Rarely does a cinematic exploration of sexual violence make it all the way to the Oscars. The 93rd Academy Awards, however, have proven to be an exception. The film Promising Young Woman “seeks to subvert the rape-revenge genre, replacing mindless fantasy tropes with deliberate and realistic elements.” Regardless of the film’s merits (or lack thereof), what this year’s Oscars have reminded me of is an event over 70 years ago—the 21st Academy Awards, in which another cinematic exploration of rape received even more notable attention.
The year was 1949. Oscar nominated films included the likes of Joan of Arc (starring Ingrid Bergman) and Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. The film with most nominations, however, was Johnny Belinda. With an awkward title and promotional poster, the movie might not look like anything special to a modern audience, but belying its uncouth outer shell is an artistic powerhouse of a film. To this day, Johnny Belinda remains one of the most Oscar-nominated films in all of cinema history. (It was nominated for a whopping 12 Academy Awards; the current record is 14.)
And even though it walked away from the ceremony almost empty-handed, it did secure the Best Actress award—a notable feat, considering Jane Wyman’s character had no speaking parts in the film.
Johnny Belinda is additionally noteworthy because it is recognized as the first Hollywood film specifically about rape, dealing “directly with the taboo subject, acknowledging the trauma, judgment, stigma, and lack of assistance to the victims.” The way the narrative unfolds demonstrates both traditional and modern sensibilities—and I mean that in a positive way.
Another Promising Young Woman
This movie centers on a deaf/mute character named Belinda. Early on in the film, she is raped by one of the townsfolk, and the fallout from that act drives the story forward. The sordid aspects of the assault are explored with discretion and artistic integrity. While there are no instances of gratuitous violence or sexual actions, the effects of sexual violence are poignantly displayed through stellar acting.
As an audience, we long for the rapist’s comeuppance. We don’t need to see him commit the actual act in order to believe in his depravity; there is still plenty we see and hear that leads us to despise his character. This movie shows how you can create a despicable antagonist without having to show all the gritty details of his actions. The film is emotionally affecting without resorting to shock-value imagery.
Once the reality of the rape is realized by Belinda’s father and the doctor who has been teaching her sign language, they argue over the logistics of finding the perpetrator and taking him to court. The doctor insists doing so would de facto put Belinda on trial and destroy her.
This reality has been played out throughout human history. What we have seen, time and time again, is victims of sexual assault are treated with suspicion and even accusation. They are often the ones who are put on trial, figuratively if not literally. They are asked bogus questions, like, “What were you wearing when he raped you?” and “What did you do to encourage him?”—as if it is the victim’s fault for the violence committed against her. Johnny Belinda recognizes this reality, an encouraging acknowledgement in and of itself, but even moreso when considering the film was made in the 1940s.
A Promising Approach
In contrast with modern films about sexual violence, Johnny Belinda’s protagonist is not defined by the rape or the rapist. If anything, she is defined by becoming a caretaker and pouring out her love on others (including one vulnerable character in particular), which proves to be a huge part of her healing process.
There is one powerful scene about midway through the movie where we realize Belinda refuses to be a victim of her circumstances: after someone close to her dies (and we as an audience know this person was actually killed), she leads all the men around her in the Lord’s Prayer. Belinda is dealing with yet another tragedy in her life by relying on the Lord rather than herself. It’s not an explicit factor throughout the movie, but God’s presence in Belinda’s life is what empowers her to deal with tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.
We might even say the rest of the movie is an answer to her prayer in the above scene. At first, the resulting plot complications don’t look like an answer to prayer: circumstances continue to worsen for Belinda, making it feel like the noose is tightening around her neck. Nevertheless, in the end she is vindicated.
What’s more, there is a climactic confrontation with the rapist, the details of which I won’t share here. What I will say is that her actions provide a stark contrast to modern-day treatments of the subject of rape. In revenge/exploitation films, the rape victim often attempts to enact a retributive form of evil against her rapist, as if the slate can be wiped clean through a further act of violence.
Belinda’s actions reject such a faulty (if understandable) paradigm; she acts decisively, but not out of vengeance, bitterness, or a sense of vigilante justice. No, rather than eat from the forbidden tree of revenge, she chooses a sweeter, better, and more powerful option. Belinda refuses to return evil for evil, and she still wins—more decisively and cathartically than she otherwise would have, in fact.
A Promising Form of Justice
The reality is that vengeance doesn’t satisfy justice. By its very nature, it cannot. Vengeance is unjust, and no amount of injustice can correct a previous act of injustice. As such, the revenge fantasy film is just that—a fantasy that allows audiences a false sense of catharsis. It might provide for a certain amount of escapist entertainment, but no real relief or redemption—no narrative cadence.
Rather than relying on a twisted sense of justice to conclude its story, Johnny Belinda offers a more genuine and truly redemptive portrayal of justice. As such, it does greater justice to the treatment of rape than a lot of modern films do. So if you want an Oscar-worthy and emotionally affecting depiction of the horrors of sexual assault, forget the latest exploitation flick and check out Johnny Belinda instead.
Cap Stewart is the author of the curriculum Personal Purity Isn’t Enough: The Long-Forgotten Secret to Making Scriptural Entertainment Choices. As a cultural commentator, he has contributed to Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic, 2019), among other print and online publications. He has been blogging at capstewart.com since 2006.