by Caitlin Young
Content warning: Discussion of sexual assault.
“Female Monsters take things as personally as they really are” Chris Klaus, I love Dick
“God should have made girls lethal when he made monsters of men” – Elisabeth Hewer, wishing for birds
“The women of mythology regularly lose their form in monstrosity.” Anne Carson, Men in the off hours
I think it is generally acceptable to put on Gone Girl when someone does not get the hint to get out of my flat. I also carry around the line from the last page of Boy Parts like a mantra “I wonder what the fuck I have to do for people to recongise me as a threat”. I am part of the problem. At least that’s the first step of this essay out of the way.
In the pub when a friend disagrees with me on a point I said, ‘I swear to god I’m gonna gone girl you.’ Seven months later at a picnic, I bond with someone I don’t know when I tell her that if everything goes poorly in my life I will simply fake my death and frame whatever man I’m with because obviously if my life goes wrong it will be a man’s fault. I am deeply enamoured with the narrator of Boy Parts, Irina, and her cool disaffected tone. She is a fetish photographer, as she uses men for her art, for her sexual appetite, for her bloodlust. I watch Jennifer’s Body and feel my mouth hang open as Megan Fox states: “I’m not killing people – I’m killing boys”.
I watch Promising Young Woman and find it vaguely enjoyable to bar the overwrought aesthetics and the fact that the only people Cassie actually stakes revenge on are women who were, at best, bystanders to her best friend’s violent rape and, at worst, cogs in the institutions that protected the rapist. I read op-eds by people who are sick of seeing the myth of the unrecoverable victim and others reminding us the history of film is a history of male rage. The slew of op-ed narratives forgot that there is a way to create a female monster that gives us delight. This film was not that.
Female monsters are not a new phenomenon. But women who openly love them, these stories that used to act as warnings, are. On TikTok, a trend began and was instantly dominated by women seeing themselves in Amy Dunne of Gone Girl and Cassie of Promising Young Woman. These are women who don’t forgive. These are the modern female monsters.
The female monster has existed as long as the classic idea of femininity; Medusa’s crown of serpents, Medea’s great escape, even in some regards Antigone’s autonomy. In these original monsters, we find the source code for all female monsters who followed them. The original female monsters were not idolised by women but rather were warnings to men about the effects of their mistreatment of women. Derrida warns that “Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘Here are our monsters,’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets.”. But that is what these characters are for those who find comfort in female monsters. They are our pets. We have a longing to stroke their hair and feed them righteous male flesh. But the purity of these monsters has been tampered with by the same forces we have all found ourselves corrupted by.
Now the female monster has been commodified for a profit to allow normal women to live normal lives. Monstrosity, Chris Kraus tells us, “is the self as a machine”. A modern female monster must be a profit-making machine. They also, due to the nature of the genre, exist in a world that is dominated by ideas of the carceral state. A state that makes it perfectly acceptable to hurt, or kill people who have inflicted harm. They live in worlds where to hurt people that have hurt us due to failings of the state is something that makes moral sense to us. An eye for an eye, pounds of flesh for debt. Whether the revenge plot is set in place by the 2008 crash, the failings of marital institutions, rape culture, or gender roles, the revenge is not caused by individual men’s failings. The men in these texts are perpetrators of harm that should be held to account but due to the framework these stories are placed in, the only resolution that these monsters can see is ripping these men limb from limb.
These women act on their pain in extraordinary ways, driven by forces that most of consumers of this media have themselves felt – rage, grief, disappointment, obsession. For Cassie in Promising Young Woman, her actions are driven by a death wish, begging for someone to hurt her by constantly putting herself in harm’s way using her righteous cause as a way to deflect from that. Amy Dunne in Gone Girl is driven by her fear of failure and a life defined by other people’s obsession with her, drilled into her from a young age by having a perfect avatar that succeeded whenever Amy fell. For Irina in Boy Parts, she wants fame – a way to prove she was always better than the men who hurt her. And Jennifer – Jennifer wants blood after a small-time indie band (composed of very of-the-era softboys) attempt to sacrifice her to the devil for their own fame and fortune.
Watching pain being made into something productive feeds into our newfound obsession to do something with every traumatic event we find ourselves in, to use the pain to become a better person, a more moral person, to create better art. The pain in this media is twofold. There is the pain being experienced by the female monster and the pain that she inflicts on others. The violence in this genre is cyclical, and women who consume it know these stories all too well. We can infer enough about their monsters’ traumas without ever having to relive it with them. As Fiona Apple put it in an interview discussing her own rape: “It’s such a fuckin’ old pain that, you know, there’s nothing poetic about it.” Most of the catharsis in this genre doesn’t stem from watching another hurt woman walk around, the catharsis comes when she takes over and begins enacting pain on others.
To create a female monster, you have to deviate from the usual homogeneous, heterosexual drive that female characters are often endowed with. This deviation does not mean these characters do not have the same chance of falling flat as their rom-com counterparts, but instead, these deviations mean there has to be more than a ‘get-him-back’/’find-someone-to-love-me’ issue at play. The two, rom-coms and female revenge, are different sides of the same coin. One is the modern fairy tale that tells us that amidst all our alienation and isolation there is good company, and the other proves Anne Carson’s statement that it is a treacherous thing to live beyond your myth.
When you live beyond your myth, the stakes are immediately raised. This isn’t to say these pieces of work should be consumed as straightforward feminists texts, If you did, you would end up with some shit feminist theory. You would end up with the feminism that gave us the ‘gaslight, gatekeeper, girlboss’ meme. This kind of girlboss feminism is solely concerned with helping individual women reach the top of their career ladder through their performance of hyper-femininity (a move painted as anti-assimilation against the corporate dude-bro workplace) with capitalist goals. There is no place in this form of feminism for any sort of emancipation, liberation or radical change. It is a feminism about affecting an individual’s circumstances, not that of a community. If you need to, you could read these stories as a bad parable for those who don’t seek to fix their past damage.
But I don’t come to these stories for theory: I go to them because I want to see women who are burned, burning or will burn. These stories present how these women were not cared for enough by their community and demonstrates the fundamental cracks that bring us to this point. In the creation of these women and often the presentation of those who are supposed to love her unconditionally, parents, spouses, friends and see how often they do not believe the circumstances of the woman they love. In being a spectator of the story we can believe her and love her, and understand where her actions are coming from.
For Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, her husband’s choice to move them back to Missouri to care for his dying mother, making Amy a housewife, begins her spiral into being ‘one of those wives’. Amy is a woman with degrees in psychology from major Ivy Leagues, raised by perfect psychologist parents who immortalised her through – Amazing Amy. It’s Amy’s ambition that drives the story. When your husband drains you for what you are and starts fucking younger women the usual response – the average response – would be to get a divorce. But Amazing Amy doesn’t get a divorce. Amazing Amy and her Bland Groom could never have irreparable differences so Real Amy sets out on a mission of monstration. Monstration is a typically Russian phenomenon, usually classified as performance art, in which something that is not real is protested. Amy sets the entire US media on an act of monstration, as she performs what the US media machine fetishes the most – the dead, white, female, pregnant victim.
In the newest contribution to this canon, Promising Young Woman, Cassie is on a path of revenge – not for an act committed directly against her, but for the sexual assault of her best friend Nina. On the surface, Cassie avenging Nina reads as an allegory for how widespread the trauma that even one act of violence can cause. However, Cassie fulfils every stereotype of the early twenties male that when you tell him you’ve been assaulted when they tell you “I’ll fucking kill the guy that did that to you”. They often don’t realise that when you’re working towards your recovery you’re past the point of violence against your assaulter being comforting. Cassie takes this common threat of abstract male violence as an attempt to comfort and puts a distinctly feminine call to action to it. She fakes being blackout drunk at bars, waiting for men to prey on her and take her home before she can chastise them and make them think about what they’ve done. After running into ex-classmate Ryan, played by Bo Burnham, Cassie is set on a more direct course of action to avenge Nina’s death.
The faltering politics of Promising Young Woman feel as if they’re disguised by the hyperfeminine and rather literal aesthetics of the film. Once we get into the real revenge of the film, we see Cassie furthering the gendered violence that was inflicted on Nina by inflicting the most brutal psychological violence on women, whereas the men Cassie stakes revenge on are thrown into turmoil by something distinctly external to Cassie. While Cassie targets the individuals who were a part of what happened to Nina, two women and one now incredibly guilt-filled man, she is ultimately killed by Nina’s rapist. But in Cassie’s death, and her post-mortem plan of revenge, it’s shown that Cassie’s crusade was never about Nina. It was about Cassie being the one left behind with all the pain and nowhere to put it down.
I grew up during an era of ‘girls help girls’ feminism – which looking back on it, was a deflection from any real critique of neo-liberal white feminism and paved the way to the girlboss feminism. When I turn to revenge media, I’m looking for something that offers me female rage and then shows me the utilisation of it. Often these stories take abstract institutions and put them as a figurehead in one male individual. In Jennifer’s Body, it’s a douchebag played by Adam Brody who embodies the paedophilic abuse that ran rampant in the pop-punk scene who is killed by the same weapon he used to turn Jennifer into a demon. In Gone Girl, Amy traps Nick into marriage, thus removing his autonomy in the same way he removed hers. It feels wrong, it feels grey, but ultimately it satisfies a bloodlust. In Promising Young Woman, Cassie is crushed under the weight of rape culture rather than the newfound control over their lives or revenge her counterparts receive.
The majority of theory surrounding female monsters is contingent on female sexuality being the defining factor of feminine revenge. But at their core, stories of female monsters are stories of the cycle of trauma. Cathy Caruth’s theory of trauma tells us we have to heal the wound to stop the screaming. These are the stories of the women sick of their own screams. The female monster is perpetually stuck in the social situation that has hurt her and has taught her this cycle of harm. What the world forces us to go through would make a monster out of anyone, so is it really a surprise that some of us are drawn to self-righteous women, bent and breaking laws and stepping on other people to redistribute the pain they have felt. And while the critics have weight behind their complaints of these stories crowding out the possibility of depictions of healing in the media, in the narrow scope of the genre, and the carceral nature of the stories, maybe they just hate to see a girlboss winning.