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From Khloe Kardashian to Taylor Swift: is it healthy to use revenge to motivate yourself?

Could the current cultural celebration of vengeance cause us psychological and societal harm? 

The premise of Khloe Kardashian’s Revenge Body – which began its second season this week – is very simple, if a little nonsensical. Participants on the show visit the third Kardashian sister to complain about someone – sometimes a mum or a friend, but most commonly an ex – who has told them to lose weight. Khloe then helps them to do it. This action, of internalising someone’s insult and dramatically altering your lifestyle in order to obtain their ideal version of your body, is presented as revenge. Someone told me to lose weight, so I did. That’ll show ‘em!

The faulty logic of the show does not change the fact that in recent years, the concept of a “revenge body” has become extremely popular. Khloe first debuted the term after signing her divorce papers in 2015, and use of the phrase has increased dramatically since her show premiered in January 2017. Though improving yourself after a breakup may seem a tale as old as time, Khloe has now both popularised and normalised the concept of getting hot as a form of vengeance. “A great body is the best revenge,” she declares in the opening credits of every episode of the show.

Much has been written about how problematic this premise is, as it clearly and unapologetically advocates changing your life for someone other than yourself, upholds society’s beauty standards, and promotes unhealthy motivations for losing weight. Yet the show is also part of a larger cultural moment in which revenge is being commodified and glorified in the media. Beyond the obvious issues Revenge Body presents about body-shaming-people-while-claiming-to-take-down-bodyshamers, is there a danger in glamorising revenge? Is it healthy to use revenge as a way to motivate yourself?

“People expect lashing out at someone who hurt them to make them feel better,” says Professor C. Nathan DeWall, a professor of social psychology who has undertaken multiple studies on revenge. He explains that brain imaging studies have actually proven that the same areas of the brain are activated when someone enacts revenge as when they’re doing something pleasurable like eating cake or having sex – but there’s a catch.

“What we find is that when people seek revenge after social rejection, it doesn’t make them feel elated, it doesn’t make them the happiest person on earth, it simply resets them to where they were before the rejection happened,” he says. “This is the false promise of revenge, that people think they’re going to be happier than they were before. Actually, they’ll get back to where they started.”

Glorifying revenge as a shortcut to happiness is therefore arguably troubling, but the trend isn’t going anywhere. The songs of Taylor Swift have always been threaded with a note of vengeance, from the literal in 2010’s “Mean” (“Someday I’ll be living in a big old city / And all you’re ever gonna be is mean”), to the even-more-literal in 2017’s “Look What You Made Me Do” (“Ooh, look what you made me do / Look what you made me do / Look what you just made me do / Look what you just made me –”) Swift's gothic new look when she debuted her latest album, Reputation, arguably means her body and face were used as revenge in a similar way to Kardashian's show.  

On television, Just Tattoo of Us takes the concept of bodily revenge even further, by encouraging family, friends, and couples to choose each other very real and very permanent tattoos. In one episode, Geordie Shore star Holly Hagan gets revenge on her ex by having her face tattooed onto his leg. In another, a different reality star breaks up with her boyfriend by giving him a tattoo of a dumpster emblazoned with the word “dumped”. Online, people frequently go viral for their stories of revenge, whether it’s a woman rejecting her former bully who asked her out, or a man spell-checking and grading his ex-girlfriend’s apology letter.

“Be Careful Who You Call Ugly In Middle School” is the internet meme equivalent of Khloe Kardashian’s Revenge Body, in which someone uploads a picture of themselves looking “ugly” as a child next to an up-to-date picture in which they look attractive. The trend originated as a way to challenge bullying, but much like Kardashian’s show, it relies on proving that the person who insulted you is technically, not morally, wrong. “You’re wrong because I’m hot now,” is a vastly different message from “You’re wrong to judge people’s worth based on their appearance”.

DeWall explains that the reward mechanisms in our brain that provide us with pleasure for seeking revenge are “very ancient” and “something that humans, monkeys, cows, and even dogs have”. A desire for revenge can therefore be almost instinctual, particularly after rejection. “Social rejection is one of the biggest threats that people can experience because relationships are necessary for survival,” he adds. Yet although we assume that seeking revenge will give us pleasure, DeWall says he “wouldn’t recommend” the concept of a revenge body.

“Here’s the thing,” he says, “there are healthier ways to restore your mood than seeking revenge.”

Children’s movies, music, and literature are laden with messages about turning the other cheek and finding it in your heart to forgive. As these children become teens, they are now confronted with songs, memes, and TV shows which glorify and normalise vengeance. Before the new season of Revenge Body started, a young person took to Twitter to share their thoughts about the show. “Revenge body by khloe kardashian makes me want to hit the gym and lose all the weight i don't even have,” they wrote. Although arguably a joke, it highlights the problems inherent in pop culture’s glorification of revenge. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game