It’s a very American tradition to vilify women for daring to become the object of desire. The female form is used to sell everything from jewelry to chocolate to web hosting to hamburgers, and no one bats an eye when the profits of that routine exploitation flow into the pockets of already monied older men. But a woman who profits from or even merely enjoys the labour of her own body is a shock to the very consciousness of the American experiment; she is a threat to the social order and must be destroyed. She is a witch, and her magic is sexual potential.
Witches are making a pop culture comeback, so it’s not a surprise that Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation trades on that rudimentary metaphor as a starting point for this horror-comedy cum political manifesto. The film scoffs at any suggestion of subtlety, thematic or otherwise, but it’s clear in its intent as a condemnation of the routine commodification of the female body.
In the film, residents of the aptly named town of Salem “lose their fucking minds” after an anonymous doxxer releases everyone’s personal information and exposes their secrets and greatest shames; first in a trickle and then in a flood. The anti-gay mayor enjoys dressing up in women’s lingerie. The high school principal is a little too fond of barely legal porn. The star football player is sleeping with the trans girl at school. The friendly married neighbor is sexting a teenage girl.
The fallout is immediate and severe, and law enforcement is at a loss—you can’t undo the internet. But in the absence of solutions, people find scapegoats, and that’s where Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) come in. What better way to solve a problem than to blame it on a woman?
The quartet is caught up in the violence that ensues and their presumptive coven is attacked from all sides. Lily and Bex take the brunt of the abuse as the taboo of their secret relationships come to light: Diamond (Danny Ramirez), Bex’s football player hookup is goaded by his team into hanging her from a street light as the town devolves into Purge-like madness. It is punishment for sleeping with a girl they see as corrupted by her trans identity. The only way for him to regain his masculinity is to destroy the source of his desire. Lily’s older, married neighbor Nick (Joel McHale) is determined to exact revenge on her after she’s accused of being the source of the leaks; he pretends to shelter her when the mobs flood into the streets only to try to initiate sex and turn violent when she refuses.
For the men in the town of Salem, the hunt to bring these girls to “justice” is not simply about righting the wrong that has been done to them, but about restoring the social order in which they subjugate the women around them. The girls’ free acceptance of their bodies, all short-shorts, bright lipstick and smacking gum had always been a threat. The “Fright Night” the men initiated in response to the town’s chaos allowed them to live out their most violent fantasies under cover of rightful vengeance. The hunt is on. Who but the “good people” of Salem to put things right?
But after Lily murders Nick in self-defense (a bloody, gruesome scene reminiscent of Carrie White’s baptism by fire) she is reborn in the way of the witch, baptized by the blood of a man who wronged her. Screaming and crying, she cleans herself off and regains her composure. Loaded with weapons she finds in Nick’s house, she rescues her friends and steels herself for a battle of the sexes, gold eyeliner perfectly applied and glistening under the glow of flashing police lights. After all the abuse she has suffered, it is the very femininity she was punished for that becomes her armor. The guns she and her friends use are magic wands enacting their glorious female rage. The witch hunt is back on, but this time they are the hunters.
Their rage is righteous, because it comes at the cost of their innocence, their naïveté, and their own sense of self. Only Lily is ever accused of having doxxed the town, but all her friends are immediately in danger as well, witches by association. And the accusation comes not from law enforcement but from a teen boy who was literally waterboarded in a bathtub and forced to lay blame. With no hard evidence, a man’s word is always worth more than a woman’s.
Earlier in the film when Lily admits to her mother that she is the girl in Nick’s racy sexts, her mother puts her out, banning her from the family home for the crime of being a slut. Not once does it come up that their friendly neighbor had initiated an inappropriate sexual relationship with an underage girl. When there is blame to be had, there is always a woman to claim it. Women, witches are at the root of every corrupting influence, regardless of their actual culpability.
It might not be the most feminist sentiment, but one could easily read the film as an endorsement of the enactment of righteous female retributive rage. Returning the violence that has been done to women can be cathartic if ultimately futile. It’s not hard to cheer for the murder of these vile, violent men. The witch hunt has historically been about decimating the women who refuse to conform; who fail to perfect the delicate balancing act between “sexually available” and “slut,” “chaste” and “prude.” But men have co-opted even that, claiming the term to describe any call for long overdue consequences of their wanton disregard for female personhood in all its forms. So why shouldn’t we just take up arms, raze it all down and reclaim the world as our own? Ultimately, “witches are protectors of women” and if the danger women face requires violence to keep it at bay, then why not indulge?
As Lindy West said, “Yes, this is a witch hunt. I’m a witch and I’m hunting you.”
Assassination Nation hit theaters on September 21 and is currently playing nationwide.
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.