What follows is a guest post by C.A. York.
Warning: This post contains spoilers as well as descriptions of sexual assault and violence.
Promising Young Woman, released after several delays due to the pandemic, pledged a “delicious new take on revenge” when the trailer for the film premiered in early 2020. Hell-bent on critiquing rape culture, while playfully paying homage to rape-revenge films of the seventies and eighties, director Emerald Fennell’s feature debut appealed to those familiar with the genre standards set out in previous rape-revenge classics such as the widely contentious I Spit on Your Grave, and Abel Ferrara’s cult classic Ms. 45. (Warning: Both film trailers feature implied rape and explicit scenes of violence.) Fennell herself has carried forward a fascination with murderous female enigmas with ingenuity. As second season showrunner of the BBC program Killing Eve and the Sundance short Careful How You Go, Fennell’s endeavors, thus far, have been in creative pursuits that feature captivating, violent female characters at the forefront of her storytelling. Taking on the gender and sex dynamics embedded in the rape-revenge genre seemed a natural fit for her first studio project. However, the biggest shock of the film comes from Fennell’s refusal to gratify viewers with gratuitous sex or violence. For the majority of the film, explicit scenes of sexual and physical violence are obscured rather than graphically exploited. In an effort to subvert conventions and challenge attitudes, Promising Young Woman here offers something different.
The film’s feminist hero Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is in a state of arrested development following the death of her best friend Nina Fisher, who died by suicide after being raped by a fellow student at university. In the decade since, Cassandra has been going through the motions of daily life while engaging in nocturnal activities through which she channels her grief and rage. This chiefly consists of targeting male predators in an attempt to deter their behavior as they try to victimize vulnerable young women. To do this, Cassandra goes to bars or clubs and pretends to be drunk. Men offer to escort her home and end up, often, taking her back to their homes. Believing her barely conscious and therefore unlikely to recall anything, they disregard consent and begin to assault her. In this moment, Cassandra reveals she has been soberly watching the predator’s every move. When the perpetrator of Nina’s assault, Al Monroe, returns to the area for his impending nuptials, Cassandra impulsively decides to confront the players that figured into Nina’s tragedy: a shared friend who dismissed the allegations as petty drama, the Dean who refused to investigate – giving Al the ‘benefit of the doubt’ – and the lawyer who harassed and bullied Nina into dropping charges. Those without remorse for the consequences of their actions are subjected to psychological distress by Cassandra making it clear she is unwilling to forget where blame truly lies for Nina’s trauma.
Kate Manne’s account of misogyny, developed in Down Girl and expanded in her follow-up book Entitled, resonates with Fennell’s ongoing subversion of the rape-revenge genre in this most recent entry. The film examines not only those directly involved in sexual assault, but those adjacently responsible for letting it go unchecked. It demonstrates how those not directly involved bear complicit attitudes that have effects well beyond the assault, compounding the trauma victims experience. They commit additional acts of harm through victim blaming, “himpathy” (Manne’s coinage for holding undue sympathy for a male perpetrator over his female victim), and “herasure” (giving narrative precedence to the perpetrator instead of his victim). No longer is misogyny a label restricted to men that exhibit a universal contempt for all women. According to Manne, misogyny attracts all kinds of men, as well as women, and is sustained through a series of mechanisms designed to govern and enforce a patriarchal system. Functioning on a social level, misogyny enacts systemic harm against women, both figurative and literal in scope. In the case of Promising Young Woman, the complicit individuals Cassandra revisits actively participate in maintaining the misogynistic social structures that lead to Nina’s death: blaming the victim for her own assault, taking a himpathetic stance towards the rapist, and erasing her narrative to privilege Al’s account.
Misogyny is just one of many systems of male domination that perpetuates systemic injustice for women battling the patriarchal order. The climax of the film finds Cassandra in a final showdown with Al where she reveals, in her possession, new evidence proving his guilt. As she attempts to punish Al by carving Nina’s name into his flesh as a permanent reminder of his crime, Al manages instead to kill Cassandra by smothering her with a nearby pillow. Withholding from viewers the cathartic satisfaction of the heroine’s triumph over her rapist, Fennell once again subverts a narrative script normally relied upon to foster emotional engagement and gratification. These kinds of creative choices brought down criticism that Promising Young Woman was a misanthropic misfire. Many were of the view that ongoing advancements towards gender equity warranted greater optimism. Strident activist movements such as “me too” were thought to have motivated a seismic cultural shift in validating victims’ testimonies and their ability to pursue justice through the criminal courts. At its peak, the hashtag #MeToo became emblematic for the takedown of powerful Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Over 100 women came forward to share their experiences of his predatory abuse; Weinstein eventually was charged for a first-degree criminal sex act and third-degree rape. Surely now a more hopeful appraisal of women’s success in fighting the existing patriarchal hierarchy had been rightly earned.
Upset critics lamented the film as a downer with one review in TIME magazine sneering, “Women are angry for good reason. They also deserve better movies than this one.” But this ignores the fact that many women are furious for precisely the circumstances of their existence that the film points out – simply put, they are furious at structural misogyny and at the violence that comes with it. Structural misogyny is a pervasive social force that robs women of the justice they deserve and disempowers them in the process.
Fennell’s take critiques the fantasy elements of rape-revenge that exaggerate the feminist hero’s own self-sufficiency by analyzing social relations which, if not encourage, embolden men to become moral monsters. Her selection of male actors casts a wary glance on men who present themselves as allies to women. Among those who step forward as unlikely perpetrators are familiar and beloved comedic actors such as Christopher Lowell (Glow & Veronica Mars), Adam Brody (The O.C.), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), Samuel Richardson (Veep), Bo Burnham (Bo Burnham: Inside), and Max Greenfield (New Girl). Audiences are primed to see these actors as likeable rather than loathsome, which makes their inexcusable actions even more shocking and reprehensible. This reveals the capacity for violence in any man – whether or not they see themselves as ‘nice guys’. The intentional casting of these actors by Fennell challenges audiences from falling back into himpathetic cycles that sympathize with the perpetrator.
Likewise, the risks that accompany threatening and disarming a violent man – willing to viciously protect their entitlements at whatever cost – is not lost on Cassandra, regardless of how harmless these men appear at first blush. Dispiriting as Cassandra’s death is, the ending is a true estimation of the reality of male violence that misogyny helps to excuse. As Al smothers Cassandra to death, he screams that this is her own fault as she fights for air (victim blaming), appeals to a confidante that going on trial for her murder will ruin his life (himpathy), and together they burn her body to destroy evidence that the two were ever in contact (herasure). Fennell’s belief that viewers should be made to watch in horror as the heroine is overcome, in a long, two-minute single shot that plays out in real time, treats its subject matter seriously without making it exploitative.
The final product takes a bold stance against the expectation for violence viewers are conditioned to have. Summed up in Fennell’s own words, “It’s not supposed to be nice.” Here we are reminded that the ultimate invincibility of rape-revenge heroines is, and has always been, illusory – no matter how much we would like to convince ourselves otherwise. Have rape-revenge narratives facilitated any real social change? Do they represent the interests of empowered women, or are they providing lip-service without truly acknowledging the complexity of the problem?
We forget in our engagement with these narratives that male violence frequently resorts to the use of brute physicality to overwhelm and disengage female victims. The 2020 UK Femicide Census reported weaponized male strength as a common resource used to immobilize women. In this study, strangulation, asphyxiation, use of a blunt instrument, hitting, kicking, and stamping all exceeded the use of a sharp instrument in committing grievous bodily harm.
A month before Promising Young Woman’s UK release, Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman from London, disappeared while walking home from a friend’s house. She was later found to have been murdered by a Metropolitan Police officer. The post-mortem examination concluded she had died from “compression to the neck.” A week after these findings were released to the public, it was announced that Everard had also been raped.
Overkilling – the use of excessive, gratuitous violence beyond that necessary to kill a person – is cheered on and applauded in rape-revenge fantasies. Male overkilling, by comparison, was present in over half of the femicide cases reviewed between 2009 and 2019. The assumption that women, like these heroines, are capable of defending themselves against their male perpetrators to combat the violence routinely committed against them is not clearly borne out by the evidence. As a result, it may end up doing more harm than good, by reinforcing the idea that women and men are equal adversaries. The pervasive misogyny and entrenched inequalities that incite violence against women prove this is simply not the case.
As Manne writes in Down Girl: “There is no reason to expect that misogyny will typically manifest itself in violence or even violent tendencies. […] From the perspective of enforcing patriarchal social relations, this is not necessary. It is not even desirable. Patriarchal social relations are supposed to be amicable and seamless when all is going to plan. It is largely when things go awry that violence tends to bubble to the surface.” Film theorist Carol Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws, was one of the first to write about the emergence of rape-revenge as a genre in its own right and commented then that the second-wave women’s movement was responsible for bestowing in popular culture the image of an angry woman. She too was doubtful, thirty years ago, that promoting female self-defense as a solution to the issue of sexual and physical violence would result in meaningful change.
Contemporary audiences now are better able to process these debates than previous generations, but that does not mean that the work is over. Sarah Everard’s death prompted vigils and an outpouring of collective sorrow, not only for her death itself, but for the fact that women still live with the constant threat of male violence. Yet, Everard’s disappearance was far from extraordinary although, for a time, it was treated as such. Murdered women of color, such as sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry (in the previous year) and Bennylyn Burke (who disappeared shortly after Everard), risked herasure as a result of the systemic racism which affected coverage of their cases. Trans women facing transmisogyny risk additional dangers as their lived experiences are disregarded and stigmatized, with even fewer protections provided within our justice systems.
Promising Young Woman focuses on processes of female disempowerment that impede women’s ability to move successfully – or even with minimal bodily safety – within the existing patriarchal social order. The film may ask more questions than it answers, but it aims directly at the broader systems that keep misogyny afloat. It asks us what to do once we truly recognize that misogyny rarely engenders the gratifying fictions we are habitually sold.
C.A. York is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Kent. Their work focuses on implicit and explicit violence committed against, and by, women in art.