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'Promising Young Woman' and the history of the rape revenge fantasy

Carey Mulligan in 'Promising Young Woman.'
Carey Mulligan in 'Promising Young Woman.' (Image credit: Focus Features)

The trailer for Promising Young Woman, the feature directorial debut of The Crown actress and former Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, suggests a familiar story. Cassie, as played by Carey Mulligan, is shown getting picked up by various men as she’s on the verge of blacking out from drunkenness. When they try to have their way with her, something unexpected happens. The trailer is full of stylistic flair, a vengeful-looking Mulligan in a naughty nurse uniform with a scalpel at hand, and a delicious strings-heavy cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic.” You would be forgiven for watching that trailer and thinking you’re about to see a gloriously cathartic rape-revenge fantasy, the kind of violent frenzy that shocks and awes in equal measure. While Promising Young Woman is technically a rape-revenge movie, it’s not the one you’re probably expecting. Indeed, in 2020, it can’t be that kind of story anymore.

It’s not as if society has ever had a healthy attitude towards sex, but the history of Hollywood has been explicitly defined by twisted social mores regarding the subject. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, a set of industry guidelines for self-censorship that preached "decency" on the big screen, specifically prohibited what was described as "any inference of sex perversion" as well as "any licentious or suggestive nudity—in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture." It was also suggested that topics such as rape, sympathy for criminals, and "excessive of lustful kissing" be handled with particular care.

Given how heavily Hollywood was picketed by the then-powerful forces of the Catholic Church and various religious groups, it's no wonder that the industry's attitudes towards sex or implied sensuality became notoriously archaic. Sure, you could show a sexy femme fatale trying to get her man, but the chances are she would end up dead or "punished" in some other form as a reminder to audiences that such behavior was to be condemned. If rape was depicted, it was often highly sexualized, as was the case in the infamous Howard Hughes 1943 Western The Outlaw, a movie that sold itself almost entirely based on Jane Russell's cleavage and a scene where she's assaulted but is implied to be pleasurable for her. You couldn’t even say words like “seduce” or “pregnant” in a movie, let alone “rape.”

The code fell into decline around the same time that the traditional studio system began to crumble, and films became more explicitly mature in their handling of these previously taboo subjects. The 1970s saw the dual rise of two major forces: Second-wave feminism and the exploitation genre. Together, they made the deeply divisive rape-revenge fantasy a familiar feature of horror movies. Carol J. Clover, writer of one of the most important works in horror criticism, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, noted how entwined the two concepts were. By the '70s, rape was being taken more seriously as a social issue, one we would soon come to understand as a global sickness.

While it wasn’t the first, perhaps the most well-known film from this genre during its infancy is I Spit On Your Grave. Meir Zarchi's horror is, to this day, a deeply upsetting film to sit through, with its lengthy depictions of gang-rape taking up almost a third of its running time. The movie was banned in multiple countries, deemed a "video nasty" in the UK, and condemned by Siskel and Ebert as "an inhuman, sick film." The most common criticism it faced was that the movie reveled in the rape scenes. Zarchi, they claimed, wanted to have his cake and eat it by showing a vile, exploitative scene of assault then justifying it as empowering by giving the victim a weapon. Carol Clover found greater depths to the movie, calling it "an almost crystalline example of the double-axis revenge plot so popular in modern horror." It was, she claimed, a film that "shocks not because it is alien but because it is too familiar, because we recognize that the emotions it engages are regularly engaged by the big screen but almost never bluntly acknowledged for what they are."

There are dozens. possibly hundreds, of rape-revenge movies that follow in the footsteps of I Spit On Your Grave, from Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 to Lars Von Trier's Dogville to 2017's Revenge. The aesthetics and plots may change but the basic narrative structure is typically the same: A character (typically a pretty skinny white woman) is violently assaulted by one or more men and left for dead, but they survive to wreak bloody revenge on those who hurt them. It's a deliberately simple set-up designed for maximum catharsis, and therein may be the key reason that the genre continues to divide viewers.

The most common criticism that rape-revenge fantasies face is that they glorify rape rather than condemn it. Films are primarily designed to entertain, so by that logic, don't movies like this, purposefully or otherwise, turn rape into entertainment? It doesn’t help that we’ve had to live through decades, even centuries, of cultural depictions of sex and rape that do sexualize it or use it for cheap thrills. Overall, rape is a wildly overused trope in pop culture. Think of how many movies, TV series, books, comics and so on you’ve consumed where something horrific happens to a female character solely to motivate the male hero.

In Irréversible, Gaspar Noé's controversial thriller, the rape-revenge narrative is flipped in time. The audience sees the bloody revenge before the rape and beating of Monica Bellucci's character, a scene infamously shot in a 10-minutes-long uninterrupted take. For some, the movie is unwatchable, and not just because of that rape scene. Its narrative denies audiences the cathartic release of the revenge by showing it first, revealing it to be an attack that offers little in the way of comfort or justice for anyone involved. It's a natural part of the evolution of the rape-revenge genre: how the simplicity of the narrative work when we've spent decades watching society dismiss rape victims as liars, gold-diggers, and man-haters?

The subgenre remains horribly relevant because rape is a daily fear for huge swaths of the population. A fear of being assaulted is a driving force behind myriad decisions made by women, and your chances of being attacked greatly increase if you're a woman of color or trans woman. Rape-revenge movies seldom depict these demographics, though.

Promising Young Woman has been described as “the rape-revenge fantasy of the #MeToo generation”, a claim that is certainly enticing but not entirely accurate. There would certainly be an audience for a story of visceral vengeance in the face of men like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, but it wouldn’t fully exemplify the tangled times we live in, and that’s the more obvious aim of Fennell’s film. For her heroine Cassie, her crusade against one man at a time is an act of desperation. She cannot truly hope to make real change in this manner, not only because rape culture is a systemic plague but because the authorities have so consistently failed victims. The oppressors aren't scary strange men in dark alleys but "nice guys" with such bright futures ahead of them and wouldn't it be unfair to them to hold them to account for something as frivolous as one troubled woman's accusation? There’s no emotional release to Cassie’s plight because there seldom is for rape victims. Most cases don’t make it to trial or even get reported to the police.

Film is a medium that thrives on old-school options. It's a way for us to try and figure out ourselves and our many feelings on the world. We crave answers, clean-cut solutions to tricky questions, and the rape-revenge fantasy offered that for a long time. However, it can't be the same genre now as it was in the 1970s, something that Promising Young Woman gets. We know how trauma works and we know how the system keeps failing us. Film can reflect that, and in the right hands, it offers some much-needed understanding. Then again, as Promising Young Woman posits, can you really hope to, or want to, understand something like this?