The Rape/Revenge Genre’s Gender Revelations

By Noah Berlatsky

If you were going to single out two iconic mainstream feminist films from the last 25 years, there’s a good chance you’d pick Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) and this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Despite being 24 years apart, both have remarkably similar plots. In both films, female friends are sexually assaulted; in both films the friends escape by going on the road and visiting violence on the men who attacked them (and on other men as well).

In other words, both films broadly fit into the much-maligned genre of rape/revenge, in which the first part of a film shows a vicious act of sexual violence, and the second shows that act repaid in violence, blood, and death.

As a genre, rape/revenge is usually thought of as particularly debased exploitation schlock. Films like I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) were among the most reviled of the “video nasties,” which were condemned and censored in Britain in the early 1980s. Roger Ebert said I Spit On Your Grave was “a movie so sick, reprehensible, and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters,” and added that, “attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.” Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, in their Video Movie Guide, called it “one of the most tasteless, irresponsible, and disturbing movies ever made.”

The antipathy to I Spit On Your Grave, and to rape/revenge more generally, focuses on the gruesome depiction of rape, and the equally gruesome depiction of revenge, which frequently involves castration and severed genitals. The genre seems to revel not just in images of violence in general, but in images of sexualized violence against women in particular. It’s not hard to see why these films have such an invidious reputation.

Thelma and Louise, Fury Road, and other more mainstream rape/revenge variants, like Ex Machina and The Perfect Guy (to name two recent entries), tend to downplay the explicit gore, and usually don’t show rapes on camera.

thelma louise

Still, the exploitation roots are there — and you can see why they make the films popular, and their feminism palatable. Rape/revenge is replete in tension and bloody cathartic release; there is terrifying violation, and then there is revenge you can feel good about. The films use women’s trauma to justify stereotypically male pleasures of hyperbolic violence. So Thelma and Louise get to pick up guns and shoot people like they’re in a Western, while Furiosa drag races across the desert and then gets to murder and take the place of the evil patriarch. Rape/revenge fits feminism into male genre narratives that Hollywood can embrace.

It isn’t just men who have embraced these stories, though. Obviously, Fury Road and Thelma and Louise have had enthusiastic female audiences. But the exploitation end of rape/revenge isn’t only for male fans, either. There were many women enthusiastically cheering at the I Spit On Your Grave remake screening I attended in 2010, as just one example. Most scholarship on the genre has been written by women as well. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the author of Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, told me by email, “these films have traditionally been assumed as being for a pretty regressive, ideologically bankrupt male demographic — this is simply untrue.” She added:

“There is a broad range of women I have met who embrace these films for their sometimes unflinching determination to not hide the horror of sexual violence, and it is not difficult to find these writings (like my own) both online and in print.”

Rather than seeing rape/revenge films as a way for men to appropriate feminism for their own genre pleasures, you could see them as a way for women to seize male genre roles; as the mother memorably bites off the penis of her daughter’s murderer in The Last House on the Left, for example, women may take that phallic power for themselves.

Rape/revenge vividly imagines women disempowered, often using explicit feminist analysis — as in Ms. 45, where street harassment, workplace sexual pressure, violence from pimps, and rape are all presented as part of a pervasive and inescapable rape culture. And then, after demonstrating this disempowerment, the films hand women guns, knives, bludgeons, and other implements of destruction, and let them take the place of their attackers (sometimes literally, as in Descent, where the rapist is raped).

If women take the empowered place of men in rape/revenge, then it’s also the case that male audiences are expected to, or encouraged to, take the place of disempowered women. As Carol Clover says in her classic study of horror films and gender, Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992), the rape in rape/revenge films are almost always from the point of view of the victim, not the attacker. There is nothing erotic about the rapes in I Spit On Your Grave or Ms. 45 or (more recently) Irreversible. They are presented as brutal, violent, and awful. Full stop.

Clover also points out that one of the most important and influential films in the rape/revenge tradition is Deliverance (1972). The rape in Deliverance is notoriously of a man, not a woman. Clover argues that I Spit On Your Grave (which also features rural rapists attacking a city dweller) references Deliverance directly, so that male watchers are positioned, through an obvious reference to an iconic film, as the victims of the rape, not the perpetrators.

This sort of shuffling of gender occurs throughout other rape/revenge films as well. In the French art film Irreversible (2002), the victim is a woman, but the rapist is a gay man — and there is also a scene of male-on-male attempted rape. In the Italian film The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), the traumatized female rape victim who was attacked by a stranger begins to dress “like a boy” and sexually assaults her boyfriend. Less daringly, but in the same vein, both Thelma and Louise and Fury Road include male characters (Hal Slocumb and Max, respectively) who directly sympathize and identify with the victimized women.

Rape/revenge, then, encourages women to take the place of, or identify with, violent, empowered assaulters. But it also encourages men to identify with, or take the place of, victims of sexual assault. Clover argues that in rape/revenge, “The position of rape victim in general knows no sex, and. . . a film like I Spit on Your Grave is literally predicated on the assumption that all viewers, male and female alike, will take [the rape victim’s] part, and . . . ‘feel’ her violation.” Similarly, all viewers, of every gender, are meant to take the part of the revenger as she (or sometimes he) gets her bloody vengeance.

None of this is to say that any individual rape/revenge film, or the genre as a whole, is good or progressive or feminist. But it is to point out that rape/revenge films are designed, often quite consciously, to let everyone in the audience experiment with, and experience, different gender roles, whether as trauma, empowerment, or both. That instability leads to a wide range of responses — and perhaps explains why rape/revenge is responsible for both some of the most critically lauded and most viscerally derided films of the last 40 years. For better and worse, the rape/revenge trope reveals how violence squats upon our understanding of gender — and how rarely, and timidly, that is confronted in popular culture.

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Image credits: Thelma and Louise Facebook page