Bites and Binaries: Traversing Gender in Ginger Snaps (2000)
“Can this happen to a normal woman?” asks an ad playing over the Fitzgerald sisters’ bedroom TV. Their candlelit room centers two beds beside one another, the clinical metal frames personalized with hanging beads and purple tie-dye blankets. Photographs cover the wall between them. It ranks among the eccentric pantheon of the millennium’s teenage bedrooms in cinema. And it’s where Brigitte Fitzgerald cradles her older sister—a fully transformed werewolf—as she bleeds out. Can this happen to a normal woman?
Ginger Snaps (2000) and werewolf stories like it make visible and visceral an endless cycle of change, a steady tug and pull between genders. Werewolves are not one thing or the other. They never settle; their bodies are malleable. In Ginger Snaps, Ginger Fitzgerald transforms from an androgynous adolescent into a woman and werewolf. She tells Brigitte she “got the curse” of menstruation, a motif that mirrors her wolfish transformation throughout the film. The conflation of menstruation with monstrosity borrows from stock framework; puberty, especially that of girls, has been rehashed throughout the history of horror cinema from The Exorcist to Carrie to It. Werewolves, however, present a stickier transformation than your average pubescence. Ginger becomes gendered, but wrongly so. Though critics can assuredly relate Ginger Snaps’s feminist themes to the constraints of womanhood—“No one ever thinks chicks do shit like this,” Ginger says fiercely, “Trust me, a girl can only be a slut, bitch, tease, or the virgin next door.”—the film furthermore considers Ginger’s transformation a freakish development, a queering. Brigitte worries, “Something’s wrong. Like, more than you just being… female.” Its very premise throws into question the stability of gender. In becoming a werewolf, Ginger traverses gender and slips across binaries. For all the abundance of male werewolves, creature features remind us that these are not men, nor are they really women in rare gems like Ginger Snaps. They are something else entirely.
There is something out there, attacking the dogs in Ginger Snaps’s town of Bailey Downs. It drags Ginger into the woods. Her legs whirl helplessly and her hands grasp for her sister as the lycanthrope rips into her. It is the start of her transformation.
I discovered Ginger Snaps a few years after it hit theaters in 2000. The yawning fields and clusters of suburbia in Bailey Downs were a pitch perfect imitation of my own corner of the Midwest. I could have even taken my grungey fashion cues from the Fitzgerald sisters. From that first night, the Family Video DVD slipped into my laptop, Ginger Fitzgerald’s trembling voice enthralled me, “It feels so… good. Brigitte … It—It’s like touching yourself. You know every move. Right on the fucking dot. And after… you see fucking fireworks. Supernovas. I’m a goddamn force of nature. I feel like I could do just about anything.” The fluorescents flickering in the sisters’ school hallway. The pink light swimming across her face. Ginger, seduced by herself.
Although Brigitte falls back in fear at Ginger’s bloody mouth and clawed nails, I was entranced. I have always considered this scene the film’s climax despite the remaining thirty minutes. The following action-packed sequence of Ginger’s full-body transformation and subsequent chase certainly excites, but doesn’t thrill me like her monologue. Among the many werewolf films since the first in 1913, Ginger stands apart. At this peak of human-wolf hybridity, she thoroughly understands herself. Not all of herself is good, but, as I watched Ginger curl her long-nailed hand in and smile savagely, I didn’t think that was a problem. She was so free. Many werewolf films I’ve watched since highlight the fear of the hidden self or examine the pain of monstrosity without the pleasure. They certainly don’t consider it through the lens of teenage girlhood.
Lycanthropy in Ginger Snaps is a powerful embodiment of the self—all of it, not just the refined parts. As many werewolf movies take pain to demonstrate, the harrowing transformation troubles the body even as the moon wanes. I am most engrossed with depictions of werewolves whose lycanthropy is noticeable throughout the moon’s cycle: the thickening of hair in strange places, the pale bolts of healed wounds across faces and limbs, a slight stagger to their gait. Signs that the “human” and wolf are one in the same, that the body is not static. In Ginger Snaps, lycanthropes develop over the course of a month from the first bite. In addition to physical pubescent developments, Ginger’s transformation makes her violent and vengeful. She is willing to act and desire in ways she wouldn’t as a human. As her body becomes more feminine (and more wolfish), her desires become overt. She simultaneously shifts into a predator who reverses gender roles in sexual encounters and has a brief attraction to her eviscerated female bully that she quickly covers with performed disgust. “Think she’s pretty?” Ginger wonders aloud, crowding over Trina’s body. This is not your normal transformation into adult cisheteronormativity. The werewolf, as a species, doesn’t evolve into the next stage of life like a child becoming an adult; it unmoors itself entirely from human structures. Though Ginger’s femininity and (tentative) heterosexual libido escalates, her lycanthropy is a queering in its foundation.
Clemence Housman’s 1896 novella The Were-Wolf, which I discussed in this series’s last installment, draws a fascinating thread from its androgynous female werewolf to the Fitzgerald sisters of the new millennium. Though Ginger Snaps and The Were-Wolf came into the world a century apart, both expose the confinement of traditional womanhood and portray a sexually robust werewolf who thrills in her desires. When we pay closer attention to the many possibilities of gender within such werewolf stories, we may further acknowledge their unique ability to demonstrate embodiments beyond the gender binary.
At once emphasizing the horror of womanhood, Ginger Snaps explores the fluidity of gender through Ginger’s lycanthropy and her status as outcast alongside Brigitte. At the start of the film, it is clear that Ginger and Brigitte’s androgyny and disinterest in boys characterize their ostracization. Throughout the film, Brigitte remains an androgynous pre-pubescent teen, but there is an inevitability to her fear of becoming gendered: she will get her period sooner rather than later, she will change into a woman in the eyes of society, she will be forced to deal with sexuality and gender under her peers’ gaze. Ginger Snaps, however, offers another possibility: lycanthropy. A queering. The transformation gone “wrong.” Given the bite she receives from Ginger at the end of the film, audiences know Brigitte will change too. But, like Ginger, her own transformation will be wrong. Like more than just being female. With both Ginger and Brigitte at the forefront, there is a sense of fluidity in the gendered experiences the film confronts on different, sliding points of a spectrum.
Ginger Snaps culminates in Ginger’s full-body transformation into the wolf on the full moon. Unable to cure her sister, the last shots linger on Brigitte, bitten, holding Ginger. Although Brigitte says earlier that she’d “rather be dead than what you are,” her decision to both let Ginger live and to stay with her sister is significant not only because she privileges her relationship with her sister but also for its movement toward queerness. Rather than rush off to find another cure for herself, to return to normalcy and the non-monstrous, Brigitte accepts her “wrong” change, whatever it may bring. Much of the history of werewolves is tragic or punitive: accounts of “real” lycanthropes often end in execution, whereas pre-twentieth century literature likewise eliminates its monsters. Kill the werewolf, return to status quo. As in many queer-coded horror films, allegorical queerness is what makes a monster a monster. Werewolves are no exception; the werewolf’s death that commonly concludes literature and cinema cannot be said to be a coincidence. But Ginger Snaps ultimately holds the sisters’ relationship in painful stasis, unwilling to soothe its audience with the knowledge of what happens next. This lack of relief is more powerful than confirmation of death or any other conclusion the film could provide. Its intimation that the sisters will live or die together as werewolves is a poetic version of their suicide pact, “Out by sixteen or dead on the scene, but together forever.” Their pact—and thus the end of the film—is more than a morbid fantasy realized; it’s a declaration of outcast pride. Brigitte and Ginger do not bemoan their status as weirdos. They embrace it.
Werewolves don’t begin as werewolves, but they always end that way. At some point, there is a bite—a shockwave to the system. No going back. Normativity is a losing game, a promised cure that you’ll never get and, in the end, hopefully never want.
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Join me in the next installment of Queer Moon Rising on Stephen Graham Jones’s 2016 novel Mongrels.
Marisa Mercurio (she/her or they/them) is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD student, she studies intersections of gender, sexuality, and empire in nineteenth century British literature; female detective fiction; horror and the Gothic. Marisa is also the co-creator and co-host of the However Improbable podcast, a Sherlock Holmes book club that narrates and discusses the great detective. Her writing has recently appeared in Sublime Horror. You can find her on Twitter @marmercurio and on WordPress.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020 from a pitch emailed to the editor following a brief discussion on Twitter. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly and genre fiction review networks, and the author has written for the editor and ARB previously. No review copy was arranged by ARB.