Feminist triumph – or predictable diatribe against men? It’s the British film starring Carey Mulligan that brutally exposes predatory behaviour towards women. It’s been hailed by critics – but these writers give their own verdicts
Hailed as a deathly-dark satire of gender politics, it is the film that has been horrifying and provoking viewers in equal measure.
Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan and written and directed by Emerald Fennell — Camilla in The Crown — was released in the UK last week, having won two Baftas, and it has picked up five nominations at this year’s Oscars.
It tells the story of Cassie, who is hellbent on avenging her friend Nina, who was raped when she was drunk but whose attack was never taken seriously.
Now Cassie spends her evenings feigning drunkenness in clubs, allowing men to take her home but then revealing her sobriety when they try to take advantage.
Emerald Fennell admits she drew on her own experiences seeing drunk girls being preyed on. So, feminist anthem or anti-man diatribe? Here, a selection of major writers, give their verdicts…
SADLY, WOMEN HAVE TO LOOK AFTER THEMSELVES
IRAM RAMZAN, 33
‘They put themselves in danger, girls like that. If she’s not careful, someone’s going to take advantage.’
So observes one of the three men at the nightclub bar, as they leer at the blonde slumped on a sofa, legs apart, eyes unfocused.
In a single sentence, he sums up the premise this film seeks to challenge: that women who get drunk, dress or act provocatively are ‘asking for it’ and by extension deserve what they get.
As well as humiliating men who prey on drunk and vulnerable women, Cassie stalks and shames those who failed her friend.
These include the one who ‘thought something bad had happened, but I was not the only one who didn’t believe her’. Then there’s the college dean who ‘heard one or two such accusations a week’ but was reluctant to ‘ruin a young man’s life. You have to give these boys the benefit of the doubt’. There’s the lawyer who admits helping boys in these cases, finding evidence of the girls’ drunken behaviour on social media, and threatening and bullying Nina to drop the case.
But are all men potential rapists? I was forced to ask myself this question when a friend confided in me about one of the ‘nice’ guys in our group, the one who was always talking about supporting women’s rights.
After a party, he offered her a place to stay so she wouldn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. She woke in the middle of the night to find he had got into the bed and was attempting to have sex with her.
My friend was unharmed but it shook her confidence and trust in men — and mine — even the ones you thought were the ‘good guys’. Any man who preys on a woman too drunk to consent is a vile human being, and full blame lies with him.
In an ideal world, women should be free to do whatever they want without risk. But the reality is that as women, we must take sensible steps to ensure our safety.
If that means not drinking to excess, or booking taxis in advance and watching out for other women, so be it.
The #MeToo movement has rightly shone a light on the vile behaviour of abusive individuals but it has also led to a moral panic in which sometimes trivial incidents can be accorded the same status as serious sexual assault.
In an ideal world, women should be free to do whatever they want without risk. But the reality is that as women, we must take sensible steps to ensure our safety
THERE HAS TO BE A BETTER WAY TO TACKLE VIOLENCE
JOANNA MOORHEAD, 58
A few years ago there was a narrative in my family, championed by my four daughters and encouraged by my husband, that I was an ‘old-fashioned feminist’.
The story, my girls and their dad believed, was that the world had moved on and that I was stuck in a frozen landscape of inequality and unfairness that wasn’t true any more. Poor Mum: she doesn’t realise that everything is OK for girls and women now. Reader, I kept my counsel. And a decade or so later, everything looks very different to my daughters.
First, because they have grown up and realised how much of life is still stacked against women. And secondly, because the #MeToo movement has brought predatory, violent male-on-female behaviour to the front of everyone’s mind.
So you’d think I’d be smugly cheering a movie like Promising Young Woman; but, to be honest, it mostly made me sad.
I accept that in its ‘in-your-face’, unsubtle way it is making crucial points about deplorable male behaviour, and yes, of course, I get that it’s a clever conceit. But what makes me sad is the relentlessness of the ‘all men are bad’ message.
It’s there to make a point but it’s not a true point. I don’t believe all men — even privileged, entitled, white men like the ones in this movie — will become rapists if they only get the chance. Or that, to save one another and to preserve their place in the world, they would switch in the blink of an eye to become criminals.
Revenge is an energy-sapping, empty emotion. It’s understandable that Carey Mulligan’s character, is on a payback mission but the bottom line is still that Nina’s rape has imprisoned Cassie.
I don’t like the level of cynicism and reduction in this movie, and I don’t think women need to become cynical reductionists in response to male violence.
My daughters’ generation, who, a few years ago, I despaired of ever ‘getting’ feminism, have had their eyes opened to it now.
But I’d like to hope the future has more constructive responses to the age-old problems of misogyny and sexual violence than this film is offering.
DANGER SHOULD NOT EXIST BUT IT DOES
JENNI MURRAY, 70
As someone to whom this kind of non-consensual drunken event happened many, many years ago when I was a university student, I can only hope this film teaches boys and men that ‘being a kid’ is no excuse for not understanding what consent means.
And girls? Sadly, sexual violence happens. It can be survived. The familiar points of how women are let down in these incidents are well made.
But the unpalatable truth is that underlying these points is another debate, one that seems to have been rumbling for decades, ever since the ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches of the 1970s when the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising women of the North, to the more recent death of Sarah Everard: how responsible should women be for their own safety?
Fact: a woman is only ever raped or sexually assaulted because a man chooses to do that to her. The danger shouldn’t exist, but it does. Why these predatory men behave the way they do is another issue entirely, and one that warrants more attention than it currently gets. But while they are out there — whether or not in the concentration depicted in Promising Young Woman I don’t know — but the risk exists and, sadly, women owe it to themselves to try to minimise it.
Try not to get legless, watch your glass has nothing slipped into it, stand by your mates and make sure they stand by you.
Sadly, sexual violence happens. It can be survived. The familiar points of how women are let down in these incidents are well made
WHAT MAN DOESN’T SEE HIMSELF HERE?
SIMON MILLS, 57
Instead of exploring the subtleties and nuances of complex sexual issues, Promising Young Woman throws a grenade into a minefield.
So why did this black comedy make me squirm? Mainly because I saw a teensy bit of my young self in some of the men. Any male with a scintilla of self-awareness watching the movie will and should.
Civility and maturity, decency and respect — these qualities don’t come to men at a certain moment in their lives. Men of all ages can be shockingly basic in their approach to seduction. Schooled by their peer groups, confused by provocative images on social media, dating apps, porn channels and action movies, they are rendered sexually illiterate, clumsily misreading signals and taking advantage.
Married for 20 years, I didn’t really discover how to be a properly modern, civil, respectful, emotionally intelligent man until I began dating again after my divorce.
The film reminded me how men adjust their behavioural patterns according to occasion, surroundings and alcohol content. A tipsy party girl in stilettos and a micro-mini telegraphs the possibility of an easy one-night stand. A daytime, coffee-shop encounter with a woman in a tomboyish denim shirt and white trainers suggests the possibility of a relationship. Yep. Men can be that simple.
Like all fathers, I do worry about my daughters, 27 and 22, both of whom enjoy an evening out at a bar or club. I also feel confident that they are perfectly capable of looking after themselves; not in a nasty, vengeful kind of way but by being sensible and forthright. I wouldn’t like to be the man that messes with either of them.
DEPRESSING TO SEE VULNERABLE GIRLS
LIZ JONES, 62
I started watching thinking, it’s post-#MeToo, isn’t it? We’ve reclaimed the street! And, for the most part, it plays out exactly as I expected. Carey Mulligan is the avenging Cassie, swatting men like flies.
She is super-smart, beautiful. Men are, without exception, inert, one-dimensional lumps she can mould in her tiny hands. The way they talk about women is appalling.
At first, the dialogue made me think, ‘Do they really use those names?’ Then, ‘How they must hate us!’ Even the nice guys are clueless. The much-repeated mantra ‘Do not take advantage of us, even if we are inebriated, and wear short skirts’ is hammered home again and again.
Male critics have called this film ‘blackly humorous’, but, apart from the odd good line here and there, I didn’t find it funny at all. I couldn’t help smiling at the scene where Cassie confronts a fat guy who is trying to take her home: ‘When was the last time you scored in daylight?’ As Cassie grows angrier, I’m reminded of Fatal Attraction, the film that put the wind up a generation of sleazeballs. Yes, it should be watched by young men and women. Yes, it should win Oscars. And yet . . .
After the death of Sarah Everard, I chatted with a mum of two 20-something daughters. ‘Are you worried?’ I asked. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘They’re super-fit. They could outrun any man.’
Thing is, no, they can’t. It all boils down to the fact men are bigger and stronger than we are.
Yes, we should be able to get drunk and walk across a park unmolested. But men will always be stronger. So, we have to protect ourselves. We cannot rely on someone else behaving.
The role of Cassie reminds me of Carey Mulligan’s first breakthrough part, as Kitty in Pride And Prejudice. In the 19th century, women had to be pretty and giggly in order to snare a man and avoid destitution. All this film tells me is that nothing has changed. Men are still bigger, stronger and richer than us — it doesn’t matter a jot how smart we are.
IT SHINES SPOTLIGHT ON WOMEN TOO
FLORA GILL, 30
Promising Young Woman features many of the ‘nice boys’ from the TV shows I’ve always loved — my teenage crush Seth from The OC (Adam Brody), my uni comfort Schmidt from New Girl (Max Greenfield) and the loveable Richard from Veep (Sam Richardson).
Here, too, they play ‘nice boys’ but the film shows us what so many women know, that self-proclaimed ‘nice boys’ are often anything but.
Some have complained that the film is too ‘man-hating’ — but this misses the point because the antagonist isn’t really any one man or all men, it’s the toxic society that protects men and endangers women, from the school culture to the court system.
And it’s not just men that get tarnished but women, too. It’s true that there are no redeeming men, but it’s a revenge film, why would there need to be? No one complains that Rambo probably went a little too far and should have just got himself a therapist, do they? What kind of boring revenge fantasy would that be?
The real target of the film isn’t the men in it, it’s the viewer watching. It asks the viewer if you are willing to take the woman’s side. To think back to all the times you have laughed at the sexist jokes or excused a friend’s inappropriate behaviour.
It makes you think about what you would do if you noticed those unsavoury traits in your best mate, or in yourself. People categorise the world into good and evil and think that because they are not holding someone down and raping them, they are not part of the problem.
The film shows us we are all at fault. And if you watch it and don’t recognise some problematic behaviour in yourself, you’re lying.
The only issue with Promising Young Woman is that you just know a bunch of ageing white men sat in a Hollywood office and said, ‘All those angry feminists are gonna lap this film up.’
But you know what? They are right. And if you analyse every movie from the cynical standpoint of producers calculating the causes you want reflected on your screens, then you might as well never go to the cinema again.
Because the movie itself is epic and the real hero isn’t Cassie but Emerald Fennell, who managed to write and direct a film worthy of its Oscar nominations.
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