2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
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:
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.
As a black woman, Maya’s narrative is one of racial relations and tension. Released in 2007, Descent introduces viewers as well as film critics to the black female avenger within a rape-revenge narrative. As Read states,
“The marked absence of black female victims and avengers in the rape-revenge cycle…can be seen as stemming from a belief that black women are ‘impure’ and, thus, not only incapable of being raped, but morally excluded from exacting revenge” (234).
In the scene where he rapes Maya, Jared mutters breathlessly, “You fucking maggot, you fucking nothing, nigger with attitude, little miss shit, you fucking baboon cunt, baboon bitch. You like that?” as Maya seethes helplessly beneath him. This degradation is depicted not only through his attack on Maya, but also the way he tries to make her feel worthless, a “fucking nothing…baboon bitch” because of her skin color.
Jared accepts the misogynistic worldview that women who “flaunt” their attractiveness or sexual appeal are begging for rape from onlooking men. Furthermore, Jared asks Maya, “You ever see how they look at you, the boys?” Maya’s skin also gives Jared the opportunity to exoticize her, marking her as “Other,” a hybridized and sexualized creature wading a sea of white. Jared’s discourse represents the sexist ideology that if females appear enticing enough, this dilemma for men warrants sexual domination. Maya has committed the crime of femaleness, which is interpreted as a threat by masculinity, and her punishment is rape.
With the exception of minimal shots depicting Jared on top of Maya, the camera focuses primarily on her frenzied, angry facial expressions during the rape sequence. She screams and growls, and even attempts to bite at Jared’s face as we hear the unzipping of his pants and the panicked, breathy movements of Maya’s struggle. Jared tears off Maya’s panties and stuffs them into her mouth, thus forcing her to consume and subdue her own femininity. This act effectively silences her as well, a form of rhetoric not unfamiliar to a woman of color. Afterward, surrounded by those who fail to understand her withdrawn nature, Maya is assumed to be a “nigger with attitude” among white students who are quick to dismiss her. As Projansky states, “Importantly, the friend-turned-enemy rapist is almost always white” (114). This general rule applies to Descent alongside the rape-revenge films of the 70s, yet Jared’s whiteness plays a much more significant role within Descent.
Maya is targeted because of her skin color, and Jared informs her of just how repulsive and insignificant she must truly be as a colored woman. Read tells us that
“the understandings of feminism produced by the rape-revenge film are, in fact, crucially dependent on the way in which it negotiates the other stories present in the text, particularly the feminine stories” (10).
Maya’s struggle with her blackness and eventual embrace of it are what constitute this “feminine story.” After Maya’s rape, we note an increasing visual darkness within the film, which parallels Maya’s transition into a life of drugs and casual sex. As Veselka writes, “A violated woman is expected to fall apart, and not just privately, either; she must disintegrate publicly, in front of friends, in front of professionals, in front of Starbucks,” which points to Maya’s collapse or “disintegration” as she progressively withdraws from everything which used to satisfy her.
The film’s juxtaposition of slow-paced, plodding scenes of little to no action alongside scenes containing intense, often turbulent activity, such as both rape scenes, balances the film as one of quiet introspection as well as disturbing violence. Maya’s rape is immediately followed by a seemingly monotonous scene where a senior faculty member speaks dispassionately at a graduation ceremony. The scene “drags” as the woman speaks in a monotone to the graduating class, and much of what she says applies to Maya, particularly that Maya must not settle with being measured by others’ standards. The elderly academic says,
“You are it. Take a second, think about it, but just know that no one else, no one knows what it’s like to be you. Hard as they try, other people see you only in terms in their lives, their experiences. Don’t let them decide what’s right for you. Your every step is yours, as is the path you walk on, yours alone.”
Her monologue lasts less than three minutes, yet the effect is one of tedious and even meaningless rhetoric—unless we listen carefully to her message and then spot Maya standing sullenly behind other students who are working the event.
Maya begins frequenting a local hip hop club where she dances provocatively with the glistening, gyrating bodies of dark-skinned men and women, a stark contrast to the image of her in the white college lecture hall. During a particularly intense sequence, the dance floor is completely hidden in shadows as the camera focuses on Maya and her multiple dance partners bathed in light, all of them dark-skinned. One man has extremely dark pigmentation, which renders his appearance difficult to perceive in the chaotic mix of light and shadow. This sexualized scene plays out in slow motion, allowing us to feel that we are dancing with Maya, aligning with her pain. We hear melancholy music, accompanied by deeply sorrowful vocals. The dichotomy Lugacy sets up here is effective in highlighting the contrast between Maya’s active behavior and her fixed inward torment. This scene also offers a moment when we identify with Maya.
After Maya takes a job at a local clothing store, we observe a particularly poignant scene as Maya assembles and dresses manikins. As she fits these plastic parts together to build a female for display, she is a woman falling to pieces. In another key scene within the store, Maya faces the camera as she folds clothing. She holds the article before her, and her stoic face is momentarily hidden behind the clothing. This brief scene reminds us that Maya hides her torment by taking refuge in work and school, afraid to acknowledge her suffering and to own her pain. When a friendly coworker asks Maya what she likes to do for fun, she coldly responds, “I fold.” Certainly, this is meant literally, but Maya also folds within her own life, bending, collapsing, rearranging her trauma so that it is more manageable to carry.
According to Tammy Oler in Bitch magazine, modern films that portray female rape victims who seek revenge on their attackers serve as a model for further self-victimization and, ultimately, self-destruction. We undoubtedly encounter a destruction of self in Descent’s final scene, yet Maya allows Jared’s rape to continue. Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, states,
“The functions of monster and hero are far more frequently represented by males and the function of victim far more garishly by females” (12).
This recognized pattern of gender roles within cinema is the reason viewers find the rape-revenge genre provocative: the feminine embrace of a darker, more violent realm of the feminist psyche, thus the exhibition of traditionally male behavior, such as aggression, violence, and murder.
A gender-centered patriarchy dictates that “feminine” behavior means she must sit quietly and resolve troubles by tearfully sharing feelings of bitterness, resentment or rage, but never act on these emotions through violence. More recently, according to Judith Franco in “Gender, Genre and Female Pleasure in the Contemporary Revenge Narrative: Baise moi and What It Feels Like For A Girl,”
“Female protagonists take masculinely codified traits such as directness, violence, aggression, independence and control in their stride, thus challenging social prescriptions of femininity in terms of attitude and behavior” (3).
Maya directly defies traditional feminine proprieties via her aggression and premeditated attack against Jared. As she is responsible for his rape, Maya has also de- and re-codified characteristics traditionally paired with masculinity, and Adrian acts as her surrogate phallus to complete Jared’s assault.
Maya suffers the betrayal of date rape (as opposed to “stranger rape) as she is unaware that she is a mere fly caught in Jared’s web. The scholarly Maya is initially encircled by Jared as he lights candles: a predatory act as Jared needs to see his prey in the darkness. This applies also to our image of Jared following behind Maya. Maya has no weapon to use against her attacker other than her objectified body; she kicks, hits, and even attempts to bite Jared’s face. However, her black body succumbs to Jared’s strength.
Read reports that
“one of the most obvious gaps the rape-revenge film opens up is that between the (feminine) victim and the (feminist) avenger and the way in which the films negotiate the transformation from one to the other” (12).
We sit beside Maya as she quietly, almost poetically collapses into a state of desolation and self-exile. In contrast we are also witness to Maya’s ostensibly nostalgic face as she tells her attacker that she wants to “see him” again. Clover cleverly points out that “what 1970s horror realized is that one’s own rape is the most avengeable deed of all” (137). Indeed, if a person is victimized in such a way and lives to ponder over the trauma, movie audiences are inherently curious to follow the predictably grim outcome.
“If the typical racist is a young clean-cut white man, quite often a sports star, fraternity brother, or soldier, the most vile villain in many of these texts is not the rapist but the man who watches the rape” (116).
In the final rape scene Jared, who matches this description of a “typical racist,” is blindfolded during part of his own rape at Adrian’s hands. Maya adversely takes on the masculine role of watcher, but she turns away when her voyeuristic gaze becomes unbearable, a move that reminds us that her moral compass is still somewhat intact. We likely find our own gazes averted to avoid this harrowing scene of fixed violence.
Earlier, in a scene setting up standards of masculinity, Jared brags in the locker room about his athletic prowess when a much larger player grabs his dogtags off his locker and aggressively asks, “Are these real?” Jared replies, “Hand ‘em over, asshole.” His much larger teammate laughs, drops the tags down his pants and dares Jared, “You man enough to take ‘em from me, pretty boy?” When Jared hesitates, then attacks the young man, Jared is quickly taken down. His teammate then tosses the tags to the downtrodden Jared and adds, “Lose the fuckin’ attitude.” Jared’s teammates’ quick and merciless laughter accompanied by the address of “pretty boy” relegate Jared to the position of “girl” as he futilely attempts to advertise his pseudo-machismo bluster.
Earlier scenes also set up character, such as a long take where Jared walks from his dorm room to a lecture hall, where Maya is a teaching assistant for his class. We watch as Jared changes locations several times yet remains a static character within the long take’s narrative; he is disingenuous, pompous, and manipulative (he appears to be popular on campus, most likely due to his habitual lying and exaggerating). As Jared transports himself as a fixed persona before he is assaulted, Maya is frozen in place yet constantly shifting and transforming in terms of animosity, bitterness, and an odd sort of spiritual awakening these intense feelings incite. This long take is around two minutes in length and begins in Jared’s dorm room, an arena much his own, complete with a nude girl sleeping in his bed as he exits, but he completes his journey in an environment where Maya is in control, where she excels, and where she is the master: the classroom. We are then not surprised to see that Jared cheats on his exam, and Maya confronts him about the indiscretion.
Both this scene of tense confrontation and Maya’s rape scene involve manipulative language and the displacement of privilege and detriment, signaling racial, gender, and class positioning as well as their appropriation within the film.
The jarring words uttered by Jared while he rapes Maya are suggestive of racial violence as well as Maya’s animality as a black woman. However, Maya is sure to strike Jared’s face several times before the dark-skinned Adrian assaults the blonde athlete. Jared does not consider murder an option after he rapes Maya because he genuinely believes that Maya desires the sexual encounter. This is evidenced earlier when Maya reprimands Jared for cheating on his midterm exam and he arrogantly asks, “Do you wanna see me again? It can be arranged.”
The recovery or discovery of self that Maya pursues implies that Jared does violence to her identity. However, Veselka counters,
“To imply that deep within every woman is something essential that can be seen or touched, a vessel containing the real her that can be stolen by someone else, is an absolute objectification of women.”
Sexuality, after all, is more than genitals, so the unwelcome presence of another within the body indicates an invasion certainly, but not necessarily a destruction or ravaging. After she is gang raped, Nadine from Virginie Despenses’ French film Baise Moi (2000) (which translates as Fuck Me or Rape Me) vehemently tells her female friend Manu, “If you park in the projects, you empty your car ’cause someone’s gonna break in. I leave nothing precious in my cunt for those jerks.” While coinciding with Veselka’s progressive claim, Nadine’s philosophy on the female body is simply to refrain from regarding her body as a defining force behind her femininity or an obscure temple where woman safeguards her personhood. In short, the vagina is not defined by the penetration of man. As Nadine flippantly tells her friend, “It’s just a bit of cock.”
According to traditional cinematic gender roles, women occupy two primary roles, particularly within the horror genre. Sarah Eschholz and Jana Bufkin of Sociological Forum, tell us that classically, women in film
“are either ‘virgins,’ ‘Madonnas,’ and ‘good girls,’ who occupy the domains of traditional femininity, or are ‘vamps,’ ‘whores,’ and ‘bad girls,’ who transgress traditional gender boundaries” (661).
Maya, who is clearly a “good girl,” undoubtedly evolves (or devolves) into a “vamp” who orchestrates Jared’s collapse. Read explains that “the passage from rape to revenge, from victim to aggressor, usually also necessitates some kind of transformation of the female protagonist” (226). However, Maya must also tackle racial violence and ultimately racial hierarchy through rape. Eschholz and Bufkin state that the “[s]ex of movie characters is unrelated to offending” (668). In short, the violated become the violators, and gender is thus rendered meaningless.
At the conclusion of the film, Jared’s rape has two phases: his seduction and then his actual rape, the first taking place in Maya’s apartment living room and the second in her bedroom. Even the rising action that leads to Jared’s rape can be criticized as “slow” with an abundance of dialogue. In that way, we are informed of where both Maya and Jared are positioned within the narrative structure of the rape-revenge plot. This homosexual rape scene itself is controversial and was the subject of ridicule from critics due to its shocking nature and mimicry of torture porn. Not only is this scene incredibly graphic but it lasts an excruciating ten minutes, concluding with images of Jared’s limp body being thrust repeatedly against the bed by Adrian, his body exhausted, surrendering and accepting defeat, as Adrian tells him. As we find this scene of homosexual rape grotesque and detestable at best, pornographic at worst, we must wonder why and how we may fail to feel this during Maya’s rape.
When Jared ostentatiously relays his recent accomplishments on the football field, complete with wild gesticulating, Maya, unimpressed with this pretentious show of male bravado, confidently lets him know, “You don’t have to lie . . . You didn’t score a touchdown. You didn’t play.” At the end, once she orders Jared to strip, she circles him slowly several times and says, “What’s mine is yours,” indicating that she is prepared to hand Jared her pain, trauma, and the rage that seems to possess her. Jared appears nervous and unsure of his posture or where to place his arms and even covers his penis and testicles a few times as Maya stares at him. This full-frontal nudity indicates that Jared has both literally and figuratively been stripped down, intruded upon, and he is now the object of Maya’s harsh gaze. It is here that we see his penis limp and debilitated under Maya’s careful watch. However, the R-rated version does not allow us this prolonged view of Jared’s naked body. After revealing a blindfold, she tells the entranced Jared, “I was such a stuck up bitch before.” This time, Maya leads Jared to the bed, as he is the blind one.
Jared is aroused by the idea of being “tied up,” bound and helpless during an act of sex before Maya and Adrian jointly assault him. This concept of relinquishing male power in return for sexual gratification is significant. Adrian asserts his own power as a man of color as he demands this same submission to power when he mounts Jared. We see Adrian’s large stature towering over Jared, who lays flat on his back. In this posture, Adrian assumes black hegemonic power over his victim. As Clover writes,
“The avenger or self-defender will become as directly or indirectly violent as her assailant, and…these films are in some measure about that transformation” (123).
In order to obtain their own visions of justice, cinematic victims of rape within this subgenre, rather than fighting “the system,” must subvert the phallocracy which governs them by adapting and exercising traditionally male behavior: violence.
Once Jared is secured to the bed, Maya orders, “No more talking.” She begins to cry as she relays a dream, he attempts to comfort her, and she gags him and reveals a dildo. The gag is especially significant as we know Jared to charm and manipulate through his deceitful and inflated words. As Jared screams, Maya tells him, “You’re mine now. You’re mine.” It is not until a closeup shot of Jared’s restrained leg with a large, masculine hand stroking it that we realize Adrian is in the room with them. We hear Jared’s muffled screams and cries as Adrian mounts him. Maya reaches underneath Adrian’s powerful thrusts and begins to masturbate Jared as he is raped. Adrian orders Maya to remove his blindfold and even says, “Mira” (“Look”) to Jared, not bothering to speak English or translate his command. Adrian puckers his lips and tells Jared, “Hello, fairy cake.” A few minutes after this, Adrian says, “Look at that. She made a mess all over herself,” further feminizing Jared with pronouns and also objectifying him by speaking of him in the third person. Adrian says,
“It’s like sports, you see. They school you all wrong...teaches you to accept defeat. I mean, look at you; nobody accepts it better than you.”
This dialogue toys with the homoerotic undertones of football and also highlights Jared’s former pretentious language about his supposed athletic accomplishments. By Adrian telling Jared that he accepts defeat well, Jared is placed where he has struggled to resist: subordinate to other men, and thus aligned with the feminine. Jared is also “conquered” in the sense that he will likely never again commit a rape and “mastered” in the sense that he will never be as he was before, as Veselka tells us above.
The queering of Jared is pivotal due to his chauvinistic positioning as a macho football player who enjoys romancing seemingly as many women as he can. During Jared’s rape, Adrian asks Jared, “You want me to help you out down there?” Jared struggles to nod to the thrusting man, and Adrian responds, “Fuck you. I ain’t a fuckin’ faggot,” and he begins raping Jared more quickly and powerfully. Adrian means to crystallize the fact that Jared is now the “faggot” as he is made the submissive receiver of Adrian’s penis and the silenced acceptor of defeat at the hands of a colored man. Most central is Adrian as the colored male rapist and Jared as the white victim, the queer receptacle, the inverted stereotype of the suave, heteronormative college athlete. The parallel of homosexuality and animality in order to achieve “justice” seems to derive from Maya’s own goal to vindicate herself as an empowered woman rather than a victim.
Before we are given a full shot of the bed containing both Adrian and Jared, along with Maya’s back to the spectacle, Jared’s gagged and frightened face is shown in slow motion to emphasize the gravity of what is taking place, but the pace quickly speeds up again. In an almost comical moment, mid-rape, Adrian says to Maya, “Hey, you got water? I’m getting thirsty.” Adrian offers a complex brand of masculinity. He gladly situates himself as Maya’s delegated companion to avenge her trauma, he claims he is not a “faggot” as he rapes another man, and he is brazen enough to request water as Jared’s limp hands and feet dangle over the victim’s disabled body as Maya sits to the side, crying.
Maya decides that her own path to self-preservation involves assaulting her attacker rather than taking his life. She discovers her own method of stealing a piece of Jared’s life, instead. What many portrayals of rape-revenge have in common are the underlying sense of eroticism and a feigned mutual attraction between victim and attacker. The attackers’ sadistic urges are manipulated and hence utilized to induce suffering. Clover asserts, “If maleness caused the crime, then maleness will suffer the punishment” (123). Maya’s narrative follows the same general pattern as all rape-revenge films: Maya is raped, legal and social justice fail, and she creates her own form of justice. Given Descent’s racial subplot, we can add to Clover’s argument: if whiteness caused the crime, then whiteness will suffer the punishment.
However, Descent is a vital component within this group of films because it confronts us with our own feelings of rage, racial bias, and gender roles, and how these meet and interlock with the isolated act of rape. As Linda Williams points out,
“Genres thrive…on the persistence of the problems they address; but genres thrive also in their ability to recast the nature of these problems” (12).
This accounts, after all, for the success behind this cinematic subgenre: rape continues to take place across the globe, and the horror and violence that follow are ever-present realities.
Maya can experience closure only when Jared is bound in the ropes of his own feminization, an outcome arguably worse than death. Maya represents the virginal or “good girl” archetype of the genre, however. While Maya maintains an aura of innocence when we meet her, her attack quickly drives her to embrace the sadistic and tightly interwoven roles of seductress and murderer. Matt Zoller Seitz exalts in The New York Times, “Rape is power. [Descent is] [h]ard to watch but essential to see.” Descent, not necessarily moralistically opposed to rape, glorifies the sadistic tone that permeates the scene where Jared is raped.
The film’s final section is one of the longest uninterrupted rape scenes in narrative film. The scene is foreshadowed when Jared arrives at Maya’s apartment anticipating a wild night of sex. Maya recreates the tone of their memorable date with wine and candlelight, and Jared even wears the same football jersey he wore when they met. Jared is made to strip his clothes in Maya’s living room and in fact appears humiliated by his unforeseen vulnerability. Maya exercises the female gaze, which proves eerily similar to the traditional cinematic male gaze: a hungry expression of longing that penetrates and thus degrades the object of the gaze. The sustained full-frontal male nudity which we encounter is also rare within cinema while the baring of female breasts and buttocks have become commonplace.
After arriving at Maya’s apartment, Jared seductively says, “So, I’m all yours, as I promised.” Indeed, Maya now owns Jared. Race ties into his language as well. Jared is a white man now sexually owned and dominated by a black man and woman via bisexual rape. Once Jared is securely restrained with rope and handcuffs, Maya repeats many of the insincere phrases Jared said to her before she was violated. “My turn, my turn to talk. Just talk, no worries. Scout’s honor,” Maya says warmly, similarly to the way Jared lied to her at the campus party where they first met. Maya uses red paint to write “BABOON CUNT” on Jared’s chest. The shots are dark as the room is lit only enough to satisfy us with Jared’s nude body and flaccid penis, a symbol of his first signs of impotence and submission while under Maya’s control. Here is the bed he figuratively made and must now quite literally lay in, complete with Maya hovering menacingly over it. It is also significant that we encounter his penis, the tool used to carry out his crime, hanging limp, defeated; he has been disarmed.
While further repeating Jared’s original words, “You like that, bitch” (now more of a command than a question), Maya recreates the powerless experience of rape for Jared. Veselka explains,
“Someone else is inside of you. It’s not metaphor. It’s real. Rape is, therefore, forced intimacy as well as violence.”
Maya moans erotically, “Fuckin’ maggot, fucking nothin’. Open up, oh yeah, take it all in,” recreating the satisfaction Jared obtained when he raped her. Maya takes on a masculinized role with the aid of an artificial phallus. As Williams claims,
“When the girl-victim of a film like Halloween finally grabs the phallic knife, or ax, or chain saw to turn the tables on the monster-killer, that viewer identification shifts from an ‘abject terror gendered feminine’ to an active power with bisexual components” (7).
Descent depicts no tangible murders, but portrays this idea of feminine power activated by “bisexual components” as illustrated by the dildo Maya uses to penetrate Jared. What is more,
“While they don’t discount the trauma of rape, Monster , Baise-Moi, and Descent press the idea that we are ill-served by imagining a world full of men who are always agents of violence and never its victims” (Oler 34).
Lugacy offers a reality where males are as vulnerable as their female counterparts, if not more so due to the presumed guarantee of male power and privilege, which Maya proves is a false sense of power, and thus a surrendering of power in itself. Maya tells Jared, “Funny how words create ideas. Ideas are hard to shake, it turns out.” This sentiment is no doubt in reference not only to her plans for Jared, but also to the words spoken by Jared during her rape, which prove so dehumanizing that she takes on the roles of rapist and black savage. Maya cleverly avoids the mounting inconvenience of womanhood as she rapes Jared with a dildo. As spectators of rape culture, we are somewhat apathetic to the male-on-female rape, but stupefied audiences continue to experience shock and outrage over the taboo spectacle of male-on-male rape. It is also likely that, as viewers, we have become numb to the traditional heterosexual rape scene, which entails the predictably aggressive male and the helpless female: a tragedy we see continually on the news. Instead, we must digest and make sense of the powerless male who is dominated by another male, larger, stronger, and darker. It is this idea of Jared positioned as a submissive woman, that becomes “hard to shake” for us.
Jared now understands that it is neither Maya nor Adrian who is the “baboon bitch” or the “nigger with attitude,” but himself. His white male privilege is disrupted and halted and he is now the slave, the objectified nigger, the “nothing.” As mentioned earlier, one filmic example of racial subjugation tying into a male-on-male rape scene outside of prison walls is from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). The black Marsellus (Ving Rhames), explains to Butch (Bruce Willis), what he plans to do with the white redneck who rapes him in the basement of the white man’s store.
“What now? Let me tell you what now. I'ma call a couple of hard, pipe-hittin' niggas to go to work on homes here with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. You hear me talkin' hillbilly boy? I ain't through with you by a damn sight. I'ma get medieval on your ass.”
Marsellus’s language here is paramount; he plans to call on other black men to help him torture and kill his white rapist, whose suffering is the only form of satiation Marsellus hungers for after he is sodomized. Had Marcellus been raped by another black man, this is not the same reaction we would observe.
As Maya watches Jared’s rape carried out, she begins to cry. Before her rape, we know Maya as a cautious but driven young woman with a sense of humor. Post-rape, Maya is hungry for dangerous situations, sexual encounters, and the company of fellow minorities instead of the anonymous, foreign white faces that surround her at work and school. She now cries for Jared as she mourns her own innocence and internal peace. Jared initially struggles but eventually surrenders, and his limp, seemingly lifeless body is continuously pounded against the bed frame as Adrian sweats profusely. As the first scene that contains Maya’s tears, we know that Maya combats her own moral sensibilities concerning rape, and she regrets that Jared’s rape must now in fact take place. However, Maya’s tears do not nullify or affect the attack that inevitably unfolds before her.
Maya touches Jared sexually throughout much of the scene, but eventually she turns away from the rape and sits forlornly next to the bed. Between grunts and groans, Adrian says, “That’s it, that’s right, make me feel it, puta.” Adrian does not bother to change the Spanish ending of the word “puta” (bitch) to a masculinized “o,” denoting Jared’s now submissive (missionary) position as a woman. As Clover tells us,
“That male victims are shown in feminine postures at the moment of their extremity, would seem to suggest that gender inheres in the function itself - that there is something about the victim function that wants manifestation in a female” (12).
Behavior is shown as a gendered activity. Jared is feminized and thus inferiorized as he squirms beneath Adrian, remaining subordinate to the black man’s power. This concept is further evidenced when Adrian mockingly questions, “You like raping smart girls, huh? Make ‘em feel small and stupid, huh? You stupid fuck. Who’s stretching whose cunt now, huh?” Such violent language tugs at our visceral fear of emotional and bodily mutilation, but we also feel that Maya is vindicated by Adrian’s words and deeds.
Because the role of race within Descent is so vital to the rape narrative it illustrates, it is especially significant that Jared’s rapist is a man of color. Maya secures a blindfold over Jared’s eyes with the unspoken promise of sex; the blindfold denotes color-blindness as well as the foreplay that precedes sex. Adrian eventually tells Maya, “Hey, take it off him. Make him see his daddy.” Because we are now aligned with Jared due to his victim status, his horrified expression is consumed through our cinematic gaze. In the R-rated version of the film, however, the duration of Jared’s feeble gaze is shortened. Jared is made to understand that this is exactly what Adrian is: his “daddy,” his owner, and his master. Earlier in the film, Maya is abandoned by her white friend at the campus party where she meets Jared. Her friend is easily sweet-talked by a generic male student who tells her that she is “special.” The naive girl easily forgets about her friend, and Maya rises to leave. After she is placed outside of the Latina girls’ conversation at the mini mart and then forsaken by her white friend, Maya feels racially isolated and conflicted. Adrian, appearing to be of mixed black and Hispanic ethnicity, is later welcomed by Maya to assist in ascertaining her elusive identity not simply as a racialized being but as a young woman who has elicited her feminine agency.
It is a homosexual rape that occurs in Maya’s apartment that “saves” her, that redeems her status as the “smart college girl” we know she is, rather than just a “nigger with attitude,” the stereotype her coworkers ascribe to her. Although Jared sets up his own humiliation as the aggressively macho jock who simply fears the scorn of others, his inevitable queering relinquishes Maya of a rapist’s guilt, and his effeminate status positions him beneath Maya. Adrian at once lends his masculine power and male privilege to Maya and undermines Jared’s masculinity via the rape. Maya, rather than taking on the role of passive rape survivor, approaches vengeance proactively by involving Adrian. Maya, then, vicariously rapes Jared via homosexual rape. Jared’s two-part rape also contains glaring elements of humiliation. While Maya is alienated for her color and gender, Jared is othered for his status as both rapist and “faggot,” and is even mocked for his bowels releasing during the rape. Most dehumanizing is Jared’s silencing throughout his rape, after the many violent words he spoke during Maya’s rape as well as the lies he told throughout the film. When Jared tells Maya, “It’s okay,” she asserts, “Shut the fuck up! No one wants to hear from you!” Maya wisely subverts her own feminine, and thus powerless, position through Adrian’s privileged position as a male to effectively silence Jared and obtain her conceptualization of justice. Her need of homosexual rape, as well as the power of male privilege, to forge justice speaks to a primal need for redemption by any means necessary; Adrian affords her this freedom. Maya’s acknowledgement of her powerlessness is the very source of her strength, which renders her a cinematic heroine for practicing female agency by challenging the gendering of violence by way of Adrian’s body.
Maya hunts Jared like an animal, and he is treated as more of an animal than a person as he is lured to Maya’s home under false pretenses, and he is bound, taunted, and abused. The animality of Maya’s and Adrian’s joint crime is telling. The savage Maya, labeled a “baboon cunt” by Jared, appeals to the primitive black man for help. The image of Maya and Adrian joining forces and working together to violate and dominate Jared illustrates a scene of black solidarity and aggression. The underlying animality within this exchange is aligned with male homosexuality as Adrian verbally abuses Jared during his rape. We must note that Maya does not lose all trust in men due to her rape; she in fact trusts Adrian with the important task of reclaiming and redefining her power as a black woman. Adrian initially tells Jared when mounting him, “Down, boy,” as if the bound man is a dog. Maya also appears to be masturbating Jared as Adrian thrusts inside him. Adrian reminds Jared, “You’re mine. You’re forever mine,” indicating that Maya may have been “owned” by Jared for one night (a rape which lasts mere minutes), but Jared, by being raped by another man (an event which we never see conclude), can prepare for a lifetime as a degraded possession.
As Maya turns her head to look at Adrian, we watch as tears fall down her face, and we hear a voiceover from earlier in the film when she is stargazing with Jared on their date before he rapes her. Maya tells him, “I need to get over it, I know it...and I will.” As Maya turns back around, away from the ongoing rape, we continue to hear the sounds of Adrian’s heavy breathing.
By Descent’s conclusion, Maya is transformed into a figure unrecognizable from her former self. Maya appears broken, yet she undergoes a metamorphosis of strength, conviction, and unfaltering confidence. She is a sexually realized, self-aware black woman who embraces the protection offered by other minorities. While the recovery process may never draw to a close, Maya successfully transfigures herself from the black savage the hegemonic order suspects her to be. According to Oler, rape “reduces all of us to a single choice of whether we will be victims or monsters” (34). Rather than playing the passive role of victim, Maya instead chooses to be a monster, a cruel “baboon bitch.”
We consider Maya triumphal because she survives her attack, but we are also left with the sense that she is not victorious. A black woman, Maya settles into her own darkness as Adrian rapes Jared mere feet away. We likely feel that Jared receives due treatment, the suffering reserved only for those who commit sex crimes against women or children. We are, however, conflicted on the basis that rape is innately immoral, regardless of circumstance. Certainly, Maya’s rape induces her dark Descent, but it also emboldens her and kindles her sense of racial identity, lending her the courage to locate her sexuality and exploit it for the purpose of Jared’s downfall. However, when Adrian asks Maya if everything is “okay now,” a question directed toward us as well, we know the answer is most likely “No.”
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