When I walked out of Dredd, the exceedingly, even distractingly violent update of 2000 AD’s comic book meditation on the fascist tendencies in American depictions of law enforcement, I told the friend who joined me at the movies that I wished it had been a Judge Anderson movie. It’s not that Karl Urban isn’t good as the titular Judge Dredd, a perpetually dour man with little to no patience for violent criminals. But that as Judge Anderson and Ma-Ma, the violent drug lord Anderson and Dredd pursue on a day when Anderson’s been sent into the field for the final evaluation that will determine whether she becomes a Judge, it’s much more fun to see Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headey play two very different kinds of very tough women than to watch Dredd do his thing.
When she starts out her first day on the job, Anderson’s at a disadvantage: she’s a mutant and a psychic who got into the Judge Academy on special dispensation and when Dredd meets her, scored three percent too low to pass her graduation exams. Dredd takes her out to evaluate her as a favor, but he plainly doesn’t expect her to succeed, much less live—her unwillingness to wear a helmet so her psychic abilities can work at the highest level makes him skeptical. But in the field, Anderson does well, most notably in a show-down with Kay, a lieutenant in Ma-Ma’s organization played by The Wire‘s Wood Harris. Once he finds out she’s psychic, Kay tries to rattle Anderson by picturing himself raping her. Anderson is unperturbed. “You’re picturing a violent sexual liason between the two of us in a pointless attempt to shock me,” she tells him, bored. Rape culture apparently persists in Mega City One, and young women are still learning not to let themselves be debilitated by it. When Kay imagines Anderson fellating him and tells her it’s to shut her up, she reminds him that she isn’t the innocent girl Kay thinks she is, and that she’s fully prepared to bombard him with images and ideas he’s less prepared to deal with than she is. It’s not a good thing that Anderson has to be prepared to defend herself against both physical and mental harassment and assault. But in a sexually violent society, she’s more resilient than a sexually violent man is.
Then there’s Ma-Ma, who is so terrifying in part because she marries a kind, motherly tone to dreadful orders. Whether she’s ordering a flaying of rival gang members who have challenges her, threatening a young man she’s already horribly victimized, or leading the demolition of an entire floor of an apartment building, Ma-Ma rarely raises her voice. The disconnection between the tone she adopts, which people want to respond to, and the things she asks them to do or orders them to do is deeply disturbing, and it’s a reminder of how powerful femininity and motherhood can be. Raw domination is not the only way to exercise power. And in an even more extreme fashion than Anderson, Ma-Ma is a victim who retaliates with sexualized violence of her own. Mutilated by her pimp, Ma-Ma bites off his genitals while being forced to fellate him, an image that recurs throughout the movie.
A lot of the violence in Dredd feels unnecessary to the plot or the movie’s argument: a jaw ruined by a bullet or a mass of flayed flesh on the floor of an apartment building are mostly a test of whether you flinch or not. But I actually found the images of sexual violence in Dredd to be an exception. In their own ways, Judge Anderson and Ma-Ma want to save themselves from fates that other people feel confident inflicting on them. Violence and humiliation in retaliation may not break the cycle. But they’re an attempt to warn those who would attack women that the response is less predictable and more vigorous than the attackers expect.