CW: sexual violence, suicide
Mere months after the release of Promising Young Woman, the news of Sarah Everard’s murder emerged. In the following days, there was content in many young women’s social media feeds reminding them of things they’d known for a long time. That they’ve been thinking of every night’s walk home alone as a gamble. That they assume taking a cab home instead could mean abduction. That before taking the bus instead of cab, they ready themselves for drunk men’s slurred flirtations and stumbling grabs and that, once something untoward happens, they now also have to hesitate before calling the police, knowing a predator was once among the assumed rescuers.
This newly emerged concern stemming from distrust of authority’s ability to enforce justice, makes the rise and fall of Emerald Fennell’s neon-clad avenger even more poignant. The story starts off with a typical college rape incident where Cassie’s best friend Nina, a promising medical student, was drunk and sexually assaulted by her male peers at a party. In the crime’s aftermath, Cassie witnesses Nina’s struggle with shame, trauma and humiliation, while their school and legal system fail to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. This led to her friend’s suicide and the end of Cassie’s own academic pursuits, urging her instead into a routine of late-night performances in bars and clubs, where she’d bait men into initiating nonconsensual sex by pretending to be drunk, just to scare them by revealing her sobriety. It is important to note that Cassie doesn’t troll and kill for fun, but is forced to take justice into her own hands.
If films like Promising are indeed “vicious daydreaming” and “fantasies” that “explore unpleasant sentiments and desires”, as accused by one comment piece on The Telegraph, how does one account for the eerie déjà vus? According to the numbers provided by Office for National Statistics, of victims who reported the perpetrator was a stranger, the majority (64%) reported that they themselves were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault, making what happens to Nina in the film a representative scenario. Even the police’s response of not prosecuting on the ground of lacking evidence is paralleled in the records: among the reported cases of sexual assault, only 39% percent of them saw the perpetrators arrested by police. In 19% of the cases, the police took no action.
More unsettling is the realisation that the practice of initiating sex with drunk girls has been a long-standing trope in reality as well as on screen, deployed in many well-known comedy films as the ultimate solution for horny single men. 2007’s Superbad, for example, features three high-schoolers and their tenacity in finding enough booze to inebriate a crush. Although the film gives me the creeps whenever I think of it, one review by New York Times raves about “a tickly, funny tale of three teenage boys revved up by their surging, churning, flooding hormones”. These narratives in cinema about men preying on and hurting women are not only chronically tolerated but, like A Streetcar Named Desire and its domestic abuser, celebrated as cult classics. However, the moment a woman attempts violence towards men, voices start rattling on about the poisonous effects violent women on screen could have on future generations of girls. What girls need to see is not a perennially beaten woman, but a woman that finds a way to fight back when no one — not their husbands, nor society, nor law and order — can protect them.
Antiheroines are not a new invention. In the 90s, Buffy opened a generation’s eyes to an abundance of combativeness condensed in a small physique, and Tarantino’s Bride in the early noughties that swung blade at her murderous ex-boss. On the pages there was Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a Bluebeard tale ending on a mother decapitating her daughter’s beastly husband, and Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men? featuring a determined Madam Exterminator that makes it her mission to annihilate the last of the surviving men hiding in Scotland. Yet even the characters that seem unconquerable in their own stories could easily fall victim to objectification and sexualisation by the male audience and readers, in a society where men would claim a penchant for “feisty women”, and readily pay for a dominatrix’s service. Hence the irony in one of the red flags for problematic men my female friends and I joke about, that one should never date the boy if he has a Kill Bill poster on his bedroom wall.
The rise of antiheroines stresses essentially the same thing every wave of feminist movement attempts to accentuate, that a woman’s refusal to be suppressed and abused by patriarchy is always less threatening, when what they’re rebelling against is still prevalent. Every time a Sarah Everard is murdered in our midst, it becomes evident again that, although our society is exposed to Fleabag’s sass and scenes of Killing Eve’s Villanelle stabbing away at her next assignment, it’s still far from granting every woman walking down a dark lane the same level of respect — let alone fear — those fictional she-warriors evoke.
That is not to say that antiheroines should take a break from flourishing in the post-Me-Too culture. To quote Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power.” It’s important to introduce young women to the likes of Cassie, despite her not being real, as what happens on the training ground of cinema could channel encouragement just as palpably. I personally felt grateful for having known her, as I borrowed her move against scornful onlookers and stared back at my accosters one afternoon, and felt triumphant when they retreated their gaze. That same evening, Emerald Fennell won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. And for the first time in a long time, I felt proud and hopeful for being a woman.
Image credit: Sharon Mollerus via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).