You can trace the origin of the rape revenge sub-genre from the late 1960’s, when horror films began to depart from the usual gore and violence, and began to drift into the area of ‘snuff.’ Ever since then, the film industry has not shied away from showing the piths of humankind’s perversions, violence, or general immorality.
Research has shown me that snuff isn’t always defined as having sexual content, but certainly contains over-the-top, vainglorious depictions of violence, centered around the act of murder. They’re macho, ultra-domineering, omnipotent and aggressive. Basically, movies for guys.
What about women though? Looking back at the films of 2008, a question is begged: what happens when women play out this role? The rise of female-driven rape revenge films over the last year has triggered a new cinematic phenomenon — a new genre of retribution and violence made for women.
Think back to Thelma & Louise, a movie where a housewife and a waitress from Arkansas kill a rapist then flee to Mexico. While this kind of role was more or less unprecedented, even for its seasoned actresses, Time wrote that this was, in no way, a feminist film. The only way these two women were able to endure their social environments and nurture their friendship was by behaving like men.
Descent is a film about a college girl who is brutally raped, but she learns to regain her shattered sense of self through the politics of violent intimidation, drugs, and nightlife. Maya, played by Rosario Dawson, is traumatized after a savage non-consensual sexual episode, compounded by her assailant moaning derogatory epithets in her ear — a commentary about violence against women of racial minorities. Maya’s salvation is restored as she seeks justice in brutally raping him in the end with another, bigger male accomplice she met at the bar.
Written by Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction) and directed by Eli Roth, Grindhouse: Death Proofsurprised everyone by killing off the alpha male (Kurt Russell) when you think the whole time that he’s going home with all those girls. Using booze and drugs to lure women into giving him lap dances and sex, Russell’s character gets killed off in the end rather gratuitously by having his head kicked in by one of the girls.
A little less savage approach to the female revenge act was portrayed by Jodie Foster in Neil Jordan’s film The Brave One. After Erica Bain (Foster) and her fiancé are assaulted in a park, his death sparks a vigilante flame within our thoughtful, introspective reporter. By using her outwardly delicate and frail appearance, Bain goes on the hunt of a lifetime to find the criminal who changed her forever. Time dubbed her as the “feminist avenger,” and Foster agreed with her role as the feminist vigilante:
“Such a big part of the female psyche is that we hate inwards. What if there was a woman who said, ‘I’m not going to be that kind of victim. I’m not going to hurt myself, I’m going to hurt you.’ What would that feel like? This was no feminist design on my part — although I call myself a feminist — but that’s exhilarating to women who see this movie.”
Perhaps the rise of female victims-gone-assailants is a statistical issue. According to Statstics Canada, the rate of ‘serious violent crime’ among female youth has more than doubled since 1986 growing from 60 per 100,000 to 132 per 100,000 in 2005. Among female adults, the rate has also grown from 25 to 46 per 100,000. However, that’s defined as “assault, muttering threats,” and not really what’s going on the movies. The same report also stated that “Female rates for homicide, attempted murder and sexual assault were negligible” in relation to information about males.
I’ve always thought about whether or not it was a good idea to broadcast violence in such graphic and massively accessible ways. Seems a bizarre outlet for people to relieve (or vicariously relive?) acts of savagery while maintaining the calm exteriority of a respectable citizen. The discussion continues.