“The Purge” Shows the Power of Women of Color’s Exhaustion

The Purge

The title of horror thriller The Purge refers to an annual 12-hour event within the franchise’s universe to fix the US’s economy and crime rates. It’s a night where people can commit (almost) all crimes, including and especially murder, with no legal consequences because the US government claims it will help people get rid of all their frustrations and “biological” homicidal tendencies. Even though The Purge movies are often seen as a free-for-all, the anthology demonstrates in subtle and loud ways how “the purge” is connected to and characterized by the US’s historical and ongoing violent systems. Content warning: In discussion of depictions of gender-based violence and behaviors that can be interpreted as suicidal ideation ahead.

I went down a deep dive into all sorts of The Purge content, including the USA Network’s television adaptation of the movies. Within this expanded universe, The Purge’s season 1 depicts Jane (Amanda Warren) and Penelope (Jessica Garza) as they figure out what change could and should mean when surrounded by violence. The Purge shows their struggle as exhaustion – a feeling and performance rarely shown in representations of women of color.

Season 1 depicts a purge night as experienced by several characters including Jane and Penelope. Jane is a Black woman in a high-level corporate position who is overworked and overlooked for advancement in a company run by a sexual predator. Penelope is a young Latina in a government-support cult that transports “undesirable” populations on purge night so they can be tortured and killed. Both have to go through 12 hours of repeated abductions and uncertainty because their identities mark them as “sacrifices.” 

An ongoing theme of the first season is the belief that people who purge, which just means harming and killing others, will heal whatever anger they have inside. It’s basically a really messed up version and misunderstanding of decompression. By this logic, healed citizens lead to a growing and equal country. 

But this thinking is founded on a very specific division between the purger/killer and the purged/killed in which people like Jane and Penelope are supposed to be targets. On one end, Jane begins the season believing that the purge could finally put her on the same playing field as other (literal) cutthroat executives at her job. So she is reaching to be on the other side of the binary, to be the killer. On the other end, Penelope believes that because her parents were “sacrificed”/killed in a previous purge, she’s worried her destiny is to become a martyr for the US. 

Jane and Penelope’s exhaustion, though, complicates their initial positions and allows them to break with the purge’s either/or thinking as they are each captured twice over the course of this one purge. First, they are restrained by abusive people in their separate lives. Then they are confined together when they are abducted by a man who claims that he was slighted by their disrespectful behavior. The disrespectful behavior in question was Jane and Penelope not being subservient to him in different situations. 

In their fight to survive, Jane and Penelope run away, physically defend themselves against attacks, and try to reason their way out of their deadly situations. And there are moments in which they are just so tired. Tired of the bullshit that they are being targeted for. Tired of a system that makes them have to try to escape over and over again. Tired of being told how their “sacrifice,” their bodies, their lives, will heal people that don’t even care enough to listen to them. They laugh at and talk back to their captors in these moments porque ya estan hartas.

When talking about women of color representations and how we fight back, I am reminded of a line from This Bridge Called My Back, an anthology of writings from radical feminists. Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, “They have substituted the negative picture the white culture has painted of my race with a highly romanticised, idealized image…I am not the frozen snow queen but a flesh and blood woman with perhaps too loving a heart, one easily hurt.” There is a tendency to detach the representation of a Black and woman of color fighter from her complex journey, making her one-dimensional (yet still incredibly hypersexualized) for the sake of “praising” her. There is no acknowledgment of the iterations, failures, and exhaustion that wraps around skin like saran wrap, pulled tighter and tighter when ignored.

Tiredness is not to be mistaken with giving up either. In The Purge TV show, Jane and Penelope’s point of weariness is part of their discovery that they no longer want to live by the rules of the purge. Specifically in episode 9, Jane is uncharacteristically disheveled with a drained expression after making it through much of this purge. She snickers at her final captor who wants to kill her simply because they went on a bad first date in which he made many microaggressive comments at her. 

In her final moments, she admits to the people captured with her that she had “purged” — she had crossed the division by killing her boss. Yet she realizes that killing did not heal or benefit her in any way because the purge is only meant to spread violence and take away a sense of self. With this confession, Jane forges connections with the other abducted people rather than debating with her captor. This demonstrates an emerging theme carried out through the end of season one and season two — community mobilization and solidarity. 

For Penelope in episode 5, she counters the belief that she is only worthy of being purged/killed. Her ex-boyfriend has tied her to a stake in a carnival tent designed for the night’s murder, yet she looks down at her captor with a dreary and worn face to say, “All you can do is kill me…So kill me…I’m not the victim. You are.” She is taking back her identity and agency while simultaneously declaring the purge and the people ignorantly following its message as the broken ones. She wants to see herself as something else other than the victim. It is no surprise then that like Jane, Penelope chooses at the end o to dismantle cults with her brother rather than fitting herself into the murderer/murdered binary again.

Jane and Penelope are not examples of ignoring or pushing through exhaustion. Rather, their tiredness causes them to rethink their position within a reality that is shaped by glaring violence. Viewing and considering Jane and Penelope’s exhaustion disrupts and informs the perception, weight, and scope of women of color’s fight to reach for their and our desired worlds. Rather than a glamorized fight for survival, it is one that requires a serious look at our values, especially when it comes to sustaining ourselves and each other. 

Personally, I have tried to learn what it means to implement a combination of self- and community-care. Even as I realize that the exhaustion wrapped around my body is a sign that I have to change my outlook and understanding of what my work, words, and relationships mean. To say “que ya estoy harta” means that I am done uncritically following what is causing my exhaustion. To say “que ya estoy harta” is to also say that I am ready for something else, something different, something more.

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