A Feminist Revenge Thriller With No Thrills

A woman in a pink sweater stands in front of light blue molding
I was sold a ticket to a righteous dismemberment, and all I got was a lecture.

By Vicky Osterweil

The first thing I can remember hearing about feminism was a joke:

“Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: That’s not funny, that’s not funny at all.

The lesson I learned from this joke was that feminism is no laughing matter. The joke gets its charge from centuries of misogynist contempt. When misogynists mock the feminist insistence that the personal is political, sneer “why can’t you take a joke?” or wave away sexual harassment as “just locker room talk,” they build a trap.

Back then, I joined a long tradition, and walked into the trap. Instead of laughing contemptuously at the blinkered misogynist, and demanding better jokes, feminists often go about laboriously proving points that we shouldn’t have to even consider: that in fact, rape is not funny, no means no, and so on. It can be valuable to do this among ourselves as a form of consciousness raising and solidarity — you’re not crazy, your hurt is real, etc. — but in the face of patriarchs and their defenders who claim in bad faith that they just want to “ask questions” we could save a lot of time and energy if we just spit. 

Attempts by feminists to justify our existence to misogynists by accepting a patriarchal society’s standards of “serious conduct” goes at least as far back as the 18th century. In her Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft argued that while it was undoubtedly true that women were often silly, ignorant and manipulative, it was simply lack of middle-class education and formal opportunity rather than “natural fact” that kept women from being serious rational thinkers and virtuous citizens. Clearly, it would have been too much for Wollstonecraft to say that society’s concepts of reason, virtue, and citizenship were themselves fucked up and should change. That would have been hysterical, absurd, embarrassing.

Modern versions of this argument have suggested that while obviously women lag behind men, they can be equal if they lean in, work hard, take charge without being intimidating, and look polished but not too hot. The idealized modern woman represents an impossible combination of purity and bravery; she appeals to a male audience by sticking it to The Man without actually threatening him, insisting that she just wants him to live up to his own standards. To a certain kind of respectable feminist, this is the most serious position a woman can have. It’s perversely self-sacrificing, and it glorifies and naturalizes (some) women’s suffering as a mark of fitness for the world of men. “If men had periods” —and of course, many men do have periods — “then there would be five days paid leave a month and Epsom salt baths at every office.” These jokes and the worlds they imagine are just as tedious as the patriarchs they attempt to call out. Real humor should take something tired and turn it into something unexpected.

Real humor should take something tired and turn it into something unexpected.

Two new filmmakers have just put out feminist revenge comedy-thrillers that play in this space of joking-not-joking feminist seriousness. Emerald Fennells’ directorial debut, the unfun unfunny film Promising Young Woman (marketed as a black comedy), was quickly canonized by Hollywood, the Academy Awards, and critics’ circles eager to demonstrate their post-#metoo enlightenment since its release last December. By contrast, the very funny, politically and physically eviscerating I Blame Society, directed by Gillian Wallace Horvat and released last April, has been comparatively ignored. The inevitable inequality between a big budget star-studded film and a low-budget indie is partially to blame. But the discrepancy may also have a lot to do with the feminist tactics chosen by the directors: for all its edgy marketing, Promising Young Woman feels comfortable to establishment critics, while I Blame Society has proved divisive. The two directors make very different use of humor, but only one shows us anything new.

I Blame Society features a lot of terrifying violence and it is also a laugh riot. The directorial feature debut of director and producer Gillian Wallace Horvat, the film follows neurotic struggling indie filmmaker Gillian as her “serious” “political” film project about Israel gets her dropped by her agent and she’s left adrift in LA. Shot in the style of a mockumentary, the film captures her life via her “own” cameras, the set-ups and use of which are a recurrent gag.

Gillian Horvath in I Blame Society.
Gillian Horvath in I Blame Society.

In the wake of her agent’s rejection, Gillian considers restarting a project she abandoned a few years earlier. Having been told by friends that she “would make a good murderer,” she decides to film herself planning and mock-performing a murder. When she gets a meeting with a pair of producers, young white guys who are looking for, as they put it, movies by and about “underrepresented voices, being an ally, you might think someone is white but they’re not, intersexuality… intersectionality, breastfeeding in public, intersectionality” and want her to pitch them an idea, she resumes working on her “how to be a murderer” film.

She begins filming her daily life as she goes about designing the perfect murder: how she would do it, and how she would get away with it. Her relationship with her boyfriend falls apart, and as her activities escalate from petty crime to out-and-out murder, she discovers she does in fact have a knack for killing. She begins terrorizing the LA area, mostly seducing and murdering straight men, but occasionally home-invading others as well. Her calling card is leaving a strange and alienated “suicide note” next to her victims, whose murders are increasingly gruesome and random. (“Modern life is so empty,” reads a note left with an older man Gillian post-coitally kills. “The millennials have ruined everything”).

When a police profiler on local TV describes the ongoing spree as the work of an alienated young man — “A sick man? Bullshit!” — Gillian has an angry epiphany, realizing that while she is very good at serial killing, it’s hard, thankless work, and it doesn’t give her the creative thrill it once did. At one point, a character who sees a rough cut of her film says “I just don’t think it’s believable. We need someone likeable and relatable,” to which she responds by stabbing him in the gut. “You just don’t know what I am,” she says to him. “What are you?” he asks in horror. “A strong female lead” she replies, slashing his throat.

At one point, a character who sees a rough cut of her film says “I just don’t think it’s believable. We need someone likeable and relatable,” to which she responds by stabbing him in the gut.

I Blame Society operates on the deranged mismatch between Gillian’s activities and her attitude toward them. Her self-reflective, video-bloggy and jokey monologues to the camera sharply contrast with, her amoral view that what she’s doing is simply a career-advancing “creative project.” We see her frustration about not being taken seriously, her worrying that other women are more attractive, famous, etc., and, of course, we witness a series of increasingly horrifying set-pieces — which she always prepares for by setting up multiple cameras, for good coverage. 

Crucially, Gillian is totally deadpan. Her character is serious about what she’s doing, and is genuinely proud of her work. She is constantly judging her own ability, skill, and the quality of her work. She comes back again and again to the fact that her friends “said she would be good at it,” and is outraged when her achievements don’t lead to their love and respect. As such, she is a murderous embodiment of the aggrieved girlboss, driven to sociopathic and self-justifying extremes. After all, a girlboss must, like every boss, become a killer. In taking the injunction to girlboss too seriously, however, Gillian reveals not only the violence of its premise but the insincerity of the patriarchal creeps who argue on its behalf. While Hollywood loves to claim that it wants “different voices,” its powerbrokers wouldn’t recognize a strong female lead if she stabbed them in the gut.

I Blame Society, which so successfully critiques both the girlboss and #metoo-era cultural Hollywood feminism, is also full of jokes, sex and violence. It leans into its generic trappings as a mockumentary/found-footage serial killer horror. It says something important by making what is supposed to be serious absurd, by not being afraid to have an unlikeable lead (Gillian is funny, but absolutely abhorrent), by not treating its subject — the sexist workplace — as sacrosanct, and by not taking the oppressor seriously at all. To watch it is to revel in the dismembering that the patriarchy has brought upon itself. No wonder I Blame Society’s feminist intervention is so much less popular, and so much more divisive, than its competition.

A scene from I Blame Society
A scene from I Blame Society.

Promising Young Woman is neither funny nor good. Despite being promoted by trailers implying it is a rape-revenge movie — a genre in which a woman takes matters into her own hands and gets violent retribution against her abusers — the film, in fact, rejects revenge. 

When we meet Cassie, played by Casey Mulligan, she has dropped out of med school to take care of a friend who was raped on camera at a med school party. The friend ends up killing herself, and Cassie takes a dead-end service job, spending her nights and weekends going to clubs alone and pretending to get blackout drunk. Then, when men take her home to assault her, she… and that’s where the trailer cuts off. But in the movie, she… snaps to attention and makes them feel ashamed of themselves, then leaves. 

If that seems like pretty weak sauce, well, it is, especially since I was sold a ticket to see her righteously dismembering these so-called nice guys. This bait and switch, which has been talked about ad nauseum by the director and the film’s fans, is meant to be a part of its feminist edge. You thought you were gonna have violent horror fun? Fuck you! This is serious! In assuming that to go full gore would be anti-feminist they seem to be drawing on a longstanding pop-feminist misinterpretation of horror movies — that they’re inherently shallow, silly, and all about exploitatively enjoying violence against women. This moralizing might be more effective if the movie didn’t spend just as much time as any brotastic Hollywood thriller showing violence against women.

As writer Ayesha Siddiqi has noted, instead of revenge against men, “the film allows only two acts of retribution, both against women.” Cassie brutally punishes two women connected to her friend’s assault (one played by Alison Brie, whose talents are tragically wasted here), then goes to the bachelor party of her friend’s rapist: “She misleads the men who attend into thinking she’s a stripper. Little do they know she’s actually … a woman in a stripper costume.” The femmephobia and whorephobia that Siddiqi calls out here — particularly the way in which the film dramatizes Cassie’s respectability and difference from “real” sex workers — is key to how “serious” feminists view sex workers: sometimes regarding them as victims, sometimes as traitors, but never as “real” political women. 

As writer Ayesha Siddiqi has noted, instead of revenge against men, “the film allows only two acts of retribution, both against women.”

When, at the film’s climax, Cassie finally traps and prepares to torture the main perpetrator, he breaks free of his restraints, and we watch him, in horrible close-up and in real time, strangle her to death in a bed. Not satisfied with just one eroticized violence-against-sex-workers-trope, we then see him and a buddy burn her body, and head to his wedding.

If the movie ended there, it would have made a statement. It would have been a harrowing film about a woman who was murdered by the kinds of violent rich men who prosper under patriarchy because she wasn’t willing to take masculine violence as a serious enough threat, or because she tried to fight it alone when what is truly needed is organized political action. I still don’t think it would have been a good movie, but it would have been a more successful deconstruction of the rape-revenge genre. It was, apparently, where Fennell’s original script concluded, but investors wanted a happier ending. In fact, they were right on the money: if Promising Young Woman had ended in an image of bleak defeat, it likely would have been unpopular. 

And so, instead, TWIST! It turns out Cassie had foreseen all of this, and on the day of the murderer-rapist’s nuptials, a series of pre-programmed text messages arrive, letting everyone know that she has alerted the authorities from beyond the grave and pointed them toward her remains. The movie ends with sirens blaring and a line of cop cars descending on the wedding. That she was willing to die at the rapist’s hand, sacrificing herself in order to out him as a killer, is meant to be a triumphant conclusion.

Carrie Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.
Carrie Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.

This plays into so many terrible tropes about women and rape that it’s hard to count them all: that women’s goodness is more important than their lives, that cops just need better evidence in order to catch rapists, and that individuals just need to BELIEVE ???? WOMEN ???? for everything to change. 

It is important to note that the tone of Promising Young Woman is dead serious. As Beatrice Kilat wrote in her review of the film, 

“What we do know is that Cassie has no friends, no life, and no discernible personality or interests outside of these weekend escapades. We never witness her using her intelligence in service of anything but teaching a lesson to a man or a woman who has enabled a bad man… Cassie is given the gravitas of a saint and the omniscience of a god… Promising Young Woman is a comedy so dark it’s illegible.”

In other words, there is nothing here but a beautiful young white woman nobly suffering through disappointment after disappointment, chastising dozens of men to no avail, humiliating other women, and finally calling the cops. 

Promising Young Woman is a joyless slog, forcing us to wallow in our already existing shitty experiences. You come out of the film needing a drink. I Blame Society puts us in an emotional space of exuberant anarchic confrontation and possibility, and I left it wanting to torch a producer’s BMW. 

Promising Young Woman is deeply suspicious of pleasure — hence its oft-commented upon emotional high point, when Cassie and beaux Bo Burnham dance and lip sync to a Paris Hilton song in a neon-lit pharmacy. This supposed recuperation of queer pleasures (lip-syncing, Paris Hilton’s dance tracks) via one of the most manufactured “artists” in the most banal of capitalist spaces, reveals a directorial imagination that can only find the barest joy by giving in to the deadening demands of a cruel world.

This suspicion of pleasure in general and the pleasure of horror in particular seems to explain so much of the film’s popularity. What Fennell and Promising Young Woman’s fans don’t understand about horror is that, through fear and laughter, our bodies are activated, engaged and focused, the tension helping suspend disbelief such that supernatural impossibility can set our imaginations aflame. Humor, satire, fantasy and pleasure are exceptional tools for imagining a different kind of world. Queer feminism has long insisted on joyful resistance, because it’s key to not being ground down into the sort of sad fatalism that makes organizing impossible. But for people who enjoy horror — and that’s certainly not everyone — it’s also a fun and safe way to process and reenact the fear, violence and trauma of everyday life. 

The appeal to “seriousness” is ultimately an appeal to respectability, to a certain kind of subject position that dominant culture accepts as political, legitimate and real. Therefore, Fennell’s grim approach in Promising Young Woman is seen as important political critique while Horvat’s zany satire is not. What is so particularly frustrating is that I Blame Society is the very thing critics are praising Promising Young Woman for: a hilarious and subversive deconstruction of a horror subgenre (the serial killer movie) that speaks to the possibilities and limits of the popular feminist moment.

The public call outs, consciousness-raising and solidarity-building revelations of normalized misogyny, denial and sexual violence that made up the #metoo movement are tactics that had been developed and honed for over a decade in queer, activist, feminist and counter-cultural spaces. Naming abuse and pushing out abusers have often been vital first steps in developing better feminist ethics and practices within these scenes. But those tactics have also come up against certain limits, most consistently that these scenes are not in fact communities capable of holding people accountable. 

The #metoo movement enacted these dynamics, and reached these limits, on a national stage. The initial burst of energy, outrage, solidarity, grief and desire for change eventually gave way to a focus on ousting particularly monstrous and egregious villains. That Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and other horrifying men should be removed from their positions of power was a vital and necessary first step — but it was also basically the last one. Rather than lead to a questioning of the power structures that make such abuse not only possible but endemic, the media and its girlboss feminists loudly proclaimed their disgust at these specific men and demanded more women be put into these (unchanged) positions of power. 

Across the movement, a sense of rage, despair, and grim seriousness dominated. Some people expressed shock, outrage, and betrayal, while others expressed exhaustion and weary anger at the hypocrisy of people suddenly claiming surprise when they knew damn well what was going on all along. Demands that women be listened to, believed, given more power, — in short, be taken as seriously as men — were everywhere. The affective demand to “believe women” was pointed at patriarchs and their power structures by women trying, Cassie-style, to persuade men of our humanity. 

But rage against the unchanging violence of the system need not be paired with a fatalistic acceptance of its terms. Revolutionary feminism at its best ignores patriarchal standards of seriousness, instead embracing the queer, the marginal, the disabled, the elderly and children, and valuing pleasure, freedom and mutual understanding. To believe in accountability, consent, personal growth, learning and change — and by extension, to believe in the power of critiquing and analyzing yourself — means that we must not take where we are at any given moment as perfect, unchangeable, and therefore too serious to be joked about. If we truly want to embrace the joyful, the pleasurable, the caring, the sexual, and our own physical animality, we must recognize laughter as a powerful and sometimes revolutionary tool.

So, when someone tells you that Promising Young Woman is an incredible feminist document for our time, well, you just have to laugh.