Promising Young Women: Will the film bring justice or set a movement back

Cautious concern for the consequences of Promising Young Women

An apprehensive scroll through the YouTube comments below the buzzing trailer for Promising Young Women makes my heart sink slightly. People are raving that finally we’re getting a film where the men get their just desserts, but it doesn’t sit well with me to read delight at the “ultimate justified revenge fantasy” people are on the edge of their seat for. 

I am for difficult conversations; I am for open spaces and holding people directly responsible for their actions. I’m certain that Promising Young Women, directed by Killing Eve’s Emerald Fennell in a world lacking prominent female-directed and female-led narratives, has the potential to be calculating, raw and daring. But will it be precise enough to be interpreted reasonably, or will it add to a hysterical culture of ‘cancellation’ where keyboard warriors excited for twitter fights will label everyone who doesn’t enjoy it a squirming woman-hater. Will it have enough clear reason and awareness of the variety of culprits, or will it be able to be interpreted by the conservative opinion riding on the backlash to the MeToo movement as evidence of a post-fact and untrustworthy movement.

I am not for a millennial movement where there is us versus them, where like evil justifies like evil. Exciting an audience over the prospect of revenge does not seem like the way to change the attitudes and behaviours of generations. Jodi Picoult’s words “when you begin a journey of revenge, start by digging two graves: one for your enemy, and one for yourself” ring true, and if we applaud any piece of art just because it addresses a difficult and current topic like sexual assault and rape then we will face some potentially ill-considered consequences.

I worry that there is room for misinterpretation and glorification of unrepresentative stereotypes of assault perpetrators, but perhaps I will report back in April when the film is released with my hands held high. We can only ensure a sensible- not Salem witch trial- movement that holds people accountable if we are able to scrutinise our own movement’s biases.

Watch the trailer here:

 

“I’m a nice guy.” Why I think there’s room for misinterpretation.

Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a rape culture vigilante will undoubtedly bring a relatable satisfaction to many victims let down by the abysmal assault recording history of policing departments and ill-equipped procedural stances of university institutions.  With the Crime Survey for England and Wales estimating that around 5 out of 6 victims do not report their assaults to the police, there is hope that the film will continue to bring Alyssia Milano’s invigorated #MeToo voice to the fore at the start of a fresh decade.

My speculative concerns are of the potential harm that could be done by focusing so much on the disreputable ‘nice guys’ – will it suggest situations are always clear cut?

 The allegations emerging around Harvey Weinstein at the beginning of the MeToo movement exemplified the villainous traditional archetype of the type of person at the centre of sexual assault speculations: a sleazy misogynistic workplace pig who waves his NDAs about brazenly. There’s truth in the stereotype, the tight-lipped silence in Hollywood and the high tiers of the corporate ladder, as well as the indecisive unspoken stance of many of their benefactors, speak volumes of such state of affairs, but it’s simply not accurately representative of all persons who commit the crime.

Promising Young Women vows to shift the spotlight onto the ‘nice guys’ who have used their likability to contract sexual favours, but there is potential in its morally obtuse characters that assault becomes something that is suggested as clear to both parties. I worry it doesn’t truly expand our understanding but merely suggests there is only another black and white corrupt caricature of a perpetrator. The line “you know they put themselves in danger, girls like that” is there for a reason, it’s a perception that has permeated settings from bars to the courtroom for far too long. But sexual assaults and rape are not always the result of clearly known secretly morally corrupt people. I worry focusing on punishing these people alone in the film will perpetuate old-fashioned biases of what an ‘evil’ assaulter looks like and give room for lenience for more ambiguously intended acts. The last thing we need is belief if a person isn’t aware what they did was wrong, they can’t be held accountable.

That’s not to deny the great benefit that scrutiny of the ‘nice guy’ could bring to our society, and importantly our legal system. One only needs look at the ‘nice guy’ factors that weighed into Judge Persky’s infamous sentence of 6 months for Stanford swimmer Brock Turner in 2016. Turner, described as having a promising future which the film Promising Young Women is believed to have got inspiration for the title for, and his acts were believed to be weighed against the sleazy stereotypes of what a sexual assaulter looks like – to such an extent that a 75,000 strong petition against Judge Persky and his bias was created. Promising Young Women will hopefully tackle the unfair advantage given to ‘nice guys’ who only ‘mess up’ once in a lifetime of good deeds, but whether it will be interpreted to give weight to the belief that people can only be held responsible if they had ill-intentions has yet to be seen.

 

“It’s every guy’s worst nightmare getting accused like that” ...“Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is”.  

The complexity I hope the film will get right.

When the initial shock from MeToo back in October 2017 died down, on came the onslaught of certain fearful men taking on the rhetoric of the oppressed and creating the narrative of being wronged by a ‘cancel culture’. Jia Tolentino at the New Yorker argued the very same MeToo movement central to the controversies around Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court election also guaranteed his confirmation. The fear that boys can’t be boys anymore if any woman can tell any story begin to permeate our culture. This is something MeToo movers have to face, and the exact fears I have over the oversimplification of assault storylines carry through here: people’s non-verbal cues, intentions and accusations are complex, not everything is good guy and bad guy but everything does face life-changing repercussions.

But I think the trailer suggests that there’s a powerful angle to Promising Young Women, in that it asks those lamenting over potential allegations for the slightest miscommunication to consider the bigger picture in their insensitivity. Perhaps there will be something brave in the film, it allows women to lead the conversation and asks men to be quiet and really listen to the trauma so many men and women go through if they really want to help make a difference. The film may go too far in conceptualising good and bad, black and white, clear from uncertain, and I think there’s certainly room for questioning what consequences should befall unfair and unchallenged manhunts, but ultimately it doesn’t give the message that something evil brews for all men but rather asks audiences to really put the perspective of so many tormented victims first.

 At its core, Promising Young Women guarantees a shift into the uncomfortable for many people, and in a world lacking in official responses or challenges to so many accounts it’s no wonder a fed up and socially daring concept like this film emerges. Whether it hits the nail on the head or not, it promises to set the tone for the movement in the coming decade.

 

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