The Abuse of the Black Femme Also Known as The Perfection
The pain and terror of Black women and femmes is less important than the machinations of white women and this colors The Perfection.
This essay contains spoilers for Netflix’s “The Perfection.” It also contains discussions of sexual abuse.
“The Perfection” is the newest entry in a long line of female-centric revenge films served up with a liberal splash of body horror along with a healthy dose of ultra-violence. All of which is given to the viewer in what I interpret as a bid to take their mind off of the true terror that lies beneath. As I watched the film and the greater threads of the story began to unwind, I could not overlook the fact that the empowerment of the white woman in this narrative is dependent upon the destruction of a Black woman, who is supposedly her friend. The confronting and destroying of the great evil in “The Perfection” is tied completely to the harm of a Black woman.
Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning) are both star cellists from a prestigious music school by the name of Bachoff. As a young musician, Charlotte is forced to leave before she can complete her education and Lizzie is the girl who takes her place as the next prodigy. It is revealed through the course of the story that Anton, the director of the school, has been sexually abusing the “special students” and Charlotte has returned to enact revenge on him and the school at large.
When we are introduced to Charlotte, her mother has just died after a long illness. Seemingly emotionless, but free from her obligations as a caretaker, she seeks out her old life again and this is how she finds herself at Bachoff again. We are meant to believe that Charlotte is jealous of Lizzie and that her move back to her old life is about taking revenge on Lizzie for replacing her, the culmination of which comes when she hands Lizzie the cleaver and convinces her to hack off her own hand—effectively ending her music career. After the two had sex, Charlotte drugged Lizzie with a medication that causes hallucinations when mixed with alcohol, which she also provided. She manipulated Lizzie into believing that her hand was being overtaken by a parasite and that chopping her hand off was the only solution.
There is an understated moment of characterization here that illustrates how the film treats its two central characters. We are introduced to Charlotte in the “real world” outside of what will ultimately become a murderous revenge story. She is given a life, albeit one that isn’t very fleshed out, save for a few tragic details, but we are only shown Lizzie within the context of Charlotte’s revenge plot. For both Charlotte and the audience, Lizzie exists only as she is connected to Bachoff and Charlotte’s plans. This is cemented later when Lizzie is rejected by Anton once she loses her hand and can no longer play. She feels she has nowhere else to go and ends up going back to Charlotte.
From the start, Lizzie is seen only as important as her ability to provide service for the white characters in the story. First as being a trophy for musical perfection for Anton and his school as well as a victim of his abuse, which allows him to lure new children, and then as being an instrument for Charlotte to manipulate towards her own ends. But Charlotte insists that she did such horrible things to Lizzie for her own good, that Lizzie would never have left the people who were abusing her had Charlotte not brutalized her, and that Lizzie should be thankful for what Charlotte did to her because it brought her to the light.
The entire dynamic is akin to a white savior narrative. Charlotte somehow believes that she has come to save Lizzie by forcing her to follow the path she deems best. This is Charlotte’s story, but despite that, it is Lizzie who does the majority of the labor and who pays the highest price. While it is true that Lizzie (and the other abused students) absolutely need to be saved from the terrible reality of Bachoff, Charlotte does nothing in the way of actual help for Lizzie, or anyone else.
This points to a history of an abusive dynamic between women of color and the white women who delusionally believe that their harm actually do us good. But is this a metaphor we need to see played out in such a manner? Does this film tell us anything new or revealing about this dynamic?
The answer is no.
Instead, this film just reiterates those same harmful narratives, which are in turn glossed over by the more brutal story themes. The viewer isn’t supposed to heavily question the power dynamics between Charlotte and Lizzie because what is happening in Bachoff is so horrible. It’s the true evil, and, for the greater good of everyone, stopping that terror is paramount, means be damned.
Yes, this is a horror film. Yes the action and events happen quickly in a larger than life way. Yes this is fantasy, not reality, but it says something heavy about real life. The message this narrative is sending is that the pain and terror of Black women and femmes is less important than the machinations of white women and this colors the entire film.
Despite everything that happens, the initial act of violence between the two women is what spurs the plot. Despite both women, by the end, having gone through similar losses, it is only Charlotte that seems to have found any peace in the matter. Whatever Lizzie feels or doesn’t feel is never given any in-depth or focus. The only thing that matters is the sacrifice of her body. Though Lizzie suffered the same abuses that Charlotte, the story remains firmly Charlotte’s tale. Lizzie, despite everything she endures, is always a plot device to support Charlotte’s “greatness.”
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