Since the Harvey Weinstein story broke in late 2017, #MeToo has dominated the cultural dialogue, with a record number of women speaking out about sexual assault and harassment this year. While the reckoning that ensured has rippled through Hollywood and beyond, onscreen the patriarchy has been deposed by a violent matriarchy. In many of the movies and TV shows that came out this year, there was an uptick of angry, female protagonists wreaking revenge on their male abusers.
Kickass ladies in pop culture aren’t new, exactly. But on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Alias from the 90s and early 2000s, for example, there were extenuating, often magical, circumstances to explain a heroine’s proficiency with a crossbow or whatever. The warrior women of 2018, by contrast, largely used force as a means of defense or to enact revenge.
There’s a good chance this trend is partly Hollywood executives cashing in on the trendiness of feminism. But the legion of vengeful women in pop culture this year also felt like the result of decades of pent-up anger, and watching them offered collective catharsis. Here are a few of the movies and TV shows featuring violent femmes that we enjoyed this year:
This movie, which came out in September, is about four teenage friends being literally hunted by bigots and misogynists, who think one of the girls hacked their whole town and posted everyone’s nudes as revenge porn. It’s loosely based on the Salem witch trials, which, okay, is probably the most obvious example of a time in American history when women were falsely accused of being evil and killed for it.
But the movie is chock-full of details to make sure you know it’s timely, from drug and hookup culture to social media jargon. That said, the girls at the heart of the movie—Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, Abra, and Odessa Young—seem real, mostly relatable, and good at heart. So watching them turn the tables on their attackers and spill blood to retaliate for injustice is thrilling, even though it’s obviously souped up for shock value.
Widows is full of similar themes, with men who wrong their wives meeting gruesome ends. The first time this happens is in the film’s opening action, with a heist gone wrong and the four men involved dying in a fiery shootout. Director Steve McQueen makes the camera linger on the massive explosions and bullet-ridden bodies. The audience has already learned that one man beats his wife, while another has gambled away the family store. Their gruesome deaths feel like justice served.
Then there’s the robbery the widowed wives decide to pull off to clear their husbands’ debts. It’s a complex undertaking that requires weeks of preparation and training. There’s no magical montage where each woman becomes an ass-kicking sharp shooter overnight. We’re treated to scene after scene where the characters learn the skills they need for the job by putting in hard work (and often flying by the seats of their pants). It’s a realistic sort of badassery, and it’s refreshing.
By the film’s climactic standoff, between one of the wives and her not-so-dead husband, the women of Widows have earned their action stardom. They’re survivors who’ve learned how to stand up for and protect themselves and each other.
The Handmaid’s Tale
The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale picked up where Margaret Atwood’s novel left off, so no matter where the writers decided to take the story next, it was bound to be divisive. The chief criticism, however, had to do with how brutal the series became. Season two contained a lot of violence towards women, true—fingers being amputated as punishment for reading, death by drowning as a result of infidelity. But notably, this batch of episodes also contained a whole lot of violence inflicted by women—like the bombing of a state-built maternity center, and an Aunt being shivved in the ribs. Just like Atwood’s original, nothing in the second season was fabricated without a real world precedent, and the amped-up violence felt eerily appropriate this year, when Trump era policies seem more and more dystopian.
Suspiria and the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Two witch-centered stories had scenes where women with magical powers inflict pain on men who more-or-less deserve it. In Suspiria, several members of the coven hypnotize a wayward policeman, strip him naked, and do unpleasant things to his tender parts with a scary-looking hook—just for kicks. Later, the psychiatrist Josef Klemperer is made to bear witness to a gory massacre, though his memory of the carnage is later wiped clean.
In the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the Weird Sisters, a trio of adoptive sister-witches, enjoy luring young men into their town’s coal mine and scaring the shit out of them (or worse). It’s indicated that torturing men is a form of entertainment for these witches, which the show conveys as an allegory for dismantling the patriarchy.
The carnage Elizabeth (Keri Russell) inflicted on The Americans was mostly part of her job: a grisly price to pay for serving the motherland. But her motivations evolved throughout the series. Elizabeth was raped while training for the KGB, and though she never gets revenge herself (her husband takes care of that) she teaches her daughter to fight as a way of protecting her from a similar fate.
While many reviewers lumped this film in with the "rape/revenge" thrillers of the 70s, there's a lot more going on in this powerful, bloody action flick. For one thing, it doesn't lean into torture porn tropes, which reduce women to objects of male violence. The audience doesn't actually see the main character being raped, but when she miraculously survives a murder attempt and begins hunting her male attackers, we're treated to every single bloody detail of their demise.
The gore in Revenge isn't superfluous, it feels earned and necessary. The same can be said of many films and TV shows from this year that feature vengeful women: the carnage is rarely just for kicks. It's a last resort, a means of protection, and a reaction to the instigations of violent men.
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