Women and the Devil: the Misogynistic Depiction of Women in Joe Hill's Novel Horns
WARNING: Spoilers and Strong Language
At the beginning of the book, the main character Ig is ostracized from his community for the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin—of which he has not been convicted and insists he is innocent. He wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery about which he remembers nothing and finds a pair of devil horns growing out of his head. These horns compel others to confess their darkest sins or wishes to Ig, and he resolves to use them to find his girlfriend’s killer. The story is a richly nuanced balance between the horrors of the supernatural and of the all-too-possible, written with a tone of dry humor that prods the reader to self-reflection. Altogether a very good read.
However, when I put the book down at 4 o’clock Sunday morning, I found myself disappointed. I originally picked up the book because it was recommended to me as an enlightened take on dark fantasy—especially Hill’s ambitious depiction of rape and the female victim. While I’ll grant that the author’s portrayal of the rape was courageous, his depiction of women in general was anything but enlightened. In fact, it fell into the genre’s classic tropes of emphasizing relationships between men as most important, objectifying and over-sexualizing women, and characterizing women as those who ascribe to patriarchal roles and those who do not.
Ambitious Depiction of Rape
Hill did not pull any punches when it came to describing the horror that Merrin experienced. While the story at that point is delivered by her assailant, Merrin is unmistakably portrayed as a victim. The rape is violent and clearly gendered—an act of revenge and punishment carried out graphically from the perpetrator’s twisted point of view. Here Hill demonstrates a mastery of character development. The perpetrator has convinced himself that Merrin was a willing participant, and though the event takes place from his perspective, the reader knows that he is wrong. Merrin is portrayed in the victim’s conundrum: her every action was interpreted as an invitation and her rejection when she realizes the misunderstanding is a betrayal and an affront. She has no good options.
Hill does not shy away from the horror of rape either the act itself or the aftermath that the entire community experiences. Where he falls short is in his less than admirable treatment of women in the rest of the novel.
Relationships between Men Are Most Important
In Horns, there are three view-point characters, all male: Ig, his brother Terry, and the rapist (SPOILER ALERT) and previously Ig’s best friend Lee. The relationships between these three, especially the relationship between Ig and Lee, are given an importance that out-weighs even Ig’s relationship with Merrin. After Lee (as Ig believes) saves Ig’s life, Hill describes them and their relationship as “marked as special, stars in their own movie, which made the rest of them extras, or supporting cast at best” (81). The relationships between the male characters in Horns are given the most importance, making male relationships with women, such as Ig’s relationship with Merrin, of secondary importance. There are no relationships between women at all.
However, the problem here is not so much that all three view-point characters are male, or that male relationships are the most significant, but that the rape is hardly about Merrin at all. In fact, the rape is really about the relationship between the rapist and Ig, to whom Merrin belonged. When Lee is the view point character, this idea that the relationship between Ig and Lee is more important than Merrin becomes clearer when Hill writes, “All Lee could think was that on some level Ig held on to her out of a perverse desire to hold her over Lee” (250). Lee is not the only one who perceives Ig’s relationship with Merrin relative to himself, however. When Lee is in the hospital after trying to blow up a car with a cherry bomb, Ig thinks, “They had traded—the cherry bomb for her [Merrin]. It would be awful to bring her with him. It would be like rubbing it in” (125). Later, Lee talks about Glenna (Ig’s girlfriend after Merrin died):
“When we walked out of the Station House Tavern together, she was really drunk, and she was going to let me give her a ride home, and I was thinking I could drive her out here instead and fuck her in the fat tits and then beat her head in and leave her. That would’ve been on you, too. Ig Perrish strikes again, kills another girlfriend.” (225)
Lee’s actions towards both Merrin and Glenna are firmly related to his relationship, not with either of them, but with Ig. As a result, Ig, then, is responsible for taking revenge, not for Merrin as he so loftily seems to believe, but for himself. The story isn’t about bringing Merrin’s killer to justice; it is about countering the affront Ig felt when something that belonged to him was defaced.
Objectification and Over-sexualization of Women
Throughout Horns, Merrin is linked with and represented by the gold cross she wears around her neck. In the beginning, when Ig gives Lee cross to fix, he believes that he has given Merrin herself, “given her away like a baseball card or a CD” (98). Later when he trades Lee a cherry bomb for the cross, Ig and Lee both believe that he has traded for Merrin. When she deduces this, she is offended and denies it, but this does not cease the boys’ association of her with the object. After her death, Lee possesses the cross and believes, “For a brief time, when he was sixteen, she had been his by right. For a few days, he had worn Merrin’s cross around his neck, and when he sometimes pressed that cross to his lips, he could imagine he was kissing it while she wore it about her throat—the cross and nothing else” (251).
It is not just these obvious links between Merrin and a particular object, however. Throughout the novel, the audience is encouraged to see women as sexual objects. Even the snakes, which are oddly attracted to Ig with the acquisition of his horns, are referred to as female and sensuous. “She seemed to squiggle about even faster almost ecstatically. It reminded him of sperm swimming up the birth canal, of loosened erotic energy” (173). Ig drapes one of the snakes around his neck, “wearing her like a loose scarf or a like an unknotted tie” (217). This is a significant link between these snakes being referred to as female and then as objects. The objectification is not limited to women for whom the male characters have sexual desire, but extends to all females in the story.
Sex and desires towards women are described in detail, crudely, and without affection while other attractive qualities are downplayed. At one point, Lee says to Ig, This seems to be a running theme with your girls, Ig. Merrin, Glenna—sooner or later they all wind up on the end of my dick” (165).The female characters are treated as objects of male status. This idea of women as objects is harmful and contributes to gendered crimes against women like rape, but Hill does not acknowledge this as part of Merrin’s rape. Instead, he perpetuates and condones this kind of thinking through his writing.
Patriarchal Roles for Women
In general, women in Horns who deviate from their ascribed patriarchal role are condemned by men with contempt and punished when possible. Allie Letterworth is a woman who Ig meets in the clinic waiting room. She is depicted as an adulterer, a horrible mother. She wants to abandon her family to live with the man with whom she is sleeping: a clear violation of her role in a patriarchal society. Ig treats her with scorn and encourages the desk attendant to start a confrontation with her in the waiting room. Ig discovers that Merrin’s mother is cheating on her father with Father Mould after her daughter’s death and arranges for Merrin’s father to catch them. Ig’s grandmother Vera hates her daughter and her grandchildren, so Ig pushes her wheelchair down a hill, landing her in the hospital. Ig’s mother, under the influence of the horns, tells him, “I don’t want you to be my kid anymore” (46). Ig afterwards treats her distantly and her attempts at motherly affection with disdain. Most women in Horns are considered worthy of contempt and punishment by the men in the story as a result of betraying their roles of wife and mother.
Merrin, on the other hand, is held up as the ideal woman. Glenna describes her as “so clean and good and never made any mistakes” (175). Ig treats her reverently, almost worshipfully. She is compared to the Virgin Mary not only through the similarity of her name, but also through a small figurine Ig finds in a treehouse. He claims, “All thoughts of peace were wrapped up in her” (51). Even her claim that she wishes to break up with him so that they can sleep with other people is really a smoke screen for her true motivation. She is sick and wishes to protect him. This purer motivation preserves her purity and keeps her in her patriarchal role. As a result, the crime against her is a tragedy committed by a monster—not because rape is horrible to begin with, but because she did not deserve it.
Joe Hill’s willingness to depict rape so vividly without excusing it is certainly courageous. However, his depiction of women in general was anything but enlightened. Horns fell into classic tropes of emphasizing relationships between men as most important, objectifying and over-sexualizing women, and ascribing worth to women according to how well they hold up their roles as assigned by the patriarchy. These elements negate the educated depiction of the female victim and the commendable theme which juxtaposes the horrors of the supernatural against the horrors of rape.