Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Exploitation films; Representations of femininity, part one (?)



  • 1 [mass noun] the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work:the exploitation of migrant workers
  • 2the action of making use of and benefiting from resources:the Bronze Age saw exploitation of gold deposits
  •  the fact of making use of a situation to gain unfair advantage for oneself:the Government’s exploitation of the fear of crime

I'd like to begin this article by making it clear that there is no agenda behind it. I am all in favour of equality and am very aware of over-sexualization in the media. I am, however, of the philosophy that a movie is a movie and if you are the kind of person who simply cannot divorce fiction from reality, you should probably close this tab right now.

For the past few years I've had an obsession with the exploitation film, or the "video nasty". The low-budget, sleazy and often gore splattered genre of film that exploded in the late 60s and left a crater large enough to spill over another two decades. It was dangerous, disgusting and the very definition of punk rock. Melodrama, sword/scandal and slapstick comedies were no longer enough to sate the appetite of a generation of libertines, rebels and drug-soaked teenagers and somewhere down the line, writers and directors caught wind of this. Out with the Marilyn Monroe, in with the Camille Keaton.

These movies were provocative, blasphemous and molested every taboo established in the minds of an older generation who simply didn't understand why their kids were still up past midnight.

Fanboy masturbation aside, the aim of this article is to address and highlight the role and dichotomous typology of women in these films. From the hard as nails heroine to the red riding hood stunner, were women used as simply props in these films? Can it be said that they merely existed to be fed to the villainous slasher antagonist? If so, then why women? Had society, at this time of free love and feminism, put women atop a pedestal, the model citizen? If all this is true, then the exploitation film, by its very nature, chose to defile women for its own ghastly agenda. Nothing is sacred in the world of the exploitation film and if there is anything sacred left to be exploited, the exploitation film seeks it out and plants a clenched fist right into its quivering anus.

The perfect prey

Socially constructed gender roles have it that women are less survivalist than men. Obviously this is simple patriarchal assumption and survivalism is completely individual. However, there are many more reasons as to why women were chosen as the "prey" for these films. Most exploitation films were aimed at a male audience, anywhere between the ages of 18-30, beyond or below. As such, the tropes and characters in the films were adjusted to appeal to a male audience seeking nothing more than instantly gratifying cinema. Blood, tits and action.

Women, throughout history, have been glamourized and thought of as precious stock, the helpless maiden. Again, a product of patriarchy. They were exalted for their beauty, grace and nothing much else. The work and war was left to the menfolk. So it is to say that women have been treated as precious, though condescended. 

A male audience, perhaps, wouldn't give a rats if they saw one of their fellow menfolk having their intestines pulled at like ropes in a crimson game of tug-a-war. A woman, however, now that would incite the kind of repulsion that the exploitation film so hungrily demands. With historical, cultural and religious connotations taken into mind, it can then be said that women are considered the perfect prey for exploitation films in that they are precious, so let us defile them. 


While the exploitation genre wasn't always so unfair in their portrayal or application of female characters, there are some films of note that took their perversions to a whole other platform of extreme. Rather than the woman as the pursued victim, these films cut straight to the point. Woman as simply the victim. Last Orgy of the Third Reich (1977) is a harrowing tale of a young Jew girl sent to an all-female concentration camp, where she is subjected to mental and physical torture. A high-ranking Nazi officer takes a particular interest in her strength and ability to endure such punishment and sets about on a project to see if he can be the one to break her spirit. Throughout the film, this woman is beaten, tortured and mentally abused on a level that, even for exploitation films, was unheard of. It truly is a repulsive film. I do not believe in censorship of any kind, so I cannot say it right to keep it out of sight, but I recommend you never watch it with the expectation of entertainment.

Last Orgy of the Third Reich is but an example of how extreme and demented these films had become by the late 70s. Writers and directors seemed to be engaged in an all-out arms race to produce film that would shock, offend and repulse. It wasn't enough for a woman to be chased through the woods by a masked mad man brandishing a butcher's knife, there had to be mutilation and agony. Action and suspense had been replaced by sheer sadism. The image of the perfect female form being torn apart was the most shocking and repulsive trope these directors could muster, and it worked.

Sexualization of the victim

Horror-Movies.Ca posted an article titled "Hottest Horror Movie Victims" some time last year. The first thing you'll notice about the title are the terms "hottest" and "victim". The second thing you'll notice, if you read the article, is that all 33 of the listed victims are women. I take absolutely no issue with the article or its contents, but it is a telling truth that there is an assumption that the victim must be female and she must also be "hot". Were it to be a more balanced article, they could have included men in the list, but they didn't. "Hottest" and "victim" are words associated with women in the film industry. The destruction of beauty is a common trope in horror and exploitation, I take absolutely no issue with that either, I love a lot of these films, but an article such as this suggests that, through gender role assignment, the woman must be a victim. Otherwise the article may have been titled "Hottest Horror Movie Actresses".

Again, I stress that I'm not arguing against anything here, I'd just like to bring it to light. Maybe you'll take offense to it. Go write someone a letter or something.

Naivety and purity

In The Last House on the Left (1972, a fine year for horror I might add), Mari Collingwood and her rebellious, adventurous girlfriend are planning to attend a concert in the city. Mari, clearly innocent and naive, is introduced to alcohol and drugs over the first part of the film. Without spoiling the film for you, as if you don't already have an idea where this is going, terrible things happen to her afterwards. Mari's naivety is what leads her to a precarious situation and it is her naivety that is exploited. This naivety, innocence, or misplaced trust is another common trope in exploitation and horror films. However it is most common among the woman, the maternal figure, who believes all to be well and that everyone is well meaning. Rarely have I encountered a skeptical female figure in an exploitation or horror film. Of course, if they were skeptical to begin with, there would be no story. A male figure in a horror/exploitation film is generally the action man, he who is very well aware of the danger before him, and so he either tries to escape or faces that danger head on. The same cannot be said for the female, the "victim", who is generally unknowing and vulnerable.

The naivety or pure-mindedness of the female victim is plot device that, like the other characteristics mentioned above, is derived from a media representation of the woman. I don't need to highlight the differences between gender role assignment in television or film, though I can only assume that the media representation of women, during the late 60s and 70s, was very different then than it is now. During a time of radical feminism and sexual liberty, it isn't unreasonable to think that the media, as a deterrent this cultural shift, would paint the female as chaste and unassuming. A media desperately trying to revive the tender mother and housewife of the 1950s. That was, of course, until the media realized that "sex sells".

The blood-spattered protagonist

Perhaps at some point during the golden age of the exploitation film, the movement became aware of its use of the susceptible female as a driving force for the plot. I say this, because there are still many films produced at the time that saw the female character as the "action man".

I Spit on Your Grave (Previously known as Day of the Woman, 1978) is a prime example of such a shift in direction for the exploitation film. Our protagonist victim is subjected to a vicious gang rape by a number of thugs, who leave her for dead in her apartment. While many films would end on that note, I Spit on Your Grave flips the scheme of things, the formula for tragedy shock, right on its back. Our victim becomes the protagonist and wrecks a brutal vengeance upon the men who assaulted her. While the first half of this film sticks to the direction of most exploitation, the naive woman and the sinister male, the second half sees our female protagonist hunt down and murder the men who wronged her in the most violent and creative ways imaginable. It should also be noted that, during the revenge sequence, it is the male that is represented as naive and blinded by sexual desire. I Spit on Your Grave is generally regarded as the most important of the genre known as the "revenge film", along with titles like The Last House on The Left, Red Sonja (1985) and more recently Kill Bill (2003) and Hard Candy (2005).


To discuss the subject of femininity in horror and exploitation in detail could take an eleven volume series. There are many tropes, films, actresses and issues that I have left unaddressed. This article merely serves the purpose of introduction to a concept that has long been prevalent. I will probably return to the subject when I've studied more source material and have a fresher vision of the subject, but until then, I'm going to go watch a movie about some hippies that find themselves on the wrong side of town. 

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