Femme Vigilante Chic: Politics, Revenge, and Fashion
Vulnerability can be a major theme across movie genres. Dramas, comedies, sci-fi, horror, thrillers, and westerns often use this element to add dimensionality to characters and generate audience sympathy for them. Though generally buried beneath storyline and persona, this trait underlines most movies as the internal point of contention and/or the outcome of a physical threat that launches and defines the protagonist’s journey. But despite its subtle, omnipresent workings, there is one subgenre that defines itself by exposing vulnerability stark naked and raw, visibly tackling it head-on: the revenge film. And within that group, few offer a more direct pay-off to the injustices that create this condition than the female revenge story.
“Revenge is never a straight line. It's a forest. And like a forest, it’s easy to lose your way.” Kill Bill vol. 1 (2003)
The female revenge drama has had an audience at least dating back to ancient Greece with Euripides’ play Medea (431 B.C.). In cinema, the theme appeared as early as the silent era with movies like Charles Bryant’s Salome (1923) and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924). Such movies continued to periodically appear thereafter, but it was not until the 1970s that they hit their height of popularity with a spate of films known as rape-revenge movies, the most popular of which being Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972). It was during this time that a global ubiquity of interest blossomed, with female revenge films being made internationally: Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (1973), the Toei Company’s Pinky Violence series, Australia’s Snapshot (1979) and Fair Game (1986), and India’s Pratighaat (1986). The legacy has persisted to this day via commercially successful filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino with his Kill Bill vol. 1 (2003) &2 (2004) and Death Proof (2007) and Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance (2005) continuing to breathe life into the theme.
But what is the allure? Philosophically speaking, ethics has been mostly inflexible on this point since Plato’s Republic: Vengeful action may be right in seeking retribution, but it is not just. Moral philosophers claim that justice can only come through a system of law that impartially removes the personal as to insure equal though humane retribution. Revenge is irrational, an act of passion. But in the cinema of revenge, that indulgence in emotion, even when cruelly executed, is fulfilling both to the on-screen revenge-seeker and to the audience. As entertainment spectacle, vengeance becomes rebellious, satisfying, and necessary - especially as nearly all revenge-hungry female characters begin as disempowered. This usually occurs within a social-legal system that offers unsatisfactory, if any, support. The social system itself is sometimes the victimizer which the individual femme vigilante must tackle.
“You want to spit on me and make me crawl? I’m gonna piss on your grave tomorrow.” Coffy (1973)
In many of these films, the protagonist represents some aspect of women’s issues. In I Spit on Your Grave (1978), the progressive feminist is taking on a community of regressive, conservative men who believe women exist to be objectified without challenge. Coffy (1973) depicts a working-class black woman confronting the toxic drug world infecting urban communities in an uphill battle that takes her from pushers to traffickers to corrupt cops & congressmen. Ms. 45 (1981) is the story of a woman-child coming of age, pushed to the limit of her endurance of unwanted male attention, an abuse every woman has learned to be the burden of her gender. Carrie (1976), another coming of age meets revenge story, is a fantastical morality tale urging against bullying and arguably advocating for diversity. They Call Her One-Eye (1973) takes a profound anti-porn, anti-exploitation of sex workers statement, aided by its unusual use of disturbing interruptions of the plot with graphic close-ups of sexual penetration paired with maddening buzzer sounds. In Hard Candy (2005), a young woman decides to use her youthful appearance to seduce, toy with, and destroy pedophiles. And while Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) may not have been conceptualized as a female revenge story, it ultimately becomes one, as the lead actress becomes a stand-in for a disenfranchised middle-class youth culture taking charge of the battle against tyranny by utilizing her attractiveness to infiltrate the white male power hierarchy with the intent to destroy it. As different as each film may be in its social critique, there are a few surface factors that unify the bunch. A prominent recurrence is that in nearly every femme vigilante film the protagonists tend to be drop-dead gorgeous, and often remarkably fashionable despite their circumstances. And though they are ruthless and vicious, the ladies somehow manage to capture sympathy. It is perhaps this sugary veneer of style that renders such brutality attractive. “There’s a thin line of blood between love and hate.” Lady Snowblood (1973)
There is a psychology at work here that is simultaneously sophisticated and basic. There is something undeniably attractive about helplessness, as vulnerability is the gateway to intimacy. And once that affinity is established, it gets flipped. The dominated becomes the dominator, with the subsequent empowerment equal to if not greater than her former disempowerment. This sympathetic situation counters the moral questionability of her actions. Somehow the transformation is never disturbing; it’s badass. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” The Hateful Eight (2015) One of the most consistently popular American filmmakers of today, Quentin Tarantino, has a filmography that can be read in total as a single song: a spiraling exploration of revenge. Though not a female revenge story proper, his latest movie, The Hateful Eight, is the culmination of his passion for vengeance tales and functions as a sort of cinematic Rosetta Stone, translating the pulp into philosophy. His ultimate message is that revenge may not be ethical, but it sure is satisfying. And if it’s the only pathway to justice, then it’s the one to take. But there is something lacking there. The best revenge movies are alchemical. The vulnerability and politics metamorphose via vengeance into redemption.
Time and time again, the female revenge movie is brazenly political. Each serves as a psychological victory of sorts, providing the audience with the gratification that comes from the femme vigilante’s triumph, even though she is often destroyed in the process. And this vicarious satisfaction tastes sweet, especially during periods of social and political upheaval. The viewer becomes a stand-in for the frustrated victim who has been done wrong, and with each act of vengeance, justice is served to the audience. The way that global social, political, and economic unrest is coming to a head, the cultural consciousness will likely be giving birth to a new wave of revenge cinema sometime soon.
Death Proof (2007)
Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924)
Fair Game (1986)
Hard Candy (2005)
I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Kill Bill vol. 1 (2003) &2 (2004)
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
Lady Snowblood (1973)
Ms. 45 (1981)
Pinky Violence movies (1970s)
They Call Her One-Eye (1973)
Zabriskie Point (1970)