[trigger warning: this essay discusses sexual assault]
I hate the phrase “forgive and forget.”
It puts the responsibility on me to forgive the man that tore down my self-esteem, my confidence, my self-worth, and any semblance of comfort with my sexuality.
And I certainly can’t “forget” the rape, the threats of violence, and the fear that—eight years and an amazing partner later—still creeps into both my nightmares and my waking moments.
I often think, “He will never deserve an ounce of my forgiveness.”
This results in a building rage, a massive weight that keeps expanding like a hungry black hole. Then, I found rape-revenge movies, like the blood-soaked Revenge, the darkly comic Traps, and the unrelenting cruelty in The Last House on the Left. Importantly, these films are not places of comfort for all survivors due to their graphic depictions of assault, exploitation of the female body as a place of spectacle, and the gruesome murders of perpetrators. While I agree with the struggles with exploitation, these films, for me, offer an absolutely freeing catharsis where women can finally enact some sort of justice through violence. Forgiveness is a dead body. Yet in the afterglow of such a catharsis, there still exists an emptiness that makes me wonder if violence can help someone “forgive and forget.” Did Jennifer Hills move on and forget about her assault after the four murders in I Spit On Your Grave? Did Jen from Revenge get that job in LA? What is the aftermath for these women? Have they truly exorcised their demons through a vicious blood ritual?
Director Natalia Leite and writer Leah McKendrick’s 2017 film M.F.A. works to answer that question with their protagonist and vigilante Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), who seeks justice not just for herself, but for all those who have been raped and wronged by a broken system. Crucially, in Noelle’s search for justice, she slowly realizes that her version of violent justice is not how everyone seeks to heal from their trauma, just as not every survivor wants to experience catharsis through the rape-revenge film. Violent confrontation of those who have wronged you does not necessarily equate instant freedom; the death of a rapist still doesn’t undo the pain they have inflicted. In M.F.A., forgiveness is not just a dead body. It is a more complicated web of consequences and confusion about how to process sexual trauma, as the film examines rape by a friend instead of a stranger.
The rape-revenge genre is built around the idea that women are raped by strangers in the woods or by armed men in the city streets. The perpetrators have no existing relationship to their victims, viewing them solely as pieces of meat they can consume and then spit out the bones. This lack of a connection between woman and rapist then makes their revenge-enacted deaths more palatable; they are portrayed as uneducated scum whom nobody will miss. If the rapists are already painted as less than, it is easier to cheer for their deaths and cheer on the avenger. The cathartic fantasy—which becomes, in a way, a form of forgiveness—is then easier to achieve. Without a personal relationship, there is a clean cut (pun intended) between survivor and perpetrator. Yet Leite and McKendrick complicate this narrative with Noelle, an art student in a Master’s of Arts program who is raped by a fellow male artist in her cohort. This is not just a random stranger with no connection to Noelle, but a man whom she sees every day and who critiques her art. There is an intimate layer of trust that is completely broken here.
Noelle’s sexual assault reflects the reality of many real-life survivors: according to RAINN, “eight out of 10 rapes are committed by someone close to the victim.” But before the violence comes a story that feels like something out of a teen comedy—think 10 Things I Hate About You, or The Princess Diaries. Noelle, the quiet girl in class, is invited to a party by the hot popular guy Luke. She is ecstatic as she stands fussing with her hair in the mirror. Then, her close friend Skye (played by McKendrick) arrives, helping Noelle primp her hair. They giggle in front of a mirror, embracing, representing this perfect and beautiful friendship between two carefree teenagers. Then they get sweetly scandalous as they discuss how to ask Luke over for a midnight swim; Noelle is eager for their intimacy and practices her flirting with Skye.
She will get that midnight swim, but not the one she wanted.
This teenage fantasy is quickly shattered when Luke reveals his true nature.
When he invites her into his bedroom, Noelle eagerly accepts; this is what she and Skye were discussing only a few hours prior. Luke and Noelle lock eyes as they ascend the stairs, electricity flying between them. They share a long kiss, the moment Noelle has been waiting for and what every teenage girl in the movies wants. But this is not true love’s kiss and Luke begins smashing his lips onto Noelle’s, smothering her and silencing any protestations while he yanks her head back by her ponytail. This shocking escalation scares Noelle, and she tries to tell him to stop, but he grabs her face and throat. Noelle can only eke out a response and he ignores her pleas.
He drowns out her voice by grunting demeaning obscenities:
“You’re a good girl.” “Be a good girl.” “God you’re wet.”
These are mantras I’ve heard before, falling out of the lips of a man I thought I could trust as he crushed my body with his as he pinned me down. These are not compliments or dirty talk, but thinly veiled threats that demand our cooperation or else.
Noelle leaves Luke’s room in a daze, unsure of what is real. As she gets home she mindlessly stumbles into the pool, screaming and sobbing, as if hoping for the chlorinated water to cleanse her of Luke’s touch. Her anticipated midnight swim isn’t full of passion, but full of pain.
This navigation and total violation of consent works against the preconceived notions of rape in exploitation cinema, because consent is not even remotely discussed. Most rape-revenge films exist on a binary of good and evil, where there is no gray area, no allusion to the many complexities of sexual violence. M.F.A., then, works against that formula as it examines how someone can be raped by a person they are sexually attracted to. This reality pushes back against societal ideas of what it means to experience such violence, and forces the audience to confront the way rape often involves a grave violation of trust and an abuse of existing power dynamics.
However, this is not a film about Noelle’s process of hunting and killing Luke; in fact, Luke dies by accident early on in the narrative, falling down the stairs to his death while Noelle demands at least an acknowledgment of what he did to her. But his untimely demise provides no catharsis or relief for Noelle. He refused to admit what he did, and with his death comes a glaring lack of closure for her. There is no space left for forgiveness; he dies as her rapist who is in denial of the violence he committed. Noelle is left with an emptiness where she is unable to get the apology she deserves—but would she have ever received that apology? Would she have been able to forgive and move on if Luke survived? While Leite and McKendrick never explicitly answer that question, they offer hints, as Noelle uses her rage to take vengeance in the name of other women into her own hands.
In the process of her own healing, as Noelle grapples with how to handle her trauma, she discovers that rape is not an unusual occurrence on campus. She learns about a graphic video circulating across campus of a group of men taking turns raping a woman named Lindsey while they chant their fraternity’s name. This moment emulates the typical rape-revenge story, in which a group of strangers don’t just sexual assault someone, but also take a sickening amount of joy in the act. Rape is a game, a method of entertainment that these men can wear as a badge of honor with their brothers.
Despite the very explicit evidence of the rape, it is declared fake in court. Lindsey is blamed for the act of violence, and her sexual history is pored over with a magnifying glass to find some way to dismiss the case. Meanwhile, her rapists are released with no consequences and continue to throw parties where they can prey upon and drug unsuspecting women, parties that Lindsey is still inexplicably invited to. While she initially tells Noelle she has no interest in discussing her rape, she eventually opens up after Noelle reveals she is also a survivor. In this conversation between virtual strangers, Lindsey quietly admits to Noelle that her rape was so bad that she may be unable to have children.
Lindsey goes to yoga and continues her daily routine. She is initially shown as a bright and bubbly woman who socializes with ease. Yet upon the mention of her rape, she freezes and begins to back away like an animal backed into a corner. Her silence is a wall that she erects to protect herself. By moving on and living her life, this young woman appears to offer forgiveness, when in reality it is an act of self-preservation, ending a tumultuous and traumatic part of her life. In this world, forgiveness is not willingly given, but forcibly extracted to maintain the patriarchal status quo.
Noelle refuses to conform with the status quo and wants to make noise rather than be silent. I see glimpses of myself in Noelle’s journey. She demands an apology, she doesn’t get it, and instead is made to believe she’s wrong. I demanded an apology, didn’t get it, and was made out to be the bad guy. My unwillingness to be silent did not solve my problems, but instead compounded them as beloved friends quickly left me behind. Noelle embodies the rage that once boiled in my brain as she finds strength in her circumstances. She puts aside her own identity and replaces it with a hot pink wing and a masquerade mask; she has been born anew, like a perverse phoenix rising from black flames of pain. She has taken the concept of forgiveness into her own hands.
After Noelle’s rape, Skye tells her, “It was one shitty night, don’t let it ruin the rest of your life.”
If only it was that easy. How do I move on when I can’t forgive? I can’t forgive because I can’t forget. For eight years I have dreamed about him finding me, hurting me, and continuing to ruin my life. No one who takes up that much mental and emotional energy deserves forgiveness. Perhaps that seems self-destructive, but there is no part of me that can see the good in him or how he has changed.
I’d like to say that Noelle would agree with me, especially as she stalks campus rapists and quite literally brings down her hammer of justice on the heads of entitled men who see sex as their right. She is enacting that fantasy of killing all rapists; she takes matters into her own hands when the law favors the man and leaves the survivor to pick up the pieces alone. However, during her mission of vengeance in the name of wronged women, Noelle loses sight of why she is doing this and becomes more focused on how these murders could heal her rather than the survivors. In her acts of vigilantism, Noelle fails to recognize the damage she’s doing to those who have chosen not to forgive, but to certainly try to forget.
Her most egregious error comes at the expense of her close friend Skye. In the midst of her rage, Noelle discovers that Skye was also raped. The situation was so bad that Skye changed her name and moved to a new town; she erased her previous self, trying to forget that period of her life. This is why she tells Noelle to not let that night ruin her life; she is trying to remind herself to live by that same mantra. Noelle is flabbergasted at Skye’s method of processing her trauma; how could Skye not want revenge? And so, in a violation of consent, Noelle decides that she will fix this for her friend. The rapist’s death is a gift to Skye, meant to be a relief that the man who hurt her is gone. Yet Noelle fails to consider the consequences of that act for either herself or Skye.
In her assumed act of friendship, Noelle instead retraumatizes Skye and triggers suicidal thoughts. Skye does not want any confrontation with the past and would rather move on with her new life and new self. When this freshly constructed identity is ripped down with Noelle’s hammer, Skye is unable to forget. Memories come flooding back; in reliving this trauma, she cannot forgive. Once again, her trust has been violated, causing more trauma and deep spiral into the dark headspaces that plague those with PTSD. Regardless of her outward confidence and bright personality, Skye’s soul aches for a time where her entire life is not defined by sexual violence. Her healing process is radically different from Noelle, who quickly picks up a hammer and cracks the skulls of scumbags across campus. There is no timeline that marks how and when your soul will no longer ache, something I’ve begrudgingly started to learn in my healing process. The inclusion of multiple different survivor experiences actively rejects the presupposed universal experience of strong female leads killing their rapists and going on to live empowered lives.
The film continues to subvert expectations by punishing its avenger rather than having her go free. At her graduation ceremony, Noelle is arrested for the multiple murders in front of her entire class. But she does not fight it. Instead, she walks toward her fate with a smile on her face. She embraces the consequences of her actions, and in that moment finds forgiveness—not for the violent offenders, but for herself. Even in harming both criminals and those she loves, Noelle has reached the logical end of her story. The arrest is also darkly ironic, as a woman murdering rapists is so quickly apprehended while rapists still continue to go free. Being arrested means she doesn’t achieve that final catharsis audiences are so accustomed to in rape-revenge films. But who really gets that type of release? I never was able to achieve any sort of real catharsis until I gave myself permission to write about my experience and how horror movies have saved my life. Just like healing, forgiveness isn’t universal. Forgiveness should not always be expected, and certainly not demanded to absolve the sins of the sinner.
Noelle and I have struggled to understand what forgiveness even means, and our idea of forgiveness is not traditional. We do not want to peacefully grant grace and take the higher ground. We want to scream and curse and show the trauma that rages inside us every day. And while Noelle finds a violent outlet for her anger and enacts the fantasy of killing rapists, I instead use my writing. Not to forgive him, but to forgive myself. To see how far I’ve come, how strong I am, and how, despite this trauma, I am miraculously still here. With M.F.A., Leite and McKendrick have created a story that I so desperately needed in coming to terms with my own rape. They validated my refusal to forgive, they validated my rage, and they validated my unrelenting pain. Between Noelle’s vigilantism and Skye’s desire to create a new life, they illustrate that trauma is not a universal experience, but a deeply personal one. Leite and McKendrick want me to know that there is no right way to heal.