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13 February 2017

Prevenge: in a world of male violence, seeing monstrous women is a thrill

Why I love watching women commit acts of violence on screen. 

By Sarah Ditum

The best thing you’ll see in the cinema this year is a big man called DJ Dan looking down in horror as he realises that the thing slithering down his leg and onto his living room floor is his testicle, unleashed from its ballsack by the knife held by heavily pregnant Ruth (played by Alice Lowe). Or, if the death-by-castration of DJ Dan – an entirely appropriate response to his pick-up patter about the easiness of “fat birds” – doesn’t grab you, maybe one of the other grisly highlights of Lowe’s maternity-slasher movie Prevenge will.

You could choose Ruth sitting astride a man and ramming a gilt statue through his eye-socket; or Ruth butchering a chilly businesswoman who smirkingly explains at the end of a job interview that it just wouldn’t make sense to hire a woman who’s about to have a baby. And all of it is accompanied by the insinuating whisper of Ruth’s foetus, who seems to be talking to her from the womb, urging “mummy” to greater acts of violence. As Ruth’s gratingly sincere midwife tells her: “Baby knows what to do.” 

There’s an extra thrill to watching in knowing that, not only is the main character pregnant, but so is the mastermind behind all this on-screen gore: while Prevenge employs a wealth convincing prosthetics, Lowe’s bump isn’t one of them. She wrote, directed and starred in the film while pregnant. It’s hard to think of any film that better captures the nightmare side of pregnancy. Maybe Alien, and even Alien only managed it by pointing out how awful it would be if men were the ones hosting strangers in their bellies.

Prevenge shows the sheer bloody mentalness of pregnancy. On the one hand, there’s the fear a woman feels about what having a baby will do to her body and her life – in interviews, Lowe has said that it partly sprang from her anxiety that being a mother might mean never working again. On the other, there’s the cultural command that you be more blissfully happy than ever before (and if you’re not then you’re a terrible mummy). Between the two, it’s hardly surprising that most pregnant women feel part-deranged at least part of the time. Why don’t more of us fill our baby books with murder scribbles like Ruth?

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But it’s not just pregnant women who I like to see committing acts of savage bloodletting. Contemplating all kinds of fictional female violence gives me a deep and holy satisfaction. After the US presidential election result, there was a time when the only thing getting me through the day was thinking about Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, and imagining what I would do if nature handed me the ability to deliver electric shocks that the book gives to women: what I’d do, it turns out, is make a list of men I blame for Trump and go around discharging volts into them.

I loved Under the Skin, where Scarlett Johansson’s seductive alien can’t be penetrated by anything – she can’t even swallow even food – but can consume men by absorbing them in scenes of dark and abstract horror. I loved Ex Machina, where robot Ava (played by Alicia Vikander) turns on her creator and takes her revenge: she isn’t even really female, what with being an AI performing a man’s idea of femininity, but watching her rise up and batter the men who imprisoned and exploited her still made my heart sing.

I loved Audition, which starts like a romantic comedy with a man interviewing potential brides, and ends somewhere else completely when the woman he picks (Eihi Shiina) turns out to be much less submissive and much more torture-y than expected. I could argue that all these things are feminist – and some of those arguments would be more of a stretch than others – but the truth is I just like them, and liking something doesn’t make it righteous.

Becoming the monster is seductive, but the idea that women are dangerous or monstrous has always been used to justify the things men do to us. It’s witch trial logic. It’s the same logic that went into 1987’s Fatal Attraction, a film that (according to Susan Faludi in Backlash) male audiences watched with gleeful cries of “kill the bitch” as Glenn Close’s vengeful character was finally dispatched, taking all those unwelcome pretensions of female liberation with her. It’s the logic that gives front-page coverage to rare real-life female killers, while regular femicide goes unreported.

If women are bad, then it’s only self-defence when men strike us down. But if we’re naturally good, then we could never hit back or hit first, and the fantasy of hitting back or hitting first is a nice one, especially if it’s not really your fault because an evil foetus made you. That’s the joy of DJ Dan’s bollock: a short and gloriously cathartic holiday in being the one who makes others cringe, rather than the one who does the cringing. The future is female. Fear us.