The climactic scene at the end of Cory Finley’s 2017 directorial debut Thoroughbreds is quite extraordinary. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) sleeps on a couch, after knowingly consuming a drugged drink while her friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) murders her stepfather. The scene is a long take, slowly creeping in on Amanda’s sleeping form while the TV in the background muffles the sounds of the murder itself. The audience hears the consistent droning of a rowing machine, a series of thuds, and then nothing. Lily returns, soaked in blood which she wipes on Amanda to frame her for the crime, then curls up under her arm, whimpering.
The scene is tremendous not only because of its expert film-making but because of the subject behind it. Amanda knows that she will go to jail for this as the odds are already stacked against her due to a previous offence, while Lily will go free. When Lily admits that she drugged the drink and tries to get her to stop drinking it and throw up, Amanda resists, downing the drink before settling into a comfortable position. Amanda, who throughout the film, displays no real emotion toward anything, does not hesitate before taking the fall for her best and only friend. She sacrifices her freedom so Lily can have hers.
The Murderous Teenage Girls Cinematic Universe
Thoroughbreds belongs to a film canon which I’ve affectionately dubbed The Murderous Teenage Girls Cinematic Universe (MTGCU). Among its compatriots are the likes of Heathers, Tragedy Girls, and Heavenly Creatures. There’s also significant overlap with supernatural themes, from zombies (All Cheerleaders Die) to witches (The Craft), to demons (Jennifer’s Body), and vampires (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night). The overlap between these themes is twofold – the girl is transformed into something to be feared, and, in that act of transformation, she gains power and agency.
Returning to Thoroughbreds. Lily and Amanda are both WASPs – Amanda is more of an inversion, while Lily fits the stereotype – though she denies any snobbery. The girls reap the benefits of their privilege while being forced to fit into a role with little room for individuality. Lily’s stepfather constantly demeans and belittles her, particularly her volatile emotions. When he threatens to send her to an institution for girls with behavioral issues, she snaps.
If there’s one thing which largely unites the MTGCU it’s the idea of the snap. That a regular, nice girl would in no way be capable of such violence, that she must have undergone some sort of trauma to make her this way. This isn’t always the case, but most of the time it is. It’s sometimes hard to understand how this snap could happen, but at the same time, not hard to understand at all. Girls are most vulnerable in teenage-hood; too old to be coddled children, too young to be independent adults. Teenage girls are repeatedly silenced, mocked, ignored, or harassed. It’s the age where they’re still being moulded into something palatable. A nice girl, one who’s seen and not heard, stays within convention, minds her p’s and q’s.
She can’t win.
If she’s conventionally feminine, she’s vapid and worthless. If she isn’t feminine enough, she’s a failure. If she likes music or video games, she’s trying to impress someone. If she likes books or cinema, she’s pretentious. If she likes anything remotely geeky, she’s obviously faking it. If she’s into true crime or anything supernatural, she’s trying too hard to be edgy. If she’s interested in politics, she’s a bitch. If she’s outgoing, she’s obnoxious. If she’s quiet, she’s boring. If she’s too smart, she’s a threat. If she’s too loud, she’s a threat. If she knows who she is, she’s a threat.
Lily feels too much and she’s a threat. Amanda feels too little and she’s a threat. They’re both too intelligent, too ruthless and conniving to fit into their perfect WASPy families. It’s no wonder they would collaborate on murder. It’s the only way they’re allowed to take up space, by carving out a place in the world for themselves. There’s only so much a girl can take before resorting to violence. After all, nobody believes a girl could be capable of such horror. She’s the perfect subject: hiding in plain sight, underestimated and undervalued.
Anne Carson writes that “girls are cruelest to themselves” and, why would they not be? They grow up in a world which demands their silence and obedience, that they slice and shrink themselves into an un-achievable ideal. I have never known somebody to hate themselves the way the girls I knew in high school did; these half-formed harpies, each and every one of them, furies.
Gillian Flynn writes that “a child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort”, and I can’t say I blame them. Society repeatedly demands their bodies, their emotions, their thoughts be policed, that they not only acknowledge their natural inferiority to boys but grin and bear it. Once in a while, it must feel good to fight back.
Emily Wilson translates Medea’s wicked deeds by asking “could the rage of a girl do this?” and I honestly believe it could. We expect the rage of men, train girls to be prepared for when a man hits her, yells at her, threatens her. The rage of a girl is possibly the most powerful force on earth because it is unexpected.
In Thoroughbreds, Amanda says “you cannot hesitate. The only thing worse than being incompetent, or being unkind, or being evil, is being indecisive”, and I love her for it. I love how relentless she is, how firm she is in her resolve. I love that she’s a challenge when men only want a puzzle with an easy fix. And I love the lack of hesitation in her voice when she suggests murder.