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The rape revenge thriller we deserve

In an era of social justice reckoning, Emerald Fennell courageously unveils the obscure forms of sexual violence in her big screen debut comedy thriller, Promising Young Woman
Thu, Jun 24, 2021

"Can you guess what every woman's worst nightmare is?"

Let me take you back to the era of Emily Thorne and the series Revenge circa 2011. The emotionally charged show followed a tormented young woman who carried out a revenge plot against the people who wronged her father. So, think that, but more refined and with much more depth and social relevance, and you've got Promising Young Woman.

The thriller/dark comedy is director Emerald Fennell's impressive big screen debut, and it reshapes and reimagines the rape-revenge genre. In the middle of a very socially disruptive age where women are becoming increasingly vocal about their traumas and daily experiences, there couldn't be a more fitting time for the rape-revenge to resurface.

The discourse around issues of sexual assault, particularly in Hollywood, has been changing over the past few years. Historically, the rape-revenge plot had been positioned in a way that frequently portrayed sexual assault in more of a father-daughter dynamic.

As more women, like Fennell, are given the authority to take charge of these stories, they tend to unearth themselves in a way that portrays the complexities of the physical and emotional turmoil that women experience following their attacks. There is nothing linear about the process of healing.

And as such, the journey is a long, and more often, never-ending one. This aspect is something that is brilliantly captured in Promising Young Woman, a film that goes out of its way to help demystify issues around rape and consent without ever having to use the actual words.

"Every week, I go to a club, and every week, I act like I am too drunk to stand. And, every f***ing week, a nice guy comes over to see if I'm okay," says Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan).

Cassie is a waitress who works at a coffee shop by day. By night, she plays the persona of a girl who is too drunk at the club. That girl will inevitably get approached by a nice guy who offers to take her home in order to have his way with her.

Is this starting to sound eerily familiar and too close to home? Continue to walk with me.

There are two elements at play here: the first being the fact that because she is drunk, she can never consciously consent to these acts. The second is that the men unanimously never consider the act of having sex with a drunk girl (who "agreed" to go home with them) as rape.

For the female audience, the presence of the word itself is inconsequential because we understand what's happening for what it is. The male audience, I believe, will gravitate towards the same confusion of the men in the movie.

During one scene, Cassie insists that she needs to leave because she is drunk. The man she's with insists that she stays because they have a connection, while continuously trying to get sexual with her. She reveals that she's sober and he freaks out, declaring that he is a nice guy and that he's also high.

"A connection?" she asks him. "Okay. What do I do for a living? Sorry. Maybe that one's too hard. How old am I? How long have I lived in the city? What are my hobbies?... What's my name?"

The dialogue Cassie opens here is so important because, short of asking these questions and turning the tables to a point where he was terrified she would do something to him – he would've just been another nice guy who raped a drunk girl and carried on with his life.

To take it a step further, had this played out how it usually does, Cassie would've been another girl who got too drunk and subsequently had it coming. This is the premise upon which the movie is based.

Cassie is seeking revenge for her friend who ended up in such a scenario while they were still in med school. Upon catching up with her targets, years after the fact in an unsuspecting way, she also meets up with a woman called Madison to recall whether she remembers that fateful night in college.

"Look, when you get that drunk, things happen. Don't get blackout drunk all the time, and then expect people to be on your side when you have sex with someone you don't want to," says Madison.

She further goes on to describe this dynamic as crying wolf.

What Fennell did when directing the film in this way, is not only accurate but commendable. The intricacies around agency, consent and sexual assault are often this extreme and dramatic while being sensitive and sore topics to unpack. They reveal the moment the nice guy realises he is the perpetrator. They reveal the moments in which these nice guys realise their proximity to evil. They reveal the ways in which it is important to set things up in a way that does not let these men simply get away with it and go on with life.

At the same time, not all men come to this realisation or place of remorse, and the movie is testament to that. It is also one of the many credible and authentic moments that mirrors real life.

Death is omnipresent throughout the film and is regularly the anchor of justice. It validates the idea that in contemporary society, women still have to die before anyone is fully held to account – by people in their circles, their families and finally, by the law.