In America, sexual violence remains endemic—1 in 5 women have been raped, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. So the recent increase in fictional programming that examines the effect of that violence is long overdue and necessary. As a survivor of sexual violence, steeling myself to watch examinations of the aftermath of sexual trauma in TV and film has been worth it: processing through art and pop culture has been essential to my own healing process, extending me the acceptance, self-love, and validation I’d desperately needed but didn’t receive after my own assault.
But these stories also highlight the continued injustices of a patriarchal system in which women and femmes carry the brunt of victimhood, of unwanted memories, of altered life paths.
The biggest releases of 2020 in this vein, “Promising Young Woman”—a feature film written and directed by Emerald Fennell—and “I May Destroy You”—a fictionalized TV series based on showrunner/writer/director/star Michaela Coel’s real-life experience—utilize the melding of brutally real and fantastical elements to create accurate—if not comprehensive—portraits of how the trauma of rape lingers in the lives of victims and their loved ones.
In “Promising Young Woman,” the film’s main character, Cassie, a 30-year-old former medical student, is tormented by her friend Nina’s death, after Nina was raped by a classmate at a party while the two friends were in medical school. Unable to move forward without Nina, Cassie finds a chance opening to force her former cohort and medical school dean into understanding and consequences of their complicity in Nina’s assault and her friend’s mistreatment thereafter.
At first glance, this is the ultimate revenge fantasy film—what would you do to the people who hurt someone you love, it asks the viewer—but what lies underneath is a commentary on the actual cost of bringing one’s rapist or assailant to justice. For Cassie, ensuring Nina’s perpetrators got their just desserts by manufacturing situations that forced emotional turmoil and fear–for instance, she gets a former classmate blackout drunk and pays a man to escort her to a hotel room, leaving the classmate wondering whether she herself was assaulted in that situation–as recompense for their previous actions came at the cost of her own mental health, the loss of her own career trajectory, and eventually (spoiler alert) the loss of her life in addition to her friend’s life. It took not one, but two promising young women’s deaths to smash open the ring of complicity, shining truth upon what was hidden and buried for years.
While we don’t ultimately know what happens to the perpetrators—the movie ends with allusion to some sort of justice but without its satisfaction—we do watch as time corrodes the joy and hope Cassie once shared with her friend. To be rendered aimless in the present and simultaneously imprisoned by the past is the truth of so many trauma survivors, and Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, wears this piece of the experience convincingly.
And while the act of watching Cassie’s scheme unfold has its moments of catharsis for victims like myself, it left me with a breath of despair I hadn’t expected to exhale: she sacrifices herself to center the original crime, adding herself to the pile of the inflicted. This doesn’t feel like justice, but rather, a metaphor for the price women have to pay for justice. As victims, is that the only choice we have?
“I May Destroy You” gives us another option. Arabella, the main character, is not in the same abyss as Cassie. But she is constantly waking up to new memories, new numbness, new rage, and new possibilities. On the edge of a deadline and gripped by writerly procrastination, Arabella goes out with friends the night before a draft of her new book is due and is drugged and raped by a stranger at a club. As time moves Arabella forward, and fragments of her drug-facilitated rape coalesce in her memory, viewers access the myriad ways the assault seeps into innocent moments: sitting on a toilet, the mere suggestion of writing at her agents’ office, and a waitress serving her a glass of water all trigger flashbacks to small slivers of lucidity. We also witness how Arabella’s ability to process her rape openly demonstrates how sharing one’s experience can create a ripple effect that extends into our circles of support: her friends Terry and Kwame each have sexual encounters that they recognize as assault, both reflectively and in real time, and Arabella finds community with an old school friend who runs a survivors’ support group.
The episodic nature of the TV format also allows deeper examination and fleshed-out storytelling of the emotional complexities of life post-trauma. Arabella is separately and simultaneously restless, selfish, selfless, searching for peace, hellbent on destruction, manic, calm, reflective, and vindictive. Along for the ride on her personal quest for justice and healing, we witness numerous transformations from powerlessness to full of power recur like watching a balloon be filled and lose air over and over again. One moment she is calling out one of her rapists publicly, live in front of an audience at a publishing event that goes viral; the next, she’s sobbing after being victim-blamed by an ex-boyfriend who insists, “if you had watched your drink, you wouldn’t have been raped.” She finds an audience on social media and drinks in the attention of being an assault survivor shero, but the pressure of having to ingest innumerable, faceless stories in her mentions and comments is giving her high blood pressure. For trauma survivors, to watch Arabella’s fluctuations is to see our own. The nonlinear path of processing, accepting, and healing can feel like a roller-coaster ride, and Coel takes us along on hers but it’s not scary, it’s comforting. In a way, it’s medicine.
The series ends with a look into Arabella’s mind, full of confrontational scenarios all made plausible by how well we’ve gotten to know the weight she carries. And that’s just it: sexual trauma survivors have this extraneous weight we were forced to carry by the violence we endured. Like Arabella, we learn how to carry it until it doesn’t feel as heavy.