Holy sh-t is what I first said yesterday went I watched this trailer. I’ve watched it several more times since, especially as this site was being cyber attacked, and it’s been almost…cathartic.
I don’t think there’s any doubt about what Promising Young Woman is trying to say about sexual assault and trauma and the “nice guy” (or the “promising young man”, “student athlete”, “Stanford student swimmer”) and his relationship to toxic masculinity. (No accident, I don’t think, that the song you hear is immediately recognisable as Britney Spears’s “Toxic” and a new spin on what it means.) And I love that the first time you watch this, you’re filled with a familiar dread – because, of course, you know where this is going, maybe unfortunately you’ve been there, and if you haven’t you know someone who has or you’ve heard about someone who’s ended up in this position…
Only, record scratch, we are taken to a place that’s entirely different. “Hey, I said, what are you doing?”
Isn’t THAT the moment? Not just in this film but in all of these situations… what happens when the “nice guy” is called out on what he’s doing by the person he’s doing it to right before he does it? This story is an extension of that question, an imagining – or a reimagining – of these traumatic moments where the outcome is an entirely different violence, a reaction that inflicts an entirely different pain, but pain nonetheless. Nobody wins when consent is absent. Promising Young Woman, however, is asking… who has more to lose?
Is this a fantasy? Of course it is. For all the controversy that this film will provoke – which is likely its intention – and the handwringing it will elicit from dudebros and f-ckboys, the whole point is that this is not actually happening; it can’t happen, because the world isn’t set up for women to have power but also because the women who are targeted in these situations are chosen specifically for their powerlessness.
It is, however, a “what if” scenario based on real pain, the pain of sexual assault. Hurt people hurt people, as they say. That was basically the thesis of Joker, and we were told, to the sound of cash registers taking in a billion dollars, that this was the story we need right now to understand white male rage. Like we don’t have an entire Western civilisation built on the manifestation of white male rage.
What about women’s rage? The protagonist of Promising Young Woman is Woman’s Rage.
I’ve been thinking a lot the last couple of years about women’s rage, and I wrote about this in an Anne Hathaway post a few months ago, jumping off her comments about her character in The Last Thing He Wanted. “She’s more angry than alive”, is how she described it. And that’s what we’re seeing here in Carey Mulligan’s performance – a Woman’s Rage. Not that anyone is condoning that a woman’s rage should turn her into, presumably, a serial killer. And again, not that this depiction is anywhere near factual, since as we all know, serial killers are predominantly NOT women. But as normalised as male rage has been, as horrific and depressing as that is, Woman’s Rage hasn’t been given its own narrative spotlight….
But we have been talking about it, wrestling with it, sometimes even celebrating it. I’ve read several books about women’s rage since #MeToo broke wide – Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, are good examples, both of them exploring the power of women’s anger, the way it can inspire, sure, of course, and we can fist-pump about its potency, but also all the ways that it can be a waste of f-cking time! Right? Of course it’s amazing when women channel their rage into activism to make things better for other people. But also? Think of what women could have accomplished if they weren’t being harassed all the time, if they didn’t have to be angry in the first place. Which only compounds the anger, which only amplifies the rage. It’s rage that, for too long, was deemed unacceptable, “unladylike”, unproductive…and maybe not that interesting?
Think of how interested we’ve been told to be in a man’s rage, from Dirty Harry to Fight Club to Joker, there’s a long and healthy tradition of film about how fascinating it is when a man, and a white man in particular, is really f-cking angry. You could say though that women have been angrier …and for longer. Promising Young Woman is a film that asks us to be fascinated by Woman’s Rage. I’m in.