Portrayals of Female Revenge in Pop Culture Simply Mirror Toxic Male Violence
The role of the avenging woman, perhaps an offshoot of the ‘femme fatale,’ has been an indelible part of our cinematic imagination. She has the righteous indignation to wreak havoc on the masculine world. She is the fighter, the avenger, the vigilante justice warrior. Unlike the femme fatale, who uses her sexuality, the avenging woman uses her skills to get revenge. In the process, she might be sexualized by the male gaze, but rage and power are important aspects of this character. Enter Uma Thurman in the cult classic Kill Bill, Rekha in Khoon Bhari Maang, Dimple Kapadia in Zakhmi Aurat, Anushka Sharma in NH10 and Sridevi in Mom.
The avenging woman is a complex trope; women seeking revenge go through a gamut of emotions — from fear, to the instinct to fight, to the resulting guilt or remorse, and maybe even forgiveness. But our cinema rarely keeps up with this layered set of emotions. It simply imitates the toxic forms of glorified male violence we are so used to watching and applauding in films like Reservoir Dogs, Taken, Gangs of Wasseypur, Goodfellas or The Godfather. And by mirroring the male tropes of violence, women’s actions are reduced to being reactive, rather than fleshed-out responses that reflect nuance and actual feelings.
On Netflix, there are now three Indian films portraying the avenging woman. Devashish Makhija’s Ajji (2017) shows a working-class grandmother in a Mumbai slum who decides she will avenge her granddaughter’s rape in a scenario in which justice seems impossible; Garbage (2018), by the acclaimed indie filmmaker Q (Qaushik Mukherjee), portrays a young woman, whose sex tape was released without her consent. on the run in Goa and later torturing a hyper-religious Hindu right-wing taxi driver who stalks her; and there is the supposedly feminist rape-revenge drama Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (2019), by Aditya Kripalani, in which four urban women avenge the series of sexual assaults women have faced in a city known as the “rape capital of India” — Delhi. The English title of the film is The Incessant Fear of Rape.
Ajji, Garbage and Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal — all of which seem very personal reflections of the filmmakers — fall under the gamut of Indian independent cinema: they have female characters with agency, have been accepted at prestigious film festivals around the world, don’t have a popular star in the lead and don’t cater to a mass audience. That’s why one’s expectations of them are higher than the regular Bollywood fare. Yet they fall prey to the tools of toxic masculinity and violent retribution.
When drama translates into sensationalism or exhibitionism and dialogues are just for feminist brownie points, the violence and the politics feel gratuitous.
In Ajji, the grandmother wears bizarre make-up (almost Kabuki-like) to dress herself up as a sex worker so that she can entice her granddaughter’s rapist and castrate him while he anticipates fellatio. Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal is a story of four women who avenge the constant fear of rape that women live with, by abducting a man and torturing him. They humiliate and break him down mentally by having him wear lingerie and dance seductively; they have him cook and clean for them; and they ultimately give him a rape scare. All this is recorded on video and uploaded on social media till the public shame drives him to suicide. Garbage has a similar scene of the avenging woman locking her stalker in a cage, hurting him, stripping him, making him wear a sari and then raping him, to teach a lesson in degradation. In the basement where the torture takes place, there are multiple news clippings about the rape epidemic in India. This is to visually represent the mindset of the female character as a justification for the violent torture that’s she’s about to unleash on her stalker.
Ajji, Garbage and TPIM show women taking revenge by emasculating men. The trope feels too convenient, pat and unrealistic — this cinema is a product of our collective wish-fulfillment, or perhaps the playing out of a cis-male filmmaker’s fantasy. When drama translates into sensationalism or exhibitionism and dialogues are just for feminist brownie points, the violence and the politics feel gratuitous. The mirroring of male violence does little to understand the actual psyche of the avenging woman. The reiteration of brute force on screen takes away from the nuance of the female experience of revenge.
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The agency granted to women in the above-mentioned films seems to be an act of performative feminism (especially in TPIM and Garbage), which reduces hurt, pain and grief to an ultimately hollow and meaningless violent act. By dressing the films in feminist language, the filmmakers actually harm the understanding of feminist politics as well; women who want equal rights are perceived as ‘man-haters’ and ‘feminazis’ who are out baying for the blood of men. The perpetrator in these three films is the dehumanized ‘other’ (usually a working-class man) who can only be the object of revulsion, not an actual person with whom one can have a dialogue.
Contrary to such representations is The Nightingale (2018), by filmmaker Jennifer Kent. It is about a rape survivor in 1820s Tasmania taking revenge on her rapist and the aftermath of her doing so. Its synopsis for a film festival says that it is “a meditation on the consequences of violence and the price of seeking vengeance.” While we might admire the Kill Bill trope of the avenging woman, the act of violence has larger ramifications. For example, is there a place for regret, remorse or guilt in this linear narrative of the avenging woman? What happens when filmmakers explore that grey area?
The recently concluded second season of Big Little Lies, directed by the British feminist auteur Andrea Arnold, shows it is possible. The Emmy award-winning HBO series is about the life of and friendship between five mothers in Monterey, California, as they become prime suspects in a murder investigation. Jane (Shailene Woodely), is a 24-year-old single mother who is new in town, with a son who is the result of rape; Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is a mother of twin boys and a victim of domestic abuse, who is married to the successful, rich and abusive Perry (Alexander Skarsgård); Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is the spunky best fried to Celeste and is in a second marriage that only seems perfect; Renata (Laura Dern) is a working mother driven by career and ambition, who has a tiger-mom style of parenting; and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), married to Madeline’s first husband, Nathan, is an attractive, young yoga teacher with an abusive past.
The second season of the show is an example of gradually unveiling the aftermath of committing a violent act. While killing the domestic abuser and rapist Perry in the first season’s finale is extremely satisfying to watch, it does not bring any closure to the women who are a part of it.
All of them are burning in their private hells in season two: Celeste is caught between grieving her husband Perry’s death, missing the sex they had and trying to be a good mother; Renata is dealing with a lying, cheating husband as they face bankruptcy; Madeline is struggling to save her marriage after her own infidelity; Jane fights her personal demons while she explores a serious intimate relationship; and Bonnie is tackling guilt for Perry’s death mixed with resentment towards her mother.
The exploration of conscious reflection and guilt is especially poignant in the scene in which Bonnie speaks to her mother (who was abusive to her as a child) while her mother is in a coma, and lists the reasons she resents her mother — the last one being the fact that she killed a man because she was metaphorically pushing her mother off the stairs. Bonnie says, “When I lunged at [Perry], I was pushing you!” This kind of rumination and self-reflection resulting in a confession speaks to deep-seated violence emerging from abuse faced as a child. This is such a complex and nuanced way to look at both the cause and the aftermath of being the aggressor.
Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal, who co-directed the social issues-based TV show Satyamev Jayate, delves deep into this aftermath. She explores the ideas of remorse versus punishment, forgiveness over revenge, in her first feature-length documentary, Rubaru Roshni, which is now on Netflix. (Full disclosure: I know Svati Chakravarty personally.) In a moving depiction of loss, grieving and regret, the filmmaker traces the lives of three victims of violence – a daughter who lost her parents to a political assassination, a nun who lost her sister to a murder, and a mother who lost her family to an act of terrorism.
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The film also shines a light on the perpetrators and their remorse. The male perpetrators of violence are shown as real human beings, repenting their actions of the past and trying to come to terms with the consequences, trying to make amends. Assisted partly by the perpetrators’ remorse, the victims find closure that takes them on a path of forgiveness, instead of down one that glorifies violent revenge. And that forgiveness washes over the victim and perpetrator alike, to soothe, comfort and ultimately release them from years of hurt, pain, and remorse. It’s life-affirming to see the characters overcome their trauma through this process.
The Nightingale, Big Little Lies (Season 2) and Rubaru Roshni show alternative ways of confronting toxic masculinity and the violence that follows. It’s telling that all three have been directed by women — Jennifer Kent, Andrea Arnold and Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal. The relationship with pain experienced as women alters one’s interpretation of justice and revenge. The physical pain of periods, labor pain, the pain of having experienced domestic violence and sexual assault, of being acid-attack survivors and rape survivors — issues that predominantly affect women, although other genders are also impacted — makes women more aware of the consequences of inflicting, and bearing the brunt of, pain. With lived insight, revenge as a single, quick act of violence, humiliation or degradation, cannot hold true. These women filmmakers dig deeper to reveal a greater understanding of what it means to respond to violence with violence, and the aftermath of the dispensation of revenge. There is an interiority to that action, which is missing from the narratives by the male filmmakers.
We need to ask difficult questions and show complex situations instead of finding easy solutions that blindly imitate toxic male violence as a form of revenge. Many Indian filmmakers today are responding to the post-Nirbhaya world where we are thirsty for justice (even the bloody ones), and that the narrative of violence as catharsis might be transforming into their own catharses. It becomes an artistic relief from the helplessness of not being able to effectively change their society’s most hideous facets. But any real change in society will not come from further violence, it needs a deeper engagement with it. And our cinema needs to aspire to that at least — to explore the other side of violence.