Others have argued that toxic botany offers women a way to equal the score with men. In a piece for Vulture, Andy Crump called poisonous mushrooms “2017’s most surprising metaphor for women’s liberation”; he described its use across The Beguiled, Phantom Thread and Lady Macbeth as “playing … a small role in women’s emancipation from the patriarchy.” But this isn’t quite true. The female characters in these three films may have rid themselves of the men abusing or terrorizing them, but the “freedom” they attain is frequently fragile because it is based off an identity of subjugation.
If anything, turning to poison appears to erode their humanity and capacity for compassion, rather than elevate them to the status of empowered beings. Katherine’s transformation toward the end of Lady Macbeth shows her to be sociopathic and obsessed with her own immediate pleasure. The Beguiled’s Alicia (Elle Fanning) has no reason to jeopardize her relationships with the other women in her pursuit of Corporal McBurney, but she does so anyway out of boredom and narcissism. The unceremonious way in which they dispose of McBurney’s corpse is also a sign that the murder has twisted them in some ineffable way.
The use of poisonous mushrooms isn’t about women playing some zero-sum game with controlling men. What the trope really does is prompt viewers to consider what female agency can look like in situations that are overwhelmingly shaped by sexism—and it’s not a pretty sight. The women mimic the language of violence articulated by the men in their lives, in one of the only ways available to them. Unable to emancipate themselves fully from the trappings of their gender roles, their only recourse is to do harm before they suffer further. In one of the last scenes of Lady Macbeth, when Katherine implicates her lover and maid in the murder of a child, her face is eerily impassive, mirroring the expression of her husband early in the film when he regards her with cruel indifference. In that moment, they are one and the same.
Annihilation stands apart from these films, in part, because its portrayal of killer plants rejects the cliché of passive women reacting violently only when backed into a corner. Lena and her teammate Josie (Tessa Thompson) both make their own decision to confront the mutated flora, without coercion from the other women. Josie chooses to become part of the Shimmer, telling Lena that, “Ventress wants to face it, you want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those.” When vines begin protruding from Josie’s veins, the viewer might recoil in disgust, but the scene where she wanders away to become a tree is oddly beautiful and moving.
Lena, too, is the keeper of her own destiny. After making a terrible discovery in the film’s climactic scene in a lighthouse, Lena resolves to return to the outside world. She crawls into an underground glade shaped by a tangle of roots to confront the core of the virulent entity that shapes the Shimmer. When she emerges victorious, the crystal trees around the lighthouse collapse. One woman is assimilated by the killer plants, while another defeats them; but, crucially, neither finds herself totally annihilated.