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Hard Candy, revenge, and the "aftermath" of feminism: "a teenage girl doesn't do this.

In the 2005 film Hard Candy, Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), a thirty-two-year-old photographer, subdued and bound by his teenage adversary and apparently facing castration, pleads with mounting dismay that "a teenage girl doesn't do this." The film introduces a middle-class teenage girl conducting a planned, methodical, and highly focused act of apparent vengeance. Hayley Stark (Ellen Page), who claims to be fourteen, subdues Jeff, who may or may not be a sexual predator, and subjects him to a protracted, if ambiguous and ultimately mock, castration. The revenge scenario--in this instance predicated upon her victim's apparent complicity in abduction, rape, and murder--has become familiar in American popular film and television since the 1970s. The specific construction of a middle-class teenage girl as an avenging protagonist, however, is unusual, if not unprecedented (Wade). This article explores Hard Candy in the context of contemporary feminisms and with particular reference to Angela McRobbie's discussion of the so-called aftermath of feminism. I consider what meanings can be attributed to Hayley's acts of torture and revenge against an apparently predatory adult male and how the meaning of such a revenge script shifts across genres in which young female protagonists are central.

To address these issues, I want to refer in part to the field of young adult fiction. The more narrowly defined, school-based, and regulated sense of young adult fiction persists, but I have argued elsewhere that it is an unstable category, bounded insecurely from the wider field of fiction addressing young people (Forever). Although it is a variously inflected and shifting category, the term "young adult fiction" refers usually to texts that represent teenagers and that seek to address teenagers as their principal audience. In doing so, such texts include almost always some element of instruction in how to live and how to grow up, even if the consequences of not doing these things easily or well are often the main substance of the narrative. The British writer Melvin Burgess has produced controversial fictions of this kind, notably Junk and Doing It (see Clarke; Richards, "'One'"). Various scholars examine young adult fiction as often prescriptive of developmentally appropriate behaviour and, among them, Roberta Seelinger Trites offers the most uncompromising critique of the "ideological" and "repressive" power of such texts over adolescent readers. Others engage the same critique but focus more on examples that might qualify this rather monolithic view. Kerry Mallan (Gender; "Undoing"), Kimberley Reynolds, and Elizabeth Marshall ("Borderline") explore texts that cross boundaries between genres and that provoke uncertainties rather than simply confirm the more usual, and especially gender prescriptive, moral lessons. (1) Although Hard Candy is not addressed explicitly to young people of school age and was positioned, in fact, as a film for younger adults (from eighteen to mid-twenties), a discussion of its teenage avenger is informed usefully by recent and continuing debates concerning the textual construction of normative routes through adolescence to maturity.

In the context of young adult fictions extending across print and other media, representations of combative teenage female protagonists have proliferated in the last twenty years. Among them, Hard Candy belongs to the genre of rape-revenge drama. Texts in this genre turn typically around the response by women to their own positioning as victims of sexual assault. Although such scenarios feature adult female protagonists predominantly, elements of rape-revenge drama have figured in other, more obviously youth-orientated texts such as the popular television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rather unexpectedly, Hard Candy has been discussed as well in relation to texts associated more usually with child readers such as "Little Red Riding Hood" (see Hayton). Pauline Greenhill and Steven Kohm acknowledge that Hard Candy is less directly a reworking of "Little Red Riding Hood" than other examples they advance in their wider consideration of the "pedophile crime film." Nevertheless, they suggest that Hayley's actions are somewhat consistent with the Perrault version of the tale, in which Little Red Riding Hood is "symbolically ingested by the wolf, and thus the distinction between them blurs radically" (38). Hayley transforms into a figure, like her adversary, with a capacity for cruelty; indeed, as the film moves into its most unsettling scenes of confrontation, it is apparent that both she and Jeff enjoy watching others suffer. Arguing that their "characters and morality become nearly indistinguishable" (58), Greenhill and Kohm suggest that the film may have been "just too ambivalent" for North American audiences (57).

How and by whom such a difficult, narratively transgressive film has been viewed remains a difficult question to answer and one that has not been much researched to date. The consumption of fiction by young people is rarely confined to what is deemed to be for the age phase they occupy and is instead eclectic, prolific, and relatively unconstrained (Richards, Forever 6). Moreover, the peculiarity of the category "young adult fiction" is that it functions more as an adult regulatory mechanism than as a means to identify a stable and clearly bounded body of texts tied to a particular age-defined audience (Richards, Forever 7). Melvin Burgess has challenged usefully, if also polemically, the separation of the experience of print fiction from the experience of other media, arguing that teenagers engage with popular "narrative entertainment" without regard for boundaries between media forms or judgments of what may or may not be age appropriate ("Rethinking"). Young people's experiences of reading and viewing are, in practice, unlikely to be confined to those texts deemed to suitable by schools and other adult institutions.

Hard Candy, although classified under the "restricted" category in North America and as not for viewing by anyone under eighteen in the UK, has been widely available on DVD since soon after its initial release in cinemas and, more recently, accessible through Netflix, the popular digital streaming platform. Although evidence for its circulation among young people is difficult to provide, it is also quite probable that the audience for Hard Candy expanded significantly following Ellen Page's well-received and incisive performance in Juno and her prominence as a young female film star thereafter. The shock in encountering Page as Hayley, after meeting her as Juno, might lie in part in the charm and even the humour common to both characters, but in Hayley these qualities are primarily means to manipulate and ensnare her victim/predator. Juno's wit and resilience become instruments of cruelty and of apparent revenge in Hard Candy. The difficulty viewers face is that of reading Hayley--an intellectually powerful girl, but also an avenger capable of torture. Just what kind of girl is she?

The coexistence of Juno and Hayley can be examined usefully with reference to the emergence of the so-called mean girl. The work of Emma Renold and Jessica Ringrose, particularly their investigations of often journalistic stories about violent and bullying girls, is helpful as a place to begin such an investigation (Renold and Ringrose, "Phallic Girls"; Ringrose, "New Universal"). The emergence in the past ten years of what appeared to be a backlash against the supposed achievement of girl power and of girls' supposed disproportionate educational success is identified by Ringrose as, in part, a pathologizing of successful, middle-class girls. Ringrose argues that the publicity given to girls' success in education gives momentum to a discourse in which girls' power "becomes synonymous with girl meanness" ("New Universal" 414). Such an inflection of "girl power" is, according to Ringrose, part of a wider response implying that feminism has gone too far. In the discourses of the popular press, aggression is attributed more readily to working-class girls, but, in this new construction of femininity as too powerful and out of control, the potential for "mean" and even violent behaviour is attributed to middle-class girls as well. Writing both together and separately but always reporting interrelated inquiries, Renold and Ringrose draw on empirical research grounded in interviews and discussions with young women (see Renold and Ringrose, "Regulation"; Ringrose, "Sluts"; Ringrose and Renold). Informed by this work, I pursue a more circumscribed textual analysis of Hard Candy, a fictional narrative in which the female protagonist refuses passivity, subjection, or victimization--a dramatic refusal or disruption of dominant scripts both for femininity and for teenage girlhood (Ringrose and Renold 463). (2)

In Alpha Girls: Understanding the New American Girl and How She Is Changing the World, Dan Kindlon develops a more celebratory discussion of girls in education. He argues that girls are newly confident and capable and that they are self-assertive members of a "third-wave" (feminist) generation, reporting that the "alpha girls" he and his fellow researchers interviewed saw themselves as "unconstrained," with "limitless choices, and part of a "post-feminist generation." For him, they are "the living, breathing embodiments of the inner revolution that women in the last generations so ardently desired and fought for" (30). Kindlon's construction of the "alpha girl" is contentious, however, not least because of the ambiguities of the phrase "post-feminist generation."

Feminist writers engaging with popular cultural texts have highlighted the difficulties in defining post-feminism. For example, Catharine Lumby, Berthold Schoene, and Joel Gwynne have all explored the complex nuances of meaning within post-feminism. Some commentators intend post-feminism to imply distance from second-wave feminism as a long-past and concluded project, but others use the term to stress continuity and even resurgence. Angela McRobbie argues that, on the whole, the former view is most prevalent, both in education and in popular culture. For McRobbie, the effective relegation of feminism to a past time has contributed to the formation of young women who, to be "modern" and "sophisticated," must be "cool," "uncritical," and, for the sake of participation and apparent equality, entirely apolitical ("Postfeminism" 34; see also Aftermath). In McRobbie's terms, the "alpha girl" Kindlon welcomes as an inheritance and realization of the politics of second-wave feminism is just a further instance of the "postfeminist masquerade," a feminism of sorts but lacking entirely the politics that defined feminism in the 1970s ("Postfeminism" 34). In this respect, such celebrations of girl power might be seen as contributing to a politics-free femininity.

Surveying representations of young women across the media in the past two decades, Anita Harris broadly classifies such representations in terms of either "can-do" or "at-risk" girls (16-17, 24-27). Tracing the legacies of feminism and the neo-liberal politics of recent decades, she develops a critical analysis of the regulatory and oppressive character of such representations. Like McRobbie, she is pointedly skeptical of the notion of girl power, contrasting it with and attributing greater authenticity to the grrrl power movement of the early 1990s. Whatever the possible simplification implied in her sketch of the commercial appropriation of grrrl power, Harris provides a wide-ranging survey of the negative implications of girl power as an individualistic, aspirational, and consumerist discourse (17). Similarly, Imelda Whelehan is unwilling to acquiesce in the antipathy to second-wave feminism implicit in the various "post-feminist" and populist feminisms (including girl power), arguing instead for a re-engagement with the core critique of the patriarchal social order, which she sees as having been displaced by the preoccupation with consumption and lifestyle. (3) This perspective, shifting the viewpoint away from pleasure and lifestyle in order to focus more directly on power in relations between men and women, underpins the attention given by some feminist writers on film to genres in which violence is often frighteningly and disruptively central.

In the field of film studies, several authors have traced the histories of violent and vengeful adult female protagonists. Carol Clover argues that the "image of an angry woman," a woman who is capable of extreme violence, is inherited from "the women's movement." For her, feminism has made such a figure a "credible" protagonist in "the low-mythic universe" of horror (17). Barbara Creed, looking back at the period from the late 1960s to the 1980s, finds significant examples of women seeking violent revenge. She identifies the "castrating female psychotic," perhaps most familiar in a film such as Basic Instinct, and the rape-revenge protagonist, often associated with, for example, I Spit on Your Grave (122-23). Creed also cites many other rape-revenge films, however, including Violated (also known as The Ladies Club and The Sisterhood), which could be read as a precursor to but also as a significant contrast with Hard Candy.

In her discussion of Violated, Creed highlights the collective enactment of revenge. The film involves a number of women, all of them victims of rape, working together to deal with convicted rapists who seem intent on committing further assaults against women. Among the group is a surgeon whose daughter has been raped and murdered by "a man let out of prison after an earlier offence" and who sets up a home operating theatre where she can castrate those men the women identify, subdue, and kidnap (123). The rape-revenge plot of Violated, which predates Hard Candy by some twenty years, suggests the range of revenge scenarios explored in recent decades. In this instance, the fact that vengeance is the collective endeavour of a group of women makes the charge of pathology less available than it is in a reading of Hard Candy. Collaboration appears to suggest a degree of rationality that is notably more difficult to sustain when the avenger acts alone.

As well, Jacinda Read has documented the prominence of adult female avengers since the 1970s. She argues that "rape revenge" should be understood as a historically specific cycle of films that cut across genres and that are associated with "the discourses of second-wave feminism" in the 1970s and since then (25). Conceding that variants of the 1980s and 1990s might be "partially understood in terms of backlash politics"--representations motivated by antipathy to feminism and women's empowerment--she insists nevertheless that "it is precisely second-wave feminism that has enabled such representations" (47).

Clover, Creed, and Read do not, on the whole, discuss teenage avengers. Scholars more attentive to television than to film have, however, explored the idea of combative young women repelling attack, among them Dawn Heinecken, Sherrie A. Inness, and Catherine Johnson. The emergence of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a cult favourite for teenage girls and for many academic writers was especially significant in promoting interest in young and assertive female protagonists. It also contributed directly to the ideas informing the script for Hard Candy. The vampire slayer, Buffy, is constructed, in Read's terms, as resolving "the opposition between feminine and feminist identities on which feminism has for so long depended" (49). Buffy is a complex figure, capable of ferocious violence but persistently reflective about the nature and validity of her actions (see Burr; Jowett). Moreover, she rarely acts alone and, despite her exceptional power, is one among a group of high school friends who are socially somewhat marginal and who succeed only when the members of the group act together. Sara Crosby argues that Buffy "evolves beyond patriarchy, ... finding a way to embrace her power without engaging in a corrupt desire to dominate" and thus refutes "the patriarchal justifications that characterize female strength as monstrous and tyrannical" (175). Crosby also emphasizes that Buffy's actions are ultimately for a "permanent feminist community" (175-76). Such a reading, highlighting collective power and refusing neo-liberal individualization, does suggest an inheritance from and an endorsement of the more collective and sometimes socialist aspects of second-wave feminism.

Among other significant precedents for Hard Candy in film, Freeway introduces young women as violent in response to a predatory male threat. Reese Witherspoon appears as protagonist Vanessa Lutz, fighting back against Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland) in a grotesque transformation of "Little Red Riding Hood." (4) Helene A. Shugart, although not commenting on this film specifically, notes that in many popular narratives "third wavers who encounter sexism . . . respond to it in distinct, idiosyncratic, and--more often than not--aggressive ways, a response that is presented as appropriate and effective" (149). A further key example, Audition, constructs an intensely claustrophobic scenario involving entrapment and torture in the tradition of Japanese psychological horror. Unlike Freeway, Audition represents the twenty-four-year-old female protagonist, Yamasaki Asami, acting alone and as a monstrous and deadly menace to a manipulative, although relatively unthreatening, middle-aged man. In this respect, this film provides the most obvious precedent for Hayley's solitary actions in Hard Candy.

In Hard Candy, Hayley is, it seems, intent upon punishing a man she believes to be responsible for the death of a young woman. When she meets Jeff Kohlver in a coffee shop, a meeting pre-arranged online, the camera lingers momentarily on a missing person poster on the wall that records the disappearance of Donna Mauer. Hayley is an honours student, claims to be from a medical family, and is carrying a satchel of books when she meets her target. In other words, she is established early in the film as a confident, educationally successful, and quick-witted young woman. Her online name, thonggrrrl (14), implies both seduction and assertiveness and also, perhaps as an enticement, suggests her age. Such a name seems consistent with her plan to attract and entrap pedophiles, in this case men who seek sex with teenage girls below the age of consent. In this respect, the film draws on and sustains a discourse in which sexual threats to children are located as coming from outside the family and are directed primarily at girls rather than at boys. It is worth noting that Laura Kipnis argues that boys and men are also frequently the victims of rape but are not widely represented in popular and news media as being so; culturally, it is predominantly girls who are portrayed as victims. In fact, Hayley is not represented as herself a victim of sexual abuse or as sexually active, and, in her apparently playful seduction of Jeff, she projects an image of youthful innocence, later remarking that she is "just past her first period." At their first meeting, however, she tells him, "Four out of five doctors agree that I am actually insane." She returns to this statement much later when Jeff, now her victim, tells her she is insane: "Right, which I did tell you when we first met, remember. Four out of five doctors agree. . . . Maybe I should ask my therapist--see what she thinks about it." There are precedents in popular film for this coincidence of insanity with first menstruation (Fahey). In horror films, the onset of menstruation is represented often as a dangerous transformation involving both enhanced power and possible psychosis: the American film Carrie and the Canadian trilogy consisting of Ginger Snaps, Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed, and Ginger Snaps Back--The Beginning are significant examples. In this reading, Hayley's red hood could be associated with menstrual blood, transformation, and the attainment of power. The use of the red-hooded figure on the DVD cover certainly invites viewers to attach some significance to this element in her construction. In addition, the hood is one further element in a repertoire of signifiers provoking questions about her identity, motives, and sanity; in many ways, the narrative dynamic of the film turns around the uncertainties of what she is and why she acts as she does.

Jeff is also a figure around whom questions accumulate. He is a fashion photographer who lives alone in the house that functions also as his studio, but the nature of his work and his motives in connecting online with thonggrrrl (14) are subject to close interrogation by Hayley. The dialogue between the two characters, sustained through much of the film, involves repeated attempts to position the other in particular but recognizable cultural scripts. These adversarial acts of positioning are presented with little that allows any reliable judgment of the truth of the claims that each makes. Jeff's most intense efforts are made as Hayley apparently prepares to castrate him. He both denies her positioning of him--"I'm not the monster you think I am"--and attempts to place her in familiar cultural scripts that might allow him to regain control. For example, he suggests that she is a girl jealous of an older sister and neglected by her parents and offers himself as a source of the sympathy and attention that she needs. This failed attempt to enscript Hayley is followed by another attempt to imagine a normatively heterosexual future for her in which Hayley is a girl who will go on "to date guys," get married, and regret what she is about to do. While Hayley listens just long enough to allow Jeff to believe he is achieving his aim, ultimately she responds with contempt. Unable to position Hayley in terms that allow him to imply his own capacity for understanding, Jeff turns to confront her with the extreme unnaturalness of her actions: "You need help--a teenage girl doesn't do this." Again Hayley's response is uncompromising: "I've seen your idea of what a teenage girl should do with her day, so don't even start."

Jeff's further efforts to evade castration include narratives of his own childhood, in particular an incident when, as he tells it, he is the entirely guiltless participant in a sex game with a younger, naked, female cousin. He is caught by his aunt, who pulls his trousers down and lifts him over a hot stove. Hayley's response is: "You know, you told that Aunt Denise story very well. . . . Supposed to be some kind of magic key to explain why you are the way you are?" Eventually, Hayley emerges as the more successful of the two in these exchanges. When Jeff does break free and attempts to kill her in the shower, she appears to close the contest down: "Face it, Jeff--you could've gotten away and you didn't." Later, when again he gets free and pursues her with a knife--circumstances in which suddenly she appears extremely vulnerable, weak, and small--his actions appear to confirm that Hayley's positioning of him as a criminal is justified. He stabs an image of a woman on the wall repeatedly, appearing to confess: "You're right, Hayley ... this is who I am-thank you for helping me see it." Given that he has just been through the ordeal of an apparent castration and is now threatened with death by hanging, however, there is the lingering possibility that this is just the deranged confession of a victim of extreme torture or, and these are not mutually exclusive possibilities, that his words are bitterly sarcastic. To some extent, the absence of any scenes explicitly showing the male victim as "deserving" of punishment is reminiscent of Dutch feminist filmmaker Marleen Gorris's A Question of Silence, in which the man murdered by the women appears to be just an ordinary and certainly far from monstrous figure (see Smelik 91). Proof of his guilt or of the precise nature of his actions is not revealed fully.

At the end, Jeff's confession appears almost complete. She has offered him twice the choice of hanging himself: "You put the noose around your neck--you end the whole game." Insisting that he is responsible for the disappearance and death of Donna Mauer, whose photograph she has found in his hidden safe, she offers (untruthfully as it turns out) to destroy the evidence of his crime. He attempts to blame another man: "I didn't kill her--I just watched. I wanted to take pictures but he wouldn't let me. She was meeting another guy. I didn't do it--I swear." Hayley's response implies that Jeff is, in fact, her second victim: "Aaron told me you did it, before he killed himself." If Jeff appears to accept, at last, her positioning of him as the monster that she thinks he is, Hayley's identity becomes more elusive. She throws into question all that she has told him about the music she likes and about her father's profession as a doctor. When he asks, "Who the hell are you?" she represents herself as the avenger of all those he has harmed: "I am every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, killed." In this one instance, Hayley speaks explicitly from a position she identifies as representing others rather than herself as a lone individual. Ambiguity prevails, however. Hayley leaves with her red hood up, hinting at a reading of her as a variant of Little Red Riding Hood or, perhaps, as in Nicholas Roeg's 1973 film Don't Look Now, a malevolent killer mistaken for the young girl in a red cape, who is drowned in the opening minutes of that film. In an interview included in the Hard Candy DVD, director David Slade cites Nicholas Roeg as an important early influence.

Hayley is not caught or punished. In the terms offered by Ringrose and Renold, this text could be read both as a defiant fantasy of power and aggression and as another instance of a young woman constructed as pathological. The wider cultural context in which pathology might be attributed to her actions is suggested by Shugart, Catherine Waggoner, and D. Lynn Hallstein in a discussion of third-wave feminism where, referring to Alanis Morissette, they comment that, "by virtue of the extremes represented in the juxtaposition aesthetic evident in Morissette's music, the third wave proclivity for contradiction is recontextualized as dangerous instability, an inconsistency so extreme it is deranged" (200). Hayley's contradictions--the coexistence of charm and cruelty as well as of wit and a taste for torture--can be read as a further instance of this reframing of third-wave feminism.

The staging of the apparent castration itself is central to the construction of Hayley as a clever and methodical young woman--one who is also, disconcertingly, both charming and ruthless. Her physical power over Jeff depends initially on drugs slipped into his drink and on her act of binding his arms and legs while he is comatose. When he is free and pursues her with a gun or a knife, her recovery of physical control depends on plastic cling film (suffocation) and the use of a stunning device. The scenes of physical conflict are brutal, and the film does not represent violence as a spectacle to be enjoyed. When Hayley is in control and there is virtually no risk of retaliation from Jeff, however, she speaks as if she is enacting the femininity that is the taken-for-granted resource of female nurses and other "feminine" caregivers. She performs this kind of femininity at the same time as appearing to remove Jeff's testicles surgically. Her soothing, concerned tone and brisk procedural small talk combine to suggest both unshakeable confidence and pathological cruelty. "I think I'm smart enough to perform a successful castration," she remarks, adding later, "I wonder why they teach girl scouts things like camping and just selling cookies--you know--'cause this is what's really useful.... I don't know how they'd design a merit badge. That'd be interesting." Such icy wit might be compared with some of Buffy's asides stated typically in the midst of eliminating yet another vampire, but the modality of violence here is not moderated by humour or comic irony. Although the castration is a cruelly mocking performance, implied rather than shown, it does position her victim as agonizingly vulnerable. Some male reviewers have noted that its protracted enactment is extremely unsettling: Peter Bradshaw suggests that the climax of the film "is a drawn-out scene that will have males crossing their legs and cringing," whereas Mark Kermode, in a review otherwise emphasizing the scope for humour in viewing the film, reports that "young male American audiences ... howled at scenes of visceral emasculation." In the more explicit domain of "body horror," men are sometimes made to bleed, copiously, following castration and/ or dismemberment, as in the films I Spit on Your Grave and Teeth. More typically in horror films, however, the graphic excesses of such fantasies of torture and retribution are staged as wilfully "gross" and sometimes even as a cause for laughter for male aficionados of the genre.

In an interview included on the DVD of Hard Candy, scriptwriter Brian Nelson declares his particular admiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the precedent it offered. Buffy creator Joss Whedon positions himself as a feminist and explains the creation of Buffy Summers as both posing and exploring the question of what happens if the girl victim fights back (Jowett 18). Hayley is an entirely different kind of answer to the question posed by Whedon, however. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, revenge is enacted in a hybrid comic fantasy and an ironically self-referential mode. In the more realist mode of Hard Candy, the revenge appears brutally sadistic. Furthermore, although positioning herself momentarily as acting in vengeance on behalf of other girls, Hayley remains to the end of the film an entirely isolated figure--there are fleeting references to her doctors and her family, but little more. She is, effectively, a lone vigilante acting as combined torturer, judge, and (almost) executioner.

Unlike other, especially adult, female avengers, Hayley's sexual presence is limited: Page is cast, convincingly, as a slightly built young female teenager. If early in the film she poses briefly in a sexualized way (when trying on a Nighthawks T-shirt at the cafe and later to encourage Jeff to take photographs of her), these are evidently tactics in the planned entrapment. Hayley is never represented as the type of erotic, hyper-physical avenger discussed by Read (35). She is not an "action chick" and her method of vengeance does not involve the kind of choreographed and aestheticized violence associated with such figures as Buffy and those in Batman Returns (Read 175-99). Her body and her actions are not offered as objects of sustained sexual interest. On the contrary, both Jeff and the audience are faced with a methodical and bleakly determined figure who is focused entirely on eliciting Jeff's expression of guilt and on carrying out punishment. In Creed's terms, she is neither reassuringly phallic nor, as a femme fatale is expected to be, pleasurably seductive. As Creed observes, "The avenging heroine of the slasher film is not the Freudian phallic woman whose image is designed to allay castration anxiety (we encounter her mainly in pornography and film noir) but the deadly femme castratrice, a female figure who exists in the discourses of myth, legend, religion and art" (127). Portrayed as a "girl"--a word Hayley throws back at Jeff with contempt repeatedly--she is both consistent with the expectation that a girl, on the one hand, is vulnerable, is not strong, and can be raped (Marshall, "Girlhood"), and on the other, is menacing because, as a teenage girl, her calculated and uncompromising violence appears to be so improbable. She is dangerously clever: her power is intellectual in that the ultimate outcome follows from her argument, her determination to position Jeff so effectively that he will choose to die.

Discourses on girlhood construct cunning in young women as dangerous and unnatural, associating cunning often with madness. The work of Renold and Ringrose has highlighted this theme in recent press discourse. Writing at the end of the 1990s, Whelehan argues that the media have been "declaring feminism finished for the past decade at least and popular images of independent women as psychotic or neurotic have proliferated since the late eighties" (18). Not only is Hayley's sanity in question, but also her malaise is framed by her middle-class background: she is a young girl with her own therapist and in consultation with several doctors. (5) As in Audition, in which a middle-aged man in search of a new wife becomes an abject victim of the woman he auditions for the role, the qualities of the clever young woman--charm, intellect, sensitivity--are inflected as the skills of a monstrous figure applying calculated intelligence to the conduct of entrapment, torture, and mutilation. Both Audition and Hard Candy can be interpreted as misogynistic nightmares--masochistic and fearful fantasies of young women as holding such manipulative power over men that they are able to inflict extreme pain and injury despite their appearance of vulnerable, bodily femininity. The emerging trope is that of the clever and confident young woman as a veiled threat, a hazard, invisible until it is too late. Although Hard Candy does pose the question of Jeff's guilt, it also constructs him as an almost ordinary, possibly foolish man trapped in terrifying circumstances. Whatever the depths of Jeff's implied culpability, the film is difficult to retrieve from an anxious backlash, evident in Anglo-American popular culture, against representations of young women as newly powerful, clever, and therefore threatening to men.

As I have noted, Clover asserts, in her study of gender in the modern horror film, that it is the women's movement that has given popular culture the angry and violent female protagonist. This assertion seems to imply that such a figure remains feminist wherever it appears in a popular cultural text. Moreover, Read suggests that the figure of the violent female avenger has been made possible by second-wave feminism. It is important to analyze how such figures function in the particular texts in which they appear, however, and in each instance to consider if and in what way they might be read as "feminist." Indeed, Read points out as well that the politics of rape-revenge films may be strongly implicated in other hegemonic political discourses such as those of right-wing vigilantism and Reaganism. Among widely disparate examples, I Spit on Your Grave and Baise-moi both display graphic and violent revenge mainly upon men, but neither demonstrates an overt affiliation with any form of feminist politics. Indeed, the question of whether rape revenge is ever feminist persists throughout Read's sustained and detailed history. In her discussion of Batman Returns, she argues that revenge "represents the route through which the female protagonist finds meaning" and asks "what version of female identity" and what "consequences for feminism" follow from this (193). Early in Hard Candy, Hayley announces her motto to be "Carpe Omnium," which is glossed in the film as "Take it all" or "Seize everything." In Read's terms, this recalls the possible conjunction of Reaganism with some elements of feminism, producing in the 1980s the notion of "having it all." In this reading, Hayley could be fixed conclusively as an extreme and pathological variant of the "can-do" girl (Harris 16).6

Such closures also curtail the uncertainties produced by the film too neatly, however. Jeff's "reading" of Hayley as a teenage girl and his subsequent despairing bewilderment opens a space for questioning the dominance of (hetero)sexual cultural scripts, a concern of increasingly central importance in young adult fiction. In the coffee shop and in the early scenes in Jeff's house, Hayley's girlish posing and her smiling face ("Does this face lie?" she asks) might recall Judith Butler's now-familiar argument that gender is "the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being" (Gender 33). Hayley performs her youthful "girlishness" effortlessly, doing her gender and sexuality (Butler, Undoing 1) in accord with the conventions of (hetero)sexual seductive play. As the confrontation unfolds, however, Hayley questions both Jeff's reading of her body and the "congealed" meanings of "teenage" and "girl" that he invokes in challenging her actions. She declines to do "as she is told," to acquiesce according to the scripts through which she is defined. Jeff and Hayley, meeting online and then enclosed together in his house, battle over the cultural scripts in which each is positioned, each attributing gendered trajectories and (hetero)sexual intent to the other. The film insists on a disturbingly prolonged and seemingly inconclusive play with uncertainty. Indeed, although it seems that Jeff has accepted his guilt, the furtive but casual departure of Hayley in the final scene of the film offers no "moral" conclusion, explanation, or final revelation of the kind found so often in texts more explicitly for young audiences, where "growth" and a more settled maturity are expected narrative outcomes. Hayley's achievement, as an extreme "can-do girl," stands rather as an ironic refusal of such narratives. What Hayley "can do" in no way conforms to any such normal trajectory of development.

Although there are significant and perhaps increasingly numerous exceptions to the prevalence of a somewhat morally didactic mode of address in young adult fiction--texts such as Francesca Lia Block's The Rose and the Beast, Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, Burgess's Doing It and Junk, and Bella Bathurst's Special provide examples of such exceptions supposedly for adolescent readers--the construction within Hard Candy of its teenage protagonist appears monstrous when it is viewed and read in relation to texts that seek to engage teenagers more deliberately. For example, Block's teenage rape-revenge figure in her short story "Wolf," included in The Rose and the Beast, is far from brutal, cruel, or sadistic. The ability to "outwit" men and to exercise control through intelligence rather than only through physical strength is an insistent trope in an era that some define as "post-feminist," however. Although it is difficult to read Hayley as a feminist heroine, at least in terms of second-wave feminism and its celebration of collective struggle, Hard Candy is one among a significant number of films and television shows representing young women as defiant of (hetero)sexual cultural scripts and able to confront male power directly. (7) The problem that remains is that, in showing a young woman able to confront male power directly, this film represents Hayley's vengeance in terms that are highly individualized and might allow audiences to settle their feelings about its protracted horrors with the judgment that her actions are those of a young woman who is insane. In this respect, audiences might indeed conclude that, in fact, teenage girls do not do what Hayley does. At the same time, there is the attraction of such a fantasy, the playing out of an answer to the question, "What if...?" As Roxane Gay remarks in Bad Feminist, "I want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds" (86). (8) Hayley is a callous and ruthless survivor. The narrative thus leaves open a space for ambivalence, both its pleasure and its discomfort.


(1) Elizabeth Marshall's work on the pathologization of adolescent girls in fiction and film suggests a wider context for Hayley's apparent classification through psychiatric discourse. She discusses Francesca Lia Block's short story "Wolf" ("Girlhood"), specifically the fictional first-person narration, by a teenage girl, of events leading to her shooting dead a stepfather who has raped her repeatedly: as the protagonist states at the beginning of the narrative, "They don't believe me. They think I'm crazy" (Rose 101). Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted is a memoir of diagnosis and confinement in a mental hospital--as a teenage girl said to be suffering from a "character" or "personality disorder" (the novel was adapted into a film in 1999). For Marshall, these authors challenge the construction of the "wounded" and pathologized individual girl in "psychiatric and cultural discourses" ("Borderline" 122).

(2) For a wider discussion and critique of "sexualization," see Egan; Egan and Hawkes, "Sexuality"; Egan and Hawkes, Theorizing 153-55.

(3) For an argument that proclamations of the advent of post-feminism are often, in effect, attempts to return to a pre-feminist world, see Modleski.

(4) "Little Red Riding Hood" has been a matter for debate among feminist authors. Block's reworking of the tale in her book The Rose and the Beast, discussed by Marshall ("Girlhood"), is of particular interest. See also Greenhill and Kohm's detailed discussion of the longer history of variants of the tale and Hesford's wider discussion of rape and trauma.

(5) It is worth noting that, in Hayley's middle-class social world, the practice of classification by doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists might well be a further instance of the patriarchal control she seeks to defy. Being positioned in their medical scripts may be no more acceptable than being positioned in those proposed by Jeff.

(6) Hayley's status as a "can-do" girl pursuing violent revenge is not exceptional in popular film and television, although her apparent middle-class background and the sustained and calculated conduct of torture make her an extreme variant of the vengeful female protagonist. In young adult fiction, Block's perhaps working-class and teenage version of "Little Red Riding Hood" commits a single act of lethal violence in self-defence (if also in revenge for repeated rape). Such an act places her within a realist narrative mode and a recognizable, socially located moral order. Hayley's actions are neither easily interpreted as belonging to a realist narrative nor as consistent with any actual, lived moral order. As such, she is constructed as a monstrous figure at odds with the apparent realism of the mise en scene of the film.

(7) As a contrast to stories of violence, the example of Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love (released theatrically as Fucking Amal) can be viewed as an assertive and defiant script for young women. It offers an affirmation of a teenage lesbian relationship through the struggles of its key protagonists to assert their sexuality in a censorious and oppressive social world, the small town Amal of the film's original Swedish title. See Mallan, Cender 25; Mallan, "(Un)doing"; Mallan and Stephens.

(8) See Gay, especially her discussion of Cone Cirl in "Not Here to Make Friends."


A first version of this paper was presented to the Media, Culture and Curriculum Special Interest Group at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego, California, in April 2009. I would like to thank Elizabeth Marshall of the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University for organizing the symposium at the AERA meeting and for earlier conversations informing the argument made in this article.

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Chris Richards is the author of three books: Young People, Popular Culture and Education (2011), Forever Young: Essays on Young Adult Fictions (2008), and Teen Spirits: Music and Identity in Media Education (1998). He is also joint author of Children, Media and Playground Cultures: Ethnographic Studies of School Playtimes (2013) and co-editor of Children's Games in the Media Age: Childlore, Media and the Playground (2014). He recently retired from the London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education, University of London, where he was a Senior Lecturer in Media Education.
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Author:Richards, Chris
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Date:Jun 22, 2015
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