Do We Still Have a Place for Rape Revenge Fantasies?

Carey Mulligan’s ‘Promising Young Woman’ debuts in a culture that’s taking a colder attitude toward survivors’ rage

Promising Young Woman” Photo: Focus Features

When the trailers for Promising Young Woman arrived last spring, they were greeted with celebration. The movie looked amazing. The script, by Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, had already earned a ton of industry buzz. And the premise — a sadistic young woman (played by Carey Mulligan) hunts down and torments the people involved in an old college rape case — was impossibly well-aligned with the ethos of the #MeToo era. This was the story of an enraged woman taking down men who had been living consequence-free for too long.

Now, after a series of Covid-19-related delays, Promising Young Woman is getting its theatrical release next week. Yet the once-massive hype around it has seemingly died down to a murmur. Reviews are, for the most part, positive, but one can also hear in some of them a certain polite weariness with rage and revenge. Meagan Navarro at Consequence of Sound gives the movie high points for style yet also writes that it is “about scorching the earth in hopes of decimating anything and everything under the broad range of rape culture, rather than precision.” She concludes that the movie’s “rape culture talking points” ultimately “don’t cover any new ground.” Jourdain Searles at Bitch Media knocks the movie’s “short-sighted adherence to old ideas of crime and punishment.” After all, she writes, “now that we know that rape is a systemic issue with an entire culture designed to protect it, how fresh can a one-woman-against-the-world narrative actually be?”

It’s important to hear what these critics are actually saying. Neither argues that the movie is wrong to oppose rape culture — only that its points are old-fashioned or cliche or that everyone has heard them already. Had the movie debuted last spring, things might have been different, but as of right now, Promising Young Woman has gone from being of the moment to slightly behind the times. Since this spring, the culture has taken a very different attitude toward survivors’ revenge fantasies.

“Himpathy” — defined by philosopher Kate Manne as the cultural tendency to value privileged men’s feelings over those of the people they’ve hurt — has always stood to sabotage #MeToo. People started complaining the movement had gone “too far” from the moment it first arose. Yet the backlash has grown over time, and men accused of sexual assault or misconduct are undeniably receiving more tender treatment now than they did at the peak of the movement. Accused predators from Louis C.K. to Aziz Ansari have quietly made comebacks. Where the news that Jeffrey Toobin was fired for masturbating in front of his co-workers might once have been greeted with applause, it now garners him a fairly sympathetic profile in the New York Times. Younger progressives often view feminist identity politics with suspicion, and accusations of “man-hating” greet everything from sexual harassment lawsuits to vaguely misandrist Twitter memes. When Al Franken was outed for groping women, Democrats called for his dismissal; when Joe Biden was accused of touching female colleagues inappropriately, he won the nomination.

There are also anti-racist voices complicating our culture’s most simplistic ideas of revenge, and those voices have become much more widely heard since this summer’s Black Lives Matter uprisings. The prison abolition and #MeToo movements have always had a tense relationship. As early as 2018, there were calls for #MeToo to reject “carceral feminism” (that is, the belief that sexual violence can be adequately addressed through criminal penalties). The imprisonment of high-profile predators like Larry Nassar and Harvey Weinstein drew commentary reminding us that prison was not enough to address the harm caused by these men’s violence.

That’s true. Prison isn’t enough. Nothing is. Once you’ve been raped or subjected to sexual violence, the effects can linger for the rest of your life. One study indicates that female rape victims are three times more likely to be depressed than nonvictims, five times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 13 times more likely to have an alcohol problem, and 26 times more likely to have a drug problem. All of those things will make your life worse or shorter, but being raped can also just plain kill you: One-third of rape victims experience suicidal ideation, and victims are 13 times more likely to attempt suicide. A single assault can send a wave of trauma traveling through a whole family as we’ve seen recently in the high-profile suicide of survivor Daisy Coleman and, soon afterward, her mother.

When you know the long-term damage sexual violence causes, calls to shield predators from unpleasant consequences become obviously unjust. Yet our criminal justice system inflicts far more punishment on victims than it does on abusers. Police departments allow rape kits to accumulate into massive backlogs. When domestic violence victims call the police, they can wind up being arrested and held as “material witnesses” to their own assaults. Criminal trials retraumatize victims while judges hand out lenient sentences or refuse to convict, meaning that the harm done to the victim by pursuing the case usually outweighs any harm to their attacker. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 995 out of every 1,000 assailants will walk free.

To tell survivors that they will not find justice in this system makes sense, and the majority of anti-carceral feminists still believe that sexual assault ought to carry serious consequences. Yet himpathy has sabotaged this movement, too, leading the language of the prison abolition or restorative justice movements to sometimes be used against victims.

Moira Donegan, writing for Bookforum, tracks the shift nicely, pointing to recent books by Joann Wypijewski, Judith Levine, and Erica R. Meiners that blame feminism and #MeToo specifically for mass incarceration. Insofar as women seek punishment for their abusers, the authors argue, they are inevitably propping up a racist and inhumane system. One can agree with the main theses of prison abolition and still find something sketchy about these arguments. For instance, putting a rapist in prison seems clearly carceral in that it results in incarceration, but Levine and Meiners also object to Title IX tribunals at colleges, which only result in expulsions, and view public shaming — for instance, a woman telling her neighbors the identity of the man who had molested her daughter — as an outgrowth of carceral thinking. For Wypijewski, #MeToo feminists are not just pushing for the wrong solutions but are having the wrong emotions; the desire to impose consequences on sexual predators lacks “mercy” and smacks of “vengeance” and thus stands in the way of progress.

“The worthy victim, as conjured by these writers, must not express anger, or any desire for revenge,” Donegan writes. “She must not want her rapist to suffer consequence for what he did to her. … For all of these writers, it is illegitimate for women to express a desire to hurt people who have hurt them.”

If it’s illegitimate to want to hurt your rapist’s feelings, it is almost certainly illegitimate to want to tie him to a bed and torture him to death, which is one of the thrills on offer in Promising Young Woman. The rage of survivors was once viewed as a cleansing force; now it is regarded as potentially reactionary or selfish or just plain inadequate to the problem of rape culture.

I still believe the world has a space for survivors’ revenge fantasies. In fact, I believe many survivors actively need them. To understand why, you have to look at the amount of revenge that survivors are currently getting — which is to say not much.

The criminal justice system is not locking up rapists, but it is locking up women who try to resist or fight back against their abusers. One California study in a state prison found that 93% of women incarcerated for murder had been battered by the person they killed, and 67% were trying to protect themselves or their children when they killed the abuser. Calling the police during a domestic violence incident doesn’t work, but neither does trying to effect a rescue outside the system. Consider the New York woman who was recently stabbed to death while trying to retrieve her friend’s daughter from a “controlling” boyfriend’s apartment.

Victims would not need revenge if they were getting justice.

Survivors have almost no chance at vengeance whether they work inside the system or outside of it, which is probably why that plague of carceral feminists locking up their attackers has never arrived. According to RAINN, only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assault victims even try to report their assault to the police. Most survivors don’t respond to their assaults with revenge but with resignation.

In that context, the rape-revenge story is appealing precisely because audience members know it could never happen. The heroines of movies like Ms .45 or The Nightingale or Jennifer’s Body become superhuman avengers — literally in Jennifer’s case — capable of wreaking gory havoc that would get most women imprisoned or killed instantly. Power fantasies are most appealing to the powerless, and at the core of the rape-revenge movie is not an oppressor’s desire to maintain power but a fantasy about what life would be like if survivors had options outside of impotent suffering. Revenge fantasies are pain, wrapped in gore and razor blades, made to look ferocious so that no one recognizes the acute and agonized vulnerability at their core. Most of these movies admit in the end how impossible the fantasized revenge is. Two-thirds of the movies I’ve listed here end with the heroine being killed.

It’s easy to pull back from survivors’ violent rage, to call it cruel or selfish, or to extol abstract concepts like mercy rather than deal with survivors’ very concrete need to make their pain go away. Yet victims would not need revenge if they were getting justice. They would not feel angry and powerless and ready to lash out if our response were adequate to restore their dignity and make them feel safe. All these murder fantasies are demands to have the pain of rape witnessed and taken seriously. If we honored that pain, the anger itself might be unnecessary. People who are already being heard don’t have to scream.

I could never kill my rapist. I feel bad about killing spiders. I’ve never pursued consequences more serious than telling my friends to steer clear of someone at a bar or a party. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wish my rapist was dead. Rage is a part of trauma. It’s not the only part or even the most important part, but it occurs within every healing process. What most people need after they’ve been assaulted is to regain a sense of control over their lives. Revenge fantasies like Promising Young Woman are, first and foremost, fantasies about taking control back from the rapist, about being able to decide what happens. For most of us, fantasies are all we ever get.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Seen at Elle, In These Times & all across the Internet.

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