Challenging Feminist Psychological Thrillers


A young woman creates an alter ego to cope with the trauma inflicted upon her by men in Jason Banker’s Felt . The film arrives on VOD July 21. Our own Jason Bailey called it a “fascinating indie feminist riff on superhero tropes.” Felt is also being labeled a “feminist psychological thriller” — a genre that has taken wildly different approaches to the defeated woman who rises from the ashes to take back her power or is granted momentary reprieve before being unduly categorized as the hysterical woman. We explore a few of those roles.


Based on a 1982 off-Broadway play of the same name, Robert M. Young’s Extremities stars Farrah Fawcett as Marjorie, a Los Angeles woman who turns the knife on the stalker and rapist who violates her. We first see Marjorie’s frustrated and all-too-real attempts to report the crime to an indifferent police force who question her past sexual history and remind her that she wasn’t technically raped. “It still comes down to your word against his,” a female police officer tells her. When Marjorie gains the upper hand during a brutal assault by her attacker, we are flooded with the range of emotions and conflict she experiences as she considers the consequences of her actions, all while her assailant pleads for his life and tries to manipulate her and her roommates for his freedom.


In Robert Altman’s Images, Susannah York’s Cathryn battles the taunting apparitions that mock her about her husband’s suspected affair, until she (and we) can no longer determine what is real and what was born from her paranoid imagination. Altman attempts to take a sympathetic, feminist approach with Cathryn, albeit with varying results. “The film is perhaps commenting on a male-dominated culture, but ultimately, in order for the domination to be subverted, the woman must go crazy and thus become something to be feared. The fact that Catherine’s craziness is so closely aligned with her sexuality is particularly troubling,” writes Molly Langill.

Inland Empire

Writer Anna Katharina Schaffner makes a strong case for Laura Dern’s Inland Empire character as the most feminist of all of David Lynch’s female players:

Obsessive-destructive desire, fantasmatic projections and paranoid-schizoid splittings of the female love-object into virgin/whore, ideal/nightmare pairs are central thematic concerns in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. However, Lynch not only orchestrates but in fact deconstructs these clichéd binary representations of women on the levels of content, form and narrative, and through his hyperbolic-ironic use of mise-en-scène as a tool for working against the narrative propositions of his images. While both Fred Madison in Lost Highway and Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive fail to obliterate their obsessions because they remain caught in a network of false fantasmatic conceptions, Nikki Grace in Inland Empire is able to liberate herself from the dark male forces who exercise power over her. Nikki thus also frees herself from the curse of binary male projections: in the beginning she is the embodiment of the ideal, the glorious movie star, while Sue Blue (her film-within-the-film character) is the ultimate incarnation of the male nightmare – the castrating, violent and abused white trash female. Nikki transcends both categories, she undoes the false split; in the end she is neither one nor the other but simply herself. Inland Empire is thus Lynch’s most explicitly feminist movie in this trilogy on the fatal dynamics of binary thinking.

Season of the Witch

Season Of The Witch is [George] Romero’s film about feminism in its Women’s Lib phase. It’s loaded with references to the occult, but owes as much to Betty Friedan as Anton LaVey,” writes Keith Phipps. A neglected suburban housewife develops an interest in witchcraft, has an affair, and begins to dismantle the roles assigned to her by male-dominated society. But the film ends questioning if Joan will ever be free from the collar of marriage and gender as she is referred to as “Jacks” wife one last time, despite the fact that her husband is now dead (killed “accidentally” by Joan).

The Silence of the Lambs

“It matters, Mr Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters,” Jodie Foster’s fledgling FBI Agent Clarice Starling explains to the head of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit after he tells his colleagues they shouldn’t talk about the gruesome details of their case in front of a woman. Starling is bombarded by sexism all around her. Some feminist critics have argued that Starling is forced to align herself with a serial killer in order to win her case, while others have noted that Starling, like Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal, is still an outsider and the duo play off of each other in a mentor/teacher capacity. Starling overcomes all obstacles by the end of the film, although we question how many more sacrifices she’ll have to make to maintain the respect of her peers.

Hard Candy

A teen girl turns the tables on a suspected pedophile, exposing the ugly truth in David Slade’s Hard Candy. “The filmmakers make their female antihero (a Little Red Riding Hood hunting a Big Bad Wolf) so cartoonishly diabolical that, despite a fiendish performance by [Ellen] Page, moral dilemmas become moot, as Hayley and Jeff prove equally repugnant and, thus, equally deserving of every last slice, snip, and slur they suffer,” writes Slant. But writer Rebecca Stringer argues otherwise: “The character of Hayley Stark is more clearly drawn as a feminist avenger — a vigilante acting directly on the basis of feminist principles.” Hayley’s speech to Patrick Wilson’s Jeff about being “every girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, killed,” reinforces the film’s broader cultural concerns.


“Marking a new frontier of realist representation of women’s transgressive psycho-sexuality, Baise-moi is an audacious and challenging film, Kay Armatage said of Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s New French Extremity thriller (which translates to “fuck me”) about two shunned women on a sex/crime spree. “Not just a provocation, it is a revolt — against puritanism, against the hypocrisy of public morality, against the prevailing order of tasteful aesthetics, against the efforts to contain excess. Baise-moi is in your face — abrasive, gritty, and disturbing.” Also compelling is the framing of Baise-moi in our culture’s new wave of increasing acceptance of pornography. The film was released in 2000, and the filmmakers (both with ties to the porn industry) fought censors and critics who tried to undermine the movie’s feminist themes and challenging story by dismissing it as mere pornography.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Writer Judith Lorber explores the feminist underpinnings of character of Lisbeth Salander:

Feminists might best describe Salander as a third-waver. She often decides how she will look for shock value—punk clothes, piercings, tattoos, bizarrely cut and dyed hair. She has bisexual relationships, sex with friends in non-exclusive relationships, recreational sex. As in third-wave “girlie culture,” she revels in sexual openness, outrageous gender self-presentations, and emotional coolness. But Salander never identifies as a feminist, nor does she use her (criminally acquired) wealth or her computer skills for any institutionalized activism. Third-wave feminists fight against restrictions on procreative choice and against racism, homophobia, and economic inequalities. By contrast, Salander’s personal, physical battle is against violent, sadistic men; her political battles, where she uses her investigative and hacking abilities, are against sex trafficking and international crime. She fights alone, mostly to defend herself or to get revenge on those who have harmed her. Once or twice, she fights for others (Erika Berger, when she is being cyber-stalked, and Mikael Blomkvist, to restore his journalistic reputation). But she belongs to no movement. . . . Lisbeth Salander personifies men’s and women’s relationships and their permutations by gender, sexuality, friendship, and love. Very much of the twenty-first century, she is bisexual, independent, a moral fighter for survival and justice. Alone, she raises the trilogy above other page-turner thrillers. She is an avenger who triumphs against the violent abuse of women, but in her personality and behavior, she is a vulnerable woman. I think that makes her appealing to both women and men. She emerges more or less intact by the end of Hornet’s Nest, but except for Blomkvist, now a friend and no longer a lover, she lives and acts on her own. Are the loss of love and intimacy the price of survival? They are for Salander.