We tend to think of film genre as a way of organising films into content types that help guide our viewing choices. Each genre offers something different to its audience in terms of narrative and character tropes, and also sensory and emotional pleasures: a horror film promises the gamut of emotional responses heralded by the genre’s name, while a comedy aims to make us laugh. However, genre also operates as a cultural category: a set of aesthetic, thematic and narrative conventions that construct a certain version of society. Film genres are constituted of a continual interplay between adhering to these familiar and well-worn conventions, and subverting them to challenge our expectations about not just the genre itself, but the world we live in.
Women filmmakers have long challenged genre conventions as a powerful means of social critique. In recent years, one key means through which women have achieved such social interrogation via film genre is through genre hybridity. Promising Young Woman (2020), Emerald Fennell’s directorial feature debut, combines disparate genres including black comedy, horror (specifically the rape revenge subgenre), thriller and romantic comedy, to the point that reviewers described the film as “unclassifiable” and “genre-bending”.
In an early scene, Carey Mulligan’s protagonist Cassandra is picked up at a club and taken home by nerdy “nice guy” Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who believes her to be too drunk to decline his amorous advances. After some mindless “conversation” at his apartment, Neil tries to take advantage of Cassandra, who he thinks has passed out. At this moment, Cassandra reveals that she has been pretending to be drunk. This renders Neil an embarrassed, stammering mess, unable to explain his actions beyond repeating “I’m a nice guy” and “I thought we had a connection”.
Cassandra repeatedly uses this ploy to lure supposedly “nice guys” like Neil into trying to take advantage of her, only to turn on them in a way that spotlights their appalling behaviour. This is Cassandra’s mode of revenge against a male-centred society that facilitated the rape of her best friend and the subsequent cover-up of this horrific event: no investigation or consequences were faced by the perpetrator.
While Promising Young Woman’s central character condemns society’s treatment of rape victims and offenders through her quest for revenge, the film’s writer and director, Fennell, achieves a parallel social interrogation through genre mixing. As Fennell explains of this scene, her aim was to subvert many similar scenes from romantic comedies: while the characters are communicating with each other, the film’s play with genre expectations is communicating directly with the audience. Fennell asserts that the scene offers “subversion or perversion of what we’re used to seeing when it comes to seduction in films and what people think is either appropriate or what they can get away with.”
A scene that would have been played for laughs in a conventional romantic comedy thus carries biting social critique. Fennell positions Neil’s character in this moment as a traditional romantic comedy hero, only to subvert this “nice guy” character trope as the film’s genre allegiance twists on its axis when it is revealed that this film is not just a romantic comedy, but also a rape revenge film. The dissonant, sinister music that crescendos as Cassandra suddenly turns on Neil underscores the film’s dark but playful genre shift.
As a result, the audience is jolted out of their comfortable acceptance of standard romantic comedy conventions, as they are forced to realise the problematic nature of the romantic comedy’s “nice guy” trope. As Fennell explains, this scene is organised around Neil’s monologue: he uncritically assumes that his desires and quest for sexual gratification are paramount, without considering the subjectivity, let alone the wellbeing, of his “date”. When the scene shifts genre and Cassandra reveals her sobriety, she challenges Neil’s repeated declarations that he’s just a “nice guy” who felt a “connection” by asking him a range of questions: “What do I do for a living? How old am I? How long have I lived in the city? What are my hobbies? What’s my name?” These questions, none of which Neil can answer, expose to him – and the audience – the extent to which Cassandra is positioned as a mere object of the male character’s desire in this “conventional” romantic comedy scene.
Such subversive genre hybridity has been a tool of social critique used by other women filmmakers in their recent films. Jennifer Kent’s follow up to The Babadook (2014), The Nightingale (2018), has a much less straightforward relationship to genre than her breakout horror film. Like Promising Young Woman, The Nightingale centres on a woman’s vengeance against male violence and oppression. Set in Tasmania in 1825, the film follows Irish convict Clare’s quest for revenge after her husband and baby are murdered and she is repeatedly raped by the leaders of the penal colony in which she lives. The audience joins Clare’s revenge quest not just via the narrative’s twists and turns, but through the film’s challenging combination of Gothic horror, period drama and art film, which continually plays with the audience’s expectations as to the plot’s direction. The film’s genre hybridity, which disturbs the conventions of the prestige period drama, opens up a space for oppressed women and Indigenous characters to have a voice in a genre that tends to position such characters as secondary to the motivations and ambitions of noble white men.
A comparable approach to genre hybridity can be seen in Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017), a Mexican film that combines fantasy, horror and realist crime drama to convey a young girl’s fraught traversal of Mexico City after her mother is kidnapped by a drug cartel. In this film, fairytale elements intrude on a gritty social realist narrative about the Mexican drug war. These fairytale aesthetics are conjured by the creative point-of-view of the film’s central child character, Estrella, and position her perspective as the film’s structuring force, even though the child does not fully comprehend her dangerous situation.
Similarly, in Ana Lily Amirpour’s Persian language film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), the Western genre is combined with film noir and horror – the vampire subgenre specifically. This genre combination serves to centralise the perspective and agency of The Girl, the film’s vengeful vampire antihero, in a society that marginalises women. As Amirpour has explained of the film’s generic mix, the vampire can be “so many things: serial killer, a romantic, a historian, a drug addict”. This young female vampire violently breaks free of constrictive social structures and character tropes that place women at the fringes of Iranian society.
One of the most critically acclaimed yet confronting films of 2021, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, uses related methods to challenge audience expectations through a volatile mix of genres. The film combines grotesque body horror with black comedy and revenge thriller. It has been described as “a batshit crazy blend of genres [that] defies description”. Titane’s defiance of neat generic categories is key to the film’s agenda: it offers a rebelliously woman-centric take on the gruesome, yet often misogynistic, thrills of body horror. In this film, a young girl has a titanium plate implanted in her skull after a car crash. As an adult, she develops an erotic fixation with cars – one of the most stereotypically male leisure pursuits – and she has turned to serial murder as a means of dealing with her uncontrollable urges. The film revels in a confronting, uncompromising and at times frightening vision of female desire – desires which include the protagonist’s lust for cars and metal, brutal violence and other women – in a genre that typically solicits a straight male gaze. While Titane has been described as 2021’s most shocking film, Ducournau won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, becoming only the second woman director to win the festival’s most prestigious award.
Genre mixing ultimately provides woman filmmakers with an opportunity to give subversive voice to characters and perspectives that have traditionally been sidelined in genres like horror and romantic comedy. By interrogating genre conventions, these filmmakers play with audience expectations in ways that encourage us to question the narrative codes, thematic agendas and character tropes of popular film genres. In Promising Young Woman, this challenging play with audience expectations defies easy pleasure for the audience at every turn. Even the catharsis usually offered by the bloody endings of rape revenge films is violently denied as Promising Young Woman draws to a climax. While genre is often criticised for its repetitive adherence to established conventions, genre’s function as a set of repeated codes provides women filmmakers with opportunities to blaze new trails by breaking the rules.
– Jessica Balanzategui is a Senior Lecturer in Media in the School of Media & Communication at RMIT University. Her research examines screen genres across film, television and digital media for and about children.
This article appears in Goddess: Fierce Women on Film. Grab your copy today.
- Charles Ealy, 'Film review: Promising Young Woman delivers a powerful punch', Sight Lines, January 17, 2021
- Dennis Harvey, 'Promising Young Woman: film review', Variety, January 26, 2020
- New York Times, 'Watch a queasy encounter from Promising Young Woman: anatomy of a scene', YouTube, February 6, 2021
- Jordan Ruimy, 'Titane: batshit crazy blend of genre defies description [Cannes]', World of Reel, July 14, 2021
- Angela Watercutter, 'Meet the woman who directed the world's only Iranian vampire Western', Wired, May 2, 2014