“It Takes a Man to Do Something Like That”
The Women of Scream

The Scream series, particularly the first film in 1996, is known for its meta-textual take on the horror genre and slasher films in particular. One of the best things the series does is subtly examine the history of women in horror, specifically what separates victims and villains and Final Girls and what blurs the line between all three.

Scream (1996) set up the strong characters the series would revolve around, with the two Final Girls being incredibly competent and the male survivors near-death and useless. Scream 2 (1997) has a lot less to say about women in horror. It’s far more interested in the continued trauma that survivors of a serial killer would face. But it does add a female killer to the series for the first time. Scream 3 (2000) and Scream 4 (2011) are much more personal stories for the main character, but they also add some interesting women who are twists on some usual “types” you’d see at play in horror.

There’s a fifth film in the works that will almost certainly continue Scream’s use of satire and its exploration of the genre as a whole. While the involvement of the main cast members whose characters are still alive is still up in the air, I hope the series continues to explore the role of women in horror. We’ve seen a lot of powerful, in-depth horror heroines in recent years, so there’s a lot there to twist or highlight or deconstruct. 

While the entire series is loaded with cool actresses in supporting roles and cameos (including Drew Barrymore, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Laurie Metcalf, Elise Neal, Emily Mortimer, and Marley Shelton), I want to highlight a couple from each entry that shows how Scream treats women as more than just screeching victims.

Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan)

Tatum Riley plays the usually thankless best friend role in the first Scream. It’s a part we’ve seen plenty of times before — notably by P.J. Soles and Nancy Kyes in Halloween (1978)  —and the major aspects of the character are to support the Final Girl, party, have sex, and die. Tatum is more than that … well, she is all that, but she’s more than that, too. McGowan brings a respectable toughness to the part without sacrificing actually being, you know, a teen girl. Tatum’s a steely companion when news reporters are harassing her best friend. She’s also giddily recounting that news reporter getting knocked the hell out while having a sleepover. She’s a good character with just the right amount of depth and memorable death. What more could you ask for in a horror character?

Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere)

Another example of the best friend archetype, with a more updated sensibility. It’s good that the series itself can evolve on what makes a strong female character. Kirby shares a lot of similarities with Tatum — intentionally, since Scream 4’s meta-narrative is a take on horror remakes — but there are distinct differences. She’s supportive of her friend, just like Tatum, but she also gets to in action more by being knowledgeable about horror films and being involved in trying to figure out which rules the killer will be following.

Kirby also has arguably the most iconic moment in Scream 4 — it was all over the trailers — when the killer is quizzing her on the phone, and she starts rattling off an impressive number of horror movie remakes. Thanks to Panettiere’s funny and nuanced performance, Kirby is up there alongside Jamie Kennedy’s Randy when it comes to characters the fans wish had survived.

Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey)

Jennifer Jolie, the actress playing Gale Weathers in the movie-within-a-movie called Stab, is a great character for a few reasons. She’s a good contrast with the “real” Gale Weathers, like an example of what the character would be like in a lesser series. She also seems like an easy joke at first, the needy Hollywood actress, but one of the few good things the script for Scream 3 does is develop Jennifer. She sticks with the real Gale Weathers (out of self-interest at first) and helps investigate who the killer is and what they want. Obviously, Parker Posey is a fantastic actress, and she bounces off of Courteney Cox and David Arquette so well. For a character who starts extremely annoying, it’s an impressive achievement that I feel bad when Jennifer dies.

A slight side-note about Scream 3: even though it vaguely involves the exploitation of women in Hollywood, it’s arguably the worst entry in the series when it comes to those themes. There’s a sleazy producer played by Lance Henriksen whose history of sexually assaulting actresses is a subplot. It feels wrong coming from a movie produced by Harvey Weinstein, as if he’s gloating about getting away with it for so long. 

Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts)

Jill Roberts starts as an archetype we’ve seen a lot over the last decade or so. She’s presented to us, for all intents and purposes, as the new Sidney Prescott in a “remake.” Which works, because she’s also a lot less interesting than the original Sidney. The majority of the movie feels like it’s doing a disservice to Jill: how can we care about our new main character when we’re spending so much time with the old characters? The big reveal at the end is that Jill is one of the killers this time, and she isn’t our lead at all. The old characters reign supreme.

Jill is the second female killer in the series, but she gets a lot more to do than Laurie Metcalf’s Debbie Salt. While her character is more of a critique of remakes and “kids these days and their internets” (the later Scream entries definitely lost a lot of their bite), Emma Roberts delivers a big wrap-up reveal. One that lives up to the woozy, over-the-top antics of Billy and Stu in the first film without being eye-rolling and mustache-twirling like Debbie and Mickey from the second film.

Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox)

Gale is practically a secondary antagonist for the majority of the original Scream. She’s a dogged thorn in Sidney’s side and a rough reminder of her traumatic past. It isn’t until the final act of the film, when she opens up a bit to David Arquette’s Deputy Dewey that we get to know more about Gale than just her doggedness as a reporter. By surviving the events and trying to save Sidney, she goes through a traumatic gauntlet and earns her position in the follow-up films as a secondary protagonist. Within the trio of mainstay survivors, she’s easily the most important to the plot — it’s arguable how important the plot is in general. She’s the one tracking down leads and getting backstory exposition.

The relationship between Gale and Dewey is the longest-running plot in the entire series (besides Sidney dealing with trauma from her past), and it’s a well-realized relationship. Gale’s struggles in the third and fourth films have to do with feeling confined and cooped up in a small town. She’s worked hard to become who she is in her career and has earned her reputation, good and bad. The fact that they make this a compelling storyline is a testament to the character work in the scripts and from Courteney Cox herself.

Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell)

Sidney Prescott is the quintessential Final Girl of the ‘90s. She easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the all-time greats like Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode and Marilyn Chambers’s Sally Hardesty. Of course, the “gimmick” with her character, if you want to call it that, is her twist on the stereotypical Final Girl. The first scene after the classic opening — by the way, shout out to Drew Barrymore for one of the best horror openings ever — is her boyfriend popping into her bedroom and talking about how she’s too virginal. Later on, when Skeet Ulrich’s Billy Loomis finally gets her to break one of the horror rules and has sex, in the minds of the audience, it adds to the tension of the finale. Sure, it’s unlikely that Sidney will die … but Scream likes to tweak things around, so maybe?

Obviously, she doesn’t die. The rest of the series takes on an additional meta-textual layer besides being a commentary on sequels, trilogies, and remakes. It’s about grief and dealing with trauma. Neve Campbell is great in Scream, but she’s even better in Scream 2 when she has to deal with all of the shit that happened to her. It’s a very cool aspect that is rarely explored in horror movies — Rob Zombie’s Halloween II (2009) is the best example of actually delving into that — but it’s all over Scream 2. There are the recreation murders, Sidney’s wariness about her new boyfriend, Dewey’s injuries making him a walking reminder of what they went through. Scream 2 is about processing that grief, Scream 3 is about letting it go, and Scream 4 is about owning it as a part of yourself. 

I watched Scream: The TV Series and enjoyed it for what it is, but to me, the franchise is more than just self-aware slashers. Sidney Prescott is the powerful heart of the series. I’m not sure any new film will work without a lead at least as powerful and well-developed.