By Aditi Balasubramanian
Boston University Press Office
After her best friend is raped in high school and kills herself when her rapists are left free to go, she swears revenge. If the justice system wasn’t going to help her, then it was up to her to right all the wrongs. Female revenge films offer viewers a chance to see what might happen when women finally get the retribution they deserve. Their prevalence shows growing popularity and a desire to pick up the narrative.
Female revenge movies date back decades. In 1978, “I spit on your grave” was released. The main character, Jennifer Hills, takes revenge on her rapists after they left her for dead. At the time, the film was criticized for its violent depictions of rape and became a cult classic. Maybe having the victim at the center of attention was the right step so that no kind of savior complex stole the show. The film in recent years has been dubbed a misunderstood female empowerment film, due to its focus on the victim and avoidance of savior figures.
Another film that could fall into this similar category would be “Jennifer’s Body”, which also received mostly negative reviews upon release, but is now considered a feminist film. A comedy-horror, the film follows teenage Jennifer, played by Megan Fox, who is possessed by a demon after being kidnapped by an indie rock band. With the demon inside her, she kills people (mostly men) with her best friend trying to stop her. But the film fell short of expectations and was criticized for being overly sexual and “dull”.
But since the #MeToo movement, the film has now been resurrected as an empowerment film for women. Alyssa Winn, a junior film and television student at Boston University, explained how the film’s marketing played a huge role in the perception of the film when it was released in 2009.
“They saw Megan Fox and they wanted to address her sex appeal. So they just targeted all of their marketing at teenagers. And the movie wasn’t for teenagers. So it got bad reviews,” said Win.
Jennifer’s character isn’t meant to be a perfect abuse victim. It’s not easy to sympathize with all the victims, and they’re not meant to be particularly nice characters. Her personality aside, Jennifer was a victim of abuse, and her rampage of murder, while unwarranted, was her way of dealing with it.
More recently, “Promising Young Woman,” the critically acclaimed dark comedy stars Carrie Mulligan as 30-year-old medical school dropout Cassie.
Cassie seeks revenge for the death of her best friend after her rapist got away with her crime. The film was praised for the way it handled the subject. Rather than showing raw, realistic rape scenes, the film depicts this through audio of the rape scene played from a phone – placing more emphasis on the journey of how Cassie brings justice to her best friend’s life.
Cassie is never really shown as a femme fatale. In fact, she dressed quite modestly throughout the film, demonstrating that it’s never about what you wear.
An article in the Guardian emphasizes this aspect of the film, calling it one of the film’s most realistic elements.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re ‘hot’ or not, promising or hopeless. All that matters, in times like these, is that you’re in too much of a mess to consent. There’s no trap to honey; just a woman in costume who “asks for it,” said writer Emma Brocks.
An example of a film where the female character dresses less modestly would be in “Double Indemnity” (1944) where the main character, Phyllis, is introduced intentionally half-dressed since she is portrayed as a femme fatale. The film follows Phyllis as she and insurance agent Walter Neff set up a scheme to assassinate Phyllis’ husband so she can live off his accidental death claim.
But female revenge movies aren’t just subject to rape revenge movies. Sometimes it can be to protect an unborn child or to want money. Other times it might just be about a wife playing games with her husband and setting him up for murder after he cheats on her, like “Gone Girl.” When “Gone Girl” was released in 2014, the film opened to mixed reviews and people weren’t quite sure if the film was empowering or misogynistic.
Amy, the main female character, is a complex woman. In a quest to ruin her husband, her actions baffle viewers, who wonder what she means. But underneath the layers, it could be a statement about society’s social constructs of what a woman should be. Her parents describe her as “Amazing Amy” in their book series as this perfect version of her character. She can’t be herself with her cheating husband. Feeling miserable and mistreated, she takes a dubious path to get revenge on her husband. But through this twisted revenge, viewers can relate to always being coerced into a role by someone else.
Female revenge films have come a long way since their debut. And they are much needed. The layered characters and dodgy scenes are meant to constantly make you think about where things are going wrong. Often people forget that it’s not just about revenge, but about the character’s journey to finally earn respect and regain power. These films aren’t perfect, but they’re necessary because they start more conversations about society’s treatment of women and regaining power.