Mild spoilers for Revenge up to 1.12 Infamy. When I refer to Emily, I refer to the protagonist of the show.
Every time I hear or read the phrase “strong female characters” I get flashbacks to Kate Beaton’s comic about it. Characters like Sarah Connor and Xena were pretty ground-breaking at the time for being bad-ass female protagonists, but it feels like pop culture hasn’t progressed very far in their definitions of what a bad-ass female character should be. Too often creators seem to believe that “bad-ass” means making a woman hold a gun and fighting rough while spouting sarcastic one-liners. There’s often no internal motivation or driving force behind that character besides “being bad-ass” (read: being a male fantasy and nothing else).
Revenge is a TV show (very) loosely based on the Count of Monte Cristo and features a female protagonist. I was delighted when I heard about the premise because Dumas is one of my favourite authors, but my delight turned to full-blown worship after I actually watched the show.
I think what elevates the show from “alright” to “exceptional” is how it avoids the common gender tropes for female bad-asses, and subverts many of them. When I really thought about it, I realised that most shows that purportedly had strong female protagonists usually engaged with at least one of the following tropes that would irritate me, yet Revenge hasn’t (yet). I’ve got my fingers crossed that the writers will continue to treat Emily (nee Amanda) with the awesome she deserves and not have me hastily retconning the content of this post.
To be clear, I don’t think the following tropes are problematic in isolation, but they’re macroproblematic representations of women, especially when media engages with more than one of them at a time. The issue is not the representation itself, but the fact that there are very few other representations of women:
1. Women are more emotional and sentimental.
Part of what the actress Emily VanCamp does beautifully is her portrayal of a single-minded, focused woman who is actually operating deep undercover. A lot of media fall into the trap of women being “fooled” by their own emotions while undercover, such as accidentally developing feelings for people they’re meant to dislike. I think the writers tried to incorporate this into the text, but I hope they gave up on it. VanCamp plays the duality perfectly – in one moment she is warm and friendly to her enemies, and in the next moment we see her coldly plotting their demise.
It’s refreshing to see a woman who is not sympathetic to sob stories and who can’t be swayed by appeals to her emotion. It is a male character, Nolan, who frequently has to play The Heart and moral compass to Emily’s scheming – to varying levels of success.
What’s even more heartening is the lack of emotional attachment to the consensual sex she has while undercover. Women who have sex with people they don’t love or even like are usually presented as having an unhealthy emotional motivation. She’s insecure. She’s lying to herself about her feelings. She wants to make someone else jealous.
In this case, Emily has sex with Daniel because it’s useful to her quest for revenge, and there’s nothing more to it. What we see instead is Daniel becoming attached to her after sex. Which makes sense given how Emily is deliberately plotting to attract him.
2. Women react to events rather than take initiative.
You are the Chosen One, go slay some vampires. Your son is going to lead a future rebellion, protect him. Something nasty is after you, pick up a gun. In many cases the actions of female protagonists are brought about by fight or die situations where characters have limited choices, and their only motivation is to stay alive.
Emily’s decision to exact a slow and terrible revenge on everyone in the Hamptons stem from her father’s death, but it’s hardly a forgone conclusion. Most of us would probably take the money and run. But rather than accepting the status quo, Emily takes initiative and makes plans to shape events and her world so it aligns with her beliefs. What’s exciting is watching events unfold as a direct manifestation of her will – a woman who has an impact on the world because she chooses to, not because she’s forced to.
3. Women are unable to achieve their goals without the help of others.
I’m a big fan of action movies where the lone wolf (or lone wolf plus side-kick/partner) trope is often invoked. Sadly there aren’t many female action heroes generally and the ones that do exist often do fall into the other tropes I’ve mentioned. Other portrayals of leading bad-ass women (Buffy and Veronica Mars for example) require them to receive help from their network of friends and allies — which is fine, but I’d love to see a female MacGyver, for example.
So far Emily has called in exactly two favours – everyone else she has manipulated, blackmailed or otherwise persuaded. She saves and navigates herself out of tricky situations – the favours she calls aren’t white knights or deus ex machina and still required a lot of her own scheming to work. While she receives assistance from Nolan, it’s clear that she initially doesn’t want it, will never ever need it, and probably doesn’t rely on it. Their dynamic seems to imply that she lets Nolan help as a favour to him, rather than as assistance to her.
It helps, of course, that she has a ridiculous amount of money. But so does Batman.
4. Women use sex to get what they want.
Emily is not a femme fatale. She has a sexual relationship with Daniel, but the sex is a byproduct of having that relationship. They have sex because she convinces him that they’re a romantic match and that she loves him; not because he’s suddenly lost all rationality because a woman wants to sleep with him.
Instead of overdone come-ons and seduction plots, we see Emily deftly using information and subterfuge to draw suspicion on others, and manipulating relationships to her advantage. It’s clear that she’s not only extremely intelligent, but also extremely competent. Too often we’re just told that a bad-ass female character is smart, only for the narrative to limit the demonstrations of her talents to her physical allure and nothing else.
Revenge subverts the femme fatale trope in many ways because the people we see wielding sexual power to manipulate others are men – Nolan and Tyler. Nolan seduces Tyler and makes a sex tape, Nolan is the the dinner date diversion while Emily blows shit up. Both are common plotlines would ordinarily be given to women.
And this is why Revenge is so compelling for me. The femme fatale story and the superspy story have already been told a thousand times – I don’t need to watch another iteration. But when you reverse the gender roles that story becomes different and infinitely more interesting. It highlights how much storytelling is about the choices of creators and that while certain choices are being made over and over to the point of needless repetition, other stories are being completely ignored.