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She Stays Winning

A genre of “feminist” filmmaking conflates suffering and empowerment

On a recent cover of Variety, Emerald Fennell and Carey Mulligan, the director and star of the Academy Award-winning Promising Young Woman, lie face-up, their blonde hair tastefully spread out over a soft pink backdrop. Beneath them are the words “Toxic Avengers” in bold. The image recalls one of the film’s most enticing posters, showing Mulligan’s protagonist draped seductively over an enormous set of oozing pink lips, above which is a tagline that promises comeuppance: “Take her home and take your chances.” What’s teased is a kind of rape-revenge thriller, but the result is a film shorn of that genre’s unsavory elements, vesting its femme fatale with undeniable moral authority. Promising Young Woman’s promoters have also stressed its social utility: in the weeks leading up the Oscars, Focus Features announced it was partnering with RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States, to provide free screenings of the film to college students. “One film ignited a conversation,” claims an ad I recently stumbled upon. “Are you listening?”

The conversation purportedly ignited by Promising Young Woman concerns the prevalence of sexual violence in American culture; the victim-blaming mythologies that our legal systems reify as they time and again absolve perpetrators of their crimes; and the destructive nature of such negligence—the grief it cultivates in its victims and their loved ones, the anger.

In the film, Mulligan’s Cassie prowls local bars and nightclubs in the guise of a sloppy drunk, bait for the leering nice guys who are eager for a minimally hassling fuck. But actually, Cassie’s not wasted in the least. Pre-panty tug, she snaps into action and confronts her would-be rapist with startling sobriety, effectively forcing the scum into confronting his own wrongdoing. This routine is Cassie’s way of numbing the pain. Years ago, her best friend Nina was raped, and no one seemed to care—not the man who brutalized her, not the men who watched, and not the university administrators who refused to address the charge. Nina later committed suicide. The dead-eyed and sardonic Cassie we meet is so consumed by rage and trauma that she’s more than willing to die for justice, which Fennell unironically captures through a girl power pop aesthetic. Her last laugh from beyond the grave is presented as empowering.

These days, the most acclaimed and “important” feminist objects in film and television have capitalized on a movement perfectly ripe for the picking, fetishizing pain under the guise of a higher mandate.

Fennell devised the concept for the film in 2017, the year that Harvey Weinstein was exposed and activist Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement acquired a hashtag and celebrity endorsements. Also of clear inspiration to the British writer/director/actress/producer were recent high-profile trials and hearings that brought national attention to the inadequacies of America’s criminal justice system, which hands down felony convictions to less than one percent of those who commit sexual assault. Promising young rapists like Brock Turner get slaps on the wrist. Unrepentant crybabies like Brett Kavanaugh become Supreme Court justices. Enterprising feminists like Fennell sell their scripts (“The first draft I wrote down, it was complete”). With little pushback, Promising Young Woman completed principal photography in April 2019. Are you listening? Socially conscious studio executives were.

These days, the most acclaimed and “important” feminist objects in film and television have capitalized on a movement perfectly ripe for the picking, fetishizing pain under the guise of a higher mandate: spreading awareness, adding nuance to the “conversation,” functioning as protest. Yet their methods are always the same. These depictions of trauma are unambiguous and graphic, and their heroines—who are always cunning—suffer through it all with nobility and strength. This pain laid bare purportedly reflects a commitment to social activism and women’s empowerment, which strikes me as a savvy way of sustaining the illusion that things will be okay. We women are actually winning, though we don’t see it, we don’t feel it. 

In April 2017, the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, a series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, aired on Hulu. Six months earlier the Washington Post had released then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, and three months before that multiple women had accused Fox News executive Roger Ailes of sexual harassment. The show was heralded for its willingness to vividly render a patriarchal theocracy in which women train for their futures as sex slaves. Dozens labeled it “eerily relevant,” a “cautionary tale,” and applauded its daring approach, which refused to shy away from depicting the “reality” of sexual violence: rape, suicide, torture, even waterboarding. “I have a very low threshold [for brutality],” said showrunner Bruce Miller. “But the rule of thumb I have for violence in the show is that you need to see [it] to understand . . . to be with June.” By this logic, empathy is only obtainable under certain met standards of exploitation.

“Part of me has always craved a pain so visible—so irrefutable and physically inescapable—that everyone would have to notice,” writes Leslie Jamison in The Empathy Exams. There is a degree of comfort to be found in allowing pain to define us as women, to make us visible and relatable. That women’s suffering has often been made to look small and inconsequential has been traumatizing; the regularity with which our testimonies are dismissed has been existentially crippling. Though the stigma around rape persists on all levels, these last five years have provided opportunities for widespread catharsis in the collective sharing of wounds (primarily on social media) that seem to double as acts of protest. But these displays of commonality are impotent and insufficient when it comes to effecting change. Less than two months ago, a Minnesota court overturned a rape conviction on the grounds that the victim was “voluntarily intoxicated.” In early March, a British woman named Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered by a police officer. What has reacting to these stories with more stories, more expressions of pain, actually achieved?

It’s certainly created a market. To be with women, to understand their pain, has become an explicit venture in film and television, one also circumscribed by the need to show women triumphant, empowered, and brimming with agency. The least flashy and cathartic (and thus the most unsettling) films about sexual harassment and violence have failed to capture a wider audience’s attention, perhaps because they flout the in-demand tenets of empowerment and complicate issues in such a way that diminishes their potential for virality. Among them are Kitty Green’s The Assistant (2020), Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), and Eva Trobisch’s All is Well (2018); all three depict women depleted by a culture and system so deeply committed to their subjugation that their struggles begin to look mundane. Major awards bodies overlooked these films, and their distributors have done little to promote their arrival to streaming platforms, where they’ve been swept beneath the rising tide of content. Meanwhile, the sloppiest of these works stoop to gross misrepresentations in the name of a higher calling and are handsomely rewarded. Jay Roach’s Bombshell (2019) champions the fearless women of Fox News for standing up to a Jabba-esque Ailes and the rest of the sludge-heaps in suits they call bosses. For its uplifting valorization of wronged women behaving defiantly—no matter their allegiance to a blatantly misogynist network—the film received three Oscar nominations.

To be with women, to understand their pain, has become an explicit venture in film and television, one also circumscribed by the need to show women triumphant, empowered, and brimming with agency.

What’s being made increasingly obvious is that these celebrated commercial works have no interest in the vast, globe-spanning history of feminism and feminist artwork, which offers such insight, possibility, and complexity. So there’s automatically an erasure at work when something like Bombshell or The Handmaid’s Tale—but also less didactic entertainment, everything from The Queen’s Gambit to Hustlers to Birds of Prey—emerges shrouded in novelty, simultaneously trumpeting its relevance and its “trailblazing” themes and characters. The powers that be understand the need to cast off old stereotypes and reject the kind of storytelling established by the historically male-dominated film industry, its male geniuses and male interests. But what promise does a feminist artwork that merely reacts to a deficiency truly hold? That takes as its starting point the very male gaze it wants to dismantle? We’ve abandoned the virgin-whore dichotomy, but it remains always in the shadows, informing representations of cinema’s new empowered woman. Seemingly reverse-engineered from an enlightened viewer’s understanding of the ideal yet relatable feminist character, a new archetype has taken hold. She is messy but empowered; unstable yet brilliant; ruthless with men and in solidarity with women; finally winning, because she’s suffered so much.

As such, when I think of Promising Young Woman, I tend not to think of other films by women about the trauma of rape, though there are several—Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985), Kassi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou (1997), Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985), Ida Lupino’s Outrage (1950), to name a few streaming-accessible titles from over the decades. Instead, Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) comes to mind.

In Marnie, Tippi Hedren plays a beautiful con woman, a sphinx whose riddles make her enticing. Sean Connery’s handsome rich guy, Mark Rutland, his lusty eyes always glimmering with perverse fascination, takes it upon himself to save the girl by threatening to expose her, forcing her into marriage, and then raping her. Marnie tries to get away, but it “narrows down to a choice of me or the police,” Rutland tells her. After a kind of Freudian exorcism of violent childhood trauma, her memories are drawn to the surface in all their crippling power, and Marnie submits: “I’d rather stay with you.” By the end, she’s not saved so much as electro-shocked into wifey material. In real life, Hitchcock—a legendary filmmaker, yes, but also a rampant misogynist—sexually assaulted and abused Hedren for rejecting his advances, a relationship explicitly if not consciously presented in Marnie as well as The Birds. Of Hedren—but also Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, and Janet Leigh, the great ice queens of the Hitchcockian imagination—Molly Haskell writes in her classic book of feminist film criticism, From Reverence to Rape, that “the blonde is reprehensible not because of what she does, but because of what she withholds: love, sex, trust.” These women “must be punished,” cut down to size, and revealed as the vulnerable little girls they’ve always truly been.

When Rutland catches Marnie attempting to flee with a suitcase full of stolen money, he calls her a “cold, practiced method actress of a liar.” Like Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992) or Rosamund Pike’s “Amazing” Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014), she’s a highly intelligent misandrist: damaged, deceptive, unrepentant. A “crazy bitch.” Catherine and Amy, however, are imperfect symbols of feminist power; they falsify their own victimhood and weaponize patriarchal notions of feminine vulnerability toward their own, not necessarily sympathetic, aims. They manipulate the justice system and the upholders of the law; they consider themselves above it, and they kill without remorse. In both films, they emerge as lunatic femme fatales: unlikeable, eerie, inhuman in their pretense of normality. But they are not punished. They live.

At first blush, Cassie seems like another such “crazy bitch.” Yet in Promising Young Woman, the Hitchcock blonde comes back into view. Frigid, emotionally stunted, and uninviting, Cassie is a slave to her traumas. They imprison and disfigure her into something less than human, a vessel for grief and rage. At the end of Marnie, our heroine is absolved of her criminal past and her painful memories. But this faux “happy ending” is an act of castration. For Cassie, punishment is her vindication.

Rather than a Sean Connery type, Cassie has Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former med school classmate. This guy is apparently turned on by Cassie’s frigid demeanor. She spits in his coffee, which he drinks: less a gesture of humility than a challenge accepted. They eventually become a couple, with Cassie’s will to live strengthened by Ryan’s disarming sweetness—and his willingness to sing Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind” in public. But it turns out Ryan is also tainted. A video recording of Nina’s rape resurfaces, implicating Cassie’s new beau in the crime. It also triggers her carnivalesque final act, in which she attends the bachelor party of Nina’s rapist disguised as a rainbow-haired stripper in a sexy nurse outfit. She anticipates the gambit ending with her own demise—we watch her smothered to death by a pillow—and after the treacherous bros burn her body, the cops arrive prepared to bring Cassie (and Nina) justice. Ha ha! Ryan receives a spicy, posthumous text from Cassie that reveals she planned the setup all along. Meanwhile, the fantasy of an effective and righteous law enforcement is made possible only through the production of another trope: the beautiful dead girl.

Nothing screams “believe women” like the incontestable evidence of a corpse.

That the film refuses to indulge in the satisfaction of bloody catharsis is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet the choice to limit Cassie’s “revenge” to glorified guilt-tripping strikes me as consciously restrained, a superficial boundary placed out of fear that a woman might undermine her purchase on victimhood should she truly step out of bounds and sully her own claims with unforgivable behavior. Cassie is a “crazy bitch,” but the film keeps her strategically within the bounds of legality and directs her most perverse offenses toward women: getting her old classmate hammered and instilling in her the idea that she was raped; tricking the female Dean into thinking her teenage daughter is hanging out with drunk college boys. The film’s bubbly aesthetic ostentatiously highlights the fundamental fang-lessness of Cassie’s provocations. In interviews, Emerald Fennell has said that she wanted to deny audiences the cheap thrills of the typical rape-revenge movie: “I’d been thinking a lot at the time about the way that rage and anger manifests itself, particularly in women when we don’t traditionally, in spite of what most revenge movies tell us, resort to violence.” Apparently only the designated victims deserve these sanctifying blows; nothing screams “believe women” like the incontestable evidence of a corpse.

It’s true that most women don’t go on killer rampages after being raped, and that many rape-revenge movies tend to reproduce and sensationalize gendered violence. Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45 (1981), for instance, sustains the myth that “real” rapes are committed violently by strangers wielding weapons. Within the first ten minutes, the film’s protagonist, a mute, meek seamstress named Thana, is assaulted by a masked man on her way home from work. She’s attacked again moments later by an anonymous psycho who sneaks into her apartment. Mid-struggle, she manages to kill this second rapist, a traumatic trigger that leads to her gradual transformation into a gun-toting murderer of men.

Here, and in everything from I Spit on Your Grave (1978) to recent films like Revenge (2017) and The Nightingale (2018), the rape-victim rises up and carries out her wrath. It’s vengeance, of course. But it’s also an assertion of power and a rejection not merely of a sanctioned male sexuality premised on possession and subjugation but also of feminine fragility—the very essentialist understanding of womanhood that rape perpetrators seize upon, the supposed fact-of-the-matter that emboldens everyone from slobbish cat-callers to brutish husbands to fraternity boys in heat. You should have killed me when you had the chance, says the rape-revenge heroine. Her actions are not simply about manifesting rage; they’re about imagining an alternative. Not the “everything he can do I can do better” empowerment of Wonder Woman, but a construction of femininity not premised on susceptibility, on the notion that our bodies exist in the world as targets of totalizing violence and domination.

Fennell may not show rape, nor a woman’s vindictive violence, but she nevertheless orchestrates a spectacle, opting for high-concept theatrics as a means of calling attention to women’s victimhood. By prioritizing a politics of visibility, Promising Young Woman and other films and shows like it ultimately draw on regressive notions of woman’s essential vulnerability. On screen, we are condemned to a purgatory of inevitable suffering shot through with a slick, edgy sensibility—symmetrical rows of maidens dressed in scarlet robes and white bonnets; a woman figuratively crucified over shiny red vinyl. These are facile images that in their ready-made pseudo-profundity simultaneously idolize and render cliché the ugly realities of womanhood, reminding us that the depiction of pain will always be more cinematic than recovery.