Violence is packaged as feminist retribution in a film that, in one of its more amusing moments, literally name-checks Gloria Steinem. As a tale of female revenge, it’s the pulpier little sister of the more elegant and thoughtful drama “The Nightingale,” also opening today, in which a young Irish convict pursues her rapist through the forests of Tasmania in 19th-century Australia.
As portraits of female agency, “The Kitchen” and “The Nightingale” are part of a trend in movies wherein women prove they have as much swagger as men: From “Wonder Woman” to “Widows,” filmmakers have invited us to revel in the subversive pleasures of table-turning between the genders, a ritual that has only taken on more resonance in a post-#MeToo world: How better to find escapist fun than by ruthlessly dispatching awful men in the multiplex, while their real-world analogues so often get away scot-free?
Still, as gratifying as the initial emotional hit might be, it also feels fleeting and woefully inadequate.
When filmmakers address toxic masculinity these days, they seem to be limiting themselves to the language of bloody-minded fantasies (the alternative being comedy that side-eyes dopey male behavior, as in “Long Shot” and “Late Night”). But when it comes to grappling with sexism on-screen, are snark and revenge really our only options?
Part of the problem is that filmmakers are limited to the genres Hollywood is making. This generation’s gun-toting women share a (literal!) bloodline with such instant 1990s classics as “Thelma & Louise” and “Set It Off,” just as today’s most socially conscious satires owe a debt to “9 to 5” and “Tootsie.” In the current age of the superhero, some enterprising filmmakers have managed to squeeze social commentary into spandex-and-CGI spectacles.
But while “Black Panther” folded in provocative ideas about racism, respectability politics and revolution with its comic-book heroics, “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” asked viewers to be content with bracing visions of potent female saviors while largely ignoring sexism as part of the evil they were vanquishing.
While you-go-girl badassery often feels good, there are deeper questions to be plumbed, and a much wider variety of cinematic vehicles with which to explore them. Recent years have produced an encouraging number of studio and independent films deconstructing white supremacy, from “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You” to “BlacKkKlansman” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Some movies, such as “Hidden Figures,” “Mudbound” and the smart psychological thriller “Luce,” also opening today, have succeeded in linking race, class and gender. But sharply focused, thought-provoking portrayals of how male supremacy works — across genres and artistic temperaments — have been curiously thin on the ground.
Instead, we get a dubious cycle of abusive men and the women savagely getting their own back. It’s beginning to feel not just monotonous, but like its own form of toxicity. By the end of “The Kitchen,” its trigger-happy heroines don’t look liberated as much as co-opted by an American death cult as deeply rooted in male insecurity and aggression as it is in racial animus. Instead of proving we’re tough enough for this particular boys’ club, perhaps it’s time to find other clubs to join.