This story contains spoilers for The Kitchen and for the first episode of Why Women Kill .
Many pop-culture antiheroines, whether the bunny-boiler of Fatal Attraction or the cell-block sirens of Chicago, embody the woman scorned—a type of character so infuriated by betrayal that she turns violent. This month, two projects join the female-revenge-fantasy subgenre. The film The Kitchen adapts the graphic novel of the same name, about three mob wives in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen delivering payback after their husbands are carted off to jail. The TV series Why Women Kill, which debuted Thursday on CBS All Access, takes a soapy look at three wives from different eras—the ’60s, the ’80s, and the present—who, it is hinted, murder their partners by the end of the season.
Both works aim to evoke the catharsis of seeing mistreated women get their due, but neither hits its mark perfectly. And in their failures, these projects expose a conundrum facing stories about female vengeance: Narratives about scorned women that try to double as examples of empowerment often edge into pandering territory.
The Kitchen, perhaps, lands in that space completely. The film gives its disparaged wives—played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss—plenty of reasons to resent their mobster husbands. But rather than also giving them proper character arcs, the movie turns its leads into shallow avatars for GIF-able moments of badassery. Kathy (McCarthy), previously shown to be a compassionate woman intent on keeping her family whole, orders the execution of her husband in the room next to their children during a horrifying final-act scene that’s presented as triumphant. Ruby (Haddish) goes on a killing spree—which includes the murder of her husband—and then explains her actions with the baffling line, “Black people need power.” And the once-sensitive Claire (Moss) suddenly and inexplicably embraces brutality after her abusive husband is locked away; she can easily shoot people in the head, dismember their corpses, and deposit them in the Hudson.
The movie doesn’t explore how the women individually process the trauma of being abandoned by their spouses and abused by the mob. It seems to imply that the trio are safe to root for, despite their vile behavior, because they’ve suffered more than they’ve sinned. “There comes a point when the film and the audience should ask whether their past suffering has become an all-purpose excuse for becoming the beastly humans they married,” the critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in his review. “The Kitchen never musters up the nerve to go there.” (Widows, the 2018 heist thriller to which The Kitchen has been compared for its similar premise, did a much better job of giving its characters necessary shading. Violence is their last resort, not their nonsensical first choice.)
The Kitchen prefers to flaunt the fact that its plot features women in power. Take the opening scene: The screenwriter and first-time director Andrea Berloff begins with Etta James’s cover of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” a track so on the nose it feels like a marketing move aimed at female moviegoers rather than a thematically appropriate flourish. Later, an Italian mob boss taunts the trio by calling them feminists. “You girls kill me,” he says. “[You’re] all Gloria Steinem and shit.”
The film’s final shot—in which Kathy and Ruby stride down the street, in slow motion, as the new leaders of the mob—is meant to be a satisfying kicker, but it’s a superficial image of female authority. Just because the two are working together doesn’t mean they’re any more in control of their lives than they were at the start of the movie. The male mob leaders initially rejected Kathy and Ruby for being women, expecting them to be dutiful spouses, but the duo didn’t dismantle those sexist structures after they took over; they merely murdered their husbands. Whatever its ambitions, The Kitchen cheapens the notion of empowerment by using it to tell a story whose main achievement is glorifying an oppressive crime ring.
Unlike Berloff’s film, CBS’s Why Women Kill is definitively about characters challenging the restrictive systems that govern their lives. Set in the same house but told in three separate timelines, the dark-comedy series—from the creator Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives)—features protagonists in similar situations. The loyal 1960s housewife Beth Ann (Ginnifer Goodwin); the self-absorbed ’80s socialite Simone (Lucy Liu); and Taylor (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a formidable lawyer in 2019, have all begun to distrust their husbands and question their roles as spouses.
Of the three, Simone, a woman who looks like she swanned off the set of Dynasty and who adorns her house with portraits of herself, has the most farcical arc. When she finds her cheating husband catatonic in their bedroom after he apparently swallowed an entire bottle of pills, she calls an ambulance—and then admonishes him for his suicide attempt. “You think you’re going to get out of this by dying?” she rants. “Fuck you! I want to see you suffer in a one-bedroom apartment next to the airport, and you will not deny me that pleasure!”
For all the histrionics, though, Simone isn’t heartless; Liu imbues her character with pathos and a dash of humor. In the scene where Simone first learns of her husband’s infidelity, she tries to maintain a poker face while standing in front of one of her many self-portraits. “Everything’s fine,” she says with an unconvincing smile. “Absolutely fine.” The series appears to understand something pivotal that The Kitchen doesn’t: Telling a story about a woman reclaiming her life does not require stripping a character of her humanity. Simone may truly want to hurt her husband (by downgrading his living conditions), but the show suggests she’s worth rooting for not just because she’s been wronged, but also because her vulnerability gives her dimension.
While Why Women Kill has nuanced leads, the show stumbles in its use of high camp. It’s a stylistic choice that adds levity but that allows the show—at least in the first two episodes made available to critics—to avoid interrogating the realities that drive its characters to take extreme measures. The series seems to want to have it both ways: to indulge in the theatrics of women regaining control over their lives without asking why that control was taken from them in the first place. Why Women Kill is careful to remind viewers that its story lines are fictional (to underscore that point, the opening credits are rendered like comic-book panels). The dialogue, score, and performances are all steeped in melodrama. The message? That the revenge the women carry out lies squarely in the realm of fantasy, so it’s okay not to take their actions seriously.
Of course, a revenge fantasy is meant to be just that—a fantasy, escapist and entertaining. But as many critics have noted lately, real life has made it difficult for some audiences to enjoy stories that loudly deploy the language and moral force of women’s empowerment. To the Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara, the world after the 2016 election ruined the fantasy that plays out in the political comedy Long Shot, about a female secretary of state running for president. “Once upon a time, the merest glimpse of a woman in any such role felt progressive, even if the character was a monster,” she wrote. “In this world, ‘fun’ stories about women becoming president can seem at best flippant, at worst patronizing. Either way, depressing.” The superhero hit Captain Marvel, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first woman-led movie, “managed to be simultaneously thrilling and disappointing, at once exhilarating and exhausting,” my colleague Megan Garber wrote, because it attempted to “do so much,” including “pay fealty to the film’s historical status during a time when, still, the mere centering of a woman is assumed to be its own cause for celebration.”
The goalposts for the ways in which women are depicted and seen on-screen will continue to shift. The Kitchen and Why Women Kill try, in very different ways, to take a new approach to representing female anger and retribution, but don’t get very far. The former trades character development for easy messaging, while the latter’s excessively heightened tone undercuts its ideas about women’s agency. Revenge may be a delicious fantasy, especially when the ones being served had it coming, but these sorts of fantasies could also use a dose of reality.