Gendered Horror, Sexual Assault, and Revenge (2017)

Curator's Note

A strong case can be made for the utility of violence in representations of reclaiming the female body for women. The rape-revenge sub-genre of horror is particularly fraught, in part because some of the most notable classics of the genre (I Spit on Your Grave, Ms .45, Act of Vengeance) are directed by men. What happens, then, when a woman takes up the helm of a rape-revenge film, as we see with the Soska Sisters’ American Mary and more recently Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge? I’m not here to argue that any/all rape-revenge films written and directed by men are necessarily regressive or reactionary. Nor would I argue that all rape-revenge films directed by women are automatically reclamatory. Rather, there is a perspective shift that comes about when a woman, whose material body itself may be subjected to the kind of violence represented on screen, takes up that violence as central to her cinematic project.

One example of how difference plays out in the rape-revenge sub-genre comes in the incorporation of humiliation into rape scenes. Both the original and the remake of I Spit on Your Grave give considerable screen time over to Jennifer Hills’ humiliation beyond the act of rape. In the original, her manuscript is mocked, torn up, and thrown at her. In the remake, she’s forced to whinny and prance like a horse. In Revenge, by contrast, however, Jen is raped against a sliding-glass door, with the rape interrupted at first by a drawn-out sequence of another man walking into the room eating a candy bar. After a number of close-ups on the man staring unfazed, he eventually turns and leaves the room after deciding not to “join in,” so that, while he may not be responsible for actually raping Jen, he is certainly complicit. The differences between these representations of rape center on different aspects of the humiliation: the first on the aftermath, the second on the “foreplay,” and finally, the third on the act itself. This distinction, between the temporalities of trauma, represents three diverging approaches to understanding rape as a wholly traumatic experience.


Your discussion of the rape scene, and particularly your mention of the complicit onlooker, is interesting because voyeurism toward female bodies takes an sharp turn from the earlier scenes in the film. In the beginning of Revenge, Coralie Fargeat seems to exaggerate Jen's sexuality and allows her to enjoy being an object of desire for the men around her. Fargeat's argument seems to be that while Jen enjoys being attractive and while the camera enjoys objectifying her, she is neither willing nor obligated to actually cross a physical line with her boyfriend's business partners. When she is being physically assaulted and raped--in other words, when she loses control of her objectivity--she continues to be the object of desire for the other man, but it is no longer on her terms.

I really appreciated your comparison between the rape scenes in Revenge and I Spit On Your Grave. The correction (in a way) in Revenge of the earlier film's gratuitous humiliation reminds me of Misty Dawn's recent short film Hooker Assassin, where a sex worker is abducted and raped by a would-be client. In this film, Dawn's protagonist is unconscious before and during the rape, and as a result, it isn't shown in the film at all (her attacker relates it to her afterward). I don't know if it's worse for Dawn's protagonist (who can't remember the rape) or Fargeat's protagonist (who can), but what's important is that the film doesn't show it. In contrast, the male-directed Irreversible shows a graphic rape for 11 minutes, with the intention of becoming too uncomfortable to be accepted as titillating. Do you have thoughts on either of these strategies for depicting rape in film (in contrast to the one in Revenge)?

I haven't seen Hooker Assassin so I'm going on your description here, but I'm definitely adding it to my list! As far as depictions of rape go, I personally find more reclamatory potential in films like Revenge and I Spit On Your Grave that position the viewer with the rape survivor during the attack and then allow her agency later in avenging her own violation. I'm not sure how I feel about the notion of "avoiding" the depiction of rape as it sounds like Hooker Assissin might, but I'm sure a case could be made for the reclamatory power there. I think that the specific camerawork of Irreversible, where the camera is backed so far off the scene as to present a kind of false "objectivity" is incredibly problematic, especially in the context of the rest of the film in which her partner must avenge her, thereby reinscribing the notion of his ownership over her/her body. 

This was a fascinating analysis of the rape-revenge genre, thanks for initiating a discussion on this topic! 

I'm currently reading Adam Lowenstein's Shocking Representation, where he goes in-depth on the intersections of horror and art cinema, and how both genres (separately and in tandem with one another) work to register the "legacies" of historical/social/etc. trauma.  I wonder if this is also a defining characteristic that separates rape-revenge films directed by men versus women.  That is, is there a much broader allegorical statement on historical trauma in male-directed films, whereas female directed films communicate trauma on a more personal, subjective level (or, combine historical traumas with personal/gendered traumas)?  If this makes sense, at all? 

I also wonder if geographic/cinematic region plays a role in the representation of rape - Revenge is French, whereas both I Spit on Your Grave's are presumably American.  Do you think that nationaliy (for lack of better terms) intersects with gender in these types of films?   

I think there's a lot going on here to dig into, so thank you for your comment!

From my perspective, because rape is both an interpersonal act and an expression of systemic, historical, institutional oppression, I think that female-directed rape-revenge films, even while they may focus on the individual, have a lot to say about larger structures. I do think that this takes some work and critical analysis, it isn't necessarily right there in the text, but I see a strong through-line between films like Revenge and American Mary and larger political commentaries.

In terms of nationality and regional depictions, I tend to agree with Carol Clover in Men, Women, and Chain Saws where she draws the connection between the rape in films like I Spit On Your Grave and Deliverance and what she terms "urbanoia" or the intense fear of rural encroachment on urban space (to give a horribly reductive definition of the term; I haven't read the book in a while so this may be missing some crucial pieces). 

When I saw your proposal, Geneveive, I was so pleased that you wanted to comment upon Revenge (2017), as it's one of the first films that came to mind when I thought about this theme week.  You've done an excellent job of drawing attention to Fargeat's specific treatment of the rape-revenge sub-genre in horror, especially in regards to Revenge's attention to the complicity of the other men.

Building off of Sonia's comments about the camera's objectification of Jen in the first half of the film and the men's treatment of her before, during, and after the rape scene, how do you read a later scene where Jen has to cauterize a wound with a scalding hot beer can?  I get the sense that Fargeat is doing something with how this act "brands" Jen with the logo of the product.  The way she's shot in the first half of the film feels reminiscent of how Michael Bay or even (beer) commercials have often treated female bodies: as an extension of the product.  Do you think Fargeat is making a statement about how that kind of objectification feeds into rape culture or even the marketing of the rape-revenge sub-genre?

I'll admit that while I did wonder about how to read the branding I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I definitely think that on one level it's a great opportunity to equate Jen with a pheonix, but because (if I'm remembering right) the rest of the logo is also there, I think there's certainly more to it than that. On my second or third viewing of the film I also thought a sort of connection could be drawn between Jen in the first part of the film and Lana Del Rey in some of her early music (although Jen is far less morose, and I say that with all due respect to Lana). I think here specifically of the lyrics to "Cola" ("My pussy tates like Pepsi Cola") and the connection between women's bodies, objectification, and captialism.

First off, thank you for taking the time to respond to comments, Geneveive; writing the post is already an extra demand on everyone's schedule, so I understand how commenting is an extra time commitment.

Like you, the first time I watched Revenge, that scene was a little perplexing, which is why I think I fixated on it.  I think you're completely correct to call attention to the phoenix-like symbolism that Fargeat is playing with, as she intentionally chose a logo featuring a bird.  I'm also interested in/love the Lana Del Rey connections you're making!  On my next rewatch, I'll have to put "Cola" on in the background!

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