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Female Filmmakers: Reclaiming An Exploitative Genre, Fortnite Aliens, Serial Killers Galore, And More
The Bite #150

Female Filmmakers: Reclaiming An Exploitative Genre, Fortnite Aliens, Serial Killers Galore, And More

March 02, 2021

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Female Filmmakers: Reclaiming An Exploitative Genre

By Mary Beth McAndrews

Exploitation cinema isn’t exactly known for its feminist messages and careful treatment of female characters. It is built upon the torture, rape, and trauma of women. But, isn’t that we’re meant to expect from the genre? Those who wish to avoid such topics should just avoid films like I Spit On Your Grave and The Last House On The Left at all costs. It’s also often assumed that only men could enact such cruelty to their characters. But such an assumption erases a growing canon of women-directed exploitation cinema that illustrates how these violent films can be captured through a female gaze without sacrificing the expected blood and gore.

While the number of female filmmakers working with exploitation has grown in the past decade, there were women making these films in the genre’s heyday. Most notable is Doris Wishman, who made upwards of 30 sexploitation films throughout her career, which spanned from the ‘60s into the late ‘00s. Her film Bad Girls Go To Hell (1965) exemplifies her work within the movement as her protagonist Meg follows the well-known story beats where she is raped and subsequently murders her rapist. But, this isn’t Wishman’s only focus. Meg then embarks on a sexual adventure with numerous partners, not letting her trauma define her relationship to intimacy. Whitman worked in the realm of commercially desired sex and used that to her advantage to make films that pushed against generic conventions; sex was not just a man’s game. She paved the way for women that would experiment with the exploitation form and use it for more than spectacle.

Other female directors dabbled in exploitation after Wishman, such as Vera Chytilová with her 1998 film Traps and Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi with their 2000 film Baise-Moi. Again, these films take ideas of titillating sex and violence, but place them in the context of critiquing rape culture. In Traps, the rapists are castrated and their struggle to adapt to their new condition is comedic; the male body here becomes spectacle and something to be ridiculed. In Baise-Moi, while the two protagonists are assaulted, they use their rage to embark on a sex-fueled murder spree where they embrace their own narrative through their sexuality and refusal to be rendered victims.

Now, following in their predecessors’ footsteps, more women are tackling exploitation cinema, particularly rape-revenge films, that actively reject the male gaze and instead refute the idea that the broken female body is a spectacle. The female body has become a site for revolution and nuanced discussions of individual experiences with sexual assault, such as Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, Natalia Leite’s M.F.A., and Isable Ekloff’s Holiday. No longer is it just hillbilly strangers raping city girls; these films portray the horrifying reality that rape is often perpetrated by friends and romantic partners. Emotional repercussions and trauma are placed in the forefront, but blood and gore never disappear. They just take on new meaning when revenge gets much more personal. Women are shown trying to heal through more than just revenge, and are often struggling with what revenge even means, which is again seen in M.F.A. and other films such as the upcoming Violation and Rose Plays Julie. Sometimes, revenge is not guaranteed catharsis.

The #MeToo era has opened up new spaces for women to tell stories about experiences with trauma, but that doesn’t dismiss the work of the directors before them who were navigating a male-dominated industry that saw the female body as disposable. Directors such as Wishman, Chytilová, Despentes, and Thi were operating against the norm and speaking out against typical representation of women on screen through the same sexualized and violent framework. In following the expected story beats of rape, revenge, and death, directors of both the past and present are reframing the idea of what exploitation films can be and that women can, in fact, create stunning violent cinema.

Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film critic, editor, and podcaster based in Washington, DC. She is also the co-host of Scarred For Life, the podcast devoted to exploring the films that traumatized the horror community as kids. She will defend found footage with her dying breath.


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