Promising Young Women: why we need to listen to survivors
Maebh Mulligan Smith
Image description: yellow mannequins covered in splashes of red paint and political messages such as #MeToo
CW: Sexual assault and rape
If sex is what underpins ‘The Oldest Profession’, then it is sex which also underpins much of our most ancient art, as academics (and, subsequently, sensationalist newspapers) pose that World’s Oldest Art is Female Genitalia. This particular example is in reference to a cave carving in Abri Castinet, but reductionist student journalists may not find the links between this and Ancient Rome’s Catullus, or indeed our very own EL James, too gymnastic a stretch to make. Sex is a pretty universal human experience, but with the growth in women’s writing over the past century or so, we see the darker side of sex depicted in prose and film, of which so many of ‘the fairer sex’ have personal experience.
The shadow of sexual violence has been cast over our art for millennia, from Shakespeare or Ovid, but as more women take to their pens and keyboards, we see the beast itself. In 1740, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela showed us a protagonist harassed by her employer only to be rewarded for her fervent virtue with marriage. While a cynic may point at the parallels between Pamela’s employer and the Hollywood mogul whose name is now synonymous with workplace sexual assault, the fictions Hollywood produces, as well as the texts filling popular publishers’ mailboxes, at least, are increasingly representative of women’s experiences, including those of sexual violence.
As psychologists are quick to assert, sexual assault is a crime concerned with power rather than desire, regardless of the identity of the victim. This is particularly evident in the context of war, where it occurs as an extension of the potential power an invading force exerts: the ultimate form of physical degradation. In the nineties, this was something observed by British avant-garde playwright Sarah Kane in her play Blasted, which depicts sexual violence towards both women and men. In an interview with Aleks Sierz, Kane made the link between rape as a war crime, and a domestic one, stating “The logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England is the rape camps in Bosnia”.
The shadow of sexual violence has been cast over our art for millennia, from Shakespeare or Ovid, but as more women take to their pens and keyboards, we see the beast itself.
In Blasted, Kane’s villain, Ian, rapes his partner while she is unconscious and continuously loads and unloads his revolver as Kane – to avoid Chekhov’s gun having any semblance of subtlety left in it – waves it in the audience’s face. Later in the play, the soldier who will rape Ian after regaling him with personal stories of sexual violence, will kill himself with it. The oppressor becomes the oppressed as the context moves from domestic to military. Two decades later, our cultural consciousness remains aware of the soldier who rapes, as Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri shows us the military indifference to rape, as long as it’s ‘somewhere sandy’, while the mother of a murdered All-American teenager rails against the inadequacy and disinterest of her local police force.
Kane’s unflinching style was a crucial influence for Eimear McBride, whose debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing centres on a girl growing up in rural Ireland, who is regularly abused by her uncle. In a Guardian article, McBride pointed to the “uncompromising brutality, and beauty” of Kane’s writing as inspiration. McBride’s style pushes the boundaries of what prose can achieve, using elements from stream-of-consciousness and the avant-garde to forge something new. It is undoubtedly this distinctive style which is responsible for both the novel’s critical success and the emotional impact it has when depicting abuse.
McBride’s disorientating, overwhelming prose reads almost as David Jones’ WW1 prose-poem In Parenthesis, whose aim was not to dictate his experience but to “make a shape in words”. Perhaps this is indicative of the universal trauma of, as McBride calls them, “those parts of life which grammatical English and linear sentences fail to serve”. Perhaps this is reflective of the wars women are forced to fight, quietly in bedrooms and – less frequently – in courtrooms.
Kane made the link between rape as a war crime, and a domestic one, stating “The logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England is the rape camps in Bosnia”.
But courtrooms are seldom the sanctuaries of justice an idealist might hope for, and the official paths of reporting are riddled with potholes. In the UK, rape convictions are at an all-time low. While the number of rapes reported to the police since 2014 has risen by 173%, the number of prosecutions (note: this is merely prosecutions, not convictions) has fallen by 44%. Reporting your assault is sadly far from a guarantee your assailant will be prosecuted, let alone charged. These statistics are bolstered by headlines we’re familiar with: stories of teenage girls whose knickers are presented in court as indicative of their consent, or whose passports are confiscated when they report being raped while on holiday. If, as Sarah Kane suggests, the rape camps in Bosnia were the logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England, then these cases are the logical conclusion of an attitude which consistently denies women’s experiences of sexual violence.
Given the delicate nature of these matters and – often – the legal repercussions of speaking up, we seldom hear directly from the women at the crux of these cases. It is the rawness of the exposure of women’s voices then, in Lisa Taddeo’s non-fiction debut, Three Women, which renders it particularly powerful. At the centre of one of these women’s narratives is a court case: she has taken her high-school English teacher to court five years after he groomed and sexually abused her. This is the story of Maggie Wilken and her alleged (and unconvicted) abuser, Aaron Knodel. In writing this, Taddeo spent 8 years interviewing her subjects and those in their community in search of producing a non-fiction narrative profile of American women. What Taddeo achieves is nothing short of genius, as she creates a gripping record of her subjects. We meet our author in the introduction and epilogue in which we read of her inspirations and motivations; chief among these is an anger at the commonplace nature of the subjugation of women, and the relationship between male power over female sexuality. This book, which could so easily have been the story of four women, is dedicated to the stories of Taddeo’s titular three, as we lose our author in the pages of her subjects’ narratives. For each, sex and the threat of sexual violence are innate parts of their stories as women. Maggie Wilken was not helped by the court system, enforcing a statistic which makes her the rule and not the exception, and the casual nature with which the gangrape of another character is summarised by the schoolyard rumour that “Lina fucked three guys in one night” is a cold indictment of a system which finds its comfort in blaming women.
Given the delicate nature of these matters and – often – the legal repercussions of speaking up, we seldom hear directly from the women at the crux of these cases.
The comfort, then, of survivors, is perhaps in the narratives and the fantasies we tell ourselves. Both Michaela Coel’s critically acclaimed I May Destroy You and Emerald Fennell’s award-winning Promising Young Woman deal with the aftermath of assault, recovery – or lack thereof – and the revenge fantasy. Coel shows us a London very familiar to us, delving into the lives of her protagonist Arabella and those closest to her, depicting a kaleidoscope of sexual assault and the varied nature of survivors and their recovery. Central to this is the way in which traumatic experiences are minimised, as Coel’s character refers to her assault as a “little rape in the mouth”. Much like grief, Arabella undergoes stages of recovery, working through denial and anger to the acceptance of the finale.
Coel’s final episode is a masterclass in television, as she plays with magical realism and immerses herself and her audience in a meta exploration of fantasies and their role in providing closure. In the three scenarios she presents as potential finales, we see Arabella reclaim power (and thus control) in different ways: firstly through exhibiting her physical power over her rapist after drugging him, inverting the power he exerted over her. In the second scenario, Arabella’s power comes from the forgiveness she offers, as she listens to her attacker confess, tear-ridden, and absolves him, priest-like; finally Arabella and her would-be rapist have consensual sex, where Coel inverts the power dynamics by having her character top her male partner. This scene ends as her would-be rapist tells her he will leave when she tells him to. She does. With him, he takes the bags of evidence – Arabella’s clothing from the night of the assault now returned to her by kind but ineffectual police officers – and leaves both her room, and – presumably – her mind. It is made clear that Arabella is the one capable of exorcising her demons, and does so with glorious panache. Michaela Coel has spoken about parallels in her own experiences and Arabella’s, citing these as the inspiration for the show, which depicts a brutal portrayal of the realities of being a survivor. If less than 2% of rapes reported to the police since 2018 resulted in legal proceedings, Arabella’s experience – as she is told by police they have insufficient evidence to pursue her case – is in no way anomalous.
Meanwhile, Fennell’s Promising Young Woman centres on a woman who has dropped out of a fictional American college following her friend’s assault and subsequent suicide. Fennell’s title mimics the language so oft used for the promising young men whose futures lawyers fight tooth and nail for, whether or not they are Stanford students who swim quickly. Promising Young Woman twists our binary perceptions of hero and villain, illuminating the problem of men targeting the vulnerability of intoxicated women, and makes a case for the redemptive power of apology, the forgiveness possible for the confessors, the repentant. In this, she mirrors the themes brought out in I May Destroy You’s finale.
These works play with the fantasy of revenge in lieu of the comfort of real-world justice. Trauma is complex and rape culture is multi-faceted, thus so are these works.
Though Promising Young Woman has received criticism for portraying a ‘one-dimensional’ protagonist, this criticism declines to acknowledge the inexorable relationship between Cassie’s (the protagonist) trauma and the obsessive stasis she finds herself in. The revenge thriller trope is again turned on its head when Cassie’s justice is ultimately achieved through a carefully executed plan, which ensures that – should her friend’s rapist kill her when she confronts him (spoiler: he does) – there is a clear paper trail to point to the culprits. As news media has been reminding us in recent months, it often takes a murder before the cogs of justice are greased. Fennell, in a final bout of impish dark humour, languishes in the moments after Cassie’s death; just as the film’s title inverts the language applied to men, the murderer’s accomplice comforts him with the language of women, “This is not your fault. You did nothing wrong”, a mantra familiar to any survivor. The accomplice comforts, as the murderer cries, and the viewer looks on in chagrin, rage, or disbelief. Contrary to some of the insinuations of her critics, Fennell is not advocating being murdered to prove a point, nor is she suggesting that acting drunk to see which ‘nice guys’ take the bait is a risk-free sociological experiment. Fennell, like Kane and Coel, explores the lines between symbolic and realistic, pushing the logical fallacies in our social conscience to their extremities.
These works play with the fantasy of revenge in lieu of the comfort of real-world justice. Trauma is complex and rape culture is multi-faceted, so are these works. Women’s voices in the arts give exposure to the female experience: that of the normality of sexual violence. It is crucial to acknowledge the lines between fiction and reality in these works, but it is also important to acknowledge that the seeming absurdity of some of these texts is not, as one might hope, so removed from the reality. Two years ago, a male friend of mine shared an article about a woman’s experience of not being believed despite having video evidence. He found this shocking. For many women, not being believed becomes the norm and it is easy to forget how shocking those who have no experience of this may find it. Women’s voices in the arts put a spotlight on these experiences. It’s time we start listening.