Monday, June 06, 2011

Woman Up: 5 Revenge Films to Watch and Discuss

Because Rihanna’s Man Down is only the latest depiction in popular media of a victim turning vigilante, I find the controversy it has generated almost laughable. The vigilante trope is as American as running pigskin down a field. It made Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson movies stars in the 70s and now keeps Nicolas Cage on top of his IRS installment agreement. Regardless of where we stand on the morality or effectiveness of vigilantism, we generally accept that violence begets violence.

That is, until the victim-become-perpetrator is a woman.

Even though we cannot get our fill of the steady buffet at the Cineplex of men wrecking havoc in the name of vengeance, let a woman bring wreck, and controversy ensues. Meanwhile, the men in these narratives are rarely themselves targets of the crime in question never mind survivors of sexual assault.* Rather they seek revenge for a crime committed against someone they love -- almost always an adult female relative (most likely a love interest) or minor child.

Apparently, Hollywood realizes that we are not ready to see a man go HAM because someone fucked with his brother, male lover or even adult child. This is because we cling to a clusterfuck of patriarchal beliefs that insist:

1. A man can possess a woman or child.
2. A man cannot be possessed by anyone else but himself.
3. A man who fails to protect his human possessions should be able to redeem himself by regulating those who violate him by messing with his "property."

It then goes to reason that, despite our taste for tales of vigilantism, any narrative in which a woman crime victim takes justice into her own hands will prove unsettling. Where does she come off regulating anyone’s behavior as if she owns anything including her own body?

Add to this the persisting yet erroneous notion that violence is unnatural to women. Why we still hold onto this myth especially despite mounting evidence baffles me for three reasons. One, we are human beings. As such, there is not a single emotion from which anyone should expect us to be immune including rage. Two, experience teaches us that there is not much to be gained from repressing our emotions, especially the most unpleasant ones. Whether or not we choose to learn from them, those emotions have something to teach us, usually doing so by pointing to some breach in integrity. We feel uncomfortable because our external reality is somehow out of alignment with our internal expectations.

Three, being women in a patriarchal world, there’s a lot that pisses us off. Everyday we experience fundamental dissonances between the things that society teaches us to value and practice yet fails to grant us in return for no other reason than that we are women. No wonder expressions of women’s anger and violence – even a fantasy like Rihanna’s Man Down – makes folks itch.

All the shit you put us through? Y’all should be scared.

This is why fans and detractors alike readily label such expressions "feminist revenge fantasies" without truly unpacking what that implies. Whether or not we condone a man’s vengeance, we get it. A man’s rage is always justified even if his actions are not. However, women generally are not entitled to their anger so any expression of it is automatically deemed out of order. At the core of this judgment is another belief: that the breach we feel between our external reality and our internal expectations is our own fault because women have no business believing that we are autonomous, equal or free. We feel violated because we deluded ourselves into believing that our bodies are our own, that we have a right to public spaces, ad infinitum.

Hence, all acts of retribution by women – real or imagined – are deemed feminist regardless of the particular woman in question or the uniqueness of her circumstances. Whether the adjective "feminist" is a badge of honor or a scarlet letter depends on the speaker, but we are on the same page about this: the way the cards are stacked, vengeance is male domain. Women who trespass are committing a feminist act. And for those who deem feminism wrong, such attempts to regulate themselves demand regulation. No wonder why so many critiques of Rihanna's video are fixated on condemning her character's violence with, at best, lukewarm condemnation to the violence done to her character. These critiques also possess a willful blindness to the fact that victims of sexual assault who follow legal channels of justice rarely get any. On the contrary, they are raped over and over again by police, attorneys and courts. Consistent and swift Justice through our present system -- now that's the stuff of fantasy.

While I question whether emulating the vices of patriarchal men is a viable strategy for women to adopt, I am at peace with the label "feminist revenge fantasy" and the existence of narratives that earn it. (I have written a few myself.) It matters not to me if the men and women who create these narratives consider themselves feminist or not. As far as I’m concerned, if you're troubled by and want to put an end to feminist revenge fantasies, then do something to put an end to the objectification of women and the rape and assault culture it inspires.

Toward that end, I’m far more interested in discussions about how effective particular narratives are in depicting the root of that culture, the psychospiritual toll it takes and the strategies that both fail and liberate us. So here I offer five of my favorite feminist revenge fantasies on film. Each pushes the envelope in the vigilante genre in some way other than making the protagonist a woman. There's a depth in these movies that even Clint Eastwood can't fuck with.

1. Thelma and Louise

The first time I found myself in disagreement with bell hooks, it was over her vehement disdain for the ending of this film. She wanted the entire fantasy - for Thelma and Louise to get away - and I'm not mad at her for that. Nevertheless, Oscar-winning screenwriter Calle Khouri did not write a fantasy so for Thelma and Louise to make it to Mexico - as if misogyny's reach ends at the border - would have been incongruent with the realism conveyed throughout the entire movie. Still when asked by disappointed viewers why Thelma and Louise commit suicide, Khouri insists that they are misinterpreting the ending. Perhaps it's wrong of me to quibble with a fellow screenwriter about her own work, but I don't buy that precisely because I find the ending true to the story world that Khouri created. Our sheroes were given two choices: turn themselves in and face a lifetime of imprisonment or die in a hail of gunfire like Queen Latifah's Cleo later would in Set It Off. Thelma and Louise found a third way and gave patriarchy and its false choices the finger.

2. The Brave One

Almost twenty years after winning an Oscar for her portrayal of a working-class rape survivor who demands her day in court in The Accused, Jodie Foster stars in this mainstream film as a radio talk show host who goes on a killing spree after her fiance is beaten to death. I had never seen a film where a woman seeks vengeance for a violent crime against someone she loves before this one. Don't get it twisted though. The Brave One does more to freshen the vigilante genre than by just casting a woman as the lead. Unlike the average revenge film where the man goes on a mindless rampage and never questions the rightness of what he is doing, this is a character-driven story in which we see Foster's Erica Bain grapple with the complex emotions of being both victim and perpetrator. It's because of this I let the Hollywood ending slide.

3. Ms. 45

A proud barer of the feminist revenge fantasy label, this 1981 vigilante classic starring Zoe Lund remains controversial to this day. Some argue that it's not feminist at all. I would concede that it's a bit over the top for reasons I won't share in order to avoid spoilers. Just keep in mind that it's also supposed to be an exploitation flick and ask yourself if the protagonist had been a man would you be as strident in critique of its "extraness." In any event, Ms. 45 made my top five because Lund's Thana is a working-class woman with disabilities -- tell me how often do we see that!

4. Bandit Queen

While not without flaws, this film scores on many levels. Icing on the cake: it's based on a true story. You haven't seen gangster if you don't know the story of Phoolan Devi who not only avenged a brutal gang rape (that's right... she came for ALL them MFers), she went on be elected to office and nominated for a Nobel Prize. Devi was and remains a very controversial figure who brought suit against the filmmakers of Bandit Queen That just makes this movie even greater fodder for discussion, especially if you've read her story in her words in I, Phoolan Devi: Autobiography of the Bandit Queen as well as feminist discourse on her life and the film itself. It lends itself to conversations about retaliatory versus revolutionary violence, intersectionality (because to some Devi was an Indian Robin Hood whose actions were as much a statement about caste as well as gender), and much more.

5. Descent
With films like Quentin Tarantino's Deathproof and Frank Miller's Sin City, Rosario Dawson is no stranger to playing women who kick sexist ass. That said, you still don't know the depth of her acting chops and feminist politics until you see Descent.

The title refers to just how far Dawson's character Maya sinks after a date rape. Her performance proves she is far more talented than many of her roles suggest, and writer/director Talia Lugacy deftly interweaves some race and class analysis that is rarely seen in movies about sexual assault. Both rapes -- the initial crime and the retaliatory act -- are extremely difficult to watch as they should be. This is no exploitation flick that eroticizes sexual assault or depicts violence so cartoonish it can be dismissed (like the vigilante cult classic I Spit On Your Grave.) As hard as it is, we should watch and discuss Descent right down to the final shot on Dawson's face that leaves no question as to whether vengeance is as sweet as Maya had hoped.

Listen to Rosario Dawson discuss rape, revenge and Descent here.

* One notable exception is the 1996 film Sleepers based on the book of the same name, starring a high-wattage cast that includes Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, Kevin Bacon, Robert DeNiro and the late Brad Renfro. After a prank turns into tragedy, four boys are sent to a juvenile correctional facility where they are ritually abused by the guards. Years later when two of the men stand trial after murdering one of their abusers, the other two conspire to fix the trial. Author Lorenzo Carcaterra insists that Sleepers was not a novel but based on true events in his life. Entities such as the Catholic Church and the New York State Department of Correction dispute his claims.

Have you seen any of these films? What do you think of them? What others would you add to this list?


Marcus Croom said...

Thank you for introducing me to this genre of writing and film. I think your analysis of this issue is excellent. I plan to check out the films you recommend. All the best to you.

@SugarKovalczyk said...

Great commentary! I hope someone sent a link to Rihanna, let her know she's not alone.

Also a very good movie you may want to add to your list is "Extremities",

Unknown said...

@Marcus I'm glad you enjoyed the post and appreciate you're leaving a comment to let me know. Whenever you watch any of these movies, do return and tell me what you think.

Unknown said...

@Sugar Thank you! I think it's important for women to know that when they resist, they continue a legacy. And, yes... EXTREMITIES which was first a play then a film. Thank you for reminding me of it! Farrah Fawcett was making a name for herself as a serious actress when she did both after leaving the show CHARLIE'S ANGELS. Remember her turn in the made-for-television movie THE BURNING BED? You've inspired me to go add them to my Nextflix queue so I can rewatch them! :-)

Jackie G. said...

I came this way via Mark Anthony Neal's blog and just wanted to say that I really enjoyed what you had to say in your post.

I wanted to bring your attention Helen Zahavi's book, Dirty Weekend. Apparently there was a movie version made but I haven't seen it. The book is worthy of a mention because it's about a woman who, after steady and escalating harassment, decides she no longer wants to be a victim and goes on a killing spree.

I found a brief interview with Zahavi and she talks about writing Dirty Weekend. What I hadn't known is that she herself had experienced a high level of harrassment from a neighbor: morning I woke up and something went "click" inside my head. I stared up at his window and thought: Why am I frightened of him? Why isn't he afraid of me? For the first time in my life, I began to imagine myself as a perpetrator, not a potential victim. It was liberating, cathartic, a complete change of consciousness. I began to write down what I wanted to do to him, and that became the basis of my first novel, "Dirty Weekend"

That's pretty significant; the moment when a woman decides 'enough' and then takes steps to rectify the problem. I'm not surprised that taking those steps gets labeled as feminist. What turns things on their head is when a woman who is not seen as 'feminist' - i.e. pretty, seen to be benefiting from what the patriarchy deems to give, whatever - when that kind of woman says 'enough', then there's outrage - how dare you see yourself as a person willing to save yourself by any means necessary.

Unknown said...

@ Jackie. Thank you so much for telling me about DIRTY WEEKEND. That sounds right up my alley. It seems like the film is hard to find, but I'll try.

And you make an important point -- are there certain women for whom this is a more egregious decision than others. It goes to the stereotypes of who people think can be a feminist, and how that plays into the bad rap that feminism gets. Even as I was writing this piece I began to wonder what if there was a film where a male protagonist sought to avenge the rape of a woman. Is that feminist? What if he was raped? Is that feminist? If he "regulated" multiple rapists out of an explicit solidarity with the women in the fight against violence, would that make it a feminist revenge fantasy or merely a vigilante flick?

I think I may have an idea for new screenplay or novel! :-)

Nothando Harriet Majoni said...

thank u so much for such a great commentary i really think its awesome coz unfortunately here in Zimbabwe law enforcement can rape girls ad nothing happens i hope someone sent a link to rihanna she most definately is preaching a strong message that needs to be held plus another good movie is you may want to add on your list is "Enough" i think so many people treat this subject so lightly its so sad you've definately found an avid follower of u thank u so much God Bless u and i wish u much happiness and fulfilment in life.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Nothando, especially for sharing with us what happens in Zimbabwe. We need to exchange these stories. Just last week here in NYC, two police officers were acquitted for raping a woman. Also, there's a new phenomenon in North America that's causing a lot of debate among feminists called SlutWalk. I mention it because it was inspired by a Toronto police officer remarking to two women that if they did not want to be raped, they should not dress like sluts.

Interesting that you mention the film ENOUGH. I reference it in my novel PICTURE ME ROLLIN'. Two young women who are vying for the same man -- one who has abused both of them even as he pit them against each other - begin to bond over watching the film. One asks the other if she thought she had it in her to proactively put an end to the abuse by conspiring then committing murder of her abusive. The one who is being asked has a mother in prison, and she was incarcerated for killing an abusive boyfriend.

And that's an increasing phenomenon here in the U.S. The female prison population is growing at a record pace, and a big part of this increase is the number of women who are being imprisoned for killing abusive partners. So in this nation where women relatively have so many freedoms, women are held accountable for doing for themselves what they system failed to do -- protect them.

I think ENOUGH has its problems, but it definitely fits in this genre. It's certainly fantasy because in real life, Slim would not have gotten away with it. And that would be an interesting thing to discuss: how fitting the label "fantasy" is because the reality would be much different. Some people who are critical of Rihanna's video have stated that it should've shown the real consequences of her action. Yet there is very little discussion of the fact that the rapist's lack of consequences before he's murdered is accurate!

@SugarKovalczyk said...

It's being reported in the news that as many as 4 women are being raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo every 5 minutes.

To make matters worse not only are the men not being brought to justice but the rape victim is subjected to such societal abuse that they sometimes marry their attacker to avoid repercussions/stigma as reported in this news article:

New Laws Have Little Impact on Sexual Violence in DRC

Evan said...

Thank you for writing this blog. I would like to add to your list of revenge films. Quentin Tarantino's films,
Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2. I've seen these films so many times. I remember the first time I saw Volume 2 and how I felt at the end of the movie. I was like, whoa..he made a film about a mom. For me, the whole thing was about revenge yes. It was something the main character chose, she was good at it. She was trained for it. She was the best. What sets it off is when she finds out she is pregnant and she's going to be a mom. The decision to do what she thinks is right for her child, taking her life into her own hands, and not being a part of her lover's world anymore prompts him to murder her because he was hers. To him she belonged to him. His feelings were hurt and he decided that she had to pay with her life. She ends up killing a lot of people to get to him but get to him she does. She does what she sets out to do.
I really love the films. They are filmed brilliantly. You know you are watching a creation, a fantasy, a made up story. It is violent and funny and engaging and a love letter to women from my perspective.

Unknown said...

@Evan. Although I occasionally have issues with Tarantino's race and gender politics, I can't get enough of KILL BILL. Like THE BRAVE ONE, KILL BILL is one of those rare vigilante films with a female protagonist who is motivated by something other than assault on her. Watching KILL BILL reminds me of ALIENS in that you see mothers stopping at nothing to protect their children. Ripley's battle against the alien is one of mother against mother. Even more interesting, Ripley's "daughter" Newt was not even her biological child. That film was far more progressive than I realized. :-)

Our conversation does make me wonder if there are any films where the female protagonist avenges the death or assault of a loved one where she herself is not assaulted. It's been a while I since I saw THE BRAVE ONE, but I'm pretty sure that she was beaten as well (although not sexually assaulted.) I wonder if they did that because the filmmakers wanted Erin to be motivated more by her fiance's murder than her own assault. That is, had she also been raped, it would've been less conceivable that her desire for revenge would've not been more about her violation.

In other words, I'm wondering if filmmakers believe that audiences will not buy that a woman can be motivated for vengeance strictly by the violation of their loved ones. That is, she, too, must be personally brutalized somehow. And yet there is some reason why they stop short at raping the female lead. I'd like to think that it might be a sensitivity to sexual assault. There's so few films of this type though to speculate.

Meanwhile, if you look at television, sexual assault is an excessively used plot point. I remember the police show that raped its female lead TWICE during the show's run. In fact, I think the actress -- who herself was playing a cop -- might have threatened to leave or actually did leave the show because of the writers' decision to rape her character yet again.

Unknown said...

Did a little research and I found it!

The police show HUNTER starring Fred Dryer and Stephanie Kramer had a controversial two-part episode in the second season called "Rape and Revenge." Stephanie Kramer's character Lt. Dee Dee McCall is raped in her own home by a diplomat's son. This was trailblazing for night-time television (after all, daytime soaps are constantly raping their female characters!)

Then the writers wanted to do a storyline about a serial rapist in the fourth season that included having McCall raped again. Kramer threatened to leave the show if the storyline wasn't changed. The compromise reached was that the serial rapist would attempt to rape McCall, but she would succeed in fighting him off.

Gisella M said...

The movie "Run, Bitch Run" (I know, silly title) is another rape revenge movie. It's a throwback to the 70's exploitation films. If you have Netflix, you might wanna check it out. It doesn't feature the best acting, and because it's an exploitation style movie, you can expect over the top silliness. "Irreversible" is another well known rape revenge movie, but the rape scene is an uncomfortable 10 minutes long.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Gisella, for the RUN, BITCH, RUN suggestion. Keeping in mind the exploitation context, that might actually be a "fun" movie to watch. As for IRRESISTIBLE, I've been resisting that one because I did hear that the rape scene is not only long and realistic. But I've also heard it's a good film to watch with respect to the craft of filmmaking.

Marcus Croom said...

And I'm back.

I saw "Thelma and Louise," "Descent," and "The Burning Bed" so far. The question that came to mind was "where is black culture represented as it relates to this issue and this genre?" Rosario Dawson is certainly a black woman to me, but even in her film the guy involved was white. (When the brother popped up at the end, wooow. I was speechless. Didn't see that one coming!)

Let me be clear, I'm not trying to soil black culture by dragging it into a filthy crime. But I do think that real black women and real black men have stories that relate to this genre. I'd love to see that someone from a black cultural experience can see themselves in this genre for how it can aid them, not to glorify rape and revenge of rape.

Obviously, black people are not stupid and can find their own meaning without a black cast or a culturally black setting, but since we are humans too, I'd love to see the full range of our humanity represented. Don't let black folk only be represented as good or only be represented as evil in film! We are full human beings capable of the full range of vice and virtue. Further, for as much as film can be beneficial to real, black life, film makers who benefit from our dollars should portray stories that take our humanity seriously.

Finally, I came across a Korean film trilogy that relates to this genre: "Oldboy," "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," and "Lady Vengeance" directed by Chan-wook Park.

See? Where is our representation in this human experience?

Thanks again

rainsinger said...

Thanks, I have seen all but 'Descent', although I have heard of it. I also have a listing of women's revenge flicks at:

Anonymous said...

What about Hard Candy. Watched it the other day, even though it's not a new release and it blew me away. Amazing performances and a many interesting twists to the revenge story line.

Unknown said...

Anonymous, I saw HARD CANDY for the first time last year, and yes, it's amazing. Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson give fantastic performances. It's the kind of film I would hope to write.