Maya seems uneasy in the presence of other Hispanic women, as she finds herself situated outside of their ethnic code switching at the mini mart.

Maya is near the center of the frame, allowing us to perceive her as a sort of target in the large classroom.

Maya rises to leave her friend and her new male companion, who are both already enveloped in shadow on the bed.

As Jared blocks Maya’s path in a doorway at the party where the pair meet, the glittering lights behind him contribute to the theme of celestial fate.

We are moralistically implicated as Jared flirtatiously announces, “So in conclusion, the court finds Maya guilty!” Maya averts a kiss and says, “The verdict will have to be returned at a future date.”

Maya stands above Jared, a foreshadowing of his own rape.

To pacify her mother, Maya tells her she is dating a young man named Gustav, implying her dedication to her studies and her independence from dating or romantic relationships.

Maya and Jared sit at either end of the frame, their playfully dramatic dialogue at the forefront of the scene.

The pair is positioned underneath the stars, unifying Maya and Jared in their linked fates as victims.

As the two kiss, Jared whispers to Maya, “You are so god damn perfect,” and she giggles in response.

Maya’s rape is filmed in such obscure lighting that we are unable to decipher much at certain points in the sequence.

A withdrawn Maya appears anonymous and androgynous in a suit and tie with shortened hair and vacant eyes.

One of Maya’s coworkers mockingly asks, “How am I supposed to score if we’re not even playing the same game?” after they decide that Maya must be a lesbian, thus reinforcing the misogynistic assumption that if women show a lack of interest, it is due to a sexual “defect” such as lesbianism.

A lingering shot of a blank-faced mannikin equates Maya to its image: frozen, stagnant and incomplete.

One of the more powerful shots in the film, the camera sits above Maya as she lays sprawled on a mattress, limp and bathed in red.

The camera takes on Maya’s positioning as she wakes, and a nameless Latina woman says, “Hey, chica, you are with us.”


Descent —
"Everything’s okay now." Race, vengeance, and watching the
modern rape-revenge narrative

by Jenny Lapekas

In Talia Lugacy’s Descent (2007), Maya (Rosario Dawson) is a joyful and ambitious college student at Claremont University in New York who is forever transformed after she is raped by Jared (Chad Faust), an arrogant campus jock. After Jared’s abuse seemingly reinscribes Maya’s second-class status as a black woman, she then overthrows his privileged position as a white male. The plot development echoes Vanessa Veselka of Bitch magazine:

“If you have been raped or abused, you’re scarred for life. You will never be as you were before the experience.”

Veselka’s words state the crux of a controversy surrounding this rape-revenge film. In the tradition of the genre, cinematic feminist discourse dictates that the onscreen crime of rape is punishable by death. With Descent Lugacy thus offers an evolving model of feminism and gynocentric film concerns. At the film’s conclusion, Maya enlists the help of a friend to rape Jared as she watches. This retribution also serves as Maya’s response to “correcting” or avenging her own rape. In addition, viewers may not initially note the significance of race within the film. As a colored woman who is raped by a white man, Maya subverts her female position through her friend Adrian, a colored man. Finally, we must examine if and how Maya’s choice propagates rape culture, especially within the shocking final scene, where we encounter an extremely graphic homosexual rape that is brutal, unapologetic, and unenduringly long. Viewers are confronted by their own morals and ethics as these relate to rape, race, gender, and the viewer’s concept of justice.

Sarah Projansky’s book Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture (2001) seeks to understand the relation between the viewer and the cinematic rape narrative through the lens of postfeminism. She begins with a history of rape within U.S. cinema, ranging from 1903 to 1979. We are also introduced to the way in which rape still interacts with both film and television decades after the feminist movement of the 60s. In an especially significant chapter entitled “Persistently Displaced: Black Women in Rape Narratives,” Projansky discusses the implications of the white attacker and black victim scenario. Such an analysis aids us in lucidly situating ourselves within the audience and spectator positioning of the rape-revenge film, and Projansky concludes after examining various cinematic and television depictions of rape that gender equality is in fact not yet a reality. Projansky’s text lends to this discussion an insightful take on how to watch Descent in terms of our own gender politics.

Adding to this discussion, in Jacinda Read’s groundbreaking book The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (2000), Read suggests the concept of the “new avenger”: the rugged modern heroine of today’s rape-revenge narrative. Read describes this figure in terms of the merging of feminism and popular culture as well as the rape-revenge cycle. Most important, she discusses how audiences react to the rape-revenge film and she takes up the question of why we embrace its racy imagery and also reject the pathos evoked by both victim and attacker. Chapter four, “Popular film/popular feminism: the critical reception of the rape-revenge film,” is most vital to my discussion due to Descent’s flirtation with both cinephilia and cinephobia. Read’s investigation indicates that the rape-revenge storyline innately leaves us feeling conflicted and morally ambiguous. Read’s work guides us to comprehend more effectively how and in what ways we watch a cinematic rape-revenge narrative play out before us, and she concludes that Hollywood has attempted to rationalize the feminist movement through cinematic depictions of the rape-revenge cycle.

The rape-revenge film’s framework has three basic stages: 

  1. The leading actress is either raped by one man or gang raped by several people,
  2. Revenge is carried out by the victim or on her behalf, and
  3. Justice arrives, but not in any conventional form, and we are confronted with the question, “At what cost?”

In this case, Lugacy carries Descent in an innovative direction by interweaving concepts of race as both weapon and shield and by depicting a male-on-male rape scene, a spectacle which viewers rarely encounter in film outside of prison walls. Read writes,

“Clearly, the rape-revenge structure is itself based on repetition, something that the phrase ‘an eye for an eye’ explicitly points up” (226).

In fact, John Schlesinger’s 1996 film Eye for an Eye, starring Sally Field as the avenger and victim’s mother and Kiefer Sutherland as the rapist, mimics this repetition when the teenage Julie is raped by a stranger. The legal system fails by pardoning Robert Doob, and Julie’s mother, Karen, seeks him out and kills him in her home. Read continues:

“These films are not necessarily the only, or indeed, the most obvious, way in which Hollywood can be seen to be making sense of feminism, their proliferation and increasing high-profile throughout this period means that they do represent a coherent, popular and ongoing site though [sic] which we can read the changing inscription of feminism in mainstream film and through which we can trace the significance of these changes.”(6)

Thus, audiences are able to explore how Hollywood expresses its feminist and postfeminist ideas through the rape-revenge narrative.

The uncensored original theatrical NC-17 version of Descent that I explore in this essay is about six minutes longer than the censored R-rated version, also released by City Lights Pictures. The film’s R-rated, edited counterpart reduces disturbing imagery and nudity during Jared’s rape only. Such cuts indicate that many viewers have become so desensitized to the typical heterosexual rape scene that those scenes are not in need of film censorship. Instead, viewers may feel a need to be shielded from the taboo, inorganic, and barbaric quality that many people tend to attribute to not only homosexual rape but to homosexuality as a lifestyle, a practice, and an identity.

Lugacy’s film upsets the traditional rape-revenge narrative as the rape of the female protagonist is avenged through rape, and the ending leaves viewers uncertain of Maya’s fate and potential for closure. Rape itself is a masculinized crime, typically perpetrated by men against women. Furthermore, the film concludes mid-rape, uninterested in Jared’s recovery process, if there is in fact one. The film has a cyclical structure that also leaves us wondering if Jared will carry out yet another rape or a later attack on his rapists, Maya and her friend Adrian. The film’s exhaustive “eye for an eye” ideology both discounts rape as a viable method of retribution and points to it as a site of catharsis. 

In terms of the rape-revenge genre, Read states that

“rape-revenge is not a subgenre of horror, but a narrative structure which, on meeting second-wave feminism in the 1970s, has produced a historically specific but generically diverse cycle of films” (241).

While this genre may span several decades, the films’ framework remains comparable and their plots and sub-themes cyclical: an innocent, intelligent woman is violated to “take her down a peg or two,” her rapists are inherently evil, and they are punished in retribution for their crimes against women. Unlike its trailblazing predecessors The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978), Descent depicts the violation of its male attacker by way of homosexual rape at the hands of the avenged feminine. In these earlier films, we meet heroines who embrace and carry out the murders of their rapists (In Last House, Mari’s parents take revenge on her behalf after she is killed), while in Descent Maya’s decision may seem more torturous and depraved. Lugacy’s modernized tale of rape-revenge sports a more hideous face than these products of the 1970s. Unlike its pioneering counterparts, Descent takes a twisted turn involving racial tensions and a gender-bending punishment. Race is at the forefront of the film, which may go unnoticed by viewers due to the film’s shocking rape scenes.

We must investigate our own viewer responses to Descent, along with the implications of these responses. The film is greatly invested in disturbing imagery, and its scenes are saturated in the quiet, understated symbolism of light and dark. Descent confronts our own feelings regarding rape and violence, the dual cinematic roles of prey and avenger, and the fluid transition from one to the other. Maya confronts Jared’s white privilege as a male and as an athlete by engaging in an ominous power and thus gender reversal, hence reifying her own blackness. John Anderson of Variety warns,

“A victim can sink lower than her predator. Whether receiving that message justifies the cost of watching Descent is another question.”

A juxtaposition of cinephilia and cinephobia accompanies spectatorship of the rape-film genre. As active onlookers, we align ourselves with Maya as she is raped by Jared. However, we experience both desire and disgust as we watch Maya’s friend Adrian rape Jared while Maya stands by, and we uncomfortably realign with her. The binary of victim and attacker slowly merges and becomes one cohesive entity in the concluding scene of the film. Adrian is a hero as he “rescues” Maya, yet he gladly plays the role of villain as he becomes a rapist.

Mid-rape, Adrian looks at Maya and confirms, “Everything’s okay now, right?” We reach an understanding that the purpose of Adrian’s raping Jared is so Maya can obtain catharsis and closure through Jared’s degradation, and to “right” the wrong Jared has done to her. However, as Veselka argues,

“The belief that a cathartic experience is necessary for sanity and healing must be questioned. I have seen some women push themselves, trying to trigger a dam break, and, instead, become trapped in neurotic fear.”

Maya’s “eye for an eye” decision to rape Jared offers a momentary emotional purging, but the psychological damage of watching Jared’s prolonged rape poses the threat of yet more deep-seated trauma. This likelihood becomes more palpable for us as Maya simply stares at Adrian with tears in her eyes, and most vital to the film’s concluding scene, she remains in brooding darkness.  

Independent or “indie” films tend to utilize extended scenes and long takes that include a great deal of dialogue or sometimes silence. Such a cinematic style is frequently criticized as “slow” or “dragging” and thus hindering the film’s entertainment value. In fact, viewers may find themselves anxiety-ridden if a film fails to liberally offer gratuitous or senseless action, which typically provides a cheap form of entertainment, served up to maintain viewer focus or attention. The fast-paced Hollywood film often maintains viewer interest while offering little to no plot density or substance, as well as characters who fail to establish likability or some semblance of a relation with the viewer. As film viewers, we may need these quiet moments of reflection which independent filmmakers like Lugacy include. They let us be with the characters, coordinate with them, so that we feel when they change in various ways throughout the storyline. Lugacy’s slower scenes also allow us to recover from the traumatic moments of rape and to align with Maya or Jared as the narrative voice dictates.

At the start of the film, Maya is shopping for groceries. She walks to the checkout, and she is ogled by a group of three Hispanic girls engaged in a graphic conversation about a man:  “He better keep his thing outta that smelly trash before sayin’ I got me somethin’ goin’ on, you know what I’m sayin’?” When the trio turns to Maya for her input, she feigns a weak smile and confident nod. As the girls leave the store, we hear one girl say to her friends, in reference to Maya, “She knows. She remembers.” This initial scene immediately places Maya outside of racial boundaries, giving us the sense that she is nowhere, lost amongst others who are more certain of their racial and cultural identities. We observe that Maya is of mixed ethnicity, which makes her vulnerable regarding her racial identity and cultural allegiance. While her mother “sounds” white during a phone conversation, this group of young women confront Maya with her own cultural ideals and understanding of ethnic mapping.

Rosario Dawson is a powerful force within a film that explores the sensitive connotations that inevitably accompany the issue of rape. Playing the role of a young black woman who consciously makes the decision to respond to her own rape in this particular way is no small task. Dawson’s own heritage includes American Indian, Puerto Rican, and Afro-Cuban ancestry, which give her a potential for racial ambiguity as an actor. Even audiences who disagree with the moral implications of the final rape scene would admire Dawson’s compelling performance in what is a modern tale of rape-revenge, updated from past decades to make room for what Read terms the “new avenger,” or the product of fourth-wave gender politics and neo-feminist discourse.

We next see Maya in a college auditorium among a sea of faces. She appears anonymous, ordinary, and unsure of herself in an unfamiliar environment: a dark-skinned girl in a predominantly white school. This image establishes ethnological anonymity and displaces Maya to a role as an outsider. At a party where Maya initially meets Jared, she rises to leave him sitting on the couch after talking. Here, Maya stands above Jared, and he looks up at her as he remains seated beneath her, subordinate and eager to gain her trust. Jared takes Maya out to dinner, where he tells the infatuated girl, “Give me a challenge that’s dynamic, with bite and real risks,” a glaring foreshadowing of both rapes. After their dinner date, the pair descend into a dark basement lit only by candles, and Jared trails behind Maya with his greasy hair fallen over one eye. The predatory male gaze can already be read here as Maya steps into the underground space.

Jared, a college athlete, clearly has his pick of young women willing to sleep with him. During their date, Jared playfully tells Maya that he took piano lessons as a child. He explains, “Why tickle the ivories when I can be tickling the girls?” Jared’s apparent promiscuity renders Maya’s rape not an act of necessary sexual fulfillment, but one of racial dominion, asserting his strength and omnipotence as a white man over a black woman. By intruding in such a way, Jared insists upon his superiority and societal placement by entering the black female body, a site of both desire and disgust. Jared is later feminized via penetration, when Maya uses a dildo, a phallic brandishing of power, to rape him. In this way, she challenges and subverts her state of femaleness by insisting on this site of male power. On their dinner date, Jared rhetorically asks Maya, “Why live in the past when I can create my own moments now?” Maya’s later inevitable choice embodies this earlier question.

On her date with Jared, we are informed that Maya is scarred from past experiences, although we are unsure of the circumstances.Projansky theorizes that

“two seemingly antithetical types of narratives are common: those that depict women’s vulnerability as leading to rape and those that depict the rape of an independent woman as making her vulnerable” (30).

This common notion explains how our heroine is situated within her own assault. Maya comes to us as a vulnerable college student. Her downfall is her willingness to trust whiteness when she cannot recognize her own blackness. While we question her post-traumatic condition, we may make a hero of Maya for ridding the world of a dangerous man. But she is also shown as mimicking the man’s crime and thus recapitulating his criminal behavior against women. Before Maya is raped inside Jared’s house, she forcefully says to a toy football he throws to her:  “You and I don’t mix.” Maya’s assessment has racial, moral, and violent undertones. Jared asks, “So fess up, where’re you from?” When Maya politely responds with “Baltimore,” he says, “That’s not what I mean.” Jared is referencing Maya’s cultural lineage rather than where she was born or raised; he is far more interested in what she is than who she is.

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