This guest post by Melissa-Kelly Franklin appears as part of our theme week on Violent Women.
The apocryphal notion that women are intrinsically sensitive, gentle and maternal is an old one, so we rarely see aggressive women in film and television unless they’re either trying to protect themselves or are seriously unhinged. Sara Century writes that female characters are “so often victims, but even when they’re violent criminals, that violence is either quickly punished, or it’s normalised and reduced by audiences and creators alike.” It would seem that even the notion that women could stray so far from their natures as to be capable of serious violence is utterly inconceivable outside the context of self-preservation, or the protection of children. Well-trodden is the trope that a woman would do absolutely anything to protect her child; so violent acts by women can be easily explained away with the justification that their maternal instincts are kicking in, thereby restoring women to their place in the “natural order.” Similarly, rape-revenge is often used as a catalyst for driving women to violence, using rape as a means of pushing a character to her extreme, thereby asserting that only horrific trauma can compel a woman to act outside of socially constructed notions of gender. Neither of these reasons are shallow or unjustified – and I’d much rather see a female character take control, retaliate and fight back, than see her as a passive victim. However, what these more commonplace depictions of violent women do, is silence other motivations which might see women as actively engaging in calculated acts of violence for personal and political reasons.
Portrayals of calculated violence by women are few and far between. Sure, there is the recently released Suffragette, which portrays the militant action of the London-based suffragette movement, but as others have highlighted, it’s taken a good 100 years for that to see the light of day; and other celebrated examples of female violence in films like Alien and Terminator see women forced into violence to protect themselves and their families. (Megan Kearns wrote an interesting piece for Bitch Flicks about Sarah Connor’s identity being inextricably tied to motherhood and her baby-making potential.) So whether she’s saving her biological children, or her wider human “family,” these violent women subliminally remind us that women’s role in society is as nurturer, protector and mother.
Two films that throw the proverbial spanner in the patriarchal works are the feminist vampire films Byzantium by Neil Jordan, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ana Lily Amirpour. The acts of violence by the female protagonists are terrifying, swift, and socially subversive. They target misogynistic representatives of the patriarchal society that oppresses and silences women, taking them out one by one. Both films reflect the social anxieties surrounding such subversive women – the notion that violent women violate the very laws of nature – making these idealised givers of life quite literally, harbingers of death. The subversion of traditional gender constructs within these films depict women actively working outside social norms, effectively using violent women within the vampire genre as a symbol of feminist activism.
In Byzantium, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are a vampire mother and daughter duo living rough and on the run from a vampire brotherhood – all because Clara had the gall to disobey their sexist code forbidding women from creating more of their kind. As Katherine Murray discerningly points out, this is a rare vampire film where the vampire-protagonists are not rolling in cash or occupying vast estates, suggesting that we can easily attribute this to “the lack of opportunity they’ve had as women.” For over a century Clara and Eleanor have been relentlessly pursued by the brotherhood with the intention of killing the “aberration” that is Eleanor, thus restoring the status quo within their previously exclusive invitation-only boys club. Jordan introduces us to Clara and Eleanor’s desperate situation in a high-octane chase at the start of the film, which culminates in Clara’s capture. Believing he is close to finally achieving their aim, one of Clara’s assailants tells her, “I feel a great peace. As if order is about to be restored.” From the outset the film establishes an Us vs Them dichotomy, emphasising how everyone who chooses to function outside of patriarchal gender constructs is inevitably punished. Clara’s response? She shuts him up by taking off his head.
It appears throughout the film that Clara’s prevailing motivation is to protect the life of her daughter, making her one of the “violent mother” character types, but her acts of violence clearly go beyond protecting her daughter. Clara and Eleanor are targeted because they dared to violate the sacred code of the vampire brotherhood (a not even thinly veiled allusion to patriarchy) and the balance of power must be restored. The brotherhood is not actively seeking Clara’s death, rather they want to destroy the product of her disobedience – the reminder that Clara is the loose cannon that refuses to conform to their arbitrary gender rules. In their world, women are even denied the intrinsically feminine power to reproduce, as “women aren’t permitted to create.” While it is resoundingly clear that Clara would go to any lengths to protect her daughter, she is also driven by the desire for freedom so they can live unfettered by social rules which say they cannot do, say or share the same privileges that men enjoy. Clara’s deeply felt respect for individuality, freedom and personhood is made poignantly clear at the end of the film, when she acknowledges that Eleanor should make her own way in the world and discover her identity apart from being a daughter.
The boys gather to chat about whether Clara (Gemma Arterton) should be allowed to join their vampire club
Clara’s targeted attacks against patriarchy aren’t limited to members of the vampire brotherhood. The exploitation and persecution of women is also seen in the human world of the film. Desperate and struggling women are seen throughout the first half of the film, from the lone, drugged girl that Eleanor discovers barely conscious on a park bench, to the sex-worker being taunted by promises of a cigarette by the pimp in the amusement park. Clara sees an opportunity to gather together these women and free them from the power of the odious pimp, by first seducing him, then killing him. Clara’s rescue of the girls may well be self-motivated, but by taking them out of the hands of the pimp and into her matriarchy at the Byzantium hotel, she provides them with a safer, cleaner and fairer environment in which to work. And in case we didn’t get that this act of violence was done for a good cause, she croons to his corpse, “the world will be a better place without you.”
While we might laud Clara’s vigilantism, we feel conflicted in our admiration for her badass defiance of convention in the high-tension scene where she kills Eleanor’s teacher. We struggle more with this kill than previous ones, as the teacher is well-intentioned, inspires his students and is genuinely concerned for Eleanor’s welfare. It’s clear that Clara undertakes this execution to keep their secret and preserve their liberty, but the way she relishes her torturous performance leading up to the kill is chilling. We get a brief insight into why Clara isn’t about to take any risks on letting this man live. She tells him that once “I made a fatal error. I was merciful.” That mercy lead to the rape of her daughter, and her punishment for saving her is to be pursued for over a century by a brotherhood that seeks their destruction. While the murder is not justifiable, it’s understandable that Clara would have some serious issues trusting educated white men in positions of authority, and would not give pause to eliminating the threat. This scene reveals the desperation and degradation of the individual – and the wider repercussions – when denied all agency and personhood.
On the hunt: Clara’s first kill as a newborn vampire
Female agency – or lack thereof – is a similarly prevalent theme in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Like Clara and Eleanor of Byzantium, the women in Amirpour’s film are searching for a way to free themselves from patriarchal oppression. Sex-worker Atti (Mozhan Marno) saves every cent and dreams of escaping Bad City to explore the places marked out on the huge map on her wall, and even the more privileged daughter of a wealthy family feels the need to conform to conventional beauty standards by having a nose-job. Only the Girl (i.e. the vampire protagonist played by Sheila Vand) moves freely about the city, addressing oppression with her own form of violent justice. The title of the film effectively draws on the inherent vulnerability ascribed to a lone woman at night in order to subvert our expectations of the narrative. In this film, the girl walking home alone is not the potential victim, but rather, the predator. In a nail-biting, but darkly comic illustration of this idea, the Girl meets a sweet, good-looking young man named Arash (Arash Marandi), drugged up from a party and dressed as Dracula. In his stupor he assures her that he wont hurt her, and in delicious moment of dramatic irony, we know that the Girl may well hurt him. Fortunately for Arash, something about his lost-kitten like vulnerability touches her, and a romantic connection between them develops.
Will she or won’t she? The Girl takes Arash home after finding him lost and alone one night
The Girl’s acts of violence are never gratuitous. Her first kill of the film is the pimp, Saeed, whom she witnesses taunt Atti and refuse to pay her, forcing her perform oral sex as an inducement. The Girl observes from a distance with eerie, omnipotent stillness. When Saeed later takes the Girl home and attempts to get physical with her (his seductive dance moves are met with a subtle eye-roll from the Girl which is just priceless), she attacks him, drinks him dry and steals his valuables to give to Atti later. As Ren Jender suggests, this vampire is a vigilante who stalks the streets of Bad City satiating her hunger only on exploitative men who mistreat desperate women.
Later in the film we see Arash’s drug-riddled father visit Atti. He watches her dance sensually, then insists that they share some drugs. When she refuses adamantly, making it clear she doesn’t want any of Hossein’s kind of “good time,” he decides to enforce the ‘fun’. In a moment looking disturbingly like a potential rape, he whips off his belt, binds Atti’s hands and violates her by forcibly injecting the drugs. While stalking the streets nearby, the Girl’s hypersensitive instincts alert her to Atti’s situation, and she swoops in like an avenging angel to show Hossein once and for all that no means no.
There is one terrifyingly menacing scene when the Girl probes a little boy with questions, asking if he is good. “Don’t lie” she hisses, terrorising him with the threat of taking out his eyes if he’s ever bad. It’s an easy conclusion to draw that by ‘good’ she means not growing up to become like the exploitative men of Bad City. The threatened eye-gouging punishment is a clear symbol of her preventing him from ever seeing, and thereby objectifying women. While there is no physical violence in this moment, the mere threat of it is enough to achieve her aim. The Girl is the stuff of misogynists’ nightmares.
“I’ll be watching,” the Girl warns the Street Urchin, and she always is
Both Byzantium and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night suggest that action against sexism and misogyny should be targeted and dramatic. Society has always deemed violent women as creatures to be feared, as by eschewing established gender structures they are unpredictable and uncontrollable, violating the supposedly natural laws that define their femininity. That’s not to say these films encourage bloody, criminal violence, rather they advocate the rejection of restrictive social constructs of femininity in redressing gender imbalance, using violent women characters as a potent symbol of feminist activism.
Melissa–Kelly Franklin is an international filmmaker, writer and actress collaborating in London, Bristol and Berlin. She holds an honours degree in English Literature and History, with one film soon to be released and another cooking in pre-production. Updates about her work can be found at melissa-kellyfranklin.tumblr.