“But were she able, thus she would revenge…”
– Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy –
How do works of popular entertainment critique the societies which enabled their creation? In the world of revenge drama, the answer to that question often takes the form of another question: Who has the right to seek revenge? In Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the hero Orestes is caught between a philosophical rock and a hard place. Honor demands that he kill his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his own father’s death, but in doing so he risks his immortal soul. Orestes does not heavily weigh the fact that Clytemnestra herself was an avenger. By murdering her husband Agamemnon, she achieved justice for his murder of their daughter, Orestes’ sister, Iphigenia.
All of which is to say that Orestes and the gods held the life of Mycenae’s king to be more precious than that of her queen. By forgiving Orestes of his crime and empowering the court of Athens to resolve issues of justice in the future, Aeschylus (in the voice of Athena) gives legitimacy to the patriarchal power structures that have enabled the death of multiple women through the trilogy. This is just one reading of an incredibly intricate and impactful text, but it reflects a throughline in revenge drama that has stretched through early modern theatre to the present day.
Questions of gender and society are at the forefront of many revenge plays, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. These plays often see women as the victims of horrible crimes. Due to the nature of these crimes–ranging from incest to murder–and the restrictions placed on women, female characters are frequently denied any chance to pursue their own catharsis. Lavinia in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a prime example. Although she suffers greatly, it is her father who is responsible for seeking vengeance (and it is her father who is ultimately directly responsible for Lavinia’s death). Titus is a hard play for modern audiences to wrap their heads around, because in his play Shakespeare deliberately blurs the lines between parody, critique, and tragedy. Nevertheless, one point is painfully clear: In Elizabethan as in Greek drama, women do not have the right to seek their own justice.
These were some of the thoughts running through my mind as I began researching the rape-and-revenge subgenre. Nearly every film in this category has the same basic structure: woman is assaulted, woman escapes or recovers, woman kills her assailants. Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave is perhaps the most infamous example. First released in 1978 and still banned in certain countries today, the film has drawn criticism for its brutal depiction of sexual violence and torture. For years, academics have debated the film’s feminism; Zarchi claims to have made a feminist film. But in 2018, perhaps the best cinematic response we will ever get to I Spit on Your Grave was released in the form of Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. Fargeat’s film empowers its female protagonist especially through the use of cinematography. Where Zarchi’s camera focused on the suffering of its protagonist, Fargeat focuses on the callousness of the male antagonists. Revenge revels in being an exploitation film just as much as I Spit on Your Grave, but by working to make familiar images uncomfortable it transcends the pulp genre from whence it emerged to become something altogether new, tense, and exhilarating. Filmmakers like Fargeat prove that there is still space for ancient tropes in cinema and power in using those tropes to upend even the most toxic of genre conventions.