You would think that a movie that has women as the main protagonists would be a progressive step forward in terms of the portrayal of women in film. With Silent Hill, you would be wrong.
I went into the movie with the skepticism of a fan who has seen many of her favourite video games (not to mention books) ripped to shreds when they reach the big screen. I had heard that the movie was pretty good, and I was cautiously optimistic over the female protagonist who didn’t seem to fit the “sexy woman who kicks ass” paradigm that seems to have become a requirement for female heroes. I was even more interested when it was shown that the other protagonist would be a cop who, it seemed, just happened to be female.
Despite the lack of the lead pipe (I know, how could someone say they were being true to the series and not give the lead pipe some airtime??), I remained cautiously optimistic as the storyline got going. The cinematography was excellent. It was fun to recognize the monsters populating the town. The plot was both close enough and far enough from Silent Hill 1 to bug me a bit, but I never got the chance to play through all of the game so I could take it.
But, then, near the middle I started getting a sinking feeling in my stomach when I saw the themes that were emerging. By the end of the movie I wanted to throw something at the screen. Spoilers and mild rape triggers follow!
I. The Characters
The characters in the movie were both the best and the most frustrating part about it. Women, not men, were the spotlight characters; from the main protagonist, to her helper, to the main villain, and beyond. It’s rare in films of this genre, even films that are trying to make a point about gender, for there to be so many visible women in main, supporting, and extra roles.
But this was proven to be a double edged sword; none of the female characters were just incidentally female; it was all part of a larger reaching set of tropes and symbolism which will be discussed in more detail later.
First I’d like to give an overview of the female main characters. While a reading of the male characters is necessary for a full understanding of the portrayal of gender in the movie, I’m focusing specifically on what was done with the women and therefore in the interest of space I won’t be discussing the men.
Rose Da Silva
Rose is the protagonist of the story, the plot and all the characters revolve around her and her quest to find her missing daughter. If she sounds a lot like a female version of Harry Mason, well, she basically is. According to the commentary on the DVD, Harry was being written and somehow he turned into a woman.
It was implied that the evolution was owing to the difference between film and video games. Even before I heard that semi-explanation, however, I felt that the gender switch had something to do with the anxiety that the West has over parenthood — namely that it is perfectly natural for a mother to bond so deeply with her child that she would do things that seemed insane to others, but that it is less believable for a father to do the same things.
Cybill was mine and Ariel’s favourite character. She was unapologetically strong, was frequently talked about by the cops from the “outside world” in terms of her heroic deeds, and saved Rose more than once. She even seemed at the beginning to be a character who happened to be female, rather than a Female Character.
That partly changed when she met her end, though. She first goes through a fake death, which was disappointing to us both but because it was off screen and not horrifically violent we could accept it as a hero’s death and not a slasher movie death. But, later on it’s shown that she wasn’t killed, but rather trussed up so we could see her graphically burn to death for being a witch/aiding witches!! Did I mention it was graphic, as in watching her skin bubble and flake off her skin? It also became clear that part of the reasoning for making her female was to have her fit into the whole theme of witches, which I will discuss later.
Sharon Da Silva
Adopted daughter of Rose and her husband. She had dreams about Silent Hill and it turns out that she’s the “good half” of Alessa, sent out into the “outside world” years ago.
Alessa was teased by kids whose parents believed her to be a witch, raped by a janitor at her school, and finally burned as a witch by her aunt. Her hatred draws the attention of an evil spirit (heavily implied to be Satan), which leads to the creation of the dual-dimension of fog and dark that is part of Silent Hill.
Christabella is the main antagonist of the movie. She leads the people who live within the Silent Hill dimensions and it’s revealed that she spearheads the movement to burn Alessa, which leads to the current predicament. She is also Dahlia’s sister.
The insane mother of Alessa. She is portrayed as crazy, weak-willed, and not unsympathetic but not untroubled.
The two main themes of motherhood and witchcraft are female oriented and therefore undoubtedly played a role in selecting the gender of the main cast. Although not necessarily bad themes in themselves, they create a troublesome picture when they manifest in the movie and also the way that they juxtapose with the recurrent themes of Christianity.
Christophe Gans, the director, states outright in the origins of Silent Hill section of the DVD that motherhood was an integral theme. He stated that he wanted to show good mothers and bad mothers.
Rose is clearly the good mother — she blindly sacrifices everything to try to help her daughter, faces down monsters of both the supernatural and human kind, and never once falters in her chosen task.
I am loathe to call Dhalia a bad mother, although she is the only other actual mother portrayed in the film aside from a minor appearance of Anna’s mother. Dhalia has made mistakes — she failed to protect her daughter from the school children, the janitor, and even her own sister. She went to get help, but it was too late and her daughter ended up living in her shell of a burned body. She lives in her daughter’s twisted hell along with everyone else, but always slightly apart; she is shunned by other humans and untouched by her daughter’s demons.
Cybill, though not a mother, seems to fall into the “good mother” category, as the heroic story told about her over and over is how she stayed with a boy who had been thrown down the mineshaft by a man, his father if I remember correctly. She is clearly protective of Sharon from the moment she meets her, and even during her own death she is concerned about not having Sharon, a child, witness the atrocity.
Christabella is also a representation of a bad mother — though not an actual mother, she is aunt to Alessa and acts as a surrogate mother to the people who inhabit the Silent Hill hell. It is clear that Alessa blames her for what happened, and Rose speaks that “truth” to everyone when she comes back after having confronted the demon who teamed up with Alessa. For her crimes she is ripped in half by Alessa.
Witchcraft was another running theme throughout the film, which is another reason for having so many female protagonists. Motifs of fire and burning can be seen in many different parts of the film, and any time a woman is shown to not fit the correct mold the response of the Silent Hill inhabitants is to shout “Witch!” and go after them.
Alessa is thought to be a witch because Dhalia refused to name a father for her. She is called “a sin” (whereas Dhalia is “the sinner”), taunted in class, raped, and finally burnt almost to death because of this.
Dhalia, who went against her sister’s wishes and tried to save her daughter, is an outcast, a blasphemer, and a witch. She is untouched by her daughter’s demons, and indeed in once place it seems that she causes a Pyramid Head to sprout up and kill a woman who has been calling her witch and throwing stones at her (done through a graphic scene of flesh being ripped off, I might add).
Rose and Cybill are both called witches when they first enter the church that is the refuge of the human inhabitants of Silent Hill. Christabella puts a stop to it, but as soon as she learns that Sharon is the spitting image of Alessa, she once again initiates the cries of “witch”. Cybill is burnt alive and Rose is stabbed in the chest by Christabella.
III. Female Fault
If it was one thing that this movie sent home, it was that all the bad things that happened in Silent Hill were the fault of women.
Christabella lead the burning of Alessa, which is what enabled the creation of the hell dimension. Through this she was responsible, and therefore at fault, for the atrocities that happened within. She was also charged with lying to the people stuck in the hell dimension with her and controlling them through their fear. She was portrayed as a tyrant who used religion to delude herself and her followers into believing in their own false righteousness.
Dhalia went along with Christabella’s plan and allowed her daughter to be brought to the hotel for burning. She is guilty of being an enabler of Christabella, and therefore shares the blame. This is partially mitigated by her realization of the error or her ways, but she was never fully absolved because she brought help too late — her punishment is to live in the hell dimension and witness what her daughter became through a result of her actions.
Alessa’s guilt began with her hurting a curious, but innocent, nurse who looked at her burnt body. It was furthered when she allowed her hate grow and culminated with her accepting the help of the demonic character in creating her own personal hell. She is revealed to be a moral monster when she descends on the church and violently (and graphically) rips everyone, save her mother, Rose, and Sharon to shreds.
Rose is also not spotless. She allows herself to be taken in by the demon, who enters her body and thereby enables Alessa to wreak her vengeance on the humans who inhabit her hell dimension. She therefore shares the blame for their deaths. Her punishment is to be stuck in the fog dimension alone with Sharon, who is implied to be (or somehow be influenced by) the demonic figure.
Cybill is what I would call an unintended consequence of this trend. While I think my above reading is more or less meant to be taken that way (although perhaps not with my particular spin), I believe that Cybill was in no way meant to be included in this trend. However, she was killed in the same spectacular way reserved for those who were not, in fact, innocents and therefore a tie was created between her and the others.
The crime that Cybill comes across as having committed is that of transgressing the feminine — usurping the male role of hero, despite it being in a clearly maternal context — and is punished by being burned as a witch. Her death is clearly meant to be read as a tragedy, and she is a sympathetic character, but the violence in which she ends and the thematic elements that surround the women of this movie do not send a wholly positive message, but rather one that allows blame to be shouldered by a woman who goes too far outside of her “natural” role.
I in no way think that Christophe Gans, Roger Avary, or any of the other crew set out to create a film that was damaging to women. I think that they simply did not consider women at all, at least outside of the symbolism that female characters could contribute. And that, when it comes down to it, is the problem.
The women in this movie, though in many ways well rounded characters, were nothing more than tropes and themes to the men who created them. This is shown not only through the main symbolic themes, but especially in their graphically depicted death scenes, as well as the way that everything ends up being their fault and their responsibility.
The violence the women in this film are subjected to — both the actual physical violence and also the violence of their representation — is clearly problematic, but when perpetuated through such a casually thoughtless avenue as it was here, it becomes truly harmful. Because no one who isn’t familiar with the history of women and film (especially horror film), no one not used to taking a feminist lens to film, no one who is watching the film for sheer entertainment (and, let’s face it, that’s the majority of movie watchers) is even going to notice the messages being sent about women.
And if they don’t even notice it, if they don’t even have the opportunity to think about it, then how can we expect them not to somehow internalize these messages?