A paper I wrote in an Expository Writing course, The Femme Fatale, in Spring 2019
The Virgin and the Whore: Female Sexuality and Identity in Carrie
In writing fiction, authors have the unique ability to convey and invoke that which lies
beyond our five senses. Novels can effectively portray both external pain and internal turmoil, spoken dialogue and unspoken thoughts, outer conversations and inner ruminations. Thus, it is a difficult task for any filmmaker adapting a novel to transfer non-visual and non-auditory scenes from a book into a primarily visual and auditory medium.Such was the task of Brian De Palma in 1976, when adapting Stephen King’s 1974 novel, Carrie, into a film. The book follows the story of an outcast teenage girl, Carrie White, who discovers her own telekinetic powers after traumatically getting her period for the first time. After years of incessant bullying, a final prank triggers Carries to inflict death and destruction upon her classmates and her entire town. The scene of Carrie’s death marks the novel’s climax, where Carrie and the character, Sue Snell, have an intense and dramatic telepathic connection that deeply affects Sue after Carrie dies. King artfully weaves together unspoken words, haphazard thoughts, conflicting emotions, and abstract, metaphorical imagery to create this powerful moment in his novel. Such a scene, without any actual dialogue or concrete imagery, is surely challenging to recreate when moved off the pages and onto the screen.
Instead of attempting to remake the novel’s climactic scene, De Palma’s creates his own
pivotal scene at the culmination of his film rendition of Carrie, as if to compensate for the loss of the telepathy scene from the book, if not replace it. De Palma’s closing scene, however, presents a very different message about the relationship between Carrie and Sue than King’s telepathy scene communicates. By casting Carrie and Sue as opposites, idealizing Sue and demonizing Carrie, the final scene of the movie expresses a dichotomous conception of female identity, wherein a woman is defined by her sexuality—the ideal women having no sexual activity and the non-ideal woman being too in touch with her sexuality. On the other hand, in the book’s telepathy scene, King illustrates the unity that arises between Carrie and Sue from understanding each other’s minds, conveying a more expansive idea of female identity, wherein the two girls are defined mainly by their nonphysical traits.
De Palma makes costume, music, and lighting choices that all serve to idealize Sue’s
physical and moral purity in the final scene of his film. The scene appears to be a dream of Sue’s and it begins with her walking with flowers towards the remains of Carrie’s destroyed house. When she walks through the fence surrounding the now barren plot of land, Sue approaches a dark patch of dirt, marked with a cross-shaped sign that reads “For Sale” but with the words “Carrie White burns in hell” written over it. Sue approaches the sign as if it is a tombstone, and when she lays flowers beneath it, a bloody hand thrusts out of the ground—supposedly Carrie’s hand—and grabs her arm (De Palma). Throughout the scene, we see Sue clad in a long, white dress (De Palma), which is highly suggestive of innocence, purity, and even virginity. The symbolism of the white dress is magnified by the soft, sweet-sounding background music that plays and the glowing halo of light that envelopes Sue as she glides gracefully towards Carrie’s grave (De Palma). Sue is defined in this scene by her air of virginity as well as her angelic aura, revealing De Palma’s subjective value system that holds Sue’s virginity as a sign of moral goodness. The symbolic physical purity of Sue in this scene is not surprising given that De Palma omits any indication of her sexual activity throughout the film. Whereas King describes Sue’s sex life in explicit detail in his novel (King 51-58), De Palma shows little intimacy between Sue and her boyfriend, Tommy. In fact, the only time that the two even touch is when Tommy briefly walks with his arm around Sue (De Palma). De Palma’s de-sexualization of Sue earlier in the movie only reinforces the image of her as a virgin in the final scene. Sue is associated with angel-like goodness and that goodness is directly related to her virginity; De Palma expresses the view that a “good” woman is pure and chaste, as opposed to a “whore,” who is commonly judged as “bad” and lascivious.
In his closing scene, De Palma juxtaposes his idealized portrayal of Sue with a demonic
depiction of Carrie, setting up a clear dichotomy between the two girls, predicated on their
sexuality as it is portrayed throughout the film. The light surrounding Sue starkly contrasts with the dark patch of land beneath which Carrie’s body lays (De Palma). Carrie is associated with darkness, the underground, and even literally with hell (De Palma). She is devil-like, compared to Sue. Further, De Palma portrays Carrie as a threat to Sue’s goodness, her hand rising from the grave to hurt Sue and bloody her white dress—tarnish her purity (De Palma). The blood on Carrie’s hand is redolent of the menstrual blood from which her telekinetic powers arose in the film. In fact, this entire moment is evocative of the movie’s opening scene, which descended into chaos as soon as Carrie grabbed at Sue in the locker room with her bloody hands (De Palma). In turn, Carrie’s blood at the end of the film becomes emblematic of the power she draws from her femininity and sexuality. It is that blood—and the sexual licentiousness and power it connotes—that threatens to taint Sue’s purity. The hyper-sexualization of Carrie throughout the movie substantiates the connection between the blood in this scene and Carrie’s sexuality. From the outset of the film, while Sue is in undergarments, Carrie is naked (De Palma). In the beginning shower scene, Carrie appears very in touch with her body, as she caresses and lavishly washes it, with the camera focusing closely on her breasts and legs, both highly sexualized parts of a woman’s body. De Palma also adds overt intimacy between Tommy and Carrie that is not present in the book; he has Carrie and Tommy kiss multiple times, more than Sue ever kisses Tommy in the novel. The build-up of Carrie’s sexuality throughout the film culminates in this final image of her bloody hand rising straight from hell. As soon as Carrie’s hand bursts out of the ground, the music drastically changes pace and tone, becoming fast and shrill (De Palma). The scene then begins to rapidly cross-cut between the traumatizing dream and the reality of Sue shrieking in her mother’s arms (De Palma). The escalated visual and auditory drama of the scene is instigated by Carrie’s presence; she is the reason that a peaceful dream becomes a nightmare. As such, De Palma vilifies Carrie. If Sue’s goodness arises from being untouched and sexually inactive, as De Palma suggests, Carrie’s supposed evilness is the result of her strong sense of sexuality—she becomes the whore to oppose the virgin Sue. In all, De Palma uses the techniques of film to force the two girls into a sexuality-based binary that is hardly as salient in the novel.
The glaring juxtaposition of Carrie and Sue in the movie’s final scene helps illuminate a
subtler aspect of the book’s climax: the inextricable linking of the two girls through the
telepathic establishing of empathy. Whereas the movie’s concluding scene overtly separates the girls, the scene of Carrie’s death in the book has the opposite effect. When Sue approaches a dying Carrie, Carrie somehow accesses Sue’s mind to ask “who’s there” without speaking. King explains that for Sue, “There was no need to think of her name. The thought of herself as herself was neither words nor pictures. The realization suddenly brought everything up close, made it real, and compassion for Carrie broke through the dullness of her shock” (King 273). As “the long series of dirty tricks” (273) that Carrie has suffered reels through Sue’s mind, Sue communicates, “(carrie don’t don’t don’t hurts me)” (273). She begins to actually feel Carrie’s pain. In a reciprocating act, Sue invites Carrie to scan through her own trials in life, signaling, “(look carrie look inside me)” (274). The two girls quickly form an deep bond of compassion and complete understanding for each other. King writes, “They shared the awful totality of perfect knowledge” (273)—they know each other’s oldest memories, greatest fears, and most private thoughts to the point where they feel at one. In fact, when Sue senses Carrie dying, “she [feels] that she [is] dying herself” (275). Consequently, King makes it extremely difficult for readers to assign the two characters to separate categories of women or cast them against each other, as De Palma does in his movie. Instead, King links the girls by virtue of what is inside them—what we cannot see or hear. It is their intimacy with each other’s full identities, which is achieved by entering each other’s minds, that enables them to fully understand each other.
By painting a nuanced inner portrait of both Carrie and Sue in the telepathy scene, King signifies that the two female characters are defined by their minds, not their bodies. De Palma’s emphasis on visual and physical depictions of the girls’ identities makes it easier to notice the absence of the body and physicality in King’s scene, where sexuality has little to do with the way the two girls are represented. With regards to Sue, both Carrie and the readers get a glimpse into her deepest, darkest thoughts. Looking inside Sue, Carrie finds “love for Tommy, jealousy, selfishness, a need to subjugate him to her will on the matter of Carrie, disgust for Carrie herself, (she could take better care of herself she does look just like a GODDAM TOAD)… but no ill will for Carrie personally” (King 274). It is Sue’s thoughts, ideas, and emotions that are, in King’s scene, a reflection of who she is as a person. She displays traits commonly perceived as “bad” or even sinful, such as envy, selfishness, and harsh judgement of Carrie’s physical imperfections. Yet we also see her redeeming qualities. For example, King conveys that Sue does not harbor anything personal against Carrie and does not want to hurt her. Here, Sue is defined not by the color of her dress or her supposed virginity, but by her love, her pity, her desire for power, and her disgust, all combined. Similarly, in this scene, Carrie is not defined by her bloody hands or her past sexual activity, but by her terror and vulnerability. She communicates to Sue, “(momma would be alive I killed my momma I want her… o momma I’m scared momma MOMMA)” (275). In this moment, Carrie is not merely an evil murderer; she is also a scared, lonely teenage girl who just needs her mother. Whereas De Palma seemed to conclusively paint Sue as good and Carrie as evil at the end of his movie, King espouses a more complex and ambiguous sense of morality, leaving the readers uncertain as to whether Sue and Carrie are definitively good or bad, angel or devil, virgin or whore. They are both a bit of all those things. Overall, King conveys that there is so much more to these girls’ identities than their bodies, the body being inextricably connected to sexuality. King effectively places the female mind in the spotlight while the female body is largely out of sight.
Some might protest that, after watching De Palma’s movie, one may read too much into the lack of the physical in King’s scene; however, not only does King not focus as much on the girls’ bodies, but he also actively moves focus away from their physicality. Early in the scene, as Carrie’s past experiences with bullying shuffle through Sue’s head, Sue sees an image of herself in the wounded girl’s mind; her face in Carrie’s head is “ugly, caricatured, all mouth, cruelly beautiful” (King 274). Carrie’s perception of Sue is primarily based on physical appearance—on her mouth, which has sexual connotations, and on her beauty, which is perhaps “cruel” because it seems deceptive; beneath it appears to be an ugly personality. In Carrie’s mind, Sue is defined by her outer body. It is upon realizing this that Sue beckons, “(look carrie look inside me)” (King 274). She implores Carrie to see what is inside of her, instead of forming a judgement about who she is solely from what can be seen on the outside. Additionally, as Carrie scans through the massive “library” (274) that is Sue’s mind, King describes Sue’s “feverish feeling of being raped in her most secret corridors” (275). In intentionally inverting the meaning of the word “rape,”which typically refers to an action against the body, and using it instead as an action against the mind, King subtly but powerfully shifts attention away from the female body and onto, or rather into, the female mind. He implies that sexuality should not be at the core of a woman’s identity, and instead, that her identity should, like anyone else’s, be shaped by what is in her head—her thoughts, ideas, feelings, and traits.
Although De Palma’s film was released in the 1970s, its conception of female identity, based exclusively and unfairly on sexuality, is by no means outdated. Even today, many women are still judged by their sexual activity, labeled as whores or “sluts” for being too sexually active, and exalted, glorified, or even fetishized for being virgins. This dichotomous way of thinking is too quick to assign moral judgment of a woman’s character and it also eliminates the possibility for nuance and complexity in a woman’s public identity. The dependent relationship that De Palma sets up between female sexuality and female character is at best, insulting, and at worst, dehumanizing. It creates a binary that affords women very little room to express their true selves and be understood for who they really are. The measure of a woman should not be what she does with her body; instead, as King seems to get at in his novel, it should be what she has in and does with her mind. Only when we acknowledge and identify the all-too-common tendency to sort women into confining boxes based on something as one-dimensional as sexuality, can we strive to correct it.
King, Stephen. Carrie. New York: Anchor Books. 1974. Print.
De Palma, Brian, director. Carrie. United Artists Corp., 1976.