[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series by Lindsay Ellis on movies that utilize sexist post-apocalyptic tropes (and some that subvert them). Trigger warning for discussion of rape and violence against women.]
If there’s one thing Hollywood is largely in agreement on, it’s that when civilization falls, if you’re a lady, you’d better gird those loins. Rape is apparently an inevitable part of life after the apocalypse, because without the rule of law dictating how the menfolk treat women, those jerks drop all pretense (and drop trou) at the first opportunity. So let’s take a look back at a history of rape-filled post-apocalyptic futures– because nothing shows how hard it is for a lone wolf in a post-apocalyptic hellscape than a backdrop of women being brutalized.
A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Anxieties and backlash over second wave feminism were omnipresent during the formation of the post-apocalyptic genre. A Boy and His Dog, adapted from the Harlan Ellison short story of the same name, is rife with many of the trappings of the era’s filmmaking, including its questionable gender politics. All men are rapists, of course. That’s just a given. Our protagonist, Vic, spends his days with his telepathic dog Blood, roving the hellscape looking for women to rape. No, really, that is his sole raison d’etre. But the women? Well,they have their own deal going on underground, and once the lovely Quilla lures him to their underground lair, they want his seed. The rest of the plot involves Vic and his love(?) interest Quilla escaping this spermjacking matriarchy. Almost immediately after doing so and happening upon his starving dog, Vic kills Quilla and feeds her to his dog. Smooth.
Does either movie have anything insightful to say about sexual violence and gender? Not really, no. Rape is grimdarkbad, and with no structure that’s just what men do, I guess. Although the film did change the last line to Blood making a pun about how Quilla didn’t have good “taste,” which Ellison would go on to describe as a “moronic, hateful chauvinist last line, which I despise.” I won’t pretend to understand how this is reconciled with rest of Ellison’s text.
Few Freudian male anxiety nightmares surpass the bizarre terri-bad that is Zardoz. In a future where humanity is split into immortal “Eternals” and mortal “Brutals,” a group of the latter are ruled by a floating stone head god named Zardoz that says things like “the gun is good, the penis is evil.”
Sean Connery plays a Brutal “exterminator” named Zed, a religious zealot soldier who kills people for Zardoz and also rapes women for some reason. When he eventually makes his way to the impotent spermjacking matriarchy (because it’s the 70’s), he seems particularly fixated on this memory of rape. “I took a woman. For Zardoz,” he tells the sexless science-lady who’s studying him, which is the in-universe equivalent of raping for Jesus.
The spermjacking matriarchy, who are alternately fascinated by his virility and want to destroy it (depending on who you ask) have evolved past sex, because sex is inherently violent, and the second we reach a truly egalitarian society everyone’s dick falls off. “There seems to be a correlation with violence,” says scientist Consuela. “With fear. Many hanged men died with an erection,” which even if you have only a passing knowledge of human physiology would strike you as being just about the dumbest fucking thing. Also, the immortal “Eternals” can’t get erections. Zardoz!
Zed later comes across a group of “apathetics” and sees a woman he wants to rape, and then the dude who’s showing him around is like, hey buddy, rape away! Zed gets irritated when he realizes that this lady is catatonic though, so I guess that makes it lose some appeal. Fuck man, it’s the 70’s and this is art!
Porn doesn’t give Zed a boner, but Consuela does, and she HATES that she gives him a boner, because all sex is rape and if a man is not impotent he is a rapist. Zardoz!
Don’t worry, she eventually wants the D, and unlike A Boy and His Dog, at least Zed does not kill and eat her.
Mad Max (1979) & Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
The worst we see in the first Mad Max (aside from the requisite Fridging of the Wife) is Jessie Rockatansky being taunted and stalked by Toecutter’s gang, although mostly their intent is to get revenge against Max. Hey, if you want to get under a guy’s skin, best way to go about it is to threaten what’s his, right?
OG Max is much more of a heartless jerk than trauma-faced precious cinnamon roll Tom Hardy Max. In The Road Warrior, he hangs back up on an outcropping and watches a woman get raped and murdered from a safe distance (and it’s, uh, surprisingly graphic). He doesn’t seem terribly upset at watching a woman get brutalized; really, the only person in that scene who so much as frowns at the whole ordeal is the Gyro Captain. Like Max, he’s just hangin’ back, although he does look a little sad when the woman is shot by her rapist after the deed is done (while his pants are still down).
See, look! A sad face! Not from Max, though. He doesn’t bat an eye at women being routinely brutalized. Because he’s hard, see.
When Kevin Costner’s Mariner visits a floating community to trade some dirt, the folks offer up one of their underage daughters (they want genetic diversity), and then get suspicious when he doesn’t seem too interested in some statutory rape. Turns out it’s not because he’s easily three times this girl’s age that’s turning him off, but because he’s a mutated, web-toed fishperson, and these people find this distasteful for some reason.
Despite his disinterest in statutory, he’s still pretty awful to his two female co-stars, a reluctant sexy woman and a star-eyed moonchild with The Sight, when he gets the opportunity.
The whole movie he’s stuck on his boat with two naaaaaggging incapable womenfolk who don’t know how hard it is out here, man, and they really need to take it down a few pegs. One of the first things Helen does once they get on the boat is strip naked and throw herself at Costner, because of course.
He’s not interested (dudes in these movies are never interested in consensual sex, what’s with that?), but he does take the opportunity to sexually humiliate her by dropping his boat sail on her naked body. In fact, he routinely humiliates both of them when they displease him, most notably where he holds both of them down and chops off their hair after they piss him off (I think this is supposed to be funny?).
The forced removal of hair is a common visual motif to impart dominance or humiliation–the shaving scene in V for Vendetta is another good example, also a rapey future! But more dystopic than post-apocalyptic, for our purposes, so we’re skipping that.
Before long our trio run into another mariner, who wants basically to buy woman and child from Costner as sex slaves (he seems particularly interested in the little girl). This is treated by both parties as a more-or-less reasonable request, but after a few minutes Costner thinks that, hey, maybe the rape of a child might be taking it a little bit too far. And that’ll have to serve as his anti-hero turning point, I guess.
Escape from New York (1981)
Manhattan Island has been turned into a prison colony, like a gritty urban colonial-era Australia. Sexual violence is less a theme and more set dressing in this one, just so we’re clear on how bad things are here in prison colony New York. While on a mission into Manhattan to rescue the president, he must venture into the underbelly. At one point our hero walks by a half-naked, half-conscious woman getting sexually assaulted, and he just walks on by. Because he’s hard, see.
This isn’t really revisited in the narrative; mostly it just shows to highlight just what a hardass lone wolf our main character is.
Lindsay vlogs on various topics nerdy and nostalgic on YouTube, co-hosts irreverent book show “Booze Your Own Adventure,” and is co-founder ofChezApocalypse.com. If you don’t mind your timeline flooded with tweets about old cartoons, dog pictures and Michael Bay, you can follow her on Twitter.
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]