Men like Nietzsche, Gandhi, and Socrates were pop culture’s original gatekeepers. If those philosophers were so insistent on convincing us that vengeance is such an empty thing that they tripped over each other to pen dramatic warnings about graves digging themselves and wounds festering, well, revenge must feel pretty damn good, right? Watching it play out on screen certainly does, and there’s no shortage of movies that trade on the entertainment value of getting even. The thing is, we need more. A lot more. And from a feminine perspective.
What began as an exercise in 70s horror exploitation with movies like I Spit On Your Grave and Lipstick has morphed into a narrative model with more than just violent delights and violent ends to its name. Revenge movies now have something to say, not only about the cruel, animalistic nature of mankind but of the evolving meaning of arbitrary concepts like “right” and “wrong.” A good revenge movie causes us to question, contemplate, and contend with our collective humanity and the systems in place that are meant to – but don’t necessarily succeed in – upholding it.
Promising Young Woman is a perfect example. When writer/director Emerald Fennell tells the story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a 30-something college dropout so consumed by grief after her friend Nina commits suicide that she doles out a tame method of vigilante justice on men who make sport of violating women the same way Nina once was, it’s more than fulfillment fantasy, it’s a form of protest. Not just against societal views of women that cling to life through generations like cockroaches, but against the systems in place that make it easy for perpetrators to move past their transgressions and impossible for their victims to do the same. Cassie isn’t brandishing weapons or planning elaborate schemes to punish the men who hurt Nina — not at first. Instead, she’s reveling in the sense of invincibility her simmering rage often feeds. She doesn’t fall into the stereotypes that regularly plague women’s revenge stories, eschewing the idea that a woman must be battered or scorned to deserve a chance at retribution. And she’s certainly no man — protected by plot armor and a sense of ego-stroking righteousness in his crusade against some bad apples tarnishing his gender’s on-screen reputation. She’s just a woman who is fed up and is finally doing something about it.
That Fennell never depicts violence against women, instead focusing on Cassie’s quest for revenge and trusting audiences to understand how violating and traumatizing Nina’s experience was – not just for her but for those who loved her most – is one of the most important elements of the film. Promising Young Woman never glorifies the torment that often serves as a catalyst for women’s revenge stories. Instead, Fennell invites us to enjoy watching “nice guys” reap what they sow before leaving us with a compelling idea about justice – who it’s meant for, who it actually serves, and what we’re willing to risk to get it.
Whatever reactions the film’s controversial ending sparked in audiences, just the idea that we were left thinking about the ways revenge stories have often failed women and wondering how we were meant to feel about Cassie’s final act shows how much progress we’ve made when it comes to these kinds of movies.
For a long time, women could only get revenge if they “earned it” through suffering, and only if it somehow propped up the performative machismo that made men feel better about watching it play out on screen.
One of the most prolific subsets of the revenge genre that serves as an example of this is the idea of the “rape and revenge” movie, a narrative blueprint that required female characters to experience life-altering trauma so that male characters could play their savior. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, in Michael Winner’s Death Wish, women bear the brunt of the pain that spurs the men in their lives to later inflict it – normally on two-dimensional thugs portrayed as outcasts and criminals motivated by insanity or psychopathy. The daughters and wives who are beaten, raped, and humiliated in these early, horror-forward revenge films served as sadistic, symbolic window dressing – a cautionary tale that would further misogynistic ideas about sexual assault and a woman’s responsibility in it — and a kind of propaganda for the ultramasculine, meant to bulk up men’s ego and enshrine specific gender roles. Women got to play distressed damsels, men their unflappable saviors, and white knight syndrome continued to haunt what could’ve been a transformative period on screen for strong female characters.
Was it entertaining to watch the villains of these films suffer, sometimes in ways worse than their female victims? Duh. Vengeance activates the reward circuitry in the brain, no matter the gender of who wields it. But looking back on those movies, and the ones they inspired – we’re getting to you, Liam Neeson, hold on – we’re left with a feeling that revenge on film could be so much more.
That critique isn’t meant literally – those movies didn’t need more blood, more savagery, more machine gun ballets – but that’s what Hollywood heard when it revived the revenge genre in the aughts. It gave Neeson’s gruff, overprotective father figure a specific set of skills, sending him overseas to rescue his naïve young daughter and annihilate an underground sex trafficking ring in the process. It killed John Wick’s dog, spurring Keanu Reeves into a depressive rage cycle where he dispatched professional hitmen with ease – and an emotionless stare. It transformed Denzel Washington’s middle-aged hardware store employee into a killing machine so proficient, he can take down the Russian mob in Boston with just a nail gun and an exhaust pipe.
There were a few exceptions to the status quo, films like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 – an homage to Lady Snowblood, another 70s revenge film with a woman at its center – that tasked women with kicking ass in the name of vengeance instead, but even those stylized feminist fantasies had lingering edges of the male gaze. (And it’s hard to tout Tarantino’s commitment to spotlighting violent anti-heroines when you know the cost actress Uma Thurman paid for it behind the wheel of that convertible.)
When revenge movies drifted further from their horror beginnings, and eschewed action-adventure for the teen comedy route, that’s when they began to have substance – at least in the eyes of the women watching them. Heathers angst-ridden body count, Mean Girls queen bee coup, girls belonging to disparate high school cliques banding together to orchestrate the downfall of a serial cheating school jock in John Tucker Must Die – these revenge movies relished the dramatics raging hormones often fuel and wielded them in service of empowerment stories that carried surprisingly progressive messaging. Even a film as divisive as Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body – a movie marketed to teenage boys but clearly dedicated to the girls they often torment and wrong – pushed this iteration of the revenge movie forward. When Amanda Seyfried’s character berates her demonically-possessed friend for “killing people,” only for Megan Fox to exasperatingly respond, “No, I’m killing boys,” that wasn’t just a culture shift, it was a big bang moment for how far women could now take their murderous impulses on-screen, without feeling guilty for it.
In French director Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, Jen is a sugar baby stereotype who survives a sexual assault, an attempted assassination, and a relentless chase through the desert only for the filmmaker to flip the lens. Instead of lingering on depicting Jen’s trauma, Fargeat lets audiences gaze at the males she’s now hunting down for revenge, through the gun sight Jen has aimed at their naked, flailing bodies desperately trying to survive her savagery. And in Netflix’s Do Revenge, it’s the ending director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson gives this teen revenge refresh that feels a bit revolutionary. Instead of repenting and changing their ways, making amends to those they’ve hurt, and touting forgiveness as the best path forward the next time someone wrongs them, Drea (Camilla Mendes) and Eleanor (Maya Hawke) embrace the fact that they’re each other’s “fucked-up soulmates,” driving off into the sunset as their classmates deal with the fallout of their scheme.
When we say we want more female-driven revenge movies, this is what we mean – we want to see a world different from our own, where women take back their power (in whatever form they please) and revel in wielding it. That doesn’t necessarily equate to violence against men, but it does mean that women get to challenge the social structure men have put in place. One that says women can’t be predators because they must be protected. One that thinks masculinity is the only weapon worth wielding against injustice. One that allows women to be messy, complicated, unlikable beings to a point – but never far enough to truly appreciate the grotesque, depraved, morally deficient version of who they can be if given the right motivation. If pushed just a little too far.