When Will Gaming Have Its Promising Young Woman Moment?

Promising Young Woman had a so-so night at the Oscars this past weekend, winning Best Original Screenplay while Carey Mulligan lost out on the Best Actress award she had been heavily touted for. Bigger than the awards or the box office receipts, Promising Young Woman felt like a watershed moment for Hollywood, and for our culture as a whole. The first major post-MeToo movement movie to actually acknowledge MeToo, Promising Young Woman is as bitter as it is sweet. But after watching it, I’m left wondering: when will gaming have its Promising Young Woman moment?

I don’t want a game that tackles Promising Young Woman’s subject matter, necessarily. The film is ostensibly about rape and sexual assault – though neither phrase is used in the film – but in a much more grounded way, it is about being a woman. It’s aggressively feminine, from its subject matter, to Mulligan’s excellent characterisation, to its soundtrack of Charli XCX, Spice Girls, and Paris Hilton.

Frankly, I don’t trust gaming with Promising Young Woman’s subject matter yet. Gaming is capable of eliciting a wide range of emotions, but it’s still some way behind films in its ability to broach tough issues. Promising Young Woman walks a razor-thin tightrope and keeps its balance perfectly. Gamifying protagonist Cassie’s quest for vengeance might be enough to push it over the ledge alone, not to mention gaming’s lack of trust in its core audience means it often struggles with nuance. Even though gaming is more interactive and far less passive than film (or television, for that matter), it rarely uses that opportunity to leave things open to personal interpretation, to let us read between the lines, or to use dialogue to not say something rather than to say it.

We can all think of a handful of examples, sure, but we all know they’re exceptions, not the rule.

While there is violence in Promising Young Woman, both exacted by, upon, and around Cassie, gaming’s history with violence as a reward again damages my trust in its ability to tell a story like this. But that doesn’t mean gaming can’t have its own version of a Promising Young Woman moment.

There’s more to Promising Young Woman than just the subject matter at its surface, and that’s what gaming needs to embrace. Both being cathartic Oscar-darlings concerned with a righteous anger in today’s world, Promising Young Woman has been compared to Joker, although I don’t think the comparison is accurate. That said, I do think Joker’s anger is righteous. It’s easy to scoff at the idea that life is hard on straight white men, but the fact is, it is. It’s easier on them than it is a lot of us, but straight white men are still poor, they’re still disabled, they’re still disenfranchised. They’re digging through the same utter shitheap of a world as the rest of us; they just have a bigger shovel.

Joker is hardly an untold story though; a straight white man going through some things describes around 60 percent of the movies each year, at least according to 87 percent of fictional polls. Plus, Joker has become a lightning rod for straight white men whose anger is derived from wokeness, the existence of trans people, and the fact they’re not allowed to say the n-word. Joker is bigger (and better) than that core audience might have you believe, but it has come to be defined by them too. If your only reference point for Promising Young Woman is ‘the lady Joker movie’, you’re way off base.

Promising Young Woman filters its anger through a far more gendered lens than just ‘Joker but a woman’. Men have the luxury of being considered the default gender in the 50/50 split of the human race, much like if every coin toss was considered ‘tails’ until proven otherwise. Similarly, had their release schedules been reversed, Joker would never have been called ‘the male Promising Young Woman’. The anger in Emerald Fennell’s movie is defined by its femininity, but so is the film’s joy in the brief moments it allows for them. Cassie is not a perennial victim, nor a catalyst for a wider conversation; at least in her own reality of the movie. She is a person, justified in her rage, meticulous in her revenge, and nuanced in her layers.

Joker is gendered in its own way – the penchant for violence, the draw of the cult, the fact a woman in Arthur Fleck’s position likely would already be dead – but it’s not a film about being a man in the way Promising Young Woman is about being a woman. And that’s what gaming needs to embrace if it wants to evolve with its growing audience, much wider and more diverse than the stereotype of a typical Gamer; which ironically is also the stereotype of a typical Joker fan.

But how does gaming have a Promising Young Woman moment when it can’t be trusted with the film’s themes? Well, the very fact that it can’t be trusted should be an issue in itself. Getting to that point would be the first step. Promising Young Woman is a hugely important film, especially in the context around Hollywood’s MeToo reckoning and the victim-blaming, social media-dissecting culture that we live in. But it is nothing particularly new in its subject matter, only in its approach and its willingness to never flinch. For gaming to get there, it has to move in baby steps. It’s hard to imagine Promising Young Woman existing without Clueless, without Thelma & Louise, without Set It Off, without She’s Gotta Have It. Does gaming have anything like them? If your first answer is one of those random mobile dress up games, you have badly missed the story of Clueless, by the way.

We have games led by women – Tomb Raider, Horizon, The Last of Us, Final Fantasy – but we don’t really have games about women, not in the way Promising Young Woman is, or the many films that paved the way for it. Our Promising Young Woman moment feels some way off, but with gaming trying to grow, it might just be getting closer.

Next: Disco Elysium’s Understated Ending Is The Point

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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey

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