Tough as Nails The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema, by Hilary Neroni, State University of New York Press, 2005.
The recent onscreen explosion of physically violent and often conventionally beautiful women both at the multiplex and on television is hard to ignore. Regardless of whether we consider Thelma, Louise, Trinity, or Buffy as empowered women or fetishized bodies they continue to kick, stab, and shoot their way through mainstream media. Scholars who refuse to regard cinematic violence as mere visual spectacle and instead consider it a cinematic element integral to and inseparable from narrative meaning cannot ignore these characters. Such is the view of Hilary Neroni's insightful addition to contemporary film scholarship, The Violent Woman. Through analysis of narrative structure and film form that is bodi meticulous in detail and energetic in tone, Neroni convincingly promotes a model of film studies that engages the "ideological function of and political possibilities" in the relationship between violence and narrative, and grapples with representations of gender and cinematic form. (6)
Armed with a dedication to a strict psychoanalytic and Marxist paradigm that supports her self-proclaimed political imperative, Neroni primarily uses textual analysis to demonstrate how violent women in cinema reveal contradictions and tensions inherent in social structure. Thus, her major claim is as follows: "the representation of violence-and specifically the representation of the violent woman-is either ideological or revolutionary on the basis of the relation it takes up to antagonism." (11) Neroni's book is divided into two sections, first establishing the theoretical and historical foundation of her argument and then illustrating her argument through a series of case studies. At its best, this combination of historical, theoretical and textual analysis makes The Violent Woman a valuable contribution to film and gender studies.
In the first section, Neroni describes how the violent woman appears onscreen at moments of ideological crisis, disrupting our understanding of coherent gender roles and destabilizing the traditional link between violence and masculinity. The film narrative will then either work to reestablish social order or expose ideological antagonism. Through an explanation of the violent woman's generic antecedents, namely Serial Queen Melodrama heroines, film noir femme fatales and Blaxploitation film heroines, Neroni posits that while the nature of the violent woman has varied according to historical context, such characters inevitably emerge out of ideological contradiction.
Not satisfied with merely sketching the violent woman's cinematic genealogy, Neroni includes a chapter on violent men in film, as well as real world acts of female violence committed by murderers Lizzie Borden, Ruth Snyder, and Susan Smith. In what is possibly her only acknowledgement of the film audience, albeit an indirect one, Neroni demonstrates that the press reacted hysterically to such female violence, unable or unwilling to comprehend a connection between femininity and violence. Violent women disrupt social order and the press attempts to stabilize this traumatizing ideological crisis. The press' conflicted and confused reaction to real female murderers predicted the debates that arose around Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, US, 1991), thus allowing Neroni to argue for the symbolic status held by violent women, both real and fictional. This brief acknowledgement of spectators, however, points to questions left unanswered by the limited scope of Neroni's psychoanalytic paradigm. In her drive to articulate the "political possibilities" of violent women through close textual analysis, she leaves unexplored the ways different audiences would read these films. …