MIXED MEDIA: PLOTTING REVENGE
Mother Jones|September/October 2021
Vengeance narratives offer a cathartic thrill. But what version of justice are they serving?
MADDIE OATMAN

ACT I

RAPE

HE HAS LURED her into his apartment, smeared her with cocaine, drenched her in opinions about Consider the Lobster as he inches closer to her on the futon. She is bleary-eyed, listless, her consonants soft at the edges. “I feel such a connection to you,” Neil assures her, before prying her bare legs apart with his hand. “I need a go home,” she says. “Noo, don’t go, stay,” he whispers, marking her neck with kisses. “Oh my god, you are so, so pretty.” “I need to go home,” she repeats, but instead his hands disappear under her skirt.

Then her eyes snap open. “Hey Neil,” she says, no longer drunk, her voice suddenly self-assured and lucid, her hand shooting out to grab his face: “I said I need to go home.”

If you’ve seen Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, you anticipated this sudden reversal. In several of the film’s opening scenes, ultra-feminine Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, tricks a random man into thinking she’s inebriated, follows along as he tries to hook up with her without her consent, and then 180s on him, abruptly casting off her intoxication to shame her would-be rapist in the act.

Her motivation trickles out as the film progresses: Cassie’s best friend, Nina, was raped while in medical school, causing her to drop out and then presumably to kill herself. After watching the man who assaulted Nina go unpunished, friends become complacent, and the school ignore the incident, Cassie steps into a new role: that of voracious avenger. Her ploys continue to escalate and become more destructive, riding the steady winds of her rage.

In Promising Young Woman, justice takes the form of the rape-revenge narrative, in which a character experiences or witnesses an act of sexual violence and then extracts vengeance on the perpetrator. The rape-revenge narrative has had a resurgence in recent years, as a sort of wish fulfillment for the #MeToo era. But the plot device is nothing new; it spawned a whole subgenre of exploitation films back in the 1970s, including the gory thriller I Spit on Your Grave, and continued to turn up in hundreds of movies over the decades. Rape-revenge films aren’t feminist, per se, but rather they represent the “way in which Hollywood can be seen to be making sense of feminism,” argues scholar Jacinda Read in her 2000 book, The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity, and the Rape-Revenge Cycle. The films resist broad characterization, notes Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the author of Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study. Taken as a whole, she wrote in an email, the films “articulate just how confused and hypocritical our broader attitudes to gendered violence and sexism in general are.”

Diverse as these stories may be, they tend to present a similar sequence of events, Read points out: rape, transformation of the victim, and then revenge. In several post-#MeToo iterations, the avenger targets not only a single perpetrator of rape, but rape culture more broadly. Such is the case in Promising Young Woman. Cassie unleashes on lascivious men, witnesses, lawyers, and school administrators—an entire network that legitimized her friend’s rape and others like it.

It’s also the case in Lisa Taddeo’s new novel, Animal. Taddeo made waves with her nonfiction book, Three Women, a masterful portrait of sexual desire and abuse. It’s as if she inhaled the cruelties her subjects endured in her first book and exhaled Animal’s protagonist, Joan. Taddeo told audiences at a May book event that while writing about “all the trauma, rage built up in me.” In Joan’s world, husbands always betray wives, and fathers their families; young women left alone fall prey to seedy men who are constantly circling. “Honestly, sometimes I think it’s the only recourse,” her friend Alice comments, “killing men in times like these.”

These stories offer a retributive vision of justice, the violence of the man mirrored back onto him. Traditional gender roles are flipped—the woman is the predator, and the man is the prey—but the basic shape of the conventional revenge story is unchanged. Witnessing women take revenge in film and fiction may offer a cathartic thrill, but the trope can also function as a trap; vengeance replicates the same power structure the avenger wishes to hold accountable.

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