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Pop Stuff: Promising Young Women

Here are women, looking at men, looking at women and pointing out the fault lines, toppling notions about desire and consent

Soleil Nathwani Apr 14, 2021

Carey Mulligan in 'Promising Young Woman.' Photo: Focus Features

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She was asking for it. She was drunk. Did you see what she was wearing? She’s hysterical. She’s Crazy. She had a meltdown. She’s lying. I don’t believe her. 

Every woman is intimately familiar with these comments because they were directed at her, at a woman she knew, at a female celebrity whose downfall she consumed through viral headlines and not least because she may have uttered them herself. It sounds messy, because it is. Society has told women to dress nicely – but not suggestively, wear heels – but not too high, be confident – but not overconfident, tell the truth – but not if it compromises the power structure. While government, corporate and family structures set the still vastly inequitable ‘ground rules’ for women, the stories we tell in the media and on the screen shape the way we see female sexuality, sexual assault and sexual freedom. Although men, whether authors, directors, producers or media moguls, continue to dominate storytelling, a recent focus towards women not just telling, but truly owning, their narratives presents an opportunity for sexual mores to be revisited and revised. 

This year’s Oscar nominations broke ground by awarding two women nominations in the Best Director category, against a historical backdrop of a paltry five women nominated over ninety-two years. One of these films, British multi-hyphenate Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut feature, Promising Young Woman, is a spark in the storm of sexual revisionism. Promising Young Woman, which also earned nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Actress for Carey Mulligan, sees Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, a medical school drop-out who seeks to avenge the rape of her best friend. Mulligan’s long overdue second Oscar nomination for the role comes after An Education in 2010 in which she played another ‘promising young woman’ – a sixteen-year-old student in a relationship with a much older man. An Education, based on a woman’s memoir (journalist Lynn Barber) and interpreted for the screen by a female director (Lone Scherfig), upholds female agency in ways that other such stories crafted by men either shatter – Nabokov’s Lolita, or condescend to – Woody Allen’s Manhattan. With her directorial debut, Fennell pushes the envelope of agency even further. 

In exposing the gap between female reality and male fantasy Promising Young Woman teases us to examine our biases. When we first meet our protagonist Cassie she is slouched in the corner of a bar, apparently too drunk to stand, watched hawkishly by three male friends winding down after work. The man that offers to take her home plies her with more alcohol in an effort to get her drunk enough to have non-consensual sex with. In a panic-inducing bedroom scene, Cassie snaps out of her stupor, which we learn has been a ruse all along, to catch her assaulter in the act. Cassie lives a shadow vigilante life of scaring potential abusers straight at night, while quietly passing her days in an aimless haze between her parents’ desperately suburban house and the peppy, pastel-toned coffee shop where she works. Her bold, red lip and slinky dresses are the night-time armour that subvert the male construct of suggestive dressing. In the darkly-comedic thriller that ensues Fennell masterfully deploys style and humour to paint a contrast between these two Cassies, a contrast akin to the unspoken cognitive dissonance that we live in. Why do we accept that it falls on women to be modest and not on men to be moral?

Reeled in with Hitchcockian intrigue, we discover that Cassie’s once promising life as a stellar student came to a halt because of the death by suicide of her best friend Nina Fisher, after the school and legal system dropped the investigation of Nina’s rape by classmate Al Monroe (Chris Lowell). Cassie’s predator-hunting has functioned for years as a way to settle the score and assuage her own trauma. She is forced to confront the past head on when she begins to date Ryan Cooper (a superb Bo Burnham) – a classmate from the same former crew she has assiduously avoided since the rape. When Ryan tells her that Al is getting married, Cassie’s simmering rage engulfs her. The image of her friend’s rapist sailing through a life that was snatched from Nina, pushes Cassie to address the wrongs of the past. In a series of sleuth-like encounters she confronts the female friend Madison Mcphee (a deliciously snarky Alison Brie) who blamed Nina for being too drunk, the college dean Connie Britton (Elizabeth Walker) who eagerly dropped the case against golden-boy Al whose wealthy family donated heavily to the school and Al’s lawyer, Jordan Green (a guilt-plagued Alfred Molina), who harassed Nina into dropping the charges.

Fennell reveals the entire system that conspires to allow assault to go unaddressed using the tantalizing tone of a pulpy novella. She deconstructs the levels of privilege, institutional failure and ingrained presumptions that coalesce to uphold dirty secrets, layer by layer. The film pulses forward to a heart thumping penultimate scene when Cassie confronts Al and his friends at a bachelor party in the woods. An on-the-nose stripper disguise is the perfect foil; an avatar which makes her so thoroughly unthreatening that the men completely drop their guard. The scene is designed for maximum discomfort as we confront the attitudes that make infamous incidents like the Brock Turner case more ordinary than anomaly (Brock Turner was a Stanford University student-athlete who was convicted in 2015 of assaulting female student Chanel Miller while she was unconscious and given only a six-month jail sentence). When tragedy ensues after Al performs another unforgivable act his protestations recall the fierce denials from any number of real-life, powerful men across who have been exposed as sexual predators or worse. Amidst a disarming roller coaster of laughs and scares, Promising Young Woman unpacks a single trauma to indict those that uphold the fabric that forces a wall of others to hide in fear. For predators, it is a chilling moral fable that sees Red turn on the Wolf.

Billie Piper in ‘I Hate Suzie.’
Photo: Sky/HBO

I Hate Suzie, the brain child of another rising British talent throws a kaleidoscope over this question of how society holds female sexuality which Promising Young Woman probes through the pointed lens of assault. Created by Lucy Prebble (acclaimed playwright and more recently co-executive producer and writer on HBO’s hit show Succession) and Billie Piper (British pop-star turned actor), the eight-episode dramedy is streaming on HBO/Sky after releasing to jubilant reviews in the U.K. The show follows the unraveling of Suzie Pickles (Piper), who plays a version of herself as a former child singing-sensation turned actress. Pickles’ life falls apart in the wake of a sex scandal where her phone is hacked. Leaked pictures of her in uncompromising sexual positions with a fellow actor whose face isn’t visible but whose privates, unfortunately for Suzie, are on full display, follow. In a play on the five stages of grief, the show explores the aftermath of the hacking as eight stages of trauma that drive Suzie’s actions in separate episodes – ‘Shock,’ ‘Denial,’ ‘Fear,’ ‘Shame,’ ‘Bargaining,’ ‘Guilt,’ ‘Anger,’ and ‘Acceptance.’ With an alluring, smell-the-coffee astuteness Prebble and Piper reveal how these emotions are shaped by men as they are experienced by women.

I Hate Suzie opens as the news throws Suzie’s seemingly bucolic existence with her husband Cob (an absolute revelation in Daniel Ings) and young son Frank (an endearing Matthew Jordan-Caws) into disarray. Suzie and her best friend and publicist, Naomi Jones (Suzie’s feminist foil, Leila Farzad), come together as a duo whose chemistry would turn Holmes and Watson green with envy. We assume they will attempt to pick up the pieces, the end goal that drives many how-to-fix-it female centered dramas, even the uber-enlightened ones à la Fleabag. But Prebble is concerned with examining the wreckage, not reassembling it. In doing so she gives the female sexual experience its due as a Holmes-ian mystery that we have been woefully inadequate at grasping. Not since I May Destroy You has a show interrogated as cleverly as it entertained. While Michaela Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You is a survivor of assault, Suzie is ostensibly part aggressor. She has cheated on her husband, she has crossed professional boundaries, she challenges the sacred mother ideal and threatens the social order by dismissing the sanctity of marriage. Through the reverberating enormity of the fall-out, Prebble exposes the hypocrisy that gives men agency over their desire without equivalent shame and consequence.  

Ultimately, I Hate Suzie probes whether the rewards of post-modern womanhood are worthy at all and whether a society that engages in a witch-hunt every time a woman breaks its lop-sided rules is one worth subscribing to. Who labels female infidelity slutty and male infidelity a lapse in judgement? How exactly are women going through a crisis ‘hysterical’?  Why must a single, child-free woman be designated lonely pariah status? Prebble’s whodunit is littered with audacious clues that point clearly to casual male dominance. At one point, Suzie is so enraged with her unemployed father who wants to cash in with a press interview about her, that it drives her to sex with her husband purely so he can ‘f-ck this bloodline line right out of me’. At another, Naomi returns from the gynecologist frustrated that there is limited knowledge on artificial insemination because ‘patriarchal medicine has not done the research’. Even Cob, Suzie’s pompous husband, points out that the system is clearly rigged when he tells the executives at Suzie’s network that she is more dispensable than a Black, male showrunner in their egregious calculus that plays gender and race like pawns. 

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As Suzie renegotiates her relationship with her husband, her lover, her audience and her career, Prebble highlights every micro-aggression along the way, asking increasingly uncomfortable questions about these bonds. Cob is a university professor who takes every opportunity to remind Suzie of the low-rent quality of the zombie-horror television show she acts in, the show that nonetheless pays their bills. Her lover, also her boss (a superbly slick Nathaniel Martello-White), is an equally adulterous mess who has no qualms about escaping censure and letting Suzie take the fall entirely, even lying to her at one point about having taken his ‘punishment’ by telling his wife. Even though Suzie’s fans seem unfazed, the media that shapes her relationship with them is outraged on their behalf. Disney, the company who have just offered Suzie a role, reconsider if she is princess material whilst walking the post #metoo tightrope of not being able to fire her for having a sex-life outside marriage. Female sexuality – suggestive magazine cover, after slinky superhero suit, after femme fatale, has been turned into a hoax. Prebble drives this point home in the most polarizing episode of the show where, in parallel scenes, Suzie tries unsuccessfully to pleasure herself whilst Naomi is stuck on a train as a man masturbates creepily next to her. Society apportions shame to women and entitlement to men. 

Tearing down negative attitudes around female sexuality is not new to our screens. Sex and The City’s Samantha Jones, a quintessential anti slut-shamer, burst onto television over two decades ago. She was followed by the women of Lena Dunham’s Girls, Issa Rae’s Insecure, Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Laurie Dunn’s Sex Education, Coel’s I May Destroy You and others that radically stretched the rules around female desire. Where characters like Cassie and Suzie go further is that they remain comfortably, morally ambiguous. Cassie preys on predators and Suzie cheats, lies, coerces, panders, cajoles, simpers, manipulates and explodes at various points to protect herself. Although these women don’t set out to be likeable, we root for them because misogyny is revealed as an abhorrent and pervasive rogue. Rising above a skewed system is an impossible high-ground and in them we see something of every woman swimming upstream. They strike the long raw nerve that women live with in spite of themselves.  

I Hate Suzie and Promising Young Woman are brutally honest about the hard to swallow message that misogyny persists like a mutating virus even as wave upon wave of feminists try to make headway. Injustices against women everywhere continue at an alarming pace as evidenced in the last few weeks. Sometimes they are shockingly casual as chronicled in Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project. Sometimes they are enshrined in policy – women in Turkey recently protested the country’s decision to withdraw from a European treaty against domestic violence. Often they are in plain sight. Women in the U.K. are expressing outrage over the abduction and death of Sarah Everard at the hands of a police officer and the government’s ham fisted response of sending more officers onto the streets for protection. Americans are grappling with a recent attack on several Georgia spas where eight were killed, mostly women and the killer told police that the women were ‘temptations’ he needed to ‘eliminate’. Australia is seeing a parliamentary reshuffle over revelations of sexual misconduct.  

Both Fennell and Prebble use dark laughs, effervescent protagonists and sets steeped in style and colour as balm for their discomfiting truths. Promising Young Woman’s finale offers a redemptive salve but the women at the heart of the story are extinguished without overcoming their trauma. I Hate Suzie sees Suzie unshackle herself from an unsatisfying marriage while reinforcing the anti-fairytale that ‘no one is coming to rescue you’. Liberation from sexism is still a constant battle. Two recent works tackle this idea through real life figures, without the cozy distance of fiction. The New York Times produced documentary Framing Britney Spears holds a mirror to the collective mistreatment of Britney Spears, delving into her battle for control of her estate and the genesis of the hashtag #FreeBritney (an online movement dedicated to freeing the star from a conservatorship). The HBO documentary Allen v. Farrow, from producers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, experienced chroniclers of sexual abuse, takes an in depth look at court documents, police records, phone records and personal testimony to revisit Dylan Farrow’s allegations that her adoptive father Woody Allen molested her. 

Britney Spears from ‘Framing Britney Spears.’
Photo: FX

Framing Britney Spears has numerous real life parallels with I Hate Suzie, the most obvious being that Spears is a former child singer who grappled with public shaming. I was muddling through a college degree in America in the late 90s when a fifteen-year-old Britney was well on her way to becoming the best-selling teen artist of all time. Shortly after that, magazines of the pre-‘gram era were awash with images of a blossoming romance between Spears and former NSYNC heart-throb, Justin Timberlake. The documentary reminds us that when the couple split in 2002, Timberlake fanned the flames of rumours that Spears had cheated on him and released his single Cry Me A River which painted the portrait of a wronged man. The press was quick to cast Spears as a guilty woman, including a now infamous interview in which prominent broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer told a visibly shaken Britney, ‘You did something to cause him so much pain,’ and then asked ‘What did you do?’, centering blame squarely on a twenty-one-year old Spears, on national television. In the ensuing years Spears’ public image spiraled while Timberlake launched a successful solo career. In retreading Spears’ public downfall through a current lens, Framing Britney Spears rightfully makes us squirm.

Framing Britney Spears goes on to revisit Spears’ incessant hounding by paparazzi over the ensuing period during which she married, had two children with and then divorced Kevin Federline. In what would be handled as a mental health crisis today, tabloids recast America’s sweetheart as an unhinged mess and cashed in on her ‘meltdown’ when she shaved her head and lashed out at photographers. The documentary questions the continuing validity of a court-sanctioned conservatorship, which Spears entered during the height of her struggles in 2008, handing control of her career, living arrangements and finances to her father, even though Spears continued to perform regularly. While Spears has said little publicly, the film points to court documents that show she recently opposed the conservatorship and refused to perform with her father in charge. Framing Britney Spears is problematic in terms of allowing women control over their stories precisely because it is not sanctioned by Spears, nor does it include her testimony. Where the documentary succeeds is in tracing our tendency to build women up, often by sexualizing them, only to tear them down at the very same altar while relying on a societal tendency towards men framing the narrative and exerting control. 

The modern day witch-hunt has, until very recently, had great success in disgracing or entirely disappearing women who don’t fall in line. In the 2000s the public almost reveled in Whitney Houston’s drug addiction and marital problems, quickly forgetting her enormous influence as an artist when her output diminished. The 2019 documentary, Whitney, a work sanctioned by her family, belatedly unpacked the trauma that led to her untimely death. In 2004 Janet Jackson was blacklisted after the Super Bowl half-time performance with, once again, Justin Timberlake. A ‘wardrobe malfunction’ when he grabbed her bustier as part of a choreographed dance move left her breast exposed for a brief second. Timberlake, who recently released an apology to both Jackson and Spears, continued relatively unencumbered on his path to fame. Meanwhile, Les Moonves whose powerhouse U.S. television network CBS produced the half-time show (and who resigned in 2018 following accusations of sexual harassment), ensured that various channels under his purview, including MTV, no longer played Jackson’s songs or music videos. And what of the ‘sex-tape’ that brought public ridicule to Paris Hilton even as it catapulted her to great infamy. It would now be considered revenge porn. 

When women did have the courage to risk a public shake-down in order to point out misogyny, they were not often rewarded. The Anita Hill hearings in 1991 were a deeply uncomfortable foreshadowing of the truths that spilled forth in America decades later during the #MeToo movement. Professor Anita Hill, the Black Law Professor who accused her former boss Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, prior to his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, was way ahead of her time. She provided hours of testimony to an all-White, all-male senate committee, led by now President Joe Biden (who has since expressed regret for her treatment), one member of which sought fit to ask her if she was a ‘scorned woman’. Hill testified that Thomas had asked her out repeatedly and talked to her in graphic detail about sex even after she refused his overtures, retaining her composure when asked to repeat lewd details about Thomas’ alleged harassment. While the televised hearings opened the floodgates for women to have conversations about workplace harassment, Thomas was confirmed and the subtext of the hearings at the time was that a woman’s testimony was no match for the men in charge. Thomas (a Black man) was accused of using racism to further deflect sexism, infamously calling the proceedings ‘a high-tech lynching’.  

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While the list of women who have suffered biased treatment when sexuality is in play is endless, the excruciating detail of Allen v Farrow makes society’s complicity, albeit enmeshed within an all-consuming patriarchy, nauseatingly plain. Over four harrowing episodes we are told how Woody Allen lavished attention on his adoptive daughter to the exclusion of his partner Mia Farrow’s other children, convinced Dylan that he was a reliable parent and began to commit sexually suggestive acts before eventually taking her into an attic where he allegedly molested her. A report from the Yale-New Haven Child Sexual Abuse clinic suggested, at the time, that Dylan’s account of the abuse had discrepancies and introduced the idea that her mother may have ‘coached’ her. The judge in the ensuing child custody case deemed these reports not credible, awarding Mia Farrow custody. Allen continued to insist that his daughter had been ‘coached’ by Mia Farrow, who he claimed was acting out of vengeful delusion because she discovered his affair with her eldest adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (now his wife). The public was more willing to sanction Allen’s affair with a decades-younger woman, who he met as the child of his partner, than to allow that Dylan and her mother were speaking the truth.

In the aftermath of the media blitz surrounding these events in 1993, Allen, who declined to be interviewed for the documentary, maintained his innocence and was never criminally charged. He continued to make movies year after year, with A-lister upon A-lister eager to work with him. Mia Farrow, as Allen had threatened at the time, found it hard to find work at all and Dylan’s story faded into the background. Some critics have pointed out that the documentary is biased, glossing over facts about Mia Farrow and presenting a one-sided story. Yet, what is impossible to look away from are the words that come from Dylan herself, the never before publicly seen footage of a seven-year-old Dylan telling her mother what happened in the attic. ‘I didn’t want him to do it, mama,’ Dylan whispers, ‘I don’t like it, and I also don’t want to talk about it.’ And yet after a two-decade long silence, she has talked about it again and again and again, telling the same story repeatedly since 2013 – in print, on a television interview and now in center frame once more, each time revisiting the trauma. While we may never know more than this, what Allen v Farrow does is allow Dylan and Mia to reclaim the narrative in a public space that until recently rejected their voices in the tacit embrace of a darling director whose voice was amplified.

The central question of why we uphold the Allens and neglect the Farrows has lately become less of a rhetorical farce and more of an actual battle that women are fighting by expounding upon their lived experiences with less shame and more support. In 2018 when Professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward with sexual assault allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, another U.S. Supreme Court nominee who was later confirmed, public sentiment and the tenor of the hearings were vastly different from the Anita Hill hearings. Notably, several of the senators hearing the testimony were women, many of them part of a wave of women who had run for political office in the aftermath of Hill. Ford acknowledged Hill’s importance for her and Hill commended Ford’s courage. Our public consciousness is striding forward as an outcome of these women speaking their truths. While Hill’s career suffered in the direct aftermath of the hearings, she persisted in her work as an academic and lawyer and her indelible impact looms. She was the subject of Freida Lee Mock’s documentary Anita in 2014, followed by Rick Famuyiwa’s 2016 movie Confirmation, a retelling of the hearings starring Kerry Washington as Hill. In 2017, in the wake of #MeToo, Hill was charged with leading the Hollywood Commission formed to combat sexual harassment in the entertainment industry and as such will influence how stories are told for years to come.

Later this year, Impeachment, a series that blends fact and fiction, will be another stepping stone to challenging bias around sexuality, from a once unlikely poster-child for the cause – Monica Lewinsky. She will co-produce this third installment of the massively popular American Crime Story series from mega-producer Ryan Murphy as a retelling of former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings from her perspective. When Clinton was impeached, Lewinsky’s life became the collateral damage of her affair with the then president during her time as a White House intern from 1995 to 1996. For years afterwards, she was known for little more than this and branded by the infamous blue dress that was brought in as trial evidence (she had worn the dress during one of their encounters). It is a measure of public attitudes towards women that until recently the events were referred to as the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Given that it was an affair with a married man, twenty-seven years her senior and serving public office as her boss, calling it the Bill Clinton scandal might have been more apt. 

As a result of the public drubbing she faced, Lewinsky suffered years of P.T.S.D., cyber bullying and found it hard to get a job even as Bill Clinton hit the campaign trail on behalf of his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton, who ran for president in 2016. In a 2014 essay for Vanity Fair titled Shame and Survival, after a long silence, Lewinsky contended that it was time to ‘stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.’ In 2015, she gave a TED Talk, viewed almost twenty million times, about the consequences of bullying and shaming. She spoke about the repercussions of being branded, ‘a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, That Woman’ and against bullying in the context of the trauma of going from being a ‘private figure to a publicly humiliated one.’ She will go deeper on cultural shaming in a forthcoming HBO documentary 15 Minutes of Shame. Impeachment will no doubt function as a way to view the ‘scandal’ through a vastly transformed lens from that of twenty-five years ago and allow us to reconsider the unfair burdens we place on women and their sexuality. Whether it is Bill Clinton, Hugh Grant, Tiger Woods or name-your-philanderer-here men tend to escape public scrutiny with fewer scars.

None of this is to say that cheating should be condoned or that rape-revenge should be a reality but that in revealing the stories of women’s experiences around sexuality, shame, harassment and assault, we highlight the misogyny that is most often root cause in a society that is complicit. According to a W.H.O. report published earlier this year, a third of all women, a largely unchanged number in the last decade, are the subject of physical or sexual violence which the report calls ‘devastatingly pervasive’. Most women, it states, encounter violence prior to their mid-twenties and the perpetrator is almost always male, most often not a stranger. It is rare to find a woman who has not experienced negative attitudes around sexuality. When it happens, the onus often falls on women to protect themselves, to follow societal rules, to cover up, to stay home, to be vigilant, fearful or brace for shame. This is why women in the U.K. were so furious in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, a woman who was killed in spite of following all the ‘rules’, that they suggested women could only be safe if the men stayed home. Even when women protest or push policy change, only men can affect outcomes by changing their actions and attitudes. This requires a society that won’t tolerate misogyny and as a precursor ensures that both men and women really see it as endemic.

When regular women are shamed, assaulted and raped at alarming numbers and femicide continues, it might seem trivial to turn to the fictional women created by Fennell or Prebble, to celebrity figures like Spears, Farrow or Lewinsky or even to icons like Hill. Yet it is through stories like these where women are able to reconstruct the very framework through which we view and weigh female sexuality that we can shift our perspectives. Much has been made about setting the male gaze aside to make room for the female one and center female stories, by women about women. However, these stories go a step further. Here are women, looking at men, looking at women and pointing out the fault lines, toppling notions about desire and consent. Whether it is by watching Cassie interrogate the cover-up of an assault, hearing Suzie’s inner voice as her sex-life becomes scandal or witnessing Spears, Farrow or Lewinsky pose the question of why we vilified them at all, these stories point at the dominant male gaze under whose spell we all sit. From this liminal space they exert a direct and critical look at this gaze and show us how female trajectories are repeatedly tinged with patriarchy, misogyny or sexism. They ask how long we will be content to rob the world’s Promising Young Women of their promise.

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