‘Promising Young Woman’ vs. ‘I May Destroy You’: Messaging in the Me Too Era

Cassie, in business attire, pretends to be drunk at a bar.

FF2 Guest Post by Shelby Cooke

The “Me Too” movement and the revelations of rampant sexual abuse in creative industries (especially in Hollywood) have opened conversations about women’s mistreatment and disadvantages. Conversations about these issues are slowly becoming more mainstream. Four years later, film and television makers are finally amplifying women’s voices, with 2020 boasting record-breaking amounts of female-led productions. In particular, last year saw the release of two works that confronted collective anger towards the commonality of rape culture: Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-nominated movie Promising Young Woman, and Michaela Coel’s television series I May Destroy You

Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You are created in different mediums, but born from the same wound: the widespread disregard for victims of rape and sexual abuse. In Promising Young Woman, “Cassie” (Carey Mulligan), a vigilante out to confront sexual assault, goes to bars and clubs pretending to be blackout drunk in order to lure unsuspecting men into situations where they attempt to have nonconsensual sex with her. HBO’s I May Destroy You follows “Arabella”  (Michaela Coel) as she undergoes a journey of understanding and acceptance after she is date-raped by a stranger during a night out with her friends. 

At first glance, both stories tackle this epidemic by depicting the extreme lengths that women will go to in order to encourage men to face the consequences of their actions. Throughout their respective narratives, Cassie and Arabella shame men, both publicly and privately, for their crimes against women: Cassie by honey trapping men and Arabella by using her position as an influencer to publicly shame accused men. 

Cassie is angry because her best friend had been publicly assaulted at a party. Carey Mulligan’s character is a former law student, highly intelligent, but also is presented as the beautiful (but naughty) girl next door with platinum blonde hair and youthful attire. However, we find out she’s traumatized enough to have to live at home and take a low-energy job. She has moments of shocking rage (breaking the windshield of a stranger’s car), aggression and unnecessary violence (kidnapping the university president’s daughter). I think Cassie is being presented more like a Quentin Tarantino heroine – one that can kick ass while still appearing physically flawless for her typical Tarantino-type audience – rather than the everyday woman. Because of these qualities, Cassie’s characterization seems to be more aligned with stereotypical men’s expectations of “mean feminists” than a realistic portrayal of a grieving friend. By targeting the film towards men, it attempts to educate the opposite gender about the female experience.

But is the message, (particularly the purposeful sarcasm Fennell employs), reaching audiences? Fennell employs Cassie’s agenda on hyperdrive, whose intimidation methods — although admirable for seeking justice — run the risk of perpetuating a narrative that it’s common for men to be framed for rape. And this is the film’s most detrimental effect —  it is presenting a story, not about justice and understanding, not about teaching men that their actions have consequences, but rather, about how innocent guys become victims to women crying “rape.” 

Conversely, I May Destroy You presents Arabella in a drastically different way. Arabella’s actions throughout the series are intended to break down the stigma and shame associated with rape. Her prerogative is to make them face the consequences of their actions. Arabella is presented more like an Everyman (or Everywoman), a real, average person you can project yourself onto, comparing your own experiences with the ones she goes through during the series. This is where I May Destroy You triumphs over Promising Young Woman: the show takes a more objective approach when looking at sexual assault, making the conversation about harassment and assault a universal issue. Unlike Promising You Woman, which pits women against men and men against women, I May Destroy You is unafraid to present Arabella as both a victim and a perpetrator.

And this is what Coel’s drama does: it takes the time to explore the different ways assault and harassment can manifest, how complex the issues are, and why you should care. The reality of sexual assault is that it can happen to anyone. While the most common cases of rape happen to women (according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women in the US will be raped during their lifetime), 43% of men have also reported experiencing sexual assault or harassment in their lifetime.

Coel makes an effort to educate her viewers on all forms of harassment and assault, using her characters as a way of addressing the grey areas of assault. She shows Arabella being raped a second time, once again unknown to her, because her boyfriend removes his condom nonconsensually during sex. In another episode, “Kwame” (Paapa Essiedu), Arabella’s gay friend, hooks up with a woman because he is insecure about his sexuality, lying to his hook up about his sexuality and his reasons for wanting to have sex with her. The show allows for moments like these to teach its viewers about the reality of assault and how rape can be something one hadn’t even considered.  Yet, at the same time, Coel also highlights how even women can harass men and make them uncomfortable in sexual situations. Her male characters confront Arabella about her bad behavior (once, when she locks her friend in a bedroom with his crush despite him pleading to let them out, and again when she shows up at the house of a casual fling in Italy, uninvited and unwanted, to hook up), challenging an idea that only women can be victims. Coel forces Arabella to learn about the reality of harassment and assault, allowing her, and in turn, us, to understand the nuances of sexual health.  

Coel’s show serves a purpose; we take something away from the experience of watching because we can understand Arabella and her actions. Fennell doesn’t give us the opportunity to criticize Cassie. We’re just meant to accept her and her agenda as the right way to teach men about the harmfulness of their actions. I fear Fennell’s more mean-spirited approach is probably more likely to push men away from supporting the cause than to learn a lesson. Coel doesn’t point the finger at any one person or gender for causing rape to happen. She doesn’t have to preach or insult men to get her message across. Instead, she unbiasedly criticizes the actions of her characters, highlighting that no one is exempt from inflicting abuse.

At the end of the day, both stories provide the opportunity to start a conversation about rape and assault in a “MeToo” world. And although Fennell might not have intended for her film to be seen this way, for me it nonetheless still projected certain cultural assumptions that can be miscommunicated, especially on a subject as disputed as sexual assault. Whereas, Michaela Coel’s take on the same cultural plague has more authenticity to it, showing her characters as just humans, rather than superhumans, bringing the story back to reality rather than fantasy. 

© Shelby Cooke (6/23/21) – Special for FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Carrie Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (2020). Photo Credits: Dom Slike 

Middle Photo: Michaela Coen as Arabella in her television series, I May Destroy You (2020).

Tags: Carey Mulligan, Emerald Fennell, I May Destroy You, MeToo, Michaela Coel, Promising Young Woman

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