Careful How You Go

Ella Kemp explores how film lovers can protect themselves from distressing subject matter while celebrating cinema at its most audacious.

Featuring Empire magazine editor Terri White, Test Pattern filmmaker Shatara Michelle Ford, writer and critic Jourdain Searles, publicist Courtney Mayhew, and curator, activist and producer Mia Bays of the Birds’ Eye View collective.

This story contains discussion of rape, sexual assault, abuse, self-harm, trauma and loss of life, as well as spoilers for ‘Promising Young Woman’ and ‘A Star is Born’.

We film lovers are blessed with a medium capable of excavating real-life emotion from something seemingly fictional. Yet, for all that film is—in the oft-quoted words of Roger Ebert—an “empathy machine”, it’s also capable of deeply hurting its audience when not wielded by its makers and promoters with appropriate care. Or, for that matter, when not approached by viewers with informed caution.

Whose job is it to let us know that we might be upset by what we see? With the coronavirus pandemic decimating the communal movie-going experience, the way we accommodate each viewer’s sensibilities is more crucial than ever—especially when so many of us are watching alone, at home, often unsupported.

In order to understand how we can champion a film’s content and take care of its audience, I approached women in several areas of the movie ecosystem. I wanted to know: how does a filmmaker approach the filming of a rape and its aftermath? How does a magazine editor navigate the celebration of a potentially triggering movie in one of the world’s biggest film publications? How does a freelance writer speak to her professional interests while preserving her personal integrity? How does a women’s film collective create a safe environment for an audience to process such a film? And, how does a publicist prepare journalists for careful reporting, when their job is to get eyeballs on screens in order to keep our favorite art form afloat?

The conversations reminded me that the answers are endlessly complex. The concerns over spoilers, the effectiveness of trigger warnings, the myriad ways in which art is crafted from trauma, and the fundamental question of whose stories these are to tell. These questions were valid decades ago, they will be for decades to come, and they feel especially urgent now, since a number of recent tales helmed by female and non-binary filmmakers depict violence and trauma involving women’s bodies in fearless, often challenging ways.

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, in particular, has revived a vital conversation about content consideration, as victims and survivors of sexual assault record wildly different reactions to its astounding ending. Shatara Michelle Ford’s quietly tense debut, Test Pattern, brings Black survivors into the conversation. And the visceral, anti-wish-fulfillment horror Violation, coming soon from Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer, takes the rape-revenge genre up another notch.

These films come off the back of other recent survivor stories, such as Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking series I May Destroy You (which centers women’s friendship in a narrative move that, as Sarah Williams has eloquently outlined, happens too rarely in this field). Also: Kata Wéber and Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman, and the ongoing ugh-ness of The Handmaid’s Tale. And though this article is focused on plots centering women’s trauma, I acknowledge the myriad of stories that can be triggering in many ways for all manner of viewers. So whether you’ve watched one of these titles, or others like them, I hope you felt supported in the conversations to follow, and that you feel seen.

Weruche Opia and Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You.
Weruche Opia and Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You.

Simply put, Promising Young Woman is a movie about a woman seeking revenge against predatory men. Except nothing about it is simple. Revenge movies have existed for aeons, and we’ve rooted for many promising young (mostly white) women before Carey Mulligan’s Cassie (recently: Jen in Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, Noelle in Natalia Leite’s M.F.A.). But in Promising Young Woman, the victim is not alive to seek revenge, so it becomes Cassie’s single-minded crusade. Mercifully, we never see the gang-rape that sparks Cassie’s mission. But we do see a daring, fatal subversion of the notion of a happy ending—and this is what has audiences of Emerald Fennell’s jaw-dropping debut divided.

“For me, being a survivor, the point is to survive,” Jourdain Searles tells me. The New York-based critic, screenwriter, comedian—and host of Netflix’s new Black Film School series—says the presence of death in Promising Young Woman is the problem. “One of the first times I spoke openly about [my assault], I made the decision that I didn’t want to go to the police, and I got a lot of judgment for that,” she says. “So watching Promising Young Woman and seeing the police as the endgame is something I’ve always disagreed with. I left thinking, ‘How is this going to help?’”

“I feel like I’ve got two hats on,” says Terri White, the London-based editor-in chief of Empire magazine, and the author of a recently published memoir, Coming Undone. “One of which is me creating a magazine for a specific film-loving audience, and the other bit of me, which has written a book about trauma, specifically about violence perpetrated against the body. They’re not entirely siloed, but they are two distinct perspectives.”

White loved both Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You, because they “explode the myth of resolution and redemption”. She calls the ending of Promising Young Woman “radical” in the way it speaks to the reality of what happens to so many women. “I was thinking about me and women like me, women who have endured violence and injury or trauma. Three women every week are still killed [in the UK] at the hands of an ex-partner, or somebody they know intimately, or a current partner. Statistically, any woman who goes for some kind of physical confrontation in [the way Cassie does] would end up dying.”

She adds: “I felt like the film was in service to both victims and survivors, and I use the word ‘victims’ deliberately. I call myself a victim because I think if you’ve endured either sexual violence or physical violence or both, a lot of empowering language, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t reflect the reality of being a victim or a survivor, whichever way you choose to call yourself.” This point has been one many have disagreed on. In a way, that makes sense—no victim or survivor can be expected to speak to anyone else’s experience but their own.

Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell on the set of Promising Young Woman.
Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell on the set of Promising Young Woman.

Likewise, there is no right or wrong way to feel about this film, or any film. But a question that arises is, well, should everyone have to see a film to figure that out? And should victims and survivors of sexual violence watch this film? “I have definitely been picky about who I’ve recommended it to,” Courtney Mayhew says. “I don’t want to put a friend in harm’s way, even if that means they miss out on something awesome. It’s not worth it.”

Mayhew is a New Zealand-based international film publicist, and because of her country’s success in controlling Covid-19, she is one of the rare people able to experience Promising Young Woman in a sold-out cinema. “It was palpable. Everyone was so engaged and almost leaning forwards. There were a lot of laughs from women, but it was also a really challenging setting. A lot of people looking down, looking away, and there was a girl who was crying uncontrollably at the end.”

“Material can be very triggering,” White agrees. “It depends where people are personally in their journey. When I still had a lot of trauma I hadn’t worked through in my 20s, I found certain things very difficult to watch. Those things are a reality—but people can make their own decisions about the material they feel able to watch.”

It’s about warning, and preparation, more than total deprivation, then? “I believe in giving people information so they can make the best choice for themselves,” White says. “But I find it quite reductive, and infantilizing in some respects, to be told broadly, ‘Women who have experienced x shouldn’t watch this.’ That underestimates the resilience of some people, the thirst for more information and knowledge.” (This point is clearly made in this meticulous, awe-inspiring list by Jenn, who is on a journey to make sense of her trauma through analysis of rape-revenge films.) But clarity is crucial, particularly for those grappling with unresolved issues.

Searles agrees Promising Young Woman can be a difficult, even unpleasant watch, but still one with value. “As a survivor it did not make me feel good, but it gave me a window into the way other people might respond to your assault. A lot of the time [my friends] have reacted in ways I don’t understand, and the movie feels like it’s trying to make sense of an assault from the outside, and the complicated feelings a friend might have.”

Molly Parker and Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman.
Molly Parker and Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman.

A newborn dies. A character is brutally violated. A population is tortured. To be human is to bear witness to history, but it’s still painful when that history is yours, or something very close to it. “Some things are hard to watch because you relate to them,” Searles explains. “I find mother! hard to watch, and there’s no actual sexual assault. But I just think of sexual assault and trauma and domestic abuse, even though the film isn’t about that. The thing is, you could read an academic paper on patriarchy—you don’t need to watch it on a show if you don’t want to.”

White agrees: “I’ve never been able to watch Nil by Mouth, because I grew up in a house of domestic violence and I find physical violence against women on screen very hard to watch. But that doesn’t mean I think the film shouldn’t be shown—it should still exist, I’ve just made the choice not to watch it.” (Reader, since our conversation, she watched it. At 2:00am.)

“I know people who do not watch Promising Young Woman or The Handmaid’s Tale because they work for an NGO in which they see those things literally in front of their eyes,” Mayhew says. “It could be helpful for someone who isn’t aware [of those issues], but then what is the purpose of art? To educate? To entertain? For escapism? It’s probably all of those.”

Importantly, how much weight should an artist’s shoulders carry, when it comes to considering the audiences that will see their work? There’s a general agreement among my interviewees that, as White says, “filmmakers have to make the art that they believe in”. I don’t think any film lover would disagree, but, suggests Searles, “these films should be made with survivors in mind. That doesn’t mean they always have to be sensitive and sad and declawed. But there is a way to be provocative, while leaning into an emotional truth.”

Madeleine Sims-Fewer in Violation.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer in Violation.

Violation, about which I’ll say little here since it is yet to screen at SXSW (ahead of its March 25 release on Shudder) is not at all declawed, and is certainly made with survivors in mind—in the sense that in life, unlike in movies, catharsis is very seldom possible no matter how far you go to find it. On Letterboxd, many of those who saw Violation at TIFF and Sundance speak of feeling represented by the rape-revenge plot, writing: “One of the most intentionally thought out and respectful of the genre… made by survivors for survivors” and “I feel seen and held”. (Also: “This movie is extremely hard to watch, completely on purpose.”)

“Art can do great service to people,” agrees White, “If, by consequence, there is great service for people who have been in that position, that’s a brilliant consequence. But I don’t believe filmmakers and artists should be told that they are responsible for certain things. There’s a line of responsibility in terms of being irresponsible, especially if your community is young, or traumatised.”

Her words call to mind Bradley Cooper’s reboot of A Star is Born, which many cinephiles knew to be a remake and therefore expected its plot twist, but young filmgoers, drawn by the presence of Lady Gaga, were shocked (and in some cases triggered) by a suicide scene. When it was released, Letterboxd saw many anguished reviews from younger members. In New Zealand, an explicit warning was added to the film’s classification by the country’s chief censor (who also created an entirely new ‘RP18’ classification for the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which eventually had a graphic suicide scene edited out two years after first landing on the streaming service).

“There is a duty of care to audiences, and there is also a duty of care to artists and filmmakers,” says Mayhew. “There’s got to be some way of meeting in the middle.” The middle, perhaps, can be identified by the filmmaker’s objective. “It’s about feeling safe in the material,” says Mia Bays of the Birds’ Eye View film collective, which curates and markets films by women in order to effect industry change. “With material like this, it’s beholden on creatives to interrogate their own intentions.”

Filmmaker Shatara Michelle Ford is “forever interrogating” ideas of power. Their debut feature, Test Pattern, deftly examines the power differentials that inform the foundations of consent. “As an artist, human, and person who has experienced all sorts of boundary violation, assault and exploitation in their life, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about power… It is something I grapple with in my personal life, and when I arrive in any workplace, including a film set.”

In her review of Test Pattern for The Hollywood Reporter, Searles writes, “This is not a movie about sexual assault as an abstract concept; it’s a movie about the reality of a sexual assault survivor’s experience.” Crucially, in a history of films that deal largely with white women’s experiences, Test Pattern “is one of the few sexual-assault stories to center a Black woman, with her Blackness being central to her experience and the way she is treated by the people around her.”

Brittany S. Hall in Test Pattern.
Brittany S. Hall in Test Pattern.

Test Pattern follows the unfolding power imbalance between Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and her devoted white boyfriend Evan (Will Brill), as he drives her from hospital to hospital in search of a rape kit, after her drink was spiked by a white man in a bar who then raped her. Where Promising Young Woman is a millennial-pink revenge fantasy of Insta-worthy proportions, Test Pattern feels all too real, and the cops don’t come off as well as they do in the former.

Ford does something very important for the audience: they begin the film just as the rape is about to occur. We do not see it at this point (we do not really ever see it), but we know that it happened, so there’s no chance that, somewhere deeper into the story, when we’re much more invested, we’ll be side-swiped by a sudden onslaught of sexual violence. In a way, it creates a safe space for our journey with Renesha.

It’s one of many thoughtful decisions made by Ford throughout the production process. “I’m in direct conversation with film and television that chooses to depict violence against women so casually,” Ford tells me. “I intentionally showed as little of Renesha’s rape as humanly possible. I also had an incredibly hard time being physically present for that scene, I should add. What I did shoot was ultimately guided by Renesha’s experience of it. Shoot only what she would remember. Show only what she would have been aware of.

“But I also made it clear that this was a violation of her autonomy, by allowing moments where we have an arm’s length point of view. I let the camera sit with the audience, as I’m also saying, as the filmmaker, this happened, and you saw enough of it to know. This, for me, is a larger commentary on how we treat victims of assault and rape. I do not believe for one goddamn minute that we need to see the actual, literal violence to know what happened. When we flagrantly replicate the violence in film and television, we are supporting the cultural norm of needing ‘all of the evidence’—whatever that means—to ‘believe women’.”

Ford’s intentional work in crafting the romance and unraveling of Test Pattern’s leading couple pays off on screen, but their stamp as an invested and careful director also shows in their work with Drew Fuller, the actor who played Mike, the rapist. “It’s a very difficult role, and I’m grateful to him for taking it so seriously. When discussing and rendering the practice and non-practice of consent intentionally, I found it helpful to give it a clear definition and provide conceptual insight.

“I sent Drew a few articles that I used as tools to create a baseline understanding when it comes to exploring consent and power on screen. At the top of that list was Lili Loofbourow’s piece, The female price of male pleasure and Zhana Vrangalova’s Teen Vogue piece, Everything You Need to Know about Consent that You Never Learned in Sex Ed. The latter in my opinion is the linchpin. There’s also Jude Elison Sady Doyle’s piece about the whole Aziz Ansari thing, which is a great primer.”

Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

Even when a filmmaker has given Ford’s level of care and attention to their project, what happens when the business end of the industry gets involved in the art? As we well know, marketing is a film’s window dressing. It has one job: to get eyeballs into the cinema. It can’t know if every viewer should feel safe to enter.

It would be useful, with certain material, to know how we should watch, and with whom, and what might we need in the way of support coming out. Whose job is it to provide this? Beyond the crude tool of an MPAA rating (and that’s a whole sorry tale for another day), there are many creative precautions that can be taken across the industry to safeguard a filmgoer’s experience.

Mayhew, who often sees films at the earliest stages (sometimes before a final cut, sometimes immediately after), speaks to journalists in early screenings and ensures they have the tools to safely report on the topics raised. In New Zealand, reporters are encouraged to read through resources to help them guide their work. Mayhew’s teams would also ensure journalists would be given relevant hotline numbers, and would ask media outlets to include them in published stories.

“It’s not saying, ‘You have to do this’,” she explains, “It’s about first of all not knowing what the journalist has been through themselves, and second of all, [if] they are entertainment reporters who haven’t navigated speaking about sexual assault, you only hope it will be helpful going forward. It’s certainly not done to infantilize them, because they’re smart people. It’s a way to show some care and support.”

The idea of having appropriate resources to make people feel safe and encourage them to make their own decisions is a priority for Bays and Birds’ Eye View, as well. The London-based creative producer and cultural activist stresses the importance of sharing such a viewing experience. “It’s the job of cinemas, distributors and festivals to realize that it might not be something the filmmaker does, but as the people in control of the environment it’s our job to give extra resources to those who want it,” says Bays. “To give people a safe space to come down from the experience.”

Pre-pandemic, when Birds’ Eye View screened Kitty Green’s The Assistant, a sharp condemnation of workplace micro-aggressions seen through the eyes of one female assistant, they invited women who had worked for Harvey Weinstein. For a discussion after Eliza Hittman’s coming-of-ager Never Rarely Sometimes Always, abortion experts were able to share their knowledge. “It’s about making sure the audience knows you can say anything here, but that it’s safe,” Bays explains. “It’s kind of like group therapy—you don’t know people, so you’re not beholden to what they think about you. And in the cinema people aren’t looking at you. You’re speaking somewhat anonymously, so a lot of really important stuff can come out.”

The traditional movie-going experience, involving friends, crowds and cathartic, let-loose feelings, is still largely inaccessible at the time of writing. Over the past twelve months we’ve talked plenty about preserving the magic of the big screen experience, but it’s about so much more than the romanticism of an art form; it’s also about the safety that comes from a feeling of community when watching potentially upsetting movies.

“The going in and coming out parts of watching a film in the cinema are massively important, because it’s like coming out of the airlock and coming back to reality,” says Bays. “You can’t do that at home. Difficult material kind of stays with you.” During the pandemic, Birds’ Eye View has continued to provide the same wrap-around curatorial support for at-home viewers as they would at an in-person event. “If we’re picking a difficult film and asking people to watch it at home, we might suggest you watch it with a friend so you can speak about it afterwards,” Bays says.

Julia Garner in The Assistant.
Julia Garner in The Assistant.

But, then, how can we still find this sense of community without the physical closeness? “It’s no good waiting for [the internet] to become kind,” she says. “Create your own closed spaces. We do workshops and conversations exclusively for people who sign up to our newsletter. In real-life meetings you can go from hating something to hearing an eloquent presentation of another perspective and coming round to it, but you need the time and space to do that. This little amount of time gives you a move towards healing, even if it’s just licking some wounds that were opened on Twitter. But it could be much deeper, like being a survivor and feeling very conflicted about the film, which I do.”

Conflict is something that Searles, the film critic, knows about all too well in her work. “Since I started writing professionally, I almost feel like I’m known for writing about assault and rape at this point. I do write about it a lot, and as a survivor I continue to process it. I’ve been assaulted more than once so I have a lot to process, and so each time I’m writing about it I’m thinking about different aspects and remnants of those feelings. It can be very cathartic, but it’s a double-edged sword because sometimes I feel like I have an obligation to write about it too.”

There is also a constant act of self-preservation that comes with putting so much of yourself on the internet. “I often get messages from people thanking me for talking about these subjects with a deep understanding of what they mean,” Searles says. “I really appreciate that. I get negative messages about a lot of things, but not this one thing.”

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You.
Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You.

With such thoughtful approaches to heavy content, it feels like we’re a long way further down the road from blunt tools like content and trigger warnings. But do they still have their place? “It’s just never seemed appropriate to put trigger warnings on any of our reviews or features,” White explains. “We have a heavy male readership, still 70 percent male to 30 percent female. I’m conscious we’re talking to a lot of men who will often have experienced violence themselves, but we don’t put any warnings, because we are an adult magazine, and when we talk about violence in, say, an action film, or violence that is very heavily between men, we don’t caveat that at all.”

Bays, too, is sceptical of trigger warnings, explaining that “there’s not much evidence [they] actually work. A lot of psychologists expound on the fact that if people get stuck in their trauma, you can never really recover from PTSD if you don’t at some point face your trauma.” She adds: “I’m a survivor, and I found I May Destroy You deeply, profoundly triggering, but also cathartic. I think it’s more about how you talk about the work, rather than having a ‘NB: survivors of sexual abuse or assault shouldn’t see this’.”

“It’s important to give people a feel of what they’re in for,” argues Searles. “A lot of people who have dealt with suicide ideation would prefer that warning.” While some worry that a content warning is effectively a plot spoiler, Searles disagrees. “I don’t consider a content warning a spoiler. I just couldn’t imagine sitting down for a film, knowing there’s going to be a suicide, and letting it distract me from the film.” Still, she acknowledges the nuance. “I think using ‘self-harm’ might be better than just saying ‘suicide’.”

Mayhew shared insights on who actually decides which films on which platforms are preceded with warnings—turns out, it’s a bit messy. “The onus traditionally has fallen on governmental censorship when it comes to theatrical releases,” she explains. “But streamers can do what they want, they are not bound by those rules so they have to—as the distributors and broadcasters—take the government’s censors on board in terms of how they are going to navigate it.

“The consumer doesn’t know the difference,” she continues, “nor should they—so it means they can be watching The Crown on Netflix and get this trigger warning about bulimia, and go to the cinema the next day and not get it, and feel angry about it. So there’s the question of where is the responsibility of the distributor, and where is the responsibility of the audience member to actually find out for themselves.”

The warnings given to an audience member can also vary widely depending where they find themselves in the world, too. Promising Young Woman, for example, is rated M in Australia, R18 in New Zealand, and R in the United States. Meanwhile, the invaluable Common Sense Media recommends an age of fifteen years and upwards for the “dark, powerful, mature revenge comedy”. Mayhew says a publicist’s job is “to have your finger on the pulse” about these cultural differences. “You have to read the overall room, and when I say room I mean the culture as a whole, and you have to be constantly abreast of things across those different ages too.”

She adds: “This feeds into the importance of representation right at the top of those boardrooms and right down to the film sets. My job is to see all opinions, and I never will, especially because I am a white woman. I consider myself part of the LGBT community and sometimes I’ll bring that to a room that I think has been lacking in that area, when it comes to harmful stereotypes that can be propagated within films about LGBT people. But I can’t bring a Black person’s perspective, I cannot bring an Indigenous perspective. The more representation you have, the better your film is going to be, your campaign is going to be.”

Bays, who is also a filmmaker, agrees: representation is about information, and working with enough knowledge to make sure your film is being as faithful to your chosen communities as possible. “As a filmmaker, I’d feel ill-informed and misplaced if I was stumbling into an area of representation that I knew nothing about without finding some tools and collaborators who could bring deeper insight.”

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman.
Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman.

This is something Ford aimed for with Test Pattern’s choice of crew members, which had an effect not just on the end product, but on the entire production process. “I made sure that at the department head level, I was hiring people I was in community with and fully saw me as a person, and me them,” they say. “In some ways it made the experience more pleasurable.” That said, the shoot was still not without its incidents: “These were the types of things that in my experience often occur on a film set dominated by straight white men, that we’re so accustomed to we sometimes don’t even notice it. I won’t go into it but what I will say is that it was not tolerated.”

Vital to the telling of the story were the lived experiences that Ford and their crew brought to set. “As it applies to the sensitive nature of this story, there were quite a few of us who have had our own experiences along the spectrum of assault, which means that we had to navigate our own internal re-processing of those experiences, which is hard to do when we’re constructing an experience of rape for a character.

“However, I think being able to share our own triggers and discomfort and context, when it came to Renesha’s experience, made the execution of it all the better. Again, it was a pleasure to be in community with such smart, talented and considerate women who each brought their own nuance to this film.”

Thinking about everything we’ve lived through by this point in 2021, and the heightened sensitivity and lowered mental health of film lovers worldwide, movies are carrying a pretty heavy burden right now: to, as Jane Fonda said at the Golden Globes, help us see through others’ eyes; also, to entertain or, at the very least, not upset us too much.

But to whom does film have a responsibility, really? Promising Young Woman’s writer-director Emerald Fennell, in an excellent interview with Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién, said that she was thinking of audiences when she crafted the upsetting conclusion.

What she was thinking was: a ‘happy’ ending for Cassie gets us no further forward as a society. Instead, Cassie’s shocking end “makes you feel a certain way, and it makes you want to talk about it. It makes you want to examine the film and the society that we live in. With a cathartic Hollywood ending, that’s not so much of a conversation, really. It’s a kind of empty catharsis.”

So let’s flip the question: what is our responsibility, as women and allies, towards celebrating audacious films about tricky subjects? The marvellous, avenging blockbusters that once sucked all the air out of film conversation are on pause, for now. Consider the space that this opens up for a different kind of approach to “must-see movies”. Spread the word about Test Pattern. Shout from the rooftops about It’s A Sin. Add Body of Water and Herself and Violation to your watchlists. And, make sure the right people are watching.

Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill in Test Pattern.
Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill in Test Pattern.

I asked my interviewees: if they could choose one type of person they think should see Promising Young Woman, who would it be? Ford has not seen Fennell’s film, but “it feels good to have my film contribute to a larger discourse that is ever shifting, ever adding nuance”. They are very clear on who can learn the most from their own movie.

“A white man is featured so prominently in Test Pattern as a statement about how white people and men have a habit of centering themselves in the stories of others, prioritizing their experience and neglecting to recognize those on the margins. If Evan is triggering, he should be. If your feelings about Evan vacillate, it is by design.

“‘Allies’ across the spectrum are in a complicated dance around doing the ‘right thing’ and ‘showing up’ for those they are ostensibly seeking to support,” Ford continues. “Their constant battle is to remember that they need to be centering the needs of those they were never conditioned to center. Tricky stuff. Mistakes will be made. Mistakes must be owned. Sometimes reconciliation is required.”

It is telling that similar thoughts emerged from my other interviewees regarding Promising Young Woman’s ideal audience, despite the fact that none of them was in conversation with the others for this story. For that reason, as we come to the end of this small contribution to a very large, ongoing conversation, I’ve left their words intact.

White: I think it’s a great film for men.

Searles: I feel like the movie is very much pointed at cisgender heterosexual men.

Mayhew: Men.

White: We’re always warned about the alpha male with a massive ego, but we’re not warned about the beta male who reads great books, listens to great records, has great film recommendations. But he probably slyly undermines you in a completely different way. Anybody can be a predator.

Searles: The actors chosen to play these misogynist, rape culture-perpetuating men are actors we think of as nice guys.

White: We are so much more tolerant of a man knocking the woman over the head, dragging her down an alley and raping her, because we understand that. But rape culture is made up of millions of small things that enable the people who do it. We are more likely to be attacked in our own homes by men we love than a stranger in the street.

Mayhew: The onus should not fall on women to call this out.

Searles: It’s not just creeps, like the ones you see usually in these movies. It’s guys like you. What are you going to do to make sure you’re not like this?

If you need help or to talk to someone about concerns raised for you in this story, please first know that you are not alone. These are just a few of the many organizations and resources available, and their websites include more information.


RAINN (hotline 0800 656 HOPE); LGBT National Help Center; Pathways to Safety; Time’s Up.


Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centers—contacts by province and territory


Mind; The Survivors Trust (hotline 08088 010818); Rape Crisis England and Wales


Rape Crisis Network Europe

Further Reading


Share This Article