The victim of attempted rape holds her attacker at her mercy for long periods in Extremities.
Descent, a rape-revenge art movie that uses torture to turn the tables in its revenge segment.
Exploitation posters for the two versions of I Spit on Your Grave.
Torture-porn imagery in the remake of I Spit on Your Grave.
Revenge in a bourgeois space: a scene from the original Last House on the Left.
The parents take their revenge in the remake of Last House on the Left.
Eye for an Eye: middle-class values in the context of a mother’s instinct for revenge.
Female allies highlighted in a poster for Rape Squad.
A rape victim and her female ally in The Accused, a movie in which the action of revenge is projected onto a third-party system.
A rape victim and her male ally in Hannie Caulder.
Making rape just another crime: the first rape scene in Michael Winner’s Death Wish 2. (Laurence Fishburne plays one of the rapists in the back.)
A scene of marital friction in the original Straw Dogs.
One of the most controversial rape scenes ever: the first rape scene in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.
This is not mate-guarding: David Sumner protecting his home in the original Straw Dogs.
Here we should recall that elements of this motif have long been present in rape-revenge. For example, in the 1986 Farrah Fawcett drama Extremities, the heroine traps a man (James Russo) who has twice brutalized her and twice attempted to rape her. She cages him in a fireplace for an extended period, during which time she assaults him and leads him to think that she is either going to kill him or let him die from the bug poison with which she subdued him. Today, rape-revenge dramas continue to dabble with torture; see, for example, the copycat torture-rape in Descent (Talia Lugacy, 2007). It seems clear, then, that the torture-porn motifs so noticeable in the aforementioned remakes were not just slapped on the classics as quick ways of making money in a horror industry reshaped by Saw (James Wan, 2004) and Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005). They are part of the sociohistorical fabric of rape-revenge. And they make biocultural sense, too.
Like most examples of torture-porn, these revenge scenes are extreme. In the remake of Last House on the Left, the father of the victim surgically paralyzes his daughter’s rapist (Garret Dillahunt), taunts him, and places his head in a microwave, causing it to explode in a money shot reminiscent of Scanners (David Cronenberg, 1981). However, because this action is not taken by a survivor, it seems a straightforward act of parental payback, not an attempt to impress the reality of rape on a rapist or an audience. The remake of I Spit on Your Grave is more effective in this respect. It transposes the physical and psychological sadism present in the rape scenes onto the revenge scenes, creating a tit-for-tat effect that is intricate and grim. For example, the sheriff (Andrew Howard), who had earlier restrained, taunted, and anally sodomized the rape victim, is shackled in a humiliating posture and sodomized with his own shotgun while being subjected to degrading remarks. The sheriff is finally killed when one of the victim’s other attackers inadvertently pulls the trigger of his gun while it is lodged in his anus, blowing off his head and killing a second rapist simultaneously. I Spit on Your Grave even combines this feminist accent on power with a castration scene: the victim castrates her main attacker (Jeff Branson) with hedge clippers after torturing him during an extended sequence.
By using castration against rapists, rape-revenge films imply that rape is a sexual crime that can have sexual motivations—and that it is, further, a crime that can rebound against a rapist’s sexual organ. This implication accords with the many recent assertions by evolutionary psychologists that contradict the way in which feminists have looked at rape since the mid-1970s. [open endnotes in new window] For scientists like Thornhill and Palmer, rape is so clearly rooted in male sexual psychology that to present it as non-sexual is simply to deny the evolutionary facts. However, when rape-revenge movies resort to torture in their revenge segments, they typically corroborate the traditional feminist idea that victims experience rape not as sex but as a traumatizing loss of control. Both the newer and the older views of rape conveyed by rape-revenge are clearly correct and shouldn’t be treated as mutually exclusive. This is what Darwinian feminists like Griet Vandermassen have emphasized through their revisionary approaches to rape, which indicate how feminist accounts of rape might be integrated with biological accounts. For Vandermassen, the key is to focus on power and control, which, in the context of rape, are traditional feminist concerns that now appear to have biological underpinnings as well. What I find interesting is that a culturally debased cinematic structure like rape-revenge can consistently convey this dual truth of rape.
Evolutionary investments in revenge
Victim-centered rape-revenge films typically have a progressive slant. Indeed, as long as a film like I Spit on Your Grave depicts the suffering of a victim and shows her avenging her own exploitation, it can confer a liberal, even feminist slant no matter how much brutality and nudity it envisions along the way. The reason for this is that these victim-centered depictions provide scenes of female empowerment, which in the context of western culture are strongly coded as progressive. But when a movie centers on a different kind of avenger—e.g., the victim’s parents, her female allies, or her husband or boyfriend—these values shift. By parsing the selective pressures on these third parties, we can discern why some third-party scenarios seem reliably progressive, while others, like those in which a husband avenges a rape, rarely seem so.
From an evolutionary point of view, a victim and her parents have a similar basis for protecting and avenging female sexual agency. For the victim, this agency gives her a chance to be discriminating in selecting a mate, thus allowing her to steer her offspring’s genetic makeup and letting her find a mate who can supply her with resources, especially parental investment. Clearly, these reproductive interests are factors to be protected and, if violated, to be avenged. The parents of a fecund adult female will have a very similar interest in her successful exercise of this choice, for she is in a sense the vehicle of their genes. In other words, if the crime of rape is a direct threat to the victim, it is an indirect threat to her parents, for it threatens the transmission of their genes. It makes sense, then, that rape-revenge films depict parents as profoundly invested in their daughters’ sexual agency, such that they feel grief and vengefulness when that agency is violated. Though this investment is instinctive and unconscious, its implications do bubble to the surface now and then. Thus, the mother (Sally Field) in Eye for an Eye at one point indicates her belief that her grief is deeper than that of her husband (Ed Harris) because, unlike her, he is not biologically related to the rape victim. Perhaps the most famous movies in this parent-centered tradition are the Last House on the Left films, which were inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish art film The Virgin Spring (1960), and which in turn inspired many knockoffs (e.g., the grisly Chaos [David DeFalco, 2006]).
For the most part, these parent-centered films reinforce traditional family values, not feminist or postfeminist values. They exude this conservative bias in many different ways. For example, The Virgin Spring constructs an aura of serious religious observance that is tied to family affection and to social cohesion. By contrast, the conservatism of Last House on the Left and Eye for an Eye is an extension of the clothing and decor of the parents’ bourgeois homes. Because the parents in these films are rigorously constructed as “ordinary,” viewers come to sympathize with their ordinariness as a function of stories that include rape, murder, and vengeance. The result is a status-quo tone that interferes with whatever radical meaning is attached to scenes in which bourgeois mothers and fathers are violently transformed into the kind of vigilantes that populate progressive, victim-centered films like Hannie Caulder, Ms. 45, or Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood, 1983). But make no mistake: the radical subtext of these transformations is clearly there. This is most apparent, I believe, when a middle-class wife like Karen McCann (Field) comes to resemble an outlaw like Hannie Caulder (Raquel Welch).
That said, the progressive slant of the rape-revenge form is much more consistent and articulate when victims are aided by their female allies. In mainstream vehicles like Lipstick, Extremities, The Accused, and Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) as well as in exploitation vehicles like Rape Squad, Lethal Victims, and Blood Games (Tanya Rosenberg, 1990), characters express an open, gendered solidarity with one another even as they bemoan patriarchal systems of justice. Though the evolutionary root of these female alliances is not immediately clear, the scientific literature does offer a number of intriguing hypotheses that we can draw on to make sense of these relationships. Trivers’ concept of reciprocal altruism offers one way of understanding how the mutual protection and cooperative forms of vengeance that are depicted in these films might have evolved in the actual world. The female alliances in evidence here also seem to correspond with the speculations of Thornhill and Palmer. Drawing on Barbara Smuts and Sarah Mesnick, these two evolutionary theorists have proposed that alliances of human females “may be explicable as adaptations against male sexual coercion.” Indeed, Thornhill and Palmer have gone so far as to suggest that the growth of women’s rights since the 1960s has led to a “combination of greater mobility [for females] and less protection by mates and male kin,” resulting in “an enhanced risk of sexual coercion.” This outcome has only compounded the necessity of “female-female alliances against male coercion [such as those] seen in many other mammalian species.” This evolutionary logic offers a way of understanding movies as different as Rape Squad and The Accused—for in the exploitation rape-revenge vehicle as well as in the more mainstream rape-revenge vehicle, women band together to overcome through social cohesion whatever physical and institutional disadvantages they enjoy vis-à-vis men.
Still, as evolutionists have noted, the male-female alliances of heterosexual pair-bonding may also be viewed as a counter-strategy to male coercion. The difference is that in a cinematic narrative, a heterosexual bond between characters is quite likely to connote regressive messaging—not only because it can be tied to the social status quo but because this sort of relationship gains its protective function from biologically male behaviors considered “macho.” Male-female bonding may enhance a female’s fitness by offering her protection from sexual coercion by undesirable males, but often it only works because it activates mate-guarding tactics and affiliated male traits such as possessiveness, jealousy, and so on. In the context of contemporary culture and its program of women’s rights, these traits are coded as patriarchal and reactionary—which means that they are the traits that are often blamed, not endorsed, by the critiques of rape evident in the most progressive-seeming rape-revenge films.
Unsurprisingly, rape-revenge films in which third-party avengers are husbands often seem to cultivate regressive attitudes. Here the outstanding case is the Death Wish series, in which a husband (Charles Bronson) loses his wife and daughter to thugs who rape, steal, and murder. Though the Bronson character avenges the rapes of his wife and daughter, his vigilante tactics are folded into a critique of a 1970s and 1980s political culture gone soft. These films endorse a tough, law-and-order approach to the crime that is rampant in the mise-en-scène. Predictably, the series treats rape as just another crime. This is a long way from the victim-centered approach in which a sense of rape’s special-ness is the focus of a more progressive narrative.
The Straw Dogs movies take a subtly different slant. In these movies, rape is not folded into a larger context of crime, for there are only a few ambiguous hints in these films that such a context even exists. And because the victim in each version (Susan George, Kate Bosworth) never reports the crimes committed against her, it is difficult to classify these films as rape-revenge. This is not to “blame the victim” or to suggest that it is unrealistic to avoid reporting such crimes. In fact, the failure to report a rape is common, especially when the rape in question is committed by acquaintances, as the rapes are here. (Indeed, as I have suggested, it seems very possible that this unwillingness to report a rape has evolutionary determinants as well as cultural ones.) But it is to say that when a rape in a movie is not reported to an avenger figure, it is difficult to see the film in which these events occur (or don’t occur) as a rape-revenge film in the classic sense.
In the Straw Dogs movies, Amy Sumner never reports her twin rapes to her husband David (Dustin Hoffman, James Marsden)—and because he is the film’s primary avenger-figure, that is, the character who is most responsible for the violence that figures as vengeance, no causal relationship is established between the rape and the revenge. Rapes are depicted in these films, and acts of revenge, too—but the latter do not follow clearly from the former. Especially in the Peckinpah film, it is more likely that David, who taunts Amy during his climactic violence, is to some extent taking his revenge on Amy for calling him a coward and for repeatedly questioning his manhood through the film.
In both films, Amy needles David to take a stand against the village working men who have been encroaching on her body, which she wants him to view as his property. It is as if Amy is goading him into becoming more possessive. In the Peckinpah film, David refuses to take the bait, perhaps because these exchanges are to be interpreted as the last moments of a dying relationship, as the director suggested. In my view, this aspect of Amy’s depiction is among the most regressive in the film. The feminist animus directed against Peckinpah’s film has focused on the idea that Amy invited her rapes (which I don’t see) and on the fact that Amy comes to enjoy parts of the first rape after initially struggling against that rape (which I do). But this critique could be sharpened if it focused on the way in which Peckinpah (and later Lurie) has Amy goad David into becoming more possessive, which is distinctly anti-feminist. David refuses to exercise mate-guarding tactics, as if this role were too primitive for him. Instead, he acts as if he is choosing to engage in violence for entirely abstract reasons: he is defending his house as well as the handicapped man Niles (David Warner), whom he has taken on as a kind of ward. In this way, he proves his masculinity to Amy without giving her what she wants. No part of this picture is happy.
In rape-revenge, when victims seek revenge on their own, they suffuse a film with a progressive aura, for they are promoting female sexual agency and female sexual consent by asserting a female ability to defend and avenge those rights. Other avenger figures also champion female agency and consent, but they often do so less progressively. For example, parental avengers, though motivated by the same evolutionary interests as the victim, often symbolize conservative values. Avengers who qualify as female allies, whose instinctive social cohesion is perhaps explained through reciprocal altruism, articulate a feminist politics and appear progressive in avenging female agency and consent against male coercion. Nevertheless, the necessity of female solidarity implies that women cannot defend and avenge their sexual rights on their own. It makes sense, then, that women also seek protection and vengeance through male partners, activating the mate-guarding tactics that western culture has deemed reactionary.
The rape-revenge film is an area of film studies that is both compatible with biocultural inquiry and that could benefit from such inquiry, given that the scholarship in this area is now at a theoretical impasse. By looking at how the rape-revenge narrative conveys the special-ness of heterosexual rape—an instinctual evaluation of rape that is one of the key predictions of evolutionary psychologists—film scholars can begin to gather new insights into the relationship between rape and revenge, insights that can illuminate everything from this narrative structure’s use of rape flashbacks to its more recent use of torture-porn imagery. And by speculating about the instinctual evolutionary impulses driving avenger figures in these films, scholars can begin to understand why certain types of rape-revenge film seem compatible with certain political values and valences.
But the most significant outcome of this new approach to rape-revenge may be that we can use it to integrate the newer, more biological views of rape now favored by many evolutionary psychologists with the older, more traditional views of rape still favored by most feminists. Today, evolutionary psychologists often agree that rape is an alternative mating strategy that emerged through sexual selection, but there is no such consensus as to whether rape is an adaptation or whether it is instead a byproduct of an evolved male sexual psychology. In any event, the traditional feminist approach—which holds that rape is more a demonstration of male power than a demonstration of male sexuality—need not be threatened by the emerging science.
We can make this point in a meaningful fashion by reference to the rape-revenge film. Rape-revenge is a violent, often explicit narrative structure that has flourished in the United States film industry since the elimination of the Hollywood Production Code in 1968. It is also an ambivalent form of narrative that feminists have long argued appeals to women as well as men. The secret of this ambivalent appeal may be its dual perspective on rape. Rape-revenge often demonstrates that heterosexual rape is a criminal expression of the male sex drive, but it just as often demonstrates that women experience this crime as a traumatizing loss of power. Recently, rape-revenge, in its typically exploitative way, has suggested this double truth through the use of revenge scenes in which women show their rapists what it feels like to be raped. These scenes indicate that women experience rape as harassment and torture, but not as sex. A biocultural approach to rape-revenge films can help explain this persistent narrative structure by reference to evolutionary differences between the sexes rooted in sexual selection.