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.
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?