“Goodbye Earl” and the Revenge Narrative

"Revenge" highlighted in a dictionary

Guest blog by Dr. Lee Conderacci

Last summer, I experienced the great cathartic pleasure of a live performance of “Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks. The attending crowd of thousands joined together in energetic emotion, triumph, and release to sing affirmation that yes, indeed, “Earl had to die!”—and we weren’t sorry about it. That domestic abuser Earl may be in the trunk, but the satisfaction of a righteous revenge narrative was—and is—alive and well.

The “rape-revenge” trope in entertainment media, which features vigilante retribution for gender-based violence and abuse, is as old as storytelling itself. The visceral gratification of watching a fictional assailant get their comeuppance, particularly when real-life justice systems fail victims and survivors, maintains its appeal.

Very often, though, popular rape-revenge stories also do victims dirty. Too many of these use the violation of a woman character as motivation for the male protagonist to assert his own dominant hero status via revenge—while ignoring the victim’s perspective. Frequently, in these rape-revenge stories, there are no survivors—only victims who are collateral damage in the central male figure’s journey.

Lately, there have been more attempts in entertainment media to position women as righteous rape-avengers, but some still betray survivor characters—and survivors in the audience. The 2020 film Promising Young Woman, for example, has a promising premise: Cassandra, the protagonist, plays into gendered courtship rituals in order to entrap predatory men and make them accountable for their past, present, and potential future violent behavior. However, the film ends up punishing Cassandra for her vigilante justice with a graphic, unrelenting onscreen death at the hands of a male rapist and the subsequent throat-chokingly vile disposal of her body. The movie does explore the personal impacts of gender violence and trauma through Cassandra’s perspective. But, disappointingly, it offers no redemption or hope, no path forward from suffering, nor any escape from patriarchal violence other than death. The film implies, in its final moments, that “justice” will be pursued through the legal system. This, too, is disappointing and offers little comfort, considering the ways in which our criminal justice institutions themselves betray and traumatize survivors while upholding patriarchy.

Promising Young Woman received a cavalcade of awards, including five Academy Awards Nominations and a win for Best Screenplay for writer/director Emerald Fennell, but is this the best that rape-revenge can offer? In what ways can the rape-revenge genre serve survivors without falling back into the patriarchal order of things? Fennel’s film does create empathy and intimacy between Cassandra and the audience (chiefly through the deeply affecting performance of lead actor Carey Mulligan), along with brief triumphant scenes where predators are cowed and repenting. In spite of the film’s bleak and undermining finale, these moments suggest how rape-revenge narratives can resonate with survivors in fulfilling ways.

We may understand that retributive vengeance, as a social practice, is not a realistic cure for systemic patriarchal violence. But survivors’ feelings of rage, grief, and betrayal are very real, and we must do something with them, if only just let them out. Arts and media can offer powerful emotional outlets and points of connection for survivors. Again, I think of “Goodbye Earl.” The collective catharsis on that night last summer, nearly 25 years after the song’s debut, showed that Earl may be dead, but patriarchal violence isn’t—and we can and must resist it together. The power of experiences like that “Goodbye Earl” sing-along, and of movements like #MeToo, is in the mutual recognition among survivors—in the understanding that we are not alone in our grief and rage, and we are not alone in our journey forward.

Beyond the demise of the titular abuser, the real triumph of “Goodbye Earl” is the song’s final depiction of its heroines living their best lives, free from fear and violence. In this or any survivor-centered rape-revenge story, justice comes not from the simple act of retribution for harm done, but in the vision of a future beyond harm. Yes, Earl had to die—and so does patriarchy—but the point is that we want to live. We want to thrive. Let art move us, motivate us, and bring us together as we work towards liberated futures—surviving and thriving.

Dr. Lee Conderacci is a critical cultural scholar, educator, and theatre artist.

Take Action! Learn more about representations of sexual violence in media HERE.