Usually a trope reserved for telenovellas, thrillers and basically every Tarantino movie, revenge has recently made its way into national headlines. After being unceremoniously fired from her White House gig, former Celebrity Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault-Newman swiftly got her vengeance: “Former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault-Newman released another alleged secret recording — that she claims took place one day after her firing by Chief of Staff John Kelly — of a phone call with President Trump, who seems unaware of her departure from the administration,” reported Axios. The tape was just another instance of a former Trump aide flipping on their old boss, but still, it really pissed him off.
But who’s to say whether Manigault’s revenge against Trump gave her the sort of satisfaction we might expect? After all, she didn’t wait very long after getting fired to exact her revenge — she didn’t, as the old adage would have it, serve her dish fashionably chilled.
As for the rest of us, chances are we’ve all, at some point, fantasized about wreaking devastating vengeance on an enemy. But what makes revenge so compelling to begin with? Let’s find out.
First things first: Is revenge a dish best served cold?
According to Ashley Weaver, a writer of historical mystery novels that often include revenge, the answer is yes — in fiction, at least. “In mystery novels, especially, the characters need time to ruminate on the wrongs that have been done and formulate a plan for vengeance,” says Weaver. “Cold, calculated reprisal on the part of a character allows time for everything to align into its correct place in the narrative arc, creates a sense of tension and propels the story forward.” So while quick revenge may be satisfying in the short-term, a well-plotted revenge makes a far more interesting story.
And what might that revenge look like?
“Readers enjoy a punishment that fits the crime,” says Weaver. “When a character is especially evil or commits a heinous deed, there’s a sense of satisfaction when they receive their just desserts. Readers expect that the level of revenge will be equal to — or, in some cases, greater than — the initial wrongdoing to restore a sense of balance to the story.”
Additionally, Weaver suggests that revenge can be especially rewarding if there’s a hint of irony in the revenge. “If a character’s evil actions or the crime they perpetrated against someone else can somehow be turned against them and become instrumental in bringing about their own downfall later in the novel, the revenge is that much sweeter,” she says.
What is it about vengeance that makes it such a compelling idea for so many people, anyway?
“People enjoy the idea of revenge, especially in books and movies, because it often has undertones of delayed justice,” says Weaver. “For example, a character like Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, who brings down his enemies one by one, gives readers the satisfaction of seeing how people who have escaped more traditional forms of justice are still held accountable for their actions.”
In a far more extreme example, writing for the New Yorker, Jared Diamond argues that vengeance is among the strongest human emotions. “It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly,” writes Diamond. “Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend.”
But what about when people take that revenge too far?
“A more accurate term is nonconsensual pornography, defined as the distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent. This includes both images originally obtained without consent (e.g. by using hidden cameras, hacking phones, or recording sexual assaults) as well as images consensually obtained within the context of an intimate relationship.”
In 2015, companies like Reddit, Twitter and Facebook adopted policies against such nonconsensual pornography. “The search engines also agreed to “de-index” revenge porn, so that it no longer comes up under searches of the depicted person’s name, though it can still be accessed through the URL,” reported The New Yorker.
Although 40 states already have nonconsensual porn laws, last year, California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris introduced a bill to make revenge porn a federal crime. “The bill, Ending Nonconsensual Online User Graphic Harassment (ENOUGH) Act of 2017, has bipartisan support as well as the backing of big tech companies including Facebook and Twitter,” reported Fortune.
The punishment for these crimes? Jail. “In New Jersey, sharing explicit images without permission is punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $30,000,” reports Criminal Defense Lawyer. “Under California’s law, revenge porn is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both. If the victim is under the age of 18 or the defendant has a previous conviction for revenge porn, then the crime is punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both.”
So in short, if you think you’re justified in ruining someone’s life because they stood you up on a date, well, I hope you look good in an orange jumpsuit.
Okay, so — to pull an example out of thin air, honest — what if my neighbor throws a party every week night and has no fucking regard for the fact that I haven’t slept in fucking months. Won’t I feel better if I just like, key his car?
According to research from Washington University, you may feel better that day, but that feeling is likely to be short-lived. “Research suggests that people often feel satisfaction when contemplating acts of revenge and in the immediate act of taking it,” reports Quartz. “But what they may fail to realize is that revenge will likely make them feel worse over time.”
Clinical psychologist Amy Kim agrees, suggesting that the assumption that causing someone pain and suffering will somehow miraculously relieve you of your own pain and suffering is a flawed one. “If someone is preoccupied with revenge, two things are happening,” explains Kim. “First, that person is choosing their suffering. And second, you’re giving all of your power to the other person. If you were more in charge of your emotions, you wouldn’t be as consumed by revenge fantasies.”
Another problem with revenge is that it’s nearly impossible for people to agree about when they’re even. “Any act of revenge increases the potential for an ever-escalating series of vengeful acts to take place,” writes Fade Eadeh in the same Quartz article. “As Arlene Stillwell describes in a 2008 study, both the avengers and the recipients of revenge see themselves as victims.”
So you’re telling me there’s no form of revenge that will actually make me feel better?
“I’m a proponent of the old adage, ‘Living well is the best revenge,’” says Weaver. Kim agrees, although she says that if you’re thinking about living your best life as a form of revenge, you’re still doing it wrong. “It’s still insecure if you’re thinking about yourself with regard to another person,” she says.
In other words, get over it, move on and stop spending your sleepless 2 a.m. moments fantasizing about bashing that jerk’s face in.