A Year of Women’s Revenge

French poster for Lipstick (1972) [screengrab via IMDB]

A girl from a poor family falls prey to a man with power and wealth. The girl has little protection or recourse when he rapes her. Murder is her revenge. Her punishment is hanging.

A group of women, tired of being victimized by the men who employ them, band together to exact revenge, turning the power imbalance in their favor as they humiliate and rob the men.

The first story, written in 1891 by British novelist Thomas Hardy, is a literary classic. Tess of the D’Urbervilles expresses Hardy’s interest in capturing the cruelty of poverty and the sadism of an economic system wherein the poor are easily exploited and discarded by the rich. The second scenario is from the 2019 film Hustlers, which in some ways distills the same economic power imbalance. Hustlers is part of a subgenre in recent television and film focused on women getting even. The storyline of a #MeToo era wherein silence has been replaced with action, this new crop of works, often penned and/or directed by women, overturns a longstanding taboo: the justified, furious, cathartic rage of women out for justice. In 2019, women, it turns out, have a lot of be pissed off about: Trump, anti-choice legislation, unequal pay, Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, and more recently, the failure of the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards to select a single woman for a best director nomination in 2019 and 2020—while increasing numbers of women directors are entering an industry founded on male points of view.

Book cover of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’urbervilles, first published in 1891, 2016 © Centaur Editions [screengrab from Amazon]

Movie poster for film Hustlers

Hustlers, promotional poster, 2019 [screengrab from IMDb]

Film has always trafficked in tales of women’s revenge. In film history, however, such tales have often belonged to a cycle of rape-revenge films that became a genre unto themselves in the 1970s exploitation-film trend written about by scholars including Carol Clover and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. Such films as I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Lipstick (1976), Ms. 45, (1981) and The Last House on the Left (1972) often trafficked in gratuitous depictions of the rape itself and often featured fathers, husbands, or boyfriends—as well as vengeful women—avenging the rape. The very idea of women’s rage confounds our social expectations that women be docile, complacent, and well-behaved. And its corollary of revenge—rage tied to action—suggests hidden reserves of motivation that cast women in a new, even troubling, light. The urge for revenge suggests that there are untapped reserves of repressed women’s rage, and a taste for payback normally associated with men who have been wronged.

As author Heller-Nicholas affirms of the long film tradition of rape-revenge films, their origin lies in the way rape itself is perceived. “While there’s all sorts of reasons why women—or anyone—might seek revenge, that the legal origins of rape are as a property crime (it was seen as ‘damaging’ something belonging to another man) starts to give us insight into the invisibility of women and their desire not simply just for vengeance, but for a basic sense of justice and—at the very least—acknowledgement that moves beyond these dehumanizing origins as material objects caught in a legal property dispute between men,” says Heller-Nicholas in an email exchange with Art Papers. The rape-revenge film of the past, in many ways, requires a crime as grotesque and extreme as rape to justify the arc of retribution. As Heller-Nicholas observes, “The bottom line is—as many critics and academics aside from myself have noted—rape acts as a way to emphasize the moral intensity of a crime, a kind of melodramatic shorthand to underscore the vulnerability of women in particular.”

More recent films have moved the rape-revenge archetype from the grindhouse to the art house. Such films as Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003), Gasper Noe’s Irreversible (2002), and David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) offered more complex characters but still posit rape as the ultimate justification for revenge. But the prevalence of films released in 2019 that take revenge as a component of their plots feels different this time around, far from the rape-revenge cycle of previous decades. For one thing, women don’t have to experience rape to act out cathartic tales of revenge in contemporary cinema. Revenge in the hands of women directors, it turns out, is an entirely different ball of wax—one that challenges not only the titillation factor that has often attended depictions of rape and assault against women when directed by men, but also the discomfort audiences feel when it is a woman rather than a man acting out vengeance. Recognizing how long even women’s stories have been told by male directors, many films in this new breed of revenge cinema are written or directed by women and directly address the women in their audience, offering them the catharsis of the heroines’ revenge.

Movie poster for 1976 film last house on the left

The Last House on the Left, promotional poster, 1972 [screengrab from IMDb]

Movie poster for the film

Lipstick, promotional poster, 1976 [screengrab from IMDb]

In films today, women’s vengeance onscreen can sometimes be unleashed because of rape. But more often revenge is justified by factors including economic inequality, sexism, racism, self-preservation, and the underestimating of the character’s determination. 2019 was a banner year for media more aggressively and confidently dipping a toe into lady-rage. Women’s justice, professionalism, and unapologetic violence have marked the adaptation of Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novel in the series Killing Eve for the little screen by a succession of female writers and showrunners including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Emerald Fennell, and Suzanne HeathcoteThe BBC drama features Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a sweet-faced but remorseless assassin who gives full expression to a degree of violence and self-interest rarely seen in female characters. Vengeful fury in the hands of women also marks the HBO comic book adaptation Watchmen, about a Black police officer named Angela Abar, (Regina King) whose sense of justice and refusal to flinch from any show of force marks a cultural shift in what we, as an audience, accept as believable behavior. Revenge has been an enduring taboo, even in a world where so many barriers have toppled.

And with the rise of women writers and directors, the contemporary revenge tale has pivoted. Such filmmakers seemingly relish the chance to defy the cultural norm of passivity and forgiveness, perhaps because of an ongoing social and political climate in which it’s still a man’s prerogative to express fury at having been wronged—and a woman’s burden to maintain control and poise no matter how deep her outrage. That gender imbalance was perfectly illustrated by the Supreme Court confirmation in which the weepy and ludicrously outraged Brett Kavanaugh gave full expression to his hysteria while his accuser Christine Blasey Ford remained placid, controlled, and methodical in describing her experiences.

As film scholar Hilary Neroni, author of The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, And Violence in Contemporary American Cinema, told Time magazine about expressions of female rage, their depictions “disrupt paradigms about masculinity and femininity.” A woman director and a woman actor who depict extremes of violence prove deeply disturbing to the status quo because of ingrained stereotypes of behavior.

A women smiling holding a journal

Margot Robbie in Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, 2019 [screengrab from IMDb]

A close up of a scared women with dried up blood on her face and clothing

Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale, promotional image, 2019 [screengrab from IMDb]

Many films focused specifically on revenge in 2019 have given full flower to vengeful rage motivated not simply by an isolated experience of violence but by an entire historical and cultural experience of oppression and discrimination. In these contemporary films female protagonists become the avengers for systemic violence. Jennifer Kent’s Australian film The Nightingale centers on an Irish woman convict in 1825 Tasmania. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is trapped in a British penal colony where convicted male murderers and rapists, along with women sentenced for such comparably petty crimes as stealing bread, were sent. Over the blood-soaked course of the film the mild, hopeful Clare taps into increasingly dark, vicious reservoirs of violence. She exacts revenge upon the British soldier, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who has kept her in sexual servitude and committed unspeakable violence against her and her family. As testament to the complexity of revenge when the topic is handled by a woman director, Clare grapples at the same time with a loss of humanity, which the film demonstrates to be a part of revenge. Over the course of the film Clare joins forces with an Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to enact revenge motivated by Clare’s personal experience of violence, but also by a far larger cycle of abuse against the poor women, children, and indigenous people dispensed by British colonizers in Tasmania. Some journalists and audiences, including those who walked out of the film’s screening at the Sydney Film Festival, criticized the extreme violence depicted by Kent. “Violence against women is on the rise. And turning away from it isn’t doing anyone any favors,” Kent said in response to those who chafed at her film’s depictions.

Much has been made of the difference between how rape itself is depicted in The Nightingale, without nudity, and from the victim’s point of view, as Kent trains her camera on Clare’s face during an assault in order to align the audience with Claire’s experience rather than the mechanics of the crime. Rooted in painful, historically grounded truths, The Nightingale is difficult to contemplate for what it says about the history of colonialism, racism, and misogyny in global history. It is far removed from the imagined fiction of a film such as Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist Sharon Tate murder story Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, which uses violence to enact a wishful alternative history. Comparable violence treated by male directors, including Tarantino, however, feels unremarkable, even natural. But the beauty of revenge tales in 2019 was how often they pivoted on a rationale beyond rape or assault when offering their appealing portraits of women’s anger and mettle.

A women with dried up blood comforting a horse

The Nightingale, promotional image, 2019 [screengrab from IMDb]

In a far lighter vein, the revenge-of-the-nerds directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, 2019’s Booksmart, centers on two high school seniors who have spent four years with their noses to the grindstone, trying to crack the Ivy League. But Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) explode with rage over the realization that while they were studying, their hard-partying classmates were getting into those same Ivy League schools. Their revenge? An epic night of tone-deaf hell-raising that, in the process, only affirms their devotion to each other. Like Hustlers, revenge in Booksmart is as much about bonding and solidarity as it is about justice, whether that justice is comedic or dramatic.

In many ways, the ultimate 2019 revenge tale is the more raucous—and, for many women, joyful—expression of justice and solidarity in the stripper revenge tale Hustlers. The film follows a group of exotic dancers led by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Destiny (Constance Wu), working at a high-end Manhattan strip club, as they create a drug ’em-and-mug ’em scheme to separate a cadre of sloppy “Masters of the Universe” from their green. The film channels a powerful strain of wish-fulfillment for many women, as creeps sporting wedding rings and sadistic tendencies get their comeuppance. Based on a 2015 New York magazine story by Jessica Pressler, the story turns on the financial crisis of 2008, which wrecks the dancers’ profits and allows the architects of the collapse to get away scot-free. In essence, Hustlers is not about sexual revenge but about an economic vengeance. While explaining the rationale for her new scheme to dose their Wall Street customers with a combination of MDMA and ketamine, and then run up their credit cards, Ramona describes the strippers’ motivation as not simply a need for money, but an opportunity for a Robin Hood-like revenge in the age of the one percent. As Ramona tells Destiny, “We got to start thinking like these Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody. Hard-working people lost everything. And not one of these douchebags went to jail, not one. Is that fair? You ever think about when they come into the club? That’s stolen money. … fuck these guys.”

4 laddies in dresses holding champagne glasses

Hustlers, promotional image, 2019 [screengrab from IMDb]

In Lorene Scafaria’s film, the poor take poetic revenge on their persecutors, while allowing an audience to revel in their triumph. Rather than the painful conclusion to a tragedy-infused life seen in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, revenge in Hustlers is comedic, cathartic—a celebration of community over the cold hierarchy of the strip club economy, where, for the most part, women work within an economic system built by and for men. The dancers in Hustlers are not like 19th-century victim-archetype Tess Durbeyfield, described by Hardy as “a pure woman, faithfully presented.” They instead make their living in open acknowledgment that sex sells and are unapologetic in calculating economic revenge. More importantly, as in many contemporary tales of women’s revenge, their payback is not motivated by rape.

As a film founded on respect for its female characters and their unconventional occupations, and with an unapologetic view of women behaving badly, Hustlers was, naturally, not embraced by Hollywood, director Scafaria told Fast Company: “It was so hard to get this movie made, and I would say half of that is probably due to the stigma that surrounds strippers and what they do for a living, but I would say the other half is probably what we expect of female characters ….” She adds, “It’s the same kind of pressure that we put on women in real life, that expectation of perfection and righteousness. In a way, it’s harder to get movies made where women are doing bad things. It’s harder to make Ocean’s 8 than Ocean’s 11.”

But ideally such stereotypes of women’s passivity are dying fast, as more women’s voices infuse filmmaking. A raft of upcoming projects promises many more stories founded on justice and revenge meted out by women protagonists. Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B has acquired the rights to bring Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s investigation of film producer Harvey Weinstein—the story that ignited the #MeToo movement—to the screen.

Promising Young Women, promotional poster, 2020 [screengrab from IMDb]

Movie Poster of the film Misbehavior

Misbehavior, promotional poster, 2020 [screengrab from IMDb]

And women filmmakers are already sharpening their blades for 2020, with more revenge in the works. Kitty Green’s The Assistant—premiered in 2019 but receiving wider release in 2020—transposes the story of Harvey Weinstein’s casting couch predation into a story about an ambitious but timid Northwestern graduate’s growing recognition that her boss is preying on young women who enter his office and hotel rooms. Director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman stars Carey Mulligan as a former medical student who has left school under mysterious circumstances and spends her evenings as a modern-day femme fatale, punishing the men she encounters. This plot taps into the narrative that films such as the documentary The Hunting Ground (2015) have asserted, of college campuses where it is open season on women. Also on the 2020 slate: Misbehaviour, directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, which centers on the political protest of a cadre of seemingly ordinary, compliant, middle-class women who organized the first British Women’s Liberation Conference to disrupt and bring attention to the demeaning treatment of participants at the 1970 Miss World beauty competition.

Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles was poorly received upon its release, because of his frank presentation of sex. Although Hardy questioned the rigid Victorian moral code that saw no place for an exploited and vengeful woman in society, in the Victorian consciousness, it was the victim of rape who was seen as a representation of sexual malfeasance, rather than her rapist. Luckily we’ve progressed enough as a culture to embrace the notion of a woman’s hand wielding the weapon of vengeance for a variety of reasons other than rape, and to celebrate the gleeful comeuppance of Hustlers, a film that as of January 2020 raked in more than $104 million at the U.S. box office and another $157 million overseas, without demanding sainthood of its heroines.

Felicia Feaster is a managing editor at HGTV.com whose work has also appeared in The Economist, Travel + Leisure, Art in America and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where she has served as the art critic for the past 9 years. She holds a degree in film and Eastern European studies from the University of Florida and an M.A. in film studies from Emory University. She is the co-author of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film, the basis for a 2019 film and lecture series at NYC’s Film Forum. She is the co-founder of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and serves on the boards of the art magazine Burnaway.org, the Georgia Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and, the Advisory Board of Atlanta Celebrates Photography and is on the steering committee of Idea Capital.