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.
That egging each other on is central to the film—and, of course, to the Steubenville case as well. I Spit on Your Grave is very clear that rape is less about how men feel towards women than it is about how men feel about, and interact with, other men. The rapists attack Jennifer specifically to give Matthew a chance to lose his virginity; their actions are both a joke and an initiation. They hold Jennifer down and yell for Matthew to get on top of her. At first he's too nervous and shy, but eventually he takes his turn, actually doing an impromptu striptease over her broken body while the rest of them laugh and cheer. The parallel with the Steubenville case where the participants uploaded images of themselves abusing the victim to social media, is obvious. "Whatever else they did or didn't do that night last August, these young men in Steubenville were performing for each other," Michelle Dean wrote at the New Yorker. I Spit on Your Grave shows, precisely, that rape can be performance—a way to impress and entertain your buddies.
Perhaps most importantly, though, I Spit on Your Grave manages to show rapists as regular guys—even, in many ways, as sympathetic regular guys—without forgetting what they have done, or the woman they have done it to. Matthew, for example, is constantly bullied by Johnny and the other men; he is hapless, needy, shy and confused. After the rape, when he meets Jennifer again, he protests that the rape was not his idea, and perhaps we're inclined to believe him. But then, Jennifer moves forward with her plans for revenge, and we see, one by one, each of the men insist that the rape was someone else's brainchild, and they were just along for the ride. Matthew may be a nice guy - but what guy doesn't think that he's a nice guy? Matthew may be sympathetic and he may be pitiful, but he's still a rapist. Nobody made him do it.
Johnny, too, is sympathetic in some ways. He can be charming; even when just pumping gas he has a winning, low-key charisma. We learn he has a wife and two children. There's one heart-breaking, blink-and-you-missed it moment towards the end where, worried that his father is gone, the nine-year-old boy reaches over and hugs his mother for comfort.
Johnny is in fact gone. He was so confident of the magical attraction of his penis that, when Jennifer drives up to his gas station a few weeks after the rape, he assumes that she liked it and is looking for more. So when she suggests they take a bath together, he agrees. Then, in the middle of a handjob, she cuts off his penis with a knife.
It's a viscerally horrifying scene, with buckets of blood and Johnny screaming for his mother as Jennifer locks the bathroom door and goes downstairs. She turns on opera music and sits quietly in a chair waiting for his shouts to stop. We focus on her face, which isn't triumphant, but simply blank.
It's difficult not to be sickened by Johnny's death—but Jennifer's lack of affect is perhaps even more disturbing. You know that she's remembering what he did to her, and that she is still, in some sense, the thing his violence made her. Turning Johnny into bloody meat isn't so much a satisfying end to her ordeal as it is an extension of it. His logic is now her logic; his punishment is part not just of the world he made for himself, but of the world he made for her.
The Steubenville victim didn't murder her assailants, of course. She just reported them—and then had to undergo months of attacks on her character, including new threats just this week after her rapists were convicted. I Spit on Your Grave's fantasy of bloody revenge isn't exactly realistic, but it certainly is right in its recognition that violence, and violation, tend to be self-perpetuating once they are put in motion. Rape in I Spit On Your Grave is not so much an event as a bleak landscape in which its victims wander, things severed from their own stories. In his film, I think Zarchi is trying to give Jennifer, and women like her, back those stories—to imagine them again as humans, not things. I don't know that he succeeds entirely. But Steubenville shows that we need more folks to try.