Don’t Trust Your Eye: Subversion of the Male Gaze in Meir Zarchi’s ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ (Revised Version)

Sarah Wagoner
33 min readJan 17, 2023

Introduction

In recent years, the usage of rape in narrative cinema has undergone re-evaluation, largely in the way of feminist film criticism. As the public has gained awareness of the sexual abuse in the film industry, so have they turned a critical eye towards the usage of the male gaze. Amongst this cultural wave has come a niche resurfacing of the infamous rape-revenge subgenre. Films such as Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman have attempted to reconsider and revitalize the subgenre while subverting, or attempting to avoid the male gaze. However, these attempts come as a reaction and continuation of recent entries to the subgenre.

I Spit on Your Grave, a foundational text within the rape-revenge subgenre, not only subverts the male gaze but forces the audience to question their relationship to the erotic image. While the erotic image of the female protagonist could be used to further the gratification of the audience, the antagonistic framing of the rapists and the active nature of her revenge creates a weaponized subversion of the male gaze. Through the subversion, we are shown the radical potential of the rape-revenge subgenre which can portray the social violence of rape in tandem with the cathartic fantasies of revenge.

Critical Conceptions of Rape-Revenge

The rape-revenge subgenre explores the trauma of rape through the catharsis of revenge. Critics of the subgenre argue that its exploration of rape comes in exploitative sequences which trivialize the action and its consequences. In recent years, the subgenre has undergone re-evaluation through academic work as well as through newer rape-revenge films. Said evaluation does not merely defend the subgenre as a whole, but recontextualizes and re-examines the films through academic film and literary theories, such as Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze. Scholarly work on the subgenre neither clears all rape-revenge films of their exploitative status, nor do they argue the previous position, that the subgenre only exists to reinforce misogynist violence. The critical consensus, if one exists, argues that the voyeuristic focus on the female body dissipates the catharsis felt in the revenge, as they become a sex symbol, rather than a survivor achieving vigilante justice. Few critics of the subgenre deny the symbolic power in the concept of these films; rather, they find that the male gaze shifts power from the victim, to the audience, as they are given the opportunity to project sexuality onto the victim. The male gaze is said to be weaponized, both during the rape scenes and scenes depicting acts of vengeance, due to the voyeuristic focus on the victim.

Critics of the subgenre argue that although the victim-turned-avenger of a female-led rape-revenge film is the protagonist, she still acts as the erotic image. Although the bearer(s) of the look, namely the rapist(s), act as villains who the audience wish vengeance upon, they still act as a figure for the audience to project upon as they share a scopophilic interest in the victim-turned-avenger. Before the sexual assault, her body is treated as an erotic image either in point-of-view shots from the rapists or from the voyeuristic lens of the camera. After the assault, her body continues to be a focus.

Female-led films generally differ in their usage of the gaze, as a bearer of the look is no longer the central protagonist. Instead, the typical erotic image acts as a protagonists. Many filmmakers have utilized this dynamic in order to question or reposition the gaze. In some films, this means the gaze is repositioned onto another body, which Mulvey theorizes is due to “the constitution of the ego, it continues to exist as long as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object” (835). In non-exploitation films, the repositioned erotic image often comes in the form of a male love interest, or the camera will act outside of the female lead, sexualizing secondary female characters. Whereas in exploitation films, the rape victim acts both as protagonist and the erotic image, as her body acts as a canvas for sexual gratification of the audience as well as a reminder of the violent crime scene. She maintains activity in her role as protagonist, as after the assault, she has clear motivations and drives the plot of the film forward. In rape-revenge films with protagonists other than the victim, the rape victim has a passive role. Rape is done unto her and often the result is her physical or emotional death. Meanwhile the protagonist (often a male, father figure) takes the active role in hunting down her rapist(s). Whether she is the protagonist or a passive victim, she is generally centered as the erotic image, rather than as a character whose trauma should be explored. Feminist film critics argue that her status of the erotic image, and the subsequent weaponization of the male gaze leads the genre to generate misogynistic messages, as the audience is trained to see her as a sexual object first, a violent actor second, and a rape victim last.

Although the primary rape-revenge narratives always include the male gaze, that is not to say that each film includes an affirmative male gaze. The male gaze can be affirmative or subversive. In the section “Destruction of Pleasure as a Radical Weapon”, Mulvey asserts that with the emergence of alternative cinema comes possibilities for cinema to act as a political tool. Seeing that alternative cinema would act as a reaction to its predecessors, Mulvey argues “alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against those obsessions and assumptions” (834). When she refers to “those obsessions and assumptions” (834), Mulvey refers to repeated ideological patterns, such as the heterosexist patterns which are often reinforced with the affirmative deployment of the male gaze. An affirmative deployment of the male gaze would be one which uncritically shows the female body as an erotic image, encouraging the audience to see females as objectified figures. In the affirmative deployment, the gaze is used to reinforce oppressive Ideology. In contrast, the subversive deployment of the male gaze invites the audience to question the Ideological reasons behind projecting sexuality onto female bodies. In the subversive male gaze, objectification is not treated as a justified act, but as a tool of oppression. The male gaze can be subversive through many avenues, but for the purpose of this essay, I will analyze the destruction of pleasure through the female’s weaponization of her objectification.

Foundational Framing: I Spit on Your Grave

I Spit on Your Grave acts as a primary text in rape-revenge analysis due to its popularity in larger culture and its influence on the rural rape-revenge subgenre. It is by no means the originator of rural rape-revenge films, nor the first to utilize rural rapists and urban protagonists. However, I Spit on Your Grave solidified the rural rape-revenge film both through its reputation and its unique weaponization of rural and urban gendered difference. Perhaps the most influential essay on the subgenre is Carol Clover’s “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Clover uses I Spit on Your Grave as an example of complex usage of feminist themes within the rape-revenge subgenre. She argues that the film is not necessarily an example of feminist horror, but that the criticism of it as a film which encourages sexual violence represents “the double standard in matters of sexual violence” (116). Clover makes comparison to more acceptable cinema which portrays rape, murder, and revenge, which seem to only garner appraisal for their higher budgets. She similarly uses the film to show that the audience is not meant to take pleasure in the rape as much as they are supposed to take the perspective of the victim-turned-avenger. This analysis does not apply to every rape-revenge film she discusses, but it allows the audience to consider the intended horror and catharsis across the rape-revenge subgenre (Clover, 116–165). Clover’s writing on horror has influenced horror and film studies as a whole, with her writing on the rape-revenge subgenre opening it to nuanced feminist critique. Considering the scholarly influence she has had, we should ask ourselves why I Spit on Your Grave acted as a primary text for her, and why other scholars have continued to dissect it.

The narrative presents a gang of men, usually with four or five members, raping a woman in an excessively violent manner, only for her to later use her sexuality for revenge. While there were films with a similar narrative before I Spit on Your Grave’s release, they did not reach the same level of popularity of I Spit on Your Grave. The film gained an infamous public image among the multiple negative reviews but most notably those from Roger Ebert. Reviews largely reported a salacious film which encourages and celebrates the sexual abuse of women. References to her acts of vengeance equated her violence to that of her attackers, often with the implication that the film encourages immoral acts of vigilantism (Clover, 114). However, the critical reception did not completely negate public interest. The film found little success in the box office, but flourished in the video cassette market, staying “in the Billboard Video Cassette Top Forty for fourteen consecutive weeks and won the number one best-selling video cassette award” (Maguire, 18). This is not to say that other rape-revenge films did not find success before, but that the film’s success reached beyond exploitation audiences and held importance in larger popular culture. That success then translated into textual inspiration for further rape-revenge films.

Following the film’s success, female-led rape-revenge films included the gang rape and revenge model. Rape-revenge films from the 1980s (i.e. Demented, Savage Streets, and Necromancer) and recent feminist takes on rape-revenge films (i.e. Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale and Coralie Forgeat’s Revenge) keep, or expand upon, this model. They include a female protagonist who is raped by up to four assailants and proceeds to obtain vengeance through violent means. Some of these films, such as Coralie’s Fargeat’s Revenge, even include visual parallels to I Spit on Your Grave. Due to the prevalence of the film’s model and its visual influence, it is important for us to consider the role of the male gaze within it. If its male gaze is affirmative, how does that influence female-led revenge films as a whole? If its male gaze is subversive, does the subversion indicate a feminist trend throughout the subgenre or is it an outlier? Does the model itself invite the audience to critically engage with heterosexist social practices? In order to answer these questions, the plot must be dissected.

Path to Her Destruction

I Spit on Your Grave follows Jennifer Hill, a young feminist writer, who travels to a secluded, woodland area to spend her vacation away from the city, hoping to have time to write her book. The town surrounding her vacation spot is home to a gang of men who service her when she gets necessities such as gas and groceries. The men rape her multiple times, believing to have left her for dead. Once she has physically recovered, she plans and executes her revenge. Her sexuality is a primary weapon in her revenge, as she seduces the gang members in order to gain access to their bodies and take their lives. Through her vengeance, she knowingly takes up the role of erotic image and through her transformation, we see a potential evolution for the erotic image.

Jennifer Hill is visually introduced as a cinematic ingénue. Jennifer Hill is a kind, young woman from New York who treats those she meets at face value. She begins the film in New York City, in an establishing shot, highlighting the abundance of the city. After a sweeping shot of skyscrapers, the camera stays on Jennifer as the hotel bellboy packs her bags into her car. The shot establishes her role as a woman with some amount of wealth. She does not need to carry out the act herself, as she can pay the bellboy as she stands by. The first action she takes is passive, as the action of the scene is carried out by the bellboy. Her passivity works in tandem with her physical appearance. She wears a hot pink dress and burgundy heels. Her clothing is not explicitly sexual within the shot, but includes a bold visual, contrasting her with the bland brown, white, and blue that the extras wear (Zarchi, 00:25–00:45). In her introduction, Jennifer’s image conforms to the “traditional exhibitionist role” (Mulvey, 837), as her appearance invites the audience to see her as a visual figure first and foremost, and a passive character due to her initial actions. As she enters the country, her passivity expands.

Upon arriving in the countryside, Jennifer stops at the gas station. Her first action is one of passivity as she waits for Johnny to pump her car with gas. Similarly to the earlier scene, she stands by, waiting for Johnny to perform the act of labor. She is in full view of the camera, allowing the audience to again see her as the erotic image, as the men surrounding her act as the bearers of the look. At this point, we are not taken into their perspectives, but they stare at her, sharing a gaze with the audience (Zarchi, 02:37–02:55). The voyeuristic gaze is then broken for the first time, starting with a medium shot of Andy and Stanley playing in the grass (02:55–03:04) We are then treated to a hard cut to a closer shot of Jennifer, as she watches them (3:04–3:10). Her expression is neutral; not filled with disgust nor pleasure. Johnny then fills up the screen in a shot with the same focus as that on Jennifer. Instead, he has a look of disgust on his face, which is implied to be aimed at Jennifer as it is juxtaposed with her image (3:10–3:12). Her visual contrast implies that her physical features do not bring upon this disgust, but her psychical appearance does influence his distaste.

It is not Jennifer’s facial features which alienates Johnny, but her wealthy aesthetics. In the eyes of Johnny, her presence is emasculating. While there is an opportunity for visual pleasure in her presence, she demeans him through her financial power over him. As Carol Clover argues in “Getting Even”, there is not only a conflict which arises from gender difference in the rural rape-revenge subgenre, but there is a city/country difference which reflects class difference (116–166). Jennifer’s physical appearance communicates wealth as her dress and shoes not only appear expensive, but show that she does not need to dress for manual labor. In contrast, Johnny wears greasy denim overalls which are partially torn. His clothes communicate his place as a working class man; as someone who cannot afford nicer clothing and who cannot wear comfortable clothes because he directly interacts with grease and dirt. However, there is not only a class difference, but a gender difference within the city/country difference.

Johnny’s overalls connect his manhood to his work. His work is visible, with the clothes he wears being materially connected to his work as the gas he pumps is splattered on his overalls. In comparison, Jennifer’s work is invisible, as her clothes do not have a material connection to her work. The binary differences within the visibility/invisibility of their labor dynamics thus reflects the conceived gender binary and heterosexuality. The visibility of Johnny’s work relates to the concept of men as the unmarked category. His work does not need to be questioned or interrogated, as it carries an apparent need for culture as a whole. In contrast, the invisibility of Jennifer’s work relates to the non-specificity of womanhood. As Judith Butler writes in Gender Trouble,

“The masculine/feminine binary constitutes not only the exclusive framework in which that specificity can be recognized, but in every other way the ‘specificity’ of the feminine is once again fully decontextualized and separated off analytically and politically from the constitution of class, race, ethnicity, and other axes of power relations that constitute ‘identity’ and make the singular notion of identity a misnomer” (4).

The binary problematizes its own framework as specificity of the feminine is dependent upon ignoring other systems of power. Jennifer cannot be specified in the fashion Johnny is, as her femininity is contextualized by her class. Later in the film, we come to learn her work relates to feminist writing, meaning her class identity circles back to her femininity. In the eyes of the men, her work is not real work, further decontextualizing her identity, reducing her to the generalized female body. As she is conceived as a generalized female body, the men treat her as an object to sexually obtain rather than an active participant in life’s interactions.

Her introduction to the runt of the group, Matthew, later leads the men to think she is a viable target for sexual harassment. Matthew arrives as she is unpacking her belongings. While their conversation begins with rural hospitality, as Matthew calls her “ma’am” (07:29) and politely asks her state of origin, it quickly turns to questions of her sexual and romantic availability. When asked whether she lives alone in the cabin, she says she lives with Mary Shelby, who she later reveals is the main character of her novel (08:24–08:31), establishing her status as a single woman in the house. Her proximity to lesbianism is further mounted as she states that she has been published in “women’s magazines” (08:56). However, she is still seen as a possible heterosexual conquest for Matthew, as he inquires, “You got a boyfriend?” (09:02). While Jennifer gives a non-traditional answer in “I have many boyfriends” (9:05), the question itself implies that not only does Matthew see her as a viable candidate for his own sexual pleasure, but that her only route to sexual pleasure would be with men.

Any other category of sexuality is invisible to Matthew, and later the other men, as lesbianism erases their potential for pleasure. The visual and sexual pleasure of the bearers of Jennifer’s erotic look is at the forefront of the film, seeing as the tragic violence which befalls Jennifer is the result of their gaze. In order to instill their gaze, they must convince themselves of the possibility of the erotic image’s sexual interest in them. This is not to say that they are interested in her consent, but in her desire for their sexual dominance. In order to achieve that desire, they must convince themselves that heterosexuality is her only option for sexual arousal. Some may argue that the erasure of possible lesbianism could lie with ignorance to homosexuality on the men’s part, but in the greater narrative, we can understand their insistence on heterosexuality to be a tradition of compulsory heterosexuality. I do not mean to say that the character of Jennifer Hills is a lesbian, as there is no textual evidence of her sexuality in any direction. Rather, that the rapists keep possible lesbianism invisible in order to maintain male power which seeks to deny women their own sexuality (Rich, 638), which allows them to categorize Jennifer as not only an erotic image, but an erotic object that can be dominated.

Destruction of the Erotic Image

As noted earlier, the rape scenes are the primary evidence levied against I Spit on Your Grave for the argument that it revels in women’s pain. It would be dishonest of me to argue that the gendered cruelty in the scenes has been exaggerated, but I also wouldn’t state that the assertion that the scenes encourage rape is accurate. Zarchi employs a deliberate, aggressive usage of the male gaze to show the audience the inherent violence of objectification. From the rapist’s approach, to their final assault, the gaze is shown as a cinematic accomplice to their crimes.

The first rape begins with a juveline chase on the part of Andy and Stanley. Jennifer lays on a red rowing boat, basking in the sun, wearing a pink and orange bikini. She is in a state of relaxation, bringing the audience to remember her state as a passive character. Andy and Stanley come from the river’s edge, rushing through the water to reach Jennifer. They use their motor boat to encircle Jennifer in her rowing boat. There is a disparity in power between their modes of transportation, as one is motor-powered where the other depends solely on her body strength, which is assumed to be little considering her size. The difference in power between the boats reflects the disparity in power not only between the characters, but between the camera’s relationship to the characters. Jennifer holds a passive role in her silent row boat. At the moment, she allows the river to carry her boat rather than pushing it in any direction. In contrast, the men’s boat is aggressive in its action, hurling through the water to get to hers. Once they reach her, they circle her boat, mocking her with whooping noises. She takes action for the first time, trying to paddle away and then treating the paddle as a defensive weapon, once their behavior turns aggressive, foreshadowing her eventual violent actions. However, her initial attempts are not enough as they have tied a rope to her boat, pulling her into the forest (20:16–22:45).

The rope ties passivity and activity together, as Jennifer still lays in her boat as they drag her to her demise. Their attempts at taking her away would be textually thwarted without the rope. But thematically, we can see it as the connecting thread between the passive male and the active female within the male gaze. The gaze often contains a split seeing as “the presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line” (Mulvey, 837). Scopophilia needs the erotic image in order to maintain aesthetic audience engagement, yet the substance of the film comes from the plot which relies on male characters. Mulvey argues that the male gaze creates an imbalance wherein the female lead carries the labor of spectacle and the man carries the narrative (837–38). The rope acts as a symbol of the film’s interest in tying the elements together. Jennifer acts as spectacle, both as the attractive woman and in her displays of nudity, but also as our protagonist. She is dragged into the narrative by the men, who perceive themselves as bearers of the look, and thus, the male leads. However, even Johnny does not carry that title as the film does not have an interest in a male lead. By dragging her into the narrative, they release their potential to carry the title of lead and become the villains. When she passes over the passive water into the forest of narrative, she unwillingly takes up the role of protagonist. Jennifer Hills carries the labor of both the spectacle and narrative, but is still resigned to be an erotic image.

Her role as the erotic image and the holder of the narrative quickly throws her into the oppressive hands of the bearers of the look, who give up their role as protagonists in order to commit rape in an attempt to establish their male power. She becomes the lead, as the audience is lead to follow her bodily motions, being pushed into the sexual aggressive of the men, just as she is. Stanley and Andy treat her as a toy, pushing her around before the archetypal male lead, Johnny stops her (23:02–23:51) . He acts as a subversion of the strong man archetype, blocking Jennifer from moving on with her narrative rather than being the active male who pushes the narrative further. However, he still has a role in pushing the narrative forward, seeing as this is a rape-revenge film and he is the primary rapist. Activity on the part of the typical male lead is shown not as a natural act of filmmaking, but as an aggressive act, which pushes the audience into the perspective of the passive female.

The camera reinforces the narrative perspective, as it often puts us into Jennifer’s point of view. There are a few frantic cuts, showing a voyeuristic perspective of the first rape, but we are consistently taken back to Jennifer’s POV. We see Johnny’s face adorned with grease and a sickly red color on their usually white skin. They make grotesque grunts which interrupt Jennifer’s blood curdling screams (24:40–27:10). Her perspective is centered, as we see what she sees in their eyes. When her face is shown, we are treated to bloody lips and scrunched up eyes, implying her intense pain at the act. In focusing on the victim’s pain and the rapists’ enjoyment, we are not only put into Jennifer’s perspective, but we see a direct contrast to previous usage of rape myths in cinema.

While the focus on the victim’s pain and the rapists’ brutal enjoyment in the act has become the standard for rape scenes in contemporary cinema, it must be noted that there was an “evolution since the early seventies” (Clover, 139). Clover argues that we can trace specific tropes which reinforce rape as an act of male revenge against females. She notes that Frenzy focuses on the victim’s face throughout the act with “lascivious sadism with which the viewer is directly invited to collude” (139). In Straw Dogs, again the victim is a sexual focus, but in this case the sexual pleasure of the rape, for the rapists and the victim, is made textual, both in her verbal response and in her seductive nature before the rape (139). Clover also notes the less sexualized rape in Lipstick, which still shows the rape as “an act of male revenge” (139), but the act is “brief, brutal, and unerotic” (139). Clover takes issue with the focus on Jennifer’s tortured body, calling it “more problematic” (139) in comparison to the portrayal in Lipstick, but I would argue it is an improvement on all examples.

While the focus on Jennifer’s body can be interpreted as an invitation to sexualize her further, in the focus on her pain (both through POV shots of the rapist’s grotesque faces and of the camera’s eventual focus on her battered body), the audience is taken to understand the toll of rape. It is not a pleasurable act as depicted in Straw Dogs, nor a romanticized act of vengeance as depicted in Frenzy. While Lipstick’s approach highlights the non-sexual nature of the act for the victim, its lack in visual consequences can lead the viewer to see it as an upsetting, but not lasting experience. Jennifer’s body acts as a visual representation for the traumatic effects of rape. Even if she did not experience more attacks, she wouldn’t be able to exist in her body as it once was. The bruises, though they heal, act as a visual reminder to the viewer that it is not just an assault on her body, but an attempted destruction of her person, seeing as up until now our knowledge of Jennifer lies with our knowledge of her body. As the rape scenes continue, our knowledge deepens.

Jennifer is raped three times. She limps through the wilderness after the first encounter, escaping once the men have released their hands from her wrists. Her limping is our first knowledge of the painful aftermath of the rape. Her escape similarly acts as a cue to her post-rape active role. However, she is not allowed full activity just yet, as the men continue to attempt dominance over her body. They pressure Matthew into raping her, which is framed as their reasoning for the rape. However, he does not give in just yet. She is allowed to be free in the forest for a few minutes until eerie harmonica music disrupts the silence. Andy plays the instrument, preluding her discovery of Andy and Johnny’s appearance. They encircle her again, closing in on her before Andy and Stanley drag her onto a rock. She is once again the subject of their cruel ritual (30:03–34:40).

Johnny is not the only rapist in the second scene. Andy is the first to penetrate Jennifer, inducing screams of higher frequency and volume, even leading to Andy punching her in the back of her head. While it would be inaccurate to categorize the first rape as anything other than violent, each rape scene increases in violence. The audience is led to believe that she is being punished by the men for escaping. Andy moves his body as if trying to instill the most pain possible, which is reflected in her screams. The camera helps us understand the pain in the close-up shots of Johnny and Matthew. Despite their complicity in the situation (moreso on Johnny’s part considering his role in the previous rape), we are led to believe that Andy’s actions instill terror in their own minds. Even the holders of the aggressive male gaze find themselves appalled at Andy’s display of male power. Yet, the meaning behind his aggression leads them to stay as bystanders. To a certain extent, they act as a potential audience member. They are the complicit males who understand the pain involved in the act, but act in complicity due to their own interest in the erotic image.

Complicit masculinity is furthered in the next rape scene as they tell Matthew to participate, as if it is a sport. They treat Matthew as a boy, taunting him for his virginity and his insistence on simply watching the act, rather than participating. Matthew must prove his status as a man through the degradation of a woman. In order for Matthew to become a man he must enforce male power onto a female. First, he and the other men have denied her sexuality. Now he forces his male sexuality upon her (Rich, 638). Matthew acts as the complicit masculine figure, as he does not receive patriarchal benefits of masculinity yet he aides in the patriarchal project of sexual violence (Connell, 79–80). He is socially awkward, poor, and doesn’t want to engage in the sexual objectification of Jennifer. However, when the men continue to push him towards manhood, he can’t help but give in.

After the second rape, Jennifer arrives at her house, crawling on the floor, reaching her phone when a foot stomps her hand. She is stopped from receiving help. The men have arrived. They are determined to have Matthew rape Jennifer. They finally coerce him into doing so. This is the first time that Jennifer does not physically resist the men, although she continues to plead “no.” Even in her property, their attempts at male power overtake her attempts to stop their violence. They find many ways to mock her in the scene, including looking at her writings and making fun of it, before ripping it apart as she is raped by Matthew (39:50–46:43). It is not enough to force their sexuality upon her; they must destroy her happiness by crushing her creativity, treating her writing as nothing more than scribblings on a paper. When a female’s creativity is lessened, the male authority believes she will only have time for her role as a wife and mother (Rich, 639). In this case, by crushing her creativity, her self-determination as a feminist is hoped to be crushed. They hope to make her a submissive sexual object rather than an active participant in her narrative.

The first and last rape scene use POV in order to subvert the male gaze. Often in contemporary sex scenes, the male gaze is utilized by focusing on the female’s body, treating it as the ultimate spectacle while the male body only receives attention in relation to the actions done to the female body. Her face may be the focus as well, to show the pleasure she receives from the man, giving the audience catharsis as they project onto the male, imagining themselves giving pleasure to the erotic image, as well as receiving visual pleasure from the female’s body and beauty. As previously mentioned, despite a multitude of rape tropes, rape scenes will often focus on the female’s face, to show the horror she is going through, but, in I Spit on Your Grave, the rapists’ face receive more attention. Jennifer is given time to show her anguish, but there is frantic editing, giving equal time to her anguish and their perverse pleasure. With the sex difference between the characters, there is an emotional difference. What is a sport to them, is a punishment to her. They believe they are owning her body, showing her what pleasure is, while she visually expresses a feeling of unpleasure. Seeing these emotions side-by-side shows the disconnect of emotions of the rapists. The male gaze, a gaze that sees the woman as a sexual subject, is subverted by showing that the person who holds the gaze is not someone to identify with on a moral level. The film’s usage is furthered in every rape scene, as the other rapists identify with each other less and less as explicit violence increases. In the previous rape scene, the disconnect was shown with Johnny and Matthew’s distaste at Andy’s aggressive penetration and punch. In the final rape scene, the men are upset with Stanley’s aggression.

Stanley’s infamous line, “suck it bitch” is uttered after Jennifer pleads to be left alone. She offers to “do it to you with my hand” (45:34), indicating submission to him. He notes her submission and ignores the plea for softness, forcing her to enact fellatio. He slaps her, leading into the first verbal confrontation from the other men. Johnny and Andy both tell him to stop, appearing uncomfortable with his screams and repeated physical attacks. However Johnny’s protest does not come with any appeal to pathos, but with an appeal to logos, stating that he is wasting time. Their uncomfortability cannot be justified with seeing the erotic object as a person who does not deserve abuse. Their excuses for stopping the rape cannot lay with any morals that question the violence of rape itself. It must be logically excused. The affirmative holders of the gaze cannot question the gaze as it will lead to the unraveling of their own objectifying tendencies.

After the final rape, we are shown her finding a bridge between her older, passive identity and her newer, active identity. She is past the destruction of her passive erotic image and now builds up her active erotic image. She takes time to recover from the bodily damage of the rape, first showering, allowing the blood and dirt to come off her body (52:49–53:05). The blood and dirt represent the evidence of violence as a result of her passivity, in washing it off, she releases herself from her passive state. The shower does release her from the physical pain, however, as evidenced by the following scenes wherein Jennifer shakes, crying in pain before applying ice to her wounds. This montage primarily acts as a representation of post-rape healing, but we can similarly see it as a precursor to her new role. She must take time to develop her activity, shedding herself of passivity. She begins with smaller tasks, performing self-healing as she can no longer trust the townsfolk. Now, it is for her to take care of herself. Similarly, she knows only she can obtain justice for herself.

After healing, Jennifer plans her revenge. In order to maintain suspense, her planning is off-screen, as the audience is not aware of her specific plans. Rather, we are immediately taken to her pre-revenge rituals. She goes to a church, asking God for forgiveness for what she is about to do. After her prayer, she stalks Johnny at his job, seeing his family from a distance (1:03:40–1:07:00). During her healing montage, we see that she has a gun, ready to fire. In her pre-revenge montage, we are made aware of her activity, as she acts while maintaining autonomy over her actions. She is not forced to defend herself, as she was on the boat. She is reacting to the men, but in a fashion similar to how male protagonists react to their archetypal villains. She takes up her role as the carrier of the narrative.

Jennifer maintains her erotic image as she carries out the narrative, deploying her sexuality in her acts of vengeance. I Spit on Your Grave is not the only, nor the first rape-revenge film to weaponize the eroticized image, seeing as Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left even uses a similar scene of a sexual act turning into a castration, as the victim’s mother gives her daughter’s rapist fellatio before biting his penis off. The general usage of the sexual act for vengeance, specifically by victims, calls into question whether the subgenre is an excuse to fetishize women or whether it is a subversion of the male gaze. I would argue that larger generalizations of the subgenre are not conductive, even if we were to solely discuss films from the 70s and 80s. While there are similarities in how the avengers are presented, the style and gaze of the camera changes the meaning. Specifically, the usage of the camera in the rape colors the meaning of the gaze in the revenge. In I Spit on Your Grave, we are encouraged to take Jennifer’s point of view and discouraged from identifying with the attackers. As mentioned, we are not only led to despise them, but we are led to see them as destructive members of society. In contrast, Last House on the Left frames the rapists as adverse to society, but focuses on the victim’s erotic image more than the rapist’s behaviors within the rape, putting the audience in the rapist’s perspective. In Last House on the Left, the usage of fellatio then becomes affirmative of the male gaze, as the erotic image is fetishized by the camera. In I Spit on Your Grave, we are called to continually question her usage of sexuality, as the camera does not fetishize her body in order to maintain an affirmative male gaze, but to show us that the rapists’ fascination and objectification of the erotic image is a gateway to their destruction. In constructing the violence of their objectification, the scenes of vengeance are structured from the least violent to the most violent, showing the audience that any amount of culpability necessitates retaliation.

First on the list is Matthew, the complicit masculine figure who says he doesn’t want to engage in the assault, yet still participates in the violence after protests. Matthew’s death is the least violent, reflecting his lack of aggression in the rape. Yet, he still is killed as he was still a participant. Jennifer takes a soft approach in her seduction. She calls Matthew’s place of work, asking for a delivery (1:07:31). When he arrives, she is dressed in white, slowly revealing more of her body before she is completely naked. She plays into his fantasies, asking him to engage with her. He is scared at first, but looks past her potential for castration due to her inviting attitude. They engage in consensual sex for the first time, which she uses as a gateway for murder. She ties a rope around his neck, hanging him by a tree branch (1:10:39–1:16:05). It is the least violent death, in that it is bloodless. His death is the fastest, and requires the least amount of convincing on her part. In her killing of Matthew, we see how the erotic image has an ability to persuade the audience if she is allowed to carry the narrative. She uses her spectacle while having awareness of her body as a spectacle. She is the one to take her clothes off, rather than having a narrative excuse or being stripped by a male lead. Once her erotic image is under her control, so is the narrative, as she is in control of the characters within it. She is not forced to live under the objectification of characters like Matthew, as she can choose to take actions against them. As opposed to when she was solely the erotic image, and was forced to live under their power. But Jennifer has only killed the holder of the gaze, the passive participant. In order to fully take narrative power, she must destroy the active participants.

Johnny is the next target, as he was the leader of the rape, but not the most aggressive participant. When she finds him, she points a gun at him, demanding him to take off his clothes (1:20:01–1:22:42). The gun acts as a phallic symbol, but a less personal one, being commonly used as a weapon which penetrates the skin, physically harming an opponent, often in war, which is similarly coded in masculinity. The masculinity of the gun is furthered as it is pointed towards Johnny’s genitals, indicating the ability to threaten one’s sexuality. She replicates male power by forcing him to take his clothes off with a coercive method. He takes off a few articles before attempting to disarm her by saying she wanted the sex (1:20:40–1:22:42). He utilizes a common rape myth; that the victim secretly enjoyed the rape. His perspective that women want sex regardless of their refusal is used as a weapon against her potential for castration. Rather than denying him, she pretends to agree by taking her back to her cabin. Here, she appeals to his sexual desires.

Not only does she draw him a bubble bath, a device used to portray romance, but she masturbates his penis while grabbing her knife (1:22:42–1:27:21). The ability for a female to castrate is employed while appealing to male sexual desires. Pleasure is used as a weapon before displeasure. She castrates Johnny, leaving him screaming (1:27:47–1:28:17). Instead of finalizing the act, Jennifer locks the door, allowing him to die, weaponizing passivity after displaying activity. She sits in her living room, playing opera music to drown out his voice (1:28:30–1:30:06). The knife acts as a more explicit phallus, being compared to “teeth, beaks, fangs, and claws” (Clover, 32) as they “are personal extensions of the body that bring attacker and attacked into primitive, animalistic embrace” (Clover, 32). The knife necessitates proximity between the prey and predator, creating intimacy within the attack, which itself is both affirmed and subverted in Jennifer’s deployment. She affirms the intimacy in her usage of masturbation, an explicitly sexual and intimate act. But later ignores the intimacy in her abandonment of Johnny as she closes the door, allowing him to die. Her second act of vengeance reflects Johnny’s willingness to engage in violence and his discomfort at being faced with the violent realities of rape. In the final act of vengeance, we will see that it reflects the aggression of Andy and Stanley.

The final revenge is a reversal of roles as she encircles Andy and Stanley, using their motor boat. This is the only revenge without prolonged seduction and with the most amount of outward aggression. Andy and Stanley did not attempt to charm Jennifer as Johnny and Matthew did, but they did revel in the violence of the act. She wears a bikini, appealing to their interest in her as an erotic image. But she doesn’t engage with Andy or Stanley sexually. She climbs onto the boat with Stanley on it, pretending to be sexually interested in him, before quickly pushing him off the boat (1:35:00–1:35:23) Once she successfully obtains his phallic symbol, she mirrors Andy and Stanley’s actions, encircling Stanley as Andy watches from the forest (1:35:25–1:37:39). The phallic symbol is first used as an object of intimidation. The intimidation leads to rage on Andy’s part, as he swears to take vengeance upon Jennifer for her actions against Stanley. He tries to throw his ax at her, but it lands in her boat (1:36:59–1:37:15) Another phallic symbol is given to her as a result of the men’s mistakes. At this point, both men are in the water, where Jennifer has the high ground above them as she is in possession of their phallic symbols, and thus of their male power. With their objects of power in her possession, she is able to take their lives.

She kills them, throwing an ax at Andy’s back (1:38:10–1:38:19) and sticking Stanley’s face into the motor while proudly saying, “Suck it, bitch” (1:39:12). Andy’s death is the least ceremonious, though it results in a large amount of blood. It is reflective of his role in the rape, in that his actions towards Jennifer were aggressive, though he was a secondary actor in the rape. His death receives minimal time, reflecting the amount of time he spends in his assault. However, he had a strong impact in his violence, which resulted in Stanley’s physical attacks on Jennifer. In contrast, Stanley’s death is the most violent and explicitly tied to his part in the rape. Jennifer repeats his famous line while destroying his body while using the weapon used to destroy hers. In Jennifer’s final act, she takes the narrative device which destroyed her function as the passive erotic image, and reclaims it, using it to destroy the bearers of the look. Her final act is one of reclamation of narrative and of her erotic image.

Conclusion

As the rape-revenge subgenre as a whole enters the post-#MeToo era, we must continually examine the usage of the male gaze within it. As discussed, the rape-revenge subgenre has had significant impact upon depictions of rape. Those same depictions have become areas of study, as we turn our eye towards the film industry’s relationship to the topic, both in the films themselves and in the abusive practices within productions. If we are to properly examine and create new, subversive rape-revenge films, the framing of foundational texts must be taken into account.

I Spit on Your Grave’s usage of the male gaze continues on in contemporary rape-revenge cinema as films like The Nightingale and Revenge aim to portray rape as the violent extention of patriarchy that it is with inventive usages of editing and cinematography. Acts of vengeance have undergone a similar innovation, as sexuality of the victim has been replaced by her tactical knowledge. If we are to understand how those innovations have come to fruition, the subversion of the past must be taken into account.

In understanding I Spit on Your Grave’s subversion of the male gaze in rape scenes, we come closer to understanding the hierarchical dynamics of rape and male power. The complicity of Matthew reflects the role of those who encourage rape culture within their smaller participation. Johnny’s initial enjoyment and later discomfort reflects the casual nature of rape by those who outwardly express contempt of the act. Andy and Stanley’s deployment of violence bring us to the logical conclusions of rape culture, in the destruction of the rape victim’s body until they can barely stand. Jennifer’s revenge, while an elaborate fantasy, reflects the desires of victims to reach a semblance of justice.

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Sarah Wagoner

Literature Major, GWST Minor, Graduate Student, She/Her, focus on politics in media, Professional email: sarahwagoner6@gmail