Oyster Portfolio: Embellishing The Body For Power, Abel Ferrara’s ‘Ms. 45’ (1981)
Rape, revenge and red lipstick.
Wearing a nun’s habit, lips painted the precise shade of revenge; Thana gazes down at a perfunctory witch, a frumpy human dog and other Halloween party buffoonery. Guests writhe to a rickety jazz beat, limbs splaying, heads jerking. On the balcony above, Thana reaches past her rosary beads into an inky thigh-high boot, produces a .45 caliber pistol and promptly kills a slew of male attendees.
‘Gleary,’ one of only two commenters on the YouTube clip depicting this exact scene describes the proceedings as ‘MISANDRY’. It’s a terse and INFLAMMATORY argument, really, because misandrous behaviour implies innateness; something without proper impetus. But as it turns out, this spree killer was not immaculately conceived.
Played by Zoe Lund, Thana — a diminutive of Thanatos, the Greek personification of death — is the main character in Abel Ferrara’s 1981 film Ms. 45. The absurd exploitation thriller sees a passive, rather androgynous victim morph into a hyper-feminine vigilante after being raped twice in the space of ~ten minutes. After being so deeply wronged, Thana pursues her comeuppance via any man treating any woman with any nuance of misogyny. It’s something that mightn’t sit well with modern proponents of the defensive #NotAllMen clapback.
More dramatic still? Thana is mute, adding a very literal layer to the narrative about voiceless raped women we unfortunately know so well. From her second assailant she seizes the .45 caliber pistol: her retribution tool and indeed, the voice she doesn’t have. (Lean in a moment and recall with me the words of Australia’s Godfather: We’re not gonna sit in silence / We’re not gonna live with fear / Whoaaaa / Whoa ohhhhh. Farnham or Lund, the voice is key.)
Lund has a lot to convey, but no lines. So her gun serves as her loudest voice — but her outfits deserve a lot of the credit too. With each kill, Thana gleans a new level of confidence, which manifests sartorially. Sorry for saying “manifests sartorially”, but observing her shift from relatively genderless norm-core (chic) to sexed-up fetishist (still chic, but also drenched in rich femininity) is a satisfying exercise. Let’s do that exercise, right now, together. Mind the !!!spoilers!!!
The Anonymous Victim
The misogyny trope is smeared thickly over the film, and 1980s New York City, of many anonymous cohabitants, is the perfect magnifying glass for Thana’s initial passivity. In an early scene, packs of leering men fringe Thana and her female colleagues walking down the street, slinging lewd remarks, making crude noises, the camera sliding slowly over each hungry face. The close of the thoroughfare culminates in one very sophisticated solicitation: “Wanna sit on my face?”. Thana’s most assertive co-worker retorts “Fuck off,” accessorised with a middle finger. Thana is, of course, voiceless, hanging at the back of the pack, wearing an inconspicuous white button-down, blazer and nondescript, knee-sheathing skirt. It’s in this look on this day that Thana is raped; first in a grimy alleyway, next in her apartment.
The Newly Murderous Mum
She might move silently through the film, but here’s the thing: Ferrara’s heroine isn’t stupid, slow or similar. The first of her two violations elapses quickly is and perhaps more ‘traditional’ in that her aggressor swiftly escapes and she’s left to peel her body from the pavement. The second ushers in a perverted victory — Thana strikes the slimy criminal first with a paperweight (shaped, perhaps symbolically, like Eve’s apple), and next with a sturdy iron drawn up over her head, killing him and inheriting the eponymous pistol. It’s a presage for Thana as Ms. 45.
The next day, Thana energetically saws the late rapist into chunks that she later freezes and repurposes as dog food. Very sustainable for a murderer! The sawing produces a hyperbolic grating sound. Joke-coloured blood like vine-ripened tomatoes or Taubman’s Exotic Red splatters afield. She’s calm and focused, and her look fits: another functional button-up and blue jeans indebted to a responsible mum. Going outdoors to dispose of select flesh unfit for canine consumption, she encounters an obstacle — a pervy guy who suspects her crime. She shoots him dead and vomits violently after.
The Borderline Monster
Not unlike the blood red bow Madonna wears in the video for her 1983 masterpiece ‘Borderline’, incidentally, Thana welcomes the shade precisely when she’s teetering between reality and completely unhinged man exterminator. Her red blouse is conservative in isolation but together with a thigh flashing skirt, tall glossy boots and beret (a particularly relevant et magnifique touch) she’s coquettish; she’s coming anew.
Dressed this way, Thana murders an opportunistic man who dimly infers she’s placid, luring her into his apartment masquerading as a photographic studio for models. This time, there’s no vomit or remorse.
100% Pure Ms. 45
After her third kill, Thana is no longer confused. She wears black and red exclusively herein. Her eyes and lips are perpetually painted. She smokes sometimes — most notably in the back of a flashy car with a Sheik who hands her money and assumes she’s a whore. She shoots both him and his driver. Bye!
Ahead of her entirely deranged finale as the nun, Thana drives a man to suicide. Dark eyes flashing beneath a black hooded jacket, she endures his woebegone tale of broken marriage: his wife cheated with a woman, soooo he strangled her cat. Thana goes to shoot him but the chamber is empty. He concurs that he is too pathetic to live, summons a bullet and finishes what she started.
Ms. 45 feels prescient in today’s climate of female durability. In 2017 — largely to the credit of self-congratulatory online ecosystems — women are “empowered” to pursue causes that advance their gender. (There’s an argument in the quoted word; that it and words like it dilute in power — the very thing they intend to inspire — the more they are autonomously inserted into zeitgeist rhetoric.) Semantics aside for another time, the collective uplift of women today is painfully essential in many, varied ways. True, no? And though its vehicle happens to be preposterous murder, it’s something Ms.45 peddles. Embellishing the body functions as a self-actualising thing, not a vapid, weak, deplorable or ditzy one.
Words: Melissa Kenny
Images: Courtesy Abel Ferrara