At the beginning of writer-director J. Blakeson’s I Care a Lot, the camera zooms in on Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), who works as a legal guardian for elderly folks. Blond, beautiful and, of course, ivory-skinned, we watch as she’s taken to court by the son of one of her clients, who claims Marla has “kidnapped” his mother, having falsely declared her mentally incompetent and sold off her home and car, all while cashing in and barring him from seeing her. He’s distraught, desperate, and no one is buying what he’s selling. Marla is all too aware of this. Her mouth curves into a smile and her eyes widen in a show of shocked innocence. She refutes his claims, insisting, “Caring is my job. This is what I do all day every day: I care. I care for those who are in need of protection from apathy, their own pride, their own children.” Quickly and easily, she paints the picture of a benevolent savior—a saint, even—and the Black judge smiles back, buying her story at full price. She is, it seems, just trying to perform a service.
Naturally Marla wins her case, and as she struts out of the courthouse, heels smacking, the son follows behind, repeatedly screaming “bitch” at her as if summoning a stray dog. “I hope you get raped, I hope you get murdered, and I hope you get killed,” he blurts inches from her face, spittle flying. Suddenly, Marla rips off her designer sunglasses, exposing a markedly different disposition than the one she had just moments ago in the courthouse. She steps forward, moving closer than even he dared to, peering down from her six additional inches of confidence, and asks, “Does it sting more because I’m a woman? That you got so soundly beaten in there by someone with a vagina? Having a penis does not automatically make you more scary to me, just the opposite. You may be a man, but if you ever threaten, touch, or spit on me again, I will grab your dick and balls, and I will rip them clean off.”
It’s in this sharp gaze and sharper statement that we meet the real Marla, who, it turns out, has in fact made a career out of draining the savings (and dignity) of her many (mostly white) elderly clients, including this man’s mother. Played by Pike (who has come a long way from the rosy-cheeked Jane Bennet and found her form following 2014’s Gone Girl), she’s all edges with her severe bob, slick suits, and go-fuck-yourself attitude. She’s a “cold goddess,” in the words of Grace Kelly’s similarly drawn Tracy in High Society (1956). Despite her flaws and the fact that we now know Marla is a professional scammer, not only do I believe her words, but I feel invigorated by them. This is a woman I would follow into battle. The inevitable subject of a “run me over” meme, I wouldn’t mind if she took me to task either. And that is likely because I’m not a man, especially not the one left pale and stone-faced as she slaps her glasses back on and kindly bids him goodbye.
I’ve seen similar faces elsewhere recently, in Swallow (2019), The Invisible Man (2020), and The Hunt (2020). Each film features a disarming woman who appears to be vulnerable but who turns out to be far from helpless. Take, for example, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020), who spends her nights pretending to be dangerously inebriated and seducing “nice guys.” That is, before she reveals herself to be entirely sober as she exacts calculated revenge for her best friend’s sexual assault. It’s in those moments—when they each believe she’s too drunk to say no to their come-ons in bed and she abruptly sits up straight, clear-eyed, and smirking—that these men are struck with a dumbfounded shock and a brand-new fear. It’s the one Margaret Atwood famously warned of, but in a satisfying reversal, when she said, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” In these moments, we see their terror at the prospect they’re about to lose their life (or everything else) to a woman of all people. Oh, how awful.
Bitches in sheep’s clothing, these characters are reputed for fooling others into believing they’re the sweet, agreeable innocents they present themselves as, masking their cool, conniving selves beneath. Consider the way in which Marla speaks to her cash-cow clients as if they’re children, sugary sweet, gaslighting them into believing perhaps they have lost their wits. Meanwhile, she laughs at the fact that “hardly any of them fight” whenever she comes calling to lock them away; she finds it amusing that “at heart, most of us are weak, compliant, scared.” The catch is that Marla isn’t weak—until she finds a new victim in the form of sweet Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) who is not the easy grift Marla suspected she would be. When a lawyer (Chris Messina) comes calling in Jennifer’s defense and, another mysterious individual, played by Peter Dinklage, appears shortly thereafter, it seems Marla’s schemes have been found out. But she refuses to lose, least of all to men. The prospect of walking away from such a lucrative ploy brings a rare fear to her eyes while in the arms of her Latinx girlfriend Fran (Eiza González), though the thought of securing her investment and making even more leaves her visibly hungry.
It’s at this juncture that we wonder how Marla became this way. I Care a Lot chooses not to examine any potential answers, though we do learn she doesn’t care for her mother and she didn’t grow up with money, which left her “weak, compliant, scared” once, but never again. “There’s no such thing as good people,” she warns viewers. “I used to be like you, thinking that working hard and playing fair would lead to success and happiness. It doesn’t. Playing fair is a joke invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor. And I’ve been poor—it doesn’t agree with me. Because there’s two types of people in this world: the people who take and those getting took. Predators and prey. Lions and lambs. I am not a lamb, I am a fucking lioness.” Absolutely. But in Marla’s steely hold on this life, it appears being a lioness isn’t the choice she insists it is, but something she was forced to be in order to claw her way to the top. Promising Young Woman’s Cassie is also desperately after that power and control as she proves to be more of a vigilante than a villain.
Fantasies of ripping a man’s balls off after he calls you a bitch, a cunt, or both (with an optional “crazy” added on) are universal, after all.
Both women are white, beautiful, and fueled by a ceaseless, incandescent rage. But while Cassie seeks vengeance for those who wronged the closest person in her life, Marla wants vengeance for herself, making for a murky ethos. Violent women and rape-revenge narratives aren’t new, but cinema has largely offered fetishistic femme fatales, two-dimensional superheroes, and the tortured few at the center of erotic exploitation-like films, literally hacking away at the objects of their lust (see Raw, Antichrist, Trouble Every Day, Audition). Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Beatriz Kiddo (Uma Thurman), and Pike’s beloved Amy Dunne come closest to this livid new breed. Still, with all of these variations, there’s still the sense that an angry woman who is able to cause pain and overpower her male counterparts is surprising and therefore somehow taboo. But Marla and Cassie use the male gaze to their advantage as they seduce or steal, unapologetic and unafraid of appearing bitter, selfish, shrill, or taking things “too far.” Because they both exist in a world where enough damage has already been done, how much worse can it get?
That belief grants them an insatiable and nihilistic bloodthirst. What does it matter, they seem to say, when the rich only grow richer, those in power only grow more powerful, and real justice eludes? In comparison to the continual violence against women throughout our world, fictional or otherwise, being a bitch—especially a white one—hardly feels like a big deal. Actually, it appears to be the ideal way to get what you want even as, in its anarchy, there is no redemption to be found, only expressions of rage and revenge in hopes of securing an illusory self-preservation. It’s important to note that blond, blue-eyed women who are able to use their whiteness and femininity to their advantage do so with only a fraction of the consequences women of color might face. Marla and Cassie are able to scheme their way into spaces and arms with ease and without suspicion in a way Black women never could.
Cassie can wear pastels, short skirts, and braids and make herself into the beguiling white girl of a nice guy’s dreams, while Marla can win a court case by throwing on a red lip and batting her eyes. Despite the whiteness of these films, I felt a surprising satisfaction while watching both I Care a Lot and Promising Young Woman. Fantasies of ripping a man’s balls off after he calls you a bitch, a cunt, or both (with an optional “crazy” added on) are universal, after all. A cinematic primal scream, there’s a visceral catharsis in watching even the most unreal version come to life. There’s therapy to be found in these films, where the lesson is not so much that “fear gets you beat,” as Marla warns, but that it feels good to be a bitch and take what you want sometimes. After all, men have been doing it for centuries.