During 1970s, a new sub-genre of the horror film appeared in Hollywood, following a “mainstreaming of public discussion about sexual politics that resulted from the high visibility of the anti-rape movement” (Heller, 16). The sub-genre, referred to as ‘rape-revenge’ by Carol J. Clover and Peter Lehman, featured narratives involving female heroines falling victim to violent rapes, followed by “an act of vengeance, either by the victim themselves or by a typically male agent” (Heller, 1). While Clover argued that such films “repeatedly and explicitly articulate feminist politics” (151) by presenting male figures as villains, and female figures as heroines, recent theorists have highlighted the sub-genre’s reliance on voyeurism and sexist violence, criticizing rape-revenge films for failing to “follow through with their ethical encounters, falling back on genre conventions and delivering on genre expectations” (Henry, 11). Attempting to articulate the political significance of the rape-revenge trope as an independent motif (that runs far beyond the cinema), Henry describes it as an autonomous genre which, although not intrinsically feminist, has the ability to reveal current attitudes “around issues of violence, retribution, torture, and trauma” (9). As such the contemporary “revival of rape-revenge cinema” (Henry, 1) speaks to a cultural plea for greater female representation and empowerment, and to attempts to offer a critique on sexual violence in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement.
#MeToo gave victims of sexual abuse a platform to express their experiences of sexual violence, and in this context “rape-revenge stories […] should feel more relevant than ever” (Wilson, 2021). However, alongside the increasing demand for such stories, issues of exploitation arise, with films following formulas that seem to “exploit sexual violence, follow it up with murder, and still claim the moral high ground” (Hess, 2017). The re-emergence of the genre, calls for its theoretical re-evaluation, as theorists move away from the Freudian psychoanalytic framework used by Clover and Lehman, which relied on cross-gender identification.
According to Lehman, the success of films such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981) in the 1970s and 1980s could be attributed to their ability to address a “male subjectivity which is both heterosexually masochistic and homosexually sadistic” (Lehman, 105). Yet, as the rape-revenge film’s commercial strategy has shifted from addressing solely male audiences, to female, feminist-sympathetic audiences, a psychoanalytic approach appears limiting, as it fails to address issues of lived experience, and representation. Instead, Henry suggests an approach through three different theoretical frameworks; politics, ethics, and phenomenology. This guide will consider these frameworks in relation to three contemporary rape-revenge films – Promising Young Woman (2020), Revenge (2017), and Katalin Varga (2009) – to demonstrate what the re-emerging rape-revenge film reveals about contemporary attitudes towards sexual violence.
In relation to politics, a dominant strand of criticism the rape-revenge film has faced, is its preoccupation with an often-exclusionary white feminism, perpetuating tropes of white women as virtuous victims, in a world of threatening ‘others’. Henry comments on the genre’s inherent ‘whiteness’ associating it with factors such as class, sexuality, and age. She explains that the genre’s canon often “ignores the experiences of women of colour while [it] prioritizes and universalizes the experiences of white women” (79). In Testing Positive, Lisa Downing examines what constitutes a ‘positive’ female representation in cinema, remarking that the risk of such an assessment is the dismissal of political “ideologies underpinning the containing culture of a film’s production” (38). Thus, the question that arises is a rather political one, asking not solely whether a rape-revenge film is a feminist undertaking, but rather what kind of feminism it promotes, bringing into the equation contemporary feminism’s intersectional nature. While one could focus on a ‘positive’ representation of black womanhood in films such as Descent (2007), I consider it more useful to use a film that demonstrates the genre’s problematic engagement with feminism. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman was released in 2020, winning two BAFTAs, and one Academy Award for its original script. The film follows the life of Cassie, a white, middle-class, cisgender woman in her thirties, who seeks vengeance for the rape, and resulting suicide of her friend Nina. The film is adorned with constant reminders of male predators around Cassie. Characteristic is the title sequence, when Cassie is catcalled by three men, all from different ethnic backgrounds. The same pattern reoccurs throughout the film, as Cassie is approached by multiple abusive men of different ethnicities. Interestingly the only woman in the film of non-white background is Gail, Cassie’s employer, a black transgender woman (see Fig. 1). Despite the film’s attempt to present itself as feminist, it entirely avoids engagement with Gail’s lived experience, one of particular significance in contemporary feminist discourse, as black transgender womanhood constitutes one of social hierarchy’s most vulnerable experiences. Instead Gail is reduced to being the background to Cassie’s character development, advising her whenever needed. While the film does not hesitate to present an ethnically diverse range of predatory ‘others’, it remains reluctant to engage with the struggles of ethnically diverse women, or women of different socio-economic backgrounds. Ultimately, the film offers a feminist phantasy that actively adheres to established social hierarchies, reinforcing Henry’s claim that the “victim-avengers of the rape-revenge genre in American cinema are almost exclusively white women” (79).
Henry recommends ethics as an alternative to psychoanalysis, and as a prism through which to evaluate rape-revenge films. She argues that “ethics are at the heart of the spectator’s engagement with genre […] as generic expectation and pleasures include this witnessing of rape and revenge” (11). Providing a definition for ethical criticism, Downing argues that “any formal decision [made in a film] functions as an imprint of the film’s ethical valences” (18) ultimately suggesting that “every aesthetic decision has an ethical dimension” (18). Thus, the rape-revenge film becomes an interesting case study, as it seeks to appeal to a wide range of audiences, often simultaneously condemning, through its narrative, and conforming to, through its form, the demands of the ‘male gaze’. Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge was released in 2017, featuring a bloody revenge, after Jen is raped and thrown off a cliff by her lover and his friends. At the beginning, we are introduced to Jen, a blonde attractive young woman in her twenties, wearing pink revealing clothes, seductively eating a lollipop, whilst seated at the back seat of a helicopter. As her lover, Richard opens the door for her, the camera does not hesitate to focus on her naked legs, before panning upwards to carefully document the rest of her body. A few minutes later, Jen’s body is treated similarly, in a bedroom scene with Richard. In a short montage, Jen seductively approaches Richard as the camera cuts between close-up shots of her fingers, lips, hair, and bottom, often entirely omitting her face from the frame, offering an objectified image of her and ultimately denying her the agency of her body. In the next scene, the same pattern occurs as Jen is walking towards the pool. The camera fixates on her legs, slowly panning upwards to reveal her bottom in a voyeuristic pattern that continues throughout the first part of the film. The question that arose, however, in my mind whilst watching the film, was whether this pattern would be subverted for the second act, as Jen avenges her abusers and condemns the brutal way in which they objectified her. Unfortunately, this never happens. As Jen emerges from the cave to exact her revenge, the camera focuses on her abdominals, legs and bottom, followed by a rotating panning shot, that documents any parts of her body the previous shots may have missed, under the pretext of demonstrating her transformation. As revealed by the camera’s persistent voyeuristic tendencies, Jen’s suffering and metamorphosis are not enough to escape the male gaze, transforming “from one male fantasy to another, swapping blond curls and lollipops for booty shorts and bloodshed” (Hess, 2017) (See Fig. 2). Ultimately Revenge offers a useful example of the way the rape-revenge film’s walks a fine line between representation and exploitation. Jen undertakes a journey of cathartic revenge, while the camera undertakes a journey across Jen’s body, gourmandising it for the viewer’s pleasure. The inconsistency between Revenge’s narrative resolution , and its visual language, resorting to patterns of voyeuristic objectification, echo Lehman’s views on rape-revenge films as being “so overtly exploitative and so clearly within entertainment’s genre traditions that they do not even masquerade as seriously concerned with women and rape” (107). Lastly, one cannot help but wonder whether the narrative resolution of a bloody revenge, posed as the ultimate ‘cathartic’ response to severe sexual trauma, even constitutes a feminist undertaking in the first place. Revenge’s absolute dismissal of the consequences of sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress, as well as its failure to address the systemic root of sexual violence, further points to the rape-revenge film’s exploitative nature, ultimately attempting to profit from sadomasochistic violence and gore, under the pretext of ‘female empowerment’.
The last framework Henry discusses is phenomenology, a current of philosophical thought that according to pioneer theorist Vivian Sobchack, sees cinema as a “symbolic form of human communication” (5) seeking to “address the “thickness” of human experience and the rich and radical entailments of incarnate being and its representation” (7). A phenomenological approach evaluates the lived experience a film offers, revealing the rape-revenge film’s “potential for understanding […] the experience and psychology of rape” (Henry, 14). Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga (2009) follows the journey of banished Katalin and her son, Orbán, in search of Katalin’s rapist and Orbán’s biological father. Despite Strickland’s statement that the film was not made to reflect a feminist ideology, the way it deals with rape and trauma is insightful, exploring a paradoxically untouched dimension of rape in rape-revenge films. When Katalin is banished by her husband for infidelity, we are not yet aware of her past and rape. Instead, Katalin’s backstory unfolds alongside her revenge journey, a choice that allows us to actively experience with her the manifestations of her trauma. More specifically, when Orbán runs into a forest, relatively early in the film, Katalin freezes. A close-up of Katalin’s face, focusing on her reaction, allows us an insight to her emotional world. She seems scared, yet we do not know why. While her fear can be associated with Orbán getting lost in the forest, when the boy returns, Katalin’s gaze remains fixed on the woods, as implied by the use of a daunting slow zoom-in (Fig. 3). The absence of signifiers of danger in the shot, betrays the ambiguity of Katalin’s fear and points to its psychological nature. Some scenes later, Katalin joins a group of people dancing around a fire as a diegetic musical score is heard in the background. Katalin is approached by a man, and they dance together. The man’s face however, remains unfocused. As he moves closer to Katalin, as implied by a tight close-up shot of his face which is now in focus, his facial features are revealed. His face, lit solely from one side, creates an ominous feeling, further reinforced by the sudden cessation of the music, followed by an indistinct ambient sound. The use of the cinematography and sound visualize Katalin’s recognition of the man, the accomplice of her rapist, and convey her emotional distress and recollection of her trauma. Similarly, when Katalin is sleeping in a following scene, a short montage allows us access to her dreams. Images of her and Orbán endlessly wandering with their horse, are intercut with the aforementioned image of the woods, followed by the close-up of the accomplice’s face, under the same ominous ambient score. The choice to be granted access to Katalin’s dreams, and thus her subconscious, allows the viewer to experience the extent of her trauma, as we see how certain memories still haunt her. In that way, and without featuring the actual rape scene, the film manages to demonstrate the psychological impact of rape, thus “achieving a degree of resonance with the victim’s experiences […] by presenting a phenomenological first-person account of rape” (Henry, 174).
The prevalence of the rape-revenge film during the last two decades, reflects the market’s demand for narratives of female empowerment. However, during the consumption of these seemingly feminist films, one should be aware of the political attitudes they reinforce, and wonder to whom the feminism they promote appeals to. Another question that arises is the often-twofold undertaking of these films, revealed by the examination of their aesthetic choices, often betraying an exploitative, voyeuristic attitude. The ‘revenge’ component of their narrative resolution should be examined further, not only for the beliefs it reinforces regarding sexual violence, but also for the place in which it ultimately places the viewer’s attention. Despite what at first might appear as cathartic or even therapeutic, these films tend to shift the focus of the audience from the very real issue of systemic sexual violence, only to re-position it on an imaginary scenario in which highly fetishized women assert their power by engaging with vengeful violence. The issue with this trope, sits not on the women’s very use of violence, but rather on the fact that their use of violence reinforces the belief that it is women’s individual responsibility to deal with sexual predators, thus preventing the viewer from extracting any wider conclusions about the issue’s social dimension. Simultaneously such films often entirely disregard the psychological and emotional healing required by a woman after been subjected to rape or abuse, reimagining rape as an unfortunate event required for the ultimate empowerment of a female heroine. Nonetheless, while most rape-revenge films can be dismissed as exploitative, the film trope should not be disregarded entirely. A phenomenological examination of contemporary rape-revenge films such as Katalin Varga can offer profound insight to the experience of rape, the trauma it induces, and the victim’s haunting need for redemption, inviting the viewer to empathise with the female heroine, and gain access to her lived experience.
Clover, Carol J. Men Women and Chainsaws; Gender in the Modern Horror Film. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.
Downing, Lisa and Saxton, Libby. Film and Ethics; Foreclosed Encounters. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Heller, Alexandra. Rape-Revenge Films; A Critical Study, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011. Print.
Henry, Claire. Revisionist Rape-Revenge; Redefining a Film Genre, United States: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.
Hess, Amanda. “How Movies and TV Address Rape and Revenge” The New York Times. 12 Jan. 2017. Web. March 2022.
Lehman, Peter. “Don’t Blame this on a Girl”. Screening the Male; Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, edited by Cohan, Steven and Hark, Ina Rae. London: Routledge, 1993, pp 103-118.
Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye; A Phenomenology of Film Experience. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.
Web Source: Wilson, Lena. “Rape-Revenge Tales: Cathartic? Maybe. Incomplete? Definitely.” The New York Times. 14 Jan. 2021. Web. March 2022.
Written by Maria Nephele Navrozidi (2022); Queen Mary, University of London
This article may be used free of charge. Please obtain permission before redistributing. Selling without prior written consent is prohibited. In all cases this notice must remain intact.
Copyright ©2022 Maria Nephele Navrozidi/Mapping Contemporary Cinema
Print This Post