Recently I had the opportunity to watch Emerald Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman, about a woman who exacts revenge on those who abuse women, the people in power, and institutions that allow such abuse to persist. The film was being praised as the woman’s Joker— a main protagonist disillusioned by society who acts out in revenge to make a statement about the aforementioned society. Where Joker was criticized as having underlying misogynistic tones and being a love letter to incels (Jenny Nicholson explains it best), Promising Young Woman taps into something much more widely felt about being a woman.
Watching this film when I did, allowed it to have a much larger impact on me than if I were to have watched it a month ago. March has seen back-to-back crimes against women with the murder of Sarah Everard, a woman walking home at night in the UK, to the brutal and hate-motivated murders of eight women, six of them of Asian descent, across three different massage parlors in Atlanta. Both crimes were senseless and have rocked the UK and US. As women took to social media to share their own experiences of being targeted for their gender, race, or both, many were quick to spout the “not all men” line, referring to the notion that not all men behave in these aggressive violent ways.
This time, however, the rhetoric shifted to “maybe not all men, but all women.” All women can relate to experiences of being harassed, stalked, catcalled, and/or assaulted. While we should absolutely be coming up with ways to better protect those who are vulnerable from harm, we need to prevent more predators from existing. This means changing the way we raise our kids and calling out bad behavior among adults when we see it. This also means being an active bystander and checking in on potential victims if the situation feels off.
The title of the film Promising Young Woman was a reference to the sexual assault of Chanel Miller by Brock Turner. Turner received the most pathetic excuse for a sentence of just six months of incarceration (he was released after three) because the judge considered him a “promising young man” who didn’t deserve to have his life ruined. Brock Turner has become the textbook example of rape culture meeting white privilege, something that was ever poignant in the Atlanta case when an officer in a press conference said the gunman was simply having a “bad day,” as if to excuse, justify, and minimize his crimes.
Promising Young Woman lives up to its promise to providing cathartic on-screen visuals of revenge, but not without forcing us to see the reflection being cast on the society we live in and the way it treats women. It’s a story that has never been more relevant making it simultaneously important and hard to watch, so proceed with caution– it may just feel a little too real.