A Lust for Violence

by Merry Jett

When I was ten years old, the gritty violent Scots that raised hell in the film Braveheart (1995) captivated me.1 At the time, a barn full of characters swinging from their necks was the most disturbing thing I had seen at the movies. At first, I was afraid, but that fear quickly melted away as William Wallace avenged his fallen wife and brutally murdered his enemies. By the end, I felt so alive! My parents humored my morbid obsession with inaccurate Scottish history and bought me the double VHS set of the film for my birthday. After watching it at least a hundred times, the bagpipe music and the cries of freedom started to annoy me, so I put the tapes aside. It wasn’t until I went to see Scream (1996) with my older sister that I realized horror could offer me all the same thrilling violence as Braveheart and even throw in surprising twists and shocking endings.2 From that moment on, I was hooked on violence. I began to crave physical and psychological violence on screen that would jar my senses and allow me to morbidly experience terror and gruesome death from the safety of my seat.

As an adult, I voraciously lust after violent media. I almost feel cheated if I see a film and do not clench my teeth or feel my face flush as my heart pumps blood faster and faster through my veins. While I am removed from the events on screen, I still feel connected to the film and sometimes I am compelled to shout out helpful advice to characters in trouble, even though I know they cannot hear me. When it is too much, I reach out for a stray arm or burry my face on a shoulder. Fear, in other words, also reminds me of my humanity. It allows me to transcend mindless spectatorship to being an active participant and gives me the chance to share my terror, shock, or disgust with another person. While this may seem trivial, it is rare for me to express these ideas to someone else without watching a glazed expression creep across their face as they flash me a humoring smile and return to their digital device. However, if I watch a film such as Firestarter (1984) where a young Drew Barrymore uses her telekinetic ability to light humans and objects on fire, I look forward to an enthusiastic and engaging conversation post-film.3

Before Dr. Shilyh Warren’s “Cinema and Violence” course that was offered in the fall of 2012, I kept my addiction to violence to myself during my graduate classes because I worried that my scholar card would be revoked if anyone found out how much I enjoyed the primal spectacle of violent films. I consider myself a feminist with no qualifiers, but I am quite aware that the enjoyment I experience watching serial killers stabbing women to death conflicts with feminism. How can I voyeuristically take pleasure in something so gruesome that continually depicts women and minorities as exploited and ravaged objects? One way I justify this to myself is that horror films are honest about the exploitation of women more often than Hollywood dramas and comedies. In a typical violent film, the female characters endure gritty violence from the villain who embodies the foulest characteristics of humanity. Because of this, I know to despise him or her and I look forward to a strong “final girl” character brutally taking revenge. While that might be a bit twisted, I would prefer to suffer through watching Jennifer (Sarah Butler) endure sexual violence in the remake of I Spit on Your Grave (2010) than 122 minutes of slut shaming Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Silver Linings Playbook (2012).4 While Jennifer endures a graphic rape scene that is uncomfortable to watch, she refuses to be dominated and ferociously murders her attackers. On the other hand, Tiffany is considered to be the perfect match for a bipolar Pat (Bradley Cooper) because she suffers from a mental illness, which, according to the film, is having too many sexual partners. And after a dance competition, Tiffany is cured because now she has Pat in her life. Really? Even though visually I Spit on Your Grave seems like less of a feminist film, The Silver Linings Playbook’s message is terribly antifeminist and not appealing to me. Hollywood is a sexist institution, but I respect films far more that are willing to visually amplify violence against women to show that women do have to fight for equality and safety because many times they are treated quite savagely in the world. If violence is used as a catalyst for justice, I am more likely to buy a ticket than I am to watch a film that insidiously oozes an anti-feminist message to keep women second-class.

Dr. Warren’s course gave me a space to read violent films from a feminist perspective. When I started the class, I did not know what a feminist reading of a violent film would include because most feminist courses I have taken tend to leave out anything that is exploitative. Even if a course brought up assault, rape, and murder, the professor would usually avoid including violent visuals most likely to prevent making a spectacle of the victim. While I do respect refusing to indulge in graphic media, I also believe it is necessary for students to see violence in a setting where a group dialogue will complicate viewers’ first impressions. If instructors refuse to allow this type of media into the classroom, they will miss out on an opportunity to talk about feminism to students who are going to watch these kinds of films anyway. Teaching undergraduates and going to graduate classes, I am surrounded by voices that claim that feminism is over because women are now equal to men. For this reason, classrooms must address violent media to ensure that sexism is not labeled as “eradicated.” Graphic media can serve as an icebreaker for feminist politics that might otherwise be rejected by a classroom of students with preconceived negative assumptions about feminism. For instance, in KIDS (1995) Chloë Sevigny plays a teenage girl, Jennie, who discovers she is HIV positive.5 Jennie makes her way through the city to find Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), the teenage boy who infected her, and ends up getting raped while she is passed out at a party. A student in my grad class showed this tough scene as part of her class presentation prompting two female graduate students around me to say, “Yeah, but the way she lives her life, she kind of had it coming.” I could not believe that these two well-educated women would have that response after watching such a heart-wrenching scene. I’m not sure if our subsequent conversation about date rape changed their perspective, but I hope that at least it planted a feminist seed in their minds.

Dr. Warren’s course created space for these essential open discussions, and allowed enough time to address tough issues. Her syllabus had content areas for each week—such as physical violence, comedic violence, psychological violence, and institutionalized violence—and for each theme a small group of students had to choose a film and a few academic readings (that all students read), and then the group had to develop a presentation to facilitate classroom discussion.

One benefit to the student-driven structure of the course was that I learned how deeply desensitized I am to violence through listening to my classmates during their critiques of the films. While I may have had a few nightmares during the course, I was not nearly as upset on a weekly basis as some of my peers. The week we watched Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971) another student confided in me that she closed the blinds just in case someone might see what she was watching.6 As she spoke, she ran her fingers through her hair and looked around nervously, and at first I presumed she was feigning naïveté. The more she talked about how she had never before seen a penis on screen, I realized that she was not acting and was legitimately embarrassed by the rough sex in the film. It was the first moment I put myself under a microscope and wondered why I felt rather unfazed by viewing a black male prostitute exploited and forced to have sex with white women in a biker gang. I did not take pleasure in the scenes, but I kept my blinds open and felt comfortable telling other students my thoughts on the film. Later in the semester, I watched other classmates look away from Ryan Gosling stomping on a man’s face in the elevator scene in Drive (2011).7 I cringed a little, but I was not overcome by the sick feeling that plagued another student across the table who closed her eyes and started taking deep breaths. Again, I was fascinated by her reaction, and as I left class I realized that I have become desensitized to violence.

While cheesy historical violence used to shock me as a child, I am now chasing an elusive high from violent spectacle to shake me out of an emotionless fog. This revelation was unsettling, but I was more disturbed by my realization that even though I am a white woman, I rarely identify with the female victim on screen. Instead, I cope with the violence by identifying as a white male in power. Through the male gaze, I disassociate from female characters and subconsciously accept that violence to women is bound to happen and is just a part of life. How could I have been unaware of this? After I got over fearfully questioning whether I was a sociopath, I decided to brave some of our films again from a new perspective and almost immediately I was overwhelmed by terrible emotions. If I watched the film thinking, “What if this happened to me?” I started sweating and having trouble breathing. For me, movies are a fantasy and I have always been able to distance myself from the violence on screen. Dr. Warren’s course served as a wake-up call that reminded me that on-screen violence can feel real and can powerfully establish the way our society understands gender and violence. It was then I understood just how much I needed a course on cinema and violence.

I still watch violent films, but now I have a more discerning eye and realize the danger of accepting violent films without posing feminist questions. For example, when I see a naked woman on screen I ask myself “Was this her choice? Is this by force? What does this say about power and equality?” Now that I have a greater awareness of the deeply ingrained cultural constructs that shape me as I watch films, I firmly believe that it is important for instructors to use violent media to reach out to other millennials who do not realize the subtle and pervasive way Hollywood has desensitized them to violence and other forms of oppression. If the feminist classroom fails to try to reach these students, I am worried that an antifeminist backlash will drown out feminist voices fighting against sexism. Instructors presenting a violent film might have a tough time fielding all of the antifeminist rhetoric and hateful chatter in the room, and it may be difficult to make visible the intersection of gender, race, class, and sexuality in these films, but they should take comfort in knowing that if just one student questions their own values, positive changes are possible.

1 Braveheart, directed by Mel Gibson (Santa Monica, CA: Mirimax Films, 1995), 177 min

2 Scream, directed by Wes Craven (New York: Dimension Films, 1996), 111 min.

3 Firestarter, directed by Mark L. Lester (Universal Pictures, 1984), 114 min.

4 I Spit on your Grave, directed by Steven R. Monroe (West Hollywood: CineTel Films, 2010), 105 min. and The Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell (New York: The Weinstein Company, 2012), 122 min.

5 KIDS, directed by Larry Clark (New York: Miramax Films, 1995), 91 min.

6 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, directed by Melvin Van Peebles (New York City: Cinemation Industries, 1971), 97 min.

7 Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Los Angeles: Bold Films, 2011), 100 min.

Merry Jett (merryjett@gmail.com) has an MA in history from UT Arlington and is currently in her third year of the History of Ideas PhD program at UT Dallas. Merry works to bring feminism to both the face-to-face classroom and the virtual classroom. She has experience as a rhetoric instructor at UT Dallas, an adjunct history professor at Richland College, a college prep instructor for Richland Collegiate High School, and a history grader for UT Arlington and Lamar University’s online undergraduate program. In her current research she hopes to add to existing feminist scholarship on women and mental illness by analyzing the gendered nature of insanity in the rhetoric of the historical record while also demonstrating how visual representations of mentally ill women shape popular understandings of insanity.