Women, in America's traditional view, are moral creatures. Justice and Liberty? Ladies both. Since ousting the Red Coats, American politicians have been lionizing "the republican mother": a woman who stays within the domestic sphere, but shapes her country by instilling her inherent virtues in young patriots. Killing Eve's hilariously brutal assassin, Villanelle, would have flown their wigs.
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She's not the only one. Women behave badly on television often now. It's not exactly new—murderous, scorned women are a crime show staple—but the tone has shifted. Villanelle and TV's other killer women don't just slay, say, cheating husbands, they take down truly odious adversaries: racists, rapists, men who dress women up like dolls. In the Netflix zombie comedy Santa Clarita Diet, Drew Barrymore's Sheila literally eats a men's rights activist alive. (The Santa Clarita Diet, you see, involves dining exclusively on horrible people.) On Killing Eve, Villanelle's targets are often prescribed (she's an assassin, after all), but she often executes them through methods made easier by the fact that they've underestimated her because she's a woman.
It's hard not to grin when Villanelle kills a creep with a knitting needle and a toilet brush or when Sheila rips a neo-Nazi's throat out with her shiny realtor teeth. A similar feeling comes from watching Arya Stark dispatch Littlefinger after everything he inflicted on her sister. It's savage; it's overtly gendered and political. It is also oddly grin-inducing. In other words, it's Tumblr.
Digital feminism has developed a very specific comedic sensibility, an in-jokey penchant for irony and shock that's both rallying cry and defense mechanism. That iconic mug of male tears is only a joke, but is also a digital signpost: "No Trolls Allowed (Or Tolerated)." Over the last few years, especially in the wake of #MeToo, that humor has made its way out of niche online spaces and onto more and different screens. But it's not male tears they're drinking. The women are shamelessly (sometimes literally) gulping down blood.
Women criminals have always carried disproportionate weight in the cultural imagination. "If a woman kills her children, news stories will call her a modern-day Medea," says Jennifer Cavenaugh, who studies the depiction of women criminals on television at Rollins College. "Every Greek drama ever written ends with a pile of bodies, and most of the time it's men who are killing or even eating them. But 'modern-day Agamemnon' means nothing.'" (Agamemnon is Ancient Greece's Stannis Baratheon: a jerk who sacrifices his daughter so the gods grant him good fortune in war.)
The criminal woman who gets turned into a metaphor becomes incandescent in media during times of strong feminist resurgence: Mata Hari was executed just as flappers started swinging, and Aileen Wuornos' killing spree—the one chronicled in Monster—coincides with the rise of second wave feminism. According to Cavenaugh, the message is always the same: "'Look what women will do when they are not properly socialized in their normal gender roles.'" Most often, the media portrays these women as deviant and/or mannish (Wuornos, Lorena Bobbitt) or exceptionally lascivious (Wuornos again, Mata Hari, the whole notion of femme fatales). Whatever picture the news paints, it's always implicitly a diptych. The criminal is made to look all the more "unnatural" by the republican mother beside her.
Places like Tumblr are feminist training grounds, environments in which to build the communication skills and attitudes needed to not just put up with the internet's sexist culture and humor, but to try to change them.
Once again, we are living in a time of strong feminist resurgence. On screens and in real life, society has barely diverged from the "beware the deviant woman" script. It echoes through the coverage of Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos founder. It echoes through the trials of women who are convicted of domestic murder cases. (A recent study found that judges frequently remark on their failure to conform to feminine stereotypes, and give them harsher, longer sentences than men who committed the same crime.) Society sees each woman as a gender-wide warning sign, but meanwhile "an individual male threat stays individual," Cavenaugh says.
Killing Eve and Santa Clarita Diet's total lack of shame is somewhere between magic and obscenity. Their plots go beyond the tropes of female murderers to show women enacting cheerfully brutal revenge fantasies for an entire gender in revolt. "I'm not saying we should go out and eat men, but maybe it has to be shocking. The baby steps aren't quick enough for some people," says Emilie Lawrence, a PhD student at University College London who studies online feminism. "It's almost as if there's a rumbling, with the rise of ironic misandry online and these shows that are part of it in a sort of neo-capitalist way. It's clever." To Lawrence, places like Tumblr are feminist training grounds, environments in which to build the communication skills and attitudes needed to not just put up with the internet's sexist culture and humor, but to try to change them. Maybe these shows are just the next step, online skills and jokes getting bolder, and being applied offline. Coming soon: Male Tears: The Movie.
It almost seems to have happened naturally. Now that women have colonized the internet, they can use those tools to advocate for better representation, for more women TV writers, for better casting, for women directors. "It's not a deliberate affront," Lawerence says. "It's a default result of letting women do more work and say what they want to see." Right now, women need a release valve. Dark as it is, they apparently want to see bad men die.
Vicariously working off some aggression through fictional characters is fine. It's probably even healthy—but only to a point. "For me, ironic misandry and the rise of these violent women does a disservice," Lawrence says. "It ignores real toxic masculinity and shifts the focus to how abnormal it is for women to be violent." Put another way, the patriarchy is bad, but so's murder. Seeing someone take out a creep can be fun; a world with less to avenge would be even better.
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