Rape, Revenge, and Gender Inequality

Last night, Cap made me aware of some trivia from the recent horror film Midsommar that I did not care for. Here’s the same fact, from IMDb: “After the coerced coitus scene, Christian was supposed to run away in the robe that he had entered in. Jack Reynor [the actor] himself suggested that Christian run out completely nude in order to appear more vulnerable and thus appears fully nude here. Reynor was inspired by having recently watched The Last House on the Left (1972) in which, like many films in the horror genre, female characters are made nude, humiliated and/or assaulted before their demise. He felt it was due time that male characters be made to suffer similar indignation.”

He’s not alone in believing this is the right way to handle past crimes against women in film. The French film Revenge (2018), about a woman who returns to kill the three men who raped and attempted to murder her, is lauded in Rolling Stone: this “French exploitation film about a rape victim taking on her attackers is a pulp reclamation – and a blood-soaked demand for reckoning.” The reviewer enthusiastically concludes, “you feel like you’re watching an active reclamation in process – a demand for reckoning using the tools of the oppressor. Movies have turned women into objects. Society has turned male entitlement into an epidemic and a scourge. Revenge is a bloody middle finger to all of that. . . . You’ve been warned, gents.”

This review describes the mentality that Reynor from Midsommar was adopting. Men have oppressed women; now it’s men’s turn: it’s only fair. Such a thing would be “an active reclamation,” “a demand for reckoning using the tools of the oppressor.”

…Using the tools of the oppressor.


J. R. R. Tolkien has something to say about using the tools of the oppressor. The following excerpt is from a letter written during World War II, when Nazi Germany had not only systematized murder of the Jewish people, but also threatened to spread their heinous, inhuman evil to the world stage. What to do with this frightful nation, committing atrocities far worse than the “male gaze?” Tolkien writes,

There was a solemn article in the local paper seriously advocating systematic exterminating of the entire German nation as the only proper course after military victory: because, if you please, they are rattlesnakes, and don’t know the difference between good and evil! (What of the writer?) The Germans have just as much right to declare the Poles and Jews exterminable vermin, subhuman, as we have to select the Germans: in other words, no right, whatever they have done. . . . You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy. (93-94)

Jack Reynor and The Rolling Stone are right that women are objectified far more often than men in films. And while I appreciate Reynor’s sentiment, which I hope is a strange form of empathy, I emphatically disagree that the solution is to give men a taste of what’s been done to women. The problem is not men, or women. The problem is objectification. You don’t solve objectification through objectification: instead, you simply replace the one who’s doing the crime.

Nevertheless, Hollywood still seems to think this sort of thing is the solution. Jeffrey Overstreet’s critique of the new film Hustlers demonstrates: “Here, the depiction of heartless, headless men is revolting — and rightfully so! But Hustlers wants us to cheer for women who, exploited and harmed, turn not toward a higher road, but instead go low when rich guys go low, seeking to beat them at their own game. . . . This is a movie built on electrifying us with the cheap thrill of revenge.”

Does making men the new targets really atone for women’s suffering? No. Like typical revenge plots, giving the villains a taste of their own medicine does… well, precisely nothing to right the wrong. It just creates another wrong. As viscerally satisfying as we think it might be in our anger, it leaves us as the new perpetrator. I certainly wouldn’t term that a reclamation of power; I’d term it a reallocation of power.

In Lord of the Rings, if you use the Ring to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron, it will only create a new dark lord: you. And one of the most popular scholarly theories for what the Ring symbolizes? Power. So the cycle repeats again, a never-ending Ring of evil… unless someone breaks the chain.


Cap recently forced me to watch the 1948 film Johnny Belinda for the online course he’s planning. From the moment we received the cheap DVD, with the case printed partially in Korean (CLASSY, Amazon…), I made fun of its title and dreaded watching it. From almost the moment we began it, I absolutely adored it.

Spoilers follow.

Johnny Belinda (still hate that title though) follows the life of a deaf, mute rape victim after the trauma she undergoes. In the end, the rapist does get what’s coming to him—but it is not because Belinda is trying to snatch back some sense of lost agency, or gleefully or vindictively using his weapon of power against him.

She gains agency not on his terms, which were broken anyway, but through the more redemptive means of protecting, nurturing, and loving others. The film grants her the victory not by making her stoop to his level, but by raising her to another level altogether.

What’s more, Belinda’s situation as an outcast of her society exposes the blind, exclusive naiveté of the “dose of his own medicine” mentality. In real life, victims often don’t have the option to “reclaim power.” Revenge fantasies are really just that: fantasies. By claiming the solution is to punish the people who’ve hurt you in a similar way, our society offers little hope to a real victim, who will probably never get that power—except perhaps as part of a rage mob on Twitter.

Tolkien writes fantasy, but he has his finger on the pulse of reality. If such a victim did get enough power actually to hurt her oppressor in the way she had been hurt, it would make her the monster, no longer worthy of pity.

Work Cited: 

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

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