Rape-Revenge 2.0: Digging Deep to Explore How Hard-Hitting Films Like REVENGE and M.F.A. Are Changing the Controversial Horror Subgenre
“Most often in the horror film, rape is considered a brutal, monstrous act visited upon the innocent. The question then becomes: is revenge an appropriate answer to rape? Or is revenge merely a terrible lowering of oneself to the level of the brutalizers?” (Muir 224)
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Is revenge an appropriate response to rape? In the real world, probably not, but this brand of horror film portrays what seems like the only logical solution to rape. In the past, rape-revenge films have been labeled not only as feminist, but exploitative and misogynist.
With the recent premieres of films M.F.A. (Natalia Leite, 2017) and Revenge (Coralie Fargeat, 2018), horror fans find themselves with a new and improved brand of rape-revenge, one that accurately reflects the #MeToo movement.
It’s not so much that the rape-revenge film has changed all that much. More than anything, current events and movements have changed our view of rape-revenge films.
“Unlike #MeToo accusers, who have fought to go through courts (yet another ordeal) or make do with naming and shaming, the rape-revenge protagonist can let rip with Old Testament vengeance” (Billson, “How the ‘rape-revenge movie’ became a feminist weapon for the #MeToo generation”).
Rape-revenge films like M.F.A. and Revenge only differ slightly from the typical paradigm and yet they are resonating with viewers in a powerful way.
“Among the third wave’s bequest is the importance of inclusion, an acceptance of the sexualized human body as non-threatening, and the role the internet can play in gender-bending and leveling hierarchies” (Rampton, “Four Waves of Feminism”).
One of the important and influential movements recently are SlutWalks, which were created in protest of slut-shaming and blaming of sexual assault victims because of their appearance.
Fargeat tackles this expertly in Revenge, and she calls it into question through protagonist Jen’s (Matilda Lutz) actions and appearance. In the film, a drunken Jen dances with her boyfriend’s friend, Stan (Vincent Colombe). Stan becomes every rapist and victim-blamer when he confronts Jen the next day, recalling how she danced with him and seduced him.
Fargeat takes this even further by having Jen reborn as a vengeful and badass goddess clad only in a sports bra and boy shorts and some critics think this is a disservice to the point of the film:
“The camera often meditates on Jennifer’s semi-clothed form, particularly her ass. The film’s first shot of her, beachy blonde waves tumbling over her shoulders as she sucks on a lollipop, is a callback to Lolita-esque infantilizing imagery” (Wilson, “Revenge Tries to Elevate the Rape-Revenge Movie, But Is the Genre Worth Saving?”)
To this, I would argue that showing Jen running around in a t-shirt and panties, sucking on a lollipop is exactly the point, and responses like the one quoted above are textbook victim-blaming.
Fargeat is out to prove that Jen did nothing wrong; she was on a trip with her boyfriend, his friends showed up, they partied, and Stan grossly misunderstands Jen’s actions. The point Fargeat is trying to make, both within the movie and out, is trying to control what women wear so we don’t get raped is ridiculous. Fargeat could have just as easily covered Jen up, and someone like the character Stan would rape her anyway.
In Revenge, Jen is all of us. By withholding any background information on Jen and the rest of the cast, Jen’s story can then be applied to anyone who has been a victim of sexual assault.
In a similar way, M.F.A.’s protagonist, Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), is all of us. Unlike pretty much every other rape-revenge movie – Revenge included – Noelle doesn’t intentionally kill her rapist. Luke (Peter Vack) is accidentally killed in a confrontation with Noelle, who just goes to him for an apology. It’s not until her own rapist is dead that Noelle goes on a revenge rampage. Noelle is relatable not only to victims of sexual assault but also anyone who has watched a news story about a rapist who got off with little more than a slap on the wrist.
The endings of both films couldn’t be more different and yet are both satisfying and telling of the times.
At the end of Revenge, Jen has killed her rapist, her boyfriend, and his friend, covered in blood she looks out to the horizon, then looks over her shoulder at the audience, breaking the fourth wall. The look she gives the audience is almost a warning that she is far from done getting her revenge because there are more predators and offenders out there.
Obviously, this is an ending that we are used to seeing in rape-revenge and it’s an empowering one. If you were to ask viewers if revenge is an appropriate answer to rape after viewing Revenge, they would probably say yes. How could you not after seeing Jen’s badassery?
M.F.A., on the other hand, gives the impression that revenge is that terrible lowering of oneself to the offenders’ level. At the end of M.F.A., Noelle attends her graduation ceremony, giving a powerful speech for her class, before giving herself over to the cops. Leite shows an alternative to the message Fargeat sends at the end of Revenge: we’ll have our revenge, and then we will do what the offenders didn’t have the balls to do. We’ll own up to our crime and do the time.
A big part of the plot of M.F.A. is Noelle’s fellow victims telling her not to say anything because she won’t be believed, and she’ll be labeled a whore. And, of course, Noelle rejects this idea and avenges other victims of rape, which is pretty badass. Unlike the support group she goes to, Noelle takes her pain and turns it into something beautiful, much like her art.
So, to answer that million-dollar question: it’s both.
M.F.A. and Revenge mark the beginning of what could be a new wave of rape-revenge films that reflect the #MeToo movement. What will make them different from earlier rape-revenge films is their answer to that question.
Revenge is an appropriate answer to rape. It brings you down to the level of the brutalizers, but Noelle and Jen both accept this contract. These new rape-revenge protagonists will lower themselves to the level of their attackers to get revenge, not unlike those real-life women, Rose McGowan, for example, who speak out against their attackers despite the media backlash that comes with the territory.
There’s no telling if M.F.A. and Revenge are the first in a new wave of rape-revenge films or if rape-revenge cinema has run its course. It is clear that society is still in need of rape-revenge films to reflect the times.