“I'm Sorry for Trying to Strangle You and All:” Toxic Masculinity and Intimate Partner Violence in James Gunn's 'Slither'
Movie fans who aren’t into horror might know him for writing and directing Guardians of the Galaxy or for becoming the subject of a controversy surrounding a slew of shitty jokes...
...Like most horror hounds, though, I first heard of James Gunn when he birthed 2006’s Slither, a grotesque mashup of comedy and body horror that sees the entire populace of small town Wheelsy, South Carolina taken over by an army of alien slugs.
The film opens with a meteor flying through space and crashing into the woods of Wheelsy, a stand-in for every small, rural Southern burg. We’re quickly introduced to some of the faces around town, including local businessman Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), Grant’s wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks), and police chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion). Later that evening, Grant heads to the bar, angry that Starla isn’t in the mood for sex. While Grant’s plan might just be to sink a few rounds, he meets Brenda (Brenda James) and the two of them end up drunk in the woods. There, they stumble upon the meteor, which is actually some kind of strange alien egg-like capsule. When Grant gets closer to investigate, a creature shoots out of the egg and into his chest. We see the creature move through his body and hook onto his brain. From then on, Grant’s body is taken over by an ancient alien hive-mind that uses slugs to infect and take over the bodies of its prey. Starla, Bill, and the remaining survivors are left to find out what’s happening and how to stop it.
Much of Slither’s horror works through body horror, with Grant and the other infected townsfolk showing signs of rashes, sores, bloating and distension in various body parts. We’re even treated to ripping and tearing flesh that’s squirming with extraterrestrial gastropods. But there’s something uglier happening in Slither than conservative Americans being body-snatched by alien invaders. Squirming beneath the story are monsters all too familiar in the average American home: toxic masculinity, misogyny, and intimate partner abuse. It brings the reality of these problems to the fore and asks those of us watching to examine how we might contribute to their existence.
While every man in Slither could be used as example of one or more of these pernicious traits, no character better exemplifies all three than Grant Grant himself. From the first time Grant is introduced, it’s made clear that he’s a toxic partner. Grant pulls Starla away from a conversation she’s having with a male colleague at the school where she teaches. Starla brags to Grant that her coworker wants to borrow one of her lesson plans, but rather than praising her, Grant responds, “Oh, I know what he wants to borrow, and I ain't lending.” Grant’s jealousy, insecurity, and need to control his wife are put on display early on as a clue to how his character will develop. If this were the only instance, it might be possible to brush off Grant’s issues, but, like with most toxic people, it’s only the first of many red flags.
We are quickly given another example of Grant’s ingrained misogyny later that evening when he and Starla are in bed. Grant tries to initiate intercourse, but Starla tells him she’s not in the mood. Rather than accepting her answer, he keeps pushing her for sex, and eventually verbally lashes out at her and leaves for the bar to “blow off some steam.” His reaction to Starla’s refusal, in combination with his obvious jealousy and the control he exerts over his wife, further goes to show that Grant is the kind of man who sees women as sex objects and believes they should be subservient to their male partners, following the traditional misogynistic mindset that our culture has spent the last few decades challenging.
As the film continues, especially after he’s been taken over by the unnamed alien creature, Grant increases the violence directed towards Starla. He becomes both emotionally and physically violent, mirroring the longer timeline of real toxic relationships, in which the controlling partner often grows more and more dangerous over time. Grant ends up attacking Starla, which makes her flee their home. From then on, Grant makes it his mission to take over the town, and then the rest of the world, and bring Starla home to him. During all this, Grant’s character embodies the typical abuser even further by gaslighting Starla; he does his best to convince her that she’s the one who made the mistake, that he really does love her, and that he just wants to protect her, never admitting that he’s been physically and emotionally abusive.
Even Grant’s physical manifestation grows more grotesque as his toxic traits become more visible—his outer appearance matching who he is on the inside. He simultaneously becomes more dangerous and obsessive over Starla and more monstrous. Early in his parasitic infection, Grant only shows signs of a rash, but he resembles a human less and less as the film goes on, instead becoming an ever-growing, swollen, and amorphous blob that looks like it came straight out of Society. In case you didn’t pick it up through Grant’s personality and actions, Gunn makes sure you can see how awful the character really is.
It’s even possible to draw a connection between toxic personality traits and the method of infection. To exert even more control over their partners, abusers will attempt to gain the support of their friends and community, either by just acting decently around members of the community or spreading rumors about their partners. They try to get everyone on their side. Rather than using these traditional routes, Grant opts for an easier one, instead using brain worms that allow him to control the rest of the town. After all, they can’t be on Starla’s side if they can’t think for themselves.
There’s also something to be said for Gunn’s visual representation of how Grant infects others. Grant planting his eggs into Brenda comes off as sexual assault, and the slugs enter their victims’ bodies through their mouths, akin to oral rape. It’s no wonder that the longest scenes of infection feature women, as Gunn is further cementing Grant’s hatred and abuse of them.
While Grant is the typical abusive partner and misogynist, there are examples of better men in the film; one of these is Bill Pardy. Bill respects Starla’s autonomy and realizes that she’s capable of making her own choices and taking care of herself; he says as much. But even Bill has room for growth. Though he may treat women with more respect than Grant, he still has shreds of toxic masculinity ingrained in him, as is evident when he asks Kylie (Tania Saulnier) to tell everyone that he saved her, though it was the other way around. Even Bill is unwilling to publicly admit the smallest weakness. While Grant is the typical abuser, Bill serves as a reminder that no matter how good you are, there’s always more work to be done.
Despite being peppered with comedic gags, Slither has some slippery messages beneath its slimy surface. It asks us to examine our relationships with each other, but especially the relationships that men have with women, and calls on us to recognize and fight against those who would do harm under the pretense of love. And even 15 years after Slither was released, it’s a message that many of us still need to hear.
By Tim Beirne
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