Women on the Edge of Justice

Elizabeth Rajapakshe (La Trobe University)


To say that Deus Ex Machina was an absolutely amazing conference is an understatement. Each day of this wonderful event was filled with moments of inspiration, and it was a privilege to be among eminent scholars working within Law and Humanities. Listening to so many fascinating papers helped me reflect on and re-evaluate my own work, and overall, it proved to be an unforgettable experience. I decided to write a reflection on “Righteous Feminist Violence: The Cinematic Jurisprudence of Revenge”, chaired by Cassandra Sharp, which I was excited to attend from the time I saw it in the schedule. This is because it not only resonated the most with my own research (where I examine visual cultural texts and its production of, and engagement with, (popular) jurisprudence), but the panellists are brilliant scholars who have greatly inspired my scholarship.


Honni van Rijswijk presented on Jennifer’s Body (2009). She highlighted how the film rewrites the figure of the violated girl by making her body the site of extra-human and extra-judicial power. She added that the film could be read as a critique of social contract theories of law and as showing how liberal socio-legal processes will not provide justice or protection from violence. Karen Crawley presented on Promising Young Woman (2020). She highlighted how the narrative’s affective structure (confirming and inverting audience expectations of the rape-revenge genre) caused cruelty to the audience. She read this as paralleling the “cruel optimism” in feminist attachments to law: despite knowing that the institution fails to address sexual violence and is harmful to victims, feminists continue to invest in it. She noted how the film ends with a disappointing, moralistic stance on revenge that dismisses the legitimacy of feminist/non-violent forms of revenge, suggesting instead that revenge can only occur through law and its agents. William MacNeil presented on Carrie (1976). Analysing the film through theories and concepts of psychoanalysis, he looked at the interconnection between revenge and enjoyment – or revenge as enjoyment; while the law, as invoked by the school system and the maternal figure in the film, functions as a prohibition of “jouissance”, by embracing her feminine power (telekinesis triggered by affect) and engaging in acts of enjoyable revenge, Carrie comes to inhabit a world beyond the law and seeks her own justice.


A common theme that emerges is the idea of women’s body as a source of anxiety, but also of power. What I found most interesting is the idea that the wound, or injustice (as inflicted by the patriarchal-legal order) is the source of the revenge-seeking women’s claim to justice, and that to assert female power and agency, revenge must be embraced. Moreover, the presence of the idea of continuation (other women “taking on the baton” of revenge when the main female figures are killed) alludes to the possibilities of the formation of new feminine/feminist social contracts which can perhaps redress gendered violence. All in all, the panel was a re-assertion of the potential of film to prompt engaging debates on pressing socio-legal issues.


A painting of Themis and Nemesis, attributed to Jules Boilly (after Pierre-Paul Prud’hon). Nemesis (left) brings Crime and Villainy before Themis (right), who sits behind the bodies of a woman and her infant (bottom right) and is surrounded by Strength, Prudence, and Moderation (top right). Sources: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1882-0211-536 and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22Th%C3%A9mis%22._Par_Julien_L%C3%A9opold_BOILLY_d%27apr%C3%A8s_P.P_Prud%27hon,_vers_1860_01.jpg#file)