If blogs and trigger warnings had existed in 1979, I Spit On Your Grave would have been a classic example of their necessity. Lucky for us, this "rape and revenge fantasy" is being remade, coming to theaters this fall!
Of the many, many words written about this movie, none have had as much impact as Roger Ebert's. In 1980, he called it "a vile bag of garbage...a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it's playing in respectable theaters...Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life."
Why? Well, nearly one third of the run time of I Spit On Your Grave, alternatively known as Day Of The Woman, features its protagonist, a female writer, being violently gang-raped in rural Maine. Much of the rest of the film involves her taking violent, sexualized revenge on each of her attackers. It was censored and banned in several countries. (Later, of course, the controversy served as a marketing tactic for the 2004 DVD release.)
Its writer-director, Meir Zarchi, has said that the film was inspired by a real-life incident, in which he and his daughter came upon a bloodied rape victim and had a frustrating experience with the police. The film, he said, imagined an alternate ending for the victim in which she got back at her attackers. Ebert begged to differ, writing, "There is no possible motive for exhibiting it, other than the totally cynical hope that it might make money."
A handful of feminist critics, including Carol Clover, have found redeeming elements to the movie. More recently, blogger Simone Muench argued that I Spit On Your Grave is "a film that holds a mirror up to society's inherent misogyny, and that it is the spectators themselves who, over-awed and anxious from the material at hand, are irresponsible in their willingness to deride the shocking subject matter of the film without allowing for any close examination of its form and content." Support for the argument that the film is a gory channeling of the backlash: it was made in the wake of Second Wave feminism and the protagonist is referred to as an uppity career woman who needs to be taken down a notch.
But the question here is, as it always is in arguments of graphic violence against women as catharsis, how the film is actually seen — and not just by well-meaning critics.
The site Refused Classification quotes a statement by the Film Board of Review by the Attorney-General of Tasmania, which evaluated the film for video release. It neatly summarizes an alternative perspective on the film:
The emphasis in the rape sequence was felt to be focused less towards a gratuitous display of violence than towards a revelation and questioning of adverse and demeaning attitudes and actions towards women. These attitudes are central to the act of gang rape and are indicated in the dialogue throughout the video, without being endorsed...It was felt that the major focus was from the woman's perspective, indicating the horror of rape, rather than the relished enjoyment of its display. Viewed in this way, it was the judgement of the majority of the Board that the rape and violence were not presented for exploitative purposes.
Ebert described a markedly different identification in that Chicago theater in 1980:
The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud, After the first rape: "That was a good one!" After the second: "That'll show her!" After the third: "I've seen some good ones, but this is the best." When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: "Cut him up, sister!" In several scenes, the other three men tried to force the retarded man to attack the girl. This inspired a lot of laughter and encouragement from the audience.
Click to viewAnd then there's the poster, which we've declined to reproduce in full here. You can see it over at this excellent rant on Pajiba (by a man, Dustin Rowles) about the poster objectifying the victim's bare buttocks:
They show the bruises and the dirt and the dried blood, but they make goddamn sure that they also airbush that ass. Because the assholes who put together this poster want to titillate you; they want you to see the movie, not because this woman takes revenge on her rapists, but because this hot lady with a nice ass gets gang-raped on a rock. That is the only explanation for this movie poster.
It ends up creating a paradox in which the narrative rails against the objectification of women while simultaneously encouraging the audience to do that very thing to the woman onscreen. In the end, the biggest problem with I Spit On Your Grave is that we see Jennifer treated like a thing, and her response to this is to become… a thing. And it wants us to cheer about it. No thanks.
But surely that's not the only reason someone would tune in for the remake. Just take a look at the IMDB message boards for the movie.
Let's focus on what's important here, shall we? How hot her ass is, whether she gets naked, and whether the (evidently male) viewer gets off or not. The rhetorical analysis of empowerment we can deal with later.
The Reprehensible Sexualization Of Rape: I Spit On Your Grave Remake Poster [Pajiba]
Related: Film: I Spit On Your Grave [Refused Classification]
I Spit On Your Grave [Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times]
Films That Deserve to Be Revisited: I Spit on Your Grave by Meir Zarchi [SharkForum]
I Spit On Your Grave[B Movie Cat]