Welcome back to ‘Made To Be Monsters’, the series where I talk in-depth about my favorite films and why I think they’re secretly about the transsexual/queer experience. Remember: I am not trying to argue for the genuine, intended text of these films, and this is all in good fun.
Part one can be found here.
Karen Walton, the writer of the 2000’s film Ginger Snaps, has always been vocal about the fact that her movie is about the relationship between two sisters. It is about the specific pain that women go through when they reach the age of puberty, as well as what happens when a relationship simply falls apart. When sisters outgrow their childhood relationship. Underneath the blood and horror, it’s all about relationships: relationships with people, your loved ones, and the relationship one has with oneself.
In the years since the film’s release, Ginger Snaps has been reevaluated numerous times as one of horror’s great feminist films; its influence can still be seen in recent films, both mainstream ones like Jennifer’s Body and more obscure titles like WolfCop. It marks perhaps the last great werewolf film to feature entirely practical effects. It was the first mainstream horror film to focus specifically on female werewolves. In nearly every aspect, Ginger Snaps is a unique milestone in horror and in feminist studies of the genre. You cannot talk about the film without mentioning its roots in womanhood.
But through its examination of things like the period and visible femininity as socially unacceptable and monstrous, Ginger Snaps is not a movie only relatable to cisgender women. Its depictions of bodily betrayal echo descriptions of dysphoria experienced by transgender people; both Brigitte and Ginger can be read as relatively accurate portrayals of what it is like to be transgender in a society that holds rigid gender binaries as the law of the land. As much as it is a film about sisterhood, Ginger Snaps is also a film about what happens when your body becomes ‘other’ — and how that otherness informs the world around you.
In what minimal writing there is on the transgender subtext of Ginger Snaps, it usually focuses solely on Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), whose transformation is the focal point of the film. After being bitten by a werewolf, Ginger slowly transforms from woman to wolf, and it is up to her younger sister, Brigitte (Emily Perkins), to attempt to find a cure and to hide the rising body count left in her sister’s wake. It is Ginger who undergoes the body horror and the physical transformation that is so often associated with transgender coding. So reading Ginger as transgender is not the “easy” reading, but it is the most common. Her arc is about the trauma of puberty, and that can also be expanded upon to be about the trauma of the wrong puberty.
In these discussions of Ginger’s coding, Brigitte doesn’t come up very much. Which is interesting to me, if for no other reason than Brigitte’s seemingly perfect construction as a transmasculine character. Brigitte- who frequently goes by ‘B’- has just as much transgender coding as Ginger, at least specifically in my experience of transness and navigating high school as a closeted trans person. So while Brigitte and Ginger have equal amounts of transgender coding, I’m going to be focused primarily on covering Brigitte’s perspective.
From the start, both Ginger and Brigitte are about as far out on the fringe as one can get in a small town environment. Two teen girls with complete and total rejection of traditional femininity, who spend all of their time fantasizing about death — their own, and that of those around them. Their necklaces are adorned with bird skulls, pens in the plasticky shape of bones. And their rejection of femininity and womanhood is highlighted by their complete lack of a menstrual cycle, despite both girls being well past the age where one should’ve started. While Ginger’s period eventually kickstarts the plot, Brigitte’s never comes.
(And for simplicity’s sake, we’re only talking about the first Ginger Snaps. I certainly have my complicated thoughts on the two sequels, but at their base level, they completely throw out all the thematic storytelling of the first movie and don’t lend themselves to what I’m trying to explain here.)
Now, the period is a well-established catalyst for women gaining power in horror, most famously in Carrie. A period is a very easy, visual way to indicate “woman”. This has an interesting way of spilling over into transgender coding, as transgender people across the spectrum are often ignored or vilified in conversations about menstruating. Remember J.K Rowling’s meltdown over the phrase “people who menstruate”? It’s an age-old attempt to villainize trans women while also seeking to deny manhood to trans men. And non binary people are usually ignored entirely in conversations like this, regardless of whether or not they have a menstrual cycle at all. Periods are still viewed as a symbol of the biological woman, and it marginalizes transgender people on all ends of the gender spectrum as a result.
Ginger Snaps ties Ginger’s period together with the night of the werewolf attack. It literalizes the way a period often symbolizes the permanent change from girl to woman. But it also suggests that a period is a type of violence forced upon women. There are many ways to further interpret that (Walton’s original intent was likely commentary on how female puberty is violence and is therefore traumatizing to young girls), but the most interesting one for me is how it literalizes the violence of forceful change for trans people in particular. Puberty is often an incredibly traumatic time for transgender children, whether or not they are consciously aware of their transness or not. Your body changes in a way that you never expected it to, or that you prayed it wouldn’t. There’s nothing you can do to stop it; you’re trapped, powerless, watching your body mutate and transform in horrible ways.
The decision to not give Brigitte a period was an intentional one; it properly alienates her from Ginger, and, as the werewolf is the metaphor here for puberty and female adulthood, Brigitte has to remain somewhat ‘childlike’ to contrast Ginger’s newfound sexuality and femininity. But there’s also a different and more simple explanation that I prefer: Brigitte is just not a woman in the same way that Ginger is.
While Ginger hits all of the beats for typical womanhood and, to a degree, comes to enjoy them, Brigitte consciously avoids them. Brigitte is shapeless, formless, constantly hiding under her hair and under layers of clothes. She vocally loathes the mere concept of womanhood. Even Brigitte’s hair- a wig that had to be worn as the result of an ill-timed haircut- lends a specific, artificial look to the character. Ginger’s long hair is real, Brigitte’s is fake; as if she has to appear just as feminine as her sister in order to live life normally in their small town.
Together, Brigitte and Ginger are two equally engaging transgender figures. Ginger undergoes a prolonged, horrifying transformation that she must try to hide from her parents and that wrecks havoc on her emotionally. Brigitte is thusly terrified of going through the same puberty that Ginger is going through, and decides that she will find a way to put Ginger back to ‘normal’. Womanhood is a monstrous thing, something that the sisters are equally horrified of and yet fascinated by. In particular regards to Brigitte’s arc, Perkins has commented that Brigitte’s adolescence is more of a performance, “because she’s someone who hasn’t found herself yet”. Whether or not you view these characters as transmasculine or transfeminine symbols seems to be a matter of personal preference, but the important thing is their ‘other’-ness that separates them from the other women of the film. No matter what they are, they’re different. And that’s enough.
Viewing Brigitte as a transmasculine character as I do leaves you with several options in how you view Ginger’s character. And my own reading of her varies from day to day. But instead of her being exclusively a transmasculine or transfeminine character, my particular reading of her here boils down to something more symbolic. If Brigitte is transgender (or at least trans-adjacent), then Ginger evolves into a representation of womanhood, and all that entails and represents. And if Ginger is that representation, then Brigitte’s journey to try and cure Ginger’s lycanthropic condition is less literal. It instead becomes Brigitte’s desire to avoid a typical female puberty and a desire to save her sister from it as well. Ginger goes through the violence and pain of a typical female puberty, and Brigitte decides that she would rather die than go through that herself. Womanhood becomes something that Brigitte could be “infected” by and that she must protect herself from, something that hurts everyone that Ginger comes into contact with.
This metaphor of loss and violence via femininity exists throughout the film: when Ginger is in the long and agonizing process of transforming, she attacks and subsequently kills almost every person who threatens her, or who so much as try to help Brigette. Both the men who sexualize them and the girls who bully them are systematically and intentionally targeted.
There is a scene towards the end of the film where this metaphor emotionally peaks: as Brigette intentionally infects herself with Ginger’s blood, she tells her “you wrecked everything for me that isn’t about you”. Unable to live with it, unable to live without it. Slowly poisoning everything in one’s life with bitterness, turning every relationship into a jealousy-fueled competition. Womanhood is poison to Brigette’s life, whether or not you want to argue if the poison is womanhood itself or merely society’s enforcement of it. Her only way to stop it is an injection that may serve to harm her and her loved ones, but that she will ultimately die without.
I really enjoy Ginger’s response to Brigitte, as well: “I know you are. But what am I?” Until the events of the film, Brigitte had spent her entire life in Ginger’s shadow. Then, because of Ginger’s transformation, Brigitte’s attempts to carve out a life and personality of her own are thwarted by Ginger, who views Brigitte’s autonomy as a betrayal of their relationship. Who are either of these characters outside of each other? Where does one begin and one end? I think the only answer, at least in the context of this reading, is that one cannot exist without the other. The relationship may be toxic, yes, but to try and untangle these two forces would only result in the destruction of both.
The cure being administered via syringe is, yes, another unintentionally coded aspect of the film. It is presented as dangerous, as all methods of HRT are presented to be; as Sam (Kris Lemche) hands over the cure to Brigitte, he warns her that she “may kill [Ginger] trying to save her”. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the wolfsbane in Ginger Snaps is meant to literally represent estrogen or testosterone, but I think it does portray the black-and-white thinking that a lot of people come at medical transition with. If you don’t take it, you’re pretty much doomed to your fate of horrific transformation; if you do take it, you still run a very real risk of pain and death onto yourself (though in the real world, hormone shots do not kill you; people kill you).
But Brigitte doesn’t want Ginger dead, literally or metaphorically; she just wants her back to “normal”. She wants her sister to return from sexuality and overt femininity so that they can continue to live in their own world, devoid of gender and sex and typical normality. It’s an almost childlike desire for a return to innocence before trauma, a drive that serves to make the ending even more impactfully tragic.
It is Brigette’s total intention to save her sister rather than kill her, but in the end, she has no third option. Either she kills Ginger, or Ginger- who has by now totally and irreversibly transformed into her werewolf state- kills her; and Brigitte’s final words of the film are “I am not dying in this room with you!”. Instead of the syringe with the cure, Ginger gets the knife, and the feminine symbol dies. This ending under the intended reading of the film is tragic enough; it’s the suggestion that women cannot exist without violence being inflicted upon them, and that they cannot liberate themselves without being killed for their insubordination. Factor in the transgender reading, and this ending additionally takes on acknowledgement of the real life tragedy of so many trans people. Ginger dies not for being female, but for specifically being a female when perhaps she was not meant to be; she dies as a result of severe trauma brought about by changes she was never meant to go through.
Beyond horror, the story of Ginger and Brigitte is a tragedy. It is the story of two girls dragged kicking and screaming into a world of sex and violence and death. Forced into bodies that were not their own, all while the adults around them assured them that this was all normal; their mother’s statement that “[Brigitte’s] turn is coming too, one day” is far more sinister than it is reassuring. In this world, womanhood is not a gender, it is a normalized threat. And whether or not you are born into it or hope to be reborn into it, you will face danger in attempting to navigate the world as a person tied to visible femininity. Everybody faces the same fear, everybody has the same choice to make between a knife and a syringe.
And it is up to you whether you kill your monster, or if you save your sister.