Female Empowerment in Ari Aster’s Midsommar

by Ethan Reid

  1. Introduction

Historically, horror has been one of the main film genres to consistently utilize women as the main focus characters. However, this genre has also proven to be problematic in its portrayal of the female gender whether it be through hyper-sexualization or the repeated use of the same character stereotypes. This has led to an overall decline in boundary-pushing depictions of women within popular horror.

Ari Aster’s second full-length film Midsommar combines a lead female character and a well-crafted narrative to deliver a unique depiction of female empowerment. The plot of the film centers around Dani (Florence Pugh) as she joins her boyfriend and his friends on a trip to rural Sweden to participate in a traditional midsummer festival. However, during the trip, Dani begins to suffer from repressed trauma brought on by the death of her sister and parents. As her mental state begins to decline it becomes apparent that the Swedish community is more sinister than it originally appears to be.

This essay argues that Aster explores traditional horror film tropes in order to subvert the expectations of women in horror films and presents a unique narrative that empowers women. Firstly this essay will examine the ways in which Aster presents Dani as an oppressed woman because of her unhealthy love relationship and how this is representative of the traditional depictions of women in film. Secondly, it will focus on tropes that Aster explores throughout the film and how the subversion of these tropes leads to a feminist narrative. Lastly, it will discuss the ways in which the narrative depicts the actualization of female characters and how they break away from their oppressors.

  1. Female Oppression within Romantic Relationships

If not for the opening scene of the film which places Dani as the centre of focus one may assume that Dani’s partner Christian is the central character of the narrative. Christian is the main connecting factor between all of the main characters of the film, being Dani’s partner as well as the one who organizes the group’s trip to Sweden after being invited by Pelle. Aster subverts the expectation of having a character like Christian be the main character of the film and instead makes Dani, who is only in the narrative due to her relation to Christian, the point of view character for the audience. This position of being involved in the narrative’s events through her relationship with her male partner helps the audience see that at the inception of the film Dani exists as an accessory to the primary male character. Not only is Dani in the position of a passive female but she is also subjected to the oppressive gaze of the male characters within the film (Mulvey). This can be seen in the conversation between Christian and his male friends in which one of them criticized Dani for not being sexual enough “and then you can find a chick who actually likes sex” (Midsommar 00:07:35). Dani is repeatedly criticized by the male characters of the film for not fitting within the ideal parameters of the male gaze.

Furthermore, Dani is also denied legitimate compassion from her male partner in dealing with her trauma and is instead relegated to being a supportive figure in Christian’s life instead of receiving aid for her own issues. This can be seen in Dani and Christian’s conversation where when pushed towards supporting Dani, Christian instead gaslights her forcing Dani to apologize for seeking support so as to not lose her place in the relationship (Midsommar 00:17:20). The first time Dani receives any kind of emotional support is from Pele who offers condolences on the passing of Dani’s family and attempts to empathize with her (Midsommar 00:22:30). This sets up Dani’s eventual turn towards self actualization and empowerment when she chooses Pele’s community over Christian at the end of the film. Aster uses the relationship between Dani and Christian, specifically Dani’s role in the relationship as an underrepresented supporting force to demonstrate the unequal distribution of power within traditional male/ female relationships in the film.

3. Empowerment through the Subversion of Tropes

In many traditional horror films the protagonist(s) narrowly escape the antagonistic force, often it is the case that a young attractive female character is left as one of few survivors and is either rescued by quick-thinking or the assistance of another (often male) character. Ari Aster subverts this expectation within Midsommar, Dani does not escape the cult at the end of the film rather she joins them completely and finds a greater sense of peace than she did with her American group. If Dani were to have escaped the cult and returned to America as the sole or one of few survivors of the event she would not be as actualized as she is as a result of the film’s actual ending. By siding with the antagonistic force and winning herself a position of power through the “May Queen” competition, Dani is granted a sense of individualism she did not have in her previous life which allows her the perspective to remove herself from her oppressive relationship. Aster utilizes the concept of the “Avenging Angel” a cinematic concept in which a female protagonist is given “the chance, even the obligation, to mete out vengeance” ( Haas 331) against male oppressors. This is seen when Dani chooses Christian to be the victim of the sacrifice when given the choice between him and “a specially ordained Holga” (Midsommar 2:12:08). Dani’s purposeful choosing of Christian to be sacrificed serves as vindication for her forced role as a submissive female under the male gaze. 

It is also interesting to note that the tapestry that opens the film presents the events of the narrative in the form of a traditional fable or fairy tale. With this in mind one could look at Midsommar as a potential continuation of the 21st century model of the inverted or revisionist  fairy tale. A narrative mode in which the traditional narrative tropes of archetypal stories such as “Cinderella” are challenged and altered to result in the assertion of selfhood and the exercising of self-determination (Sibielski). Instead of the main character escaping her situation and potentially rescuing her oppressor which would be a fairly traditional Hollywood conclusion, Aster opts to subvert expectations and have the protagonist fully assimilate with the antagonistic force in order to achieve vindication against her male oppressors.

4. Choosing Empowerment Over Oppression

Aster uses several scenes throughout the film to show the gradual transition from a silenced passive female character to an actualized and empowered one. The primary theme shared within a majority of these scenes is a sense of unity between the female characters of the film. This actualization is best encapsulated in the scene following Dani’s discovery of the sexual ritual that Christian has been coerced into. While Dani weeps over this discovery she is surrounded by several Holga members who mimic her cries and reach out to physically touch her (Midsommar 2:05:00). This scene serves to illustrate that the empowerment of women is born partially out of unity within the gender as well as the actions of an individual. This scene is mirrored at the same time in the film within the previously mentioned ritual. During the ritual a group of Holga women surround the scene and chant in unison with the sexual sounds, this once again shows that the community is accomplishing their goals through unity with one Holga even going so far as to physically aid in the act. Additionally this ritual scene exists to challenge traditional depictions of sex within film. While Christian is shown to be physically attracted to the character of Maja, this attraction does not end in a sexual conquest in which the male is dominant. Instead the traditional male centric sex scene that attempts to display visually pleasing erotic imagery  (Mulvey) is replaced with an uncomfortable ritualistic display to illustrate that power has been removed from the male character. 

Aster also subtly visualizes Dani’s transition towards empowerment through the change of settings throughout the film. When Dani is at the height of her oppression she is seen in small claustrophobic locations such as her small room, a crowded party and most obviously the airport bathroom she is shown crying in on the flight to Sweden (Midsommar 00:23:00). This claustrophobia brought on by oppression is shown again when Dani begins to become actualized through psychedelic drug use and is outside in an open field, however as she relapses into her trauma she physically retreats into a small darkened outhouse. By the films end when Dani has moved beyond her oppressor the scenes have changed to take place in large open areas with bright colours. This sense of claustrophobia is then placed upon Dani’s oppressor Christian as he is physically trapped within the hollowed carcass of a bear and then placed within the small ritual pyre. Additionally, Aster uses temperature and colour to show the transition towards empowerment. The film opens with exterior shots of a snowy, cold wilderness accompanied by a single voice chanting. This cold motif is carried throughout the early scenes that establish Dani’s current submissive place and continues into the title sequence as the films title appears from a snowstorm. This gradually transitions to warmer and brighter colours, even to an unnatural extent, as one of the male characters remarks “that feels wrong I don’t like that” (Midsommar 00:29:15) in response to the sun being out for an unnaturally long time. For more evidence that this transition to warmth is tied to Dani’s empowerment one should examine the final scene of the film which is a double exposure shot of Dani covered in flowers superimposed onto the burning ritual pyre as her oppressors are literally erased.

This transition is also showcased in the previously mentioned opening tapestry where on the left side representing the beginning of the film contains imagery of a skull spewing snow onto a blue background, while the right section that represents the end of the film contains a burning, smiling sun.

5. Conclusion

Within a genre that has recently been stagnant in its depiction of women, Ari Aster defies expectations of the medium through his use of a unique point of view character to demonstrate the disparity between depictions of males and females in film. Using this foundation he then deconstructs the traditional tropes of the genre to create a narrative that depicts the rejection of oppressive systems and individuals in order to reach actualization and empowerment. Aster uses motifs such as temperature and claustrophobia to reinforce this transition and also utilizes moments such as the ritual to subvert traditional cinematic moments that are dictated by the male gaze in order to instead give power to the female characters and grant them the opportunity for vindication. Ultimately Midsommar should be viewed not as a traditional horror but instead as a film that examines the harmful effects of the male gaze and the resulting desire for actualization that is born out of it.

 Works Cited

Aster, Ari. Midsommar. A24, 2019.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics : Political Messages in American Films, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=2011203.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Screen, Vol 6, #3, pp 6-18. October 1975.https://academic.oup.com/screen/article-abstract/16/3/6/1603296?redirectedFrom=fulltext

Sibielski, Rosalind. “Reviving Cinderella: Contested Feminism and Conflicting Models of Female Empowerment in 21st-Century Film and Television Adaptations of “Cinderella” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol 36, #7, pp 584-610. May 23 2019. https://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/doi/full/10.1080/10509208.2019.1593020