Sexual Colonialism; Feminine Assimilation in “I Spit On Your Grave”

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Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978)presents a narrative in which a single female is raped by a gang of males. Released in the same decade which produced a female character, Ripley, revolutionarily prevailing as the strongest person aboard a spacecraft during a monstrous attack in Alien, I Spit On Your Grave similarly gives a female character enough agency to seek deadly vengeance for an attack against her. However, although Jennifer ultimately kills the men who rape her, I Spit On Your Grave presents her feminine sexuality as an easily manipulated entity, allowing the male sexual mentality to reinvent traditional sexual practices on its own terms. As a result of that that process coupled with the fact that the film remains, as Carol Clover states, “aftermathless,” Jennifer ultimately objectifies herself and assimilates into the male mentality through her acts of vengeance, reconstituting her feminine societal position as a result of male-driven sexual domination.

The film stages the clash of male and female sexuality in its presentation of a diegetic space where its characters are presented as polar opposite, unable to coexist in the same setting due to their societal origins. The dichotomy is fleshed out via a key binary opposition pitting country and urban life against each other. Jennifer comes from the city whereas the rapists inhabit a rural locale. The film establishes the opposition during the beginning sequence of the film which sees Jennifer leaving her life in the city for the summer, hoping to clear her mind during a trip to a rural town. Jennifer’s city life is starkly contrasted with that of the rural town primarily through the usage of sound and imagery. The city is characterized by car horns, tall buildings, and other aural and visual signifiers of human life. On the other hand, the town is a quiet place devoid of the hustle and bustle of the city, whose sounds are noticeably absent as Jennifer transitions from one setting to the other. Natural sounds such as birds chirping and wind blowing through the trees serve to isolate the noise Jennifer’s car makes, contrasting its mechanical drone with the foreboding silence of the country.

Jennifer is introduced as a well-off urban resident with a job as a writer. Upon meeting Johnny for the first time at a gas station in town, Jennifer explains that she hopes the quiet, serene atmosphere of the country will facilitate a train of thought for which to write a new story She idealizes and objectifies the country life, assuming that it is a much simpler place than the city she inhabits, therefore hoping to channel that simplicity into clearing her mind of stress and city-induced pressures. Because Jennifer compartmentalizes settings such as the “city” and “country” as signifiers of entirely different ways of life (placing them on two separate planes of complication; the city is sophisticated, the country is simple), she essentially “others” or exoticizes the rural town, hoping to pillage (or rape, in a sense) its resources (the “simple” train of thought it will provide her) for her own financial gain (in the form of her story, which she will assumedly profit from).

The film emphasizes Jennifer’s exoticizing of the rural setting through the aforementioned scene where she meets Johnny at the gas station. Jennifer exits her car and asks Johnny to fill her tank up. She makes conversation with him, telling him that she’s enjoying the act of stretching her legs (which we later learn Johnny assumes is an act of Jennifer “asking for” his sexual attention). The long shot is broken by a shot-reverse shot “conversation” of sorts between Jennifer and two other men (Stanley and Andy) who take turns throwing a knife into the ground for their own entertainment. The editing in this scene allows us to see Jennifer’s reaction to the men’s activity, viewing it with an almost condescending smile. Jennifer observes this act as an outsider observing a foreign practice seeing as throwing a knife into the ground is a useless act when placed in the context of city life. The scene also intersperses shots of Johnny observing Jennifer observing the knife throwing, looking her up and down in a sexualized manner. Jennifer “others” the rural town’s residents by exoticizing their location and behavior, while they “other” Jennifer by objectifying her as a sexualized object. The setting itself also functions to “other” Jennifer in a scene which sees her enjoying the liberation a secluded place like her summer cabin offers her. Jennifer removes her clothing and enters the river beside the cabin, the camera zooming out further and further until it seems to hide behind the foliage on the banks opposite Jennifer. In a sense, the audience’s perspective as voyeur (which undermines Jennifer’s assumptions about seclusion providing her with peace, foreshadowing the “intrusion” of the four men who rape her) is emphasized while at the same time the setting itself “others” Jennifer’s presence by dwarfing her scope in relation to the woods as the shot zooms out.

In terms of male sexuality, that which pervades the male group in the film is presented as highly colonialist in terms of its function. As Johnny, Matthew, Stanley, and Andy discuss sexuality while they fish (prior to the rape of Jennifer) they speak of it as a tool to conquer or spread their dominant ideals. Johnny insists that the group tries to “find [Matthew] a broad,” in essence legitimizing Matthew as a man by conquering a female and making her his possession. Andy then muses on “chicks” from Los Angeles, saying that the city is “swarming with chicks looking to get laid.” Stanley echoes the sentiment, saying that “chicks come from all over the country,” and their only desire is to “get laid.” The men view feminine sexuality as something which needs conquering, and they are entitled to provide that sexual “completion” for these females because they are endowed with a penis, the tool which will “lay” the women who apparently so desperately desire it. This sets the stage for Jennifer’s rape, which functions as an act of not only sexual gratification for the men, but also as a means for them to fulfill their role as sexual colonist in the world as they see it (a world which, unlike the city where Jennifer comes from, is one where women have no individual power for which to hinder the seed of the males from spreading).

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The film emphasizes male sexual dominance intruding upon Jennifer’s feminine space in two key scenes. First, Jennifer finds a handgun in a chest of drawers when she first moves into the cabin. The camera switches between a shot of the gun and Jennifer’s face, emphasizing her weary reaction to its presence. Guns generally represent male aggression and power, and in this case Jennifer is uneasy about the gun’s intrusion upon her feminine space she hopes will facilitate her writing, but decides to leave it in the drawer (foreshadowing her transformation from feminized victim to masculine aggressor). Another notable scene which emphasizes the male intrusion upon Jennifer’s feminine space occurs shortly before the rape. Jennifer is writing her story as she sits on a hammock overlooking the river. An interior monologue is audible in which Jennifer recites what she is writing. She writes in a romantic style as birds chirp lightheartedly overhead, using flowery phrases such as “the fabric of her life,” describing “the big city, her job, her friends,” and the things which “other” her from the country setting and the male rapists. Her monologue (and romantic state of mind) becomes muffled as the sounds of a motorboat carrying Andy and Stanley approaches, drowning out her thoughts and rendering her momentarily unable to write as male presence disrupts her.

Jennifer’s rape indicates the full penetration of both Jennifer’s feminine, urban world and her sexual barriers at the hands of a dominant male group from the country. The male group presents her as the conquered object to Matthew, with Johnny telling him to “come on, we got her for you,” as they hold Jennifer down. Johnny’s words indicate the assumed (on the part of the males) roles for males and females in the world. Johnny views Jennifer as an object which must be captured, conquered, and codified as someone’s possession. As one in the group sexually assaults her, Jennifer is held down by the others. This indicates that while Jennifer is a victim, she is not placed on an equal plane. The act of male-on-female rape occurs at the hands of a group who rely on each other for moral support (they shout words of encouragement to whoever is currently raping Jennifer) as well as physical support (they hold Jennifer down). Matthew’s desire to rape Jennifer is also depicted as reliant upon the approval of his peers in order to produce any sort of actual pleasure for him. He only rapes her because the other males encourage him to and make fun of him when he says he doesn’t want to. Matthew finally succumbs to their desires, pleasuring the other males in the group with his compliance versus raping Jennifer for his own sexual satisfaction. This defines male sexuality as a colonialist exploit, pillaging Jennifer’s body as if it were a piece of land (or a piece of meat) for their own conquest. The power the male group has over Jennifer becomes apparent through various reconstitutions of “traditional” sexual ideals their exploit produces. The men rape Jennifer, they do not “have sex” with her. The act is forced, not consensual. Andy sodomizes Jennifer instead of entering her vagina. The act takes place outdoors instead of in a bedroom between multiple partners instead of involving one male and one female. The male sexual mentality is presented here as having enough power over feminine sexuality to reinvent the practice of sexuality itself.  Each of the aforementioned factors (primarily the act of sodomy engaged in instead of vaginal penetration) functions to indicate the male group’s interdependence of its individual members, fitting into how Robin Wood describes sexuality as “a mere by-product that one can choose or not… [there is] no logical reason remains why sexuality should be restricted to heterosexuality”.

The proceeding transition from Jennifer’s passive state to her aggressive state begins with key visual parallels which signify the shift. After she is raped, Jennifer is shown cleansing her body in the shower. She washes away the red blood which covers her body, indicating that she is shedding her “city” self (she was introduced to the audience wearing a bright red dress). A graphic match connects a scene where Jennifer drives to a church to seek forgiveness for her act of vengeance to the scene where she leaves the city to come to the country. Jennifer is positioned on screen left, aligned in profile view to the camera. Where the skyline of New York City was in the initial scene towards the beginning of the film is now replaced with a graveyard. As Jennifer enters the church, she is wearing dark pants (another contrast to her feminized city attire), indicating her shift from feminized victim to masculinized aggressor.

Although Jennifer succeeds in killing each of the men who assaulted her, she is not presented as a dominant female. In her act of revenge, rather, she is further implicated as a weak character. Because Jennifer kills the men because they raped her, the film presents feminine power only coming after a male has sexually violated her body. Before the rape, she is barely strong enough to stand up straight in her rowboat as she is dragged out of it let alone put up a decent fight. The men’s reconstitution of traditional sexual practices goes against what Jennifer would seemingly consider “normal” circumstances under which to have sex (judging from her romantic writings, etc.). The act of rape “awakens” Jennifer’s masculinized side, causing her to then accept the male presence in her life, retrieve the gun she felt weary of before, and attempt to use it to subdue the rapists.

Jennifer is also only able to kill the men after she sexually seduces them. She offers Matthew a “summer [he] won’t forget,” to which he responds with sexual arousal as Jennifer welcomes him on top of her. He is far too invested in completing the sexual act to notice Jennifer slip the noose which will kill him around his neck. Similarly, Jennifer lures Johnny back to her home (after feigning romantic feelings for him just before shooting him in the woods) and castrates him with one hand while pleasuring him with the other. In both cases, Jennifer must first play into the role of the feminized sexual object before she can act as the masculinized aggressor exacting revenge. In essence, Jennifer does nothing to advance the female position in the film. She yields to male sexual desire in order to get what she wants, becoming the sexual object, overpowering male sexuality by playing into their expectations of women who only desire to get “laid” which, while still technically yielding the result Jennifer wants (their deaths), relegates her to an inferior role once again.

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Jennifer succeeds in killing all four men, but the fact that the film remains “aftermathless” only further implicates her as a weak character . Carol Clover’s emphasis on the film’s lack of an aftermath forces her readers to consider the film’s absence of a concrete solution to the film’s occurrences. Jennifer, a member of “city” society who relies heavily on her roots as an urban resident, is not given any sort of legal outlet for which to prevail. She simply kills the men in secrecy. It is unknown whether or not Jennifer truly “gets away” with killing the men, so the true “aftermath” of the film remains unknown. What is clear, however, is the fact that the last impression the audience has of Jennifer is that of a murderer. She has only triumphed in getting “even” with the men as she sees fit, not as the strict laws which govern her urban society would dictate. The film ends with Jennifer as a byproduct of dominant male aggression. She is a changed woman who bares not only the physical scars of her rape but also the mental ones which resulted from both it and the murders she committed, allowing (even in their deaths) the dominant male mentality which victimized her to reconstitute her life yet again.

I Spit On Your Grave focuses its audience’s attention on the dichotomies between urban and rural life and the male and female sexual mentality. Despite her shift from feminized victim to masculinized aggressor, I Spit On Your Grave ultimately concludes with its protagonist as a weak person whom has completely (consciously or subconsciously) submits to male power. Through its depiction of the binaries between urban and rural, victim and aggressor, and male and female, the film uses Jennifer as a tool for which to show the undying power of male sexual domination through to its conclusion, which sees her as a byproduct of their sexual crimes despite her position as a financially empowered woman of the city at the beginning of the film. While she uses her status as a victim to fuel her revenge plot, it is still the male’s actions which fuel hers, forcing her to submit once again to their ideals of women as sexual objects without any sort of justice-based narrative conclusion to affirm that what she’s done is “right.”

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