Women & Vigilantism in American Popular Culture

Contrary to Ray Abrahams’ assertion that women have had little or no part in vigilantism outside the Ku Klux Klan in American history (1999: p.137), female vigilantism is evident on the American screen from its earliest conception; this indicates a more subtle yet distinct engagement with vigilantism as a means through which female concerns and anxieties have been consistently represented and mediated through film and television, albeit in a less obvious way than male acts of vigilantism. Female vigilantism can therefore be considered an ingrained part of screen depictions of the topic, and is important in its own right.

Women are shown to generally have a healthier and all-together different relationship with vigilantism than men on the screen, wherein they can be seen to embrace the transformative potential of vigilantism, rather than the destructive version offered by men. Discussing rape-revenge films, Jacinda Read writes: ‘The endurance of the rape-revenge film suggests that the stories it attempts to make sense of must themselves be understood as complex, changeable, problematic and ongoing rather than as authentic singular or static moments.’ (p.11) With this in mind, the continual representation of female-led vigilantism, be it in rape-revenge or other cycles of film, suggests an ongoing affiliation between women and vigilantism wherein it can express women’s relationship to society at any given moment. Indeed, female vigilantes appeared in early 1920s American melodramas, such as The Fall of a Nation and The Crimson Challenge (Paul Powell, 1922, Lasky Corporation, US), and in Westerns such as Judy of Rogue’s Harbour (William D. Taylor, 1920, RealArt Pictures, US). Thus such films and their portrayal of female vigilante content can be viewed as a direct response to the war effort and women’s suffrage. Supporting this observation, yet failing to link female representations of vigilantism in films with these themes, Jowett states that, after 1912, ‘America’s filmmakers at long last turned to rather controversial themes, such as the women’s suffrage movement, white slavery, political corruption…’ (1976: p.63). Similarly prolific leading up to and during the Second World War, female vigilantes and mob members regularly punctuate ‘B’ Westerns and crime films in that era, making clear that women and vigilantism on the American screen, whilst not as obvious as males, should not be overlooked and require a degree of revision in their own right.

The appearance of the rape-revenge cycle in the 1970s marks a significant shift to women’s more obvious engagement with vigilantism on the American screen. Indeed, the very personal, invasive and violating nature of rape depicted in the cycle underscores crucial differences between this to other vigilante cycles discussed which, whilst at times motivated by personal attacks and grievances, do not focus their revenge so directly and critically towards men and violent male culture. There is nevertheless a tendency amongst theorists such as Carol Clover (1992: p.115) and David A. Cook to discuss the rape-revenge cycle as simply an off-shoot of vigilante-cop films, which somewhat undermines this critical potential. For instance, Cook states that Death Wish spawned its own imitations ‘and a “feminist” rape-revenge cycle,’ which overlooks the relevance and natural evolution of rape-revenge and female acts of vigilantism as part of a continued mediation on women’s role and place in history, society and culture (2000: p.192). Further weakening this limited perception of rape-revenge narratives, Belton argues that the importance of exploitation films in creating popularity for contemporary and controversial content and topics should not be overlooked (p.335).

Restricted discussions of rape-revenge also extend to theorists such as Barbara Creed (1991: pp.122-138) and Clover (pp.114-165), as noted by Read, who exposes their ‘tendency to locate rape-revenge within the horror genre.’ (p.23) Titles discussed in this context by Clover and Creed include I Spit on your Grave and Ms .45. Indeed, Read’s own discussions of a 1980s and 1990s shift towards maternal and parental rape-revenge in action, thriller and suspense films such as Eye for an Eye (John Schlesinger, 1996, Paramount Pictures, US) and A Time to Kill (Joel Schumacher, 1996, Warner Bros., US) allude to the continued social significance of the female vigilante on the American screen. Read argues that such shifts came about in response to the emergence of the New Right in the 1980s and ‘anxieties about capitalism and increasing calls in the 1990s for a more morally restrained capitalism centred around family values.’ (p.17) Thus, the mutable and constantly evolutionary appearance of vigilantism on the American screen in response to ideological and male expectations, social conditions and female-centred concerns is evident, and should not be overlooked.

Popular cultural depictions of female vigilantes, such as those like victim-turned-vigilante-turned-transformed survivor Lumen in Dexter, reflect a wider shift in American popular culture since the late-1990s. This shift focuses on increasingly uncompromised images of women that survive abuse and victimisation, rather being consumed by it or revenge. These other representations also often significantly challenge or redefine patriarchal norms, such as Bea (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003, A Band Apart, US), and Hayley (Ellen Page) in Hard Candy (David Slade, 2006, Vulcan Productions, US). Indeed, other television shows have also engaged with more radical depictions of female vigilantism. For instance, strong female superhero Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a vigilante who fights forces of evil that police cannot face or even comprehend, ultimately transcending patriarchal confines to present matriarchy, female autonomy and empowerment as freeing and highly positive concepts. Similarly, in Xena: Warrior Princess (Rob Tapert, et al, Studios, USA, 1995-2001, US), female warrior Xena (Lucy Lawless) helps those in need on her travels as she attempts to atone for her own dark past, akin to the anti-hero of the Western. Whilst not obviously vigilantes, such themes allude to the spirit of vigilantism, therefore the shows should be revisited accordingly beyond this book. Representations like those discussed above further reinforce the significance of television in providing an extended space for alternative narratives and topics to unfold alongside distinctly feminist themes and concerns, as discussed in the Introduction. Such heroic and ‘super’ images of women also foreshadow and allude to the increasing significance of female superheroes in post-9/11 American culture, evident in films such as Watchmen, The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012, Marvel Studios, US) and The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012, Warner Bros., US).

The female vigilante superhero is a figure that will no doubt develop a distinct cycle of its own, and is an increasingly prolific character in American popular culture. In the immediate sense of existing in movie worlds of or dominated by male superheroes, signs of early progress are evident. For instance, in The Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015, Marvel Studios, US), female superhero Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) back-story is developed to present her relationship with vigilantism in a sympathetic and overtly feminised light, suggesting a merging of emotional depth with personal trauma not seen before in blockbuster and mainstream superhero films. Similarly, it is of note that Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) saves the day by defeating the villain alone after the narrative predominantly explores the tension between socially beneficial and socially destructive vigilantism caused by male vigilantes. More so, the female vigilante is finally getting a look in on television too, with shows like Arrow (2012-), Legends of Tomorrow (2016-), Supergirl (2015-) and Jessica Jones (2015-) all offering uncompromising and strong images of women who use vigilantism on their own terms. This suggests that female vigilantism is becoming more predominant and crucially offers an alternative to male acts of vigilantism, underscoring the significance of both the Superhero genre in lending itself to vigilante themes and in paving the way for positive, oppositional female vigilantes that challenge and undermine patriarchal and cultural norms. vigilantenation.com can’t wait to see what happens next!



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About Dr Maddie Smith

Writer, blogger, independent academic & tutor, and owner of Paris Lens Tours. Knowledge addict and sharer. Life's too short not to follow your dreams! The future is ours.
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