Girls Just Want to Have Revenge

Anika Reads
7 min readMay 3, 2021

Or, why are we still afraid of female anger?

What is it, I wonder, that makes some of us — self-identified women — so nervous around the idea of revenge?

I recently read Ayesha A Siddiqi’s review of Promising Young Woman. In her review (which pretty much everyone, ever, should read) Siddiqi criticizes the way the film has been marketed as a feminist rape revenge thriller, when in fact it stars a young white woman who is eventually murdered by one of the rapists she’s attempting to get revenge on. In presenting the act of murder as some kind of feminist apogee, Siddiqi argues that the film represents a particularly pernicious mode of white feminism, one which paints the continuation of the status quo as some kind of revolutionary act. In her footnote, Siddiqi writes:

Some of the many potential choices available to the filmmaker:

Cassie, upon finding the video of her friend’s assault, reports it. The lawyer who once defended campus rapists tries to redeem himself by prosecuting his former client with the newly procured video evidence. But statutes of limitations protect the rapist, as they often do. Cassie, a skilled surgeon, feels compelled to take matters into her own vengeful hands. She mutilates men who prey on women they mistakenly consider drunk — doling out justice as she sees fit. She uses the fact she’s a pretty young white woman to remain safe from getting caught. The subject is treated with the gravity it deserves, has fun with society’s blindspots which are better observed without sanctimony, and the revenge is allowed to be as bloody as possible. To me, that’s the better movie.

Rape revenge, of course, has a long history. The term’s been used to describe everything from Stieg Larsson’s “Girl with…” series to a long run of horror films like The Last House on the Left. While many of the films in the latter category delivered on the blood, they were also, notably, made by men. An article in the Conversation describes the formula:

These early films rose in prominence in 70s and relied heavily on the shock value of brutal rape scenes, followed by the even larger shock of the victim’s sadistic revenge.

But entries in the genre didn’t always focus on the reaction of the victim.

Frequently, filmmakers found more mainstream success if the avenger was the victim’s father.

In this context, the rape-revenge film is less about surviving assault and getting revenge on the perpetrator than it is about orgies of violence and the preservation of social order. The victims — young, beautiful, innocent, white — are violated, but their experiences are less significant than restoring their parents’ (and by extension, white society’s) agency. The genre casts its shadow over work like JM Coetzee’s absurd Disgrace, a novel in which a woman’s rape serves as a background detail to highlight a man’s distress at the loss of his traditional power: “David Lurie is a South African professor of English who loses everything: his reputation, his job, his peace of mind, his dreams of artistic success, and finally even his ability to protect his own daughter.” (Coetzee’s novel is, in my opinion, execrable on most levels, presenting Lurie’s self-absorption amid a litany of social ills without offering any meaningful critique)

This perverse approach to rape revenge, which stars women either as objects to be viewed or as perpetrators to be punished for their hubris, has seeped into many of our fictional tellings. In the “Never Veil,” which is sold as ‘fantasy romance’, the teenage heroine, Noll, lives in a village that suffers under a strange “curse”:

“In a village of masked men, each man is compelled to love only one woman and to follow the commands of his “goddess” without question. A woman may reject the only man who will love her if she pleases, but she will be alone forever. A man must stay masked until his goddess returns his love — and if she can’t or won’t, he remains masked forever.”

In her quest to figure out the curse’s origin, Noll travels back in time to an era before it was cast. In this horrible pre-curse world, men hold absolute authority over women. Noll walks amongst hungry, starving women, their children clinging to them, abandoned on the outskirts of town and forced to endure the degradations of whatever male happens by. This vision feels less like Noll’s nightmare than, say, most of human history. Infuriated and angry, Noll leads the downtrodden women in a rebellion, and — in a twist that is foreseeable pretty much from page one — ends up casting the curse herself.

Brimming with ancient and goddess-like power, Noll speaks the words that will bring about her village’s curse. It’s a moment of power and agency, and the text doesn’t give her even a nanosecond to savor it before it begins to punish her for pursuing revenge in the first place. She’s stricken by remorse immediately:

Full of pride at myself and my power, like I had been as a child, I was just pretending at battle.

Noll has, up until now, behaved like a reckless teenager — mooning after her sister’s husband, insulting whomever she pleases. It’s odd that in the one moment when Noll is finally playing for real stakes — the lives and wellbeing of hundreds of women — the author feels obliged to condemn her.

I felt the hot sting of my foolishness, for even if I had intended the worst for Elric and the rest of the men, even those words rightfully placed would have harmed this poor, dear boy before me. I thought, too, of the men I knew from my time. I thought of Father and the shade he became following Mother’s illness. I thought of Master Tailor and Jaron, stuck loving two women whose hearts would never Return to them - and also, by forcing them each to bear responsibility for a man’s misery, what my words would do to rend Alvilda and Mistress Tailor unhappy.

“Even those words rightfully placed”. Right after casting her curse, Noll’s gaze falls upon a little boy standing in the sidelines, and she realizes she’s unwittingly cursed the innocent.

Seriously?

Besides just being a lame comedown, this story becomes less about undoing convention or achieving freedom than about condemning revenge and its disruptions. It’s interesting that in the moment that the curse settles into place, the author chooses to focus on a single male victim rather than the hundreds of women who’ve been victims for generations and are finally free. Instead of presenting the women as a righteous crew, it paints them as a marauding mob. It’s as if the desire to center men’s emotions and experiences can’t be neglected for even a moment.

I remembered, also, the story of the Hindu goddess Kali, who goes on a murderous rampage only to be halted when she accidentally steps on a child and realizes she’s gone too far. Like Kali, the heroine of this novel realizes she’s gone too far when her curse affects a child. But unlike Kali, Noll doesn’t get the satisfaction of a years-long murderous rampage. In the moment that the women’s voices should be the most important, they immediately fade into the background. I cheered for Noll when she cast the curse, and I can’t be the only one.

It’s almost as if these authors are afraid of their own rage, and its power to change. If Noll’s focus on the little boy isn’t a continuation of the status quo, I don’t know what is. It’s literally a rallying cry: “Not All Men.” But it’s more than that.

Romance, as a genre, seems too often dependent upon a persistent notion of sacrifice; the idea that when women love, we must put others’ feelings above our own. This sacrifice means centering the frustrations and concerns of the men we love. Eventually, and for some, it means centering the frustrations and concerns of children. It requires that in the moment of actually having power, the ability to right a wrong, we must step back and put ourselves second, behind all the people we might harm. And in some ways, this isn’t a bad value. It’s one that society could benefit from, as a whole. But it’s a sacrifice too often demanded solely of those who have the least power, and eventually, repeatedly doing it starts to feel like perpetuating the injustice we most dislike. I’m not alone in suggesting all this.

Perhaps because I am not so easily satisfied, I, like Siddiqi, would prefer to see female characters embrace a discourse of revolution, even one that causes harm, and most especially in fiction. I would like to see the heroine of Promising Young Woman dismember a few campus rapists (if only the fictional effigies of all the campus rapists who face no consequences); and I would have liked to see Noll enjoy the benefits of being on top of her cursed village’s power hierarchy. There are more subtle and interesting ways to illustrate the drawbacks of revenge than having its perpetrators suffer directly and in obvious ways, especially when those perpetrators have been so frequently on the receiving end of oppression themselves.

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Anika Reads

Reader, gamer, sci-fi/fantasy nerd, reviewer. I love great stories, regardless of medium. This account is for honest reviews, observations, and critiques.