I’ve talked about my feelings towards rape revenge films in previous posts (Revenge, The Perfection). It’s not a genre I’m exactly well-versed in since sexual assault and rape is something that I can’t really handle in film. There are exceptions (such as the posts I linked above), but overall it’s a genre I try to avoid. Recently, my sister watched I Spit on Your Grave which she thought I had recommended to her.
I can assure you, I never recommended I Spit on Your Grave.
I’ve never even seen I Spit on Your Grave.
I remember so vividly being in Family Video (which shout out to FV for holding on through all the streaming services, honestly) and seeing the cover of I Spit on Your Grave and having a gut reaction to it. If you’re unfamiliar let me paint you a word picture: a woman stands with her back to the camera, wearing a ripped and dirty t-shirt that is falling off one shoulder. She is not wearing anything on her bottom half aside from underwear which expose half her butt cheeks. We see only a quarter of the bottom half of her profile, and she holds a butcher knife with blood dripping off the blade. (You can also Google it if my word picture isn’t clear enough)
Even if you needed to head to Google for a clear idea of what this poster looks like, I hope that you at least were able to understand the issues with just that poster. The woman’s face is not even part of it. The primary focal point of the photo is her ass. The bloody knife is only there to let you know that at some point she will get inflict a little bit of pain. However, compare that to the Revenge poster. Let me paint another word picture: a young woman pointing a gun directly at the camera. She’s dirty, yes, and looks like she’s been through a lot…but she is not an object. She is the powerhouse of the picture, demanding all the attention and sending a pretty clear message that she is here to mess you up.
I don’t want to sit here and pit two films against each other. There are many people who love I Spit on Your Grave and I’m sure would argue that it, too, is a feminist revenge saga…but is it?
I know you’re probably wondering how on earth I can sit here and talk about rape revenge if I’ve seen such a small amount of the content out there, but rape in horror isn’t exclusive to just rape revenge films. There is a lot of sexual assault used in horror films, particularly the slasher/killer genres.
I’ve never liked to watch any media where rape is a major factor. There are films where rape is a side factor, or a backstory, but either isn’t on screen at all, or is done in a way that doesn’t make you feel gross. I’ve read the full synopsis of many movies to decide whether I can stomach the assault…with movies like I Spit on Your Grave or The Last House on the Left I have decided that I don’t want to put myself through the anxiety and the stomach ache just for a movie.
Basically I just want to address the issue with women and horror.
I’ve volleyed back and forth between whether or not horror is actually a feminist overall, or if it really is a female hating genre. I’ve done research, written papers, and presented paper at the Pop Culture Association 2019 conference all about women and their place in horror. So let me do some breaking down of my findings, my thoughts, and how those are contributing to my struggle with the rape revenge sub-genre.
The Virgin, The Whore, and The Crone
If you’re less aware of the tropes and the terms assigned to horror in academic study then this is the best place to start. There are three molds that women in horror tend to be put into:
The Virgin: I think this goes without explanation. In movies like Halloween, The Nightmare on Elm Street, or Prom Night the young girl who becomes the target of the masked killer is the girl that would be considered the “good-two-shoes”. Usually an actual virgin with friends who spend a decent amount of time in the movie having sex with no discretion. This girl tends to be the “final girl” which is another concept that could get it’s own post.
Basically, these movies equate virginity to value.
The Whore: Again, probably goes without saying. This is the best friend in The Nightmare on Elm Street who just wants to have sex with her high school boyfriend but instead ends up on the ceiling, bleeding out from her belly. You can take everything I said about the virgin and just flip it on it’s head, and that applies to the idea of the whore. Now, can you be a whore and survive?
Well…maybe in 2019? In classic horror there’s really no chance. The film The Cabin in the Woods even plays off of this trope. The character who was set assigned as “the virgin” wasn’t exactly a virgin, but as Sigourney Weaver says they had to “take what we can get”. Whore or slut or whatever term you want to use here is equated to wrongness. The virgin deserves to live…but the whore?
The Crone: This is a little bit of a wider birth of women. This is a woman who is no longer in her “prime” who is probably single, haggard, and usually in line with the old school ideas of Disney stepmothers or ugly witches in the woods. Usually she is bitter, waiting for some sort of revenge for something that happened long ago. Sometimes the crone is pitted against the virgin.
So, what am I saying by laying all this theory out?
Traditional rape revenge films usually position the woman as more innocent (*the virgin*), and we see her transform into a revenge seeking machine (*the crone*). To me, this all just demonizes sex and women’s sexuality. I mean it’s great to see a woman get revenge for what has happened to her, but typically there’s an hour of horrific torture the woman endures and then there’s 20-30 (or maybe less) of her getting her actual revenge. These movies tend to be written and directed by men…but you see a major shift when you look at a movie like Revenge or American Mary.
Revenge, which was directed by Coralie Fargeat, was the first rape revenge film I watched that didn’t leave me feeling sick and abysmal. Where movies like I Spit on Your Grave spend the majority of the movie torturing the woman, Revenge’s first 20-30 minutes is the set up, and the rape is only a short scene. Jenn’s, the woman who is raped, big conflict starts after the rape when her lover wants to pay her off so she won’t go to the police and turn in the man (a friend of his) who did the actual raping. There’s a chase through the gorgeous dessert where the film was shot where they try and take Jenn down, but that’s just the beginning.
The rest of the film is the saga of Jenn turning into, essentially, a superhero who survives being impaled on a rotting tree, the harsh dessert conditions, and various other physical traumas. Jenn’s fight isn’t just for revenge, but for survival.
American Mary is another rape revenge film that breaks the mold of the traditional framework. The film follows Mary, a medical student who is invited to a part by a surgeon she is doing her residency under where she is raped and the men film the horrible act. Before the entire party and rape even happens Mary tries to get a job stripped in order to help pay for her schooling, but when she is at the club the owner offers her $5,000 to sew up a man with a wound that clearly came from some sort of illegal activity. After that Mary is found by a stripper from the club and asked to perform an extreme body modification on a friend of hers.
After Mary is raped, she drops out of her surgical residency and starts doing illegal and extreme body modification surgeries. She kidnaps the man surgeon who raped her and keeps him alive in a storage unit where she practices her surgeries. The revenge part of this movie is less important to the story than Mary’s descent into crime and the brutal surgeries she performs. Mary doesn’t start doing the body modification surgeries because of the rape – she has that inside of her the whole time. The film is written and directed by sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska, showing that female led rape revenge tends to be less brutal towards the woman, and deeper than just brutalizing a poor defenseless woman.
The final film I want to talk about as an example of rape revenge done right is The Perfection. Now I just put up a whole post about this film, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it, but it does break the thread of female directed rape revenge. It was directed by Richard Shepherd, but one of the three writers that worked on the script was a woman (Nicole Snyder). There is no actual on-screen rape in The Perfection and the only actual on screen sex scene is between Allison Williams and Logan Browning who play Charlotte and Lizzie, respectively. It surrounds a school for young and promising cellists where the headmaster and teachers have, essentially, a sex cult. The elite students at the school are allowed to play in the acoustically perfect “chapel”…but if they make mistakes, they are raped or sexually abused as penance by the men of the school.
Charlotte wants to save Lizzie, and by the end of the film you realize the entire plot has been leading up to the torture of the headmaster. This film focuses so little on the actual rape, and yet is a rape revenge film. It’s a wild ride, but will leave you feeling much more empowered than sympathetic.
So what is my point in all of this?
Basically – be more critical of the rape revenge that is being put out. Look at it carefully and determine whether or not the purpose is to empower the female characters and show the women as warriors…or is it just a way for men to hide their objectification and their brutalization of women? Personally I think rape is the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to scaring people. Of course every woman is automatically scared when rape is involved because it is something we all have to worry about it our day-to-day life.
Of course, it is up to each individual person to determine their feelings towards any given movie. Just because I think movies like I Spit on Your Grave or The Last House on the Left are exploitative and too brutal to be feminist doesn’t mean that everyone will or has to have that same opinion. It is just something I have taken the time to sit and think about. This is totally my thoughts and opinions coupled with the basic research I have done thus far. My goal is to do some farther academic research and see what is out there, but for now I’ll leave you with these thoughts and feelings.
What do you think about rape revenge as a sub genre?