Girls Town. Directed by Jim McKay. New York: October Films, 1996. 90 minutes.
Foxy Brown. Directed by Jack Hill. Los Angeles: American International Pictures, 1974. 94 minutes.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Directed by Chantal Ackerman. New York: Janus Films, 1975. 201 minutes.
A friend, a prominent feminist scholar, once told a story that stuck with me. She was teaching a large introductory women’s studies course, and the 1996 film Girls Town was on the syllabus. Girls Town focuses on four young women living in New York City just before their high school graduation. One of these women, an African-American woman named Nikki, commits suicide in the aftermath of being raped. For her friends, uncovering the crime that provoked Nikki’s suicide—and her silence about it—is a wake-up call. They start to realize forms of sexual oppression they share and decide to start taking revenge. There is a particularly memorable scene in which Nikki's friends vandalize the car of a high school athlete. With the marching band playing in the background, they break his windows, slash his tires, graffiti “RAPIST” on his hood. They are tentative at first, but then begin to take real pleasure in staging this scene of violent revenge.
Though many would say that the feminist argument of Girls Town is rough and awkwardly executed, it is present nevertheless, and definitely worth teaching. The film could be taught as an important instance of what Maud Lavin identifies as the “array of positive representations of aggressive women” that has been evident in US visual culture since the 1990s.1 Though Girls Town represents the trend Lavin identifies, it is also a relatively rare cinematic depiction of women fighting back against sexist violence with a collective force that moves across the lines of racial difference, an aspect of the film that may reflect the fact that it emerged from a collectively developed script.2
In my friend’s class, however, the students expressed the strong and deeply felt opinion that the young women in Girls Town should not have taken revenge on the men who impacted their world so irrevocably. To me, this response to Girls Town attests to a pervasive and deep-seated discomfort with women not only acting out their aggressions but also wielding them for vengeful and specifically feminist purposes. The students’ negative reactions fell right in line with an entrenched tradition in which women’s aggression is, as Lavin puts it, “repressed,” “frowned upon,” and “branded as lower class.”3
Foxy Brown (1974) and Jeanne Dielman (1976) are two films from the 1970s that depict women wielding aggression in the name of feminist revenge. Together they attest to the 1970s as a period of political rupture in which women gave themselves permission—both on screen and off—to act aggressively and violently, and to do so in response to the injustices inflicted upon them by and within white patriarchal cultures.
Foxy Brown is a classic in the archive of Blaxploitation films. True to the genre it exemplifies, Foxy Brown is colorful, fast, loud, and unabashed about the fact that revenge is at the core of its visual and narrative pleasures. Foxy Brown’s story of seeking revenge exceeds the personal, and can be read as an allegory about the pursuit of racial justice. In this sense, Foxy Brown articulates an explicit but also stealth political message about the exploitation at the core of racial capitalism. With Pam Grier playing the fearless and big-hearted protagonist, the film has a lot to say about the impact of racism on black women. Indeed, Foxy Brown can be read in tandem with black feminist thought of the 1970s, which analyzes that historical conjuncture and its material demands upon women of color as reiterations of US enslavement. Crucial to the film’s feminist and antiracist message is the rape of Foxy Brown, which takes place at the ranch, a mythical site of punishment that is meant to resonate with slave plantations. This rape can be understood as a re-presentation of the systemic rape of black women in the slave economy—both as a tool of counterinsurgency wielded by white slave owners and a means by which to exploit black women’s reproductive capacities. But of course this representation isn’t only haunted by the past. It also attests to the continuance of sexual violence as a tool of sexual and racial terrorism in US culture. Graphically depicted, the rape is never mentioned again, but it silently functions as a subtext animating Foxy Brown’s revenge plot.
A classic of feminist avant-garde film, Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a sober and austere portrait of a white Belgian widow who meticulously goes about her days maintaining a household—and working as a prostitute. Ackerman’s color palette (full of light blues and mint greens) is decidedly subdued and meticulously arranged. The film’s and the protagonist’s range of motion (in all senses of the phrase) is severely limited, and to say that the narrative is minimal is an understatement. Ackerman sets the film in real time to compel viewers into her somber heroine’s life, so we see her preparing food, washing dishes, scrubbing bathtubs, repairing shoes, servicing johns, taking care of others. When she stabs a john in the neck with a pair of scissors, the violent anger viewers may have sensed just under the quotidian and immaculate surface makes itself evident. In the film’s final portrait of Jeanne Dielman, she sits at her dining table in the dark. Her hand is bloody, and her body, like the camera, is immobile for an impossibly long seven minutes. Placed in proximity to the tureen where she keeps her money, the scene evokes the aggression Jeanne Dielman has covered up in the name of respectability and the commerce that keeps it in place.
Clearly there are as many differences between these films as there are similarities. Foxy Brown’s popular address to African-American audiences is as wide and inviting as Ackerman’s depiction of bourgeois European misery is cryptic and restrained. But I think the hinge between these two films—revenge—is important to highlight in a feminist film class that has violence as a thematic focus. Presented with all their historical and feminist complexities, Girls Town, Foxy Brown and Jeanne Dielman could provoke a conversation about the array of violences to which women are subjected (both on screen and off) and with which many of us are more comfortable than we are witnessing women on screen take their revenge.
1 Maud Lavin, Push Comes to Shove: New Images of Aggressive Women (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 3.
2 Angela E. Hubler, “Girls Town’s Challenge to ‘Do It Yourself’ Feminism,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30, no. 1/2 (2002): 79-80.
3 Lavin, Push Comes to Shove, 3.