Why Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a feminist masterpiece

Okay, maybe “masterpiece” is overselling it a little. But this campy, sexually charged flick is actually a really great example of some of the ideals of third-wave feminism. Don’t believe me? I actually don’t blame you, because it sounds ludicrous. So let’s break it down.

First of all, who is Elvira?

Elvira is the creation of writer/comedian Cassandra Peterson, best known for hosting a late night TV show in the 1980s where she lampooned B-movie horror films. Before MST3k, we had Elvira and her incredible… tracts of land. She’s half gothic temptress, half valley girl, 100% funny.

Secondly, third-wave what now?

In order to catch everyone up with what I’m talking about, please enjoy this infographic:

Why Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a feminist masterpiece

And thirdly, what is Elvira: Mistress of the Dark?

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a 1988 film co-written by and starring Petersen AKA Elvira. It’s a woefully underrated movie (47% on Rotten Tomatoes, Worst Actress Razzie nomination for Peterson), and the story goes like this…

The article continues after these advertisements...

Elvira is hosting B-movie horror films on basic cable. She’s broke and trying to get enough money to do a live show in Vegas. After the TV station’s owner sexually harasses her, she quits and all her dreams of Vegas seem to be dashed.

Why Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a feminist masterpiece

That is, until she gets a telegram informing her that her great-aunt has died and left her an inheritance. Nice timing, amirite? So she’s off to Fallwell, Massachusetts, only to discover that she’s been left a decrepit old house, a dog, and a mysterious “cookbook”. Hell-bent on selling the place and using the money to fund her Vegas dreams, Elvira begrudgingly moves to Fallwell.

The real conflict of the story involves how the conservative residents of Fallwell, including her creepy uncle Vincent, handle the lustful Elvira moving into their town. And this is where things get really cool for Elvira as a character. Not necessarily in what happens, but how it’s framed by the movie.

Why Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a feminist masterpiece

When Elvira is sexually harassed yet again by a real estate agent, we’re meant to sympathize with her. When she tries to use her feminine wiles to seduce the hunky love interest, we’re meant to root for her. And when the Fallwell Morality Club (which includes Edie McClurg as “Chastity Pariah”, lol) sends her into social exile, we’re meant to know that they are the bad guys.

Why Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a feminist masterpiece

That is what sets this movie apart from so many. Elvira—with her skimpy outfits, makeup, amazing cleavage, and promiscuous behavior—is the protagonist. Sure, there are plenty of jokes at her expense, mostly having to do with her boobs or that she has a lot of sex. But the tone is one of affection. Oh Elvira, you adorable sex-haver! Also, it’s an important distinction that most of these jokes come from Elvira herself. She knows who she is, and she’s fine with that.

The mean-spirited jokes come exclusively at the expense of those who challenge Elvira or try to demean her in any way. They’re portrayed as either tightly-wound judgmental prudes or sexually deviant perverts. She’s accosted by men three separate times in the movie, and it’s never suggested for a moment that she brought it on herself by dressing the way she does.

Elvira’s main flaws are that she’s vain and a bit of an airhead. But the movie never attempts to scold her for anything regarding her appearance or sexuality. It’s everyone who’s judging her that’s the problem. If they don’t like it, then they can kiss her perfect porcelain ass.

Why Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a feminist masterpiece

This is what makes her character a true female power fantasy. Contrast Elvira to most female superheroes: They’re all hot, but they seem to take no pleasure it in themselves. In fact, most of them seem totally oblivious to how sexy they are, mostly because it’s not for them. They’re characters written by men for men.

One of the biggest problems for women in movies is sexual objectification. But Elvira, despite her bodacious boobs, is not a sexual object. The film is about her doing things: Actively pursuing a goal, overcoming conflicts, and eventually winning the day… all in six-inch stilettos. Oh and she gets the guy, too. But at no point in the movie does she decide to put her slutty ways behind her, cover up her cleavage, and settle down with the “right guy”. Because as far as Mistress of the Dark is concerned, there’s nothing wrong with her. And that’s kind of beautiful, don’t you think?

You may also like...

  • Agreed on all counts. I remember watching this movie and thinking “How did this movie win a Razzie? This shit is ahead of it’s time! Most movies NOW don’t have gender politics this progressive!”

  • The Horror Guru

    “No, I’m not kidding.” … Why would anyone assume you were kidding? O_o;

    • Magdalen

      Elvira has caught a lot of shit over the years from both sides: conservatives saying she’s too sexy, and radical feminists saying she’s projecting an unhealthy stereotype. Both are being stupid.

      • The Horror Guru

        Gotch’ya. The world is a worse place than I even realized it seems.

        • $36060516

          You’ve got to stop watching those feel-good horror movies and start watching documentaries about child slavery and the destruction of the ecosystem on a loop until your mood descends to the proper level.

      • $36060516

        She’s also taken some shit from this lady, whom she was hired to replace, and who sued Elvira. (Not that Maila Nurmi was going to continue playing Vampira, but she was involved in finding a replacement for herself in the role, as she had aged out of it — though she was slightly younger at the time than Elvira is now.)

        http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_ja0u9vcxkW0/TMTXlPfpgSI/AAAAAAAAVCo/fmEJB2XoFiM/s1600/vampira3.jpg

        • Magdalen

          True. Honestly I think it was sour grapes. Elvira was hired to replace Vampire who was aging out of the role. And according to Cassandra in interviews she hadn’t even heard of Vampira until she was hired for the show.

  • Sofie Liv

    I do in fact, agree with all of this.

  • JD

    It was not the worst movie ever. it had its moments even if its been a long time since iv seen it

  • Cameron Vale

    The way I remember it is that the first wave attacked the legal impediments on women, and the second wave attacked the corresponding social impediments.

    • Magdalen

      Roe v Wade wasn’t in place until 1973, so I’d say by second wave we still had some legal issues to overcome. We still have them NOW if you live in certain areas of the U.S.

      • Cameron Vale

        How about arbitrary legal impediments, as in laws that lump all women together? For example, any law that defines women as childbearers, or assumes that they lack some supposedly masculine quality.

  • Endorenna

    I can get behind this, and all the third-wave feminist stuff. One thing that I do find off-putting about third-wave feminism is that it tends to exclude people like me, though. I’m a female, and because of my religion and for practical reasons, I have chosen to be abstinent. I don’t enjoy dressing in clothes that reveal my cleavage etc., so I don’t wear clothes like that. I’m just more of a jeans-and-a-t-shirt kinda person.

    What baffles me is that other women often seem to have an issue with me being abstinent/dressing more modestly/willingly being a virgin, though. There seems to be this perception now that if you personally choose to be abstinent/be a virgin/etc. you’re somehow judging other women who don’t do those same things. I don’t treat women who like being sexy and show it as someone being worse than me – heck, treating people like crap goes against my beliefs, too – but then I’m somehow the bad guy. I am not exaggerating when I say that I’ve had other females tell me that I’m anti-feminist unless I go out and lose my virginity and start acting more sexual. How does that work? Can’t we choose not to use our sexuality for a while and still be feminist?

    *cough* I’ll stop bitching now, sorry. Just frustrated.

    I do want to see this movie, now. Never heard of it before.

    PS: I’m also one of those girls who has marriage marked as a “maybe” on her to-do list, to think about in a few years once I’m done with college and hopefully have a job, and has “have children” marked as a “never.” Yeah, I’m TOTALLY against feminism…

    • Magdalen

      Sorry you have to deal with that crap. Girls are under a lot of pressure to navigate the virgin/whore balancing act perfectly. Like A LOT of pressure. We also come under a lot of scrutiny in general so it’s probably a case of girls thinking you’re passively judging them by abstaining. We just think everyone is judging us no matter what we’re doing.

      I actually had a similar situation happen to me when I got pregnant. Girls who didn’t want kids became really hostile. Like my uterus was silently judging them.

      Next time someone gives you shit just say, “Stop projecting your insecurities on me.” they hate that.

      • Jill Bearup

        I am TOTALLY stealing the expression “My uterus is silently judging you” at some point in the future. I am currently unclear what the context will be, but I’ll think of something. :)

        • danbreunig

          It sure sounds like a Sursam-ism.

          Then who gets the credit–Ursa for saying it or Nycea for inventing it? It’s one more version of liking a song because of either who wrote it or sang it.

      • Endorenna

        What?! That’s even crazier than accusing -me- of judging other women. I mean, it’s not like the majority of women on the planet choose to have children or something. Sheeeeesh… You know, I think people just need to mind their own damn business sometimes. Especially with the decision whether to have kids or not. Simply amazing how people love sticking their noses into other people’s extraordinarily personal affairs. *rolls eyes*
        As a girl who doesn’t want kids, I apologize for the crappy part of my ilk. Seriously, wow. I like your response, though…

        • SomeJerkWithACamera

          It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is for people to forget a phrase as simple as “live and let live.” I wish everyone could just BELIEVE in their personal life choices or get new ones, damn it, and stop judging everyone who doesn’t echo those choices.

  • TheRedWorm

    “Also, trans and gay women. Except some of us can’t agree on that.” It is shocking (to me at least) how much transphobia I’ve seen in the lesbian community…

    • Magdalen

      Right? It’s pretty fucked up.

      • TheRedWorm

        You’d figure that so many of these women went through all the homophobia bullshit in their lifetime, and would have a little more empathy. I know that not all of them are transphobic (My mom and her wife for two), or even a majority, but that it happens at all is still terrible.

        • Magdalen

          Yeah, no one exists in a vacuum. Everyone is a product of their culture. It’s balls. :/

  • David White

    Most of my experience with women involves only the first two Waves!! I havent meet a third wave feminist in 15 years!!! I am a 43 male heterosexual virgin!!!

    • $36060516

      As a fellow 43 year old male heterosexual virgin (strange coincidence), it’s my opinion that this is our problem and not a problem with women. I know this is a very painful problem to have, but also know that my own lack of romantic connection comes from my own deficits in social skill and my own choices in behavior which led to isolation. I can’t speak for you, of course, but I suspect you’re a similar case.

      There are a lot of warm and loving women out there whom I was unfortunately not equipped to connect with in the way I desired, and I have known many third wave feminists. They did not identify themselves explicitly in this way, but they did not have obvious sexual inhibitions and they did not have excessive resentment towards men, while standing up for their rights as citizens and taking no crap. Letting go of the idea that feminism or women as a group are the source of your problem (if I’m correctly interpreting your post) might help you connect with women. Also, just getting out there more and doing things you love in social environments where you meet a wider range of people who will see you at your best when doing things you enjoy and come to appreciate your positive qualities.

      Not trying to diminish whatever painful encounters you’ve had with unpleasant women. There are many unpleasant and messed up people of both sexes, and attempting to romantically connect them will unfortunately bring pain into your life. All you can do is try to choose better the next time. I hope we both find a way out of this pain.

      • Magdalen

        “(if I’m correctly interpreting your post) ” is the important statement here. I’m not even sure what he’s yelling about. XD

        • $36060516

          Maybe it’s just a troll and I made the mistake of emotionally opening myself to a false persona. Oh well.

          • Magdalen

            *pat pat* s’okay.

          • Cameron Vale

            I think he should probably listen to your advice anyway.

        • David White

          I am not yelling!! Three level headed sentences, How am i yelling?? I was not attacking women ( or anybody)!!! Most people accuse me of attacking them!!! I due what ever i can to avoid drama and conflict!!

          • Muthsarah

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKOmGhBOJZI&t=1m41s





            Well, I had to stop his screaming

          • David White

            The exclamation points were for emphasis.

          • $36060516

            You don’t need to emphasize every sentence. When you do, it dilutes the effect and all sentences look equally important (or unimportant). Other! wise! it! just! gets! silly!

          • Silly?
            THIS!
            IS!
            SPARTAAAAAA!

          • Magdalen

            These !!! <— are called exclamation points. They indicate in a text that someone is shouting or exclaiming very loudly.

  • nejiblue

    while wonder woman was created by a man, it’s debatable who she was created for. In any event, how she dresses has jack shit all to do with her worth as a character. My only exposure to her was justice league but I thought she was a great character there. The fact that modern comic book fandom is made up of 50-year old man children closet virgins who jack off over this has jack shit to do with anything, but thank you as always for holding me accountable for their crimes. Could also point out that when they tryed to change the costume to be more modest well known feminist got pissed off, but this is like trying to talk to a brick wall. Wasted enough time on you and your stupid article.

    • Magdalen

      Hahaha and yet you always come back for more. Something, something weird argument about Wonder Women? I don’t even know. You always make me laugh, dude. Always. Thanks. XD

    • $36060516

      “thank you as always for holding me accountable for their crimes.”

      You personally? You know that Carly Simon song? “You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.” I don’t think it is.

      Some feminists didn’t like the costume change and some did. Some just didn’t like it because it was a poorly designed costume by Jim Lee, whose costumes tend to suck.

    • Dani(elle)

      The first couple of incarnation of wonder woman was pure man-service down to her weakness (she had to literally be tied down by a man and was often spanked, nope nothing wrong there) but yes they did develop and change aspects of her character. And while she did have a more modest costume for a while she is currently back to the iconic blue spanks and red and white bustier. Wonder Woman in the New 52 is actually one of the few great titles and this is why: they write her as a character first. The audience is aware she is a woman, it is kind of obvious, but they don’t focus on it. It is not like Power Girl who is gleefully guy crazy or like Starfire who is barely has any characterization outside of sex and indifference. Wonder Woman’s gender has little influence in the story outside of her origins (she came from an all female island of amazons so of course her gender mattered to them). So you are right. The way the character dresses has little to do with the quality of her character but that is because she is a good character. We, the audience, are able to see her outside of her sexuality because the writers give her a personality outside of her sexuality. It is the same with Elvira.

      Nycea is right in that most “female empowerment” characters are not like Wonder Woman or Elvira. Most come off as Barb Wire and feel like they are trying to hard.

      And one last thing before I end this overly long diatribe. I am inclined to call bullshit on your comment “The fact that modern comic book fandom is made up of 50-year old man children closet virgins…” I work at a comic shop and while yes, there are some 50 year old man children and possible virgins that come in, most are men between the ages if 20 – 40 (some with significant others and children). In fact, about 20% of our customers identify as female. Naturally, this could be just my store that happens to have diversity but I don’t think so. And what’s more concerning is your insistence that Nycea is holding you personally accountable for female representation in media. Why do you feel that way? I don’t know Nycea personally but I don’t think her intention was to call anyone out on this. I mean, she wasn’t saying that all men who stare at Elvira’s boobs or potentially masturbate to female comic book characters are wrong. She was just pointing out why Elvira works as a strong feminine character. I feel like (and I could be totally wrong) what she was trying to say was that the problem isn’t that men are writing these characters and that men should be held responsible but that these characters are written for men. How can a character empower a woman if the character was not written for her?

      Again, I could be completely wrong but that is my understanding.

      • Magdalen

        This is very insightful, Dani. But unfortunately totally wasted. Nejiblue usually shows up, screams at me for being stupid, and leaves only to return a few months later. My bet is on some sort of explosive anger problem. He never makes any sense and usually reads in scary feminist agendas where there are none.

        I, however, appreciate what you had to say.

  • Alexa

    I loved this movie and Elvira was awesome in this film. As for the whole her being sexy equals objectification, is pretty annoying, because of course there is nothing at all wrong with Elvira being sexy. Its when she is sexy and there’s not much else beyond that, like that’s all there is to her. She has a personality, and she does her own thing. She isn’t a lamp, where she is just there to look pretty and keep the main guy warm. Even a women who is conservatively dressed in a film can be objectified, because if she’s just there to be a pretty and warm companion, again like a lamp, and nothing else. Then yeah she is objectified.

    • Marshall Oliver Estes

      That’s a good way to look at objectification

  • Nathan Forester

    Yeeesss! I absolutely love Elvira, she’s one of my favorite female characters, she’s snarky, spunky, sarcastic and a blast to watch. She may be little more than eye-candy to certain guys out there, but not to me. She will be always be more than that to me.

  • Kanonite

    “Well I never!” “Well you never will with those soup-cans on your head!” Damn the comebacks in this are amazing.

  • DPPalbert

    Sometimes a movie is just a movie, actually most of the time a movie is just a movie, so yeah…

    • Magdalen

      I suppose I should clarify, I don’t think this film set out to be anything except a campy comedy. Which is totally succeeded in doing. It just also happens to be badass for all the reasons I said here.

  • maarvarq

    I thought this review was an interesting take on a character that I’d never thought about that much (and a movie that I’ve never seen).

  • The_Stig

    My two first major crushes when I was growing up: Miss Elizabeth and Elvira. She was more than just a smoking hot pair of cleavage. In fact, I always thought her huge breasts made her -less- attractive. What won me over and attracted me was how funny and snarky she was. You don’t want to just sleep with her, you want to hang out with her, she was that cool. If she were just a horror movie host, she would have been a Vampira ripoff. It’s the valley girl attitude and the whole approach to her character that made the Elvira persona original.

  • Jamey
  • Maxine of Arc

    Couldn’t agree more, this is such a tragically underrated movie! Elvira has always been super smart about her persona, and she crafted this movie really well to work with it. It seems like a lot of viewers miss the joke, or don’t get that Elvira’s whole act is camp and that’s where she’s working from. Or just didn’t stay for the tassel twirling.

    Vampira did sue Elvira for stealing her act. She lost.

  • Daniel Valentin

    I’ve always held Elvira in the highest regard as an icon of not only women in genre work, but as a genre icon PERIOD. Her sexiest asset is how incredibly funny she is, and she was an example that girls can enjoy horror movies and their tropes as much as the guys, and that there’s nothing wrong to flaunt it if you got it.

    It helps that I’ve been nursing a crush on her since I was 5 years old XD

  • 8DX

    I’d say one thing: As a male, lookin’ at it as a male: the film sure fills the man-gaze digits. And it also shows the main sex-love interest as very self-protective.
    I’d say my main problem with this film was that despite the Elvira interactions as a response to male harassment, the main male sexual object is only defined sexually through visual effects. He is SO buff in all those scenes. Extra script effort is made to show he is a “good guy” who doesn’t have sex with women. He is sexualised only in his apearances, his sexuality is not a script-story-driver. There is a very problematic interaction with the male sexual interest: because his sexuality is rated as romantic, while Elvira is interested in the physical. No sex happens in this film. In real life: people have sex, evaluate it in various ways, some negative, some postiive, some are damaged for life because of violence, some finally understand what it means to be an adult. Ir’s great that Elvira openned the young people’s eyes concerning relationships. But “sex happened” is not really that big of a deal. The story would have been the same even if Elvira had had sex in one of the first scenes in the movie. The rejection of Elvira wasn’t because she had had sex, but because she wasn’t afraid to interact sexually.