Horror Movie Analysis

Are Rape-Revenge Narratives in Horror Films Really Empowering?

i spit on your grave

While sipping my coffee earlier this morning, I came across this awesome article that BJ Colangelo wrote for her blog Day of Woman, about whether rape as a plot device or other narrative technique is ever “okay.” She cites movies like I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and the notorious Cannibal Holocaust (1980), both of which deploy incredibly graphic rape scenes. Colangelo concludes that rape for rape’s sake is never okay and that, to the credit of horror filmmakers, films that include rape, at the very least,

gives victims someone to relate to. Sugarcoating the terrors that happen every single day won’t help people understand how life can really be. It reminds us that rape isn’t like a bank robbery. It may occur every day but rape is ugly, evil, and needs to be prevented. We can’t prevent a mutant monster from coming and attacking our city out of nowhere, but we can try to prevent rape—the real horror.

Like every other article on Colangelo’s blog, I found her analysis of the role and “purpose” of rape narratives, as well as rape-revenge narratives, in horror films to be very insightful. And it got me to thinking: How effective are rape-revenge narratives in “rewriting” rape stories as to allow the victim to retaliate against his or her assailant?

On the one hand, rape-revenge narratives are somewhat empowering. As Jennifer picked off her attackers one-by-one, I couldn’t help but root for her. But when the movie was over, I felt no sense of closure. Because the rape scene was still more jarring and resonant in my mind than the scenes in which Jennifer retaliated against her rapists. And because I wondered continuously after watching the film why the only way in which Jennifer was “allowed” or “able” to fight her assailants was after the fact of her rape.

revenge 1

I guess having the opportunity to kill or brutalize her rapists within an inch of their lives trumps taking the rape case to trial and being repeatedly questioned, doubted, and verbally harassed by the justice system. And perhaps – though I can’t speak from experience here and will not even pretend to understand this exactly – many rape survivors wish they’d had the opportunity to exact physical revenge upon their assailants (and, in this respect, I Spit On Your Grave literalizes the hopes or desires of the rape survivor).

But really, why does it seem like the only rape narrative is the one in which – if he or she isn’t killed or denied some sort of justice – the rape survivor can only exact justice after the fact of the rape? I’m not trying to criticize I Spit On Your Grave. Though it wasn’t one of my favorite horror movies – not by a long shot – particularly because of the rape-revenge plotline, it’s still a cult classic. And it definitely isn’t the only film of its kind both within and outside the horror genre (one such example outside the genre would be The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Swedish and American versions).

lisbeth revenge

One aspect of I Spit On Your Grave that I must commend is its overall implication about its heroine: that Jennifer, against all odds, was able to survive her rape. This is a very important message to instill in both rape survivors and those who have not experienced rape.

But for me, rape-revenge narratives leave much to be desired. My biggest gripe with these narratives, particularly in horror films, is that they imply that the female-bodied individual is incapable of self-protection. I dare say that I would like to see a movie in which someone who would be a rape victim is able to successfully escape from his or her assailant, or at least successfully fight back, such as through self-defense? Self-defense is, after all, a proven successful method for resistance against sexual violence. And as someone who has taken self-defense training, I can say with confidence that I feel much more empowered and secure in my own body. Self-defense or rape-resistance, as opposed to rape-revenge, implies a sense of ownership of one’s strength. Though many people would argue that self-defense places the responsibility of rape upon women, or rape victims in general; or that self-defense doesn’t work for most rape cases, in which the attack is perpetrated by someone whom the woman knows and trusts and therefore would not think to retaliate against, the conflation of self-defense with victim-blaming is unfair. It undermines the full-range of positive influence that self-defense can have upon the individual —  such as heightened self-esteem and self-confidence — as well as upon others who make themselves aware of self-defense as a practice. Furthermore, contrary to what some may believe, self-defense training teaches women how to defend themselves not only against strangers but also in situations in which the victim is familiar with her assailant. Yes, of course we, as a society, still need to teach men not to rape. But kicking somebody’s ass when they’ve attempted to rape you is also a fairly effective way of teaching at least one man not to rape you. Just saying.

Anyway, maybe my feelings about rape-revenge narratives, at the moment, are muddied (clarified?) by recent Internet discussions prompted by Miss USA (Nia Sanchez) and her remarks about the effectiveness of self-defense training.

And I guess it can be argued that if movies like I Spit On Your Grave were converted from rape-revenge narratives to rape-resistance narratives, then there would be no movie.

revenge 2


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s