Vengeance in Popular Culture
- Peter RobsonPeter RobsonDepartment of Law, University of Strathclyde Glasgow
Vengeance or revenge has been characterized in popular culture in a range of different ways. Within theories of criminology and social psychology, its relationship to retribution has been examined along with notions of deterrence and rehabilitation. Vengeance has been prevalent within a range of various belief systems as well as in myths, legends, and sacred texts. While vengeance seems to be a feature in all cultures, its acceptance as an appropriate response has been less than clear. It has been weighed alongside a preference for forgiveness, and tensions between these two options against harm have come to the fore in more recent times.
A distinction can usefully be made between vengeance undertaken by the state and the community on the one hand, which might be termed the revenge of the legal process and that exacted by the individual or family. The vengeance theme has been a major feature of Western culture in its expression in Greek literature and theater, through classical authors like Shakespeare and Racine to the present day. There is a link to popular literature as well as the more elusive world of popular theater and its occasional forays into the revenge theme.
The major expression of revenge within mass cultural forms, however, has been in film. Initially production codes prevented revenge being shown as having a successful outcome. Since the 1970s, however, a major modern version of portraying revenge that recurs within modern cinema throughout the world has been the vigilante film. This model of vengeance operates on the notion of an individual responding to the failings of the official system of securing proportionate or effective retribution. There are particular recurring features in these films including a disruptive random unlawful event, the law taking its course, a system malfunction, a trigger to revenge, and a coda stressing the efficacy of vengeance. Along with this is a significant subgroup within the cinema of personal revenge, the rape-revenge film. There has been extensive scholarship on this type of film and its rather different elements. A distinction can be made on the basis of the nature and perceived audience between this trope and the wider world of vengeance movies.
There has been relatively limited coverage of the revenge theme in television. The changes in the forms of media provide fresh opportunities for coverage of the vengeance theme in the 21st century. The contrast between the community approach of law and that of the individual seeker after revenge are formally different, but in the end they both involve elements of vengeance.