In a Western culture increasingly stripped of its old taboos, violent acts by women – real and imagined – still possess the genuine power to shock. Witness the agitated dissonance collectively displayed whenever a woman kills a long-term abusive partner in his sleep. Regardless of the resulting legal verdict, questions like ‘How could she?’ and ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ keep rattling around like knives in a drawer.
Cultural representations of violent women can both affirm and react against this kind of pernicious questioning that posits women as fundamentally, and fatally, reactive.
The possession of violence, the ability to harm and kill, has always been present in what it is to be human, just as the cultural use of simulated violence as a means of attracting attention never abates. Only one of the latest cultural artefacts to use the suggestion of violence to widen its impact is the video for Rihanna’s latest single, ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ (forever shortened to BBHMM).
Co-directed by the singer and four-person French collective Megaforce, the song’s film clip features the image of a gagged, forcibly abducted topless woman (actor Rachel Roberts) swinging upside-down in an empty warehouse space. Later, she is knocked unconscious with a bottle and nearly drowned. All of this turns out to be elaborate setup, as the real ‘bitch’ of the video is the kidnapped woman’s partner – a stand-in for Rihanna’s former accountant, who she sued for mismanagement of her finances.
In a video packed to the gunnels with ironic references (repentant wife-beater Eric Roberts cameos as a police officer, scenes are cribbed from range of films including Thelma and Louise and tough South Korean neo-noir Old Boy), the greatest trophy is the feline beauty of Mads Mikkelsen, cast as the accountant. After he is trussed to a chair and dispatched off screen, Rihanna wears Mikkelsen’s blood as brocade, in the artfully gruesome manner common to Hannibal, the TV series in which he stars.
That the supposed graphic nature of BBHMM has been over-reported to the detriment of its playfulness should come as no surprise. Shocking material, however fluently arranged, is primarily designed for impact rather than consideration. Especially when it extends beyond the stereotypes. In the essay ‘Everything Is Nice’ from her superb 2011 collection The Art of Cruelty, the considerable US critic and poet Maggie Nelson wonders if one of the ironies of patriarchy lies ‘its suggestion that there’s nothing else imaginable under the sun – not even a form of female aggression or rage or darkness – not shaped by or tethered to the male.’
In a list of women she identifies as ‘writing in relation to – and often explicit protest against – male violence, misogyny, or patriarchy’, Nelson includes Ivy Compton-Burnett, Patricia Highsmith, Christina Stead and Virginie Despentes.
Despentes burst into broad public consciousness following her cinematic adaptation of her 1993 novel, Baise-Moi. Released in 2000, the film features two women – Manu and Nadine P– who meet almost accidentally, and then embark on a murderous road trip. Although both women have reason enough to hate men, the characters and Despentes make it clear that their behaviour is not defined solely as a reaction to that of men. ‘Forget the tits and cunts, for one second,’ Despentes has said of the film. ‘The key words should be gun, death, fake blood. Not “pussy pussy pussy”… I don’t care those two characters have cunts. They are archetypes, violent outcasts.’
Despentes’ latest novel to appear in English is 2010’s Apocalypse Baby. Once again, a duo takes a road trip, though this time not murderously. Lucie is an indifferent private dick hired to find Valentine, a missing teenager. Desperate, Lucie enlists the help of the Jackal, a lesbian with a reputation for forcible persuasion. Together, they follow an unpromising trail through Valentine’s contacts to Barcelona (now Despentes’ home), which is painted as a city ringing with jackhammers and dysfunction.
With the exception of Valentine’s self-concerned father, Francois, and an old boyfriend, Apocalypse Baby, the novel’s voices are those of women: women who are valued and value themselves in relation to men. Both Lucie and Valentine are described as less than pretty and so devalued. Valentine’s mother, who abandoned her daughter early, hides her contact with her runaway child, lest it disturb her lover. Only the Jackal stands outside this brutal sexual ecology – the degree of her otherness, and the part violence has played, becoming more apparent as the novel progresses.
Apocalypse Baby fits within the noir tradition, but despite the occupation of its two main characters this is not detective fiction. The dark imperatives of sex and money locate it firmly in the noir universe, but there the skills of detection and the purpose of clues earn only derision. This dismissal is the only real forewarning of the novel’s closing section, which breaks radically from what has come before and has drawn critical ire. While some reviewers have found its last pages disjointed or poorly developed, such interpretations mistake Despentes’ intent. Apocalypse Baby is a novel at war not just with the definitions placed on women, but with the very concept of unitary understanding. Well before its explosive end, divergent perspectives fly through this novel like shards of glass.
Apocalypse Baby is a reminder that for the powerless, public space can be as unforgiving as being thrown gagged into the trunk of a car. Don’t act like you forgot.