Published Feb 19, 2016 Updated Feb 29, 2020, 11:23 am CST
Years ago, while recovering from a difficult breakup, writer and diorama-maker Laura Stokes developed an unorthodox, yet cathartic, coping mechanism.
“I’d stop, take a breath, and say, ‘But then he died in that horrible fire!'” she told The Daily Dot in an email. “I mean, I didn’t want him to actually die in a fire. But just imagining gratuitous revenge for a moment had a calming effect. It also made me laugh, which I needed badly.”
What started as an inside joke between friends is now a performance art project that Stokes is creating with friend and collaborator Nichole Cordin. Earlier this week, Stokes launched the Facebook page Revenge Dioramas, featuring scenarios staged and photographed by herself and Cordin.
The project is a natural progression from Stokes’s earlier coping strategy—what were once verbal revenge fantasies are now carefully illustrated images using action figures as stand-ins for women and the men who have wronged them. “Someone told me a story about a guy who treated her badly, and it included actual text from his arrogant and ridiculous emails,” she explained. “So, I started storyboarding those with preschool toys, to emphasize how ridiculous he sounded. And from that, it snowballed.”
After starting off with prompts and inspiration from friends, Stokes and Cordin are now soliciting requests for dioramas via the Facebook page. As the description reads: “Was your ex a terrible human garbage fire? Revenge Dioramas can help you work it out.”
Though initial dioramas have dramatized revenge fantasies about spouses, exes, and online dating suitors, they are looking to explore other relationship dynamics as well. Stokes shared that narcissistic parents, terrible bosses, xenophobic politicians, and fatphobic and transphobic people are among those who will be fair game as revenge subjects in future dioramas.
Stokes’s initial dioramas required a great deal of ingenuity. She is a parent, and so far, she has primarily constructed the dioramas using her son’s action figures and other toys. An update on the Revenge Diorama Facebook page suggests that she is in the market for even more toys, ones to be expressly used for the purpose of diorama-making.
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Dioramas thus far have been photographed using only cell phone cameras and available light sources, but Stokes has set up a Patreon fundraising page so that she can afford to purchase professional equipment and increase the quality of the images.
Watching action figures being devoured by pretend sharks and polar bears are such comical images that will make even the most pacifist among us crack a smile. But there is a much deeper reason why the humor of dioramas are resonating with their creators and fans: they are a safe outlet for women to acknowledge and process anger.
“My friend, writer Audra Williams, actually pointed out to me that humor is one of the only safe ways for women to express anger,” Stokes said. “We can’t be directly and vocally angry about something—even just to ourselves. We feel like for it to be ‘appropriate,’ we have to cloak it in a joke.”
The acceptance (or lack thereof) of female anger has been the subject of extensive scientific research and the results support this assertion. A study published last year by the academic journal Law and Human Behavior discovered that “expressing anger might lead men to gain influence, but women to lose influence over others (even when making identical arguments).” Moreover, women who dare to express personal opinions on the Internet—especially ones that happen to be controversial, critical, or unpopular—are frequently targets of violent threats and harassment.
“A woman creating violent imagery, especially images about retaliating against men, is inherently transgressive, even when it is silly,” Stokes explained. “I want people to have to deal with that. I especially want marginalized people to feel validated, to feel like, ‘Yes, you have the right to be angry, this thing that was done to you was totally awful, and we are going to get some justice, if only in the form of plastic dinosaurs stomping on that person who wronged you.'”
Because of this, Stokes is hoping that the dioramas will soon address overtly political topics in addition to personal ones. Online harassment will be one such issue to explore, she told the Daily Dot. “There have been some recent court cases where women have tried to get justice for online harassment and the courts haven’t given it to them, so I am pretty determined to fight back (with sharks and dinosaurs),” she said.
Additionally, recognizing their privilege as white women, Stokes and Cordin are also interested in collaborating with women of color. “I have been thinking about the stories I’ve heard from people of color about the terrible things that get said to them by white people,” Stokes told the Daily Dot. “I would love to have guest writers and artists of color tell their stories, with dioramas to support those narratives.” Stokes would welcome such dioramas to address both personal and political injustices, ranging from racism in online dating to police violence against people of color.
Though Revenge Dioramas has just launched, Stokes and Cordin have big plans. Their new figurines and photography equipment will allow them to create more elaborate and detailed pieces and they intend to produce high-quality prints for purchase to support their efforts. The waitlist for personalized dioramas is quickly growing, so if you’re seeking justice — even symbolically—visit Revenge Dioramas on Facebook and Twitter and place your request.