I would like to thank my wife, Chris, who is a senior lecturer in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, for her help in editing this article and for her good humor and unending patience in fielding my questions. I would also like to thank Griet Vandermassen for reading this essay and Julia Lesage for her help revising it.
1. David Andrews and Christine Andrews, “Film Studies and the Biocultural Turn,” Philosophy and Literature, vol. 36, no. 1 (April 2012), pp. 58-78. For an overview of literary Darwinist methods, along with some useful hints concerning how those approaches might be applied to film, see Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottschall, eds., Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader (New York: Columbia University Press), 2010. [return to page 1]
2. I am using “biocultural” in the way that Torben Grodal uses it in Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture, and Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Bioculturalists assume that “advances over the past 40 years in our knowledge of the biological functioning of the human brain have led to a convergence” between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” Grodal, Embodied Visions, p. 4. For Grodal, it no longer makes sense to develop foundational ideas about cultural products without theorizing the relation between those products and the natural world.
3. There are also many individual articles that address rape-revenge, including a number that have run in Jump Cut. See, e.g., Patricia Erens’ comments on I Spit on Your Grave in “The Seduction: The Pornographic Impulse in Slasher Films,” Jump Cut, no. 32 (April 1987), pp. 53-55. Available at <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/
Using both psychoanalytic and historical arguments to explain the proliferation of pornographic forms in the 1980s, Erens wonders whether the controversy surrounding I Spit on Your Grave reflected “the exploitiveness of the rape scenes” or the threat to patriarchal control inherent in “the exhilaration” of female revenge. This question is part of Erens’s larger argument: the “demands being made by women as part of their struggle for equality have created a sense of threat for men” that has contributed to the proliferation of the pornographic impulse throughout the contemporary landscape.
For another useful essay in the same issue of Jump Cut, see Jake Jakaitis, “Giving Way to Murderous Rage,” Jump Cut, no. 32 (April 1987), pp. 49-52. Available at <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/
Finally, a very distinguished early essay on rape-revenge is Peter Lehman’s chapter, “‘Don’t Blame This on a Girl’: Female Rape-Revenge Films,” in Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, ed. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 103-116. Lehman does a particularly good job theorizing male objectification within a subgenre that he refers to as “female rape-revenge films.”
4. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011), p. 1. For the other texts cited in this summary, see Carol Clover, “Getting Even,” Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 114-165; and Jacinda Read, The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity, and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).
5. Sarah Projansky, Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2001), pp. 3-11.
6. Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films, p. 88.
7. Melissa Emery Thompson, “Human Rape: Revising Evolutionary Hypotheses,” Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression Against Females, ed. Martin Muller and Richard Wrangham (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 352.
8. Martin Muller, Sonya Kahlenberg, and Richard Wrangham, “Male Aggression and Sexual Coercion of Females in Primates,” Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans, ed. Muller and Wrangham, p. 3.
9. Ibid., p. 4. Italics added.
10. In using the word “choosiness,” I am drawing on an extremely broad biological concept that is not identical to individual sexual “pickiness.” I want be clear about this, because such language could easily give offense, especially in the context of heterosexual rape.
11. The evolutionary roots of rape have been most famously traced by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer in A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), a book that stirred a great deal of controversy. Thornhill and Palmer have been rebutting critiques from scientists and feminists ever since the publication of this book. For evidence of this debate, see Muller and Wrangham’s anthology, Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans, and Griet Vandermassen’s article, “Evolution and Rape: A Feminist Darwinian Perspective,” Sex Roles 64.9-10 (May 2011), pp. 732-747.
12. Thornhill and Palmer, A Natural History of Rape, p. 59. Again, while accepting the general idea of rape as an alternative mating strategy, many evolutionary psychologists think more evidence is required to support the idea that rape represents an adaptation that improves human fitness; see William F. McKibbin, et al., “Why Do Men Rape? An Evolutionary Psychology Perspective,” Review of General Psychology 12.1 (2008), pp. 86-97. For a strictly ecological, quantitative argument against the idea that rape is adaptive, see Eric Smith, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, and Kim Hill, “Controversies in the Evolutionary Social Sciences: A Guide for the Perplexed,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16.3 (March 2001), p. 133.
13. Thornhill and Palmer, A Natural History of Rape, p. 60. Palmer himself holds this view; so does Donald Symons in The Evolution of Human Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); see pp. 283-284.
14. Thornhill and Palmer, A Natural History of Rape, pp. 31-52, 85-104. [return to page 2]
15. I believe that a major part of the psychological appeal of rape-revenge lies in the way the form taps into the human capacity for this complex, biologically ingrained fantasy of revenge.
16. Tamler Sommers, “The Two Faces of Revenge: Moral Responsibility and the Culture of Honor,” Biology and Philosophy 24.1 (2009), p. 37. Evolutionary psychologists who have written insightfully on revenge include Margo Wilson, Martin Daly, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby.
17. Ibid. Sommers is drawing on the evolutionary theory of Robert Trivers in particular.
18. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, p. 123.
19. Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films, p. 3.
20. For economy, this article also focuses on American rape-revenge films from the post-1968-era, a period in which the form had a chance to bear out all the explicitness implicit in the designation “rape-revenge”—explicitness that had been specifically curtailed by the Hollywood Production Code. Nevertheless, as my discussion of Heller-Nicholas suggests, rape-revenge has a much longer and far more international history than this focus implies. Today, numerous trends visible in the American films discussed here are also visible globally. Hence, torture-porn effects are evident in the revenge segments of rape-revenge films from many different film industries, as demonstrated by the highly effective French Canadian movie Seven Days.
21. For example, on Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, see Molly Haskell’s comments in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) or Joan Mellen’s comments in Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film (New York: Pantheon, 1977).
22. Thus, a subset of these movies—e.g., Demented (Arthur Jeffreys, 1980), Ms. 45, etc.—includes a heroine who is driven to psychosis by rape.
23. As Julia Lesage has observed, such scenes can be satisfying for women viewers, who may experience a vicarious thrill through scenes of vengeance against male rapists. For more on female rage, see Julia Lesage, “Women’s Rage,” Jump Cut, no. 31 (1985). Available at <http://pages.uoregon.edu/jlesage/
24. Thornhill and Palmer, A Natural History of Rape, pp. 124-128. On torture in the cinema, see Julia Lesage, “Torture Documentaries,” Jump Cut, no. 51 (Spring 2009). Available at <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/
25. Again, see Thornhill and Palmer, A Natural History of Rape, for an extended critique of the post-Brownmiller idea that rape is power, not sex. Feminists in biology, like Barbara Smuts and Sarah Mesnick, do not deny the sexual implications of rape; they do, however, challenge the idea that rape is only sexual in its motivations and hence they often highlight issues of sexual control. See Vandermassen, “Evolution and Rape,” pp. 732-734, 738-744. (See also note 26.) [return to page 3]
26. Thus, in paraphrasing Smuts, Vandermassen synthesizes a biologically oriented account of why men want power over women: “because they have an evolved desire to control female sexuality and the offspring women produce (in order to ensure paternity).” This “desire to control” can lead to violence and rape. Vandermassen, “Evolution and Rape,” p. 738. According to Vandermassen, it is Smuts’s stress on the “element of control,” something that is not stressed by Thornhill and Palmer, that makes her theory “compatible with traditional feminist accounts of rape.” In the torture-porn scenes discussed above, the feminist import of the scenes is evident in their stress on control, not sex.
27. See Robert Trivers, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism," Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46 (1971), pp. 35-57.
28. Thornhill and Palmer, A Natural History of Rape, p. 55; also pp 97, 103. See Barbara Smuts, “Male Aggression Against Women: An Evolutionary Perspective,” Human Nature 3 (1992), pp. 1-44; Barbara Smuts and Robert Smuts, “Male Aggression and Sexual Coercion of Females in Nonhuman Primates and other Mammals: Evidence and Theoretical Implications,” Advances in the Study of Behavior 22 (1993), pp. 1-63; and Sarah Mesnick, “Sexual Alliances: Evidence and Evolutionary Implications,” Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries, Intersections, and Frontiers, ed. Patricia Gowaty (New York: Chapman and Hall, 1997), pp. 207-260.
29. Thornhill and Palmer, A Natural History of Rape, p. 103. See also Vandermassen, “Evolution and Rape,” pp. 738-740.
30. See, e.g., Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape,pp. 361-364; and Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films, pp. 45-50.
31. As Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have asserted, “male sexual proprietariness is an evolved motivational/cognitive subsystem of the human brain/mind,” one that dictates everything from mate guarding to sexual jealousy. Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, “Coercive Violence by Human Males against their Female Partners,” Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans, ed. Muller and Wrangham, p. 275. See Vandermassen, “Evolution and Rape,” pp. 740-741.
32. For evidence, see Vandermassen, “Evolution and Rape,” pp. 738-741.