ANALYSIS: Exploitation vs. Empowerment in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) and PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

Please note: This analysis contains spoilers from the beginning. Trigger warning for sexual abuse and rape.

As the jarring string quartet soars, adding a gut-wrenching tonality to Britney Spears’ Toxic, Cassie’s high-shine crimson heels strut towards the cabin door: but the audience’s heart is heavy, bound by lead chains in anticipation of what is about to unfold. For those familiar with Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman this is the moment we finally believe the predators of the film will receive their comeuppance, slathered in violence at the hands of a woman hellbent on revenge. What is not expected is how the final act plays out: the retribution tame in comparison to its cinematic forbears but serving as a stark reminder of the realities of both rape and revenge.

Now that PYW has garnered the public’s attention, and an Oscar for ‘Best Original Screenplay’, it begs the question why other rape-revenge films have been chastised and often perceived as barbaric, disgusting or unnecessary movies that cause more harm than good. In 1978 director Meir Zarchi outraged the world with his on-screen depiction of rape-revenge with I Spit On Your Grave, a film that was ultimately banned in many countries with critics condemning it for ‘glorifying violence against women’, the apparently unanimous opinion being that it had only been created by a man for a sick male audience who wanted to watch a woman suffer.

However the majority of these opinions came solely from men, who were speaking on the behalf of women instead of allowing female critics to examine the film themselves. This is why we took back ISOYG and kicked and screamed until it was known that rape-revenge films are a form of catharsis, allowing sexual assault victims to control the experience of abuse and watch as perpetrators are violently eradicated on-screen. 

Since ISOYG it’s became clear there’s more-than-meets-the-eye to rape-revenge films, with the sub-genre becoming a leading contender amongst female horror fans who find comfort through the atrocities shown. Women have been reclaiming it with Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, Natalie Leite’s M.F.A. and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale and there’s a demonstrable pattern that these films are powerful tools for the female audience with many fans also having a love for rape-revengers made by men, such as Abel Ferrera’s Ms.45, Bo Arne Vibenius’ Thriller: A Cruel Picture and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, amongst others.

However often these films are classified as ‘exploitation’ and would never see the light of day when it comes to prestigious awards nominations such as the Oscars: so why did PYW win one and get nominated for another four?

Firstly, we can look at the differences between PYW and ISOYG in terms of their depictions of rape. In Zarchi’s film we’re given an unrelenting and uncensored version of a violent and abhorrent gang rape that occurs over three different scenes with a prolonged run time. In contrast Fennell’s film never forces the audience to confront the scenes of rape: instead it is implied through dialogue and framing devices, such as only hearing the audio of a video taken from that horrendous night.

Mainstream audiences have always struggled with seeing sexual violence on screen, it being something that is guaranteed to court censorship, especially when it comes to the BBFC. When these rape-revenge films show rape it feels as though the audience automatically shy away from it because it’s too controversial to confront and immediately forces the film to be labelled as exploitative. 

However there is an argument that rape should be depicted in its true brutality, not sanitised to satisfy an audience that do not wish to confront the reality of sexual assault. When dealing with such a horrific act perhaps the director should force their viewer to experience just how absolutely atrocious sexual violence is. That said, the fact that both ISOYG and PYW take such different approaches is what makes the sub-genre so richly diverse: narratives can be presented in completely opposing ways yet tell the same story, providing catharsis to particular subsets of the audience.

The revenge in both films is also portrayed very differently: in ISOYG Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) seduces – then brutally destroys – the men who raped her; hanging, slashing and castrating them one by one. In PYW we never witness any violence: we simply see a name with a strike through it, insinuating that Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has removed them from the picture. It could be argued that PYW is more realistic whereas ISOYG is more fantastical: however just because one features violence and the other not doesn’t mean that both films aren’t equal in their sense of female empowerment and catharsis. The majority of rape-revengers utilise violence to depict their protagonists repaying the unthinkable: that PYW avoids showing this violence – as it does with the rape itself – allows for it to be thought of as more ‘high-brow’ than its ‘exploitation’ counterparts. Likewise there may be explicit scenes of rape, nudity, violence and gore in films like ISOYG, but this shouldn’t mean these films are vilified: seeing the power of violence in a woman’s hands is just as satisfying as when PYW‘s Cassie, through more law-abiding means, brings justice to the men that destroyed her and her best friend’s life. 

Rape-revenge films are ultimately complex: they challenge the audience with a boundary pushing concept that evokes strong and complicated emotions. In all instances, seeing an on-screen rape is a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and devastating experience that feels far from anything resembling empowerment: but these scenes are designed to make the audience feel exactly this sense of disempowerment so that once a film like ISOYG gets into the revenge it can provide a form of release, especially for many of us who are survivors of sexual assault. PYW equally provides the audience with the same emotions, but simply presents them in a more reserved fashion by opting for subtler cues that prompt us to fill in the blanks instead of depicting every gruesome aspect.

Fennell’s film may have achieved Oscar glory whilst ISOYG and so many others have been thrown to the gutter, but any film that is truly shocking and controversial with its confronting imagery will find itself berated purely because not everyone can understand why a woman would find comfort in watching rape, violence and cruelty on screen. But the truth is, we do. PYW is a rape-revenge film made for mainstream audiences that want to approach this topic and support its sentiment but aren’t quite ready to face the atrocities as graphically as those that sit through ISOYG, Revenge, Ms.45, Baise Moi and others. There is however a need for both types of film, which is why the rape-revenge sub-genre is such a complex, cathartic and comforting eco-system of content, built upon the need to provide fictitious outlets for those who find healing in confronting their trauma.

Zoë Rose Smith

As well as writing for Moving Pictures Film Club Zoë as runs genre site Zobo With A Shotgun and is the Editor-In-Chief at Ghouls Magazine.

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