In 1924, Velma Kelly killed her adulterous husband and Roxie Hart shot her lying boyfriend. Both women ended up on Chicago’s murderess row, facing a gruesome public execution by hanging. But through sheer willpower, manipulation, and a little razzle dazzle, they found themselves acquitted of their crimes and back on vaudeville’s main stage. That’s the plot of the musical Chicago, the 2002 film adaptation of which turns 15 this month. One of the joys of watching a film like Chicago is that men are punished for the wrongs they’ve committed against the women who trusted them—vindication that’s rarely achieved in real life.
Niccolo Machiavelli once said, “Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared.” It’s ironic, perhaps, that a social critic known for seemingly endorsing the use of violence as a means to maintain power against the powerless could so succinctly deliver an indictment on how to aptly deal with the crimes of men—those who are biologically called men at birth and who wilfully use sexism and the patriarchy to strengthen not only their careers, but their own invincibility.
And so Kelly and Hart took it upon themselves to do something the law has, more often than not, failed to do; deliver justice against men who use, abuse, and dispose of women. Fifteen years later, such unhindered autonomy and boldness is rare to come across in film, with vengeance gendered as something men seek for honor and dignity and women only out of hysteria or lack of feeling.
In the film’s opening minutes, six of the women on death row deliver their defence in the court of public opinion, explaining the reasons for their incarceration with testimonies detailing interactions with men. No mental gymnastics are required to understand that, for these inmates, vindication was the only objective, with the absence of regret and the resounding and defiant chorus sounding: “He had it coming, he only had himself to blame. And if you’d been there. And if you’d seen it, I bet you, you would have done the same.”
One of the women fired two warning shots into her husband’s head for popping gum after requesting silence following a day’s work; another slipped arsenic in her partner’s drink after discovering he had six wives; another stabbed her verbally abusive boyfriend. “It was a murder, not a crime,” is the consistent thread running throughout the film, as the women repeat the sentiment that, although their actions were seemingly brutal, they were also justifiable.
Women are rarely allowed the chance to defend their actions when violence is involved. They’re expected to live quietly in the margins of conventional society, with the perceptions of womanhood and motherhood dictating that we are not only incapable of violence, but that committing violence is an unnatural act that goes against everything attached to society’s understanding of women.
In a patriarchal world, many abusive actions perpetrated by men against women have been normalized to the point of numbing the humiliation and blurring the line between right and wrong, supported by selective interpretations of the Christian way that’s upheld in ways that only serve to project white supremacy and sexism, while denying true accountability for one’s actions. For the past few months, the news cycle has been filled with news stories of men sexually harassing women. For Tarana Burke, the black woman who started the #METOO campaign, as well as the women who came forward with their stories, some form of vindication can be achieved from the exposure of these men’s crimes.
But unlike the women in Chicago, who chose to retaliate by choosing utter destruction, women of the real world will have to suffice with swift moments of shock and retribution, while bracing themselves for the inevitable return of their tormentors. In our world, men are allowed to repent and given the benefit of the doubt; in Hart and Kelly’s world, they chose to silence the men in their lives, making it so they’re the only people capable of retelling their recollection of events. Hart and Kelly made it possible for their own truth to be the only version heard, refusing to allow the men around them any kind of repentance or glory—even from beyond the grave.