Trigger Warning: this piece talks frankly and honestly about rape and sexual assault, both in cinema and in the real world.
At this year’s Coachella music festival, a journalist reported that not only had she interviewed over 50 women who claimed sexual harassment at said festival, but she herself was groped 22 times. The piece was a hard look at the festival environment that normalizes sexual assault, where many men feel entitled to put their hands on women without consent. When the piece was shared by the author on Twitter, one of the first comments was a man who asked about her state of dress.
The implication here is one that women have been fed time and time again: if you dress in a manner that men find sexually attractive, you open yourself up to sexual violence. You are to blame (at least in part) for anything from catcalling all the way up to rape. It’s part of the widespread social conditioning that we now call “rape culture”. From “what were you wearing?” to slaps-on-the-wrist for rapists, from the dismissal of admitted predatory behavior as “locker room talk” to the use of the word “sex” (instead of “sexual assault”) in headlines to describe the statutory rape of a male student by a female teacher, rape culture implicitly tolerates sexual violence in our culture. One of the hallmarks of rape culture is the concept that somehow, in some way, the victim deserved what they endured. The very same culture claims that sexual violence can be prevented by things like dressing modestly and never going out alone at night— in short, acting like a good, clean girl. In her essay, “Nice Girl”: Social Control of Women through a Value Construct”1, Greer Litton Fox points out that this notion of the good, nice girl is another method of social control (a “normative restriction”), not unlike forced modesty, male chaperons, confinement to the home, and family honor codes. But the piece holds additional value for those looking to gain a deeper reading on films of the rape-revenge genre.
Fox’s paper makes little mention of cinema at all; her argument is that the Nice Girl construct is a more subtle tool used to control women in society. But the construct does find its way into the films we watch, especially the darker ones that explore the standards women are held to, like Gone Girl and Audition. In fact, I came across Fox’s journal article last year through one of my favorite podcasts, Faculty Of Horror, as supplementary reading to go along with their 50th episode, on Takashi Miike’s Audition. When it comes to films centered on sexual violence, even the exploitative ones, the Nice Girl becomes a crucial aid in holding a mirror up to our society and gendered expectations.
“…niceness attaches to behavior, not to the individual. Thus, one’s identity as “lady” or as “nice girl” is never finally confirmed. Rather, it is continually in jeopardy, and one is under pressure to demonstrate one’s niceness anew by one’s behavior in each instance of social interaction. In effect then, throughout her lifetime a woman’s behavior will reflect continued efforts to attain what is essentially an unattainable status.”
“A woman who violates these restrictions does so at the risk of her respectability and perhaps her personal safety.”
Well, gee golly. That sounds like the way the woman victim was treated in I Spit On Your Grave (she sunbathed in front of men). And Irreversible (walked alone at night in a short dress). And Teeth (kissed a boy). And Straw Dogs (previously flirtatious). So many of these films that follow a similar three-act structure (Sexual violence/abuse; survival/rehabilitation; vengeance) also feature a protagonist who violates the Nice Girl complex in some fashion or another. One recent such example is Coralie Fargeat’s feature debut, Revenge.
Jen (Matilda Lutz) is enjoying some time with her wealthy boyfriend at his secluded desert getaway spot, when his shady friends arrive early for a hunting excursion. Tensions arise until Jen is forcibly raped, abused, and left for dead. She survives the attempt and rises up to deliver righteous fury and bloody payback, which blurs with a quest for continued survival in a deftly-paced, subversive genre thrill-ride.
From the first moment we see Jennifer, she is enveloped in sexually charged iconography. Donning white-rimmed sunglasses and sucking on a lollipop, Jen evokes a modern-day Lolita as she rides in a private helicopter with her married boyfriend, Vincent. Upon landing, she exits the helicopter ahead of Vincent and the pilot, fully aware that they are watching her. She turns back and smiles. It’s a perfect microcosm of her personality; Jen is a confident woman who revels in the effect she has on those around her. Her sexual confidence is in stark opposition to that of the more socially acceptable women-victims like Thana of Ms. 45 (her assault was the result of vulnerability; she lived alone and walked to and from work alone). As a woman fully aware of and enjoying her sexuality, Jen is closer to Mary of American Mary, or even Sarah Tobias of The Accused (which, though viewed through the respectable lens of the justice system, is still a rape-revenge film).
When Jen first encounters Vincent’s friends (and her future assailants) Stan and Dmitri, she is half-dressed and eating an apple. She’s not partying or teasing her lover, just taking a bite from an apple. But within the context of this film, the snack takes on a metaphorical dimension and likens Jen to a temptress. The secluded desert oasis becomes a Garden of Eden, and she is now Eve. As Stan sees it, Jen is tempting, and tempting him. An impromptu dance later on that evening further widens the divide between Jen’s carefree enjoyment and Stan’s perceived entitlement to her. Jen has, in the eyes of the men present, defied the social construct of the Nice Girl as Fox laid out:
“As a value construct the term connotes chaste, gentle, gracious, ingenuous, good, clean, kind, virtuous, noncontroversial, and above suspicion and reproach.”
“Misfortune, misery, and public ostracism are the lot of the fallen woman, while virtue brings as rewards the fealty and protection of men.”
The Nice Girl is a value. Fox insists that in our social realm, if you don’t act Nice, you don’t gain that value. Without that value, you are not worthy of protection from harm and indignity. Any man now has implied consent to your body, on your behalf. The implied consent is key, because it’s used by entitled men to supersede that which women have been proclaiming for years: dancing is not consent, and neither is wearing a short skirt, or smiling at a man and laughing at his jokes. So when Jen does each of these things before a trio of men and progresses from surprise to discomfort to fear when one of them advances upon her, it’s a wonderfully subversive way of illustrating that the Nice Girl as a construct is unfair, manipulative, dangerous, and generally utter bollocks. Failure to conform to the Nice Girl complex should not imply consent, which is why Jen draws such empathy.
Once she is raped, Jen is further humiliated when her boyfriend fails to send her home and punish the man responsible. She has lost “the fealty and protection” of her own man. It’s this sort of defiance of the Nice Girl construct that leaves women vulnerable to assault in these films. Revenge and The Accused are move overt in their endorsement of this formula, with both victims scantilly-dressed and gyrating to music before their rape. Other films are more subtle: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander had done nothing salacious before her rape at the hands of legal guardian, but look at Fox’s definition again:
“…virtuous, noncontroversial, and above suspicion and reproach.”
One glance at Lisbeth’s industrial goth haircut and her numerous piercings and tattoos is enough to know that she’s no girl next door (as we know the type in our culture). Her identification with an alternative subculture is its own form of controversy, thus a rebellion against the Nice Girl archetype that society has laid out for her.
The construct isn’t limited to a woman’s behavior around men, either. In I Spit On Your Grave, Jennifer Hills arrives at a riverside rental cabin for a relaxing writing retreat. While relaxing by her cabin, she decides to lay in a hammock and sunbathe in her bikini, unaware that a group of men are prowling the area and watching her. But this is enough for them to attack her later. Savage Streets features a deaf teen, Heather, who herself is kind and virtuous, but becomes the victim of a gang rape because of her association with a girl gang of potty-mouthed, leather-wearing delinquents (of which her protective sister is a member). Heather was a Nice Girl, but still tainted by proxy.
In no way am I saying that the degradation endured by the women in these films is at all deserved. It’s the very fact that these crimes are so jarringly undeserved that makes the rape-revenge film subversive in its finger-pointing at rape culture, whether it means to or not. By taking the Nice Girl construct and applying it as a filter over the lens of rape-revenge films, it’s easier to get a read on how social expectations can raise a woman’s likelihood of violation and humiliation at the hands of those who (because of these expectations and the woman’s failure to meet them) perceive them to be lesser-than. In the vast majority of rape-revenge films (including women-directed movies like American Mary and Revenge), even the most innocent victim is, in the eyes of her rapist and the rape apologists of society at large, “asking for it.”
Revenge was one of my favorite films screened at 2017’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, because it boldly destabilizes the rape-tolerant structures of thought that we see in real-life society, while remaining brutally true to the most durable of genre techniques and the three-act structure that is expected of such films. Along with the Soska Sisters (who brought us American Mary), Coralie Fargeat is one of the few women filmmakers to tackle a genre that’s disappointingly bereft of feminine perspectives on it’s most common themes. Filmgoers could stand to see more vengeance films that, as film scholar Teresa de Lauretis once wrote, “deals with female experience from within, that investigates the deeper strata of female experience, that seeks answers, causes, and the dialectic nature of that experience rather than presenting only a surface, whether polished or scarred.“2
1Fox, Greer Litton. “‘Nice Girl’: Social Control of Women through a Value Construct.” Signs, vol. 2, no. 4, 1977, pp. 805–817. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3173211.
2de Lauretis, Teresa. “Cavani’s “Night Porter”: A Woman’s Film?” Film Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 1976-77) p. 35.)
Anya Stanley is a California-based writer, columnist, and staunch Halloween 6 apologist. Her horror film analyses have appeared on Birth Movies Death, Blumhouse, Daily Grindhouse, and wherever they’ll let her talk about scary movies. See more of her work on anyawrites.com, and follow her shenanigans on Twitter @BookishPlinko.