Rape Revenge Fantasies and Male Entitlement
Revenge movies are nothing new. A staple of Hollywood throughout the decades, they run the gamut from Oscar-worthy (Ben-Hur and Gladiator) to cheap exploitation (no need to list specific titles here). There is something about vigilante justice that appeals to our nature, although the mileage of any given film will vary depending on how realistically, honestly, and/or cathartically it handles the topic.
There is a subgenre of the revenge narrative that is especially ripe for exploitation: the rape-revenge film. Movies in this category often act as excuses for gratuitous displays of sex and violence. The victim/protagonist typically enacts vengeance on the perpetrator(s) by treating him/them the way she was treated—i.e., as an object of dehumanizing violence. Part of the fantasy, of course, is that an act of violence can actually negate or overcome or erase a previous act of violence.
There’s a new movie in town, however, and it seeks to subvert the rape-revenge genre, replacing mindless fantasy tropes with deliberate and realistic elements. The movie is called Promising Young Woman, which seeks to be a social commentary on the evils of male entitlement. Director Emerald Fennell explains:
When I was growing up, “raunch culture” and “banter” slathered a shiny peppermint gloss over something much more sinister. The message was clear: Women’s bodies were sexy, so boys deserved to see them and touch them, to photograph them and film them and talk about them and compare them and ridicule them and be disgusted by them.
This sense of entitlement to women’s bodies still permeates our modern, enlightened, and liberated society. This entitlement is evidenced whenever a victim of sexual harassment is blamed because of what she was wearing. It is evidenced whenever a case of sexual assault hits the news, and the perpetrator is the “champion swimmer” while the victim is the “drunk girl at the party.” It is evidenced whenever the too-drunk-to-know-who-she’s-sleeping-with plot device is used as a comedy trope (rather than the nightmare such a situation usually is for women).
In effect, Emerald Fennell takes that comedy trope and turns it on its head:
In my teens and 20s, hooking up with drunk girls was depressingly commonplace. And, sadly, it’s something a lot of people still wouldn’t think twice about. So if you took a girl home who was completely hammered, and then she revealed to you that she was stone-cold sober, why would you be so freaked out? This is the premise of “Promising Young Woman,” and the moment it started for me. The drunk girl on the bed…suddenly — shockingly — revealing her sobriety.
Fennell wanted to make a movie that was deceptively fun to watch, while at the same time remaining authentic to real-world human experiences:
Revenge is so frightening because it comes from a place of suffering, of terrible grief and hopelessness. Vengeance is not noble; it is the path that wears down the traveler, the knife that cuts the holder — the last resort. The impact that this kind of journey would take on a real person has always been the thing that interested me most. Was it possible to make a revenge movie that felt true?
I appreciate the heart behind Fennell’s efforts, and how purposeful and meticulous she was in crafting her story. For example, the movie appears to generally, if not completely, avoid the typical actor objectification inherent in films of this ilk. Even the content review site PluggedIn notes, “The movie’s not wildly salacious: There’s no nudity here, no gore.”
Furthermore, Promising Young Woman deals soberly with how a woman’s use of violence against a man would realistically pan out. I won’t go into detail, but Fennell specifically avoided an empty catharsis: “[T]here’s no happy ending in any revenge,” she says. “I mean, John Wick, my favorite of all time, there’s got to come a point where John Wick sits down and watches television and thinks, [Expletive], I killed a lot of people.”
Another aspect of Promising Young Woman I can appreciate is the thematic core it shares with Night of the Hunter, an excellent treatment of violent evil from the Golden Age of cinema:
[O]nce Cassie [the main character] discovers a video capturing a shocking moment from her past, she wanders outside in a daze as Promising Young Woman plays the creepy lullaby “Pearl’s Dream” heard in the 1955 film Night of the Hunter, which Cassie’s parents are watching earlier in Promising Young Woman. That movie, about a minister turned serial killer obsessed with women’s sin, is almost the mirror image of the plot of Promising Young Woman.
What’s more, the movie appears to even broach (with a certain level of accuracy) the topic of forgiveness. To once again quote PluggedIn,
[I]n its folds, you can see fingers of accusations pointed at every man who’s ever taken advantage of a woman … as well as every other man who ever allowed it to happen. . . .
Promising Young Woman reminds us of one salient and sometimes inconvenient fact: Sure, maybe what happened occurred a long time ago. Maybe these guys are better people now. But when confronted with the truth, most deny. Evade. Lie to free themselves from blame and escape punishment. Few are contrite or remorseful. Few are repentant.
And in this small way, the film perhaps unintentionally strikes a Christian chord: Confession and repentance are an inescapable part of the process of forgiveness and restoration. Christ tells us to ask for forgiveness, not to embrace soul-numbing forgetfulness that never seriously grapples with our sin and its consequences.
This blog post of mine may seem to indicate a cautious, if not ringing, endorsement of the film. That is not exactly the case. I have not seen Promising Young Woman, nor do I plan to. The content level appears too disturbing for my personal tastes.
As readers of this blog know, I’m not inherently opposed to cinematic treatments of sordid sexual topics (Room and Spotlight are two excellent examples of how to do so). Nevertheless, while Promising Young Woman avoids outright nudity, sexual sin can still be portrayed too gratuitously even without a skin parade. Whether or not that is the case here is something I cannot reasonably conclude.
What I can say with certainty is that I like the idea of this movie. I like its thematic elements. Based on what I’ve read, there’s more I like about it than I don’t like. In any case, it is my hope that Promising Young Woman can be a form of common grace to shock some audiences out of their blithe attitudes toward male entitlement and the horrors of revenge.
As I mentioned earlier, however, revenge movies are not new to Hollywood. And there are other cinematic treatments of sexual assault that I can recommend—although that’s a topic for another post. In the meantime, you can check out this article, which explores some of the first movies about rape ever put to film—one of which not only received a plethora of Oscar nominations, but which I can enthusiastically recommend, and which I definitely plan on writing more about in the future.
photo (of Carey Mulligan, star of Promising Young Woman) credit: Eva Rinaldi via flickr, CC (cropped; depth of field adjusted)