Low-brow climbs the cultural ladder

The New Avengers
November 3, 2000

In this welcome addition to Manchester University Press’s student-oriented ”Inside Popular Film” series, Jacinda Read sheds light on a broad range of popular genre films, which are grouped together under the label of ”the rape-revenge cycle”.
Read’s work is representative of a recent trend in film and cultural studies, which aims  to legitimise in academia previously critically vilified films . In particular, The New Avengers builds on the pioneering work of American academic Carol J. Clover, who, in Men, Women and Chain saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film ( BFI, 1992), argued persuasively that the despised tradition of the slasher film was rich in ideological and gendered meanings because it turned the victimised female into an avenging heroine.

Read’s book is similarly concerned with the figure of the female avenger, although Read spreads her net wider than Clover, taking in serious issue-based films (The Accused, Thelma & Louise) in addition to popular genre films, including westerns (Hannie Caulder), thrillers (The Last Seduction) and melodramatic potboilers (Dirty Weekend). In this respect, rape-revenge is less a genre in its own right than a narrative formulation that crosses generic boundaries.

If one accepts that popular culture is a barometer of broader social trends, then the frequency with which sexual violence against women has been deployed as a narrative device in film raises questions about gender politics and representations. One of the particular strengths of The New Avengers, however, is that while it forms part of a broader agenda in cultural and gender studies, Read’s approach is neither didactically feminist nor stridently post-feminist.

Read admits that she spent much time while writing the book trying to ”find” feminism, identifying a contradiction between feminism as an academic discourse and feminism as an everyday social practice. This contradiction is also apparent in the films she discusses. As she points out, while  orthodox feminist critiques of popular culture have regarded it as a means through which preferred and often reactionary images of femininity are constructed, there has frequently been an” excited rush of recognition and identification of a female avenger, such as Catwoman in the film Batman Returns”.

The other strength of this book is to be found in Read’s measured and carefully nuanced readings of individual films. Indeed, teachers of film and cultural studies could do worse than to recommend her chapter on the reception of the rape-revenge film to their students as an exemplary demonstration of how to use contemporary reviews and criticism as a means of constructing preferred and alternative readings of filmic texts. Given the surge of interest in popular cinema and gender studies over the last decade, The New Avengers should quickly establish itself as a key text on undergraduate reading lists.

James Chapman is lecturer in film and television history, the Open University  

The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle

Author - Jacinda Read
ISBN - 0 7190 5904 6 and 5905 4
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 290

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