Concealed Malefactor: A Close Look into the Cult Ruled by Women

by Bai Yi Lin

  1. Introduction

The film Midsommar directed by Ari Aster portrays women as powerful weapons, showing two sides of a coin. Many questions arise after watching the film regarding the women’s role and the way they have been portrayed. Unlike the usual trope where women are cast as insignificant side characters or irrelevant personas that even death could not accentuate, Midsommar pushed its boundaries on women in society. Aster demonstrates how women can be leaders despite the odds and by adding in a touch of culture, the film was able to showcase an ideal world. A world separate from the current male-driven civilization.

Midsommar starts off with Dani Ardor, the protagonist, discovering the death of her family members. Now mentally unstable, her boyfriend Christian Hughes invites her to attend a midsummer celebration in Sweden with his friends. After arriving, the group witnesses the horrors of the cult, seeing two elders jump off a cliff in an attempt to kill themselves, causing one of Christian’s friends to make a huge commotion. This disrespect for their culture resulted in his death, and slowly one by one, Christian’s friends were killed off-screen leaving only the two left. Throughout the film, wide camera angles were used to describe the beautiful scenery tricking the audience into believing that they are in a safe place. Unlike other horror films, the entirety of the movie uses blinding white light and colorful tones to divert the mind into thinking the malice never existed.

Throughout the movie, it is obvious the focus was always on Dani, from beginning to end, the story revolves around her. The plot finally made sense once Dani was crowned the May Queen. Ever since the death of her family members, Dani was dependent on her boyfriend, she was scared he might leave her and she would truly be alone. As she stated in fear, “I’m always leaning on him! Like I even called him today in tears because my sister wrote another stupid scary email,” (Midsommar, 10:00). Here, the movie shows the vulnerable sides of females and portrays them as helpless creatures that need comforting. However, as time goes on, Dani discovers the true personality of Christian and that he no longer loves her. In an attempt to use Dani, Pelle, the friend who told Christian about this trip and the mastermind behind this scheme, manipulates her to trust in the intentions of the cult. Unbeknownst to Dani, she was placed in a maypole dancing competition and became the next May Queen. The following events that followed would change Dani’s entire life, power, strength, and family were all within her reach. She no longer needs to depend on Christian and can easily cast him aside. The film is showing parts of the real world as those in power have the ability to obtain anything, even death can be wished upon another person. There is however a question that arises, who is the true villain?

By using women’s vulnerability, the film is able to create a feigned innocence that forces them into an evil mindset. Manipulation of traumatic experiences to benefit a motif in order to reach a certain goal. The analysis of this film is based on Kathrin Zippel’s Politics of Sexual Harassment and David Cook’s “1974: Movies and Political Trauma.” Comparing the theory of women’s rights and male entitlement along with the horrors of miscommunication between the films and the audience. Through the analysis of these ideas, many questions regarding the mystery of the true villain may rise to the surface.

  1. Female Vulnerability versus Male Dominance

The movie has embedded many hidden treasures within its storytelling, and one of its tactics involves using Christian as bait. In the movie, he is seen as a useless, horrible person, in other terms, he is an entitled white American male. Throughout the film, Christian disregards Dani’s emotions, tries to steal his friend’s thesis idea, and laughs at the mental illness. Christian’s character highlights the worst traits of American masculinity. By using this behaviour, the director is able to bring forth a reason for his death to be accepted. In a sense, the trip to Sweden is like a fairytale for Dani, a resurrection. Considering Kathrin’s Sexual Harassment, “at the heart of these diffusion processes is the recognition of the power of ideas in galvanizing social movements and inspiring policies to combat social problems,” (Zippel, 2006). By showcasing this idea of female empowerment despite the cult’s interference, this is still a message concerning females in the real world. The issue focuses on the male attitude towards a helpless female, and how the female overcomes this obstacle. The movie also emphasizes toxic relationships. In the beginning, Dani had no control over her life, she could not prevent the death of her loved ones and Christian wanted to break up with her. The first decision she made in the movie was to follow Christian and his friends to Sweden, even then, she is uncertain and scared. The villain at the start of the movie is definitely Christian and his friends who prompt him to leave Dani. Using the camera angles pointed upwards in the scenes creates an illusion that Christian is in power. There are also many close-up shots showing emotion in the character’s faces. When someone is scared, startled, or depressed, the camera would zoom right into their expressions creating a mood for the audience as well. As the movie went on, it is noted that Christian’s psychological state deteriorates. Another incredibly smart tactic used is foreshadowing each and every important scene yet to come. By doing so, the next outcome or victim could potentially be predicted. Not only that but the social structure can clearly be broken down just from analyzing each individual frame. Even though the cult may seem like a subsequently disoriented religion at first with all the killing and screaming, there are undoubtedly leaders controlling this behaviour. As a matter of fact, the oracle, born from incest, therefore deformed, is seen as a god in the community. There is a hierarchy in this sect, that said, the cult leader is a woman. The majority of the said society is ruled by females and can be seen in various scenes. For example, they have the choice to choose their own sexual partner but there is no love involved. This may be another way for them to stay in power, if they start falling for their male partner, they may start obeying them instead. From the use of men to further enhance the underlying emotions to the hierarchy in a sect, the movie is controlling the audience to look in multiple directions. This is later seen as a very useful tactic to manipulate the mind of the watcher.

  1. The Power of Women

Though the movie is empowering women, there are some scenes that suggest otherwise, for instance, women are used to luring men. This sexual representation of women on screen is a representation of the erotic spectacle. During the mating scene, the girl is shown lying on the bed, with flowers on the side along with a gaze that can captivate any man. The image of the perfect woman is advocated even in a movie that is trying to empower them. However, who is at fault, the female luring the male or the actions of the male? What the movie is trying to convey is the lack of will in male temptation. Whether or not the deed was done in the movie, the authority was on the female’s end, after all, she was the one who chose him. The movie in truth used the idea of perfect women as a way of power for them. Instead of pleasing men, they are pleasing themselves, they are entrusted with the survival of the cult. The movie not only depicts women as caring and nurturing but also portrays them as leaders. The idea of the May Queen is the perfect example of the bringer of life which acknowledges the connection between mother earth and humans and more literally, her womb. She who blesses the crops and brings spirituality to the community, this is generally the duty of the May Queen. Power in this film is not about propaganda and armies of words but a symbol of peace. After Dani is entitled to this position, she has obtained everything that Christian was unable to give her. The care and love she most wanted after the loss of her loved ones, the feeling of being accepted, this immense pleasure of knowing that she belongs somewhere. In the movie, after spotting her boyfriend having sex with another female, she breaks down in tears, however, because of this, she realizes that there are people who can share her emotions. While Dani is wailing, the other girls around would comfort her and in return wail alongside her, something Christian was unable to do. In the end, it was revealed that the people who have died were necessary for the final ritual and the last, ninth person would be chosen by the May Queen. Dani has the option to choose someone from the cult or Christian. Either she chooses a person from a community that finally accepts her or her boyfriend who has never loved her even before the start of the movie. Dani chose Christian. Was she considered a villain for wishing death upon someone? The film makes the audience wonder whether that was the right thing to do. However, by using their clever tactics along with a relatable character, they were able to conceal the wrongdoings. They were able to justify the actions of Dani and not just the producers, even the audience was convinced.

  1. Using Empathy as a manipulation Tool

The cinematography really drives the intention, for example, the wide shots of the surrounding environment versus the extreme closeups. The carefully woven costumes down to the details in the flowers, and the subtle music that comes in with each suspense. There are three modes of persuasion, pathos, ethos, and logos, and each was used with precision. By combining the little logic with the ethical portion, the film allows for a complete understanding of the plot. Meanwhile, the huge amount of pathos controls the overall mood of the story. Empathy is a major portion of the film; it allows the audience to relate to the characters and most importantly the sense of relief from the ending. For Cook, “it is not hard to see a pattern: one group of films examines the dark underside and deep hypocrisies of American society through a serious lens,” (). The tragic effects of the unsaid can be a critical point to today’s society. There are symbols within the film that help to emphasize the idea of womanhood. Dani’s hallucination of grass growing from her body is the primitive connection of woman and Earth. Overall, the cinematography including the use of symbols was quite effective in conveying their ideas and made great use of colorful environments to express emotions.

  1. Conclusion   

The film used women’s vulnerability as a way to trick them into malicious acts, as seen in Dani. However, as the film comes to a closing, the mood is immediately lifted upwards, creating an emotional bond between the audience and Dani. It was as if the people watching the film went on this journey together with her. This film may have shaped how the audience thinks of cults and in a way manipulated the mass majority of the viewers. From Ari Aster’s Midsommar, many would agree that this film has opened new doorways in the horror genre and gender empowerment for future films to come and has in some way affected the psychological side of the audience. 

Midsommar (2019)

Works Cited

Friedman, L. D. American cinema of the 1970s: Themes and variations. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Zippel, K. S. The politics of sexual harassment: A comparative study of the US and the European Union, and Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Aster, Ari, director. Midsommar. A24, 2019.