In the process, I read a lot about women in horror, and something that came up again and again was the controversy over rape-revenge films, like I Spit on Your Grave (1978 and its 2010 remake) or The Last House on the Left (1972 with a 2009 remake). There are maaany more, but those two films mark the real beginning of this trend in horror, which had its real heyday in the 70s (not coincidentally, the same time that 2nd Wave Feminism made its mark). Rape-revenge films seem to be making somewhat of a come back though. I Spit on Your Grave and the Last House on the Left both had recent remakes, and movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hard Candy, Kill Bill vol. 1, and Teeth can certainly be counted among those ranks. I Spit on Your Grave has the distinction of being the most well-known rape-revenge film, so I watched the remake the other night to try to finally put together some thoughts on a genre that I have, for the most part, tried to avoid.
The argument for rape-revenge films is that it is a fantasy of empowerment for women. This is basically the same argument for the Final Girl in slasher movies, except that the Final Girl's motivation for life comes after all her friends are brutally murdered by a psychopathic stalker, and the revenge-taker in rape-revenge films derives her motivation from earth-shattering, gratuitously violent rape or gang rape. The tables turn, and the rape-survivor goes on to meticulously murder and torture her rapists until she finally has her revenge. The director of the original ISOYG, Meir Zarchi, said that inspiration from the movie came from a time when he and his daughter came across a bleeding woman in Central Park, who had just been brutally assaulted. The girl was mistreated at the police station and never received justice. Zarchi wrote the movie as a re-imagining of the process, one in which the rape survivor gets her revenge.
I Spit on Your Grave is horrifying. The basic premise is that a novelist, Jennifer Hills, goes out to a cabin to write her novel in the woods. A band of hillbilly locals, aided by the local sheriff, disgruntled by her stuck-up city ways (aka existing), decide to rape her.
What is striking about the first assault, and then first rape scene is that Jennifer Hills does everything that women are told to do. She does it "right." I have taken a self-defense class and what she does during her assault is exactly what we're told to do in the case of rape. She asks them nicely to leave, she uses alternative distractions ("my boyfriend is coming," "I'll have a drink with you, and then please leave"), yells, screams, says "No," and eventually physically fights back. When made to perform fellatio on a bottle of vodka, she uses an opening when her assailant is distracted to hit him in the knees and run away.
When she's captured again and raped, she breaks free from being restrained and punches the rapist in the face. Later on, weakened from being raped several times, and tortured, Jennifer still tries to reach for a gun before it's kicked away. I haven't seen the original (which apparently holds or held a record for the longest rape scene in a movie), but I was not incredibly disturbed by the rape scenes, probably more of a testament to my own desensitization than anything else, but they were not any more scandalous or graphic or horrifying than rape scenes I have seen in other movies (I think the one in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes the cake for me). Ultimately, I think the rape scenes were unpleasant to watch, and for most people, I would bet that they'd feel the same way. The rapes are portrayed as awful, the rapists despicable, and are shot in a way that does not overtly sexualize the assaults.
Although in his 1980 review of the original, Roger Ebert shared this from his experience watching the movie in theaters:
How did the audience react to all of this? Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud, After the first rape: "That was a good one!" After the second: "That'll show her!" After the third: "I've seen some good ones, but this is the best." When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: "Cut him up, sister!" In several scenes, the other three men tried to force the retarded man to attack the girl. This inspired a lot of laughter and encouragement from the audience.As always, well-said, Ebert.
I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie's heroine. I wanted to ask If she'd been appalled by the movie's hour of rape scenes. As it was, at the film's end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.
Thought to be drowned in the river, Jennifer comes back and violently murders each of her rapists. These scenes were actually the most unpleasant to watch for me, because the torture is truly horrifying. While I did not feel sympathy for the characters being tortured, I really just felt uncomfortable watching the torture in the first place. I have avoided the "gore-porn" genre of horror movies completely (for example, Saw and all of its sequels) because that level of grossness, even knowing that it is simulated, is not something I want to watch. I closed my eyes several times during this last half of the movie, too disgusted to watch Jennifer enact her revenge.
I think the most upsetting thing about rape-revenge movies, for me (*and I have never been assaulted), is the idea that the fantasy of torturing and murdering rapists is an empowering fantasy. In this political climate, I think this is just an offensive notion. If we are counting movies like I Spit on Your Grave as empowering because the girl who gets brutally gang raped gets brutal revenge on all her rapists then this is some seriously messed up stuff.
When Enough (2002) came out, the same debate happened, albeit on a smaller scale. Jennifer Lopez's character, Slim, escapes an abusive relationship and goes on the run with her daughter. When Slim's "freedom" is threatened by her ex's psychopathic stalking, she goes on the offensive and Batman's her way to revenge. (Yeah, I used Batman as a verb.) The final showdown feature's Slim's careful planning, using technology and martial arts skills to get her true revenge on her ex-husband. This movie too, is sometimes described as an empowering depiction of a woman escaping domestic abuse to achieve her ultimate revenge fantasy.
The real "empowering fantasy" that we should see as a response to rape or domestic abuse is an actual appropriate response to violence. When rape survivors are still interrogated on their use of alcohol or drugs, or on the skimpiness of their clothes, or on the "legitimacy" of their rape, the fantasy we should imagine, and fight for, is a society that does not treat rape survivors with suspicion. When rape survivors in college are presented with a variable labyrinth of bureaucracy to file complaints against their rapists, get their cases lost, or Native American rape survivors find it nearly impossible to prosecute non-Native rapists, this improbable murder-revenge rampage isn't empowering. When the Violence Against Women Act is constantly under threat of being amended to be less effective, or eliminated altogether, these are the real struggles that victims of rape and abuse face. Rape-revenge films and domestic violence-revenge films accept the status quo, that the system doesn't work, and present women with the fantasy of murder following their traumatic experience. While certainly some survivors probably wish their assailants dead or maimed or diseased or something, rape-revenge films disguise the real problem, that violent, gender-based violence is common and ostensibly legal.
(**And this doesn't even begin to cover the issues surrounding male survivors of sexual abuse or rape, or trans*, LGBT, or gender non-conforming survivors either.)