‘Don’t take your hate out on me, I just got here.’: Assassination Nation and Foucauldian Incitement to Discourse in the Digital Age

by: , January 15, 2020

When Assassination Nation premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the American film industry was in the middle of a cultural reckoning. Barely three months had passed since sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein galvanized the #MeToo movement, igniting a national discourse on misogyny that Donald Trump’s ‘grab her by the pussy’ hot-mic somehow couldn’t just before the 2016 presidential election. In the midst of #MeToo, Sam Levinson’s ‘feminist splatter opera’ was met with cheers during its Midnight Section screening (Cochrane 2018), an enthusiasm that translated into NEON and AGBO shelling out $10 million for worldwide distribution rights – the festival’s biggest sale of 2018 (Marotta 2018). As Kristen Cochrane observed in her Sundance review, the film’s resonance was largely due to the timeliness of its message, mirroring a reality where women ‘face disproportionate repercussions for claiming sexual sovereignty – or even just existing’ (2018).

Taking place in the aptly-named town of Salem, [1] Assassination Nation follows precocious high school senior Lily Coulson (Odessa Young) and her three best friends: quippy trans girl Bex Warren (Hari Nef), and scandal-living sisters Em (Abra) and Sarah Lacey (Suki Waterhouse). Although their social lives consist of neon-lit house parties and hedonistic Snapchat stories, the girls are as politically informed as they are social media savvy, engaging in Instagram-ready sexuality for the omnipresent male-gaze while upbraiding their male peers on sexual politics. But when an anonymous hacker starts uploading residents’ personal data onto 4Chan, Salem – like its historical counterpart – ‘lose[s] its mother fucking mind’; the family values mayor publicly commits suicide after his kink for wearing women’s lingerie goes viral, distorted accusations of pedophilia drive the high school principal and his family into hiding, and Maude Apatow takes a bat to Bella Thorne’s head for leaking her nudes. As the town sinks further into an increasingly destructive mob mentality, Lily and her friends become the targets of a masked horde of angry men convinced she is behind the hack, culminating in the four girls taking direct action against their assailants with nail guns, firearms, and katanas in a blood-soaked night of survival.

Early critics labeled Assassination Nation as the movie of the #MeToo-era, banking its success on the cultural zeitgeist it reflected as an aesthetically rich tale of internet-fueled, Trump-era misogyny for the Twitter generation. Promotional material for the film channeled the incessant sense of outrage and political disillusionment felt amongst women since the 2016 election, as reflected by its tongue-in-cheek tagline, ‘You asked for it America.’ And much like its auspicious Sundance premiere, the film’s wide release – September 21st – coincided with yet another watershed moment in American sexual politics, opening mere days after Christine Blasey Ford went public with allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. So considering all the fortuitous circumstances surrounding the film’s release, why did Assassination Nation have the worst box office opening of the year (Kaplan 2018)? Many were quick to blame social media’s censorship of the film’s marketing, where platforms such as Facebook and YouTube reportedly refused to play trailers and promotional clips, claiming the content (Young’s character exposing her bra, teenage girls pointing guns at the camera) violated their terms of service [2] (Katzowitz 2018). But some of the scathingly negative critical response suggests the problem lies with a fundamental misunderstanding of Assassination Nation’s intentions as a satirical critique of how our compulsive engagement with social media has resulted in one of the most tumultuous political eras in America. In her review for The Los Angeles Times, Katie Walsh [3] denounced the film as an ‘exploitative claptrap’ that ‘objectifies’ its female leads with sexualized violence, claiming that Levinson – bitterly addressed as ‘dude’ in the piece – and his ‘fumbled ‘feminist’ commentary’ were tantamount to ‘mansplaining’ (2018). Walsh’s assertion that Assassination Nation can’t critique the ‘contradictory social conditioning of women’ while simultaneously visualizing the neon-lit spectacles of sexuality and violence such conditioning takes the form of implies a failure to recognize how the film operates according to a Foucauldian framework of power.

Through an analysis of Assassination Nation, I examine how Foucault’s theory of sexuality as incitement to discourse operates in the age of social media and mediated technology. As a primary site for the production of power in the 21st century, the digital realm engages sexuality through devices of confession and self-disclosure that play into our basic need for human validation. However, despite the possibilities for sexual liberation and autonomy, the incitement to discourse in the digital age exacerbates pre-existing power dynamics of gender oppression, disproportionately punishing women and gender nonconforming individuals for engaging in a compulsory digital sexual economy. Assassination Nation may not be the ‘100% true story’ it proclaims itself to be, but the fictional Salem’s descent into chauvinistic mob violence illustrates how engagement with the digital sphere and the incitement to discourse reinforce gendered flows of power in the modern sexual economy.

#IncitementToDiscourse
Michel Foucault’s contributions to the study of sexuality represent some of the most provocative challenges to the foundational theories established by Sigmund Freud. In contrast to Freud, who argues sexuality is constantly subject to mechanisms of social and psychological repression, Foucault asserts sexuality is actually constituted through systems, forces, and devices of power. Power, in relation to sexuality, functions through processes of production (rather than repression) by way of ‘incitement to discourse’; the cultural injunction to confess, according to Foucault, constitutes ‘an institutional incitement to speak about sex (1990 [1978]: 18), compelling us to disclose ourselves and our sexual proclivities under the assumption that we are resisting or leveraging ‘truth’ against power (1990 [1978]: 58-63). The practice of confession – understood as any verbal, visual, or written means through which we divulge ourselves to others – ‘constructs knowledge power that gives authority and supremacy to the listener, instead of the self,’ giving ‘the power of judging the truth or the nature of our behaviors to our confessors’ (Tsuria 2016: 3-4). Power exploits human desire to find truth and validation from outside ourselves, creating liberatory incentives for us to engage in sexual discourses that we no longer perceive as the restrictive effects of power (Foucault 1990 [1978]: 60-62).

As a constitutive force, power also ‘occupies and colonizes subjectivity’ to produce various sexual identities and relations reflecting cultural contexts and historical moments (Foucault 1990 [1978]: 47), creating a mutually reinforcing dynamic of power and pleasure; in tandem with the pursuit for validation, power incites us to confess as a way of constructing and asserting our identities, giving us a sense of pleasure from ‘showing off, scandalizing, or resisting’ (Foucault 1990 [1978]: 45). It’s crucial to note that this circular incitement to discourse is not inherently bad by itself. Just as discourse can be ‘an instrument and an effect of power,’ it can also be ‘a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy’ (Foucault 1990 [1978]: 101), as exemplified by the networks of support and political organizing prompted by #MeToo. In respect to Assassination Nation, such positive effects are visible in the solidarity and feminist consciousness shared between the four main characters. However, when power disproportionately serves the interests of men over women, the incitement to discourse ensnares us in gendered systems of marginalization.

When Foucault penned this theory in the seventies, the forms of confession he had in mind were the religious rites of the Christian pastoral, judicial interrogations, and modern day psychiatry (1990 [1978]: 63). Having died in 1984, he did not live to see the rise of social media, texting, or viral videos, and with them a digitally mediated incitement to discourse. Social media and communication technology are power’s latest – and perhaps most effective – devices for speaking about sex, ‘for listening, recording, transcribing, and redistributing what is said about it’ (Foucault 1990 [1978]: 34). In Foucault’s absence, many scholars have applied his theories to our digital landscape, analyzing how incitement to discourse fuels our engagement with new technology and to what extent that engagement shapes us. Chris Brickell, for example, examines how internet spaces operate as key sites for the construction and expression of identity:

‘To some degree we become our pages on Facebook, MySpace and anywhere else we announce our presence to an online audience. As we establish and embellish our profiles, we build ourselves out of the raw matter of everyday life and the architecture of the site in question: photographs, social relationships, text boxes, quotations and online ephemera. We construct subjectivity as we navigate the discourses available to us through these sites. If subjectivity is always in process, these kinds of websites play an important part in our ongoing self-shaping…We construct ourselves – and others – using the language our culture has coded in specific, highly symbolic ways…we are constituted from below – ‘formed as objects’ – through the discourses that define us on and through these sites.’ (Brickell 2012: 30)

On social media, we find ourselves enveloped in various, circulating discourses informing us how to ‘construct and convey our sexual selves’ to an omnipresent audience (Brickell 2012: 31). But just as technology invites us to disclose ourselves and our sexual proclivities, it also encourages us to curate the self we present online and through digital interactions, accentuating certain aspects of our lives while glossing over others in an effort to be desired and validated (Brickell 2012: 31).

Power exploits our need for truth and validation from others, and thus the pursuit of validation is a primary incentive for us to confess and engage in discourse. Foucault never specifies that the confession or the subject’s incitement to discourse must be made publicly – all it requires is one external party to listen and give some sort of validation (1990 [1978]: 61-62), be it your followers on social media or someone you are privately texting. What matters in the context of Assassination Nation is that, in the digital age, we compulsively divulge so much about ourselves through technology, engaging in various sexual discourses across different platforms and presenting a carefully curated self for the consumption of others in the hope that we will be validated, listened to, and/or liberated through such exposure. But as the boundaries between the public and the private continue to blur, what we are compelled to share on digital spaces can also be weaponized against us.

‘I’m not a bitch, I’m a feminist.’
Assassination Nation comes off as a bloodier version of Mean Girls, similarly focused on a foursome of popular high school girls, but with the blackened, satirical edge that defined Heathers in the eighties and Jawbreaker in the nineties. The influence of these girl posse films [4] radiates throughout Assassination Nation, from the girls’ in-synch power walk through East Salem High to their enviably stylish wardrobes. Yet unlike its predecessors, Assassination Nation’s central conflict isn’t girls against girls – it’s girls against institutional misogyny. The significance of this deviation can be traced to the role social media now plays in the lives of young women, which arguably facilitated a fourth wave of feminism amongst Millennials and Gen Z (Veneto 2017: 39). Although the plot of Assassination Nation concerns a Black Mirror-esque scenario of technology gone wrong, social media positively influenced the film’s production process, giving it an authentically female perspective despite the gender of its director.

Katie Walsh’s criticism that a film written and directed by a man has no right to pass itself off as feminist or as anything but an ‘exploitative claptrap’ is not without merit, considering how many male filmmakers #MeToo exposed as either sexually abusive or hostile towards women. Hari Nef [5] was similarly critical when she received the script for Assassination Nation, stating, ‘[when] I heard what it was about and I saw that it was written by a white, straight man, I rolled my eyes and said, ‘‘How could this possibly be good? How could this possibly be real? How could this possibly work?’’’ (qtd. in Weir 2018). But upon reading the script, Nef was surprised by the level of insight and the ‘genuine sense of empathy’ Levinson managed to convey through his own research; ‘[Levinson] went online, and he went deep into Tumblr […] He was on YouTube. He was listening to girls making videos, talking about their lives, listening to how they spoke and what they spoke about’ (qtd. in Page 2018).

Sam Levinson [6] – son of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson – began writing Assassination Nation days before the birth of his first child as the political environment grew increasingly hostile in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election; ‘I was responding to a very specific terror: the idea that I was bringing a kid into a world – specifically a country – that was outwardly celebrating aggression and violence and vitriol and mob mentality’ (qtd. in Marotta 2018). To make up for the female perspective he lacked, Levinson turned to the internet and plugged into the discourse of young, politically-conscious teens (Cochrane 2018). But Levinson did not stop there; throughout the film’s production process, he had ongoing discussions and email exchanges with his female leads asking for their input, feelings, and concerns about the script and storyline, as attested to by Young, Nef, Abra, and Waterhouse throughout the film’s press tour. This collaborative approach included an ongoing dialogue between Levinson and Nef about the role of Bex (Anderson 2018), whose character arc concerns the threat and reality of violence faced by trans women in a heteronormative sexual economy. As Nef told W (Bale 2018), ‘There were emails [7] I wrote him, thoughts I expressed, and I would get a new draft of the script the same day. Sometimes my words would be in the script, and he just incorporated them’ (Bale 2018). Furthermore, the inclusion of a trans woman – as the deuteragonist, no less – to the traditionally cisgender girl posse dynamic reflects recent feminist efforts towards transgender inclusivity, much of which has been prompted through the internet (Veneto 2017: 43-44).

If power, according to Foucault, is capable of producing different sexual identities through new forms of cultural production, then the internet can be understood as providing ‘places of maximum saturation’ for sexual politics to inform subjectivity (1990 [1978]: 47). Representing a generation of women who have grown up on social media, Lily and her friends are subjects constituted by online discourse, their sexual politics and gender performance reflecting the issues and aesthetics found in communities of young feminists on Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter. Our introduction to the girls sees them taking selfies and blowing kisses at the audience in an infinity mirror room, a favorite location for Instagram photo-shoots and photo-ops. A close-up of Em draws attention to her gold-scripted ‘feminist’ necklace, proclaiming a political identity where Regina George’s narcissistic ‘R’ once rested in Mean Girls over a decade prior.

Figure 1: Em’s ‘Feminist’ necklace.

When we next see the foursome together, they’re lazing about in Em’s mood-lit bedroom discussing sexting, rape jokes, and how ‘men who don’t eat pussy are straight up sociopathic,’ a sentiment that’s quickly tweeted by Bex with Em’s consent that she ‘spread the good word girl.’

It would be easy to dismiss such claims to feminism as neoliberal style over political substance, but Lily and her friends consistently challenge phallocentric sexual politics throughout the film – Sarah chews out boys for claiming porn taught them to fuck, Bex puts Lily’s boyfriend, Mark (Bill Skarsgård), on the spot for not reciprocating oral sex (prompting Bex’s proclamation, ‘I’m not a bitch, I’m a feminist’), and Lily questions Principle Turrell and her father’s inability to comprehend female nudity as anything but sexual. These girls aren’t afraid to voice their opinions or stand up to men’s attempts to shame them (Kay-B 2018), empowered by a stream of online feminist discourse that would otherwise be out of their reach in right-leaning Salem (Veneto 2017: 39).

As an instrument of power, the internet allows discourse to function as ‘a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy’ (Foucault 1990 [1978]: 101), amplifying the voices of young women to the benefit of Assassination Nation’s production process as well as its main characters. But such positive effects of digital incitement to discourse are quickly – and violently – outweighed; as an agent of inequality, power ‘directs the flow of internet sexuality in ways that privilege some […] and marginalize or dominate others’ (Brickell 2012: 29). The internet intensifies the ways women are compelled to conform to certain sexual scripts, yet subsequently punished for embodying those expectations (Robertson 2018). For the film’s heroines, all it takes is one agent provocateur to turn the provincial Salem against them.

‘I hate the fucking internet.’
The youth of Salem – with their viral culture of hedonistic, pot-fueled house parties – are in stark contrast to the town’s neo-conservative, family-values oriented adults. As head cheerleader Reagan (Bella Thorne) opines, Salem’s teens have accepted that ‘privacy’s just dead’ in the digitally saturated modern world, whereas ‘old people […] are still trying to fight it.’ Issues of privacy are at the center of debates about society’s growing reliance on technology, but the solution is not as simple as just logging out or going off the grid. The subject, Foucault notes, cannot exist outside of power because subjectivity itself is comprised through relations of power that infuse society and our engagements with others, especially in relation to sexuality (Brickell 2012: 29, 33). If the internet and other forms of new technology are contemporary devices of power, and power itself is inescapable, then completely opting out of the social network is hardly feasible. Social capital and information technology have become so intertwined that choosing not to engage in social media or technological self-presentation is tantamount to ‘choosing the kind of invisibility that may severely curtail one’s possibilities for social interaction’ (Blatterer 2010: 82). Levinson echoed this sentiment at Assassination Nation’s Comic Con panel, stating, ‘[W]hat choice do you have? This system has been put in place. Do you log-off all social media? You then risk becoming a total pariah. You don’t know what’s happening in the world […] it’s this impossible position that you’re placed in as a young person’ (qtd. in Taylor-Foster 2018).

While the threat of social death is more than enough to make participation in the digital sphere obligatory, it’s the incitement to discourse that compels us to cede privacy and divulge so much of our personal information online. Though not overtly referenced in The History of Sexuality, Foucault’s theory of panopticism has been utilized by recent scholars to explain the normalization of disclosure on the internet. Citing Phillip Vannini’s analysis of internet porn, Chris Brickell applies the notion of a ‘seductive’ panopticon, or ‘synopticon,’ to social media, wherein we ‘create, present, project and regulate oneself simultaneously’ in hopes that our desires will be positively acknowledged (2012: 34). This pursuit of visibility through online acts of self-exposure is in constant tension with the preservation of privacy (Blatterer 2010: 74; Burkart 2010: 23), especially when social capital now finds currency via sharing provocative content like nudes and sexts (Salter 2016: 2727). Lily’s storyline highlights this particular issue and how it unduly affects young women, as she’s compelled and manipulated into a sexting relationship with ‘Daddy,’ a.k.a. Nick (Joel McHale), a married man she babysat for, when her relationship with Mark ceases to be mutually beneficial or sexually validating.

Although the internet does provide young women with new pathways of public self-representation, it is also beholden to pre-existing systems of power that mark girls as highly visible objects of public scrutiny (Salter 2016: 2736). The agency allotted to women in the digital sphere is largely dependent on their conformity to cultural constructions of heterosexualised femininity, demanding they be ‘sexy’ but not ‘slutty,’ ‘demure’ but not ‘prudish’ (Salter 2016: 2725; Harlan 2017: 58). Such demands are as incompatible online as they are in real life, severely limiting the ability to be sexually autonomous or socially legible without appealing to male desires. Under these conditions, young women who wish to claim sexual autonomy find themselves enacting a purely performative form of female sexuality, objectifying themselves in order to appease the ever-present male-gaze constantly weighing their worth. Such displays of ‘performative shamelessness’ are enacted by Lily and her friends (Dobson 2014: 147); they are well aware that their lives are on display for an omnipresent male-gaze that expects them to be desirable objects for public consumption, as apparent in Levinson’s use of a DePalma-inspired triple split-screen during the first house party sequence to invoke Snapchats and Instagram stories.

Figure 2: Use of the triple-split-screen to evoke Snapchat and Instagram stories.

The camera functions as a phone, recording everything from twerking asses to titillating selfies, simultaneously depicting multiple spectacles competing for the audience’s attention. In an increasingly voyeuristic society that bases its value system on public displays of the private self, every expression of female sexuality becomes a carefully calculated performance, balancing authenticity and theatricality in self-presentation (Burkart 2010: 23-24).

Because the internet mirrors – if not intensifies – broader patterns of social power (Brickell 2012: 36), the negative consequences of digital incitement to discourse are significantly gendered; the fights that break out across Salem become justified spectacles of masculine aggression against women who deviate from heteronormative femininity and men who transgress against patriarchal expectations. The hacker, who goes by the handle Er0str4tus, initially targets Salem’s male authority figures – Mayor Bartlett and Principal Turrell – exposing their failure to abide by the laws they are meant to uphold: Bartlett’s solicitation of male escorts and fetish for dressing in lingerie are perversions to his anti-gay political base, and the non-sexual images of Turrell’s young daughter taking a bath on his phone are interpreted as child porn due to his profession and social standing as a black man in a white-majority town. [8] But once half of Salem’s personal data is leaked, it is women who disproportionately suffer the consequences for the digital incitement to discourse. This is unsurprising, considering that most cyberstalking and harassment cases are committed by men against women (Brickell 2012: 38). Vilifying women for confessing and acting upon their sexual desires is as American as a witch hunt (Young 2018), and thus the incitement to discourse carries graver risks for anyone who is not a macho football player like Johnny (Cody Christian) and his gang of shirtless bros who find Bex’s hook-up with Diamond (Danny Ramirez) a ‘disgusting’ corruption of heteronormative masculinity worth lynching her over. And for Bex and Lily especially, the incitement to discourse in the digital age exposes them to the violent power of misogyny and transphobia.

‘This isn’t about the sex or the porn…this is about everything that goes into it.’
After a montage of trigger warnings set to Ennio Morricone’s “Violenza inattesa” (from Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) prepares the viewer for the spectacles of violence, sexuality, and giant frogs [9] they are about to witness, Assassination Nation begins with a false start: we meet our protagonist, Lily, as she is deep-throating her boyfriend Mark’s fingers, his phone recording what she describes via voice-over as the ‘really gross’ thing she did that afternoon. It’s an audacious way to introduce your heroine, but Assassination Nation isn’t a film that tackles its themes through subtlety. This scene is a prelude to Lily’s storyline, which examines how women are compelled to engage in idealistic discourses of female sexuality, but are nonetheless punished for attempting to claim sexual agency. The beauty standards and sexualization imposed upon female bodies in the public sphere are amplified by the omnipresence of social media, forcing young women like Lily to perform a carefully curated self-image in the pursuit for external validation. Hence, sociologists frequently cite the desire for attention (or rather, validation) as a reason why women are compelled to share sexualized images of themselves online (Ramsey and Horan 2018: 86-88). Self-sexualization may seem empowering, but it can also be an insidious form of social control over women and their sexuality (Ramsey and Horan 2018: 86).

The pressure is disproportionately on women to navigate competing (if not incoherent) expectations that they present themselves as desirable objects for male consumption while staking no claim in their own sexual desires (Harlan 2017: 58-59). As Lily informs Principal Turrell after he reprimands her for drawing sexually explicit images of women, girls are subject to an ‘endless mind-fuck’ when modern self-representation comes at the behest of taking ‘ten thousand naked selfies’ before finding just the right combination of lighting and bodily contortion that will allow them to be beautiful and ‘hashtag flawless.’ Power, being a regulatory force ‘on the body and on sex’ (Foucault 1990 [1978]: 47), turns young women’s engagement with technology into seductive panopticism, a critique that’s illustrated during the house party sequence with Lily’s accompanying voice-over. Despite our culture’s assertion that ‘you’ll get what you want’ by being authentic, nobody actually wants the ‘real’ you; ‘They only want pieces and parts.’ The screen then splits three-ways, with Lily juxtaposed in the middle by the sexual trysts of her friends, staring forlornly into the distance after a fight with Mark has prompted her to send salacious selfies to Nick.

Figure 3: The triple-split-screen highlighting the girls’ sexual performances and Lily’s discontent.

‘They wanna pick and choose. They want that laugh, with that smile. That pic, with that confidence. That girl, with that willingness. But not her, not like that.’ Accordingly, the only version of Lily that is valued by Mark and Nick is the one that sexually objectifies herself – a digitally mediated image of female sexuality, willing to be consumed for the satisfaction of others. And in the digital age, women can’t afford to drop the performance, ‘because the whole world’s always watching and waiting, and it’s only a matter of time before you fuck it all up.’

That time comes for Lily once the hacker leaks Nick’s personal data, and with it all the sexts and nudes she sent him. While most of Salem is quick to demonize Lily as a ‘slut and a ‘whore’ for engaging in a sexual relationship with a married man, the film makes it clear that she is the victim in all of this. In the immediate fall-out, Lily confides in Bex under her bed sheets, revealing how Nick groomed her into the relationship by being a validating presence, asking self-affirming questions and then listening to what she had to say – a classic example of the Foucauldian power-pleasure dynamic between the confessing subject and the authority who ‘appreciates’ the confession (Foucault 1990 [1978]: 61-62). Though Lily never hooked-up with Nick, what she got from the exchange was a sense of validation she wasn’t receiving in her relationship with Mark. Arguably, Mark’s neglect of Lily’s personal needs conditioned her to seek affirmation by satisfying men’s sexual desires, something she gets nothing out of. In reference to Mark shoving his fingers down her throat, she tells Sarah and Em’s mother Nance (Anika Noni Rose) it’s ‘not as sexy as it sounds,’ her bleeding eye makeup further suggesting she only did it to appease her boyfriend. Although Lily notes Mark was ‘the first guy who ever made me feel good about being me,’ his abusive behavior throughout the film – culminating in doxxing her as the ‘Salem Hack Slut’ – along with his refusal to reciprocate oral sex indicates that he is unable, if not unwilling, to provide her with the sufficient emotional validation loving relationships are built upon.

Once Lily’s identity is revealed, she is subjected to the whole spectrum of misogyny’s
retaliatory power, and nobody, not even her parents, takes issue with the fact that a married father of two initiated a sexual relationship with a then-underage girl (Young 2018). Unlike the public masculine body, ‘the public female body is narrowly conflated with pornography,’ retaining ‘pejorative ascriptions of sexual promiscuity and aberration’ that have ‘deleterious effect’ on the woman depicted (Salter 2016: 2724, 2728), as described by Grace (Maude Apatow) after she’s arrested for bashing in Reagan’s head; ‘My entire life, every room that I walk into, every job interview or first date, I’ll have that sinking feeling in my stomach.’ The imposed sexualization of the female body is something Lily criticizes throughout the film, telling her father, ‘Nudity isn’t inherently sexual…just because a young girl is naked doesn’t mean it’s sexual or creepy or pervy.’

After it is her body that is exposed to the online public sphere, that observation subsequently becomes a question; ‘Who sees a naked photo of a girl and their first thought is, ‘Yo, I gotta kill this bitch’?’ The answer ends up being most of Salem, from the catcaller whose face Lily smashes in with a shovel to the vengeful Nick and his horde of masked men who descend on the Lacey home in the final act. After Lily kills Nick in self-defense, the seductive panopticism of social media visualized by the triple split-screen makes one final appearance – wiping his blood from her face, Lily gazes at herself in a medicine cabinet mirror, her reflection dissected by the lines of the cabinet doors as steely determination grows in her eyes, ‘baptized by the blood of a man who wronged her’ (Young 2018).

Figure 4: Lily’s blood-soaked, determined expression reflected in the medicine cabinet mirror (note how the lines of the cabinet doors resemble the triple-split-screen used throughout the film).

Now free to embody the rightful anger of young women in Trump’s America, Lily arms herself with Nick’s stash of weapons to go save her friends, the only source of validation she has ever really needed.

‘Thanks for not…murdering me? I guess?’
Asked about what drew her to the role of Bex, Hari Nef told Vanity Fair she related to the character on a basic level as a trans woman; ‘I know what it’s like when you’re living in a relatively hostile climate and you’re just a young girl who is a) looking for love, and b) trying not to die’ (Weir 2018). The desire to love and to be loved is a fundamental human need, but for trans women, the incitement to discourse as a pursuit for validation is not only restricted by the cisnormative sexual economy, it is also incredibly risky when violence is often the norm. Much has been said (and done) about violence against cisgender women, but trans women (and trans people in general) are often overlooked in research on intimate partner violence (IPV) (Henry et al. 2018: 4). For trans people, the quest for love is often coupled with ‘trying not to die,’ as reported statistics of IPV and sexual assault amongst the trans and gender nonconforming community range between 31.3% and 64% (Henry et al. 2018: 4-5). Compared to cisgender women, trans women were ‘three times more likely to report sexual violence’ in a 2016 survey by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) (qtd. in Henry et al. 2018: 5). Furthermore, trans women – especially trans women of color – make up a significant portion of IPV related homicides (46% according to NCAVP’s 2016 survey) (qtd. in Henry et al. 2018: 4-5), and of the 128 known cases of fatal anti-trans violence between 2013 and 2018, 9 in 10 were trans women (Lee 2018: 62, 64). Contributing factors to these rates include cultural marginalization, stigmatization, and the increasingly hostile political climate, with 21 anti-trans bills introduced in state legislature in 2018 alone (Lee 2018: 43-44).

As a cinematic reflection of Trump’s America, Salem is just as deeply embroiled in a culture of transphobia as it is misogyny. According to Bex, Mayor Bartlett spent most of his political career denying ‘LGBQIAA people their rights,’ hence her justified lack of sympathy over his suicide. But transmisogyny is also rampant in Salem, as much amongst the adults who call Bartlett a ‘tranny’ and a ‘pervert’ as the youth who delight in seeing their ‘family-values’ mayor wearing silk panties. After Marty (Noah Galvin), an accomplice of Er0str4tus, forwards Bartlett’s leak to everyone in East Salem High, football players Johnny and Diamond react with visceral disgust, whereas Bex and her friends find schadenfreude in the mayor’s hypocrisy and poor taste in lingerie. This expression of transmisogyny foreshadows the football team’s role in the last act, with Johnny putting together a gang of ‘Slay ‘Em High Killas’ to beat Diamond and hang Bex from a streetlamp after the hack reveals their sexual relationship. By sheer virtue of Bex’s identity as a trans woman, the football players find their masculinity threatened (and Diamond’s corrupted) by this revelation, and their attempt to execute her like a 17th century Salem witch serves as an effort to eliminate the threat she poses as an unacceptable object of male desire (Young 2018).

Bex’s engagement with sexuality via the incitement to discourse differs from Lily’s due to the identity-specific circumstances that limit trans women’s ability to pursue intimate relationships. Self-disclosure of trans identity can result in transphobic violence, and thus trans participation in sexual discourse often hinges on discretion (Williams et al. 2016: 3). Like the homosexual subject of Foucauldian analysis, trans people have also been pathologized and typified according to their sexual sensibilities (Foucault 1990 [1978]: 43), hence the enduring stigma that trans people are sexually deviant. Beyond the increased threats of violence and cultural hostility, the lack of validation given to trans women as ‘women’ by cisgender male partners greatly impedes their attainment of sexual satisfaction, as feelings of sexual attractiveness are often tied to the ability to pass (Williams et al. 2016: 1672-1673). Writing about ‘The Transgender Dating Dilemma,’ Raquel Willis describes how the process of transitioning made her feel pessimistic about her dating prospects, remarking, ‘I didn’t know if I’d ever have the chance to be loved. I thought, Who will want you?’ (2015). When trans women do encounter men who want to date or have sex with them, the motivations behind those desires can be exploitative (Williams et al. 2016: 1666). The fetishization of trans women’s bodies often comes from men who merely wish to fulfill some sort of sexual fantasy, making trans women into ‘‘an object for men to derive pleasure from, only to be discarded immediately afterwards’’ (qtd. in Reign 2018).

Bex’s character arc in Assassination Nation speaks to this trans-specific narrative of wanting and looking for genuine love; as Hari Nef told W; ‘She wants the love story and she wants girl to meet boy’ (Bale 2018). Diamond represents a real possibility for Bex to experience sexual validation, and although his intent with her is never specified, his assertion that their interaction remain a secret denies Bex that sought after pleasure in desirability. Men who are intimate with trans women often insist the relationship remain on the ‘down low’ (Williams et al. 2016: 1673), concerned it may complicate their sexual identity, masculinity, or social standing (Willis 2015). When the girls goad Bex into telling them who she’s been sexting, she makes them swear they won’t tell anybody who it is, clearly aware that Diamond’s reputation as a ‘football bro’ could be tarnished if it were known he was sending dick pics to a trans woman. Nonetheless, when she catches him ‘eye-fucking’ her across the room during the house party, the prospect of being desired – and by extension, loved – is so enthralling that she takes Em up on her suggestion that they ‘give him something to look at,’ provocatively dancing in a public performance of female sexuality. Later, as Diamond is taking her top off, Bex confesses she’s somewhat self-conscious that her breasts aren’t big enough to be sexually desirable. His assertion that they’re ‘perfect’ comes as a pleasant surprise, and she proceeds to enjoy the remainder of their sexual encounter until he turns distant post-coitus. The shot that proceeds is a medium close-up on Bex, visibly struggling to keep her composure as she realizes Diamond wanted nothing more than sex from her.

Figure 5: Bex trying to keep her composure after Diamond tells her to keep their hook-up a secret (note the lingering presence of the triple-split-screen dividers).

This disquiet is confirmed when he says, ‘You can’t tell anyone about this, right?’, to which her response, ‘Yeah, I get it,’ is followed by another medium close-up that holds on her broken expression as she begins to sob, alone and invalidated.

Figure 6: Bex sobbing after Diamond leaves her heartbroken and alone (note that the shot isn’t dissected by the triple-split-screen dividers).

Despite their different experiences of womanhood, Bex and Lily both find that the incitement to discourse through sexting and nude selfies is an ultimately unfulfilling, lopsided exchange that leads girls to feel they are ‘inconsequential’ to the ‘inconsequential’ men they hoped to receive validation from. Cell phones, social media, and the internet may appear to have leveled the playing field, but when the various confessions of sexuality contained in half a town’s texts and emails become public record, it is women who are punished for speaking and performing sex because those devices of power were never designed for their liberation. Rather, the incitement to discourse in the digital age directs the flow of power to those who have always benefited from the marginalization of women and gender nonconforming people. As Lily sneers before an American flag, live-streaming her scathing manifesto against Salem’s misogynistic hypocrisy, ‘This is your world. You built this. If it’s too strict, tear it the fuck down. But don’t look at me. Don’t take your hate out on me, I just got here.’

Although the outbreak of mob violence that turns Salem into a warzone is a hyperbolic work of speculative cinema, Assassination Nation is truer to life than many will give it credit for being. A viral crusade against women that can be carried out in the name of journalistic integrity (#GamerGate) isn’t all that different than the witch hunt that leaves Salem littered with dead bodies and overturned cars. And swarms of angry men hiding behind masks to hunt down a girl they have labeled a ‘whore’ and a ‘homewrecker’ no longer seems so fantastical after a horde of angry white men marching through Charlottesville culminated in the vehicular homicide of Heather Heyer. If white nationalists in Fred Perry polos carrying Party City tiki torches is our dystopian reality, then perhaps four teenage girls armed to the teeth in shiny red coats can be our revolutionary future.

 

Notes

[1] The film never specifies where in the United States its Salem is located, despite numerous reviews erroneously claiming it takes place in Salem, Massachusetts.

[2] When reached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson claimed only a small fraction of the film’s ads were disapproved for violating the site’s profanity policy, and that the movie’s official page successfully ran ‘hundreds of ads over several months’ (Katzowitz 2018).

[3] Walsh’s review stands out for reasons beyond her blatantly bad faith reading of the film. She makes no reference to the interview Hari Nef gave about the movie’s collaborative production process to the very publication she’s writing for, which is significant considering her argument hinges on painting Levinson as the film’s sole creative force.

[4] As far as I know, there is no term for the subgenre I’m alluding to in film studies. But Heathers, Jawbreaker, and Mean Girls comprise an influential canon of films satirizing high school politics through a clique of four girls.

[5] It is worth noting that, like her character, Hari Nef is trans, and prior to breaking into acting, she established herself as a model, a writer, and a vocal proponent about trans issues on Twitter and her now-deleted Tumblr blog. If anyone should be able to attest to whether Assassination Nation has an authentically pro-female perspective, it is her.

[6] Since this essay was initially written, Sam Levinson served as writer, director, and showrunner for HBO’s critically acclaimed teen drama Euphoria (2019), taking with him several members of Assassination Nation’s production team, including director of photography Marcell Rév, production designer Michael Grasley (‘Production design of ‘Assassination Nation’ – interview with Michael Grasley’ 2019), casting directors Mary Vernieu and Jessica Kelly, and actors Maude Apatow and Coleman Domingo (Thompson 2019).

[7] The email exchanges and collaborative conversations between Nef and Levinson are also referred to in Vanity Fair (Weir 2018), The Huffington Post (Page 2018), and The Los Angeles Times (Anderson 2018).

[8] It is not difficult to make a connection between Turrell’s storyline and the American tradition of characterizing black men as sexual predators.

[9] After Lily defends herself against a knife-wielding catcaller by smashing his face in with a shovel, she notices the altercation has been witnessed by a young boy holding a large frog. Considering that the film contains several explicit references to 4Chan and Anonymous-culture (including its chilling closing line, ‘…for the lulz’), it’s likely that this seemingly irrelevant shot is an allusion to Pepe the Frog.


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