Feminism and revenge

In a recent Zoom cocktail get-together, my colleagues and I found ourselves discussing whether or not we liked violent films and, if so, what appealed to us. Most of us agreed that we took some satisfaction from films in which bad men kill one another or in which a decent man kills off bad men. Some of us – including me – expressed a fondness for films in which women use very large weapons to kill men who have done them or other women wrong.

As a quick Google search will show, there is no shortage of female revenge movies, many of which are rape revenge movies.  Some are feminist, some misogynist, some sit somewhere in between. Some are intended to be funny. Some are extremely violent, others more psychologically chilling.

The genre, as Emma Dibdin writes in Bazaar, “has a long and somewhat seedy Hollywood history.”

Anne Billson, writing in The Guardian in 2018, said:

“there are few sub-genres more problematic and paradoxical than the rape-revenge thriller. . . it’s a format that by its very nature hinges on sexual violence.”

As she points out, too many of these films begin by “teasing out in harrowing detail” the sexual violence, only then moving on to the “thrill of vicarious empowerment” when the protagonist seeks and gets her revenge.

Philippa Snow wrote in Garage in 2018 that:

“women taking out male rapist trash, either by death or by dismemberment, is the most satisfying story arc of all time.”

Maybe not the most satisfying arc – surely that prize must go to the arc in which there is no rape – but it is certainly a satisfying one, at least to some of us.

Is it revenge?

Promising Young Woman (PYW) is the most recent film in this category. I watched it a few days ago and think it is both a very good and very important film. Although it is seen by many reviewers as a revenge film, it is much more than that.

If you are a movie purist wanting to know nothing about a film before it unrolls on the screen in front of you, you should stop reading now. On the other hand, if you don’t mind knowing a bit about a film before you see it, read on – I will set the context here but won’t tell you how it ends.

Nina, who we never see in the film, was gang raped several years in the past. Importantly in the film’s favour, we do not see the rape. Her best friend Cassie, played to perfection by Carey Mulligan, has been extremely traumatized by Nina’s rape and the failure of the people and systems she turned to for help after she was raped.

Or is it justice?

Written, directed and produced by Emerald Fennell, a showrunner on the highly stylized and campily violent series Killing Eve (where there is no shortage of violent women), PYW takes a close look at the reality faced by many survivors of sexual assault when the assaulter is someone they know and when they have been consuming intoxicants of one kind or another: their report of having been raped is just not believed.

Cassie, in my viewing of the film, is not so much looking for revenge on her friend’s behalf or even to punish those she seeks out as to make them acknowledge the truth of their role in what happened to Nina. Whether this is the men directly involved in the rape, the women who knew about it and did nothing or the university dean who dismissed Nina when she reported the rape to her, she seeks not to harm them but to create in them the feelings that Nina had because of what they did to her. Even when she casts her net wider in an attempt to make men in the world at large who seek out intoxicated women for the purpose of forcing sex on them (i.e., sexual assault), her goal seems to be one of education rather than punishment.

The film is highly sophisticated and, in many ways, subtle, which is both its strength and its weakness. Strength because it doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with obvious truths but makes us look for them. Weakness because those who don’t want to find those truths will be able to avoid them. However, perhaps those people won’t want to watch the film in the first place.

Women’s anger

As I have written about here before, women’s anger makes people uncomfortable. Rebecca Solnit has written that “[t]he right to be angry is a male prerogative” and she is right.

In PYW, Cassie is a very angry young woman; in fact, that would have made a great title for the film. Farrah Khan, Toronto gender justice advocate and my friend, said in a NOW panel about PYW:

“People get scared when women get angry. . . If a survivor says that they want revenge, even whispers that, then they’re seen as spiteful.”

This to me, might be the overarching message of the film and one of the universal truths about sexual violence. Unless it is a stranger rape of a woman locked in her own house, the survivor is often seen as lying, vindictive and unreasonable; ultimately, to be responsible for the violence to which she has been subjected.

Both the rapist and bystanders, on the other hand, as illustrated powerfully in this film, are seen as having little or no responsibility for what they have done or failed to do. “It’s not your/my fault,” we hear again and again as those who raped Nina or turned away from her after the rape are confronted with their roles in what took place.

There is much more I could say about this film, but to do so would be unfair to readers who have not yet seen it. Promising Young Woman is not without its flaws, but it is a film that anyone who is concerned with gender violence should see.

Whether or not Cassie – or the film – find  the “meticulous and crafty justice” that Bazaar’s  Dibdin writes about is for you to decide once you have seen it.

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