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Brett Kavanaugh, Lizzie Borden and the storm of female outrage in America

A new movie about murder suspect Lizzie Borden explores the horrors that erupt in a society where women are denied justice.
Chloe Sevigny stars as Lizzie Borden
Chloë Sevigny stars as Lizzie Borden, the woman at the heart of one of the most enduring mysteries in American history; Kristen Stewart co-stars.Roadside Attractions

The #MeToo movement has unleashed the storm of women’s pent-up anger over accumulated injustices by men. Elevating to the U.S. Supreme Court a man accused of drunkenly assaulting a female teen while in high school and a co-ed while at Yale might just conjure a Category 5.

In the post-Weinstein era, older norms of male entitlement and control clash with more egalitarian views. Now, the battle over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation leaves too many women with the sickening feeling that the nation’s highest court may soon seat not one, but two men accused of sexual crimes against females. Men who have not only evaded punishment, but will wield vast powers over women’s bodies and lives for decades to come.

It’s enough to awaken the Furies, those Greek goddesses who meted out strains of justice more archaic and terrifying than those of cavalier Olympians who raped merely for sport.

Injustice, especially the long-standing, repeated variety, breeds outrage — rage directed outward. One way or another, it finds a means of expression, for good or for ill.

The story of famous murder suspect Lizzie Borden, brought to the screen in the new thriller “Lizzie,” featuring producer Chloë Sevigny in the title role, explores the horrors that erupt in a society where women are denied justice. Lizzie’s every breath is subject to the arbitrary will of men. Facing death by a thousand cuts, she ultimately decides instead to end her torment with the brutal blade of an axe — in her father’s skull.

Outrage, the movie shows, whets the appetite for revenge. Justice and revenge are conceptual cousins, but not twins. Revenge grows where justice is scarce, fed by pain and powerlessness. Justice seeks closure, but revenge moves through bloody cycles where wrongs never seem fully righted. Revenge reaches for justice, but often ends up stymieing it. That’s why true, dispassionate justice is always preferable — why we depend on laws, courts, and judges.

The Supreme Court is supposed to embody this dispassionate idea. But its current composition and direction illustrate that, for women, justice is a will-o’-the-wisp.

In the last 50 years, a panoply of movies has expressed female outrage at injustice and the changing attitudes toward crimes against women.

The debate over Kavanaugh’s fitness to join the country’s ultimate arbiters of the law reminds us that hideous affronts to female personhood are still with us today. Even in the United States, victims of rape can be forced to marry their attacker or to bear his children. Today, women and girls who report sexual assaults, abuses, or violations of their rights still frequently endure attacks and dismissal.

When trauma builds up in society, storytellers speak out for the horrors endured. In the last 50 years, a panoply of movies has expressed female outrage at injustice and the changing attitudes toward crimes against women. Movies examining avenues of redress have explored everything from unfair employment practices (“9 to 5,” 1980) to rape (“Thelma and Louise,” 1991). Often these films depict revenge fantasies let loose when legal and institutional remedies are inaccessible — a depressingly common scenario.

A starker subgenre emerged during the 1970s era of women’s liberation — graphic, hair-raising “rape revenge” films about rape survivors who pursue and kill their attackers. Meir Zarchi’s “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978) gobsmacked audiences with its gruesome depiction of the gang rape of a female writer. She survives to hunt down and inventively slaughter each of the criminals. Zarchi said the film was inspired by his experience with a rape victim treated callously by police.

Over the last decade, in this new time of female outrage, that cult classic has been revived. A 2010 remake added a local sheriff as a fifth rapist. Then a slew of sequels were released: “I Spit on Your Grave 2” (2013); “I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance Is Mine” (2015); and the not-yet-released “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu.” The latest installment continues the original story of the writer, who has penned a book about the controversial trial in which a jury acquits her for the murders.

The concept of “just revenge” works its way into all these stories. Audiences are meant to sympathize with the women who unleash their fury through bullet, saw, hammer, rope and chain — and to consider acquitting them for culpability, both legal and moral.

A new wave of just revenge stories has revisited women from history charged with murder. Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel “Alias Grace,” based on the 1843 case of a teenage Irish-Canadian maid convicted of killing her employer and his mistress/housekeeper, was adapted into a lauded Netflix miniseries by Sarah Polley in 2017. In the series, Grace can do nothing to mitigate the abuses inflicted by unaccountable, lascivious men. Her anger congeals into an inner demon that is submerged until dealings with a sexually exploitative employer finally unleash it — possibly in a moment of psychic disassociation.

Is Grace responsible for her crimes? The implied answer is complex, but leans to “no.” Patriarchy offers a woman little hope for justice, so vengeance is hers.

Sevigny’s “Lizzie,” directed by Craig William MacNeil, is based on the notorious killing of Andrew Borden, a wealthy miser of Fall River, Mass., and his wife Abby. The only person ever charged was Borden’s daughter Lizzie (Abby was actually Lizzie’s stepmother).

Though Lizzie was acquitted, many believed her to be as guilty as the famous rhyme makes her:

“Lizzie Borden took and axe

And gave her mother 40 whacks;

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father 41.”

The film assumes that Lizzie is indeed the killer, but posits that she has finally had enough after a life of Victorian cruelty and mistreatment, including the discovery of a plan to institutionalize her because of her epilepsy, an attempted rape by an uncle and the revelation of her father’s sexual exploitation of a maid (Kristen Stewart) with whom she shares a romantic affection. She first seeks relief through the channels available to her, including a family lawyer, but is heartlessly dismissed.

So Lizzie takes the law into her own hands, literally. Does Lizzie’s murder spree evoke horror? Yes. Do her plight and fury evoke sympathy? They do.

Stories like these investigate the societal sickness and individual wounds that fester when power between men and women is grotesquely unbalanced, when justice becomes the privilege of the powerful and revenge appears the only refuge of the oppressed. They are lessons on how civilization itself depends on a trustworthy system of law.

The Supreme Court was created to balance power among the people and to promote the values of fairness, equality and accountability. Whether or not Kavanaugh sexually assaulted young women decades ago, the addition of another man whose unjust attitudes toward women are clear from his alarming record on matters like reproductive freedom — including his recent description of contraception as “abortion-inducing drugs” — will send a message to American women that, for them, justice is still infuriatingly hard to come by.