Carol Clover’s study of gender in horror, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, contains a groundbreaking examination of rape-revenge.

Jacinda Read’s revisionary reading of rape-revenge moved this area of study away from psychoanalytic methods.

The cover of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s recent book, Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, features an image from Ms. 45.

The title page of the second volume of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.

The cover of Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer’s controversial book A Natural History of Rape.

Not just a classic book, an epochal book: Susan Brownmiller’s feminist inquiry into rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape.



The rape-revenge film: biocultural implications

by David Andrews

In a recent issue of Philosophy and Literature,[1] [open endnotes in new window] I argued that film studies could learn from the way in which literary Darwinists have applied evolutionary theory to questions of genre and interpretation in literary studies. At the same time, I noted that film scholars working in this biocultural vein should be careful in developing their rationales, for they can expect criticism from scholars who prefer traditional theoretical regimes.[2] (To be clear, a “biocultural” approach is one that combines biological methods—whether evolutionary, cognitive, or the like—with more traditional humanities methods.) In my view, bioculturalists in film studies will position themselves to deflect such criticism if they focus on areas of inquiry that are clearly compatible with evolutionary thinking. And they will further strengthen their position if they can show that the film scholarship in those areas would benefit from an intervention.

The rape-revenge film is one such area. A biocultural approach is relevant at the formal and psychological levels to the analysis of a widespread cinematic narrative structure whose very name conjoins two human behaviors, rape and revenge, that scientific researchers have identified as universal across human history and culture. Given this universality, it is unsurprising that scholars have recently shown that the rape-revenge meme has itself been universal across film history and culture. Unfortunately, film scholarship on rape-revenge has made little of that dual universality, in part because recent discussions of rape-revenge in film have been mostly a-theoretical and tentative. Though highly detailed, this scholarship currently offers readers few ways of theorizing the cinematic rape-revenge narrative in a general way. 

A biocultural analysis offers a way out of this impasse. By placing these rape-revenge scenarios in the context of current debates in evolutionary psychology, film scholars can gradually begin to re-imagine the logic of this narrative structure. To begin with, a biocultural analysis rooted in Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection can provide a plausible hypothesis that explains why the pairing of rape and revenge seems so “natural” in this kind of narrative. Such an analysis also offers a potential explanation of how and why rape-revenge movies construct rape as a special crime—and this inquiry can help illuminate everything from the routine use of flashbacks in rape-revenge to this fictional structure’s more recent reliance on torture porn. What is more, this analysis speculates as to why some rape-revenge scenarios, despite their plentiful brutality and nudity, have struck viewers as thematically and politically progressive while others have come across as more exploitative. Before I explore these ideas, however, I want to briefly describe the literature on the rape-revenge movie and establish a very basic understanding of sexual-selection theory as it relates to the subjects at hand.

Rape-revenge: the scholarship

Since the early 1990s, the scholarship on the rape-revenge film has been dominated by feminists, including Carol Clover, Barbara Creed, Jacinda Read, Sarah Projansky, and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.[3] This tradition first gained academic traction through “Getting Even,” a chapter of Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Here Clover discerned a kind of feminism within 1970s and 1980s rape-revenge films like I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) and Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981). Clover also used these films as the basis for her theory of cross-gender identification in horror.

At the end of the decade, in her book The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (2000), Jacinda Read shifted away from Clover’s psychoanalytic methods, which were central to many early feminist approaches to the rape-revenge film. Importantly, Read proposed that rape-revenge is not a genre per se but is instead a narrative structure mapped across film genres. According to Read, this structure is best understood through its dialectical back-and-forth with second-wave feminism, a movement that was contemporary with the most iconic examples of the form. She critiqued Clover’s (and, to a lesser extent, Creed’s) psychoanalytic arguments, which did not in her view account sufficiently for historical change. Read also believed that Clover made a mistake in classifying rape-revenge generically as a sub-category of horror.

In her recent book Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (2011), Alexandra Heller-Nicholas extends Read’s move away from psychoanalysis but also claims that Read committed many of the same errors as Clover. According to Heller-Nicholas, Read had reduced rape-revenge to a handful of feminist- and postfeminist-era films and considered the form all but dead once feminism’s second wave had crested. Further, she found Read imprecise in classifying movies that do not even depict attempted rape as crucial rape-revenge movies. For her own part, Heller-Nicholas considers rape-revenge a universal phenomenon and points to examples of such films across film history, across high-low culture, and across global film industries. She thinks that Clover and Read were wrong to yoke the form too tightly to the historical period most crucial to second-wave feminism, especially the years between 1975 and 1990. Since the rape-revenge form existed before that time and is exceptionally active today, she finds “no singular or unified treatment of rape across this category when surveyed as a whole.”[4]

Heller-Nicholas’s work on the universality of rape-revenge as well as the diversity within it is a major contribution to film scholarship—one that is in its own way as crucial as Clover’s contribution. It confirms that there is something more persistent and pervasive to the cinematic rape-revenge narrative than its dialogue with second-wave feminism can explain. Unfortunately, because Heller-Nicholas is unwilling to stray too far from feminism’s traditional strictures, she seems unsure what to do with her findings and does not come to a satisfying conclusion about the implications of this narrative structure. This is surprising. Unlike Projansky, who once worried that describing rape depictions in academia might fuel the harmful rape discourses so prevalent in the mainstream,[5] Heller-Nicholas casts a wide net in her survey, bluntly examining even the most “idiotic” cases of rape-revenge.[6] Ergo, she shows a willingness to go beyond the limitations that have handicapped other projects. But it is telling that Heller-Nicholas’s main reason for looking at such a comprehensive sample of texts is her hope that by doing so she might discover moments of progressive feminist thinking in unexpected places (which, as it happens, she does). Her goal is traditional even if her method is not.

When in the past film scholars explained rape-revenge through concepts like fetishism or castration anxiety, the problem was not that they were using a universalizing theory—for as Heller-Nicholas has demonstrated, that is what the universality of this narrative structure calls for. The problem was that they were using the wrong universalizing theory. It should not surprise us, then, that the biocultural approach usefully replaces one of the ostensible functions of the psychoanalytic approach: it offers rational explanations of the aesthetic structure and psychological appeal of films that often seem primitive in their psychosexual violence. Both psychoanalytic and biocultural approaches perceive the repetitive aspects of the rape-revenge movie as speaking to human instincts and desires that are inarticulate or unconscious. Unlike the psychoanalytic approach, however, the biocultural approach assumes that the appeal of the rape-revenge narrative is rooted in evolutionary drives formed through thousands of generations of Darwinian selection—and this is a subject that is well established in the biological literature. In that respect, the biocultural approach is built on solid foundations that analyze both rape and aggression in a way that can be effectively applied to their depictions in film.

Evolutionary intertwining of rape and revenge

Before re-considering rape-revenge cinema from a more biocultural standpoint, I wish to review the account of rape that is emerging from evolutionary psychology—beginning with a few basic caveats. First, we should dispense with the naturalistic fallacy, which has often stopped humanities scholars from pursuing biology-based inquiries. We must recognize at the outset that just because a behavior like rape has evolutionary roots does not mean that it can be considered “good” or “inevitable.” Hence, those roots cannot be used to justify the continued presence of rape in our society or any other. What is more, to propose an evolutionary basis for a behavior is not to endorse a kind of biological determinism. This issue is of obvious importance to progressive film scholars interested in sex and gender, for a theoretical stance that perceives gender as a set of culturally acquired and perpetuated traits will naturally seem more forward-thinking, or at least more hopeful, than one that appears to close off the potential for social change through biological determinism. But we must keep in mind that this anxiety about biological determinism is rooted in a gross simplification. As Melissa Emery Thompson has observed, although evolutionary explanations have often been “misinterpreted as ascribing biological influence on a behavior to genetically determined inevitability,” in fact, evolutionarily

“derived traits are inherently shaped by the environment of the organism, and from the very anatomy of the organism to its behavior, the environment is critical in shaping each trait during an individual’s life.”[7]

In practical terms, what this means is that a focus on the biology of rape in no sense precludes a focus on the culture of rape, which is concomitantly important as we seek to understand how and why heterosexual rape actually happens. Finally, to these disclaimers, we should add one final caveat: the account of heterosexual rape that is now emerging from evolutionary psychology is neither settled nor monolithic. The only thing that does seem to be settled is that the universality of this male sexual behavior across all human cultures suggests that this behavior has evolutionary roots of some kind.

Evolutionary psychology’s account of rape in part derives from Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin proposed his theory of sexual selection to account for his observation that males and females across many species differ in traits that seem unrelated to differences in either environmental conditions or the basic mechanics of reproduction. For example, males often perform elaborate dances, sing exhausting songs, or display conspicuous ornamentation to attract mates. Sexual-selection theory posits that these biologically male traits evolve because they confer an advantage in competition for access to females; the more baroque males get more matings and therefore leave more offspring than their plainer rivals. If females actively choose the males with the most exaggerated displays, the result is a case of intersexual selection, or sexual selection based on female sexual choice. If sexual selection is instead based on male-male competition, or intrasexual selection, males often evolve weapons with which they can fight other males for access to females.

Biologists have derived many corollaries from Darwin’s observations. For example, one major theory in evolutionary biology today posits that males and females across many species “have conflicting reproductive interests that result from fundamental asymmetries in levels of parental investment,” a subject that Robert Trivers first theorized in 1972.[8] These differing levels of parental investment (or “parental effort”) come from the fact that one parent routinely contributes greater resources to child-rearing. This difference has many implications. As Martin Muller et al. have put it, 

“Because in most cases females invest more time and energy in offspring than do males, male reproductive success (1) is limited primarily by access to temporally rare, fecund females and (2) is potentially much higher than that of females. Consequently, males often benefit by being more eager to mate, and less choosy about their mating partners, than are females, and selection can favor male traits that override female preferences. The result is an evolutionary arms race between the sexes, in which strategies and counterstrategies are selected to minimize reproductive costs imposed by the opposite sex.”[9]

Over the past twenty years, evolutionary psychologists have hypothesized that one of the counter-strategies in this Darwinian “arms race” is rape. Because the males of some species, including several species of primates like humans and orangutans, at times use physical coercion to copulate with females, these researchers have proposed that male-female rape seems to have evolved as a male strategy to overcome the general constraint of female choosiness. To be clear, female choosiness is not identical to female sexual agency or to female consent or even to female sexual choice (which, as I have indicated above, is synonymous with intersexual selection, a subject first broached by Darwin).[10] Female choosiness is instead a broader-based sexual trait that contrasts with male reproductive interests across many different species. Those male interests are served by a relative promiscuity that maximizes mate quantity, while female reproductive interests are served by a relative discrimination, or choosiness, maximizing mate quality. Without these differences in reproductive interest and parental effort, sexual coercion and rape would make little evolutionary sense in any species.                               

Though the rape hypothesis has spurred heated debate both within evolutionary biology and between scientists and feminists,[11] the advocates of the two main positions in evolutionary psychology—described below—both tend to accept the principles of sexual selection, including the general idea that it leads to males that are larger, more aggressive, and more promiscuous in their behavior than females. But these advocates differ on whether rape in humans is an evolved tendency of human males—a rape adaptation that enhances male fitness—or whether it is just a by-product of male sexuality, that is, an extreme result of a psychology that is relatively aggressive and relatively promiscuous when compared to female psychology. As Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer put it, rape

“may be an adaptation that was directly favored by selection because it increased male reproductive success by way of increasing mate number.”[12]

Or it may simply be a by-product of the many adaptations that culminated in male promiscuity. Only in the first case would there be a psychological rape mechanism that developed in human males specifically because it provided a “net reproductive benefit,” enhancing their fitness through many generations of selection.[13]

But if theorists can’t agree on the net benefit of rape to (some) human males, they can agree on its evolutionary costs, especially those that accrue to female victims. The most direct evolutionary cost to victims comes from the violation of social structures that allow human females to exercise discrimination, or choosiness, through the exercise of agency and consent. Rape victims lose the ability to select males whom they prefer, which in an evolutionary sense robs them of the opportunity to direct the development of their family and to steer its cultural and genetic inheritance. In species other than humans, these deprivations can have dire results, reducing female fitness drastically, and this is no less true for human females, whose social, genetic, and physical standing are threatened by nonconsensual encounters. For example, if a rape victim is already in a relationship, her mate may abandon her, consciously or unconsciously to maintain paternity certainty. This result can devastate the victim and whatever offspring she already has. In a significant number of cases, victims are physically injured in rape; such injuries impact their survival as well as their future reproductive potential. Other effects include psychological traumas and social stigmas. Some of these problems may be indirectly adaptive. If we look in a more complex way at the horrific trauma of rape as a strategy in “the evolutionary arms race between the sexes,” we will recognize that rape trauma after the fact—much like the instinctual fear of rape before the fact—may actually help women avoid future rapes, just as the cognitive capacity for pain helps people avoid injuries. Speaking broadly, these costs may all be seen as results of male cheating, that is, the circumvention of female choosiness in an evolutionary framework in which sexually promiscuous males compete for access to a limited number of fairly discriminating females.

Go to page 2

To topPrint versionJC 54 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.