“Don’t take your hate out on me, I just got here.”
— Assassination Nation
On 21 September 2018, Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation was released into American cinemas.[i] With its hyper-stylised neon party scenes, soundtrack of push notification pings and extreme violence, some critics were quick to dismiss the film as a ‘badly bungled attempt at social commentary’ with an objectifying gaze.[ii] However, these voices tended to overlook or belittle the central female characters’ Gen Z status and its significance in their angry retaliation against an adult-led reign of misogynistic violence. Positioned as an excuse to trivialise Levinson’s use of social media in his storytelling, the central characters’ youth is often taken-for-granted rather than appreciated as fundamental to the film’s depiction of female rage.[iii] This article reframes Assassination Nation’s portrayal of specifically teenage female anger as a political force; a force necessary for survival and for futurity.
Set in the small town of Salem, Assassination Nation follows four teenage girls – Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) – trying to survive the sexual politics of high school. In their inclusion of trans and Black youth, the film’s central quartet directly contrast and contest the white, heteronormative mob that later lays siege upon the town. When an anonymous hacker uploads residents’ personal information onto a 4chan-esque platform, the girls’ fight for survival becomes literal when both school and town descend into nihilistic violence. Eventually, Lily is falsely accused of being the town’s hacker, targets are placed upon both her and her girlfriends’ backs and the film becomes ‘an overtly Gen Z horror story’.[iv] In order to protect one another and stay alive, the girls unleash their anger – which, in the first act of the film, remained latent in text exchanges and confined within their childhood bedrooms – into the public domain. Equipped with weapons stolen from the men threatening their lives, the girls take to the streets to avenge their trauma and assert their vision of a better future.
Understandings of futurity have long underpinned the American political landscape. In 1839, John O’Sullivan wrote that ‘our national birth was the beginning of a new history… we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity’.[v] In O’Sullivan’s view, America’s democratic system was the ultimate symbol of its futurity – its separation from the past and connection to the future – and this future-reaching force has gone onto influence numerous aspects of American politics and culture.
However, the rise of Donald Trump and his Reagan-esque slogan of “Make America Great Again” complicated America’s relationship with futurity. No longer was American politics striving for the new but a return to an idealised – and violently discriminatory – past version of the nation. In its violent efforts to reclaim the town under white male control, Assassination Nation’s Salem acts as an allegorical space of Trump’s America; a space where the four teenage girls at the heart of the film are not safe. In their vulnerability and anger towards patriarchal violence, the girls strive to forge a better – safer – future for themselves. Such youth-enacted futurity is all the more urgent when acknowledging that the youngest generations both feel the effects of and inherit the political injustices and socio-economic crises currently defining present-day America.[vi] In their refusal to submit to violence, Assassination Nation’s central teenage quartet distance themselves from their town’s past and forge a future that not only includes them, but protects them too.
Assassination Nation is firmly of the #MeToo era. Originally premiering in January 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival in the midst of the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Assassination Nation’s general US release occurred only a week before Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As documented by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, this era – enveloped in the wider Trump era – evidenced an uprising in newly vocal infuriated women.[vii] Furthermore, as Rebecca Traister highlights, ‘the women who are suddenly angry, newly angry, and are discombobulated by the intensity of their rage, are not the first to have felt this way’.[viii]
However, unlike Assassination Nation, neither Traister’s or Kantor and Twohey’s commentaries prioritise how Gen Z teenage girls’ are tasked with both understanding their rage and coming-of-age amidst the patriarchal violence endorsed by Trump and his presidency. While recognising the myriad of definitions pertaining to coming-of-age, coming-of-age here can be understood as the recognition of one’s agency and its role in securing a future.[ix] Thus, it is in the prioritisation of twenty-first-century teenage female anger that Assassination Nation demonstrates its political engagement with figurations of the future.
Featured in the film’s opening and closing acts, the space of the suburban home’s bathroom comes to symbolise this coming-of-age in the wake of patriarchal violence. Initially, the bathroom is depicted as a feminine and youthful space. Lily and her friends film themselves getting ready for a house party, singing into toothbrushes and fixing each other’s outfits. In this sequence, Levinson introduces a triptych framing. Mimicking three different phone cameras, this framing serves to emphasise the collective nature of the bathroom space and the girls’ friendship.
Fig 1. Still from Assassination Nation (2018): The girls film themselves getting ready in Em (Abra) and Sarah’s (Suki Waterhouse) bathroom.
In contrast, the bathroom space returns in one of the film’s most extreme moments of violence. Separated from her friends, Lily seeks shelter with Nick, a forty-five-year-old man who previously groomed her into sending nude photos and sexually explicit messages. Upon realising his violent intent, Lily locks herself in Nick’s bathroom and arms herself with a razor blade. Nick beats down the door and, despite his efforts to overpower her, Lily cuts his throat. Here, the bathroom becomes an arena for misogynistic and intergenerational violence. This subversion of the bathroom space underscores Assassination Nation’s portrayal of female coming-of-age as intertwined with expressions of anger. This anger serves to protect Lily and ensures that she can survive to create, and live in, a future where her friends can be safe. Notably, in the aftermath of this anger and violence, Levinson echoes the first bathroom sequence’s triptych framing.
Fig 2. Still from Assassination Nation (2018): Lily (Odessa Young) washes away Nick’s blood after killing him in self-defence.
Dissected by the lines of the bathroom cabinet, Lily confronts her reflection. The performative elements of her girlhood – like those recorded on the girls’ phones in the earlier sequence – have been removed and Lily is left alone with her rage. In this repetition of framing, Levinson suggests that the tension between anger and girlhood existed all along but, finally, Lily has been forced to act upon it. After washing Nick’s blood off, Lily exits the family home to save her friends and fight for their future.
This article’s epigraph is from the film’s concluding livestreamed speech where Lily calls out her hometown, and American culture by proxy, on its aggressive double standards towards female sexuality and agency before taking to the streets for a final showdown. Here, Levinson’s script differentiates between adult hate and girlhood anger: the former is a force of nihilistic destruction while the latter is a force for collective future-building, with the power to seek alternatives to the oppressive present. While Trump’s presidency may be over, the power of girls’ anger – and its role in shaping new forms of futurity – must still be better appreciated as the nation moves forward and continues to confront the ever-lingering grip of misogyny.
[i] The film received its UK release on November 23, 2018.
[ii] Katie Walsh, “Review: ‘Assassination Nation’ is exploitative horror that has the gall to lecture us on grrrl power.” Los Angeles Times, last modified September 20, 2018, accessed March 26, 2021 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-assassination-nation-review-20180920-story.html.
[iii] David Fear, “ ‘Assassination Nation’ Review: Faster, Pussycat! LOL! LOL!”, Rolling Stone, last modified September 21, 2018, accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/assassination-nation-movie-review-725053/.
[iv] Adam White, “’assassination nation’ is the first true horror film of the twitter age”, i-D, last modified September 24, 2018, accessed March 29, 2021, https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/59a9kb/assassination-nation-is-the-first-true-horror-film-of-the-twitter-age.
[v] John O’Sullivan, excerpt from “The Great Nation of Futurity”, The United States Democratic Review, 6.23, pp. 426-430, accessed March 25, 2021 https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/osulliva.htm.
[vi] For further discussion of the ways in which youth, particularly student protestors, workers and interns, enact a form of futurity by resisting current socio-economic conditions see Sarah Jaffe, Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone (London: Hurst & Company, 2021).
[vii] See Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, She Said (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).
[viii] Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (London: Simon & Schuster, 2018), xxxii-xxxiii.
[ix] For further discussion of the multiple definitions of coming-of-age, see Kenneth Millard, Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007); Robyn McCallum, Ideologies of Adolescent Fiction: The Dialogic Construction of Subjectivity (New York: Routledge, 1999); and Patricia Meyer Spacks’s The Adolescent Idea: Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination (London: Faber & Faber, 1982).