Brutalization of women is a constant in popular film

Author and commentator Carrie Rickey has written for the New York Times, Film Comment and the Village Voice and has reviewed movies for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

At the movies, have you ever experienced a mind/body split when a director frames man-on-woman violence from the perpetrator’s point-of-view? During such scenes — for example, in “The Killer Inside Me” — I have a visceral response. The scene drives a wedge between what I believe and what I feel. In the moment a director makes me complicit with the assailant, I cover my eyes and try to square my belief in freedom of speech with my kneejerk response that at this very second I don’t believe in freedom of images.

Brutalization of women is a constant in popular film, as is the lobby talk about whether its depiction should be protected by freedom of speech or whether, like guns, it should be regulated.

The debate about movie violence against women is a Gordian Knot among the strands of which are sex, violence, pleasure, misogyny and freedom of expression. I’m all for sex, pleasure and free speech. But when they’re bound up with violence and misogyny, I push back.

What is the difference between the shock of Janet Leigh in “Psycho” (1960), stabbed to death in the motel bathroom, and Heather Matarazzo in “Hostel, Part II” (2007), hanging naked by her feet, then gutted by a scythe in order to provide a bloodbath for her female killer?

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was made under the Motion Picture Production Code, Hollywood’s version of the Ten Commandments that lasted from 1934 to 1968. When Leigh’s adulteress Marion Crane is stabbed to death in the shower, the editing cuts rhyme with the cuts made by the knife. For the most part, the point-of-view alternates between that of knife and murderer. As the light goes out in Marion’s eyes, the viewer is aligned with the murderer and the weapon.

Like the hole in the wall that Norman Bates peeps through to ogle Marion, Hitchcock’s film is an aperture for voyeurism and then judgment. Hitchcock the viewer complicit first with Marion’s postcoital pleasure and then her embezzlement. Then he encourages audience complicity in her murder. It’s as though the viewer pays for his sin of lust by making Marion pay for her sins of adultery and thievery.

Critic Raymond Durgnat describes the “Psycho” effect, the viewer response that shifts from arousal to horror to enjoyment to judgment, as “moral oscillation.” Is that moral component part of the viewer response because Hitchcock operated under a Production Code that mandated ethical considerations?
Let’s consider Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” (1972), made four years after the ratings system replaced the Production Code. Hitchcock’s story centers on the “necktie murderer” strangling London women, marking Hitchcock’s first film with female nudity.

In place of the erotic frissons of “Psycho” is a forensic procedural: This is how a woman looks like as she is strangled. This is how it looks when her tongue protrudes. This is how the killer breaks her fingers in order to remove an incriminating bit of evidence. There is no pleasure in sex here. There is satisfaction in the efficiency with which the Necktie Murderer relieves himself of his victims.

I distinctly remember the chill that swept over me as a 19-year-old watching the murderer break the victim’s fingers like pretzels. I couldn’t put it into words then. I can now: While the elimination of the Production Code was liberating for filmmakers, it also liberated parts of the artistic unconscious responsible for sadomasochistic fantasies that have increased in brutality and ferocity over the past four decades.

Before “Frenzy,” the end of the Production Code had already unloosed a frenzy of man-on-woman sexual violence. Within three years of the Code’s replacement by a ratings system that permitted adult content, there was Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), with Malcolm MacDowell restraining, caning, taping his victim’s mouth, and raping her (as her husband is forced to watch).

Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (1971) depicted sexual coercion of the character played by Susan George. This scene continues to divide viewers between those who subscribe to the male fantasy that her character “asked for it” by strutting around braless and those who call the assault by its real name, rape. It never occurred to me until I read the reviews how stimulating sexual coercion was for so many men.

In the wake of the Production Code’s demise, “Not only did directors unleash their misogynist fantasies, but at a certain level, they could do what they want as ‘auteurs,’ without a traditional narrative framework to keep their impulses in check and without the need to include good women’s roles,” Molly Haskell wrote in an e-mail in December. Would that these fantasies were limited to movies by the likes of Kubrick and Peckinpah.

Also in that wake came the juggernaut called the “splatter film.” Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) inventories the 57 varieties of violence that men perpetrate on women (and some men). Male maniacs hang women up on meat hooks, terrorize them with chainsaws, bind them with ropes, stuff them in gunnysacks and then in meat grinders. Hooper’s film was a lark by contrast to “Snuff” (1976), a grindhouse film by Roberta and Michael Findlay that purportedly ended with the dismemberment and murder of a woman by the film crew.

I am not saying that the Production Code was a good thing. It was a capricious and arbitrarily applied instrument forbidding depictions of the joy of consensual sex and the dehumanization of violence. It likewise forbade representation of interracial sex, homosexuality and critical depiction of the clergy. It banned the mildest of vulgarisms. The Code was the reason Hollywood movies looked coy and contrived next to European films of the postwar period.

When the Code was lifted, it made way for both the candor of “The Godfather” (1972) and the crass sensationalism of “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978). The latter details, from the victim’s point-of-view, a prolonged gang rape of a young woman who just as crudely takes the lives of her rapists. The film described as a “vile bag of garbage” by Roger Ebert divides viewers between those who view it as a gutbucket exploitation film and those who argue it’s pro-feminist because the wronged heroine takes her revenge. I’m with Ebert on this one.

Before “Grave” I had thought that a scene of sexual violence shot from the victim’s perspective would implicitly be critical of the dehumanizing act. It never occurred to me that there were moviegoers who derived thrills from seeing a woman in extremis.

Like other film genres, sexualized violence has its trends. In the late ’70s and ’80s there was the fem-jep slasher (as the woman-in-jeopardy films were dubbed), with franchises like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” featuring stalker-killers dispensing a kind of Biblical justice by murdering sexually active teenagers and sparing the virgins. This gave way to serial-killer procedurals ushered in by Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs” (1991). They included Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994), David Fincher’s “Se7en” (1995) and Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” (2000). These auteurs elevated the production values and escalated the attention to forensic detail (i.e., how to skin a woman, how to strip skin from fingers so as not to leave prints), anticipating television shows such as “CSI.”

When the MPAA replaced the Code with its Ratings System, which is more flexible, it ended up developing guidelines more restrictive of healthy nudity and sex than it is of pathological violence.

For the last three decades many Americans have puzzled over a system that gives an R to a movie in which a woman is carved up by a chainsaw and an NC-17 to one that shows a woman sexually pleasured. From such ratings one might conclude that sexual violence against women is OK for American teenagers to see, but that they must be 18 to see consensual sex. What message does this send to the kids the MPAA presumably means to protect?

And I wonder, when faced with the graphic dismemberments of “torture porn,” if there’s a PETA to protect animals, where is People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans? Should ethical considerations be a factor in making movies? Do you experience “moral oscillation” in the sight of bondage, amputations, guttings? I experienced shock, revulsion, disempowerment and profound sadness.

The main difference between watching “Psycho” and “Hostel: Part II” is the same as that between natural sympathy for the victim and being coerced into alignment with the assailant because the film is shot from the brutalizer’s perspective. Gene Siskel observed this shift as far back in 1978 when he noted that the rapist’s point-of-view in “I Spit on Your Grave” crystallized a twisted anti-feminism that said, “Women, get back into your place.”