The Rise Of The Female Vigilante In Pop Culture

And still she persisted

by Naomi Elias

Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz made national headlines in 2014 for her senior art thesis, “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” a long-term performance art project that involved carrying her dorm room mattress—which she identified as the site of her alleged rape—around campus with her. Sulkowicz pledged to carry the mattress—a prop-cum-metaphor for her burden—every day until her graduation or until the school intervened and expelled her alleged rapist. On graduation day, she and the man she accused of rape were still attending the same school, so she carried her mattress onto the graduation stage with her where Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, infamously refused to shake her hand as she walked across the threshold. 

Two years later a rape survivor from Stanford University wrote a letter to her rapist that went so viral it reached the White House and prompted then-Vice President Joe Biden to write an open letter to her, in which he called the sexual assault statistics at American colleges to be “a failure that lies at all our feet.” According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be sexually assaulted while attending college. Statistically, rape is one of the most underreported crimes, with two out of three rapes going unreported. Of those that are reported and processed, only six out of every 1,000 cases end in the incarceration of the assailant. This not only results in glaring injustice toward sexual assault victims, but it also contributes to the existence of rape culture, an atmosphere in which sexual violence is normalized. Sulkowicz’s artistic protest and the Stanford survivor's letter became unofficial sexual assault awareness campaigns for a national audience. And that audience is not only watching the horrors of rape culture played out in real life, but also in popular culture.

Last year, MTV premiered Sweet/Vicious, a show explicitly dealing with rape culture on a college campus. (Just last week, it was announced that the show would not be renewed for further seasons.) Sweet/Vicious was a peculiar show for MTV. It has the channel’s obvious calling cards, a youthful and attractive cast, but its subject matter is unusually political and timely; the show premiered in the fall of last year, a week after the presidential election. Sweet/Vicious follows a preppy blonde college sorority girl whose daily concerns never evolve beyond schoolwork and the Greek social scene by day, but who, when night falls, becomes a ruthless black-clad enforcer who beats confessions out of her campus’ accused rapists. 

The show has rightfully drawn comparisons to Veronica Mars, the mid-2000s cult hit that was part teen drama and part crime procedural. There are obvious similarities, as both were led by strong female protagonists who are rape survivors channeling their trauma into helping others. But there are noteworthy differences. Veronica’s line of work runs parallel with the law; she earns an official private investigator license and takes on clients who typically pay her to solve cases. Also, as an investigator, Veronica is a generalist; her cases vary in content from missing pets to unsolved murder. 

Jules Thomas, the protagonist of Sweet/Vicious, has given up hope in legal recourse and is a single-issue avenger. Her goal is to clarify one point and one point only: There is no such thing as non-consensual sex, there is sex and there is rape. Jules’ nightscapades are stumbled upon by a fellow student named Ophelia, who is a brilliant but directionless stoner. In the show’s second episode, “The Writing’s on the Wall,” the two women find themselves at the local police station on other business. While there, Ophelia bumps into a young woman who is distraught because she’s been made to wait for hours while trying to file a sexual assault claim. With each passing minute that her grievance is sidelined, the girl visibly loses her resolve until finally, she leaves without reporting. It’s clear she’s feeling helpless and alone. It’s also clear that she’s not a priority for the police. This becomes Ophelia’s call to arms, the moment she commits herself to Jules’ cause. It’s the scene that puts the entire mission into focus as the audience locks in on exactly what is driving the vigilante, and the show itself. 

In 2016 The Atlantic’s preeminent culture critic Ta-Nehisi Coates released his much-anticipated first issue of Marvel’s Black Panther comic. The issue was the first in a new series that found Black Panther, the leader of the highly advanced, fictional African nation of Wakanda, in crisis. Over the course of the illustrated pages, Coates details the ways the young ruler, T’Challa, has lost the trust of his people as a mounting sense of chaos looms. While the Black Panther’s story arc is generally confined to hammering this point home, elsewhere in the pages, another pair of heroes, or rather heroines, receives a thrilling origin story. In one panel, the Black Panther’s mother, Wakanda’s queen, is discussing the imprisonment of Aneka, an esteemed member of an all-female royal guard known as dora milaje. The queen seems conflicted about her treatment of Aneka, who had been jailed for killing a man from her village who had been abusing women. However, as a member of the country’s ruling family, the queen is hampered by her fidelity to traditional rule of law and cannot ignore Aneka’s crime or its punishment, death. 

But, as if by divine providence, Ayo, Aneka’s girlfriend and fellow dora milaje, arrives wearing a stolen armored suit prototype known as the Midnight Angel to spring Aneka from prison. Once free, Aneka breaks down their situation, “Ayo, they are going to kill us, so I shall speak as my dead self, which is my best self. I am tired of living and dying on the blood-right of one man.” Ayo responds, “No one man should have that much power.” Aneka’s death is not literal, but figurative; she will be leaving the patriarchal society into which she was born. But a new life awaits her. Luckily, Ayo stole two suit prototypes. 

The two are determined to work toward protecting women. They become vigilantes known as the Midnight Angels, whose mission it is to give justice to women who have no other recourse to it. In a final panel, Aneka and Ayo gather in a clearing where these words have been scorched into the earth with fire: NO ONE MAN.

History is chock-full of everyday women taking action when others default to inaction. In 2015, an uproar arose out of a South Carolina statehouse's decision to keep a Confederate battle flag flying on its lawn, less than two weeks after a white supremacist committed an act of domestic terrorism by killing nine black churchgoers in Charleston, and 150 years after the Confederates lost their cause to the North. Appeals were made to state representatives to lean on the legislative process to remove what was widely believed to be a symbol of hatred but to no avail. Then, on June 27, 2015, Bree Newsome, a black female filmmaker and activist, had enough. She climbed the flagpole and tore this symbol of patriarchal white supremacy down herself. Though she would later be arrested for this act of civil disobedience, social media lionized her for it. Calls to #FreeBree helped create a national hero, and artist Rebecca Cohen made it official with a drawing of Newsome as a black Wonder Woman. Though Amazonian by birth, Wonder Woman has come to represent the all-American womanhood and is among the most potent modern examples of feminist iconography. 

After Newsome's triumphant act, she released a statement, “I refuse to be ruled by fear. How can America be free and be ruled by fear? How can anyone be?” After another couple of weeks of heated debate from pro- and anti-flag camps South Carolina’s House of Representatives finally passed a bill calling for its removal from the statehouse grounds.

This year, Macon Blair made his directorial debut with I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a crime comedy starring Melanie Lynskey (who is, it must be said, a “constant portrayer of morose or dispirited types,” according to her own Twitter bio). Lynskey plays Ruth Kimke, a working class nursing assistant who is furious with the world but unsure where to direct that fury. She’s a powder keg ready to be set ablaze if given the right inciting incident, which arrives on schedule (this is a movie, after all) when her home is suddenly burgled. 

There have been female-driven vengeance films before—most famously Tarantino's 2003 hit Kill Bill: Vol. 1—but this goes beyond that trope. Ruth is not seeking outright vengeance. When asked what it is she wants, she exhaustedly exclaims, “For people to not be assholes!” 

Decency: It’s the lowest possible bar for human behavior, but Ruth isn’t being met with it anywhere. A man at a bar sees she’s reading a book and proceeds to spoil its plot. A cop doesn’t believe Ruth when she says her home was robbed and seems to blow off her case. He even perniciously attributes Ruth's fervent request for his assistance to a symptom of Ruth's lack of adequate medication. To top it all off, Ruth's best friend’s husband cannot summon the energy to feel for her when she goes to their house for comfort after the ordeal. 

This buildup of callousness from the world around her convinces Ruth to seek out her own justice. She partners up with her quirky martial arts-loving neighbor Tony, played by a very funny Elijah Wood, and goes on the hunt for the thieves who ransacked her home and stole some precious family heirlooms and, more importantly, her sense of safety. The ensuing adventure snowballs from a small detective story to a bloody and darkly comic examination of the criminal underworld, sexism, and status anxiety. Rolling Stone dubbed it “a Tarantino movie for the Trump era.” 

Blair displays a knack for pacing and directing action, but ultimately the film’s most noteworthy feature is its premise: The greatest societal evil is a profound lack of empathy. Ruth is a great vehicle to explore this concept, as she’s a functionally invisible woman to those around her, a particularly timely metaphor for an age where men who brag about sexual assaulting women are given meaningless slaps on the wrist or, you know, rewarded with the presidency. As a stand-in for every woman, Ruth’s rage can be magnified to account for a greater and distinctly female anger at a world that pays lip service to law and order but is by all accounts governed by chaos.

It is impossible to standardize a universal experience of the world, but there is a generalization that can be made given the consistency of history: If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice for women, it's one hell of a long arc. And it's bending at an unnervingly glacial pace. So it makes sense that when women fail to see justice play out in their real lives, they seek it out on TV and in film. It’s no coincidence that women are among the largest viewing demographic for crime dramas. They are also among one of the most vulnerable populations for most common crimes. The closure provided by fictional crime and punishment on TV offers wish fulfillment for women who can’t access justice in real life. This may also account for the preponderance of female leads or co-leads in crime dramas, a short list of which includes Law and Order: SVU, Castle, Bones, Top of the Lake, Happy Valley, Broadchurch, The Fall, The Killing, Elementary, and Marcella

But unlike these women who work within and—more importantly—trust the rule of law, female vigilantes exclusively (and by definition) deal in extra-legal justice. Also, unlike pop culture’s other female crime fighters, beloved superheroines Jessica Jones and Supergirl, these women aren’t endowed with superhuman abilities. These female vigilantes are simply average women who have a moral compass and the will to take action. 

Crucially, the catalyst for each woman’s journey to vigilantism is the indifference of a state actor. The Midnight Angels are summoned into being by a government whose traditional values are subordinating women’s rights to custom. Jules is disheartened by the way America’s legal system is hobbled by its own dense bureaucratic latticework and contributes to an appallingly low rate of criminal conviction for sex offenders. This results in Jules instituting her own de facto policy, no rapist left behind, which aims to bring the contrition if not conviction rate for sexual offenders to 100 percent. Ruth is fighting back against uninformed individuals, like the cop who abandoned his responsibility to protect her and instead dismissed her. The appearance of these female vigilantes across TV, film, and literature dovetails with a growing popular resentment of delayed justice for women. And while there's no replacement for actual justice taking place in the real world, and the continued struggle to dismantle the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and of rape culture, it can still be a relief to see that, even if it's just in popular culture, the underdog can have her day.