My Slut Icon: Elvira

“It’s too frightening to be the brazen hussy, the woman who travels, who wants to go where men go and see what men see, who wears their clothes and appropriates their pleasures and mannerisms, who carries a razor, who has a hustle of her own going, who dresses to attract attention to herself…She is not free, but she deserves to be.” — Pat Califia

By the time I was 15, I knew I could never cut it as a good girl. The sisyphean cycle of obedience and punishment was too much to handle. So I did the next best thing: I abandoned the Madonna, embraced the Whore, and started brazenly calling myself a slut (taking the power and sting of the word out of my abusive father’s hands and into my own while I was at it).

Like many young women, I had no access to feminist community. I was figuring shit out on my own, and I was doing it on my knees, in school girl outfits, in the bedrooms of men much too old for me. I was carving out my place in the world, and sex was my armor and my weapon and my home base. It brought me protection, it brought me connection, it brought me status. It brought me fear and pleasure and power and all of those things that can make an adventurous young girl’s panties wet as she navigates the wide open terrain of life.

It brought me lessons, too, as everything does. Some of those lessons were harder to learn than others and most of them were taught to me by gentlemen who didn’t have my best interests at heart.

Case in point: at 19 I was taken home from a bar and sodomized against my will after engaging in what I thought was some harmless drunken bragging about my sex life. If that doesn’t teach a girl that being openly sexual is a punishable crime, I’m not sure what will. For a decade I carried around the belief that I’d deserved that punishment — that my rape was what I’d earned for making the mistake of being a slutty, stupid, reckless girl.

It’s been a tough misconception to unlearn. It’s been fucked into my body and seared into my brain. Healing it has been a complicated tight rope walk of claiming my self-respect without denouncing my sexuality. It’s meant believing, against everything I’ve been taught by the world around me, that over a decade ago when I said out loud that I liked to fuck, I wasn’t asking to be fucked over.

It’s also meant believing that we live in a world where sluts can win. Slutty women don’t see our own survival reflected back to us very often, particularly when we take our cues from pop culture. We see ourselves on-screen as the victims of murder and rape, or repenting and saved. We see ourselves married and reformed, or dying slowly of some terrible disease while we weep with tragic love for the respectable man who will take advantage of our easy virtue, but who will never take us as a wife.

Whether it was Cassandra Peterson’s intention to subvert this narrative when she crafted her Elvira persona by super-imposing a valley girl stereotype on top of a Vampira/Alice Cooper hybrid I can’t say. But her character certainly inhabits an alternative slut-positive world, and in spite of her over-the-top camp (or maybe because of it, since there really is no more accurate way to discuss the sad futility of sexual oppression than through the lens of buffoonery), she occupies a place next to Lisa Crystal Carver and Annie Sprinkle in my personal pantheon of badass, unapologetic, brave and sexually honest she-roes.

IMG_0119

Throughout Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, her glorious feature film debut, the titular vixen is a constant target for both slut shaming and sexual harassment. She is continually groped and assaulted in moments of vulnerability by men with power. Each time, she reverses the dynamic and exposes her would-be attackers as weak. She humiliates them, she insults their manhood, and in one case she even fights back with a flaccid rubber knife.

In Elvira’s world, Elvira draws the line, winking and wiggling her ass as she does. She gets to set her own boundaries and expose herself exhibitionistically at the same time. It is safe for her to do so because this is her universe. She is the heroine and she is in the right. The rightness she represents is not the rightness of law and order but the rightness and honesty of flesh and desire. The perspective of the film belongs to her, and according the traditional rules of storytelling, those who threaten her perspective end up failing miserably.

As any good genre fan knows, this re-mixing of the accepted demarcations of rightness and wrongness is a common device in both horror and comedy. It puts us as viewers in touch of what we normally protect ourselves from. It makes us feel and laugh and squirm and fear. With Halloween upon us, it’s worth examining what’s funny and alluring and just a little bit scary about the dark mistress Elvira, a woman who seems to have an exhaustive source of both carnal desire and innocent self-enjoyment, who is both penetrable and impenetrable, whose gatekeeper is her own will.

I know exactly what it is about her that does it for me. Elvira represents the freedom and self-expression I was aiming for as a teenager. I stopped believing in it after I’d been raped and humiliated and slut-shamed enough. But the possibility that it still might be an option for me — that maybe my detractors were the misguided ones, and that maybe it’s ok to be a willful, openly sexual woman in the world and not have to feel ashamed — well, that possibility is terrifying as hell to the frightened victim who still lives inside me. But it’s also exhilarating, and I can’t help but want to follow where it leads. Because…once a bad girl, always a bad girl.