In the ABC primetime drama Revenge, Amanda Clarke takes on the identity of Emily Thorne, a half-borrowed, half-constructed ideal of contemporary femininity to infiltrate the lives of the Graysons, the family who put her father, David Clarke, in prison many years prior. Emily represents the ideal female: beautiful, charming, wealthy, philanthropic, and ready to play into multiple male fantasies. Revenge and its central antihero present the stereotypical ideal female as primarily a tool of manipulation, subverting what it means to be a powerful woman.
To gain access to the Grayson family, Emily targets son Daniel Grayson, whom she perceives as the easiest point of entry. From the start, Emily represents Daniel’s ideal wife, adapting as needed, allowing her to have continued access to the inner workings of the Grayson family. Of course when no one is looking, the real woman living inside the facade of Emily Thorne, Amanda Clarke, emerges. Amanda takes on traditionally masculine characteristics, which we learn she has gained through her years at juvenile detention and martial arts training. Out of all the characters in the show, Amanda is established as the one most likely to win a battle, whether physical or psychological. She is clearly the smartest and the strongest person on the show, while also being the most charming and graceful. She’s a fully realized character in a show that passes the Bechdel test (however shakily), and convinces the audience to side with her sociopathic tendencies.
Emily Thorne is just the latest in a long line of femme fatales in fiction and on television, but what sets her apart is her position as main character. She is not luring the main hero to a bad decision-she is the black widow heroine, making audiences question the blurry lines between good and evil. Her closest contemporary comrade is Olivia Pope of Scandal, who also bends the rules of morality for a living. However, Olivia’s redemption as a female character lives in her continued love affair with President Fitzgerald. Amanda/Emily has a few main love interests, but mostly she just uses her sexuality as a way to gain power and influence. Olivia Pope is a public woman of power, while Amanda Clarke operates through a masquerade, invoking Butler’s theory of drag exposing the drag-like nature of everyday gender construction.
Masks of femininity
Great post, Bridgett. What is so interesting in the case of Emily/Amanda is that she uses moral femininity to mask her unruly desires of revenge. I like that you evoke Butler at the end here because I think "Emily" works as the mask that hides the desires of "Amanda" and makes visible its constructedness to viewers through flashbacks. The very duplicity of Emily/Amanda invites viewers to think about the constructed nature of the Emily mask. This notion gains more nuance midway through season one when you then have the real Emily masquerade as Amanda. Fascinating. I'm also interested in your comparison to Olivia Pope... Why do you think her redemption lies in her affair with Fitz? I think, if anything, that affair confirms her immorality. Her affair with Fitz is specifically the thing that makes her weak. I think Emily's closest counterpart is in fact Mellie, a woman who also knows how to wear masks to get ahead and get what she wants.
Fate of the Femme Fatale
Enjoyed the post, Bridgett. Have never seen Revenge before, but your insight into the protagonists dual persona/performance is an interesting one. What makes me wonder about this connection to the femme fatale is typically the femme fatale character is punished for her audacity to want more. The text will often work to support this punishment since, as you noted, they are not the main characters and are usually the ones manipulating the male protagonists. Will Amanda/Emily endure the same fate, the price for blurring these lines of good and evil? Or is it because she is the protagonist and therefore we see all facets of her persona that we root for Amanda/Emily to maintain her position of power and ultimately succeed?
Staci & Bree-Thanks for reading and commenting! Staci-I realize now that my wording surrounding Olivia Pope is confusing. I meant that she was 'redeemed' in a certain way as a stereotypical female character. Also, great point about Mellie. I do think she is the "stronger" female character on Scandal, but when I was writing this piece I was really thinking only about the main characters of each show. Bree-I don't want to spoil the show too much if you are planning to watch, but the idea of punishment does pop up throughout the series. I think one of the best aspects of the show is the way in which they present the character Emily as someone who does bad things for questionable reasons. Really, we as an audience should condemn her for her actions, yet the show frames her situations and responses carefully to uphold her status as a hero to root for. When she does face consequences for her actions (the main consequence surrounds her secret fiance Aiden), the story is framed so that we sympathize with her. I think the creators of the show could easily shift the focus of the show to other characters and make Emily the main villain. I think that's what makes the show so great.
Pope and White
Great conversation! Playing off both Staci and Bree's comments: Emily/Amanda seems most distinguishable from Olivia Pope in that Pope is a hyper-competent woman of color succeeding in a fantasy meritocracy. Pope is a "fixer" -- the very word implies definitive competency. A "fixer" is the opposite of a failure. Amanda's success depends, not upon the public performance of professional competency, but the successful masquerade of idealized femininity—these two are not in fact mutually exclusive but they have been historically imagined as such. Is Amanda's performance of Emily a performance of incompetence (the hapless giggling blond) or a performance of pseudo-aristocratic competence? The masquerade has become quite common in "quality television": Walter White, Dexter, Don Draper, The Americans, The Riches, etc. Of course in these examples, the relationship between the "real self" and the masquerade are quite blurry. Do the boundaries between Emily/Amanda break down?
Such a thoughtful curation Bridgett! Thank you, especially, for drawing the connection to Olivia Pope. A great comparison. I'm interested in your analysis about the way Amanda's story is represented. I think there is an interesting exploration to be made about which storylines are "accepted" as plausible explanations for how the female heroine achieves her "hero-ness." Could audiences accept (or welcome?) a masculine female hero without any explanation? Something worth considering...
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