The production code and a Promising Young Woman

Despite the lurid poster, the film is notable for its restraint on a difficult subject.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In some dreary and anonymous urban bar, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is way too intoxicated to know what is happening around her. She seems hopelessly drunk at a bar. A male customer offers to take her home to ensure she is safe. The man then changes tracks and invites her to her apartment first. He then makes sexual advances to her comatose form. At that point, he realises that not only is she not drunk, and he is a potential sexual offender – and not the nice guy he imagines himself to be.

Director and writer Emerald Fennell’s ambitious first film Promising Young Woman is a fascinating take on the rape-revenge film. The central character Cassie was a ‘promising young woman’ when her friend was raped, which caused her friend’s and also her own breakdown. Cassie leaves her high level medical career to work in a coffe shop, while living at home. She remains highly embittered by the attack and vows revenge on the killers – and men who take advantage of drunk women.

The film is well made and astonishingly tense depiction of a troubled young woman. It also has elements that stretch back to the depression era films. The Production Code of the 1930s was issued to help the film industry avoid a raft of state and federal censorship. It was a type of industry self-censorship to forestall government intervention.[1] Although these guidelines were technically voluntary, in practice, the major Hollywood studios used the code to deal with the pressure from religious lobby groups. The code developed real teeth later in the 1930s, and films could not get a release if it violated its rules. Rape and depiction of rape were highly sensitive topics of the period. Some have argued that the Production Code meant that directors and writers were far more careful and clever in the way they depicted

While no code is in place now, as it fell apart several decades ago, Fennel employs an impressive array of techniques to depict the impact of violence, without showing it. She shows that an intelligent director does not have to be explicit.

Alexander Heller-Nicholas’s survey of rape-revenge films mentions a whole stratum of these types of films, arguing that Thirteen Women was an early example of rape-revenge film. It is certainly a distant ancestor of a Promising Young Woman. The 1932 thriller film directed by George Archainbaud did not explicitly depict rape, but the film provides clear evidence that the attack or attacks occurred. The film also even repeats the “We were young,” defence that the witnesses and the rapists employ in a Promising Young Woman. [2]

A distant ancestor of Promising Young Woman was Thirteen Women. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Of course, the Me-too Movement’s politics in 2021 is a world away from the Production Code of 1930, and some aspects have altered markedly. The rape is the now central incident in the film – there is no veiled references. What is remarkable about the film is that while the topic is odious, the depiction of sexual violence is kept to a minimum. Fennell prefers to allow the audience to project their fears rather than depict the incidents. Aside from one scene, the film is an exercise in restraint.

The writers of the production code may not have liked the nudity or the violence – very subdued by today’s standards – but they would have understood the ending and it could have got the code’s stamp of approval. Each of the people who allowed the rape to occur unpunished receives some form of retribution. One of the basic tents of the code was that overt act against the law would be punished.

Unfortunately, under the code, anyone who commits a crime must also pay the price, and Cassie is guilty of a host of offences in her pursuit of revenge for her friend. The framers of the production code would understand her penalty as a suitable corrective to anyone who considers breaking the law.

The code is still hanging in there, even in 2021.


[1] Motion Picture Association of America, A Code Governing the Making of Motion Pictures: The reason supporting it and the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. 1930- 1935,

[2] Alexander Heller-Nicholas, Rape Revenge Film: A Critical Study, London: MacFarland, 2011.

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