Earlier this month, I rented a film called “Promising Young Woman” (Promising). It is billed as a feminist movie about date rape that is at times funny and very insightful. I think the film is worthy of discussion and debate because it does squarely take and develop a position on men, women, and rape. I also agree with those who say the movie feels like women created it. Yet the position that it takes on rape and on the nature of men is, to my mind, inadvertently reactionary and potentially quite dangerous. In this column, I will (with some spoilers) discuss the connection between one’s view of men and one’s approach to crimes like date rape. Though “Promising Young Woman” is definitely worth seeing, I would avoid taking on board the film’s view of men and sexual assault.
Premise of Promising
The main character in the movie, Cassie, works in a coffee shop during the day. But at night, she goes to a club and pretends to be blackout drunk, close to unconscious. Each time, some man approaches Cassie, asks after her welfare, and then takes her home. Though she appears far too intoxicated to consent to sex, the men always start kissing her and touching her and ignoring her attempts to communicate that she is not into it. Only when she comes out of her drunk disguise and speaks angrily and soberly does the man back off and leave her alone. She then adds his name to her notebook listing men who failed the date rape sting operation.
We learn early in the film that Cassie dropped out of medical school when a close friend of hers, Nina, was date-raped and subsequently killed herself. Both the suicide and Cassie’s undercover project resulted in part from the fact that the medical school was unwilling to do anything to discipline the medical student who raped Nina. Sometimes it is the social group’s reaction (or nonreaction) rather than the attack itself that most traumatizes a victim. In a conversation between Cassie and a dean at the medical school, we hear the familiar tropes about “innocent until proven guilty” (critiqued here, even in criminal cases) and “benefit of the doubt” and “he said/she said” (critiqued here and here).
Through the various interactions that Cassie seeks, hoping perhaps for closure or an apology, she keeps up her sting operation of attracting “nice guys” who sexually violate her without consent, until they realize she is sober. We cannot tell what the point is of these operations, though it could be to protect actually drunk women from the same men. If so, it seems quixotic and reckless. Another possibility is that it takes revenge on the men whom she shames when they realize she is sober. A third possibility, one that I favor, is that she wants to know whether some men out there would help a drunk woman to get home and not try to sleep with her despite/because of her inability to consent. If so, she winds up very disappointed to learn that every man is either a rapist or rapist-adjacent.
A Feminist Film?
In a sense, it is meaningless to ask whether a film is or is not feminist. Feminism can be in the eye of the beholder, and feminists often disagree with one another about particular issues and about the true meaning of a story. That said, I think it is fair to say that the creators of Promising are feminists and that they intended the film to be a pro-woman film. To some extent, I agree that it is, but in at least one fundamental and perhaps surprising respect, I would say it really isn’t.
How is it feminist? In taking the plight of women seriously and in shining a spotlight on the willingness of “nice guys” to sexually assault vulnerable women. The movie takes acquaintance rape seriously and condemns both those who perpetrate it and those who stand by and do nothing or even laugh and treat it as a joke. A few of the men at the club the first night we see Cassie carrying out her sting look at her and say she is “asking for it” and utter other similar blame-the-victim comments. It is clear that the audience is supposed to think these comments are ugly and reprehensible. Indeed, the guys pile on in a manner that is almost unreal, seeming like the setup for a moral lesson we might find in an after school special, a well-made after school special.
The movie has the audience rooting for Cassie, even though she engages in some rather sketchy behavior. She visits the lawyer who defended the student who raped Nina, for instance, and we learn afterwards that Cassie had brought a gangster with her to beat him up in the event that he was not contrite. Cassie is a bit of an antihero because she is trying to fight the patriarchy in her own, out-of-the-box ways.
And how is the movie not feminist and even a little anti-feminist? In the suggestion that all men are rapists just waiting for an opportunity. We know this is Cassie’s view because she keeps listing and numbering men in her book, unable to separate even one name from the crowd as that of a non-rapist. It might sound like a cartoonish feminist cry, “all men are rapists” (a quote from Marilyn French’s novel The Women’s Room). But the truth is that if all men were truly rapists (or would be if the right blackout drunk came along), the consequence would not be to empower women.
People who could not care less about acquaintance rape sometimes use the expression, “boys will be boys.” They mean that we have to just accept that “boys” are going to satisfy their lust in whatever manner they please, and we cannot really blame them when they do. It is a way of distinguishing men from women by identifying a particular type of bad behavior as simply part of what it is to be male.
Is the “boys will be boys” view of rape necessarily anti-feminist? No. In the film, it is plainly part of an indictment of men and of a society that allows them to get away with sexual misconduct. One can both attribute evil behavior to all men and take the behavior seriously and want to do something about it. Cassie plainly does. But based on history, I would anticipate a very different reaction to a consensus that men and boys are all rapists.
One anti-feminist approach to this state of affairs would be to require women to do whatever is humanly possible to avoid “tempting” men into raping them. Though a woman’s clothing is not technically relevant to whether she consented to an alleged rapist, defense attorneys and jurors alike are ready to say it is. If she dresses seductively and not modestly, then she “asks for it.” The expression “asks for it” suggests a forfeiture of the right to refuse sexual favors rather than an actual consent. Thus, if men are all rapists, then one reaction to that state of affairs is to tell women to protect themselves by dressing modestly, by staying indoors at night, by refusing to bring men back to their houses, and by otherwise treating themselves like a glazed doughnut that Homer Simpson will eat unless it is well hidden.
American law once required a rape prosecutor, as part of proving rape, to demonstrate that the complainant resisted to the utmost. Once again, the message is clear: men rape when they have the chance, so it is up to the woman to avoid tempting men and to resist the man’s efforts to force the women. And in some countries even today, women who do not cover themselves completely face punishments, and the rape of any woman generates shame in her and her family rather than in the rapist.
None of the above is very empowering to women. And the predicate for it is also untrue. Not all men are rapists. Indeed, the notion that they are is preposterous. The fact that a predicate for a narrative is false ought to carry some weight, even if the narrative advances equality. And it is difficult to imagine that the “all men are rapists” narrative advances equality so long as women are not overwhelmingly in charge of everything, which they are not. Men are unlikely to pass highly restrictive regulations that help rein in the supposedly universal propensity of every male to rape when the opportunity strikes. I will not spoil the ending of the film, but Cassie does not find her conclusion that all men are rapists inspiring or empowering either. On the contrary, she finds it enraging and depressing.
Another Reason to Reject the “All Men Are Rapists” Premise
In addition to the fact that that the premise is false and that the universal propensity to rape would likely result in regulations of women rather than men, the idea sounds like an excuse. If I am thinking about shoplifting and someone tells me that all law professors shoplift, then I will feel more comfortable shoplifting than I otherwise would have felt. We tend not to feel guilty for doing something that everyone else is doing. In a psychology experiment, a “don’t litter” sign on a hiking trail was more effective if the trail was clean than if it was covered in litter. Perhaps this is because people prefer not to be “suckers” while everyone else is transgressing. And it is also rather pointless to avoid littering if the ground is already covered in garbage. But I think it is also true that we are hard-wired to derive our moral rules in large part from our social context. If everyone throws garbage on the ground, then it feels to us like it cannot be that bad to litter.
Now transpose this idea to the rape context. If men (and women) were to believe that all men either rape or stand prepared to rape at the first opportunity, then rape could come to seem trivial. When every man does something, it is hard to persuade people that that something is a terrible moral wrong.
This dynamic is one reason why relatively decent people can be found to have participated in what we now view as atrocities in the distant past. It is challenging to maintain moral opposition to a majority-embraced practice. This may explain why at least some kind people were involved in the grotesque institutions of slavery and Jim (and Jane) Crow segregation and why otherwise unremarkable individuals may have eagerly absorbed the antisemitism of Nazi Germany. Coming to the present, I believe it is also why good people continue today to support the cruelty of animal agriculture by consuming its products. Some of those in this group have themselves said that in a hundred years, people will look back in horror at what we casually inflicted on our animal brethren.
I do not wish to leave the impression that I disliked Promising. I thought it was a very interesting and plainly thought-provoking film. It is also an expression of a viewpoint that we rarely hear, namely the idea that date rape is wrong, that it should be punished, that “he said/she said” is nonsense, and that our society is failing to keep women safe from misogynist predation. All of this needs to be said and needs to be heard as well before real change is possible. I liked the film, and it was at times funny and at other times gripping. My only issue with it appears above. I recommend the film to readers. It is a rare story, even if it imperfect. And it is a story that deserves to be told.