I’m not one for excessive displays of emotion at the cinema, but after watching Assassination Nation at Toronto International Film Festival I couldn’t help but cheer. Not just cheer, I might add, but fist pump too, because that’s what this film both is and deserves. It’s a feminist fist pump of a movie that takes the horror of being a woman in this patriarchal society we continue to live in and turns it into an empowering call to action.
Writer-director Sam Levinson has infused classic tales of female oppression and struggle, from The Scarlet Letter to the Salem Witch Trials, with more modern feminist fiction like Heathers and Mad Max: Fury Road to provide a searing comment on the continuing adversity the female sex still suffer through a modern, social media-heavy lens. Set in Salem (because, of course) our heroes, high school teens Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) replace those women accused of witchcraft by their Puritanical community of the late 17th century, though this 21st-century community is far from pure. When their dirty laundry airs — via a hacker who shares half the town’s pictures, texts, emails, and videos — mob mentality spreads and our girls are blamed for the leak and become the target for their murderous ire.
However, this film is more than just a criticism of a culture that has been conditioned to believe men over women as it pulls apart the social narratives that suggest people who wear revealing clothing are sluts, that nakedness is inherently sexual, or that women who own their sexuality are basically asking for it. Yes, these girls wear super short hotpants and revealing outfits, which at first might make you think, “Whoa, this is super male gazey,” but that’s the point and what the “male gaze” trigger warning is there for you to recognize.
The way women dress has so long been denigrated by the male sex, and plenty of women too through their own internalized misogyny, that the sole purpose of wearing risque clothing is seen as for the benefit of men rather than a woman's autonomy over her fashion, even if that means showing some skin. This is where Levinson trolls you through the male gaze; he's daring you to slut-shame and blame them for their life-and-death predicament, but he’s also screaming “her body, her clothes, her choice.” What these girls choose to wear (and not wear) is not up to anyone else to decide, nor should they be punished for it.
The question of nudity and how we too often sexualize the naked form also comes up a few times in the movie. At one point we're asked why is it sordid for a dad to have a few naked photos of his own daughter, in a bath, on his phone but when another parent has a picture of their naked child, in a frame on a mantle, it’s sweet? Because our society’s knee-jerk reaction is to sexualize the human body, especially when those bodies are female.
Just look at the flack Kim Kardashian gets for posting a nude selfie or when Rihanna wears next to nothing on Instagram. If these were oil paintings, no one would bat an eye, but because they’re photos taken by the women themselves, that somehow makes them pornographic. Hearing Lily make a similar statement to her principal when her own artwork is accused of being too inappropriate for high school certainly had me nodding my head and smiling in agreement, as well as admiration. It’s not often that you see this argument so bluntly made in a film.
The same can be said for the way these teens take ownership of their sexual desires and needs. Generation Z is not sanitized to sex; they embrace it. “Men who don't eat pussy in this day and age are straight up sociopaths,” says Em, a moment that earns a cheer because it reminded us that most of us have been in the same situation that Lily has: dealing with a boyfriend or male sexual partner who expects oral sex but doesn't give it.
Her friends are good friends because they don’t let her off the hook on the subject. They remind her and her boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgård) at every opportunity that she deserves sexual pleasure just as much as he does and she shouldn’t have to settle for anything less. Even when Bex is given the cold shoulder after a sexual encounter, she refuses to let the encounter diminish or define her. So yeah, Em’s statement might be slightly hyperbolic but the sentiment still rings true, especially when you consider the aggressive descent of Mark and nearly every other man in the movie.
The toxic masculinity that the majority of the town’s men exhibit feeds their dangerous, mob-like actions and for a few scenes, they manage to subordinate these four girls with the grossest display of violent misogyny. But, like the women of the Japanese female revenge movies Lily, Bex, Em, and Sarah adore, they come back with a vengeance, both literally and figuratively, bearing arms against the patriarchy that wants to oppress them.
This is what Levinson builds you up towards, that cathartic release triggered by watching these our heroes stand up for themselves, fight back and inspire other women, and men, to help rub out archaic gender lines. This isn’t men versus women though, this is feminism versus toxic masculinity, and the final shot of the film personifies this in the most crucial way, by showing that this fight is far from over.
So maybe I'll suffer a few eye rolls for writing this piece, but I'll take it because Assassination Nation has delivered exactly what I love about movies: it made me both feel and think. After 110 minutes it made me think about the progress we've made and what's still to go when it comes to the fight for gender equality. It made me feel empowered and inspired to continue speaking up for myself and others on how women present themselves and are presented in society.
That's why this movie feels more like a declaration of female empowerment and gender equality — a feminist manifesto, as it were, that has a very clear message. The battle for gender equality is still not won and it’s up to all of us, no matter what gender you identify as, to step up and fight.
Assassination Nation is in in US theaters now and in UK cinemas on November 23