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As far as exploitation films are concerned, there are few subgenres as problematic and paradoxical as the “rape-revenge film.” Traditionally associated with video nasties and 1970s grindhouse fare, rape-revenge films see women exacting revenge on their assailants through gratuitously violent means. Historically, rape-revenge films have been dismissed as exploitative and sensational. Often with due cause: many entries tend to fall into the trap of assuming the male gaze of their assailants with a troublingly un-self-aware degree of enthusiasm.
And yet not all rape-revenge films are created equal. And many manage to side-step the moral pitfalls of their precarious subject matter. The ghostly masterpiece Kuroneko is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel; Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is as subversive as it is shocking; Lady Snowblood matches bloodshed with pathos, and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge flips the script by confronting the assumptions of exploitation film itself. Also deserving of mention is Paul Verhoeven‘s Elle: an unconventional rape-revenge entry that explicitly frames sexual violence as a symptom of rampant misogyny rather than a sensationalized, isolated incident.
Verhoeven is no stranger to blending violence with sexual politics. And that understatement of the century brings us to the intriguing proposal of culture critic Maggie Mae Fish: does RoboCop have the same structure as a rape-revenge film?
Rape-revenge films tend to follow a predictable three-act structure. In Act I, a woman is tortured/assaulted and left for dead. In Act II, she survives and arms herself. And finally, in Act III, the woman locates and kills her assailants, exacting revenge. RoboCop does indeed mirror this structure: Murphy’s body is destroyed by Boddicker’s gang, and what’s left of him is recovered by the OCP and transformed into a deadly weapon. Finally, RoboCop (now aware that he is/was Murphy) tracks down the gang members and brings them to justice by killing them in spectacularly violent ways. Fish never suggests that Verhoeven took direct inspiration from exploitation films, but the comparison does unearth some intriguing analytical rabbit holes. For instance, there is a common (and justified) critique that, in their quest for vengeance, women in rape-revenge films assimilate the hollow bloodlust of their assailants. Murphy is quite literally weaponized after his attack, his humanity seemingly stripped, and his trigger finger as itchy and bombastic as any member of Boddicker’s gang. And yet, because RoboCop‘s satire is ruthless and unavoidable, the irony of Murphy’s weaponization is clear to us, and his journey back to reclaiming his sense of humanity hits hard.
The primary concern of Fish’s essay is to tease out the ways in which Verhoeven’s film grapples with identity and gender. In the context of her larger analysis, the literal objectification of Murphy’s body simultaneously heightens and compromises his sense of self and the way he experiences his masculinity. It’s an interesting angle that certainly softens the stickiness of viewing Murphy through the lens of an exploitation heroine. And really, is the comparison any more audacious than equating him to Jesus?
You can watch Maggie Mae Fish’s analysis of RoboCop here. She mentions the film’s formal ties to the rape-revenge subgenre at around the 12:50-minute mark:
Who made this?
Maggie Mae Fish is a Los Angeles-based comedian, actress, and culture critic who releases short films and video essays on her YouTube account. Fish has been featured on CollegeHumor, Screenjunkies, and JASH. She was also a former lead actor and writer at Cracked.com. You can follow Fish on Twitter, here.
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