I Spit on Your Dogma
Like most buildings on the UC Santa Cruz campus, the Earth Marine Sciences structure is difficult to find, shyly tucked among a labyrinth of winding roads and towering pines. The air smells fresh and cool. In the nearby hills, a hairy bike repairman plays with a litter of puppies. At a downtown head shop, two stoner street urchins buy their first bong. A freckled cafe girl writes in a journal in between stirs of a low-fat latte. This is Santa Cruz, where everything is mellow, everyone is groovy, and the surf is epic, dude.
Inside Room B-210, however, all eyes are glued to a video. ...
The instructor pushes "Play" and giggles, "I can't wait to screen this!"
A young, bikini-clad woman lounges in a canoe, floating down a quiet, tree-lined river. Four hillbilly guys suddenly roar up in a powerboat and begin harassing her. They yank her onto dry land and start smacking her around, then three hold her down while one has sex with her, grunting like a pig. Brutally humiliated and injured, she crawls off, naked, into the tall grass, accompanied by laughter. The sequence is unbelievably sick and cruel. The tape is shut off, and lights come up to reveal 12 blinking students.
Susie Bright casually leans on a table, looks over the top of her glasses, and smiles. "What was that like for you?"
A powerful conundrum immediately materializes. What is America's foremost feminist sex writer -- media darling of Newsweek, Esquire, the Village Voice, etc., whose new collection of essays, Sexwise, was just written up in the Sunday New York Times Book Review -- doing in the heart of liberal academia, showing brutal rape films?
Like many small towns with universities, Santa Cruz is an unlikely blend of Eisenhower America and ultra-PC Marxist jingoism, neither philosophy having much tolerance for information of this nature. Bright will certainly be either hung by the neck or at least pamphleteered to death by people averse to regular bathing.
The summer-session class is called "The Politics of Sexual Representation." Bright's students have already watched hours of pornography, read essays and articles, and heard guest speakers. Today is movie day, according to the syllabus -- "Sex and Violence in Genre: Hollywood, exploitation, pornography."
In other words, the polar opposite of Santa Cruz, Calif.
The film in question is a 1977 vulgarity directed by Meir Zarchi, known as either I Spit on Your Grave or Day of the Woman. Bright first saw this clip in the late '70s while attending this same university, when a feminist roadshow documenting the dangers of porn to women arrived in town. Back then, the spin was applied by groups like Women Against Pornography and Women Against Violence and Pornography in the Media.
As Bright says, "I don't know a feminist from the '70s and early '80s who didn't see [the presentation]."
These screenings deliberately limited images to only the first half of I Spit on Your Grave: The second or third reel would have undermined the feminists' agenda of victimization because the remainder of the movie is chick-positive. The abused woman methodically stalks each of her attackers, and kills or mutilates them in horribly violent ways.
Bright shows another clip. The I Spit on Your Grave girl entices one of the guys back to her apartment, and they both hop in the bathtub. She picks up a huge butcher knife and hacks off his penis. She then locks him in the bathroom, slips on a white robe, and listens to an opera, accompanied by his bloodcurdling screams of pain. The lights come up.
"That was great!" exclaims one girl with a nose ring.
"That just makes me cringe, watching it every time," admits a guy.
A queasy guy in the front blurts, "I would never want to watch that again -- ever!"
"I want to go out and rent it!" pipes up another girl.
To prepare the class for such carnage, Bright has assigned them to write on the most violent thing they've seen or experienced. She copies the topics to the chalkboard: "war images, babysitter from hell, dad fight wife w/knife, mean mommie hitting me, mugged, son/father fight, abortion, shot by burglars, shuttle explosion, suicide attempt -- slit wrists, Scarface, Henry: Portrait of s. killer, dog bites small child."
Perfect to ponder over lunch.
Before the afternoon session begins, we take a drive to run a necessary errand.
"It's so apropos that I begin bleeding on the day we talk about violence," Bright says, pulling her van into the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.
Such frankness is the norm for the founding editor of On Our Backs magazine, and the author/editor of several books on erotica and sexual politics. Her newest project, Nothing But the Girl: The Blatant Lesbian Image, co-edited by San Francisco photographer Jill Posener, is at the final layout stage.
A graduate from Santa Cruz in community studies in 1981, Bright accepted an offer to teach a course this summer at her alma mater, and obviously seized the opportunity to expose hypocrisies within so-called citizens for decency groups, as well as the traditional feminist hierarchy. Such a mission takes guts, but there's an unabashed glee evident behind it all.