The novel of Carrie is about feminism and fear of women’s power. That’s not a wild take. That’s what Stephen King says. The movie even more than the book is set in women’s worlds. Pass Bechdel? This movie slams it into the ground—most people, I think, can name at most two male characters from it. The only scene I can think of without any women is when the men are trying on tuxes. I suppose there’s also the one where one of the boys arranges to be in charge of Prom King and Queen voting, but that’s it. And even there, they are enacting revenge on behalf of one of the women.
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is her school’s token outcast. She is skinny, so pale as to be essentially transparent, awkward. One day, she is showering after gym class, and she discovers she is bleeding. From inside. She is terrified, because bleeding is a sign of injury, and what could be injured inside? And when she begs for help, she is shamed. Humiliated, in fact, as the other girls start chanting and throwing things at her. She can’t understand it, and she can’t understand why they won’t just help her.
This is where the film starts—with the shaming of menstruation. Carrie is, to me, a story that would not happen this way in a world where people had proper health education. It all comes to a head the way it does because Carrie does not know what’s happening to her. And honestly because the blood of menstruation is thought of as something dark and secret and shameful; see how Mr. Morton (Stefan Gierasch) flinches away from the blood on those white shorts Miss Collins (Berry Buckley) is wearing. I’m not a huge fan of the filming of this movie, but that’s a good moment.
And of course Margaret White (Piper Laurie) shames pretty well everything about sex, sexuality, and the human body. “Dirty pillows,” ye Gods. By not having the dress be red, the way it was in the book, we are able to achieve a more notable visual effect than it would be, but we miss another piece of Margaret’s madness. Red is shameful and wicked because it is representative of sex. Carrie was conceived in a drunken moment of passion on her father’s behalf, and that is Margaret’s shame—as is the fact that she found the sex enjoyable. If she were not shamed for it, if she had been able to give and receive pleasure in her body, things would have been very different indeed.
Because the secret, which I think both King and De Palma know, is that women are supposed to be ashamed of their bodies, and that men fear women with confidence in it. That’s part of the reason for the feminist backlash that was happening at the time; women were willing to be in control of their own sexualities, and men feared losing control of their own because of it. If women are in control of themselves, they are no longer property, and men might have to start taking them seriously. If slut-shaming doesn’t work anymore, and shaming women for being “frigid” doesn’t work anymore, how do you control women?
Which brings us, I suppose, to the shower scene at the beginning. And, yes, the camera certainly does linger. I won’t deny that the whole scene is shot rather in the style of a ’70s soft-core porn movie. The women cheerfully shower and tease each other and basically gad about in the nude. And I won’t deny that the camera lingers, either, in a way that’s slightly male gazey. That said, it does serve the legitimate purpose of separating Carrie yet again from her classmates. It is 1976, and they are young women confident in their bodies and their sexualities. Carrie . . . is not even entirely aware that sexuality exists.
At the same time, the shower is perhaps the greatest moment of Carrie’s own sensuality. In the shower, no one is shaming her. She is clean, after all of her mother’s shaming about things’ being dirty. She is alone inside her own thoughts; she can’t screw up showering and be taunted for it. She is young and healthy, and she possesses a body that works. That time in the shower is her best time, and we see her revel in it before it is all shattered for her. We need to see it in order to truly understand Carrie White.
I don’t much like the filming of this movie, as I said before. I feel as though De Palma leans too much on camera tricks. The “they’re all going to laugh at you” flashback is particularly bad, and I’m grateful that De Palma cut down on the split screen stuff at the end, because even as much as there is feels hokey. But I will say that De Palma understands its young women at least as much as the book does—and we know, of course, that Tabitha King was so interested in the story that she agreed to help her husband write it. Specifically by helping him get the women in it right. Stephen King—so unknown at the time that the trailer credited him as Steven—has long had admiration for the powers of at least one woman, anyway.