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:
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?