What female cult leaders in popular movies and TV can teach us about patriarchy
Keep in mind that this essay contains spoilers for a few films and TV series, new and old: Midsommar, The Wicker Man, American Horror Story: Cult, Faults, Sound of My Voice, and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Be careful when reading.
The protagonist, Dani, watches as, upon her command, her boyfriend is consumed by flames. She is upset, but also peaceful; the ritual is a symbol of the sisterhood she has found among the Hårga (a cult-like group of people) and her freedom from a toxic relationship. This is the ending of Midsommar, an A24 film released last month, and the beginning of a lot of questions for the viewer. As women, are we meant to feel empowered or vilified by this sequence?
This is not the first time that audiences have had to confront the meaning of womanhood in the context of cult horror films. The subject matter of cults provides a useful conceit for a number of societal issues—from the dehumanizing nature of rise-and-grind capitalism, as seen in Sorry to Bother You, to the terrifying tribalism intrinsic to us all, which is explored in American Horror Story: Cult. But perhaps most fascinating is the metaphorical value that cults have in the patriarchy. Although there are exceptions, many films portray cults as a method of escapism for women in an oppressive society. Still, they also tend to include slasher film-esque didactic undertones that warn of the dangers for those who stray from conservatism, and in general serve to remind us how “scary” powerful women can be.
Take, for example, the most recent addition to the growing list of horror films about cults, Ari Aster’s Midsommar. At the heart of Midsommar is not the creepy practices of a Scandinavian tribe, but rather a deteriorating relationship between the two main characters: Dani, who is grieving after the loss of her parents and sister in a murder-suicide, and her emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian. Too afraid to break up with Dani in the wake of her family tragedy, Christian reluctantly invites her on a trip to Sweden for a festival. The film is laden with commentary on the mistreatment of women in society—from Christian’s consistent gaslighting of Dani, to Dani’s general lack of confidence in her instincts. This all comes to a head at the end of the film when Dani, having risen in the ranks of the Hårga cult to become Spring Queen, selects Christian to be their inaugural sacrifice as an act of revenge.
At first glance, this ending, though horrifying, seems unabashedly feminist. But given her behavior during the rest of the film, it’s hard to believe that her thirst for validation will be satiated by her newfound power in this cult. One could interpret this scene as a statement on the terrors of gaslighting and emotional abuse, and the horrors it can breed. But an equally likely conclusion is that, to put it plainly, women are scary when given power—perhaps showing the necessity of oppression. In the end, it’s a horror movie, and because Dani has power, she has become the villain.
This is not an uncommon theme, and horror films about cults often place women in positions of leadership. In Midsommar’s predecessor, The Wicker Man (1973), a little girl goes missing, prompting the protagonist, Seargeant Howie, to investigate her disappearance. He descends into madness as he searches the small Scottish island where he believes the little girl to be located. At first glance, the missing girl appears to merely be the catalyst for the events of the plot, having no agency or even an identity of her own, really. Howie gradually realizes that the residents of the island appear to be a part of a small cult that reveres men for their strength. Masculinity is sacred to them, with a teacher on the island stating in one scene that the phallic symbol is a force of nature. Yet it’s the women who appear to be the manipulators, or the main culprits responsible for Howie’s eventual demise. In the end, Howie, an arrogant Christian man with a Superman complex, is brought down by the very girl he is trying to save, after the “missing” girl tricks Howie into becoming the cult’s sacrifice.
In a similar vein to Midsommar’s ending, The Wicker Man lends itself to two different interpretations: a society that is counter to good Christian values is appalling and should be considered a threat, or the desire to save and impose conventional beliefs on others will only lead to grief.
Even American Horror Story: Cult plays into the vilification of powerful women. Although most of the show reevaluates the horrors of the patriarchy after the 2016 election, its ending seems to place the system on trial, questioning whether we actually would be better off with a female president. In the last episode, Ally lures Kai into getting shot, and dons the hood worn by Bebe Babitt, symbolically representing that she is not above the tribalism that is the real source of horror in AHS: Cult. The ending is understandable; viewers wanted a revenge fantasy, an empowering rewrite of the 2016 election. Still, the takeaway is that women are capable of being just as vicious of leaders as men are.
The 2011 thriller Sound of My Voice (starring The OA‘s Brit Marling) exemplifies this complexity. The female-led cult in this film is framed as an example of humans letting go of toxic masculinity, heteronormativity, and an isolating capitalist society—once again the main source of conflict and intrigue because the idea is both frightening and fascinating. Like Midsommar, Sound of My Voice also involves a rapidly decaying relationship, but unlike Midsommar, it is the cult that drives the lovers apart—not any preexisting issues. Investigative journalist Peter joins a cult in order to gain intel on its enigmatic leader, Maggie. The film places two women in conflict after Peter’s wife, Lorna, grows jealous of the devotion he gives to Maggie. The cult leader wields a strange power over Peter, helping him uncover repressed memories through humiliating rituals and once again showing the duality of women in power. Lorna eventually tips off the authorities to Maggie’s whereabouts, resulting in the cult leader’s arrest. The audience feels conflicted, as we are unsure of whether to believe Maggie, who claims to be from the future, or condemn her—a symbol of the public’s relationship with female leaders in general.
The concept of a woman in power leading a man to an emotional epiphany is a common one in these films. The 2014 movie Faults, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, follows Ansel, a cult specialist, as he desperately tries to rescue Claire (Winstead) from a cult at the urging of her parents. Claire seems wholly defined by the men around her, but in a strange sense, she still holds power over Ansel—something she uses only for further validation. In a twist ending, Claire has earned complete devotion from Ansel, prompting him to express the emotions that toxic masculinity has taught him to hide. After Claire commits a murder, it is revealed that her “parents” were part of the cult all along, and she is the secretive leader.
Faults seems to call into question if attaining freedom from oppression and the status quo (from the patriarchy, specifically) is still moral when it leads to violence. The woman who was once perceived as weak turns the tables and takes down the man whose hubris got the best of him, like in The Wicker Man and even to a certain degree Midsommar. However, in many of these films, the action that we can view as feminist is also profoundly antisocial and debased: murder. These movies employ a celebratory tone, which is at odds with the real implications of the story’s events.
Of course, not every cult film subscribes to this idea. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) offers a more traditional—but nonetheless disturbing—cult narrative. Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is a typical cult victim: young, daddy issues, lost. The cult provides an easy identity, the same way that women sometimes feel it’s easier to let ourselves be identified by our associations with men. The cult Martha finds herself joining is riddled with sexism; the male leader quite literally tells them to smile, controls their diet, and sexually assaults members. In a particularly chilling scene, Martha is told that nothing bad has happened after she is raped—calling to mind the numerous rape victims who have been told that they are lying, that what happened to them wasn’t “that bad.” But still, the cult gives her the validation she craves, like so many of the other protagonists in these films.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum of cult media, the TV comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also has a more traditional narrative. The cult Kimmy was forced into is the impetus for her exploration of feminism. The cult is an obvious, heavy-handed metaphor for the patriarchy: Cyndi is confused by what happened, Gretchen is content to still live under oppression, and Kimmy is bent on breaking free of these structures. But if the commentary wasn’t so on the nose, some of the comedy might be lost. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does always place its protagonist in situations where she has agency; Kimmy has proven herself to be a wholly independent character.
The parallels between cults and patriarchy are endless, from brainwashing to the difficulty of leaving a toxic structure. Even the idea of having a real identity and a cult identity (in which you are defined by the leaders) calls to mind the dual identity women are forced to have: who they are when being themselves and who they are seen as when being objectified. But curiously, the majority of films about cults don’t frame their complexity this way. Instead, so many horror films featuring women cult leaders portray the mixture of horror and fascination that the public, mainly men, have about women abandoning the patriarchy.