Gender Attitudes in Two Revenge Tales: I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and A Question of Silence (De stilte rond Christine M, 1982)

Directors/Screenwriters: Meir Zarchi/Marleen Gorris

Grave%204%20edit.JPGQuestion%202.JPG

By Marilyn Ferdinand

During the late second-wave feminist movement in the United States and its slightly lagging reverberations in Europe, two films of female revenge premiered: I Spit on Your Grave (whose innocuous original title was Day of the Woman), a primal, graphically violent film that was lumped into the popular exploitation genre, and the Dutch film A Question of Silence (literally translated as The Silence of Christine M.), an avowed feminist film with a very civilized veneer in which the murder at its center is never explicitly shown.

These two films with a common theme could not look more different. The former film was roundly trounced as the most disgusting film ever made, was banned in several countries, and has lived on in infamy. The latter film, decidedly more “artsy,” cerebral, and, well, foreign, made the festival circuit and quickly vanished. Regardless of their superficial differences, however, these films try to make exactly the same point and in this attempt, fall into a trap of patriarchy that neither of them fully recognizes.

In this essay, I will summarize the plots, attempt to describe the basic gender dynamics at work in the narratives of these two films, reactions to the films, and ways to reframe these narratives to accommodate more advanced ideas about gender roles.

The basic plots

I Spit on Your Grave tells the story of Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a would-be novelist from New York City who rents a riverfront house in a small town as a quiet, isolated place in which to work. Before seeing her temporary home for the first time, she stops for gas and encounters four buddies: ringleader Johnny (Eron Tabor), lackeys Stanley and Andy (Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleemann), and mildly retarded Matthew (Richard Pace). After a slow, tension-building start, the film kicks into high gear, as the men encounter Jennifer floating in a rowboat, grab her out of it, and take her into the woods so that Matthew can have his first sexual encounter. He hesitates, and for the next 45 minutes, we watch Jennifer raped and sodomized by Johnny and Andy in the woods, stalked to her home, raped by Matthew, and beaten savagely by Andy. Matthew is given the task of killing her, but unbeknownst to the others, he only coats the knife he has been given in blood from her face. After two weeks with no discovery of her body, the men go back to the house, one by one, to investigate. One by one, Jennifer kills them. One is hung, another is castrated and bleeds to death, a third gets an ax in the back, and the fourth is shredded by the propeller of an outboard motor. The film ends with Jennifer motoring down the river, with only the water divided by the bow visible under the closing credits.

A Question of Silence introduces three women, a housewife and mother named Christine (Edda Barends), divorced waitress An (Henriette Tol), and unmarried secretary Andrea (Nelly Firjda) as each goes about her daily routine. One by one, policemen come and take them away. They are being charged with the heinous murder and mutilation of the manager of a women’s clothing boutique. None of the women knew each other or the manager. Psychiatrist Janine van den Bos (Cox Habbema) is engaged to interview the women to determine if they are mentally fit to stand trial. As she goes about her work, Janine learns that each woman has been demeaned by the men in her life. The murder also unfolds episodically throughout the film, and we see four women of different ages and races observe the murder without lifting a hand or voice to stop it. Janine comes to understand the women—even Christine, who can speak but, like Bartleby, prefers not to—and pronounces them sane. The prosecutor can’t understand how a sane woman could have done such a thing, at which point the defendants, Janine, and the women who observed the murder and are now in the gallery of the courtroom, burst into uncontrollable laughter. An outraged prosecutor and panel of judges remove the defendants from the courtroom and hold the trial without them. Janine walks out and faces the bystanders to the murder. All look silently, understandingly, at each other.

Gender dynamics

The period in which these two films were released marked perhaps the lowest point in male/female relations in the 20th century. Legislative gains made by first-wave feminists were being followed up by challenges to the social and psychological order of things. Consciousness raising, which women engaged in throughout the 1970s, helped to uncover the unconscious, internalized structures supporting patriarchy in America and other societies and provided tools for women to wield in their social relationships. Eventually, these challenges to the social order would create a “backlash” men’s movement that would attempt to organize male rights in an effort to achieve balance in the face of uncustomary female assertiveness.

Within this context, it is not surprising that films featuring the savage rape of a woman and the equally savage murders of men by women would appear on the cultural landscape. Yet, both films reflect the still-unconscious understanding of traditional male/female roles.

I_Spit_On_Your_Grave.jpg

In I Spit on Your Grave, a context for Jennifer’s rape is not given. Just like the murder of the shop manager in A Question of Silence, none of the rapists and would-be murderers knew Jennifer or had any personal reason to hold a grudge against her. Her only “crime” is that she is a woman, and the men claim their control over her body almost as a right. It is only when the shoe is on the other foot that the men trot out the usual excuses that hide the real motive for their attack. No one in the audience at that time would have been puzzled about why an attractive woman like Jennifer would be attacked. Then, rape was still seen primarily as a sex act, therefore, the audience might have been puzzled if the men had attacked a homely woman without provocation. This film might have gone some ways toward demonstrating that rape is a hate crime, however, thus performing a service for some audience members at the time and viewers in the ensuing years.

Both movies, and particularly A Question of Silence, take pains to provide a context and justification of sorts for the actions of their female protagonists. Revenge is the basic motive, of course. Audiences of I Spit on Your Grave generally feel that Jennifer’s mass murder of her attackers is justified. The film wisely ends at the completion of the last murder. To bring in the law at this point would remind audiences that Jennifer did not attempt to redress her grievances through the criminal justice system. According to director/writer Zarchi, he was moved to make this film after trying to help a real gang-rape victim seek justice, only to find the justice system unhelpful and unsympathetic. Given his fantasy of the justice of “natural law,” the film could not have ended any other way. (In a strange move that I will in no way try to interpret [sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar], the director cast his own wife as Jennifer.)

Silence%201.jpg

In sharp contrast, A Question of Silence occurs almost entirely under the aegis of the Dutch legal system and serves as a consciousness-raising experience for Janine. None of the accused women resist arrest or deny that they murdered the shop manager. Since there is no apparent motive for the crime or the women’s alliance, the courts assume that the women must be insane. Indeed, Janine’s psychological evaluation seems to be a mere formality. When she comes to see how male prerogatives have denied these women opportunities for financial security, professional advancement, and equality in marriage, she discovers that her own rage matches theirs. Her good marriage to a doctor fractures as the case exposes his self-centered, male entitlements.

Again, Gorris needs to emphasize the complicity of silence about the second-class status of women in Dutch society. She emphasizes that men seem deaf and blind to women’s plight. In one scene, Andrea, who routinely does all the work and research for her boss, gives a reasoned rundown of their company’s unfavorable position in the North African market. A couple of beats later, a man sitting to her right repeats exactly what she said; Andrea’s boss compliments the man on his ideas. The scene would be funny to me if I hadn’t actually witnessed similar scenes over the years and as recently as 2005.

The courtroom scenes exaggerate the buffoonery of the law and its representatives. Certainly the women are angry—so angry that they make a corpse that is unrecognizable and, like Jennifer, engage in castration. Nonetheless, these deliberately ordinary women have contributed to the complicity of silence. Indeed, Christine refuses to speak because, Janine reasons, no one ever listened to her. A Question of Silence may be the first voice of feminist Dutch filmmakers, but aside from refusing to participate in their own trial—like the Chicago 7 refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the court—they give up on trying to educate their society and therefore continue to submit themselves to patriarchy. All they got was a temporarily satisfying revenge. The hint of a revolution to come, however, adds a measure of hope to this first shot in the dark.

Reactions to the films

In a recent review of I Spit on Your Grave, Sam Jordison of the UK’s Channel 4 writes:

“It is strong stuff, not for the weak-stomached. It’s also over the top and the frequently clumsy dialogue (which is sometimes even inaudible) and suspect camerawork mean that this film will never be viewed as high art. However, behind the excesses there is a seriousness of intent from writer-director Meir Zarchi, a willingness to confront boundaries and an incisive questioning of the justification of revenge.”

Roger Ebert’s review of I Spit on Your Grave is extremely negative but very astute about the film’s reflection of cultural norms of the time. He writes:

“A vile bag of garbage named I Spit on Your Grave is playing in Chicago theaters this week. It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters…

“How did the audience react to all of this? Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud. After the first rape: ‘That was a good one!’ After the second: ‘That’ll show her!’ After the third: ‘I’ve seen some good ones, but this is the best.’ When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: ‘Cut him up, sister!’ In several scenes, the other three men tried to force the retarded man to attack the girl. This inspired a lot of laughter and encouragement from the audience.

“I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie’s heroine. I wanted to ask if she’d been appalled by the movie’s hour of rape scenes. As it was, at the film’s end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.”

An anonymous capsule summary of A Question of Silence at Channel 4 says:

“Despite—or because of—the climax, this is a disturbing and sombre movie, raising questions from a severe feminist stance and not suggesting any easy answers. It makes for gripping entertainment thanks to Gorris’s abundant skill in handling a complicated structure and her four central performers.”

Janet Maslin wrote of A Question of Silence:

The feminist cause will not be well served by A Question of Silence, a Dutch film that tells of three women who stomp, kick and pummel to death a male shopkeeper. … Why? Well, apparently because he is a man, and the three shoppers have all been ill treated by other men that they know.

It’s a little skewed to choose reviews from a UK site because gender roles have not moved as far as they have in the United States. Unfortunately, reviews of A Question of Silence are hard to come by, and I was struck by what Sam Jordison had to say.

In assessing I Spit on Your Grave, Jordison stresses the extreme nature of the violence and how that might push an audience’s buttons, as well as whether revenge might be justified in this case. Nowhere does he suggest that there is something to think about with regard to the underlying attitudes of the men in the film. His thoughts are turned to judgment of the woman.

Roger Ebert gets at the underlying assumptions of the film that are so repellent, but fails to appreciate the film as anything but an obscene pile of trash. In his own way, he is trying to suppress what the film has brought to the surface—the animosity, even hatred, between men and women shown at its most extreme.

As for A Question of Silence, I think both reviews also reflect an antipathy for the anger of women in male-dominated societies. Janet Maslin is simply dismissive of the film, perhaps believing the old saw that feminists hate men. Hers is a thoughtless, careless appraisal. While the anonymous reviewer acknowledges that the film is thought-provoking, he or she emphasizes that the film represents an extreme feminist point of view. Historic cultures, such as ancient Greece, always gave the devil her due as evidenced by Medea’s murder of her own children to show her displeasure with her husband. I prefer an “extreme” feminism to one that is more polite and, therefore, fairly toothless.

Moving ahead

Progress has been made to some degree in the cinematic arts and in life. Numerous articles and scholarly works have been devoted to a reappraisal of I Spit on Your Grave, perhaps most notably Michael Kaminiski’s article “Is I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE Really a Misunderstood Feminist Film?” However, feminist film theory still seems to lag in discussing underlying patriarchal attitudes in many of today’s films and forming alternative neutral or female-centric ethics that provide alternatives or eliminate bias altogether.

Younger filmmakers may lead the charge for change. Kevin Smith is quoted in This Film Is Not Yet Rated as saying he’d like films where women are raped and put in danger slapped with an NC-17 rating. Questioning the moral police of the MPAA in itself is an act of rebellion against movies sculpted to reflect a narrow point of view.

Ultimately, filmmakers and filmgoers must make the “you understood” underlying the assumptions they use and witness to assess what points of view are consciously and unconsciously being promoted. For example, if kickass women in films are always beautiful (as, indeed, they are), we haven’t progressed very far from the sentiment expressed in Jerry Harrison’s 1986 song “Man with a Gun”:

A pretty girl, a pretty girl can walk anywhere
All doors open for her
Like a breath of fresh air, her beauty, it precedes her
Wrapped in her beauty, everywhere, she is welcome
First class on the plane, closed door of the club.

In 2010, audiences will be able to see a remake of I Spit on Your Grave. Perhaps that film will be the real litmus test of how far we have or have not come.

  • Arbogast spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 12:12 am

    You’ll find an interesting, persuasive reading of A Question of Silence in Andrea Weiss’ Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film (Penguin Books, 1991), which quotes B. Ruby Rich’s Village Voice review and also filmmaker Marlene Gorris as well as discussing the reaction of male audience members during screenings at New York’s Waverly Theater. Too much to recount here but interesting reading if you can track this book down.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 2:15 am

    Thanks for that, Arbogast! I’m a fan of Ruby Rich’s and of the film. I don’t know if that’s clear in this essay, as I was trying to discuss cultural point of view rather than the film as a whole. My experience watching it in a theater was a very pleasurable one.

  • Rod spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 5:32 am

    Yeah, there’s so many incredibly unattractive kick-ass men in the cinema these days.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 8:06 am

    Rod – You win the A+ for snark today. If you think this essay sucks, you could have just said so. I think I would have rated a more respectful dismissal from you.
    Despite the numerous views this has gotten, the resounding lack of comments seems to indicate it does suck.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 8:27 am

    Hey, this is my first read of it and I thought it was great. Sorry I didn’t show up sooner. I saw I Spit on Your Grave years and years ago and took it in the vein of a low rent slasher movie that ends in revenge never finding it as offensive as many others. I have always remembered Ebert’s review and always found it puzzling. While I felt the movie was a bit on the inept side cinematically, so I could understand a bad review strictly speaking, I wasn’t as repulsed as Ebert was. The man he mentions in the audience does indeed seem to have lost something fundementally decent if he’s rooting on rapists but the woman cheering on the revenge – what’s so odd about that? There have been plenty of “brutal justice” themes in movies with men starting with Dirty Harry and Death Wish and somehow those weren’t (completely) regarded as morally filthy exercises but a woman killing her rapists is somehow wrong to show. That made no sense to me then or now. Look, I’m not a capitol punishment supporter but within the context of a movie, or even in real life, I can easily wrap my mind around the idea of a woman wanting to kill her rapist.
    There’s a difference between supporting or opposing a governmentally approved system of murder as a means of meted out justice and understanding that an enraged victim may take matters into her own hands. For some reason, this reminds me of how annoyed I was twenty years ago when Michael Dukakis (who, yes, I voted for) was asked if he would not want the hypothetical rapist/killer of his wife executed to which ole’ Michael replied that no, he wouldn’t and came off as unemotional and robotically detached. I always thought, and so many others who’ve written about it, that he missed the opportunity to say, “I’d want to kill him with my bare hands because of what he did to my wife. But that’s why we don’t let victims or their family decide the punishments… etc, etc” In I Spit on Your Grave the victim decides the punishment. And it makes perfect sense to me.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 8:40 am

    Thanks for showing up, Jonathan, and giving me your support, but it seems you might have missed the point of the essay.
    I used to believe in eye for an eye justice, but I just think revenge gets us nowhere. That’s one of the reasons I’m against capital punishment, but also why I opposed the drum beat into Iraq. Not only was there no evidence, but the number of people who wished to believe there was (even granted that some were genuinely duped) showed me that they wanted revenge against Arabs–any Arabs would do.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 8:53 am

    Marilyn, I’d like to think I got all of that. As I said I don’t support capitol punishment. Nor going into Iraq. Nor eye for an eye justice. But I do understand the mentality of doing it as a victim while I cannot understand wanting to rape and kill someone out of sheer hostility. I don’t support the behavior of revenge, but it doesn’t leave me puzzled and confused as rape does. Thus, the man cheering on rape in the theater seems mentally deranged to me, the woman cheering on the revenge seems emotionally connected to the plight of Jennifer. I view those as two very different things.
    I certainly didn’t gather that you supported any of the behavior described, I certainly hope you don’t think I do.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 8:56 am

    Are the underlined parts suppose to be links?
    My own thought is that to believe that there is only one acceptable way of expressing feminism in art or in art criticism is a mistake. Thirty years ago I would not have imagined that concepts would be challenged by lesbian produced porn for a lesbian audience, or the reclaiming of burlesque as two examples. I haven’t seen either film – only Gorris’ Antonia’s Line. I also have to wonder if the term “feminist” really means anything, having seen it applied to discussion of films starring Doris Day, or films by Howard Hawks.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 9:52 am

    Peter – The links have been fixed (coding problem).
    Jonathan – You obviously “got it” before I wrote this essay, therefore went at another angle. Perhaps this essay is dated for many men in this day and age. I was puzzled, however, to see comments that seemed to ignore the assumptions under which I Spit on Your Grave was filmed in this day and age. I guess this exercise in consciousness raising on my part was somewhat unnecessary.
    Peter – Perhaps you have identified a problem with this essay–that it belongs more to the historical feminism category than as an active engagement with current feminist concerns. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but as Jonathan as an example, men have become conscious of some of the patriarchal assumptions of previous generations and rejected them. I do think there are many ways of expressing feminist concerns in media today; the battle is not won yet if you watched Hillary Clinton being pilloried for being a woman by nut jobs like Maureen Dowd. So I’m going to do more reading and get up to date.

  • Daniel spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 11:45 am

    All issues aside, this is an excellent essay, Marilyn. Well organized and researched.
    I haven’t seen either of these films, but I imagine my reaction would be similar to Ebert’s, as this line of yours caught me off guard: “No one in the audience at that time would have been puzzled about why an attractive woman like Jennifer would be attacked.” I also agree that the guy in the audience could not have represented the typical male viewer. It’s really hard for me to accept that.
    Considering I was born in between the releases of these two films, I think there is something to be said for generational differences here. I can’t imagine people watching a film like that and not even questioning a motive. Certainly most rape scenes in movies aren’t explained even today, and it’s up to the viewer to attribute it to primitive, animalistic tendencies on the part of the male. However, I don’t think audiences are simply not blinking at these scenes and thinking that rape is acceptable as a sex act. I know you’re not arguing this point, but it’s just something to be said for progress in that respect. What’s disconcerting to me is the rise in “torture porn”, however, so maybe it’s a wash. But at least the accurate word “torture” is included.
    I’m surprised there has been no mention of Monster here. A homely, abused woman seeking revenge against disgusting men, and being held up almost as a hero for the audience.
    I don’t know, am I way off here? Let me know.
    Since you mentioned Hillary, yeah I would say she’s been treated unfairly pretty much the whole way. Not that it necessarily changed the outcome, but it was still baffling to watch.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 12:09 pm

    Daniel – Thank you. I wish I had done more research on feminist theory, but given my desire to post this fast and the dearth of information at my fingertips, this was the result.
    I certainly do think I come from a generation that thought differently than yours does. I was a young woman during the most fractious times of the second-wave feminist movement, and believe me, the hatred on both sides was out in the open. If you see I Spit on Your Grave, you’ll get a very graphic view (albeit slightly less realistic with regard to Jennifer) of the boiling-over sentiments of the time.
    As for Mrs. Clinton, nothing about it surprised me. It’s been happening to her since she was a first lady who actually tried to do something of substance for the country.
    I would be remiss if I didn’t note that your characterization of rape as a primitive, animalistic tendency (though certainly not one most sane people would condone) is kind of off the mark. Instinct doesn’t drive men to dominate. The desire to dominate is, I believe, a social construct. If you look at conquering armies, one of the things they do routinely is rape the women of the defeated side (see my review of Grbavica for more on this). This is a deliberate act of domination and humiliation.
    I didn’t see Monster, but I can tell you that any sane woman would consider her what the title implies. I don’t even approve of Jennifer killing her attackers. The legal system got Aileen Wournos for doing some heinous murders, and she deserved to be tossed in jail (though not killed by the state).

  • Daniel spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 3:01 pm

    That’s an important correction. I definitely didn’t mean to imply there is anything natural about rape, or that there is some innate instinct for any human to do that, male or female. I guess I just meant that many viewers will fall into that trap and not consider what’s actually happening when they witness it on film. The rape in “A Time to Kill”, for example, has little to do with sex and a lot to do with domination borne of racism. But, many people would just watch it and think, “Oh, those perverted rednecks.”
    Wournos definitely deserved her punishment in my opinion, but in the context of this discussion I mentioned it because I think the film in some ways attempted to justify her actions, as with I Spit on Your Grave. The difference is that Wournos was definitely made out to be physically repulsive, as opposed to the character of Jennifer Hills. Again, I didn’t see Grave so I guess I’m on thin ice with that comparison.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 4:25 pm

    Daniel – I’m glad you brought that up. In my opinion, Wournos and Jennifer were identical. They both thought they had justification for murder and followed through. One is a fiction film and the other is factual, but the actions are identical.
    The idea of whether they were attractive or not is really only important in the fiction film. Of course, we know that women of all ages and appearance are raped because the crime is one of hatred and control. Sexual arousal comes from the power the rapist exerts over the victim, not from a procreative/innocent pleasure urge.
    But because so many people still see rape as sexual, they assume that attraction is the motivator. This is why I said that audiences for I Spit on Your Grave would “understand” why these men would want Jennifer, whereas if I put Wournos in a film like this, the audience would be less inclined to buy the rape angle unless she did something to provoke the men. This is, I think, how rape is understood: either an uncontrollable urge brought on by sexual arousal in the presence of an attractive victim, or as punishment. In fact, the latter is the only reason.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    27th/08/2008 to 8:40 pm

    I enjoyed reading your insightful take on I Spit on Your Grave, Marilyn. This is a film that often deeply (and understandably) disturbs female critics who don’t want to look beyond the graphic nature of “exploitation” films in general so they have trouble grappling with the complex issues it addresses. I think it’s extremely important to consider what the cultural landscape was like when it was made. I haven’t seen A Question of SIlence but you’ve made me curious about it.
    I haven’t seen I Spit on Your Grave in 20 years but I should revisit it even if my desire to do so is minimal.
    I’m trying to catch up on the blogs I enjoy reading but it’s slow going. My life has sort of turned upside down in the last couple of months but things are going well and I hope to start blogging more soon.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/08/2008 to 8:07 am

    Thanks, Kimberly. and it’s good to see you resurface a bit. You’ve been missed.
    I don’t think female critics are the only ones who have trouble grappling with the issues these films raise. This struggle has been going on since the proverbial Garden of Eden. As the dream factory, movies heighten our awareness as well as our emotions, and that can be a very frightening, threatening thing.
    Nonetheless, I believe that once an issue comes to the surface, it’s already on the way to being repaired. I think that while the going is slow, progress has been made. I had no trouble at all watching I Spit on Your Grave, finding it (much to the hubby’s surprise) one of the most interesting films I’ve seen in a while.

  • Rod spoke:
    28th/08/2008 to 9:49 am

    No, Marilyn, not being snarky. It was an overture to exploring my own conflicted feelings on some of these particular points, which have to either summarized as tersely as possible or expostulated at great length. I don’t think this really constitutes a critique or rebuttal or even commentary on what you’ve said, but more of an intellectual and personal confession.

    Counterpoint 1:
    “For example, if kickass women in films are always beautiful (as, indeed, they are), we haven’t progressed very far”

    Frankly, I tend to bristle a bit at statements like that. It feels both parsimonious, and a bit unrealistic, as a sentiment. Not because, necessarily, I want to see all beautiful people, all the time on screen, but because it makes you sound like a teacher chiding students for not choosing any of the fat kids for the softball team (when we fat kids would rather have spent the lunch hour hanging in the library anyway). If there’s one thing pop culture is immune to – indeed, thrives on – it’s being chided.

    Stephanie Zacharek recently, and correctly, said that audiences go the movies to see beautiful, exotic, or at the very least vividly interesting people on screen, and that it’s one of the great pleasures of going to the cinema. It’s not a major reason why I go to the movies, but I’m perfectly willing to concede it’s a major reason why most people go. Women my age and younger have no problem whatsoever with expression their physical admiration for male actors, and I feel no need whatsoever to correct them – what, am I going to tell they ought to stop lusting after Johnny Depp and watch Paul Giamatti for the rest of their days? (Not that I think it’s much of stretch to find the vigorous personality and intelligence Giamatti projects as pretty damn hot) Actors are generally held to a standard of physical appearance – at least lead actors. Beautiful people are encouraged to try acting far more regularly than the rest of us proles.

    The cult of the Mindless Pretty Person is at a zenith in Hollywood today, and once again, far from merely involving women. I think of recent years, having the talentless hunkitude of the likes of Thomas Jane, Ashton Kutcher, Scott Speedman, Paul Walker, Keanu Reeves, etc, thrust upon me – unbearable! This has actually been an operative result of the penetration of feminist values – or, more specifically, the kind of dumbed-down feminism, parlayed in popular culture. Good for the goose, etc. Rather than leading to a broader exploration of ‘beauty’, in fact it has to ever-more-rigorous and absurd standards of ‘beauty’. I recall, when he was emerging in the late ‘90s, hearing Edward Norton dismissed as a potential big star because he wasn’t “good-looking”. Say wha? So then I ask questions like, would great, charismatic, talented stars of the past like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Dustin Hoffman, get a look-in these days? I sincerely doubt it. Nor, I suspect, would gorgeous, but peculiar, female stars of the past – Bette Davis would be eaten alive for her big eyes and wide mouth today.

    Counterpoint 2:
    But people on the big screen have always been prettier, and filmmakers use this to advantage. Alfred Hitchcock – no-one’s idea of a sex-god – used two good-looking males, Cary Grant and James Stewart, as his on-screen surrogates for different aspects of his interior life. Go to a website like Deviant Art and check out the self-projections of young women, running the gamut from the multitudinously perverse to the idealized, and often both at once.

    But one of the peculiar things about classical standards of beauty is that the more pronounced it is – the more interchangeable, the more it allows us to project our fantasy selves onto it.

    There’s a game I’ve identified I call “Get The Girl” that’s played relentlessly by both critics and audience. There are two aspects to this game. The first aspect is the regulation put-down of a female ingénue as being unable to act, obviously, because she’s good looking. This is usually done with a false veneer of cynicism, where the commentators are winking, knowing said attractive girl has been cast for their ogling benefit, and not for talent. The false ironies of this process of this game are fascinating. Despite the fact that they provide what we want, they’re castigated it for it. Not that it’s only aimed at women – look at the difficulties extremely good-looking male actors like Robert Redford and Brad Pitt faced gaining credibility more immediately bestowed on, say, Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman.

    The second aspect was neatly displayed when The AV Club recently did a fascinating survey of comments on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s presence on The Dark Knight, observing the crushing wave of fanboys complaining about Gyllenhaal’s low babe factor, apparently wishing Megan Fox or the like had been cast in the role. It’s an almost incomprehensible sentiment to older, more worldly men who find Gyllenhaal deeply attractive for the same reason such brats were dissing her – her specificity of character, the flaws of his face that add up to something rich and fascinating.

    It’s also all in the eye of the beholder. Rebecca Traister recently complained about the sex scene between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei at the beginning of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead because the physical disparity between the actors was an egregious example of Hollywood chauvinism. Yet this makes an amusing contrast to Zacharek’s comment, some months earlier, about wishing Hoffman, rather than Eric Bana, had played Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl, stating he’d have been “100 times sexier in a bathrobe”. She’s probably right.

    Counterpoint 3:
    Jill Clayburgh once said something that essentially stated that the ultimate goal of feminism was the end of feminism – when it would be recognized that women were as diverse as men (actually, the women I know far more diverse than men) and therefore not suppliant to any single ideal. And pop culture has caught up with that idea a great deal. You acknowledge the relative antiquity of the films you’re looking at, but since you’re seriously looking at gender assumptions today, it doesn’t really help your thesis. There are currents and cross-currents today that demand attention.

    But then, we’re largely talking about movies, and most movies are made or financed by middle-aged white men, most of whom, we suspect, got into the business hoping to have their sexual fantasies actualized.

    Counterpoint 4:
    Of course, the here and now isn’t especially cheering. Why do I have to watch sixty year old Howard Hawks films for male-female relationships that feel more adult, sophisticated, and modern than those of today? I see a through-line between the afore-mentioned dumbed-down feminism and the recent attempts to dismiss feminism altogether. In the early ‘90s, there was a kind of rancid faux-feminism purveyed in sit-coms, advertisements, movies, talk shows, etc, where men were regularly put down as shallow, sex-obsessed little boys unworthy of taking seriously. Generally, this was intended to be mildly satiric, but an odd result was a re-legitimization of a ‘boys will be boys’ credo – leading to the explosion of what I think of as ‘encouraged drooling’, in lad mags and the like, which has since snowballed into the re-conquest of a lot of modern media by idiot-sexuality. This, I think, is pretty sad.

    Counterpoint 5:
    I’m not saying you don’t have a point. Many of the “empowered” females pop culture serves us are actually just gross eye-candy. The flop of the likes of Aeon Flux and Catwoman seems to brought a thankful, temporary halt to the proliferation of movies that were supposed to be about female heroes but were always accompanied by sniggering comments by audiences and reviewers along the lines of, “Despite (Insert Hot Actress Here) spending the film in a skin-tight suit/pair of hotpants/leather bra/banana skirt, this film sux.” In fact, both those films are astonishingly awful, and to that you can add the inert Tomb Raider films. In all those films, dramatic character development seems to have been frozen in favor of drinking up the splendid spectacle of the female form, their action moves more or less interchangeable with pole dancing. All these girls are humorless and dull. Take Lara Croft, who had the potential to become the female Indiana Jones, but was just a walking, talking mannequin. Angelina Jolie’s only contribution to the role was to play her as a bit of a dom, rather than a minx – which didn’t make her more interesting; in fact it made her all the more icily boring. The characteristics we find interesting in heroes – moral and emotional conflict, personality flaws and complexities, sex lives; all of these aforementioned heroines have been denuded of such richness. This might have been supposed be empowerment – flawless über-femmes cavorting across screen. In fact, this is the exact opposite of feminism. It’s abstract, fetishist idealization, without the compensatory factor of fetishism – sex. These are actually sex-free beings. Sex involves messiness, emotion, and character. These portraits purvey only onanistic self-reference.

    With great heroines in film, you actually don’t think about it anymore than you do great male heroes. They just are. To a certain extent, I even resent having to acknowledge it, because a part of me insists they should be allowed to retain their unremarked-upon existence. Nonetheless, I’ll do it. Quentin Tarantino’s recently developed an awesome battery of heroines, from Jackie Brown to The Bride to the chicks of Death Proof. Most impressive is The Bride of Kill Bill, a heroine who gains our unswerving loyalty through a very specific female trait – she’s getting revenge for her (presumed) murdered child – and is very sexy despite never appearing in anything that’s revealing (the jumpsuit she wears in the House of Blue Leaves battle is hardly tight), charismatic and sympathetic and multi-levelled, daring even to have unlikable, savage traits. Or the women of the X-Men films, who are all confident, intelligent, and unapologetically powerful. Or the marvelous Eowyn of The Lord of the Rings films, who made a great heroine precisely because she looked scared shitless, but kept fighting all the same. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. Or the casually magnificent heroines of Asian wu xia films and Japanese genre cinema. Or…etc.

    Counterpoint 6:
    This is all distinct from “serious” dramatic representations of gender, but then again, that demands a total recontextualization, because in real life rape victims rarely track down and murder their abusers, and women don’t exactly beat pushy shopkeepers to death every day and then blame in on “the pressure” like feminist Rastafarians every day. This actually makes me reflect on the reception male versions of the same concept, like Taxi Driver, or Mamet’s Edmond, where the (male) characters are driven by an almost existential need towards murder as the only fitting response to their frustrated lives. Such movies demand questions like, is murder sometimes the only self-expression left to some people? We dismiss the protagonists of those films as crazy, too, but are they? What they are, of course, is portrayals of emotions on the part of their creators, enacting pent-up feeling for them. They enact aspects of the psyche, not a reality.

    Counterpoint 7:
    The Kevin Smith quote to me raises more questions than it answers. He could simply mean that he wishes our response to such events on screen were more sensitized. Okay. But what constitutes sensitization? The proliferation of graphic portrayals of rape, murder, homosexuality, etc, in cinema, came in the mid to late ‘60s – an era in which began volatile arguments about such subjects in the culture. They constituted, however indirectly, a desire to look directly at what was causing anxiety. Far from their portrayals having been around forever and only just noticed, they became permissible only in a time-period that fundamentally about new dialogue. The blanket nature of Smith’s statement entails wrapping up movies as disparate as Mystic River, Irreversible, The Hills Have Eyes 2, and some Lucio Fulci shit-fest together. Is his moral point that all portrayals of rape and murder should be prohibitively rated? I know, truth be told, what his actual point is – that violence is censored far less prohibitively by the MPAA than sexual content, and he’d rather the opposite.

    But the most egregious examples of exploitative sex and violence are not, in fact, in film. They’re on television. TV cop shows these days, both American and British, are replete with sadistic serial killers butchering young women left, right, and center. A few weeks ago, I caught the opening of an episode of CSI. It began with a low-grade porn scene, shot with all the flash-edits, fancy lighting and high-tech pizzazz we expect, as a beautiful exotic dancer cavorting before a roomful of hooting men. The next we saw her, she was lying dead, murdered, atop a giant spotlight. It was absurdly glamorized, slickly sick, rancid in conception and execution. There was no sense of brutality, or characterization, or murder as an event – it was merely the insignificant interlude between act of sexual display and lust, and ignominious death. Life has been reduced to a series of associated codes – woman/sex/money/murder/death/garbage. The structure of such whodunit plots is of course to provide us in the end with a killer and a restoration of moral order. And yet to me they reduce morality, and humanity, to codes given lip-service, whilst indulging flashy, glossy, manipulative displays of inhumanity. I turned CSI off immediately after this opening, and I wondered to myself, is this really what so many people watch, this tawdry, gutless manure? Better to watch the up-front rape scenes of Straw Dogs or Irreversible a million times, and half to wrestle with one’s reactions to it.

    Counterpoint 8:
    “Patriarchal attitudes in many of today’s films” strikes me as a bit jargonistic. Examples, please.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/08/2008 to 12:02 pm

    Well, I’m glad that wasn’t snark. My responses:

    Counterpoints 1 & 2: Yes, the statement was parsimonious and not well thought out, and I think I knew that at the time. Unrealistic—yes, for now. But one of the avowed purposes of feminism is to eliminate the objectification of women. I’m not looking for a particular type of woman to be cast in these roles, ugly or pretty or somewhere in between. But the filmmakers are because they’ve had success appealing to adolescent libidos—both real adolescents and remnants of those feelings in grown men. I think this is still a worthy goal, and even moreso after reading a very disturbing series of comments to a feminist commentary about video games. Whatever you think of her argument (and I don’t know what to think since I’m ignorant in this area)—and at least one commenter provides valid rebuttals—stuff like “make me a sandwich” and “Q-What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? A- Nothing. You’ve already told her twice.” Garbage in, garbage out—it’s a fact and a way to keep raising misogynists.

    Yes, we like to see the exotic creatures the silver screen offers us. It’s the only way a pretty lousy film like Gilda could make so many best films lists. Appreciating beauty is one of the many pleasures of filmgoing. But as filmmaking has become more homogenized—like everything else in our culture—physical types have been simplified and dumbed down as well.
    You’re right about men being more objectified as well, and indeed is a perversion—actually, the destruction—of feminist values. Feminists were not looking for equal-opportunity ogling, just healthy, realistic portrayals of sexuality, something that has always been in short supply at the movies. God knows I wasted half my life pursuing horrible relationships because my mother taught me that I should only be with physically attractive men. I daresay a woman made motherless at age 10 had some of her attitudes shaped somewhat by her film consumption and the idealized romances portrayed by the likes of Tyrone Power, Cary Grant, and Errol Flynn. I still think Hollywood has made room for unconventionally handsome men in leading roles, just as it always has. But, you’re right—where are the Bette Davises and Barbara Stanwycks of today. Maybe Cate Blanchett is as close as we get. I really don’t think we’re making any progress, and as the beauties on screen get dumber and dumber, or thinner and thinner (poor Christina Ricca!), I lose patience as well.

    I also don’t think your “Get The Girl” game is as insidious as you make it out to be. Younger actors and actresses need to learn their craft, so with some outstanding exceptions, they are, in fact, not all that good at first. Do I think the critics play this as a snarky gossip ploy? Yes indeed. But pundits always look for a shred of truth to hang their nasty bits on. It is a classic Games People Play type game. People enjoy it as much as they enjoy gazing at vacuous beauties on the screen.

    Counterpoints 3–5, 8: Clayburgh was right and so are you about my historical perspective. But the goals of feminism still have not been met. Theorists are still talking about the male gaze, which to my mind, equates with the patriarchal assumptions that movies still take as givens.

    But perhaps the biggest indicator is how the majors are running at full speed back to the past: comic books founded in the 60s and earlier, TV shows from the 60s, remakes and romcoms that keep very much to the patriarchal side of the road (The Women, Bridget Jones’ Diary, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and let’s not forget the new I Spit on Your Grave), trips into the far past (Marie Antoinette, The Lord of the Rings). And the plethora of movies that put women in danger and have men rescue them or make decisions for them, tossing women carrots by giving them some kickass bits, too (think Bourne, Mission Impossible, even a French thriller Tell No One).

    You mention the comic book heroines/villains, but have these movies redressed the balance of 3 guys and a girl or some other male-majority configuration? Even X-Men, which is probably the most evenhanded, kills off its most powerful woman and desexes a comely main character by making her untouchable. When you put strong women together as a team, what do we get? Charley’s Angels! (I’ll have to admit, though, that I loved Charlize Theron’s character in Aeon Flux). Of course, Buffy is what female heroes all ought to be like.

    All the while the MPAA (see Counterpoint 7 below) is strangling the indie movement with its new-fangled ideas.

    Counterpoint 6: Well taken. I do think both Zarchi and Gorris felt they had to go to extremes to make their point. The former did not realize his would be so misunderstood and exploited, the latter understood this very well and therefore bolded the cluelessness of men while still sending her women to defeat and an uncertain future. This is the “natural law” argument that is a very double-edged sword, but appropriately brought to light in the movies.

    Counterpoint 7: I believe Smith’s context was that he finds violence against women offensive, whereas the MPAA finds sex, particularly “deviant” sex offensive. I think his thoughts are to take the power exerted by—as we learn—the biggest filmmakers in the industry, and change the dialog, undermine the patriarchal and socially deviant attitudes they purvey for the sake of profit.

    TOTALLY agree about the sickness that is TV, particularly CSI, which I stopped watching long ago, and stuff like Wire in the Blood. This is worse than the movies because it’s in our homes, reaching anyone who’s in the room. I fear the results.

  • Whitney spoke:
    4th/09/2008 to 10:56 pm

    This was a very interesting essay. I thought Carol Clover’s analysis of I Spit on Your Grave was a critical response that seemed even-handed and thoughtful (as opposed to Ebert’s outrage). While I absolutely hated the movie, would never watch it again, would keep my hypothetical children away from it, etc., I thought there were some points of the film that went beyond exploitation into interesting (maybe feminist) areas. I actually wrote about it in my blog a while back (it was part of the “films I never wanted to see” series.
    anyway, just wanted to let you know I read this and thought it was excellent.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/09/2008 to 8:17 am

    Thank you, Whitney. I’m not sure I’d watch I Spit on Your Grave again, mainly because I took its point. But I did find it absolutely fascinating in that it really uncovered the savagery that is rape. So many films look away and then give us the trauma of the victim as our only clue as to what really happened, even a film I greatly admire, Two Women. I also like that the film empowered Jennifer to do something about it rather than fall into a helpless depression. Of course, the level of violence is more symbolic of a victim’s state of mind than what she would act out. Nonetheless, I hope it gave men a chance to see what a serious outrage rape really is to women.

  • Film Walrus spoke:
    4th/06/2009 to 8:49 pm

    Hey Marilyn,
    I’ve started looking around for some of the films you recommended me and the best I can find for A Question of Silence is used VHSes. Did you find something better you can point me to?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/06/2009 to 9:09 pm

    Walrus – As far as I know, the VHS tapes are all that’s available. Be careful, too, because the one I got was dubbed. (I don’t think they all are, though.) I had actually seen this a film festival the first time, so I was lucky. It’s worth getting, though, because few of Gorris’ films are available at all.

  • Daniel spoke:
    12th/07/2010 to 5:34 pm

    Ah, the archived internet…I just saw somebody post a trailer for the remake of I Spit on Your Grave and immediately I remembered that you had brought it to my attention (can’t believe it was two years ago)! Found my way back to your review via IMDb and was actually surprised that we had exchanged thoughts on this. I’m sorry it took me seeing my own words again to remember!

    In any case I’m disgusted by the reality of this remake. I hope Ebert just recycles his review, though truthfully it will be fascinating to hear his thoughts on what he thinks has changed. Hopefully he’ll write a journal/blog entry on it. You have pull with him – ask him!

  • David Small spoke:
    15th/12/2011 to 2:29 pm

    I saw A Question of Silence at a festival when it first came out. It had an incredibly powerful impact on me and I’ve often spoken of it to others over the years. I have been trying to find it (apart from VHS format) for some time. If anyone knows where I can get a copy, I’d be very grateful to hear. david.small@canterbury.ac.nz

  • charu spoke:
    9th/01/2012 to 12:58 am

    The difference between the two films is that in Marlene gorris its admonishing and warning men against women’s rebellion- women kill out of choice unlike in the first film- because they decide to collectively take up arms gaiunst patriarchy

Leave your comment






(*)mandatory fields.

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood




Subscribe to Ferdy on Films

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives