Can an antifeminist like me really enjoy a story about a woman turning the tables on a horrible, violent man? Yes 🙂 But there is a catch.
In the past I’ve asked myself the question of why masculine “strong” female characters can be so annoying. I soon discovered that strength, or even masculinity in a female character is not the problem in itself. And the more revenge movies I see, the more I’m convinced it’s all about making characters engaging and interesting.
Example 1: Death Proof
Since this movie was coupled with Planet Terror on the DVD, I was expecting a gory, badass collection of awesomeness. Instead I got a boring movie with cold heroines and an interesting villain. The villain, Stuntman Mike, is a serial killer who kills women with his car. In the second half of the movie, he attempts to kill the three heroines, which results in a long (admittedly awesome) car chase. Then they crash his car and beat the shit out of him while he whines like a baby. And then Rosario Dawson casually caves his face in with her boot.
I did, as many others, feel unsatisfied with the ending and felt it was a damn tragedy. Yet by all moral standards, he deserved it and I should be rooting for the heroines. So what’s the problem?
Example 2: I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
This one has a similar plot. The heroine, Jennifer, moves into a cabin and is attacked by four men who torture, rape, and leave her for dead. She heals herself and uses her seductive powers to catch and kill her attackers.
Despite a similar plot (woman revenge) and both being exploitation films, I liked this one infinitely more than Death Proof. I have pondered why and came up with these reasons:
- The Heroine is interesting and isn’t overshadowed by the villains. Unfortunately, the only two things I remembered well in Death Proof was how someone’s leg flew off during a car crash (the kid in me went “WHOA, awesome!”), and how turned off I felt after witnessing the ending. Stuntman Mike was fun, the heroines were not. He was so much more fun that I’d rather he just killed his next batch of bland characters and we got to know more about him.
In I Spit On Your Grave, time was devoted to developing both the heroine and the bad guys. The heroine is nice and non-arrogant. She even seems to flirt with Matthew, the awkward guy with the bicycle. That makes the attack on her ironic, as the men justify it by saying she must be some stuck-up slut if she’s from NY. She could well be a slut, admitting that she has “many boyfriends”, but stuck-up she is not. And who would hate a nice slut?
The only bad flaw in her is reacting stupidly to the realization that the men are stalking her. I know I wouldn’t go swimming alone after that. But it’s forgivable considering the parallel stupidity of her attackers when she takes revenge. They fall for her seductive skills, without even thinking she might be interested in killing them during sex (which eventually happens).
- The heroine is given a great obstacle to overcome (and exercises proportionate violence). She endures terrible and prolonged torture during the first half of the movie. The audience can understand her murderous reaction well. In Death Proof, the heroines endure a difficult, life-threatening car chase, but are otherwise unhurt. Their gleeful beatdown and killing of defenseless Stuntman Mike is harder to understand. It just looks like what happens when a thug attacks other thugs, and they do what thugs do. The issue is compounded by the numbers of enemies (Jennifer kills four enemies, while the three Death Proof girls kill one enemy). It’s cooler to be outnumbered, but still take revenge.
- The heroine changes. Some people said the graphic torture of Jennifer is just there to make sadistic movie-goers happy. Maybe it’s true, but I see something greater in it. In many superhero movies, you have to first endure pain to gain superpowers. It could be being shot up (Robocop), being bitten by mutant electric eels (The Amazing Spiderman 2), accidentally becoming disintegrated in a sand experiment (Spiderman 3). And in case of Jennifer, torture made her the cold seductive killer who can use sex for killing. This isn’t always a development for the best, but I thought it was damn fun. In Death Proof, on the other hand, I didn’t detect any interesting changes.
- The villains don’t suffer badass decay. No matter how justified the revenge, I don’t want to see a badass villain whining and crying for help like a baby. In I Spit On Your Grave, the cocky rapists stayed cocky when facing Jennifer again, and the wimpy rapist stayed wimpy. They were worthy opponents. They got their fun epic deaths, yet I didn’t find myself cringing. In Death Proof, I was hoping they’d stop beating the defenseless enemy already. When the enemy is a pathetic sniveling mess, payback no longer feels good and in fact might make you feel dirty inside.