Woolf described that nagging interior voice thusly: “She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily.”
When we think of 2020, we’ll remember what we found after pivoting from theaters to streaming: women — lots of them — who were determined to say goodbye to all that.
We saw films that were defined by unbridled fury, low-boil resentment, no-effs-to-give independence and a range of subversive behaviors in between. There’s no doubt that many of those productions were greenlit in the wake of Hollywood’s own reckoning with entrenched institutional sexism over the past few years. But by the time they arrived, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, the resentments of the post-Weinstein, Trump White House era had been joined by florid pandemic-era mom rage. The screen heroines of 2020 wound up meeting their moment in unexpected and diabolically cathartic ways.
American cinema has labored under its own version of the Angel in the House, commonly known as the Male Gaze: With mostly men occupying executive suites and directors’ chairs, the natural result was that their desires, insecurities and wish-fulfillment fantasies would shape the standards of the medium they controlled. Thus, for decades, both men and women have been asked to accept a view of women that either reduced them to various body parts or idealized them into icons of Barbie doll perfection. It’s a short leap between Patmore’s “lack of lovely pride, in her/ Who strives to please” and the piece of screenwriting shorthand that’s so common it’s become a cliche: “Enter Jane — hot but doesn’t know it.”
Women filmmakers have often challenged those stereotypes, albeit without reaching critical mass in a business and art form that is still overwhelmingly dominated by men. It’s somehow fitting that director Patty Jenkins got her start by flipping the script on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold trope with the 2003 drama “Monster,” then went on to make 2017’s hugely successful “Wonder Woman.” That film’s new sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984,” is another high-spirited paean to female empowerment, but Jenkins pointedly includes a running motif of the story’s female protagonists routinely managing various forms of unwanted male attention and sexual aggression. In the 1980s, when the film is set, the Mall is where Kristen Wiig’s character is accosted by a creepy stranger; a generation later, it would be taken over by half a million fed-up women wearing hand-knit pink hats.
When Wiig’s character in “Wonder Woman 1984” finally goes ballistic, it’s partly because she’s been pushed to the edge by so many random acts of condescension, hostility and garden-variety injustice. (Millions of working women — especially those with kids — pushed to the brink of their physical, mental and emotional endurance over the past year can surely relate.)
Her Grand Guignol of payback caps off a year in which women persisted and resisted on-screen with ferocity, either in the form of quiet, gradually dawning awareness (“The Assistant”), tenacious self-control (“Swallow”), unbridled self-expression (“The 40-Year-Old Version,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) or the unapologetic embrace of power (“Selah and the Spades,” “The Old Guard”). Each of those films could be read as its own rejoinder to the feminine ideal Woolf expertly dissected in 1931: “Be sympathetic,” she said, quoting the spirit who reproached her when she criticized work by a male artist. “Be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of your sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own.’”
At their most transgressive, the heroines of 2020 resorted to outright murder, such as in the cozy-creepy “Blow the Man Down” (think Angela Lansbury by way of the Coen brothers), and “Violation,” a chilling feminist revenge tale that was recently acquired by the Shudder channel. As in so many thematically similar depictions — up to and including such addictive series as “I May Destroy You” and “The Queen’s Gambit” — deep-seated pain lies at the heart of the most incendiary female rage.
Nowhere is that adjacency more wrenchingly portrayed than in “Promising Young Woman,” in which Carey Mulligan turns the sexual tables with darkly delicious brio. With her pastel-colored delivery system and sly, eyelash-batting winks, writer-director Emerald Fennell seems to be heeding Woolf’s backhanded advice. Her camouflaging tactics are so adroit that the film’s denouement is both shocking and, somehow, deflating. “Promising Young Woman” leaves viewers longing for a time when women can be defined by something other than internalized expectations or inflicted trauma — when options extend beyond martyrdom or profound moral injury.
In “Promising Young Woman,” the Angel in the House is determined to set it all on fire, even if that means immolating herself. As Woolf said about her own efforts to silence the self-abnegating voice in her head: “I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. . . . Had I not killed her, she would have killed me.”