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A Look at the Controversial Revenge Classic, I Spit On Your Grave
A thought-provoking movie-viewing experience
Since its release, I Spit on Your Grave (originally titled Day of the Woman) has split groups of viewers and critics in half. It is a violent and upsetting movie that is not meant for everyone. While some call it a gross exploitation of violence against women for profit, others describe it as a difficult yet necessary depiction of the brutalities of rape. Although I have mixed feelings about many aspects of the film, I find myself more invested in the latter category. It was a painful and frightening experience to watch this film, but it also significantly raised my consciousness. I had heard the term "rape culture," and, like everyone, I thought I was completely immune to the attitudes that are put forth in regards to sexual assault. It forced me to confront and reevaluate my own attitudes and biases about sexual assault and the way we, as a society, view women. Additionally, the film made me question my viewpoints on the criminal accountability of the mentally challenged, torture, and capital punishment. I Spit on Your Grave is a film with an impact that has not been dulled by the passage of time.
View the (inaccurate) original trailer
A very brief synopsis
In the interest of brevity and avoiding painting too brutal of a picture right upfront, I will only give a very brief plot outline of the film. Specific, relevant details of the film will be described and addressed later as needed.
Jennifer Hills, played by Buster Keaton’s grandniece, Camille Keaton, is a writer who has rented a cabin at the very edge of a small isolated town where she intends to pen her first novel. She is immediately noticed by a posse of four men: Johnny, the manager of the gas station, Andy and Stanley, two unemployed louts, and Matthew, a mentally challenged grocery delivery boy. The men continually harass Jennifer before one day pulling her into the woods and gang raping her. Days later, Jennifer begins hunting down and systematically killing all four of her rapists. A more thorough and graphic summary can be found on Wikipedia.
Promotional poster for the film
Gender roles are hard to shake off
One of the reasons this film is so powerful is because it immediately forces the viewer to reevaluate his or her views on gender roles and stereotypes. Jennifer Hills is an attractive, independent, and driven career woman from Manhattan. She embodies many of the qualities that I myself would like to possess. However, as the movie began, I found myself thinking she wasn’t a warm character. I thought to myself, “Jeez, I would identify with her much more if she didn’t appear so cold. How come we don’t know anything about her family? Does she have a boyfriend?” Almost immediately, I was shocked by what I had thought, stunned by the attitudes I exhibited without even realizing it. Although I certainly didn’t think Jennifer deserved to be raped or even harassed by the men, I thought that she would be more sympathetic if she was meeker, milder, less of a career woman, and more of a family woman. In essence, I thought that, because she did not depict the archetypal qualities of a warm, womanly character, I couldn’t fully empathize with her and her traumatizing experience. This indicated to me that, somewhere deep down, I still subscribe to the idea of unmovable, traditional gender roles. It was a revelation that was terrifying yet had to be addressed.
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More than just physical assault
The film holds the record of the longest rape scene in the history of cinema. There is a 25-minute window where the viewer witnesses not only the physical violations that Jennifer undergoes, but also the way she is taunted, tortured, and humiliated by the men. I’d argue that the emotional terror that Jennifer experiences is just as painful to watch as her being both vaginally and anally penetrated against her will. Each act of assault is more and more difficult to witness, as they repeatedly assault her, let her go, and then hunt her down like an animal, even appearing at her home after the viewer is lured into believing it’s finally all over. There, in the place where she is meant to feel safe and secure, the men taunt her by reading her unfinished manuscript aloud in mocking voices and then tear it up right in front of her eyes. When it comes to Stanley’s turn to rape Jennifer, she pleads for him not to do it, to let her pleasure him another way because she’s in so much pain. He responds by ramming a beer bottle inside of her, unzipping his pants, and screaming, “Suck it, bitch!” As the men leave, they decide to cover their tracks by murdering Jennifer. The decision to do so is agreed upon in a disgustingly nonchalant manner. Although the physical brutality and nonconsensual sex made my stomach churn, the attitude that the men had towards Jennifer was much more disconcerting, which I think was what the film was going for. In order to decrease the amount of sexual brutality women experience, it is necessary to address the way in which women are objectified as tools for pleasure in society’s eye. There needs to be a move for a large change in the way that women are viewed.
Meir Zarchi talks about casting Camille Keaton
Yay or nay to I Spit on Your Grave?
The influence of groupthink
Groupthink is a term coined by William H. Whyte, Jr. in Fortune magazine in 1952 to describe the phenomenon that occurs when a group of individuals are so hell-bent on conforming that they place harmony within the group ahead of everything else. The concept was then explored by research psychologist Irving Jarvis who devised eight specific signs of groupthink that include rationalizing the behavior of the group, stereotyping members of the out-group, self-censorship, and the inflated feeling of invulnerability.
Because the men acted much differently in their individual interactions with Jennifer, I would argue that the men’s brutality was enhanced by the heavy influence of groupthink. For instance, Johnny, when interacting with Jennifer one-on-one exhibits a much milder demeanor than when he interacted with her during the incident. Being in a group of men with similar mindsets allowed Johnny to rationalize his behavior and feel comfortable with an inflated sense of invulnerability to consequences. Matthew exhibits similar changes in behavior regarding the assault. He is visibly conflicted about participating in the rape, but, to remain a part of the in-group, he does not speak up or try to stop the event from occurring. Later, after he is shunned by the men for not killing Jennifer like they asked, he blames Jennifer, saying he no longer has any friends because of her. Whether it was intending to address this phenomenon or not, the film aptly demonstrates the very real effect that groupthink can have upon the mentalities of individuals.
Using sexuality as a weapon
One of the criticisms I have read about the film involves a misinterpretation of Jennifer’s use of her sexuality to lure the men to their deaths. I have read reviews of the film saying that, because Jennifer later entices the men with sex, it implies that she actually enjoyed the rape and wanted to have sexual relations with the men again. That is an idea that is not only false but totally ridiculous. Jennifer does not seduce the men because she wants to have sex with them. Instead, it is another way of flipping the tables on them. When they assaulted her, they used her sexually as a tool for their own enjoyment. By taking control of her sexuality and using it as a weapon, she takes a stand against letting the men manipulate her into feeling ashamed of her mind, body, and sexual appeal. Using sexuality as a means to an end is an altogether separate kettle of fish, but saying that it implies the survivor enjoyed the rape is just silly.
"You brought it on yourself!"
The aspect of the film that is perhaps the most relevant today is how Johnny attempts to blame Jennifer for the assault because she was “asking for it.” When Jennifer decides to kill Johnny, she takes him out to the woods and points a gun at him. In trying to defend his actions, he says that she brought it on herself because of the way she dressed, walked, and acted. Jennifer looks stunned and puts the gun down, inviting Johnny home with her, initially making the viewer think that Johnny’s words have convinced her.
Some of the things that I hear people say when someone talks about being assaulted is, “Well, were you drinking?,” “What were you wearing that night?,” and “You shouldn’t have flirted with him (or her) if you didn’t want to have sex.” It’s frightening how both men and women are expected and made to feel obligated to have sex if they flirt with an individual. The act of blaming the victim is still too common of an occurrence, and this film addresses that, albeit very briefly.
Last thoughts on the film
From what I have read online about people’s reactions to the film, the idea that people seem to struggle with the most is whether or not the men deserve to be killed because of what they did to Jennifer. Because Johnny has a wife and family to provide for, does that mean he should be spared? Because Matthew is mentally challenged, should he be held accountable for his part in the assault? Does any crime warrant torment and death? Prior to watching this movie, I was more for capital punishment than against it. I’m not so certain where I fall on the spectrum after watching this film. What struck me as the most unexpected is that I not only empathized with Jennifer as she was being assaulted, but I also empathized with the terror the men felt as they realized they were going to die. I identified with all the players involved on a purely human level, not because they were a man or a woman, victim or perpetrator, but because they were people.
Watching this film was not a feel-good experience, and it raised more questions than it answered. Regardless of how difficult of a watch this movie is, I think it was a worthwhile use of my time.