Posted on December 10, 2020

Freaky: His Body, Herself

Dawn Keetley

Directed by Christopher Landon and written by Landon and Michael Kennedy, Freaky (2020) is a thought-provoking and fresh incarnation of the slasher formula. It’s bloody, wonderfully directed, serves up great performances by its leads, and is chock full of references to other slashers. In short, Freaky is a fantastic experience.

As is evident from the title, Freaky offers an R-rated take on Mary Rodgers’ classic children’s novel, published in 1972, Freaky Friday, in which a mother and her 13-year-old daughter wake up one morning to find they have switched bodies. In Freaky, an escaped psychopath on a killing spree, the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), stabs heroine Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) with an ancient Aztec knife called “La Dola.” They wake up the next morning to discover they have swapped bodies. The plot follows Millie’s attempts to persuade her best friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich) along with crush Booker (Uriah Shelton) that, even though she looks like Vince Vaughn, she is in fact a teenage girl. Once she’s accomplished that, the friends set out to reverse the ritual and restore Millie to her body before it’s too late. Meanwhile, having quickly adjusted to Millie’s body, the Butcher continues on his killing rampage—targeting, in particular, all of Millie’s many high-school nemeses.

There is much to say about Freaky, especially in terms of what it does with the conventions of the slasher. Here, I want to take up the film’s representation of the body, which, with the body-swapping plot, is put front and center. Freaky particularly resonates with Carol Clover’s groundbreaking discussion of the slasher in her chapter, “Her Body, Himself,” in Men, Women, and Chainsaws.[i] I argue that Freaky inverts Clover’s argument—hence my title for this essay: “His Body, Herself.”

In short, while the body—and the experience of the body—is central to Freaky, unlike in the typical slasher, which puts the female body at the center (Clover’s “Her Body”), Freaky puts the male body at the center (my “His Body”).

In Clover’s argument, the slasher is all about the female body. The slasher needed the fear and pain of female victims. It also needed the body of the Final Girl. In the second part of her chapter, Clover argues that the Final Girl’s body needs to be virginal and androgynous so it can serve as a point of identification not only for female viewers (the Final Girl was straightforwardly a girl) but also for male viewers, who would resist identifying either with a (hetero)sexually-active female (an identification that could skirt to close to homoerotic pleasure) or a cowering and fearful male.

Clover argues that the slasher is a site for the loosening of the categories of gender and sex. But it does not offer “free variation[s]” on either. Indeed, she insists, “the combination masculine female repeatedly prevails over the combination feminine male.” What is privileged in the slasher, Clover emphasizes, is “masculinity in conjunction with a female body” (p. 63). The female body is crucial, Clover repeats: the Final Girl is “a physical female and a characterological androgyne” (p. 63). Clover ends by saying that any justification for calling the slasher politically progressive stems from the way it serves as a “visible adjustment in the terms of gender representations” that is “largely on the male side” (p. 64). In other words, the slasher loosens constraints on men by encouraging an identification with a female body. Above all, then, the slasher of the 1980s was progressive because it offered a hero who was “an anatomical female” and who encouraged male viewers to identify with her (p. 60).

Released almost 30 years after Clover’s book was published, Freaky offers a world in which gender and sexuality is already much more fluid. As Nyla says to Josh as she, Josh, and Millie (in Vince Vaughn’s body) are standing in the boys’ bathroom: “She’s got a dick in her hand and you’re wearing Chanel No. 5. I think we’re past labels.”

In a world of gender fluidity, however, the killer of Freaky has lost the gender fluidity of the original slasher killer. As Clover importantly pointed out, the killer in the slasher film of the 1980s was a “male in gender distress” (27), a “feminine male” (62). There is little gender or sexual ambiguity surrounding the killer in Freaky, however. Quentin Shermer is, from the beginning, positioned as a “straight white male.” “Don’t underestimate the straight white man’s propensity for violence,” the doomed Ginny (Kelly Lamor Wilson) says at the beginning of the film, when four teens are swapping stories about the Blissfield Butcher.

The Blissfield Butcher’s body, though, is central to Freaky’s distinctive gender politics.

The Blissfield Butcher wakes up as Millie (Kathryn Newton)

The film does not focus much on the Butcher’s experience of Millie’s female body. When he wakes up, he grabs her breasts and then moves on. In one instance, when he’s trying to get through a door to his victim and can’t do it, he yells in frustration, “My body’s fucking useless.” And when the Butcher gets his body back, near the end of the film, he tells Millie, “I’ve been in your body. I understand why you feel so weak.”

There is no sense, in short, that Quentin Shermer becomes anything other than himself—a compulsive killing machine—while inhabiting Millie’s body. It doesn’t change him; he just experiences it as an impediment.

His body, however, is transformative. In his body, Millie becomes stronger in all kinds of ways. She tells Booker, as they sit in a car together, “I’ve felt oddly empowered by being in this body, like invincible or kind of badass.” She goes on to say how good that feels when you’ve been bullied and put down all your life.

Booker kisses Millie (in Vince Vaughn’s body)

And then, in perhaps one of the central scenes in the film, Millie (in the Butcher’s body) confesses her longstanding crush to Booker and they kiss—despite the fact that Booker is kissing, as Millie puts it, a large man with yellow teeth. Booker replies, “You’re still Millie to me,” marking this scene—when Booker and the Butcher kiss—as one of the principal scenes of gender and sexual fluidity in the film.

But it seems a little problematic that Millie apparently needs a man’s body to feel empowered—to be able to express her feelings to Booker. The male body, in short, enables the empowerment of the heroine.

The Butcher not only changes Millie through her time in his body. He changes her body—dressing as a powerful, sexy woman and literally turning every head when he enters the high school. He shows her what her body is capable of as well as giving her inner strength through her time in his body.

The Blissfield Butcher (in Millie’s body) turns heads in the high school

As a female viewer, I’m not sure how I feel about this. In fact, it felt pretty off-putting to be asked to identify with the Butcher’s body rather than Millie’s. One of my persistent pleasures in the slasher film is precisely in the Final Girl’s body. In this film, I’m asked to transfer that identification to Vince Vaughn.

In putting the male body at the center, does Freaky draw more male viewers in? Especially, given the centrality of the kiss between Booker and Millie-as-Quentin, does it draw in more queer male viewers? Or just queer viewers (minus the “male”)?  Again, as Nyla says, “We’re past labels.” Perhaps. As a woman, though, I’m a bit put out that my beloved sub-genre has turned away from the transformational power that the female body has long had in the slasher plot and that it has given that power to the male body.

You can rent Freaky on the usual streaming platforms, including Amazon (ad):


[i] Carol J. Clover, “Her Body, Himself,” Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 21-64.

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