Editor's note: This article includes descriptions of rape.
From the Steubenville case, it seems clear that part of what enables rape, and part of what makes rape culture possible, is a failure of imagination. The boys—or, I should say, the criminals—who dragged an unconscious girl from party to party, sticking their fingers in her and urinating on her, were unable to imagine what they were doing as rape. Their friend who cheerfully let himself be video-taped doing a comedy routine about her insensibility ("she's deader than John F. Kennedy!" he guffawed) was unable to imagine her as a person, or as anything other than a (hilariously unresponsive) body. And, after two of the assailants, Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays, were convicted of rape, CNN was still unable to imagine them as rapists. Instead, as Mallory Ortberg says, the news channel "wanted a showy, emotional angle at the close of a messy and sensationalized trial"—and they chose to arrive at that story by sympathizing with the "two young men that had such promising futures." The victim of the crime, who is anonymous, disappears beyond the veil of imagination and sympathy, as we instead focus on the great football skills and academic attainments of the sex offenders who raped her.
It seems, then, that if we want fewer rapes and more sympathy for rape victims, then we need better narratives about, or imaginings about, rape. One such narrative, I'd argue, is the 1978 rape/revenge film I Spit on Your Grave.
I Spit On Your Grave does not have a reputation as a particularly imaginative. Roger Ebert, in perhaps his most negative review ever, referred to it as "a vile bag of garbage" and added, "There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering." Jezebel, in a recent article, also expressed skepticism about the motives of the film's creators and especially its audience, suggesting that in some cases viewers may vicariously and sadistically identify with the rapists. A callow 2010 remake hasn't done the films' reputation any favors either.
Nonetheless, the film has its feminist defenders. Most notably, Carol Clover, in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws argued that Ebert's review was fundamentally flawed, and even willfully blind, in its determination not to see that the film, throughout, sympathizes with Jennifer (Camille Keaton), the victim. Clover added that a male colleague of hers "found it such a devastating commentary on male rape fantasies and also on the way male group dynamics engender violence that he thought it should be compulsory viewing for high school boys."
To me, it's pretty clear that Clover is right. Director Meir Zarchi reportedly said that the film was inspired when he met a woman who had just been raped, and tried to help her despite police indifference. Watching the film, I have no trouble believing that story is true. The hideous, unbearable 30 minute assault is one of the most disturbing, and certainly one of the least erotic, sequences in all of film. Ebert lambasted the film for its artlessness, but the stark, almost clumsy camera work and the lack of a soundtrack are all too appropriate for the grimly ugly subject matter. For the Steubenville boys, rape was something to laugh at. For Zarchi, it is a banal horror.
There are many ways in which I Spit on Your Grave doesn't fit, or map onto, the Steubenville rape case. In the first place, the rapists are not suburban high school kids, but rural men. Jennifer is from New York, and, as Clover says, the film exploits urban/rural tensions in a direct nod to Deliverance. Even more importantly, the rape in the film is accomplished by force; the four men abduct Jennifer, drag her into the woods, knock her down, and beat her repeatedly, until her face is a mass of blood and bruises. The Steubenville victim was unconscious for her ordeal; Jennifer is brutally awake.
But while these differences are important, there are even more crucial points of similarity. In the first place, Jennifer knows her assailants. The nominal leader, Johnny (in a chilling and layered performance by Ebon Taber) is a gas station attendant she chats with on her way into town. Matthew (Richard Pace) is a mildly retarded man who brings her groceries. Before they decide to assault her, she has perfectly pleasant interactions with both of them. Rapists, in this film, are not strangers or shadowy criminals. They are, as in Steubenville, acquaintances. They're guys you casually trust, not because you're stupid and asking for it, but because society is built upon casual trust, and the necessary assumption (tragically false in these cases) that the people who pump your gas or hang out with you at a party are not monsters.
Another point of similarity is the way in which rape reduces women—and is intended to reduce women—to bodies. Again, Jennifer is awake throughout her ordeal. But after she is raped and beaten and raped again, and left to wander alone through the woods naked and trembling, and then beaten and raped again, she is so traumatized that she can barely move or function. For large stretches leisurely assault, she simply lies there, not even moaning or twitching, utterly dehumanized. The Steubenville boy joking over and over about how dead the girl was ("what's wrong with you?" the kid behind the camera giggled) could have been laughing over Jennifer's body, too. She is inert, her identity stripped from her, a blank, suffering object, over whose limp form the men joke and goof and egg each other on.