In Killing Eve, women stab, chop, dismember and disembowel. They love and they fuck and they fuck people over.
The fourth season of the TV show follows the latest instalment of the cat-and-mouse game between MI6 agent Eve (Sandra Oh) and international assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Their relationship is erotic obsession. Eve is tasked with tracking Villanelle from London to Berlin to Moscow. in the tradition of the best fictional serial killers, Villanelle begins to play games. Raised to slay from a young age by an international, secretive group called the Twelve, she kills because she must—but viewers soon discover she takes a vicious pleasure in poisoning, stabbing, and creatively killing her targets. In the dual games of escape and pursuit, Eve gradually discovers that she, too, has an uncomfortable capacity for violence.
Nothing is static between the two, their roles are blurred: they are each the pursuer and the object of desire, depending on the latest plot twist. Although the novel the show is adapted from has a male author, this goes beyond femme fatale or rape revenge fantasy—in fact, those tropes are deliberately toyed with. Eve and Villanelle are in turn nurturing and brutal, receiving, active, loving, aggressive.
It’s not just refreshing to see an off-beat story depict the violence of women—it’s subversive. ‘Women and men are socialised in different ways about how they express anger and aggression,’ writes clinical psychologist Laura J Petracek in The Anger Workbook for Women. ‘Girls have been encouraged to keep their anger down; they are not encouraged to act out their anger in a physical way.’ Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her, says that, as a girl, she learnt that being angry would make her rude and unlikeable (and that this emotion was punished at a higher rate in Black children). But she now knows that the fire of anger is related to agency.
‘There is a rebel in me,’ writes Chicana lesbian poet-academic Gloria Anzaldúa, ‘the Shadow-Beast. It is a part of me that refuses to take orders from my conscious will.’ The Shadow-Beast is the primal and animalistic part of the self that we repress in order to be accepted by those around us. It is the violent upheaval of emotions, the lust for sex and power and destruction that we must quash in order to be accepted. It’s the capacity to act in anger and brutality.
The book in which the Shadow-Beast appears, Borderlands / La Frontera, is a bilingual offering that crosses boundaries of language, genre and form: it’s a memoir, a treatise on writing, a cultural history of the Mexican border, an examination of Chicana identity, of queerness, of gender and myth.
Unlike Jung’s idea of the shadow, referring to the elements of the psyche hidden in the unconscious, the context of Anzaldúa’s Shadow-Beast is political. In her reading, gender socialisation denies aggression in women. External forces—a heternormative family, white culture, Chicana culture, the hegemony of the US state—place boundaries on the self through reward and punishment, both subtle and violent. In her analysis, shame becomes a technology of control. The Shadow-Beast isn’t just a rebellion against internal rules: its fury challenges oppressive systems.
Anzaldúa uses the symbol of La Virgen de Guadalupe to illustrate the femininity modelled within Chicana culture. When the Spanish colonisers violently dispossessed the Indigenous peoples of modern-day Mexico, they introduced Christianity along with Guadalupe—an image that remains a potent and complex symbol today. The Catholic holy mother replaced Azteca female deities who both created and destroyed, thereby condemning the female archetype to ‘the good mother’. She became not whole, not both dark and light, but endless goodness: chaste, docile, enduring, nurturing, kind. Ideal womanhood as compassion incarnate. ‘Guadalupe,’ Anzaldúa writes, ‘Has been used by the Church to mete out institutionalised oppression: to placate the Indians and Mexicanos and Chicanos.’ The virginal consciousness does not rock the boat, does not express aggression. Does not fight back.
In a semi-secular Australian society in which religion has lost its stranglehold, where are our founding myths and symbols? ‘Culture forms our beliefs,’ Anzaldúa writes. ‘Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture.’
Mainstream archetypes of femininity, while altered by the marketability of white girl-boss feminism, remain bastions of the gender binary. The psyche is divided: in the masculine corner is dark angry strength, in the feminine is soft emotional vulnerability. In contrast, the women in Killing Eve are violent and desiring, in touch with their Shadow-Beast.
While many popular TV shows don’t question heteronormativity or gender norms, Killing Eve presents women who do express aggression, who do nothing but fight back. At the end of the first season, when Eve and Villanelle finally meet in a hotel room, the screen throbs with lust. It’s sexual desire, but also blood lust—when they get close enough for the kiss that has been building all season, Eve stabs Villanelle in the stomach. This isn’t pure MI6 agent behaviour, it is motivated by power, revenge, fury—the primal, animalistic urge that Anzaldúa wrote about.
But neither are these characters one-sided. In the fourth season, Pam works in a funeral home, preparing bodies, and is being eyed off by the Twelve as a new trainee. After years of verbal abuse, she stabs her brother with a scalpel hundreds of times. Yet she also develops a childish romance with a young man who works in a fairground. Equally, a member of the Twelve, Helene, orders hits left, right and centre—and is a mother, horrified when Eve kidnaps her daughter.
This capacity for love and violence makes these female characters not only whole but radical. Angela Carter, in her 1978 book The Sadeian Woman, claims that the ideology of pornographic hetero sex is a penetrating male and penetrated female. ‘Women do not normally fuck in the active sense. They are fucked in the passive tense and hence automatically fucked-up, done over, undone.’ We receive, we are victims (Questioning the binary is one of the ways queer theory will save us, but that’s another essay).
This has political outcomes. How we have sex—or how we imagine we can have sex— informs how we think and act. In an essay in the 2006’s King Kong Theory, French feminist, former punk, and Booker Prize shortlisted author Virginie Despentes reflects on her gang rape as a young woman: she had a knife in her pocket, yet not once did she think of using it against her attackers. The cultural understanding of gender informed her reaction. One of the definitions of womanhood, she writes in her seething, punchy language, is the ability to be violated. This embodied ideology of the gender binary sees only men as having sovereign bodily integrity. ‘It was the act of rape itself that turned me back into a woman, into someone essentially vulnerable.’
We live in a world of male violence. As I write this, seventeen women have been killed in Australia in the first fourteen weeks of the year. Female-presenting bodies are policed by cat calls on the street and our movements are not yet free at night. Women of colour and trans women are statistically more vulnerable to attack. We are not safe; it is imperative we find new gender models as a means for societal change.
Because the current socialised binary/border of male aggressor and female victim, of fucker and fucked, of active and passive, normalises male violence. No one likes it, of course, but it is widely accepted as somewhat innate. Unquestioned gender ideology has split the human psyche, and within the collective imagination we project violence onto men and compassion onto women. Jarring narratives like Killing Eve, with women who follow the primal will of the Shadow-Beast, reveal that we’ve been socialised into believing the inevitability the violence of men. As Soraya Chemaly says, fury is punished in girls, thus creating cultural scripts that allow men alone to be angry, to have the capacity to hurt. In truth, all of humanity holds all of these aspects within their psyches; we are each of us whole.
Killing Eve’s Shadow-Beast women penetrate male and female bodies with weapons and hands. The old splitting is reversed, upended, shown to be ludicrous. The border of gender is transgressed, this culture is transmitting a new paradigm, a new ideology of womanhood: we are not just victims, not just vulnerable. We have the capacity to act in anger and brutality.