Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Day of the Woman: Defending 'I Spit On Your Grave' as Feminist Horror
As someone who does nothing but sit around and talk (often thoughtfully, I hope, though it does depend on the movie) about horror movies, I was recently drawn back into the seemingly endless debate about whether "I Spit On Your Grave" has any merit. With a sequel (an ambiguous sequel unrelated to either the original film or the 2010 remake) finally on the way, I have to wonder why it is that this film is suddenly being revisited. And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. But we'll get to that.
When "I Spit On Your Grave" was released in 1978, it was not only panned by critics, but called vile, repulsive and harmful. The critics at this time responded the same to every slasher film. The argument was different here, though. Slasher films were entertainment, they wanted to keep you on the edge of your seat, they were violent, but the violence was exciting, and passing. It never lingered. Basically, they wanted you to have fun.
This movie did not. And for that, it is a mistake to call it harmful. The only thing is, now critics have forgotten all of those slasher movies, and the fans have always ignored the reviews that did call them repulsive, but even a good many lovers of the horror film, well, this is one movie they've sided with the critics with. That or you get, "yes, it's sick and hateful, but I like, sick and hateful movies." And the thing that drove me off the deep end regarding this movie was something I read last night, from one of the most well-thought-out books on exploitation films out there.
Basically, they stated that even though it became a cult film and has its fans, there is no one who could argue "I Spit On Your Grave" as anything remotely feminist.
Well, hello, there. Here I am. And for better or worse, that's just what I plan to do.
For those of you who don't know, the movie follows a young woman, a writer, who moves into a small house in the country to work on her book. She immediately attracts the attention of the local men. They play nice, they watch her, and then they break in, rape her, and leave her for dead in the woods. But she doesn't die. She crawls home. She stares at the wall for about a day and a half. And then with quiet, casual reserve she exacts her revenge on every single one of them. It's not pleasant to watch, even if there is some cosmic, primal satisfaction in watching a woman castrate the man who raped her.
My first point is, if we're not supposed to take violence in film literally (and believe me, we're not) "I Spit On Your Grave" should not be the one exception. Literally, this is not a way that any problem should be solved, but in a primal form of expression, yes it damn well should. The violence in this film represents one thing: power. When the men are violent to her, they are brutal, and the camera soaks it all in. This is harsh, and perhaps too long, but almost necessary for her to do what she has to do afterward. When she kills them, the murders are increasingly violent, but only because she has taken that power from them and is now spitting it back out. By knife, by rope, by ax. One by one.
Should a woman kill her rapist? Not at all. Duh. But there has to be a satisfaction in seeing that trade off of power. Ideally, it needs to happen. In a better world, the tradeoff of power is there. A woman will identify her rapist, take him to court, and he will go to prison. That is a restoration of power. It is not the world we live in today. That is why I think "I Spit On Your Grave" is not only feminist horror, but necessary feminist horror, and why I don't find it remotely surprising to see a sudden remake and sequel come about in the last couple years.
The words "rape culture" are something you hear tossed around a lot. And the more I think about it, the more it's kind of true. We're in a world right now when news coverage of a rape in which the men were charged and convicted will still talk about what a shame their being caught for rape will do to their athletic careers. If this is rape culture, I Spit On Your Grave is counter-culture.
Watching the film again, as every rapist pleads for their life, you could take every word they say and it sounds exactly like something that's come out of FOX news in the last week. One claims she "deserved it because of what she was wearing" another tells her that "you can't blame me, a man's just a man" all excuses that are not only made frequently by alleged rapists, but by the media reporting on them. So when the main argument against I Spit On Your Grave as feminism pipes up: "if the movie is feminist, why is the rape shown in detail? Why doesn't the camera turn away?" Then I still have an answer, even though I don't like it.
The world we live in is both violent and not entirely un-chauvanistic. As sick as it sounds, showing what happens to the lead character in detail is probably the only way to ensure the entire audience is on her side. Because while the rapists still claim she deserves it for what she was wearing, nobody in the audience sounds an agreement. Because they saw it. They were right there in the dirt with her. They saw the whole thing from the woman's perspective, and that is precisely what all of these stories reporting on rape seem so frighteningly anxious to avoid. They don't want to think about it. This film makes you think about it. Tough love, yes, but I think we're all better off for it.
This is why I feel the film is both important as a horror film and a work of feminism. Why I think it is the perfect movie to revisit now. Is it an exploitation film? Of course. Was it intended to be as deeply read as I just went through? I kind of doubt it. But the film stands on its own regardless. It is a violent, cold statement against a subject that will never be anything but violent and cold. It is a film about power, and about putting it in the woman's hands and shutting up about it. We shouldn't have to go through a violent statement like this just to see the subject of rape from the victim's perspective. That should be obvious. But until 100%, as a country, we don't have to, then at least we do have violent statements like this. A powerful film that will show you everything you need to see, if you can stomach a look.