About 7 months ago, I was reading the Times while working as a researcher for a screenwriter when I suddenly felt sick. My hands started shaking. I realized I felt violent. All of the articles I happened upon were disturbing, gruesome stories of violence against women. I felt like the world hated its daughters, of which I am one. A young woman in Tahrir Square in Cairo wearing a blue bra had been ripped from the streets in protests. Others like her were violently gang raped, their bodies used as battlegrounds for political statements. In India, a young woman who preferred to marry a man other than the one chosen for her was gang raped -- by court order. The female body had come under siege and I, standing in my kitchen, couldn't stop thinking, "Someone should be doing something."
I decided to talk about it the only way I really know how: writing. I wanted those women, those abused and even killed, to come back, prep for battle, and absolve themselves of the title of "victim." I wanted revenge for them. An image came to mind. A young, mute woman holding a pistol and doing away with a man who had abused her. It was from Ms. 45, Abel Ferrara's 1981 grindhouse movie (pictured above).
So I decided to write my own grindhouse revenge film, as it was the only outlet I could find to articulate the violence I was feeling inside. There is something about watching a woman take a turn to the dark side that seems to hold all our cognitive abilities captive. When someone beautiful can also do something monstrous, I have a hard time understanding how two such opposite elements could come from the same person. In trying to understand that dichotomy, I researched real women, real stories and a variety of film characters to better understand how the ultra-feminine could be coupled with the ultra-violent. And what I found was that these elements actually existed in each woman. Even the ones I know.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I Saw the Devil, I Spit on your Grave, Ms. 45, Thriller, A Cruel Picture. All of these films are the kind I'd never normally throw on. They're intense and they're violent -- and they were the perfect outlet for my anger. They were so viscerally satisfying and unapologetic. I was thrilled to find female characters who tapped into their violent selves and, by virtue of being women, also embodied a natural softness. The two elements together make them immediately layered. So often the roles for women are limited to mother or sex object -- what about relentless, righteous anger?
What was so refreshing about these films, in spite of the fact that I find their images so overtly violent and gory, was the ability of these women to get up and come back, out of rage, for revenge. I loved that they acted on primal and aggressive impulses. And I loved even more that they tapped into something terrifying and cold, that their protagonists refused to be silent or passive about injustice.
But there's also an aspect to the grindhouse genre that's as disturbing as the crimes I read about in the Times.
In too many films, the narrative catalyst for a violent, vengeful woman to take action comes from using rape as an excuse for revenge -- a storytelling trope we only see happen against female characters. (Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne, and Patrick Bateman kick ass without ever having to endure sexual assault or abuse.) But the same films I mentioned above -- Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I Spit on your Grave, Ms. 45, Thriller, A Cruel Picture -- use rape as a macguffin. Ms. 45 takes a mute young woman who couldn't scream if she wanted to, and throws her into the arms of two twisted aggressors. I Spit on your Grave uses gang rape against a reclusive writer to create a monster. These films victimize women lazily. Casually. I understand needing to kickstart a story. But women can like to fight, to throw punches, and to get even -- and that motivation can come from any possible number of inciting incidents. The blase manner in which so many grindhouse flicks throw this device around only desensitizes us to seeing the female body used as a prop, rather than a person and character.
The revenge-driven female character is as much a familiar trope as the girl next door, the sexy scientist or the cold mother, but at least in this grindhouse model, they come back with guns blazing. It's important that they're allowed to get even and occupy the hyper-feminine and the hyper-violent. Grindhouse was the only genre I could think of that wouldn't force a certain silence or grace in dealing with a subject this heavy. It was the only form that would celebrate a woman holding a bloodied pipe because she just escaped her male captors. My personal favorite part of making my grindhouse short, Sheila Scorned, was discovering that a lot of women wanted to play this character. My lead character, Sheila, is Thelma and Louise, she is Coffy, she is John McClaine, she is Rambo and she is sick of images, fictional or not, that depict violence against women.
Fortunately for me and this story, we are going into production. But the part of all of this I'm most excited to celebrate is the lead actress we cast, a fellow creative of formidable power, Laine Rettmer. We have spoken for hours upon hours about the implications of a film like this. The need for a character like this. And the responsibility of being mindful of a character who populates both sexualized and violent spaces. When we last talked about the film, Laine and I were talking about how fun and sexually charged we want the fighting to read on screen. I asked her how much I could push her to really throw herself around and she responded, "I'll do whatever. I want this to be big and expressive. I want a black eye too." I responded, "Okay, we'll get you a black eye to match the guys. But you have to win the fight."
I never thought I'd want to put violence on screen, but it seemed like the only proper language to use. If bloody images are now our parlance, then I'll speak it too. But mine will be female. Hopefully, in using a genre that can be elevated from B-movie to something self-reflexive and self-aware, the film can help generate a more robust conversation about the women's plights today, the abundance of violent images in the media, and the fight for equality we still have in front of us.
Mara Gasbarro Tasker graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a BFA in Film Production. She then moved to Los Angeles for a job at WME Talent Agency, where she worked in the Global Finance and Distribution department before moving on to work in development at Material Pictures and later as an assistant to screenwriter Drew Pearce. She currently works at VICE Media and guest posts for Bitch Flicks. She tweets @MozzarellaMara.