Feminism in Horror: “American Psycho” and “I Spit on Your Grave”

radical indeed

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

            Gender politics and social issues are becoming a dominant topic in the national conversation again, and with good reason. Despite the enormous progress made during the Women’s Rights Movement in the 70s, women are still treated as second-class citizens in myriad aspects of post-modern life. Residual sexism and resentment from old chauvinists continues to rear its head. The rise of ironic sexism as a satirical device has had the unfortunate side-effect of fostering legitimate sexism within a new generation of men who should (and used to) know better. Public apathy increases the difficulty of raising awareness of these issues. And horrid misinterpretations and outright misrepresentation of religious dogma has fostered a nearly psychotic zeal in some to subjugate women’s basic level of humanity.

Plus you have those ignoramuses who think that women “already got what they wanted,” as though civil liberties were party favors. You only have to follow Twitter feeds like @EverydaySexism or hashtags like #IAskedPolitely to get a quick look at the enduring prevalence of sexism in society. Though the optimist in me believes that women’s rights will inevitably become as sweepingly popular as gay rights is now, resistance to women’s liberties, in all their forms, are still sources of concern for me, no matter how small said resistance is.

So where does horror get shoehorned into this? Horror is often used as an allegorical device, and I feel like it is particularly effective when it explores feminist topics. The horror genre seems exceptionally suited to capturing the often literal threat posed against women as they simply go about their lives, and two works in particular stand out as powerful and graphic allegories for the brutality with which society pushes back against women’s demands to be recognized and counted: “American Psycho” and I Spit on Your Grave.

“American Psycho”

American Psycho

“American Psycho” is a notorious book, primarily because of its graphic violence. The book is considered such an intense work of fiction that in some areas, it’s sold in shrink wrap. Patrick Bateman, the novel’s protagonist (though by no means its hero), is a vain, egotistical, womanizing Yuppie, who moonlights as a sadist, a rapist, and a serial killer. Throughout the novel, Bateman shows zero empathy for other human beings, and is exceptionally horrible towards women. He tortures and mutilates animals and vagrants, sexually assaults women, and kills wantonly. Bateman’s inhumanity only degenerates as the novel progresses, as he resorts to sadistic sexual mutilation, child murder, necrophilia, and cannibalism to satiate his increasingly violent psychosis.

When Brett Easton Ellis’ masterpiece was published in 1991, its feminist overtones were overlooked by most critics in favor of its scathing satire of 1980s consumerism and superficiality. The outright chauvinism and misogyny of the primary male characters, and especially the violence perpetrated against women by the novel’s protagonist, was unfortunately misconstrued as an endorsement, or at the very least a glorification, of treating women inhumanely. Feminists were rightly shocked by the violence of the novel (and believe me, it’s likely the most brutally violent novel you’ll read for a while), but were unrightly outraged at what they perceived as an attack against the popular perception of acceptable treatment of women. Many, though certainly not all, failed to understand that the novel clearly presented the graphic treatment as a reprehensible thing, and that Patrick is clearly not a character intended to model acceptable human behavior.

Post-modern reflection, however, has brought a new feminist appreciation for the novel’s themes, especially for its condemnation of sexist attitudes towards, and objectification of, women. Feminist Mary Harron even directed the film adaptation (which I will defend unto death). “American Psycho” is absolutely fearless in confronting male attitudes that prevail even today. The book explores to literary extremes the tendency on the part of men to view women as items to consume, and the often violent resentment men feel at being rejected. Bateman, at one point, even makes a necklace out of the vertebrae of a woman he’s killed, providing a sickening metaphor for how many men see relations with women as little more than conspicuous consumption. The character also masturbates while wearing his cadaverous jewelry, showcasing a sexual urge that, while clearly not the norm for male sexual attraction to women, makes a grotesque visualization of many men’s sexuality being wholly concerned with the physical manipulation of a woman’s body. In such instances, a woman’s individuality bears no impact on the man’s sexual satisfaction, unless her personality comes into conflict with such satisfaction.

If you read “American Psycho” and you find yourself becoming outraged over the trauma inflicted on many of its female characters, remember: you’re supposed to be outraged. That was Ellis’s intent. You’re supposed to find yourself disgusted at what’s being presented. You’re expected to get mad, because you can only fix a problem when you’re made aware of what the problem is.

I Spit on Your Grave

I Spit on Your Grave

Also known by its more cinematic release title Day of the Woman, I Spit on Your Grave was blasted by feminists and critics as exploitative filth that degraded women and, according to Roger Ebert, “made men want to rape women.” I saw the original as a teenager, and I gotta tell ya, it did not give me much of a taste for rape when it was over.

The film is hard to watch, to be sure. The rape sequence may not have the shock of the tunnel sequence from Irreversible, but it is violent, ugly, completely unerotic, and it lasts for half an hour. You watch the rape unfold like you’ve run across the crime itself, witnessing a degrading assault against an innocent woman’s humanity by four men inhuman enough to not only disregard her obvious physical pain and humiliation, but actually enjoy whole-heartedly what they inflict on her. And their enjoyment isn’t only sexual; the rapists take time to torture Jennifer as they take turns raping her, with Andy clearly becoming excited from the woman’s screams and Johnny mocking Jennifer’s work as a short story writer. The men go out of their way to degrade every aspect of her that they can: they belittle Jennifer’s work, flaunt their power in superior numbers, revel in dashing any hopes she has of escaping or seeking help, destroy her personal belongings, and refuse to acknowledge anything that makes her more than a object on which to vent their darker impulses. Jennifer’s body is completely savaged, and she is left for dead when it’s over.

It’s a movie that will leave you numb, and for good reason: it’s probably the most accurate portrayal of gang rape ever committed to film. The movie makes you see it all, so that you have no illusions as to how horrible this crime is. The rapists aren’t just seeking sexual release; they’re out to totally destroy Jennifer, to the core of her being. They want to obliterate everything about her that’s good, forever. They’re vile, shallow, unimportant, insignificant men, who inject themselves into a random woman’s life for the convenience of transforming her, in their minds, into a repository for their evil.

This is another work that’s held up well thanks to post-modern review. Audiences and critics today are able to see the film for what it is: a clear denouncement of violent male sexuality, and a brave attempt to showcase to the public how absolutely evil and destructive rape is. Reviewers often note how even those who came to the theater in the 70s expecting titillation were shamed into horrified silence as the film dragged on. Though they missed recognizing that as the film’s intent, the movie today, while maybe not the best vehicle for female empowerment, is a damning critique of chauvinistic attitudes towards women, particularly with regards to male sexual access to women’s bodies.

I Spit on Your Grave is one of the more effective films at engendering male sympathy towards female vulnerability in rape culture. While empathy, by its definition, is impossible, sympathy is something that can, and should, be encouraged, and I Spit on Your Grave leaves you practically begging the film to stop what’s happening to Jennifer, and cheering when she starts taking butcher knives to her rapists’ erections.

In subsequent interviews, writer and director Meir Zarchi revealed that he was inspired to make the film after coming to the aid of a woman who’d been raped in Central Park. After debating whether to take her first to the police or the hospital, Zarchi and his friend took her first to the police. Zarchi regretted this decision, as the incompetent officer who handled the case insisted on questioning her before providing medical attention, even though the woman had a broken jaw. The woman’s father later offered Zarchi a reward for his help, but Zarchi declined.

Even without knowing this, however, I Spit on Your Grave stands out as one of the more responsible and socially conscious horror films ever released.

I’m under no illusions that either story helps to “solve” the problem of rape culture, but each work helps to illuminate the problem. They don’t celebrate the violence and the constant threat women often find themselves under, but rather they use the violence as a means of chastising viewers for not recognizing the depth and severity of the problem around them. These aren’t just pieces of entertainment – these are scoldings, telling us we should have known better. Telling us to shape up, or things will only get worse.

As chilling as each work is, they’re also quite refreshing. Considering the sheer volume of female exploitation that permeates the horror genre, any piece of horror fiction that advocates for the rights and liberties of women is a welcome change in tune.

–          The Awful Writer

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