[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series by Lindsay Ellis on movies that utilize sexist post-apocalyptic tropes (and some that subvert them); you can read Part One here. Trigger warning for discussion of rape and violence against women.]
Tank Girl (1995)
The only movie on this list with a woman as our point-of- view character (Mad Max: Fury Road is unequivocally from Max’s point of view), this one tries to capture the irreverent tone of the source comic book (keyword: tries) by making sexual violence an object of ridicule. This is a problem, because the movie doesn’t seem to understand what makes sexual violence “bad.”
Since our main character is female, sexual violence isn’t allowed to be set dressing–Rebecca is subjected to it constantly. But she never seems terribly perturbed by it (or… anything, really). Whenever men threaten her sexually (which is often), Rebecca takes it as an opportunity to joke about penis size.
Sexual violence and exploitation is a thing that’s easily ignored or shrugged off for Rebecca. In one of the films more infamous scenes, Rebecca and Jet Girl go into a brothel to rescue Sam, who is being sold as a child prostitute to, um, Iggy Pop.
This movie is trying really hard to make a truly horrifying premise funny.
Anyway, the situation is resolved by Sam’s absurdly easy escape, followed by Rebecca holding the Madame at gunpoint and forcing the entire club to sing “Let’s Do It” by Cole Porter. Oh, and remember the whole “cutting hair as a dominance/humiliation” thing? That happens here, too.
Civilization has fallen. There is nothing left for them to take but our hair.
Tank Girl clearly has some thoughts on sexual violence and its function in apocalypse narratives, I’m just not sure it knows what those thoughts are other than “it exists.” So I’m not sure why the film includes it, other than that it’s in every other apocalypse narrative and can serve as yet another target of Rebecca’s ridicule.
At least it’s different?
28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later brought zombie movies into the new millennium by shifting the stage and the tone for the genre. And part of the way it went about this was to shift the focus. Because the real enemy isn’t the zombies, it’s the enemy within: rapists. Because the military and their followers decided almost the very instant civilization fell it was their right, nay, their duty to rape every woman they could get their hands on. Because repopulation or something.
Men are the real monsters, and how do we know? Because it hasn’t even been a month since civilization fell and we’re already setting up a rape-based man-conomy. Seriously, the title of the movie is “28 Days Later” because that’s how long it takes the men of the UK to throw their hands in the air and proclaim that the only hope for humankind is to round up literally every woman they can find into sexual slavery. This is made doubly strange when, in the sequel, we discover that the breakout is contained to the island of Great Britain. The rest of humanity was fine.
Goddamnit, English men! What the fuck??
The Book of Eli (2010)
Enjoy watching helpless women wail for mercy in a landscape so washed out and high contrast it’s almost parodic? Have we got a movie for you!
There is a scene in this film that is almost identical to the one in The Road Warrior in which our hero during his sojourn witnesses a woman getting brutally raped on the road while he sits back from a safe distance and watches. The only real difference from this scene and The Road Warrior is that, unlike Max, Denzel shows a teensey bit of a sad. “Not your concern,” he really, actually says to himself while a woman not even a stone’s throw away is mercilessly savaged. “Stay the path, it’s not your concern.”
Our Hero might be a slick badass murderer, but hey, at least rape kinda bugs him. I mean, not enough to go down there and help the poor lady (when only one scene previous we’d seen him take out more men than this, single-handedly), but in the end, Denzel just keeps on truckin’. Because he’s hard,see.
This future is so rapey that Denzel eventually deigns to allow Mila Kunis to tag along with him where he refused her several times earlier, you know, because he walks alone. Without him it’s just rapetown for poor, naive Mila Kunis. Out on the road by herself, Mila doesn’t get far without getting sexually assaulted by the first men she runs across. Don’t worry; Denzel saves her from the rape. As you do.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
This one I find the oddest duck for a variety of reason; sexual violence is there, absolutely–it drives the plot, so to speak.But unlike all of the other films, it isn’t woven into the fabric of the narrative. It is not titilating. It is not set dressing. In Fury Road, sexual violence occurs completely off screen before the movie even begins. In fact the most overt incidence of dominance and aggression we see onscreen for any of the characters isn’t against the women, but against Max.
There’s that hair getting forcibly cut off again.
Sure, people talk about how they’re going to hurt Furiosa–Nux is thrilled when Max captures Furiosa alive, gleefully anticipating that Immortan Joe will “shred” her; later, Nux volunteers to “pike her in the spine” to capture her alive for Joe (he’d rather Nux just put a bullet in her skull); The Bullet Farmer threatens “one angry shot” for her. But the threats against Furiosa, the Wives, or even the Vuvalini are never gendered or sexual.
And that’s rare even in narratives that don’t take place after the world fell. How would we know who the bad guys are if they weren’t threatening to do nonconsensual sex things to their ladyholes? Threats against men are violent; threats against women are violent and sexual. Not here, though. Thank you, movie.
It’s difficult to avoid the fact that the foundation of what we now consider post-apocalyptic fiction was partially formed out of anxieties and backlash against second-wave feminism, hence the predominance of themes of sexual violence. But this is not to say that sexual violence need be verboten – with Fury Road we see a filmmaker who’s looked at the possibilities, and decided, hey, maybe we can acknowledge the concept of sexual violence as a part of the universe and still move past the whole set dressing thing to show us that our male protagonist is hard, see.
I’m not saying that Fury Road rings true where the others ring false – part of the reason we see bad guys in movies threaten women sexually is because, sadly, it does ring true. It’s hacky and cliché, but it happens (if you’re a woman who’s spent any amount of time on Twitter, you know this.) But there are a lot of ways to show that the future is bad, and yet this tends to be the go-to thing to show just how far civilization has crumbled.
The undercurrent in all of these narratives is that there’s something integral about sexual violence, and that there is nothing but the rule of law that prevents men from succumbing to their horrible rapey natures (because the rule of law is so effective at protecting against sexual violence as it is.)
It’s worth noting, however, that not all mainstream narratives set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia are chock full of sexual violence. The robot-dominated Terminator hellscape seems fairly egalitarian, as does the world of The Matrix. In dystopias targeted towards women (most notably The Hunger Games and Divergent) there don’t tend to be systemic trends of sexual violence embedded in the fabric of society, or lack thereof. A world filled with sexual violence isn’t a done deal, it just tends to be the case for media made by and for a men.
These filmmakers may or may not be prophetic, but they’re probably projecting. Just a skosh.
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.
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