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Turning Ash into Mia: Changing the Gender of One of Horror's Most Iconic Characters

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by Emily Rauber
October 29, 2013 2:06 PM
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In the past few years, horror films have seen more than their fair share of sequels, remakes and reimaginings. As a genre, it's been particularly hospitable to distinctive, memorable characters, allowing for easy reinvention, as well as an affinity for ending movies with an inconclusive twitch of the supposedly dead villain's finger.

Along with some interesting original horror entries this year, 2013 also brought with it reboots of three classic horror films: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the recent release of Carrie, and Evil Dead. To varying degrees, on the whole these films ranged from carbon copies of their intended originals to, well... Mad Libs versions with slightly different choices of adjectives and proper nouns.

One of the most fundamental changes in these reboots can be found in the new Evil Dead, written and directed by Fede Alvarez. When the film was announced, the character of Mia (Jane Levy) was described in the press as the female version of Ash (Bruce Campbell's character from the original), i.e., the protagonist. Though female protagonists in horror are nothing new, it was certainly an intriguing concept to transform one of horror's most iconic film characters into a woman.

In practice though, that didn't end up being entirely true. In the new film, Mia is actually kind of a combination of Ash and his sister, Cheryl, from the original. Like Ash, she does survive the film, but, like Cheryl, she's also the first to fall to the curse, and spends much of the movie locked in a basement terrorizing her friends. For the majority of the movie, in fact, Mia's brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) claims most of the story beats and characteristics of the original Ash role. It's not until the end--when she's literally been exorcised of her demons--that Mia can truly take on Ash's helm, and all the power tools that come with it.

To have Mia survive then, instead of David, actually ends up keeping more in line with the current modern standard of dealing with female protagonists and victims in horror--the "final girl." Recently skewered by Cabin in the Woods, the final girl trope was first suggested by Carol Clover, who believed that audiences more readily accept seeing a woman experience terror on screen than a man. Clover also points out that these final girls are often masculinized through their choice of a phallic weapon (knives, machetes, and so on), which makes Mia's ultimate adoption of the chainsaw all the more Freudian.

Some of the events of the film have been altered slightly to emphasize the idea of Mia as the protagonist as well, notably, the infamous "tree rape" scene. In the original, it's Cheryl that suffers the attack, and, to a sensitive modern viewer, it's shot with a somewhat uncomfortably lingering eye over her exposed body--in keeping with the grungy aesthetic of rape revenge horror films of the 1970s. In contrast, Alvarez films the rape with a focus on the brutality of the moment, rather than giving the audience any opportunity for titillation.

This is partly due to updated modern views on sexual violence in film, but it also serves to bind the audience into experiencing the truly violent nature of the attack. This is not filmed like a sex scene (as the grungiest of horror films sometimes are); it's filmed like a murder scene. Conversely, keeping her "modesty" in this scene also falls in line with Clover's description of the final girl as typically more sexually chaste and innocent--perhaps because, unlike Cheryl, Mia's breasts aren't exposed, she's "allowed" to survive this film.

Mia's true transformation into the Ash role occurs at such a late point in the film that there's a lot of room to expand from here, and it will be fascinating to see how Alvarez handles her in any potential sequels. The swap seen in this film was interesting, but not particularly innovative, due to horror's long tradition of female heroes and victims. Perhaps now that Mia has been established in this role, she can take on all of Ash's more eccentric adventures, which have typically been off-limits to women--chainsaw in hand and, of course, boomstick at her side.

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Emily Rauber is a reformed high school goth and women’s college graduate who currently works in Hollywood. She blogs about classic film at The Vintage Cameo.

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