I got a list of names
An ode to petty and spiteful women
As cinemas re-opened this past Summer, after months of being closed due to Covid, I finally went to see Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. I couldn’t help but feel angst as I walked out of the theatre. The rave reviews that presented it as “the ultimate female revenge film”, and the way the media jumped on the opportunity to brand it as a post-#MeToo movie made me feel even more uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing, I love a good old satirical take on men being predators, however, I have a much harder time getting on board with the following juxtaposition:
1) On the one hand, the very predictable and sketch-like portrayal of men (starring Schmidt from the sitcom New Girl, “McLovin” from the stereotypical boy comedy Superbad, and comedian Bo Burnham) that focuses more on caricaturing their most ridiculous traits, which results in anchoring them in a fantasy tale that is far far away from reality, as though it won’t own up to the fact these dangerous men really do exist.
2) On the other hand, the very real and believable grief, pain, anger, violence and death (spoiler alert) women endure at men’s hands. But it’s okay! Because in the end of this tale, Cassie, the female protagonist, finally gets justice after years of wanting to avenge Nina, her raped and deceased best friend, thus becoming some kind of vigilante who restores justice for all women like Nina in this fiction. But only on one condition: she too must die at the hands of a man. All’s well that ends well.
With its “I”, “II, “III”, etc. chapters, Fennell’s film structure recalls that of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Both Cassie and Beatrix have their list of names of people they hope to personally punish for actions they consider criminal in a world that let the culprits and their accomplices think they could get away unscathed. But isn’t it ironic that I would find the film whose executive producer was none other than Harvey Weinstein, the man whose downfall kickstarted #MeToo, to be the much more accomplished “female revenge film” than the one that capitalised on the popularity of the movement?
In order to understand why I felt this way, I had to personally dig into the very notion of revenge and try to make sense of the narrative power of revenge as a desire.
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“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Viewing harm like some transactional good that can simply be returned, so as to restore an order formerly disturbed, fails to acknowledge an imbalance that becomes intrinsic to the relationship between two individuals from the moment the first harm is committed.
Desiring revenge is often seen as the responsibility of the harmed one to deal with and “to get over”. They’re told to “rise above it”, “move on already”, “let it go”, and if they dare to go through with their revenge plans, they will “lower themselves” to the level of their offender. This desire is rarely seen as the responsibility of the one who committed the harm in the first place, thus overlooking the fact this very harm is what caused the original victim to become thirsty, even obsessed with revenge: by taking someone’s eye out, not only did you blind them but you’re cursing them to wish for your own blindness. The first blow will always be doubly harmful for it hurts the victim and poisons them with the desire to hurt back. A third layer of harm comes in the form of gaslighting: that double standard that shames the victims – often women – for desiring revenge, reducing their legitimate emotions to pettiness or madness.
When looking at it from the perspective of the desiring subject, I for one view revenge in a much more positive light: in addition to being a way to grieve and process pain, it unlocks a form of creativity. Indeed, it takes imagination to dream of time machines, to empathise with the other to know their weakness, to fantasise about lawless lands where vindictive scenarios can unfold, and to make up the meticulous monologues that will precede the ultimate blow. Because of its plotting nature, revenge desire is intrinsically linked to our ability to create fiction.
Through fiction, our own revenge fantasies allow us to feel like it is possible to reclaim control over our narrative. What makes them so compelling isn’t the fact that the revenge seeker gets their way in the end, but that they’re able to invent a world for themselves where they can become the narrator of their own story, as opposed to being a character in a life with a set of conditions they didn’t choose, like being a woman in a reality narrated by men.
The power but also the limit of fiction is that it is finite. The revenge stories we tell ourselves have a clear goal, and accomplishing that goal, thus fulfilling the desire that drives our fantasised narratives, puts an end to them. This desired ending is what allows those stories to exist in our minds, but it is precisely the ending nature of fiction that confronts our fantasies with real life, where our stories aren’t finite.
Our real life stories don’t end at the moment we’ve carried out our revenge, but take us on a subsequent and draining chapter where our actions will be held accountable by society, from disapproving peers to punitive justice. Furthermore, our unpredictable real life stories almost never unfold exactly like in the versions we narrate to ourselves. This is why revenge narratives live best in a fictional sphere, as the perfect fantasies we craft for ourselves.
This is where Promising Young Woman – which received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – doesn’t sit so well with me. No matter the films we make in our heads, never do we fail and die trying. In brutally killing her protagonist in the end of her film, Fennel is depriving women from even imagining their revenge fantasies, because even in them, women die at the hands of men. Yes, you could say that it is a cynical but realistic take on the condition of women in men’s world, but Fennel isn’t such a pessimist that she believes men will go unpunished! Instead, the filmmaker presents an alternative bittersweet ending (which was added later on when it was deemed too gruesome to simply end the film on Cassie’s murder) where the police eventually catches all the bad men, and justice is rendered post-mortem, as specifically intended by Cassie. So it turns out, after cynically killing ours and Cassie’s revenge fantasy, Fennel preferred to opt for a much more naive one, by conflating the fulfilment of personal revenge with the justice rendered by the very institution that had failed on all levels to punish the original crime (as exposed throughout the film).
Under the rule of law, that can often feel quite lawless for them (just look at the news of the past months worldwide), women need to be able to fantasise about lawless lands where their revenge desires can unfold. This isn’t to say women should commit crime to get even with their offenders, but rather that they should not be denied the possibility to make up films in their heads, or create art and music that expresses their anger and grief, or even vicariously experience satisfaction through others’ revenge stories, thus channelling the narrative energy that’s sparked by their own desire for revenge.
So please, if you’re going to tell stories about women seeking revenge, let them kill Bill.
To set the record straight, I don’t have violent tendencies. This newsletter was mostly inspired by the two films mentioned, women’s art and music, and yes, some personal grudges as well.
Because I believe there is an alternative to simply “forgive and forget”, I too, like Beatrix and Cassie, keep a list, just not a “death” one.
Mine is rather a list of the times I felt deeply wronged by people and fantasised about getting scathing revenge. Some will view this attitude as petty, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having principles and being upset if someone steps all over them. By holding on to these grudges, I can revisit them every now and then to remind myself of where my principles stood at the time, if I’ve outgrown them since, and also to never let myself be fooled the same way or by the same people again. Or as Taylor Swift puts it: “I bury hatchets but I keep maps of where I put them.”
-Kill Bill Vol. 1, Quentin Tarantino (2003)
-Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell (2020)