped back and let men take care of the problem; this stepping back, this reliance on men to fix things, was depicted as part and parcel of their virtuous natures, the thing that made them “heroines.” An iconic example appears in Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty: while the damsel sleeps (“Sleeping Beauty, sleep on,” sings a choir), the male hero, with the help of three fairy sidekicks, slays the monstrous witch-dragon and breaks the dread spell with his kiss.

Too often, when villainesses meet their defeat at the hands of men, we see masculine power as a force for good and feminine power as untrustworthy at best, destructive at worst. In another Disney film, The Sword in the Stone, we meet two magic users, one male and another female. The male wizard is wise and good, the witch is spiteful and evil, and when they duel, he shows her who’s boss. It’s not Disney’s fault, since it’s merely drawing on centuries’ worth of Arthurian fiction that has framed its magicians this way; male magic might be evil on occasion, but female magic is always and inevitably so. With this history, some of us might be forgiven for thinking that female villains could “hold women back.”

But popular culture changes with the times, and recent years have seen a growing acceptance of women in heroic roles, women who can be both powerful and good. These days, villainesses are nearly as likely to be defeated by heroines as by male heroes. As female power, drive, and ambition are less often drawn as inherently suspect, the time may have come for the Villainess to rise in all her wicked glory. But it may still behoove us, as we look at villainesses, to question exactly what about them is being painted as evil — specifically, whether their villainy is gender-linked, and in what way.

Elise Ringo’s 2018 essay “Villainesses Required: Why the Dark Side Needs More Women” makes its stance clear in its title: “Sexism, as any systemic prejudice, is a clever animal, and it has coopted the notion of ‘good representation’ to take a strangely regressive shape, insisting that it is bad for women to show women who are bad.” Yet she also calls out as problematic the way female villainy is often presented even today: “When female villains do appear, they tend to be produced from limited molds: the femme fatale. . . the evil stepmother. . . the older woman desperately chasing youth and beauty. . . All of these types, no matter how much fun they are, share a common thread: villains who are women are villains as women.”

Ringo may have an affection for villains in general that I don’t share, but we have a common hope that in the future, female characters might get the chance to be evil in ways that transcend gender roles. Set free from gender essentialism, such villainesses might just become Darth Vader-level icons.

My husband and I have been making our way through the sixth and final season of Supergirl. After a shaky first half that saw Kara trapped in the Phantom Zone for way too many episodes, the show has regained its footing, and all its major female characters are getting their moments to shine. Since it has so many powerful, active women on Team Good, for the most part I’ve enjoyed its bad-news ladies, from Livewire to Lillian Luthor, but dastardly politician Councilwoman Jean Rankin may be my favorite of all of them. Motivated by a desire to clear the neighborhoods of those she sees as “useless,” demolishing low-income housing to make way for condominiums, Rankin is the embodiment of murderous greed and bigotry, qualities that know no gender. Her role might easily have been played by a man, without much alteration in the story. But here she is a woman, and terrifyingly evil.

But the Councilwoman isn’t the only villainess Kara and her friends must contend with. There’s also Nyxly, a female Imp Kara met in the Phantom Zone, who has now gotten herself transported into the “real” world and is determined to avenge herself on Kara because Kara stopped her from murdering her (Kara’s) father. Such an amoral, evil-for-evil’s-sake demon could be a lot of fun. But unfortunately the writers have chosen to give her a backstory to explain her rage: she was screwed over by her world’s “patriarchy.” That’s right — another villainess rendered evil by sexism, who, in her willingness to hurt innumerable people in order to get her revenge, is shown to be much more dangerous and destructive than the oppressive system she defies. She is a straw feminist, a villain as woman, as opposed to the Councilwoman, a villain who happens to be a woman.

I’d love to see the future belong to the villains who happen to be women, as opposed to the villains as women; the straw feminist, in particular, should be relegated to the past. As long as we continue to see so many of the latter kind, I suspect my feelings about villainesses in general may remain ambivalent.