This article contains spoilers for “Promising Young Woman.”
Early in “Promising Young Woman,” a pedantic creep inserts his fingers in the protagonist’s vagina. Our heroine, who has been feigning drunkenness, quickly snaps out of her stupor, shifting from easy prey to vigilante.
The creep tries to cover his assault, insisting that he is a nice guy who’d felt a connection with her.
“A connection?” Cassie repeats. “OK. What do I do for a living?”
The man has no answer, so she continues: “How old am I? How long have I lived in the city? What are my hobbies? What’s my name?”
Cassie, 29 going on 30, is a barista whose hobby is, ostensibly, this: luring would-be rapists into sardonic lectures. Yet as the movie unfurls, we learn little about her, and even less about the woman she is trying to avenge.
Critics have hailed “Promising Young Woman,” written and directed by Emerald Fennell, for its timeliness, often connecting it to the #MeToo movement that has given a platform to victims of sexual harassment and abuse. As that movement continues to change the way we think about sexual violence, centering victims’ experiences and exposing abuses of power, rape-revenge stories like this one should feel more relevant than ever.
Instead, “Promising Young Woman” and a handful of other recent movies — “The Perfection,” “Revenge” and “I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu” — recall films from the ’70s and ’80s that reduced rape victims to emotionless, even sexy avengers. They offer female characters a facile kind of agency. A woman, once made powerless by an attacker, can take justice into her own hands — but she must pay for that power with her personhood.
Rape itself turns girls and women into little more than objects, and these films — two of them directed by women — contribute to that dehumanization, rather than defy it. They confine female characters to lives of sociopathic wrath. But it doesn’t have to be that way: The recent “Black Christmas” revival, as well as TV shows like “Big Little Lies” and “I May Destroy You,” give their victims more room to grow and heal.
In “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie (Carrie Mulligan) lives to avenge her best friend, Nina. We learn that she and Nina were in medical school when another student raped Nina in front of his friends. Nina dropped out, and Cassie soon followed suit, to care for her.
Despite her importance to the narrative, Nina never comes into focus. She’s dead, but we never learn how she died. We don’t even know what she looked like as an adult, since the only pictures we see of her come from Cassie’s childhood. Nina’s fiery personality shines through in glimpses — an anecdote her mother tells, a speech Cassie delivers to the rapist. But ultimately, the movie perpetuates the very wrong it condemns, turning a woman who was “fully formed from day one” into little more than the worst night of her life.
“Promising Young Woman” adamantly criticizes predators and their enablers, and nods to #MeToo. (The creep Cassie deceives is writing a novel about “what it’s like to be a guy right now.”) Yet despite its assertion that rape is “every woman’s worst nightmare,” the film carelessly subjects its female characters to it, or at least the threat of it. Cassie exacts worse revenge on the women who discredited Nina than she does on nightclub predators and their enablers: She tricks a former friend into believing she has been raped and kidnaps the teenage daughter of a college dean. Cassie also offers herself up for assault, letting some of the nightclub men — like the novelist creep — violate her before she schools them.
This behavior recalls that of Jennifer, a rape victim in the 1978 cult hit “I Spit on Your Grave,” who seduces two of her attackers to lure them to their dooms. In “I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu,” last year’s straight-to-DVD sequel by the original movie’s writer-director, Meir Zarchi, Jennifer (Camille Keaton) discusses the experience in a radio interview. “The only advantage at my disposal was my God’s given weapon: my sexual appeal. So I used it to entice and trick them,” she says.
Jennifer’s daughter, Christy (Jamie Bernadette), does the same later when she avenges her own brutal rape. Both “I Spit on Your Grave” and the sequel revel in gang-rape sequences as much as the massacre that follows, with prolonged, explicit scenes of men (and, in the case of “Deja Vu,” one woman), taunting, wounding and penetrating their helpless victims. If the protagonists experience meaningful evolutions in their transformation from wailing victims to dead-eyed avengers, they’re not shown.
The women of “Revenge” (2017) and “The Perfection” (2018), though more calculating, are barely better rendered. Vengeance takes center stage when Charlotte and Lizzie, the cellist heroines of “The Perfection” (directed by Richard Shepard), dismember the musician behind their childhood abuse. But they sacrifice their humanity along the way: Charlotte (Allison Williams) tricks Lizzie into maiming herself, and Lizzie (Logan Browning) play-acts raping Charlotte. In “Revenge,” written and directed by Coralie Fargeat, the bombshell Jen (Matilda Lutz) mows down the three men complicit in her rape and attempted murder. Despite her ingenious recovery, Jen transforms from one male fantasy to another, swapping blond curls and lollipops for booty shorts and bloodshed.
Perhaps most important, none of these movies seem particularly interested in the real aftermath of rape. Their characters may shed some tears, but there are no phone calls to loved ones, no visits to hospitals or therapists, no chronic depression or panic attacks. If anything, rape makes these women more resourceful, preternaturally capable of exacting justice without fear of retribution.
“Black Christmas” (2019) is a more grounded tale of rape and revenge. Though the Sophia Takal film failed to dazzle at the box office or wow critics, who scorned its supernatural climax, it acknowledged the trauma of rape as much as it did the catharsis of revenge. In the film, the sorority sister Riley (Imogen Poots) is still recovering from sexual assault at the hands of a fraternity’s former president. She copes with flashbacks and anxiety, and her friends comment on her withdrawn affect. Riley eventually vanquishes her rapist, but not as part of some violent power trip; she does so in self-defense.
More balanced takes on these themes can be found on television, where long-form storytelling makes ample room for nuance. In the first season of “Big Little Lies” (2017), the murder mystery has rape at its center. Jane (Shailene Woodley), whose attack by an unknown assailant leads to the birth of her son, struggles to cope as a young mother in a cutthroat, elitist community. When her son is accused of choking his classmate, she worries that his father’s influence might have played a role and begins to relive the incident. She fantasizes about shooting her attacker and chases flashbacks away with long runs and Martha Wainwright songs. When her rapist turns out to be her friend’s abusive husband, the show’s ensemble of women rallies around Jane. One of them kills the man to defend her friends from his wrath.
The 2020 series “I May Destroy You” ruminates entirely on the aftermath of sexual trauma, as the main character, Arabella (Michaela Coel), and her friends each try to cope. In the final episode, Arabella lives through multiple confrontations with her rapist, two of which involve deception and revenge, before she eventually decides to move on.
At the climax of“Promising Young Woman,” Cassie tries to torture Nina’s rapist. The man overpowers and kills her, but the script throws viewers one last revenge Hail Mary: Cassie has orchestrated his arrest from beyond the grave.
This cheeky, borderline celebratory reveal (complete with “Angel of the Morning” ironically on the soundtrack) rings hollow. The film is more interested in what Cassie represented — a clapback against rape culture, a pastel-painted middle finger — than it ever was in Cassie as a human being.
Though rape and revenge both figure in “Black Christmas,” “Big Little Lies” and “I May Destroy You,” their narratives do not isolate women who’ve been attacked, nor do they condemn them to single-minded quests for revenge. These women lean on other people, often other women. They find a peace that ultimately matters more than confrontations with their attackers.
As the saying goes, living well is the best revenge.
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