Curated shows tend to reflect cultural trends, and the recent BAM film series, Vengeance is Hers, is no exception. In this case, the trend showcased was furious women acting on their fury. These women inspire us while punishing their oppressors in both violent and subtle ways. When a high school–aged Carrie murders her classmates as reprisal for their taunting, it is textbook revenge with a physical result: everyone dies. But the deeper tragedy lies in Carrie’s loneliness. In Carrie, and many other films in the series, women are ignored, and being vengeful seems like a better alternative to keeping quiet. The need to be seen is a need for fairness that fuels their desire to get even—think salaries in 9 to 5, or the abuse of female prisoners on Terminal Island. And if revenge is about getting even, female revenge is one way of getting equal among men. Many of these films were made long ago, but the stories feel familiar and relevant. We still live in a society with a sexual and gendered hierarchy, despite our best efforts to coexist. For people at the wrong end of this hierarchy, rage is real, and the desire to do something about it bewitches.
If historical oppression is justification for raising hell, then it’s no surprise that many films in the BAM series blatantly court the supernatural and wicked. Think of the bloody rituals of Maria Callas in Medea; the ghosts of murdered women in Kuroneko; the very title of She-Devil. Even the women without paranormal powers reject cultural norms and relish in a phenomenal ability to do as they please. In these films, emotional vehemence and dark magic seek release in one another.
These women’s occult practices call to mind the new popularity of mystical symbolism among young women—at least, among young women in Brooklyn—and offers one explanation for the trend. The so-called “Nu Age” woman rubs down with essential oils, adorns her home with gems, crystals, Palo Santo sticks, and a sprinkle of iridescent glitter for good measure. Sacred ceremony, ritual, and moon phases are her fancy. The look of this nouveau sorcière is reminiscent of the seventies, well known to west coast women reared by earthy mothers – but this rebirth diverges. Rather than no makeup and relaxed jeans, this witch dresses severely in torn tights and psychedelic fabrics with lips flashed in red. She is free in her body and intimate with the dark. Perhaps within these women’s longing for the mystical exists an uneasy feeling, the recognition of the inner, longstanding pain women bear. After all, one of the easiest ways to deal with a feeling of powerlessness is to find a unique source of your own power. But to don a wild-looking mask and dress the part, like any other fad, is one thing; to openly engage with your fears is another.
As a young woman living in Bushwick, I’m admittedly enchanted by aspects of this trend, and drawn to people who engage its entrancing thinking. Not long ago, I was introduced to filmmaker, Kat Hunt, who was seeking a producer for her first film. Now in post-production, the film is a cross-genre project investigating the concept of revenge. It’s title is What’s Revenge. The basic impetus was to seek out and act upon something typically limited to one’s private reverie: the film would avenge a real person’s pain. This real person is Erica, a woman hurt and tormented by past men in her life. Erica is both a character with relatable problems, and the real-life friend of the director, who has always been filled with indignation for how her friend was treated. To make the men feel the same pain that they once inflicted, Kat enlists Erica to pursue acts of vengeance against them. The film chronicles this undertaking, employing a variety of techniques to communicate a special message to each man in Erica’s life.
My first reaction was to politely decline working on the movie. I thought the premise was juvenile, reactive, problematic. But Kat and I continued to talk, and her zeal to pursue this bizarre mission, with her friend in tow, fascinated me. I began to wonder if revenge could be positive, if it could give Erica a platform to voice her feelings, and to find solace by doing so.
When we talked to other women about the film’s subject, we often heard stories about the same kind of man. He was a past lover, or his antics were familiar; someone like him had hurt a sister, mother, or a close friend. His behavior was detestable and the women who knew him supported making him know it. They excitedly related their own detailed accounts, and they wanted to be informed of our findings. Meanwhile, the men we spoke to mostly reacted with confusion. They intellectualized our goal, and wondered out loud if they might be guilty of the same things. Some even feared themselves a target.
As we pursued our goal, achieving “results” became ever more elusive. The process engrossed us; to a female crew (with some hired guys here and there), it felt personally pertinent. As we worked on the film, we delved into the nuances of what it feels like to be a woman ignored by men romantically, in the workplace, and on the street. Not only ignored, that is, but also given wrong, unwanted attention in the form of manipulative and aggressive behavior. It felt empowering to be making a movie starring women and about women. Aside from what developed within the frame, I began to explore my own feelings about revenge and how it can be productive—not to hurt others as payback, but as a tool to hammer at my own rage and feelings of discontent. Revenge, I came to believe, was a process to rectify relationships where I concealed my true self. It was a kind of personal reckoning.
But time morphs memory, and details of an offense may be unreliable, throwing into question whether vengeance is being served equitably, in the form of justice, or whether it has gone awry. When pain is no longer raw and immediate, revenge necessarily becomes less about the offender, and mostly about the self. As films about revenge suggest, speaking truth through pain feels good: overt forms of daily oppression weigh on a woman’s mind and body, and vengeance offers a way to shake them off. But the day-to-day application of revenge, and its harsh reality, is something different.
Working through the messy feelings about the past initiates a pursuit of one’s own happiness for the future: the hope in female revenge films is that in enacting vengeance, the heroines are leveling the playing field. But the justice they impose always contains the seed of its own contamination; if vengeance is a step towards a better future, it may also be a step towards ruin. This is what revenge looks like in real life: an attack on the former self.