Promising young woman leads change in ‘rape-revenge’ films

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Stories about sexual assault in Hollywood are changing – on screen and off.

There is a genre of long-standing film devoted to portraying the crime of rape as it affects the fathers of victims, showing fathers taking violent revenge.

Contemporary directors have moved away from performances like this, with many films choosing to complicate the simplistic morality of their predecessors.

But these movies have generally been a low budget business with limited cutscenes – unlike the budgets and stars injected into stories about fathers, like Taken (2008) and Death wish (2018).

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With the success of the 2020s Promising young woman, it is likely that there will be more revisionist films like these reaching large audiences and critical acclaim.

It’s a refreshing change of pace in a genre filled with films portraying rape as an attack on the honor of the father.

Revenge of the father

The rape-revenge cinematic genre has a pretty shady reputation, invoking images of a battered and traumatized woman taking violent revenge on her attacker (s), as in I spit on your grave (1978).

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These early films rose to prominence in the 1970s and leaned heavily on the shock value of brutal rape scenes, followed by the even greater shock of the victim’s sadistic revenge.

But entries in the genre haven’t always focused on the victim’s reaction.

Often, filmmakers found more mainstream success if the Avenger was the father of the victim.

The film that likely brought the genre to the fore was the 1961 Oscar winner from Ingmar Bergman. Virgin spring.

Virgin spring focuses on the pain of the father, not on the being of the daughter.

Virgin spring begins as the story of the titular virgin, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), but after her rape and murder, attention turns to her distraught father Töre (Max von Sydow).

In 1972, Wes Craven, an admirer of the film, made the good more violent The last house on the left, who just takes a moment to focus on the pain and humiliation of Mari (Sandra Peabody), before relishing in the sadistic revenge her parents take on her murderers.

Unlike Mari and Karin, Carol (Kathleen Tolan) from Death wish (1974) survives her assault, but the film ignores her pain.

Instead, Death wish focuses on her stoic father Paul (Charles Bronson) and whiny husband Jack (Steven Keats).

Jack is heartbroken when he puts the catatonic Carol in the care of a mental hospital, and Paul takes his grief on the petty criminals of New York.

A man shoots a gun in the subway.
In Death Wish, the rape of a girl must be avenged again and again.

First with a sock full of pennies, then with a gun, former pacifist Paul becomes a powerful deterrent against would-be criminals, reducing crime in his town to astonishingly.

This film has four sequels of roughly the same plot and of varying quality (1985 Death wish 3, in which Kersey defends an apartment building filled with old people, is a lot of fun) and the 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis.

Planning a murder

I have watched an insanitary number of these films, but perhaps the most illustrative of this tradition is Taken.

Liam Neeson plays former Green Beret Bryan Mills, who begins the film by attempting to rebuild his relationship with his 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace).

Bryan is horrified when Kim wants to visit Paris accompanied only by her irresponsible friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy).

He reluctantly agrees, but his hesitation is justified when Kim and Amanda are kidnapped by an Albanian sex trafficking ring.

Neeson aims a gun.
In Taken, Liam Neeson takes the gun – just like the men before him.
Bryan goes to Paris and tortures every Albanian he can get his hands on. In one particularly upsetting scene, he electrocutes information from a mid-level gang member, Marko (Arben Bajraktaraj).

When Bryan has what he needs, he turns on the electricity and walks out, leaving Marko to be gradually electrocuted to death.

Eventually, Bryan takes his fatherly responsibility by murdering everyone and saving Kim.

What women need

Taken ends with Kim returning to America with Bryan, apparently not changed at all by her ordeal. She is just as happy as she was in the opening scenes.

Of course she is: it’s not her story. This is Bryan’s story and he got exactly what he wanted. Kim is safe, and his authority as a father is no longer in question.

Even rape-revenge films starring women rarely focused on his inner journey, instead highlighting his incredibly violent acts. But new iterations in revenge rape center the protagonist’s path to healing from trauma.

2017 film by Natalia Leite MFA (published in Australia as Revenge Artist) takes audiences into the experience of its protagonist Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), who learns that violent revenge can be cathartic, but doesn’t heal her trauma.

A woman is lying on the floor, looking up.
Finally, women are placed in control of their own stories.
Promising young woman focuses on a protagonist’s inability to cope with the suicide of her friend as a result of sexual assault.

The HBO / TBEN series I can destroy you follows a woman who does her best to rebuild her life after a traumatic assault.

More and more stories are presented onscreen that focus on what a rape victim needs – rather than who her father wants to hit.

It is an industry that realizes that when a woman is raped it is a tragedy because that woman is a human being, not because she is a girl.


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Isobella Austin, PhD student in Film and Film Studies, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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