Commentary Media

History Has Not Been Kind To “The Exorcist”

Amanda Marcotte

Author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty, who wrote "The Exorcist", is mad that Georgetown University isn't hateful enough towards women. This shouldn't be surprising, since he's the author of virulent anti-woman propaganda.

The war on women took a comically absurd turn on Friday, when it was reported that 85-year-old William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist and screenwriter for the film based on his book, is suing Georgetown University in church court for not being Catholic enough. He has a litany of complaints — about the University’s focus on diversity, the fact that it actually educates its students instead of pelting them with Catholic propaganda, and that it generally acts like a university instead of a monastery — but mostly he’s angry that the school isn’t misogynist enough. The “last straw,” according to Blatty, was allowing a pro-choice woman, Kathleen Sebelius, speak at the university, despite her belief that contraception is a basic part of health care, instead of Satan’s tool to distract the daughters of Eve from hating themselves for being sexual beings.

This entire turn shouldn’t be surprising. “The Exorcist” is a classic of backlash cinema, the Birth of a Nation of anti-feminism. It’s not just that the mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, is basically blamed by the movie for bringing these torments onto her daughter’s life by being a disobedient woman: sexual, single, working, agnostic. No, the movie is even worse than that. After all, horror films are usually about expressing widespread cultural anxieties through heavily symbolic scare tactics. In this movie, the most horrible evil imaginable is pretty clearly female sexual maturity. The symbolic puberty young Reagan endures turns her from an adorable — and asexual child — into a disgusting monster who spews fluids, pants, and does seemingly impossible things with her body. Just in case the grim view of the sexually mature female body isn’t obvious enough, we actually get to see Reagan masturbate with a cross. At that point, the message “female sexuality is Satanic” stops even being subtext and might as well be printed in subtitles across the screen.

Naturally, the heroes of “The Exorcist” are celibate priests, two of whom lose their lives in the battle against the symbolic forces of female sexuality. In fact, one of them is briefly infected with the demon, adding to the pile of deplorable themes the ancient notion that men are helpless victims of women’s seductive ways. More importantly, Reagan’s symbolic sexual maturity is shown as an all-consuming beast, destroying men and taking lives. Only until one priest sacrifices himself, in a Christ-like fashion, is Reagan cleansed of her “sin” of being a pubescent girl. Free of the demon, she grovels in the corner in her nightgown, the perfect emblem of where women belong in this universe.

Beyond its offensive misogyny, “The Exorcist” is also a piece of crap. The dialogue is laughable, the horrors comical, and the plot tiresome. Its weakness as a film is even more pronounced when you compare it to the plethora of genuinely scary and often sublime horror films that came out in era spanning from the late sixties to the early eighties: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Shining,”  “Halloween,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and the dizzying Italian horror works of Dario Argento. But even though “The Exorcist” couldn’t hold a candle to these other movies, it was a box office smash and the recipient of plenty of critical praise, earning 10 Oscar nominations, and a win for its woman-fearing screenwriter William Peter Blatty.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The amount of enthusiasm for such retrograde woman-hating garbage seems peculiar now, but the country in the seventies was in the throes of anxiety over women’s sexual and political liberation. It’s not a coincidence that a movie about the demonic nature of female sexuality drew so much attention in the same year that the Supreme Court, with Roe v. Wade, granted women the right to bodily autonomy. The notion that girls deserve all sorts of abuse and punishment for the “sin” of going through puberty sadly wasn’t restricted to the screen in Hollywood, either. After all, a mere four years after “The Exorcist” came out, Hollywood folded around director Roman Polanski to defend him, even though he raped a 13-year-old. The reasoning was basically that she had it coming. How dare she develop into a teenager! Nationwide, the backlash against feminism that “The Exorcist” represented turned into the first major second wave feminist loss, the end of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Of course, Blatty’s heyday of feeding sexist garbage to eager audiences was nearly 40 years ago. A lot has changed since then. Feminism has had its share of legal losses, but culturally, Blatty’s vision of sexually mature monsters who need to be strongly controlled by male-dominated religion has lost a lot of ground. The seventies era fear of independent-minded teenage girls has given way to the slogan “girl power.” Back then, co-education was still controversial. (Georgetown only started admitting female students generally in 1969, two years before The Exorcist was published.) Now women are getting the majority of college degrees, and academia has not, as feared, collapsed. In the early seventies, there wasn’t a single woman sitting on the Supreme Court or in the Presidential Cabinet. Now, while we’re still far short of parity, women holding those roles has become unremarkable. In fact, it would be more outrageous if there weren’t any women with those jobs.

William Peter Blatty is a perfect icon for what this newly reinvigorated war on women is all about: old, reactionary, out-of-touch, and throwing a temper tantrum because the world has rejected his view of women as inherently inferior, subversive, disgusting creatures. The old guard, represented by Blatty, has lost the ability to scare Americans with their dramatic stories of the horrors that await if women get the same rights as men to work outside the home, control their own bodies, and yes, be sexual creatures.

Not that we should be complacent. Reactionaries have enough power to do a lot of damage on their way out the door, as is demonstrated by the all-too-successful assaults on abortion and contraception access in various states across the country. It’s just important to see where this is all coming from, which is men like Blatty, who posited a theory many decades ago that women’s liberation would destroy us all, and are incredibly angry that their predictions didn’t come to pass. 

Commentary Media

Sexual Liberation Is for White Women, According to ‘Orange Is the New Black’

Justine Izah

The Netflix series has been praised by many as being "revolutionary" in its depictions of womanhood, but the show fails to offer its Black characters the sexual liberation that is typically only associated with white characters.

Justine Izah is a high school senior in Muncie, Indiana, and is one of Rewire’s youth voices.

Our society’s patriarchal gaze is rooted in the fulfillment of a man’s needs, whether emotional or physical, and completely overlooks or ignores a woman’s needs. There also is a certain stigmatization on women who opt for just as much attention as men. They’re called “needy” and “bossy,” while men demonstrating the same behavior or wants are described as being focused and in charge. However, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black flips the common narrative and instead focuses on the experiences of women who’ve seemingly rejected the expected traits that make a woman: submissive, quiet, and obedient.

It is ironic that a physical lockup of the women for their crimes allows a liberation of their bodies under other circumstances.

However, as revolutionary as OITNB is at showing the different lived experiences of women of many backgrounds with far less censorship than normal, the depiction of female sexuality is skewed toward whiteness and the Black and Latina characters are given less opportunity for sexual exploration, following in the tradition of the many shows that have come before it. OITNB fails to offer its Black characters the sexual liberation that is typically only associated with white characters. This is problematic because OITNB is perpetuating stereotypes in what is considered a safe environment (a “progressive” show) and these tropes are continuing to spread into the real world, as we’ve seen with two recent magazine covers featuring its characters.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

In the first three seasons of the show, the white inmates are given more sexual freedom while still being afforded all terms of fragility associated with white femininity. There’s a contradiction in the fact that fewer sexual encounters among the Black women on the show is considered acceptable by most viewers, while the white inmates do the exact opposite of what is considered “ladylike” and yet are perceived as the “good girls.”

Two of the main white characters, Piper Chapman and Galina “Red” Reznikov, in particular are treated as breakable objects. They are each given a pedestal of privilege of which they do not recognize or deny. Piper is often stuck in a cycle of self-pity and narcissism that allows her to dismiss the feelings of others while still remaining a favorite. And when Red—the redheaded Russian and “mom” to some of the white inmates—is booted from her position as head chef in the prison for smuggling, she eventually weasels her way back into the kitchen by the end of the third season. However, when Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox’s character, a Black trans woman) is physically attacked by way of transphobia, she is sent to solitary confinement while no action is taken to prevent this type of hate crime from occurring again. Unfortunately, the violent intersections of transphobia and racism come together to allow the victim to be punished like a perpetrator. And sadly, to the viewer, it almost comes as no surprise because of the often deadly treatment that transgender women of color face every day.

So far, in 2015, over ten transgender women of color have been brutally murdered. Investigations have been completely botched and victims have been misgendered after death, thus further denying their womanhood. The show has such a large audience and either is missing or denying this opportunity to educate its viewers on these issues by presenting an alternative narrative.

In general, the Black characters are treated as asexual mammies. In U.S. history, the mammy trope arrived during slavery when slave women were forced to take care of white babies while their own children were denied care. It continued well into the 1960s when Black women were maids and nannies for white children but did not have the time or money to raise their own children. Historically, Black women have always been bestowed the responsibility of taking care of other people’s children while simultaneously deemed not good enough to be treated like a human. The portrayal of mammies cannot be ignored because the desexualization of Black women and their apparent undying loyalty to the stabilization of white families sells (e.g. Madea, Big Momma, Aunt Jemima, and so on). The trope even has been used on our current first lady, Michelle Obama. Critics say she should give up her position as “Mom-in-Chief,” and start caring for all Americans. This while critics simultaneously deny her womanhood by calling her a man and “Moochelle.” Writer and television host Melissa Harris-Perry defended the first lady by stating that she “has buried mammy,” and that it is not technically the first lady’s job to take care of other people. The push for a mammy to solve everyone’s issues is still a stereotype that runs rampant. In season three of OITNB, viewers can even observe Taystee recognizing herself as the “mom” of her group.

Non-heterosexual relationships also are more common amongst white inmates in the show. There are many more lesbian relationships between white inmates than within the Black inmate population, and there are none in the Latina population.

There is historical context that comes to play when assigning sexual agency to characters, whether done consciously or not. Throughout history, Black female sexuality has been constantly suppressed in order to uplift white female sexuality as more demure and obedient. Black women and other minorities have been forced to hide their bodies and their hair—out of fear that it will distract the white man—repress their desire for sex, and take care of other people’s children while having their own snatched away. Minority women have had to endure being viewed as sexually insatiable animals on top of the exploitation that comes along with just being a person of color. So, it comes as no surprise when two white characters, Nicky Nichols and Big Boo, have a sex competition. If other races had participated, the competition would have been viewed as animalistic and uncivilized. For these two characters, it was seen as raunchy and as, “girls finally doing what guys do.” It is also no shock that when two Black characters, Taystee Jefferson and Poussey Washington, start to engage in any sexual activity, much less a homosexual relationship, it is ended before it starts. For three seasons, we have seen no sexual activity involving any Black characters that wasn’t placed in a flashback.

For many people within the Black community, the notion of a same-sex relationship between Black women only assures what others already assumed: It cements the idea that Black women possess more masculine qualities, provoking the use of slurs like “dyke” toward Black women in a systemically biased way. So, when observing Taystee’s rejection of Poussey’s advances, it is not surprising as it follows a narrative given throughout our history. Given the context of Black female sexuality, being perceived as gay by others or even by herself denies her Black womanhood.

The tropes cannot be ignored because, unfortunately, they are a reflection of reality. Black female sexuality is continuously suppressed, except for when it is exaggerated for the benefit of others’ sexual fulfillment. However, white female sexuality is allowed to develop because the white lesbian relationships that occur on the show continuously deny the existence of women of color who aren’t heterosexual. The relationships are a symbol of rebellion and fail to reflect that for some, being Latina and gay or Black and pansexual is what’s normal. White female lesbianism is not in the same category as white heterosexuality; however, it is still a common trope because it’s white and especially because the show’s main couple, Piper and Alex Vause, possess feminine qualities and are attractive by society’s standards.

Recently, several of the show’s stars have taken the cover of magazines. In the July issue of Essence magazine, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Vicky Jeudy, and Adrienne C. Moore donned the cover in all-orange ensembles. Their co-stars Laura Prepon and Taylor Schilling appeared on the cover of a June Rolling Stone. While both publications give access to the stories of and inspirations for women breaking glass ceilings, in ways that frankly will have greater appeal to their respective audiences, it is difficult not to create a juxtaposition between the two. The Essence cover features the Black women as matronly figures; it isn’t explicitly sexual. However, the two white stars on the Rolling Stones cover are striking a sexy pose. Taken together, the covers exhibit expected expressions of sexuality for these two groups. I am led to believe that white women are allowed to be openly sexual, while Black women must present themselves as respectable to be acknowledged as humans at all.

Essence is a magazine created for Black people—Black women specifically. Yet, in order to even exist in our own spaces, Black women must present ourselves in ways that hope to garner respect from others because of the historical perception of Black women.

Orange Is the New Black constantly pushes the idea that for women, sex matters too. There’s a reoccurring idea that women need to know about their own bodies and there should be no shame in doing so. Sophia Burset even goes as far as to educate the other inmates on the anatomy of their sexual organs with a diagram. The open conversations about female anatomy and sex even educate the audience, as the exploration of one’s female body is often shunned. The show is about women and certainly keeps the storyline focused on their voices.

However, the show and its writers still operate on maintaining many of the racial tropes often found in movies and on television. The writers have further separated people of color and allowed them and queer sexualities to be treated as completely non-intersecting facets. For white women, OITNB may serve as a groundbreaking narrative that they “don’t need men,” and can, “get things done,” but for women of color, it does nothing but perpetuate stereotypes that carry over into how we are treated in real life. Character developments in season three may have allowed viewers to see the women of color on the show as real people and not just Piper’s friends or enemies; however, the show can and should do more to break down stereotypes and reject these white supremacist narratives. Otherwise, the show is really only revolutionary for white women, while women of color remain as background characters to further plotlines.

Commentary Religion

On Abortion, Speech, and the Catholic Campus: Vatican Responds to Petition Against Georgetown

Erin Matson

A recent petition by William Peter Blatty—a Georgetown graduate who's best known for writing The Exorcist—is aimed at forcing the university to conform to a strict and exclusionary vision of Catholic identity, and it's been yellow-lighted by a Vatican representative.

In a move that could lead to repercussions felt far beyond a Washington hilltop, a Vatican official has lent credence to a petition started by William Peter Blatty—a Georgetown graduate who’s best known for writing The Exorcist—to force Georgetown University to conform to a strict and exclusionary vision of Catholic identity.

The petition, which has garnered about 2,000 signatures, suggests that the Vatican require Georgetown to implement the papal decree Ex Corde Ecclesiae. If not successful in addressing concerns, it calls for “the removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic or Jesuit in any of its representations.” The Vatican declined to do so, but still gave Blatty and his fellow hardliners a pat on the back. A letter from Archbishop Angelo Zani, who serves as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, referred to the petition as “a well-founded complaint.”

“Our Congregation is taking this issue seriously,” Zani wrote, “and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.”

Founded in 1789, Georgetown is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States. According to the school’s website, “Jesuits have played a significant role in the growth and evolution of Georgetown into a global research university deeply rooted in Catholic faith. … The ideals and principles that have characterized Jesuit education for over 450 years are central to Georgetown’s mission and character.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

So why does a group of hardline Catholics want to crack down on Georgetown? Well, outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius spoke to the students in 2012, angering those who see the Affordable Care Act’s emphasis on preventive care—and especially a requirement that says insurance companies can no longer discriminate against women by charging them additional copays for birth control—as morally equivalent to throwing flaming axes into a nursery.

What’s more, Blatty objected to students being able to choose from courses, including “Political Theology: The Case of Islam” or “Feminist Theology,” to fulfill the second half of Georgetown’s undergraduate theology requirement. And of course there is the matter of H*yas for Choice, an unofficial student group working toward increasing the availability of condoms on a campus that refuses to allow campus stores and medical facilities to sell them.

Rachel Pugh, director of media relations for the university, responded to the petition in an email to The Georgetown Voice. “Our Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger,” she said.

It’s purely ridiculous to suggest that Georgetown is not Catholic, and it’s offensive. Blatty’s petition is an attack on Georgetown University as a whole: its students, its faculty, its administrators, its alumni network, and the community it serves. It is an attack on academic freedom, religious pluralism, and the free exchange of ideas. It is an insult to the very Jesuit ideals of the university, and the many practicing Catholics on campus.

This Is Personal

Full disclosure: I am an alum of Georgetown University, and I have a dog in this fight. I am keenly aware of how the school’s discriminatory policies hurt its women students.

Back in the dark ages of 2002, I was on a university student health plan and a modest student budget. I needed to fork over a $110 copay to refill my birth control prescription at a drug store off campus, even though I was paying my full premiums with the expectation that my health-care needs would be covered. I count myself lucky that needing to scrimp on my grocery expenses was the only consequence.

In 2012, I expressed my anger and embarrassment in an open letter to university President John DeGioia that a law student with polycystic ovarian syndrome in similar circumstances couldn’t afford to continue refilling her contraception, leading to the growth of a cyst and ultimately having an ovary surgically removed. (Georgetown has since accepted the Obama administration’s accommodation for religiously affiliated institutions that refuse to pay for the coverage themselves, and began to include contraceptive coverage in its health plans in August 2013.)

I say this as someone with deep respect for the university’s heritage and traditions: Georgetown could do massive good for its students by adopting more common-sense approaches to its “pro-life” identity at the ground level. As evidenced by the existence of groups like Catholics for Choice and regular polling of Catholic people, the hardline approaches taken by the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church on matters of sexual morality are hardly representative of the whole.

Today I am an active and engaged alum, regularly returning to campus to mentor women students, judge student debates, and participate in panel discussions about leadership and nonprofit management at the career center. Recently, I gave a talk about the underrepresentation of women and politics and the media as part of Choice Week 2014, organized by H*yas for Choice. So when the Washington Post asks a source in its story about Blatty’s petition “how a Catholic school could satisfy Ex Corde if it hosts people and conversations supporting abortion rights,” it is clear we are, among other things, talking about an effort to exclude real people who give freely of their hearts, minds, and wallets to their beloved Georgetown community—including me.  

Not “Pro-Life” Enough?

In 1992, after much pressure from the Archbishop of Washington, and likely Rome, via a petition, then Dean of Students John DeGioia removed the university’s recognition of student-founded group GU Choice just one year after approving it. That decision led to the formation of the unofficial group H*yas for Choice as it continues today. Not being officially recognized means the group doesn’t receive tuition-backed student activities funds accessible to other groups and can’t use or rent tables, Laura Narefsky, a graduating senior and outgoing president of H*yas for Choice, told Rewire.

It also means that disclaimers abound. At my recent talk on the underrepresentation of women in politics and the media, Narefsky opened the session with: “The views and opinions expressed by members of H*yas for Choice are those of the individuals and our presence here and the fact that we are on the Georgetown University campus does not imply endorsement by Georgetown University or the Society of Jesus.”

That disclaimer has been around a long time, at least as long as the first meeting she attended as a first-year student in 2010. “As far as I am aware, that is not something other groups do,” Narefsky said.

Accessing space for events, meetings, and tabling is an issue, Narefsky told Rewire, noting that H*yas for Choice couldn’t use “the big lecture halls,” although a “Memorandum of Understanding: New Strategy for Speech and Expression Policy” released by the university on May 15 and obtained by Rewire says that “Classrooms and other Registrar spaces are places of dialogue and free exchange. The University will accommodate equally all students and student groups who wish to schedule an event or public meeting in classroom spaces subject to availability.” The review came after controversy earlier this year when campus police removed a table H*yas for Choice was using to distribute free condoms.

As for Blatty’s petition, Narefsky minimized its claims and support. When asked what she would say to those who allege that the campus has become intolerant toward people who hold “pro-life” views in accordance with church teachings, the emotion rose in her voice. “I would invite them very cordially to come and look at the crucifixes in every classroom and I would invite them to speak with the student body, which is more conservative [than many campuses],” she said. “I don’t believe the people who say Georgetown is hostile to pro-life values have ever set a foot on campus. It is blatantly untrue.” 

University Ideals, Vatican Hypocrisy

The Blatty petition, and the Vatican’s supportive acknowledgement of it, happens during a broader discussion about the role of free speech, and in particular controversial speakers, on campuses across the country. This commencement season, left-leaning students protested over the inclusion of various speakers, leading Condoleeza Rice to decline an invitation to Rutgers and Christine Lagarde to cancel at Smith, among others.

Liberal journalist Michelle Goldberg has criticized that tactic, telling Vox in an interview that “free speech and the free exchange of ideas and kind of open-ended intellectual inquiry – they’re values that are worth defending in and of themselves, full stop.” It is appropriate to see Blatty’s attack on Georgetown from the right in a similar vein, both against the general value of intellectual integrity and the specific aims of the school. Georgetown says on its website that “we provide students with a world-class learning experience focused on educating the whole person through exposure to different faiths, cultures and beliefs.”

How sad that Blatty and a small, vocal minority in the community aim to change that, and how hypocritical of a Vatican representative to give it any credence, especially when the Pope, a Jesuit, has urged the Catholic Church to focus more on the whole person and less on “small-minded rules.”