Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Femme Castratrice in Horror

 Digging through my old university essays, I came across this very psychoanalytic essay on rape-revenge films. This means I had to not only watch I Spit on Your Grave but actually repeatedly view some scenes in order to analyse it. No wonder my head was messed up through my university days after watching this sick stuff. Anyway if you are interested in psychoanalytic readings of films or a vaguely feminist reading of the horror films that feature women characters as the 'femme castratrice' (or castrating woman), then this is essay is for you.

If you are interested in what else I did in my film studies degree then check out this essay on Black sexuality in buddy cop movies of the 80s.

There are many implications of the femme castratrice or ‘castrating woman’ for the analysis of women’s role in horror, particularly from a feminist and psychoanalytic approach.  Creed says the femme castratrice ‘assumes two forms: the castrating female psychotic…and the woman who seeks revenge on men who have raped or abused her’ (Creed, 1993, p.123).  I would argue that the rape-revenge films in which the femme castratrice appears are misogynistic despite creating empathy for the female protagonist.  Films such as I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978) contain sickening sights of violence and rape against a woman, the femme castratrice.  She is represented as monstrous, a seducing witch that confirms castration anxieties whereas on the other hand slasher films such as Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) are more problematic as they show the femme castratrice as the perhaps more empowering ‘final girl’, but also often as the psychotic killer.  

The femme castratrice, Jennifer, in the rape-revenge film I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978) is constructed as monstrous to an extent.  Creed argues ‘the scenes in which Jennifer carries out her revenge are deliberately eroticised.  Woman is monstrous because she castrates, or kills, the male during coition’ (Creed, 1993, p129).  The film has three scenes of violence against the male bodies of the rapists.  One rapist, Matthew, a mildly retarded man, is hung after Jennifer lures him into the woods, reveals her naked body to him and allows him to have sex with her.  Matthew is symbolically castrated when Jennifer gets onto her knees and undoes his trousers.  This causes him to drop to his knees and drop his knife and therefore relinquish his phallic power.  Jennifer also uses a gun to make her next victim strip, therefore demonstrating that she has phallic power.  After massaging and washing him, Jennifer literally castrates the rapist with a knife.  The femme castratrice is presented as monstrous as ‘woman, pleasure and death are intimately related in these scenes’ (Creed, 1993, p.129).

Furthermore it can be argued that the film constructs the femme castratrice as a witch figure.  Creed also suggests in her book that the ‘central reason for the persecution of witches was morbid interest in the witch as ‘other’ and a fear of the witch/woman as an agent of castration’ (Creed, 1993, p.74).  In I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978), Jennifer is transformed into an agent of castration after recovering from the rapes.  She wears flowing robes and seduces the men before killing them.  The rapists persecute Jennifer because of their fear of her apparently castrated body when they see her in her bikini.  She is held down by three men during the assaults showing how threatening she is to them and after the assaults she becomes a silent, menacing figure.  Similarly in another film with rape as its subject, The Accused (Kaplan, 1988), the girl seems to cast a spell on the men around her while dancing provocatively.  She is then raped and symbolically castrates the men by taking away their freedom and appearing with a newly shortened and less feminine haircut.  Peter Lehman argues ‘the women in these films are nearly always beautiful’ (Lehman, 1993, p104), which confirms as Russell suggested that the ‘witch is essentially a male creation, a product of male fears’ (Russell, 1996:121).  Jennifer lying in her boat in her bikini is a threat to the men in their phallic speedboat.  Matthew even thinks Jennifer is cursed as he says ‘you’ve brought nothing but bad luck with you’.  A review of The Accused quoted in Jacinda Read’s essay on the rape-revenge film states the victim’s ‘blatant sexiness is a challenge, which they’, the men, ‘can only extinguish by humiliating and hurting her’ (Walters, 1989: 32). 

However it can also be argued the film is not representing the woman as monstrous.  Peter Lehman argues ‘the male spectators are positioned to be disgusted by the rape and to identify with the avenging woman’ (Lehman, 1993, p.104).  This is true in that the narrative belongs to the woman.  When the men arrive in their boat they are disruptive of Jennifer’s peace and animal-like in their behaviour, hunting in packs and seemingly communicating like monkeys.  During the rape the viewer identifies with Jennifer because we see her face in close-up as well as having close-ups of the rapist's face as he forces himself onto her.  Clover also justifies the actions of the femme castratrice in the film when she says ‘all phallic symbols are not equal, and a hands-on knifing answers a hands-on rape in a way that a shooting…does not’ (Clover, 1996, p.79).  The scene in I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978) where Jennifer forces one of the men to strip at gunpoint emphasises the viewers’ and Jennifer’s need for a harsher punishment as afterwards it is revealed he believes the rape is her fault because he’s ‘just a man’.  Unlike Matthew, this rapist is unapologetic and constructed as a monstrous, cheating and ultimately castrated victim.

Similarly it can be argued that the men in the film lack any phallic power except in the rape scenes.  Jennifer is active, assuming the masculine position in the narrative except during the rape scenes.  It is her who moves to the country, it is her who is writing a book and it is her that takes revenge.  The men are already castrated; their scenes do not drive the narrative, except when they rape Jennifer.  Vera Dika argues of stalker films, ‘the victims…occupy a ‘feminine position because their narrative and cinematic enfeeblement has rendered them functionally ‘castrated’’ (Dika, p.90).  The male victims of I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978), fish, play with knives, and hang around their friend’s house until they are told to leave by their friend’s wife.  They are the same as the stalker film victims, ‘deemed guilty, sexually investigated, and then brutally punished’ (Dika, p.90).

The femme castratrice can also be seen as a way of representing woman as psychotic, ‘a borderline personality, her normal exterior hiding a demented female fury’ (Creed, 1993, p.137).  This is clear in I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978) as Jennifer appears normal in the first half of the film and then after the rape becomes a relatively silent, unforgiving killing machine.  She sits and listens to operatic music calmly as the castrated man in the bathroom bleeds and screams himself to death.  However the woman as psychotic castrator is clearer in horror films such as Sisters (De Palma, 1973) where one half of siamese twin sisters are invaded by the dead other half.  This shows woman as unconsciously psychotic, ‘woman’s nature is represented as deceptive and unknowable’(Creed, 1993,p.136), a point further demonstrated in I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978) by Jennifer’s methods of seducing the men, even letting them share seemingly intimate moments with her before castrating and killing them.  

The rape-revenge film and femme castratrice can also be argued to reduce women’s role in horror to victim and psychotic.  Rape is used as a narrative device to begin a semi-pornographic slasher film. Peter Lehman suggests ‘the gang rape lends itself well to the narrative demands… since the avenging woman hunts the men down’ (Lehman, 1993, p107).  One after the other Jennifer stalks and kills the men, paralleling the killer in slasher films such as Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980).  The rape is merely an event to begin the killing spree, as Dika suggests of the slasher film, ‘it is always presented with a two-part temporal structure.  The first part…presents an event…the killer is driven to madness’ (Dika, p.93).  In I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978), this is up until Jennifer is raped, admittedly longer than most slasher films first parts.  Dika argues the second part is when the killer takes revenge, as Jennifer does in a brutal yet often sexual way.  Therefore it can be argued the femme castratrice is a tormented woman role, and the rape-revenge film’s narrative emphasises the torment of the killer more than in slasher films.  However this it could be argued is to create more empathy with the killer.

Other films such as Fatal Attraction (Lyne, 1987) represent the psychotic woman as femme castratrice because she is castrated.  Charles Derry argues ‘the recent horror-of-personality films seem to reflect…a disturbing hostility toward women, which seems a direct response to the feminist movement’ (Derry, p165).  The femme castratrice slits her wrists early in the film as well as cutting her leg with a knife in the final scene of the film, perhaps indicating her desire to be castrated and therefore dependent on a man and ‘the name of the father’.  The character becomes psychotic after she exposes her bleeding wounds and can be seen as wanting to give up her independence, as showing herself to be castrated, in order to encourage the male character to give up his wife and child and therefore symbolically castrate him.  Her ‘desire to castrate man is related directly to her own earlier mutilation, separation and the death of her active self’ (Creed, 1993, p.136).  She is a psychotic femme castratrice that the viewer is not encouraged to identify with, an independent woman who becomes dependent on a man who cannot control his phallus, and yet can control the phallicised femme castratrice when she attacks him with a knife.

The femme castratrice is also an association of the slasher film, a genre that is a clear descendent of the rape-revenge film.  Woman is portrayed as psychotic when the slasher is female, for example in Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980).  The killer, Mrs Vorhees, penetrates a man with a knife in the neck and opens a woman’s neck with a knife.   However much like Jennifer in I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978), the female killer is to an extent, rendered sympathetic as her ‘anger derives…from specific moments in their adult lives in which they have been abandoned or cheated on by men’ (Clover, 1996, p.77).  The femme castratrice in both films kill because of trauma in their past, in I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978) because of being raped by men, and in Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) because of men and women abandoning the killers son, causing him to die.

However the role of women in slasher films is rarely the killer so the femme castratrice is usually the ‘final girl’ as Clover theorises, ‘films following Halloween present Final Girls who not only fight back but do so with ferocity and even kill the killer on their own’.  In Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980), Alice is the final girl and her revenge on the killer is in no way eroticised as in the rape-revenge film, representing woman less as monstrous castrator.  Final girls are independent and show signs of masculinity and of needing men less than other women, sexually or otherwise, ‘her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart’ (Clover, 1996, p.84).  Alice is a femme castratrice as she symbolically castrates the killer by chopping her head off.  This eliminates the phallic power of Mrs Vorhees who carries a knife and holds the gaze of the victims.  In such films the femme castratrice is the heroine, but whereas in slasher films ‘the heroine survives not only by her ability to see the evil, but also by her ability to use violence’ (Dika, p.99), in the rape-revenge film, Jennifer is unable to see or use violence until it is too late and she has been horrifically assaulted.  In Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) the final girl sees the bodies of her friends, and dispatches the killer by symbolically castrating her. 

The implications of the femme castratrice are still clear in modern slasher films such as ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (Nispel, 2003) in which the final girl, who screams a lot less than her predecessors, symbolically castrates the killer by cutting his chainsaw-wielding arm off.  Similarly modern rape-revenge films such as ‘Monster’ (Jenkins, 2004) and ‘Irreversible’ (Noe, 2003) show women less as seductive monster and more as psychotic killer or sympathetic victim.  The similarities between the slasher film and the rape-revenge film are obvious from the writings of many theorists, particularly Creed, Clover, and Dika.  The femme castratrice is associated with both genres and as a result the role of women in these horror films has changed over time, remaining generally fairly negative.  However I feel the femme castratrice has evolved from the rape-revenge films and early slasher films such as I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978) and Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) and is gradually becoming an increasingly empowering role of women in horror.


Clover, C. (1996) Her body, himself: gender in the slasher film In: Grant, B. (ed.) The dread of difference. USA. University of Texas Press
Creed, B. (1993) The monstrous-feminine: film, feminism and psychoanalysis. London: Routledge
Derry, C. (1987) More dark dreams: some notes on the recent horror film In: Waller, G. (ed.) American horrors. Urbana and Chicago. University of Illinois Press
Dika, V. (1987) The stalker film, 1978-81 In: Waller, G. American horrors. Urbana and Chicago. University of Illinois Press
Hart, L. (1994) Fatal women: lesbian sexuality and the mark of aggression. London. Routledge
Haskell, M. (1973) From reverence to rape: the treatment of women in the movies. New York, Rinehart and Winston
Lehman, P. (1993) Don’t blame this on a girl: female rape-revenge films In: Cohan, S. and Hark, I. (eds.) Screening the male: exploring masculinities in Hollywood cinema. London: Routledge