The film Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell in her feature directorial debut, tells the story of a woman who seeks revenge on her friend’s rapist, years after her friend commits suicide. Despite the fact that narratives of rape and sexual assault are popular in film, they are rarely told with such complexity and depth in the comedy genre. I argue that this film bends the genre of comedy to facilitate a deep, satirical examination and exploration of sexual assault, consent, and trauma, topics that many would consider being incompatible with the comedy genre.
Although comedy may seem like an unlikely vessel for discussions of consent, rape, and trauma, comedy is one of the few socially acceptable ways to discuss topics that are considered “taboo”, “sensitive”, or “controversial” (Bucaria & Barria, 2016). In addition, humor has the power to break the tension, to keep people sitting in their seats, eyes locked on the screen, and minds focused on what happens next-- despite their discomfort. From this perspective, it is clear that comedy may actually be one of the only ways to get people to be willing to sit down and spend 90 minutes actively thinking about the boundaries between consensual sex and rape, times when they were a bystander, and the experiences of sexual assault that one in six women re-live every day in their minds (Tjaden, 2000).
As a survivor of sexual assault, every day I am forced to reckon with my relationship to sexual assault, victimhood, and to replay my past traumas in search of some kind of relief or release (Draucker et al. 2009). Despite the difficulties I sometimes have with watching media depictions of sexual assault, I found myself comforted by the fact that in that very moment, I knew that everyone sitting in the theatre with me couldn’t help but spend the next 90 minutes thinking critically about consent, sexual assault, and its lasting effects on survivor’s relationships, mental health, and everyday lived experiences (Tjaden, 2000). I didn’t feel alone, invisible, or misunderstood, I felt supported, seen, and understood. Through the vehicle of comedy, that strategically diffused the pressure in the room as it neared the boiling point time and time again, even those who were not survivors found themselves thinking about their relationship to consent, sexual assault, and trauma. After the movie ended, I expected to go home in uncomfortable silence, or for someone to crack a joke to break the tension... But then something miraculous happened. We chose to talk about it.
For one of the first times in my life, I felt empowered to start a conversation about consent, sexual assault, and rape with someone who wasn’t my mom, best friend, or romantic partner. We had a conversation around the questions “What counts as rape?”, “What do we do when we find ourselves in a situation where we are a bystander?”, and “What are the long-term effects of surviving sexual assault?”. This film communicated to me that I was not alone, that through watching the film, members of the audience would understand me a little bit more. It empowered me to use my voice (Reinharz, 1994). Comedy may have been an unlikely genre for a movie about consent, rape, and trauma, but I would argue that it was an effective one-- it helped me cope with my trauma, it kept people watching, it made people think, and it sparked a conversation.
Note: If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call National Sexual Assault Hotline: a service of RAINN
Bucaria, C., & Barra, L. (Eds.). (2016). Taboo comedy: Television and controversial humour. Springer.
Draucker, C. B., Martsolf, D. S., Ross, R., Cook, C. B., Stidham, A. W., & Mweemba, P. (2009). The essence of healing from sexual violence: a qualitative metasynthesis. Research in nursing & health, 32(4), 366–378. https://doi.org/10.1002/nur.20333
Reinharz, S. (1994) Toward an ethnography of “voice” and “silence” In: Trickett E., Watts R., editors. Human diversity: Perspectives on people in context. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.. pp. 178–200.
Tjaden, P. G. (2000). Full report of the prevalence, incidence, and consequences of violence against women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.