What happens in cinema when you dare cross a woman in the sexual, emotional, or professional realms? And for “vengeful” women, what are the risks inherent in getting theirs: Exposure, humiliation, alienation, death? In some cases, is the biggest risk these women face actually getting what they want? Writers Chantal Braganza and Angelica Jade Bastién join founding editor Kiva Reardon to discuss titillation, isolation and empowerment in Serial Mom, American Mary, Hard Candy, Jackie Brown and Leave Her to Heaven… plus a few more along the way. – the cléo editors
KR: Growing up, there was a DVD called Women Traveling Alone on my friend’s family movie shelf. We never watched it, and Google as I might, I can’t seem to find record of it (most likely, it was some bonus tape that PBS sent when you called in to donate during a telethon). But I remember that this DVD box triggered a warning system in me: the world is dangerous, and it’s dangerous because you’re a woman. As I kept watching movies—everything from True Lies to The Birds—this vision of the globe as inherently risk-filled for females was upheld. Even Disney, that supposed safe haven for parents monitoring their offspring’s media consumption, bases the plots of its films in kidnapping-cum-hostage holding (Beauty and the Beast) and poisoning (Snow White and Sleeping Beauty). Since I lived in a largely PG-dictated movie world, for the longest time I never saw women fighting back. Risk, it felt, was a given in both lived experience and narrative ends.
For me, this changed with Serial Mom (1994). Also watched on DVD at the same friend’s house (where we could sneak “illicit” age-inappropriate viewing), John Waters’ satirical comedy focused on a woman who was fed up and fucked up. And rather than the story hinging on precisely pinpointed revenge (retaliation for rape being a common theme in cinema), Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) kills people for small slights and social faux pas; her world as a suburban housewife is so small and constricted that these are the wrongs in her world that loom largest. Of course, at like, 11, I didn’t grasp all of these nuances (I just liked Beverly’s prank call sequence: “Isn’t this 4251 Pussy Way?”). But Serial Mom allowed me to build an alternative idea of a cinematic world, one where women risked revenge, even if the excuse was domestic boredom. Now that I’m thinking about it, in a way it feels like a precursor to David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), which I read (and wrote about [i]) as a satirical rom-com. But maybe we can loop back to that? I’m curious to talk about a different and definitely better-known genre of “women risking it films:” the rape/revenge movie. I can’t say I’ve ever been the biggest fan of these films, as they seem predicated on the idea that women can only risk it all once they’ve lost it all, a.k.a. their supposed purity.
AB: I tend to find rape revenge films, no matter how well done or feminist-minded, to feel at best like empty exercises in reconfiguring society’s worst beliefs about women—that our supposed purity (as you said, Kiva) is what should be most valued. At worst, these films can be pure, exploitative trash. Last year, I watched the Soska Sisters’ horror film American Mary (2012). The film follows Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle), a medical student preparing to become a surgeon who gets involved in performing extreme body modification to make money. When she’s raped by a former teacher, she carefully plans and exacts her revenge through forced, extreme body modification. She does everything from splitting his tongue to amputating his limbs. The lengths she goes to for vengeance are intended to be simultaneously triumphant and horrific.
Any sort of emotional narrative for Mary is undercut by the obsession with titillating imagery. The opening is pretty much just Mary dancing seductively, a scalpel in hand and blood trickling down her cleavage. Much of the imagery in the film echoes the opening, including the rape scene, by evoking the crossroads of sex and death, kink and abject horror. It probably won’t surprise you that Mary dies at the end by the hands of a man. This dynamic exists in a lot of rape revenge films, which begs the question: is it worth it for these women to try to get theirs and find catharsis? Are these films punishing women doubly, first with rape, and then by thwarting their desire for vengeance?
KR: This emphasis on titillating imagery, or “show, don’t tell,” is the crux of the issue in rape/revenge narratives, and I think that’s where a lot of the political potential is lost. Often rape scenes become stylized, even sexualized. (Think of that rape scene in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) where, mid-rape, Amy is portrayed as enjoying the assault.) What I struggle with, as a viewer and as a person, is negotiating to what degree the depiction of an assault is productive… and productive to whom? Not to get all film-schooly, but if we think about Vivian Sobchack and film as a phenomenological experience where our whole bodies are involved, watching violent encounters has the potential to trigger responses of vulnerability in viewers who might not experience that kind of risk (or even consider it). When I watch films that deal with assault—violent or sexual or both—that’s when I become the most aware of technique: how the film is framed, whose perspective the shot is adopting, when the camera cuts away and when it lingers. The politics reveal themselves in these choices.
CB: Another dynamic that seems to exist in a lot of rape/abuse revenge films is that the revenge endeavour is treated as a solo project. And it often is shown as a literal project: premeditated; involving preparation and, in many cases, training. In some movies the prep becomes its own visual hook or sub-plot: Uma Thurman’s apprenticeship in Kill Bill (2003, 2004); Jennifer Lopez’s cheesy Krav Maga sequence in Enough (2002).
In Hard Candy (2005), where Ellen Page exacts an in-kind vengeance on two adult men for sexually abusing and killing a young girl, that kind of premeditation is conspicuously absent, in that the film exclusively documents the execution of the revenge. Ellen’s character (Haley) catfishes a man, tortures him, and finally convinces him to take his own life. I remember being struck by the film for precisely that reason—the broader rationale for Haley’s actions is a constant presence in the film, but there isn’t a backstory specific to the character to quote-unquote justify her actions. The entire film was simply the exacting of some kind of justice, without personal reason or consequence.
KR: I’m glad you both brought up motivation (and I’m glad Chantal brought up Enough, because, go J-Lo). The trouble with so many rape/revenge films is how women are isolated from society—first by the assault (and the loss of their “purity”), then by their quest for revenge. The character is made into a double pariah. Plus, there’s something so limiting about the idea that the only thing a woman would fight back against is rape—like, we have a whole world of shit to revolt against! Two revenge films that stand out for rejecting this approach are Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both of which star Pam Grier. In Coffy, Grier plays a nurse who disguises herself as prostitute to kill off drug lords after her sister dies of an overdose. In Foxy Brown, she plays a woman who (again) disguises herself as prostitute to (again) kill off gangsters who’ve murdered her man.
Although in both cases the motives for revenge are directly related to Grier’s characters’ personal lives, they also speak to broader issues including drugs, addiction, and racism. Because the films were so transparent in their exploitative nature (they’re called Sexploitation and Blaxploitation films, after all), the social politics come right to surface; Foxy Brown even features a scene showing a black community group rallying to protect their neighbourhood from drugs and poverty. Grier eventually gets nude and gets her revenge, but because the film frames her actions within a larger context, her solo battle resonates with a broader social movement. In other words, she’s not seeking revenge because of an isolated act of violence, but because of a system that allows these acts of violence to happen.
CB: Not that it’s a competition, but can we crown Pam Grier as Reina of the Revenge Movie, pleeeeease? [Ed. Note: Yes. Yes we can.] That’s such a good point, Kiva, about motivation in Coffy and Foxy Brown. Even Jackie Brown (1997), which plot-wise reverts to the done-wrong-by motive for Grier’s quest, still pulls off the feeling that the risk (Jackie double-crossing both the police and her former gun-runner boss, who’s trying to kill her) is, in fact, worth the reward of freedom. Freedom from the people she’s double-crossed, who would either incarcerate or kill her for trying to supplement her flight attendant income; freedom from poverty, from the hell that L.A. has become. Also—Max Cherry’s (Robert Forster) silent crush on Jackie as he helps her pull off the whole operation is one of the sweetest things on film, ever.
AB: I’m trying to think of films besides Jackie Brown that show women getting exactly the payoff they were looking for? Certain femme fatales come to mind, like Kathleen Turner’s Matty in Body Heat (1981), Amy in Gone Girl, and, to some extent, Ellen (Gene Tierney) in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). This last example stars a femme fatale so obsessed with control and fuelled by jealousy that she kills herself to frame someone. Similar to how Kiva described Gone Girl, Leave Her to Heaven is a cynical take on marriage and obsession. Ellen may feel justified in killing herself (her framing scheme ultimately doesn’t work), but I’m not sure what to make of her decision and how that figures into the larger narrative of femme fatales and vengeance. If rape revenge films require women to be isolated victims to get what they want, this specific kind of film noir that Leave Her to Heaven and Gone Girl require women to be evil, and at times lacking in any humanity.
Just how egregious does the offense have to be to merit revenge, and what does a villain have to look like?
CB: You’ve both made so many brilliant points about the rape-revenge movie genre that it feels like there’s little to add! Except maybe this small thing: sometimes, more so than the choice to actually show the act of rape (and the choices a filmmaker makes in the depiction of the act), what troubles me about this genre is its participation in creating a violent definition of what rape is and what “kinds” of rape are worth avenging. Movies like Straw Dogs, Last House on the Left (1972) or I Spit on Your Grave (1978) make the perpetrators almost cartoon-like in their villainy and abuse of women, as if such lengths are necessary to convince the audience that these people are truly evil enough to deserve a woman’s vengeance. Without detracting from the fact that such violence does exist in real life, something about the need to set up rape-revenge narratives this way rings slightly false for me. In life, we know that rape does not always work or look this way, that the grand majority of the time it is committed by people known to survivors—sometimes close to them—and often in circumstances that mainstream culture has long labelled as “grey areas.” Just how egregious does the offense have to be to merit revenge, and what does a villain have to look like?
Going back to this idea of revenge being an isolating endeavour, I’m curious about the solo and group dynamics in women’s revenge films. This might say more about my own adolescence, but high school is the first setting that comes to mind when I think of this genre. There seems to be a convention in young revenge narratives that the exactor(s), even when starting as a group, end up alone at some point. Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer in Heathers (1998) doesn’t really exact revenge on anyone until she realizes her co-conspirator (Christian Slater) is a major problem in her life, and there’s a similar arc in The Craft (1996) and, to some extent, Mean Girls (2004).
AB: I never paid much attention to how isolating the quest for vengeance is for women, but that’s an incredibly interesting point. With a movie like The Craft, the solo dynamic infuriates me for a lot of reasons. Stories about witchcraft and that tender state of becoming known as teen girlhood have the potential to empower in their approach to the interpersonal dynamics between women. But The Craft could never really convey the interiority of Nancy (the angry yet fragile powerhouse played by Fairuza Balk), and ultimately it frames her as a villain. The film has an oddly judgmental attitude overall towards young girls wanting vengeance for the racism they deal with, for having grown up abused and poor, or for beauty politics that leave them feeling powerless. The group dynamic fractures when Sarah (Robin Tunney) begins to feel that her friends are using magic for dark means. But a far more interesting story could be told about young girls whose use of magic brings them together and helps them find catharsis.
The Craft undercuts the feminism that can be found in witchcraft, both in pop culture and real life practice, by reaffirming that women trying to get what they want (no matter how justified) are taking a risk that they shouldn’t. Maybe this says a lot about me, but I always connected far more with Nancy, Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True), even though we’re meant to be following Sarah’s journey. Ultimately, the film’s message is that searching for power and catharsis and vengeance as a woman is not just fruitless but downright evil. Which is troubling…and I say this as someone who always gets a visceral thrill from watching this film.
CB: Angelica, you are soooooo right about The Craft. I’d definitely watch a prequel that only focused on Nancy’s back story.
AB: After discussing so many films where women are isolated by revenge, I’m trying to think of a film that shows women either starting and ending the film together or coming together because of a mutual quest for retribution. Weirdly, Death Becomes Her (1992) sort of works? Although it doesn’t have even a slightly happy ending. But despite the various ways the two leads try to exact vengeance upon each other, Madeline (Meryl Streep) and Helen (Goldie Hawn) end up inseparable due to their shared bitterness and inability to survive alone. Death Becomes Her is incredibly fun to watch (and happens to be one of the few instances I care for Meryl Streep as an actress at all). But it begs the question: Are we only able to construe female vengeance as either a campy parody of female power or a goal that’s ultimately not worth the risk?
KR: I’m struggling with how to wrap this all up because it feels like we’re only just scraping the surface! Especially this idea of “collective risk” and “collective revenge.” To me, this concept of the collective is where any potential for radical change is found. (Think Born in Flames (1983), which was written about in an earlier issue of cléo [ii].) For many folks risk isn’t a choice, and often the privilege of executing a “calculated risk” doesn’t exist. The idea of risking something together, however, creates conditions where vulnerability is reduced through support. And I also think this collective idea opens up space for more intersectionality. I guess what I want in some dream world is for feminism to be like a girl gang, where risk leads to change, and unlike so many cinematic depictions of risk-cum-revenge, we’re not punished for demanding change. And g-d forbid, maybe we could even have some fun along the way.
Angelica Jade Bastién is a pop culture critic/essayist based in Chicago who has written for The New York Times, Vulture, The Atlantic and RogerEbert.com.
Chantal Braganza is a writer and editor living in Toronto.
Kiva Reardon is the founding editor of cléo.