I’m still obsessed with Jack Hill’s movies — most recently I’ve seen “Spider Baby” and “Switchblade Sisters”. Both of these feature what I’ll refer to as conversion rape scenes: you know, boy rapes girl, girl is converted and discovers she likes it. Obviously, this is pretty offensive (Hill acknowledges his own concern about the conversion rape in “Switchblade Sisters.”) Still, I actually think both are, in many ways, fairly thoughtful scenes, and a lot less offensive than the initial description indicates. So here’s me trying to explain why.
The ur-conversion rape, to me, is James Bond’s rape of the improbably named Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. In the movie (and I believe in the book as well), Pussy Galore is a lesbian pilot, very independent and tough, who works for Goldfinger, presumably because he’s paying her a ton. But Bond (Sean Connery, here), is, of course, tougher, and he holds her down and rapes her, which is such a transformative experience that she eschews lesbianism and becomes his ally in the fight for good, betraying Goldfinger. She is so inspired, indeed, that, if I remember correctly, she convinces her entire lesbian posse to go along with her, though what they think of these developments is never very clearly articulated.
Anyway, what’s especially offensive about this whole scenario is the extent to which Ms. Galore is so completely beside the point. The rape and transformation is never about her; in fact, we don’t ever get a sense of her as a character except that she’s tough and independent, and then, suddenly, not so much. She falls for Bond because he’s just so darn overwhelmingly attractive, and she abandons her (never quite stated) lesbianism as if she were doffing a hat. There’s no actual psychological progression attempted; it’s just, insert phallus, hello enlightenment. The whole point of the encounter is, in fact, to annihilate her as a character; in entering her, Bond replaces her will with his own, and she becomes simply his catspaw. It’s the crudest kind of male power fantasy, and one which is more than a little pitiable, suggesting as it does a desire to fuck a mannequin, rather than a real person.
Hill’s variations on the themes are quite a bit different than this. In the horror-comedy Spider Baby, for example, the victim is Aunt Emily (played by Carol Ohmart). Emily is attempting to seize control of the Merrye fortune, currently controlled by her two nieces and one nephew, all of whom suffer from a degenerative hereditary brain disease, accentuated by in-breeding. At the beginning of the movie, Emily is presented as being the antithesis to her drooling, animalistic relatives — she’s buttoned up, proper, and willing to take no nonsense. Yet, there are several moments when she comes undone: first when she’s frightened by her nephew, Ralph; later when she’s confronted with a revolting meal of insects and dead kitten, and suddenly reaches into her purse to violently tear open a snack (attracting Ralph’s interest), and last when she discovers a stash of sexy lingerie in her bedroom, puts it on, and starts to dance in front of a mirror. Ralph discovers her, which precipitates a lengthy chase, at the end of which Ralph leaps upon her and performs the conversion rape in question.
The point here is that, despite her squicky conversion, Emily does not become a different person, or simply a vessel for Ralph’s desires. Instead, Emily’s conversion is about her; as I’ve noted, the movie takes some pains to suggest that beneath her buttoned up demeanor there’s something else going on. She’s also, of course, related to Ralph; the Merrye’s atavistic curse is her curse too. She’s attracted by the degenerate madness — which, indeed, throughout the film is presented as entertaining, charismatic, charming — as good fun, in other words. Moreover, embracing that madness doesn’t make her Ralph’s dupe or pawn. On the contrary, when she discovers Ralph embracing another woman, she becomes vengeful and violent, wounding him badly before (if I remember correctly) she is dragged down into the cellar with the other degenerate Merrye aunts and uncles. Where Galore’s conversion seems like a negation of her self, Emily’s is figured as a release from repression. Despite being different, she’s still herself, bad attitude and all.
The conversion rape in Switchblade Sisters moves even farther away from rote misogyny. The woman here is Maggie, a tough girl who has recently moved into the neighborhood. She’s become friends with Lace, who runs a gang called the Dagger Debs. The Debs are associated with the Daggers, led by Dominic. Maggie takes a letter from Lace (who’s in prison) to Dominic. Dominic is an asshole, which Maggie realizes — but she’s also attracted to him. Dominic figures this out, follows Maggie home, pushes her into her room, and rapes her.
Or does he? It’s pretty unclear what exactly is going on. Maggie never tells him he can have sex with her — but after he tears open her shirt, she tears open his. And she doesn’t put up much resistance…and this is a woman who, throughout the rest of the movie, is able to kick the shit out of practically everybody. After they’re done, Dominic tells her she was asking for it — fighting words for feminists, obviously, but Maggie doesn’t really dispute it. In fact, it seems that Maggie is deeply conflicted about having sex with Dominic; she doesn’t want to betray Lace, and the quasi-rape is a way to have him without doing that. Later in the film, he suggests to her that he might rape her again — and she tells him in no uncertain terms that if he does she’ll kick his ass… suggesting once more that she could have kicked his ass the first time if she wanted to. Certainly, whatever the extent of Maggie’s resistance or lack thereof, the fact that she enjoyed the sexual encounter doesn’t fundamentally change who she is. She never has sex with Dominic again, and she isn’t any less tough or independent — she helps him out and joins his gang, but her primary loyalty is to Lace, not to him.
I guess I just feel like there’s misogyny and there’s misogyny. Jack HIll’s movies have a lot of violence against women, and women are clearly and repeatedly on display for male pleasure. But he also cares about his female characters — they have independent inner lives, they make moral choices, they’re complicated and human and vulnerable and tough. There’s just no comparison with the Bond films — or even, for that matter, with a supposedly girl-power but actually basically empty romp like Charlie’s Angels (a movie I liked quite a bit, by the by).
Not that anyone’s actually reading this, but, on the off chance — anyone know of any books about Hill? I haven’t been able to find one, though I’ve looked in a couple of places. He’s well known enough that I was certain there would be, but maybe not….