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A Promising Young Woman — An important topic, a challenging film, a hard classification decision

Posted on 14 April 2021 by Rebecca

CONTENT WARNING: This article includes discussion of sexually explicit, and in some cases sexually violent, entertainment content, as well as spoilers for the film Promising Young Woman which is rated R18: Violence, deals with rape and suicide.

“The title inverts the trope of the “promising young man”, a phrase that crops up, with depressing frequency, in the defence of college-aged men accused of rape – is written and directed by Emerald Fennell and has divided critics.”
—The Guardian

We occasionally receive feedback from members of the public about the classification rating we have determined for a film. We also occasionally receive feedback that we’ve been too harsh. We appreciate hearing feedback like this directly. Getting the balance right can sometimes be tricky and plenty of robust conversations have been sparked by feedback into the office.

Promising Young Woman is an R18 genre-bending revenge thriller with protagonist Cassie played by Carey Mulligan. Cassie is a 30 year-old medical school drop-out who has lost her best friend Nina to suicide after a sexual assault by a classmate. The film deals with matters of sex, violence, cruelty and crime as the tortured Cassie seeks to deal with her grief and anger through revenge.

“By day, she works at a candy-coloured coffee shop. By night, she pretends to be drunk at dimly lit bars, going home with eager men only to intimidate and threaten these supposedly nice guys — played by the likes of Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson — who are inclined to proposition women temporarily incapable of providing consent.” Vulture

“It’s about the guys you are friends with, the guys who are cute and you might go home with. It’s about apartments that we have all ended up in, by hook or by crook.”  —Director Emerald Fennell

In March, we heard from a member of the public that the film had great merit for sixteen year olds to see the film “but unfortunately the censor has decided to give it an R18 certificate”.

We appreciate hearing feedback like this directly. As the complaint noted: “in the past you have re-thought the certificates that you have given films and I would like to suggest that you should do so with this one, especially if it wins an Oscar and then is likely to come back to the cinemas for a second season.”

The R18 classification of Promising Young Woman was determined in March 2020, which was assisted by a 19-year-old member of our youth advisory panel and a member of staff with experience in the sexual abuse prevention sector.

We are concerned about young people’s exposure to potentially harmful material in entertainment media, but at the same time we know that film can be a good way to encourage conversations about important and difficult topics like sexual violence. Including members of our Youth Advisory panel in discussions about a film like Promising Young Woman aids us in getting the classification balance right for rangatahi. It can be tricky and comes down to the way this content is dealt with in a film. We did research on this topic in 2017, Young New Zealanders Viewing Sexual Violence.

In examining Promising Young Woman and in subsequent discussions, we recognised the film had merit for highlighting male entitlement and the entrenched narratives around sexual assault and victim blaming. On the other hand, the film also serves rape-revenge narratives rather than empowering portrayals of someone dealing with the trauma of sexual violence. A high level of maturity is required to contextualise this.

We felt that the film’s treatment of sexual violence would likely be triggering for viewers (of any age) who have experienced sexual assault or unwanted sexual advances. We also felt that even older teenagers would likely be shocked and disturbed by the recording of the rape and the murder scene, especially in light of the circumstances surrounding the recent Grace Millane murder case.

Again, getting the balance right on films like this can be tricky. And we welcome feedback when people believe we haven’t hit the mark. Any member of the public can request a review or reconsideration of our classification decisions, however there are specific restrictions in our legislation about how this is done. Information on this process can be found on our website.

“The response has been overwhelmingly moving and positive. But if you make a film about a subject like this, understandably, it can never encompass everyone’s personal experience. There are some people for whom it would be too difficult to watch. I completely understand that and I respect the people who have found it difficult to like it. They have very fair and often personal reasons for feeling that – and that’s part of this stuff.” —Director Emerald Fennell

With Promising Young Woman receiving awards season buzz there are a number of excellent reads available online about filmmaker Emerald Fennell’s process of writing the characters, and the making of the film. In particular this article on Letterboxd provides an extensive and well-thought discussion about the challenges of promoting, watching, and talking about films with sexual violence themes. This Vulture interview with filmmaker Emerald Fennell (spoilers included) but is a great discussion about the themes and character motivations and demonstrates her thorough consideration of the cultural landscape right now. And The Guardian’s What Promising Young Woman gets right about sexual assault is an opinion piece placing the film within the social context of rape and sexual assault conversations happening in the United Kingdom.

Rebecca works at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the Chief Censor or the Classification Office. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter

Help information

Negative or sensitive content can make us feel not great. It is okay to not be okay. Take and break and talk to your friends or whānau. Don’t know who to talk to? Free call or text 1737 for more support. Safe to Talk is a sexual harm helpline available for non-judgemental 24/7 support, call 0800 044 334 or text 4334.

Unconsenting Media is a non-profit organisation in the UK with its origins at the University of Cambridge. Their aim is to develop and publicise a crowdsourced search engine for scenes containing sexual violence in films and television shows. The intention of this is to allow people - especially survivors of rape and sexual assault - to make more informed choices about what they watch, rather than potentially being taken by surprise by graphic scenes. www.unconsentingmedia.org

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