‘Promising Young Woman’ and feminine revenge

Fabiola Santiago

*Special thanks to Oralia Torres

The promise is there each time we perceive our fragility, and we feel that our friends are at risk: if they do something to you, I’ll burn it all.

We are (how could we not?) fed up. Furious. With the desire, many times, to return the grievance. Tired of being us who must carry the consequences of sexual violence.

There’s a memory that pops in my mind, that time I saw a friend’s assailant at a party. Correction: I remember it not with my head, but with the vertigo at my stomach and heat at my cheeks of feeling angry by his presence but furious because I was the one that had to leave to save myself from the bitterness and avoid a bad night for the rest. I remember the detailed research I used to do with film festivals’ catalogues and programs, trying to figure out if my assailant would be there so I could avoid going and meeting him. If revenge fantasies in movies are given to women, it’s maybe because of the scarce justice we receive, a failure in real life that forces us to create prevention and escape mechanisms.

And even then, every time I see one of those elaborate vengeances on screen – almost always by the hands of an athletic and skinny woman, dressed in something that is effortlessly cool – I ask myself how my friends and I would react. The answer, then, mutates from the promise of returning the grievance to the desire to help, heal and be there for each other.

In real life, that has been our way: find each other, cry together, hug each other, talk, listen, try to rebuild ourselves. At the times I’ve seen a wounded colleague, the first step is always on us, maybe because, right now, we care more about ensuring our survival.

Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell, 2020) starts by stating clearly who are the bad guys: over a bar’s music, the sound chooses to focus on a group of men’s conversation, filled with disdain, about women. At the center of it all, there’s Cassie (Carey Mulligan), placed as bait for the predators: alone and supposedly drunk. An easy prey.

The film, sold as a promise of righteous empowerment, immediately shows that Cassie is not a helpless victim, but a woman willing to reeducate men. Probably this is the only point of congruence between form and discourse, as the protagonist is revealed to be as moralizing as the movie itself. We learn that she lost a friend after being sexually assaulted and, after that, she lost herself; under her former classmates’ and parents’ gazes, she demoted from being a promising medicine student to being a coffee shop’s employee. Those responsible for the aggression, on the other hand, are successful and live unpunished.

From this setup of injustice is that Cassie is sold as a badass, a damaged but strong and tenacious woman, capable of using her apparent fragility and evident hegemonic beauty as weapons.

Achilles furiously dragging Hector’s body outside of Troy, Hamlet obsessed with avenging his father, or the emerald and patient revenge of the Count of Montecristo are representative of a momentum in which the honor’s reparation is above all. I remember clearly – for its impact on me – a scene in Alexander Dumas’ novel adaptation in which two men participate in a duel and, without bigger reaction, one kills the other and carries on with his day. “Is honor such a big thing that it makes taking a life so irrelevant?” is a question I make myself often after that. To those grandiose narratives there is an alternative, developed more frequently by women. In Vonda McIntyre’s ‘Of mist, grass and sand’, for example, a person that heals with the aid of snakes loses a very beloved someone. When in other tales that would have unleashed a blood bath (and, in my first lecture, I thought it would), here, she enrages, but doesn’t choose war. Instead, she prefers to retire, carrying her pain.

In the current audiovisual market, female characters are only worthy of respect and being the protagonists if they have physical strength, sicario-level skills, and perform their revenge while being always beautiful, always skinny, always seductive. As if by not answering the way men have replied historically, with the physical look expected from the feminine, means another failure for the rest of us.

There’s an unexplored pain in Cassie, as the path that this feeling takes not after the damage to others, but for self-destruction. A regrettable finale for a movie sold as a refreshing and necessary thriller. From where I see it, dressing death with lipstick and high heels is not as empowering as they sell it. The glamourization of femicides is not my fantasy, at least not when I see this movie from a country in which the killing of women is our tragedy and normalcy.

I think, however, of the British series I May Destroy You and the fragmentation that Arabella (Michaela Cole) offers us before the definitive final. Her author and protagonist, victim of abuse, wrote a character whose cornerstone is the development of this trauma in a rich and nuanced universe. Arabella is not perfect, falls again in an abusive situation, meets her assailants again, finds herself accepting help from one of them, fantasizes with the death of another, then with sex, then with moving forward. It’s natural to dream of returning the pain, and even with a conquest that changes our relationship with the victimizers, but at the end of every fantasy we’re still left with our wounds. And the wounds are about oneself. Healing is, first, a personal activity. Then, collective with those that are there to help us do it. However, reconstructing with softness and from intimacy is not as spectacular nor cinematic for the male gaze (from which we cannot escape immediately for being women, spectators, writers, directors, by the way).

Is Cassie getting her “justice” (jail?) in exchange for her life something worth celebrating? The black and white thought, the good ones versus the bad ones, or passing off men as idiots to mock them doesn’t erase the fact that the heroine’s corpse is getting colder in the room. The way they dispose the body in this fiction is not funny either, although the way it is filmed predisposes the audience to an easy laugh. It’d be worthwhile to set the entertainment aside and ask if that is what the industry believes that we want to see as a response to sexual violence. Do we only have agency when we subdue the enemy (with fake eyelashes and fishnet stockings)? What is empowering and why should we care to wield power? Do they think we care more about who laughs at the end instead of surviving cruelty?

The biggest perspective flaw in movies such as Promising Young Woman or Ema (Pablo Larraín, 2019) or Rencor Tatuado (Julián Hernández, 2018), in which a woman loses her body and strength in executing her vengeance, is that they can’t stop putting men as the center of our world. The answers and consequences of violence are more complex than a cinematic cliché made for gathering applause and money. In the face of pain and anger – and outside the simplistic daydreaming at the screen -, it’s necessary to scream, feel, let ourselves explode, yes, but it’s crucial to choose and prioritize us, place ourselves at the center. That might be our most incendiary revenge.

Text available in Spanish here.

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