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  • Writer's pictureKathy Michelle Chacón

The Wicker Man on Women: Is it a Conservative or Progressive Film?

By Kathy Michelle Chacón


When Sergeant Howie leaves the comfort of the mainland to investigate the report of a missing child on the island of Summerisle, he enters a realm of the unfamiliar created through unorthodox expressions of femininity. Riddled with theatrical musical numbers, expressive displays of sex, and pagan rituals, Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, The Wicker Man, assumes a deeply ambiguous position in the ways it depicts female sexuality, female empowerment, and gender roles. This raises the question: is The Wicker Man a progressive or conservative film in relation to its representation of its female characters? And if deemed the latter, to what extent can we consider The Wicker Man to be a conservative film in this regard? Using a combined lens of socio-historical contexts of Great Britain in the early 1970s and gender film theory, this essay will explore both the conservative and progressive arguments to be made surrounding The Wicker Man’s representation of femininity. I will investigate these questions by engaging intimately with the ambiguity that surrounds the portrayal of Willow as a character who exists within the liminal position of liberated sexual agent and submissive daughter to the patriarch. Later branching away from the assessment of Willow, this essay will examine the ways the film portrays female adolescence on the island, broadening the scope of investigation to explore the representation of femininity and religion.

Released at the end of the year 1973, The Wicker Man premiered amidst a wave of social and cultural tension in Britain surrounding the issues of sexual morality and gender parity. Early 1970s Britain saw an influx of readily available European pornography and changing viewpoints around the pleasurabilities of sex.1 British publications like The Joy of Sex, an illustrated sex manual featuring lessons on oral sex and sexual bondage released in 1972, spent numerous weeks at the top of bestseller lists and sold over twelve million copies, suggesting a large part of society was ready to embrace a more liberated stance on sexual relations.2 Nonetheless, the seventies also gave way to extreme push back by British Christians who called for a return of conservative values.3 The Nationwide Festival of Light, a predominantly evangelical organization, gained traction during this period as they fought to highlight the voice of the ‘silent majority’ of British Christians whose moral values were now vulnerable to the nation’s shifting ethics on sex.4 At stake was not only Britain's values on sexual relations, but the nuclear family itself. The seventies mark a profound change around the Women's Liberation Movement and public consensus surrounding the role of women within patriarchy, as evident through the surge of feminist literature and ideology being circulated in Britain at the time.5 Bestsellers such as Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, published in London in 1970, discussed the role conservative values, the nuclear family, and consumerism had in repressing women.6 Not only were these new theories of feminism circulating within the public’s imagination, they manifested themselves into organized activism. The year 1970 saw the first National Women's Liberation Movement Conference in Oxford.7 At this conference, feminist leaders gathered in demand of equal pay, equal education and job opportunity, and legal and financial independence for women.8 The historical contexts surrounding issues of sexual liberation and female agency around The Wicker Man’s release in 1973 provides a rich framework in which to assess the film as a conservative or progressive text.

In exploring whether The Wicker Man should be considered a conservative or progressive film, this essay will analyze three focal scenes: Sergeant Howie’s first encounter with Willow at the Green Man Inn and the Landlord’s Daughter musical number, Willow’s solo performance of Willow’s Song, and the scene involving a group of adolescent girls performing a reproductive ritual outside Lord Summerisle’s castle. I have chosen the close analysis of these three sequences as I believe they provide the most insightful representations of femininity expressed in the film. Through an intimate assessment of mise en scène and narrative elements, these scenes provide a clearer understanding of the film’s ideological world views and feelings towards women. To begin, this essay will explore the case to be made for understanding The Wicker Man as conservative in its representations of its female characters. Using a historical awareness of the changes surrounding the Women's Liberation Movement in early 1970s Britain and the contexts provided by Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, I will examine Willow’s social position within patriarchal structures and the degree to which she is allowed ownership of her sexuality. Second, combining the framework allotted through Barbara Creed’s and Mary-Ann Doane’s theories on horror cinema, I will be investigating the ways in which Willow’s Song falls victim to misogynistic archetypes of the genre and forwards a fear of the feminine. Alternatively, I will be exploring the ways in which Linda Williams’ When the Woman Looks can help us understand this same performance of Willow’s Song as a demonstration of female agency and awareness. Lastly, I will be employing the work of Audre Lorde to understand how a progressive reading might emerge through exploring the film’s representation of religion as grappling with the anxieties of female existence in restrictive social boundaries within the historical framework of 1970s Britain.


After unsuccessful attempts to find information that will aid him in his investigation of the missing child on Summerisle, Sergeant Howie enters the Green Man Inn and heads directly to the bar to speak with Alder MacGreagor, the landlord of the pub. After receiving Howie’s request for a room and supper, MacGreagor calls upon his daughter to show the officer to his accommodation. Off screen, we hear her respond to the call, answering with a single word, “Father?".9 It is here where Howie—and viewers—are introduced to Willow for the first time in the film. Donning a patterned cooking apron around her waist, she enters the bar silently and stands next to MacGreagor. Framed between the two men, her father and Sergeant Howie, she nods her head politely as her father introduces her to the officer. In this short, but important, exchange, we become acquainted with Willow only through her identity as a daughter and wife figure. This representation is reinforced at the very end of the scene where Willow, in her apron and perfectly combed hair, assumes the role of a nagging wife when she is shown to be serving Howie his dinner. With both fists pressed tightly against her hips, she hovers over the sitting officer and scolds him for not eating his food. “What’s the matter? Aren’t you hungry?” she exclaims.10 Complaining about his ‘disgusting’ food as he sits disapprovingly in his police uniform, Howie completes the stereotypical gender narrative in which the stay-at-home wife fails to prepare an edible dinner for her husband after a long day of work — suggesting a uselessness in women as she is unable to satisfy the hardworking male figure through cooking, something women are traditionally supposed to be good at. In this exchange, the gender roles of the island become abundantly clear. As indicated through Howie’s police uniform, men maintain their position as the heads of establishment and authority while women remain within traditional roles of daughters, wives, housekeepers, and nurturers. This representation of gender dynamics is highly conservative, particularly when understood within the context of 1973 Britain. As previously discussed, the early seventies signified a shift within the ways British women understood their role within oppressive patriarchal structures. Women were not only aware of this suppression in society, but actively working to combat it. The work of the Women's Liberation Movement in Britain focused on raising public consciousness around feminist issues, organizing ‘consciousness-raising’ groups “to provide supportive environments in which women could share their experiences of oppression… with many women realize[ing] how patriarchy extended into all areas of their lives”.11 These efforts suggests that British women of the early seventies were ready to break free from the limited opportunities traditionally presented to them — but The Wicker Man’s patriarchal introduction of Willow forwards a painfully conservative view on the role of women in society which refuses to acknowledge the progressive changes surrounding public consensus of femininity made at the time of the film’s release.


This sequence at the Green Man Inn also lends itself to a conservative reading when assessing the musical number that subsequently ensues within the framework of Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze. In her famous essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey identifies mainstream cinema as emerging from a patriarchal unconscious.12 This unconscious, Mulvery argues, positions men in film as active lookers and women as the object of their gaze.13 This gaze holds the power to objectify and oppress.14 In the performance of Landlord’s Daughter, Mulvey’s theory of the oppressive gaze manifests itself through the musical expressions of song and singing.15 In this performance, sound and voice assert the same control the theorist associates with eyes and looking. Although the song appears to be a celebration of Willow’s sexual liberation, the performance centers the male perspective. With Willow being never addressed by name and only referred to as the “landlord’s daughter” throughout the song, she is stripped of her individualism and personhood as she is solely recognized through her position in patriarchy and proximity to the authoritative male figure, her father.16 Singing about their erections, “And when her name is mentioned / The parts of every gentleman do stand up at attention” and her vagina, “Oh, nothing can delight so / As does the part that lies between / Her left toe / And her right toe”, Willow’s sexual agency and body are considered only through the lens of male gratification.17 In this account, we come to know the intimate details of Willow’s sexuality not through her own voice, but through the experiences of men. The lyrics become the mechanism of the gaze and the to-be-looked-at-ness is exhibited by Willow’s sexual allure. In this scene, we find that Willow becomes a rather superficial figure of the liberated woman as her supposed agency is not enough to free her from the confines of patriarchy and sexual identity does not exist independently of male pleasure.

While Freudian thought contends that men fear women out of the threat of being castrated, Barbara Creed’s work in The Monstrous-Feminine engages with the notion that men fear women not because she threatens castration, but because woman is not castrated.18 Free from the prospects of emasculation, the uncastrated woman, who is “physically whole, intact and in possession of all her sexual powers”, becomes the site of monstrous femininity.19 This theory of the sexually assured, whole woman manifests itself in the film’s second musical number. In Willow’s Song, Willow invites Howie, who is in the room adjacent to hers, over for an evening of sex. Singing the lines, “Please come, say how do / The things I’ll give to you / A stroke as gentle as a feather” Willow caresses her bare breasts.20 The fully naked young woman proceeds to maneuver confidently through her bedroom as she jumps from corner to corner pounding on the walls. With her head adorned by golden curls and a high tease hairstyle, the performance becomes a parade of her body and overt sexuality. This exhibitionistic display of the feminine can be understood within the framework of Mary-Ann Doane’s Film and the Masquerade. Doane argues that woman’s inability to fetishizeconstrains her to two options, choosing between the narcissistic over identification with the female image or the “‘hyperbolisation on of the accoutrements of femininity”.21 Masquerading femininity is, she contends, connected to the archetype of the femme fatale who is, “regarded by men as evil incarnate[d]”.22 Within this framework, Willow’s Song can be understood as forwarding a fear of the liberated woman. In exhibiting both a monstrous femininity and the characteristics of the femme fatale, Willow’s provocative display of her sexuality becomes a direct threat to Howie’s moral integrity. The screen repeatedly cuts to the officer as he uses every fiber of his being to resist the naked woman. Images of Willow pounding on the wall are immediately match cut to a sweaty, quivering Howie. In these moments, the once stern and collected authority figure becomes weak and puny. As the performance interrupts images of Howie praying and taking communion at mass, it symbolizes a corruption of purity, Christian morals, and establishment. Here the film falls victim to the conservative tendency to demonize sexually liberated women and frame their sexuality as being threatening to men. The walls that separate the two, the righteous virgin and the femme fatale who entices him with promises of sin and premarital sex, remind viewers of the ever-present threat to traditional values, mirroring the conservative fears around changing ideas of sex in early 1970s Britain. The thin physical barrier between Howie and Willow highlights the immediacy of the threat; the dirty, sinful youth are right outside your door, just waiting to corrupt you and your family.

Alternatively, we can explore how this same performance can bring about a progressive reading on the representation of the film’s female characters. In assessing Willow’s Song through the assertive powers of voice used to examine the performance of Landlord’s Daughter, we see how this musical number engages with the liberating acts of self naming and recognition. Reciting the lines, “I am here / Am I not young and fair?”, Willow asserts her presence as a conscious individual and sexual being.23 Stroking a hard, wooden statue, she waves her hands around and makes her way to the window. Here, she makes a tossing gesture as if to share the pleasures of the phallus with the audience. In this action, Willow fixates her gaze towards the camera, defying Laura Mulvey’s theory of women’s passivity in film.24 Willow’s self-assertive gaze also challenges another oppressive trope of the horror genre, one that punishes women’s active looking.25 Linda Williams theorizes that this active looking also takes place when women and monsters recognize each other, resulting in an unpleasurable acknowledgment of their Otherness within patriarchy.26 In this scene, there is no monster to chastise Willow for her display of sexual agency. With the opening lines of the song, “Hey ho / Who is there? / No-one but me, my dear”, she refuses to allow the notion of the monstrous to associate itself with her sexuality.27 This powerful declaration allows the character to break free from traditional narratives that aim to demonize sexually active women and instead forwards the image of a woman whose representation better aligns with the progressive efforts of the day. In this performance, she reclaims both her name and sexual agency which were taken from her during the film’s first musical number, Landlord’s Daughter.


This progressive reading continues when investigating the ways in which religion and femininity intersect within the film. While on his way to meet Lord Summerisle, Sergeant Howie witnesses a class of young girls performing a fertility ritual out on an open lawn. Surrounded by a circle of ancient stones, the young girls perform a ceremony of song and dance with the hopes of becoming fertile. Although the girls are fully naked, their nudity is not rooted in the pornographic, but in a different representation of the erotic as understood by Audre Lorde. In her essay, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, Lorde explores the erotic as a profound source of feminine power stored in women’s spiritual plane.28 Lorde discusses the erotic as manifesting the power to bring change in the fight against women’s oppression.29 Through this lens, the fertility ritual can be viewed as a radical act of female agency and resistance. In this scene, the ancient structure that surrounds the girls becomes symbolic of patriarchy as it represents rigidity, history, and the phallus. Yet, in spite of being confined within this restrictive structure, the girls have organized themselves in a circular formation which allows them the freedom to run and jump as they please. This physical reworking of the oppressive space manifests itself symbolically through the ritual itself. Through their spirituality, the girls are enabled to imagine an existence where they do not need a male figure to impregnate them and can instead become fertile through their own efforts of engaging with the divine. This powerful rejection of the biological and historical reliance on men becomes the ultimate assertion of resistance and empowerment. In this scene, the powers of the feminine erotic and paganism join forces to negotiate new forms of existence in defiance to patriachical boundaries. This reimagining of feminine possibility within patriarchal norms and boundaries can be seen to reflect marriage trends of early 1970s Britain. Through the changes permitted with the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, 1971 Britain experienced a soaring divorce rate.30 Although the reasons behind the high divorce rate vary, they can be viewed as a breaking free from the nuclear family and structures of patriarchy when examined within the context of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the nation’s shifting attitudes around the oppression of women in the 1970s. Within this lens, the scene becomes an empowering vision of the next generation of young women who are using their own feminine powers and agency to create resistance within oppressive systems and imagine new modes of independence.

As examined through this essay, The Wicker Man assumes an immensely ambivalent position when representing femininity. Its ideological stance on the issues of femininity and gender equality shift dramatically depending on the framework utilized to assess the film. The film’s introduction to Willow, the Landlord’s Daughter musical number, and the performance of Willow’s Song can all be viewed as forwarding a conservative narrative when viewed within a historical lens and the work of gender film theorists such as Laura Mulvery, Barbara Creed, and Mary-Ann Doane. Simultaneously, the film invites a progressive reading when viewing Willow’s Song and the portrayal of femininity in religion through the same theories outlined by Laura Mulvey and other feminist writers like Linda Williams and Audre Lorde. While the film does not fit perfectly within the binary categories of conservative or progressive, one thing is certain: it captures the spirit of social and cultural changes and unrest of Britain at the time of the film’s release. Contradictory and nuanced, The Wicker Man becomes a snapshot of the nation’s fears, anxieties, and hopes at the start of the seventies. Using the storytelling powers of horror, the film cements the angst and uncertainty felt during this turbulent era of the nation’s past.

Footnotes

1 The 70s, episode 2, “Doomwatch, 73-74,” directed by Mary Crisp, aired April 23 2012, on British Broadcasting Corporation Two, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01gvr25

2 James Vernon, Modern Britain: 1750 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 456.

3 Amy C. Whipple, “Speaking for Whom? The 1971 Festival of Light and the Search for the ‘Silent Majority,” Contemporary British History, no. 24 (2010): 1.

4 Amy C. Whipple, “Speaking for Whom? The 1971 Festival of Light and the Search for the ‘Silent Majority,” Contemporary British History, no. 24 (2010): 1.

5 Kenneth Morgan. “Britain in the Seventies – Our Unfinest Hour?” Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, no. 22 (2017): 13.

6 Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (London: Paladin, 1970), p. 4.

7 “Timeline of the Women's Liberation Movement,” The British Library, accessed November 12, 2019, https://www.bl.uk/sisterhood/timeline.

8 Ibid.

9 The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy (1973; British Lion Film Corporation).

10 Ibid.

11 James Vernon, Modern Britain: 1750 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 458.

12 Laura Mulvery, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Visual and Other Pleasures (1989), 57-68.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Laura Mulvery, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Visual and Other Pleasures (1989), 57-68.

16 The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy (1973; British Lion Film Corporation).

17 Ibid.

18 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1930, p. 6.

19 Ibid., p. 6.

20 The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy (1973; British Lion Film Corporation).

21 Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 82.

22 Ibid.

23 The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy (1973; British Lion Film Corporation).

24 Laura Mulvery, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Visual and Other Pleasures (1989), 57-68.

25 Linda Williams, "When the Woman Looks,” in Re-vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism (Los Angeles: University Publications of America, 1984), 53-64.

26 Ibid.

27 The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy (1973; British Lion Film Corporation).

28 Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Uses of the Erotic (Thousand Oaks, Kora Press, 1978), 87-91.

29 Ibid.

30 Kenneth Morgan. “Britain in the Seventies – Our Unfinest Hour?” Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, no. 22 (2017): 13.

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