Should creators fire back at criticism?

Dennis Harvey's review of "Promising Young Woman" sparked debate online, but was Carey Mulligan right to respond to it?

Jess Bradbury
23rd February 2021

Content warning: rape

After a Variety review of the 2020 black comedy film Promising Young Woman, in which journalist Dennis Harvey seemingly criticised lead actress Carey Mulligan’s physical appearance, the issue of whether creators should fire back at those writing about their content has arisen.

Carey Mulligan is electrifying in this as the main character

The plot of Promising Young Woman follows thirty-year-old Cassie who tricks men into believing she is too drunk to consent for sex, before pulling the rug from underneath them and revealing she is in fact cold stone sober. It is clear to see that the film confronts serious issues about rape culture, conveying the conversations that are still happening to this day about sexual assault in light of the Me Too movement. Carey Mulligan is electrifying in this as the main character, moving away from the role of the English rose into something that rivals her complex performance in Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame

Controversy arose when Dennis Harvey, a writer for Variety, responded to the film saying that Mulligan “seemed like an odd choice” and that her appearance was like “bad drag”. He then went on to suggest that Margot Robbie, who served as executive producer on the project, would have been a more fitting and obvious choice for the role. It is, however, also worth noting that he said that Mulligan’s performance was “skilful” and that she was a “fine actress”. The review was first published in January 2020 when the film had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. A year later, it has come to light again after Mulligan revealed she was alarmed that the publication questioned whether she was attractive enough to play Cassie. Mulligan first spoke about her alarm in an interview with the New York Times, and then elaborating further in the Variety video series, she explained that “I think it’s important that we are looking at the right things when it comes to work, and we’re looking at the art and we’re looking at the performance”. To summarise, she believes that big publications should not use an actor or actresses’ physical appearance as a point of criticism. 

Image Credit: IMDb

Harvey’s words were neither constructive nor true, rather demonstrating how the opinion of a reviewer isn’t always the word of god

In this instance, Mulligan calling Harvey out was definitely the right thing to do - the review was sexist and it’s baffling to read criticism based on someone’s physical appearance. In most other circumstances criticism should help creators improve upon their craft, whether they agree with it or not, and so it is unnecessary to call reviewers out. But this relies on it being constructive and as this situation has proved, firing back is sometimes the only way for creators to defend themselves. Harvey’s words were neither constructive nor true, rather demonstrating how the opinion of a reviewer isn’t always the word of god. An apology has since been printed above the article saying: “Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of Promising Young Woman that minimized her daring performance”. This apology, however, feels half-hearted when the insulting comments are still up on the site and just a scroll away.

The point is not to say that critics should not have opinions anymore, rather that it shouldn’t come as a surprise when creators also show they have their own views too. Maybe the time has come to find a more diverse range of opinions? Or at least question the instant high regard that established critics gain with their reviews, especially when it appears that they haven’t quite thought through their writing. Mulligan was very much entitled to her opinion and I would say that critics should remember they are not exempt from criticism themselves.

Featured images credit: IMDb

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