“Does it take a village to end one girl?” – from “Who Should I Say Is Calling?”
Emily O’Neill’s collection You Can’t Pick Your Genre (Jellyfish Highway, 2016) uses the Scream movie franchise (and, by extension, slasher film tropes) as a medium through which to explore gender, sexuality, victimhood, and empowerment.
This sophisticated collection picks apart the Scream franchise and sees so much more than just horror movie tropes and tributes. Horror has always been a subversive genre, one that is about more than what meets the eye on the surface, and Scream was about more than its plot from the very beginning, both paying homage to the slashers that came before it and also ironically exposing the exploitation at the genre’s core. O’Neill dives in here and lives in the skins of the female characters from Scream and its sequels, especially Sidney Prescott, the beleaguered final girl played in the series by Neve Campbell. She writes with insight, wit, and fiery grace.
The slim collection begins with “You See What You Do to Me?”, a poem whose title comes from a line spoken by Sidney’s boyfriend from the first film, Billy, a character revealed at the end to be one of the killers in the iconic mask. The poem looks at the ways girls are taught to smile for boys, to be available but not too available, to half-heartedly defend their own “virtue,” but only hard enough to make the boy feel like he took it when it is finally given. In the following poems she continues to explore the mixed messages of teenage sex, and the nature of guilt, blame, and fear. She slices apart moments of tension in the series, as in “It’s Been a Year,” in which Sidney gives voice to her fear her boyfriend is the killer (which suspicion she holds in more than one entry in the series). In the first movie, this happens after Billy is arrested for being near the scene of a failed attempt on Sidney’s life. He is freed, and Sidney seems to believe he is innocent. In the poem, O’Neill hints Sidney might know, deep down, his explanations are a little too convenient.
O’Neill also takes opportunities to jump inside the heads of supporting characters. In “Off the Record, No Cameras,” she shows us television reporter Gale Weathers, played in the series by Courteney Cox. In the first film, this character is maligned, portrayed as a driven career woman (with all the negative connotations we insist on giving that image) who is cold and ambitious and only after a good story. She discredits Sidney’s assertion throughout the film that the person responsible for the current killings cannot possibly be the same person who killed her mother a year before, because that man is in jail. The fact that Weathers ends up being right, that she champions the cause of a wrongly accused innocent man, and that she is perhaps the only composed adult in a town that is losing its mind in the wake of the murder spree, is never applied to her credit. She’s a “bitch,” and the audience takes great satisfaction in a scene in which Sidney punches the reporter in the face. O’Neill writes: “It’s not news when / we label her bitch for being ruthless. / Not news that we don’t know her / routine. Life outside of crisis / isn’t female.” A little later on in “Superbitch,” we get a tribute to Tatum Riley, Sidney’s best friend portrayed by Rose McGowan. She’s got an attitude and shows some skin and likes sex, and for these things, she has to die. So speak the horror gods. O’Neill resurrects her here in glorious tribute.
You Can’t Pick Your Genre also spends time on the killers themselves; the sickness that has led them to their crimes, the culture that has crafted them. In slasher films, there are rules that govern the actions of the killers just as there are for victims, and O’Neill beautifully summarizes one that isn’t so much a rule of horror films as a rule of life: “If you hire your hatred / out to your hands / there will be mistakes.” In the first Scream movie, both the killers and the victims are essentially children, and while toxic masculinity has twisted the high school killers into entitled, rapey murderers, they have been hurt far too young as well.
This is a fantastic book, and one I will return to again in the future. I would love to see more poets explore film in this way. Amber Tamblyn has done some excellent writing in this vein, as has Daphne Gottlieb, and O’Neill offers an excellent entry here. Let’s hope for more.