Don’t let the campy, bubble-gum pink, and vibrant set and costume design fool you. Promising Young Woman may force you to, as it did with me, contend with the uncomfortable familiarity of the film’s darker themes around consent, sexism, and shame. Multiple viewings later, I’m still thinking about several scenes from the film while replaying the (intentionally female-forward) soundtrack featuring familiar voices of fallen pop stars of yesteryear.
*Spoilers ahead for the film, so if you haven’t seen it, you were warned.*
Promising Young Woman is bleak, and in terms of a hero’s journey, intentionally dissatisfying.
The #MeToo movement made us all too familiar with the blatant injustices of sexual harassment and assault. It’s now fourteen years after the first popularized use of the phrase “me too,” and Promising Young Woman offers viewers a rare revenge thriller that gives voice to the frustration and anger that often accompany the hurt of sexual violence.
The film centers around Cassie, a young medical student drop-out (portrayed by the delightful Carey Mulligan) who embarks on a singular mission to condemn self-proclaimed “nice guys” as sexual predators. This comes after her best friend Nina suffers a sexual assault at a school party, and no one is held accountable despite formally reported accusations. The injustice ultimately leads Nina to commit suicide, and Cassie suffers a figurative death as she reels from the trauma and drops out of medical school to live with her parents and spend her days as a careless barista at a local coffee shop.
That said, it’s an unusual revenge thriller because our protagonist Cassie is no hero. She is not aspirational or inspiring in her pursuit for justice, and she seeks neither peace nor forgiveness. After her friend’s death, she is angry — rightfully at her perpetrators — and guilty — at herself — for not being there to protect Nina. Unfortunately, Cassie is unable to accept Nina’s death, forgive herself, and move on from the past. Her grief and anger consume her. Instead of finding a support system or going back to medical school, Cassie becomes a vigilante who weaponizes her femininity. She adopts a persona who pretends to be sloppily drunk at clubs late at night, waiting for a “nice guy” she can expose when he makes advances on her while she’s vulnerable.
The film forces the male gaze to look into a mirror and acknowledge its ugliness.
In one of the last scenes in the film, Cassie comes face to face with the man who hurt her friend. He believes himself a “nice guy” and chocks up his past misdeeds as stupid, drunken medical school behavior (mind you, medical students are often well into their mid to late twenties); and that it is “every guy’s worst nightmare to be accused of [rape.]” Without skipping a beat, Carey Mulligan’s character looks upon him squarely and replies, “Can you guess what every woman’s nightmare is?”
It’s no surprise to me that this film was written, directed, and produced by a woman (Emerald Fennell’s debut!). The scenes between Cassie’s fake drunken character and her supposed white knights in bad suits are delightfully subversive. Cassie has a script — appear very intoxicated; protest the initial advance; take up “nice guy’s” offer for a ride home, who somehow always persuades her to come over to his place instead; gives him a chance to stop when he inevitably makes unwanted advances; and finally confront him with stone cold sober eyes when he won’t stop.
These scenes are alarming yet so satisfying because they portray the importance of enthusiastic consent, which can’t be given when one is practically in a stupor. Of course, she isn’t really drunk, and Carey Mulligan’s character always lets the man advance just far enough for it to cross some line before she breaks out of her pretend blackout to ask him, “What are you doing?” At this point, they stop what they’re doing and quickly attempt to revert to their “nice guy” personas. Unfortunately, the damage is done, and we the audience can no longer defend him to be the standout guy he projected himself to be.
The sinister logic of the “nice guy” misinterprets what is and isn’t consent.
The “nice guy” finds Cassie attractive, and her drunken helplessness incites his inner “goodness.” He convinces himself that by offering to take her home, she, despite her inebriated state, must want him as reward for saving her from herself — or worse, from other potential predators at the club. When instead they end up at his place, he reads that as permission to make additional advances (again, despite her drunken state). When she asks him for water because she’s not feeling great, he thinks himself the hero who’s rescuing a damsel in distress.
In another romantic comedy, we’d root for him. He is agreeable, non-threatening, slightly nerdy, and reasonably successful. He calls her beautiful and that she shouldn’t wear so much makeup. He’s downright woke, until he’s not. It’s no accident that the male cast for these “nice guy” characters are all lovable actors, including Adam Brody, evermore the sweet and awkward Seth Cohen from The O.C.; Christopher Mintz-Plasse, better known as Superbad‘s McLovin’; and comedian Bo Burnham, who goes on to play Cassie’s love interest.
Viewers have been conditioned to root for the “nice guy.” It’s why the betrayal of Bo’s character Ryan, who plays Cassie’s love interest, stings so much. He’s a pediatric surgeon with an unrequited crush on Cassie, who at her request, respectfully woos her slowly over the course of the movie. He’s sweet and self-deprecating and cracks dry jokes over dinner with Cassie’s parents. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, when faced with several opportunities to actually be the good guy we’ve come to believe he is, he fails. We discover he was just as culpable in the event where Cassie’s friend was assaulted. Worse, he conveniently told her he didn’t remember the event despite being friends with the perpetrator. When Cassie finally confronts him with video evidence of his involvement from years ago, he immediately becomes defensive citing the same, “It wasn’t me. I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice guy” plea. He, along with all the other men Cassie confronts, never acknowledges his own role in causing harm.
Promising Young Woman is uncomfortable because it asks us to confront our own complicity in a society that readily upholds misogyny.
The first wave of #MeToo shed light on egregious physical and psychological abuse by men in positions of power unto (mostly) women. Now, we find ourselves grappling with the less obvious but equally (if not more) insidious moments of casual misogyny.
I don’t condone Cassie’s vengeful approach toward men in the film, but I can relate to her years of pent-up rage. It is rage against the expectation that in order to be desirable, it is not fun to set boundaries. (There’s a scene where one of the men Cassie lures at a club realizes she’s not drunk and storms off pouting, “Why do you have to ruin everything?” implying he’d rather have messed around with a woman who barely could stand up on her own.) It is rage against how the anger, no matter how righteous, can be as destructive as the traumatic incident itself. It is rage against the disturbing normalization of a society where abusers continue to lead normal lives with little to no consequences while survivors are often swept under the rug.
One of the best pieces I’ve read in the last few years on misogyny is Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne’s book Down Girl. It reshaped my understanding of misogyny. Instead of seeing it as a deep hatred toward women by men, misogyny is defined as an unconscious moral manifestation of sexist ideology. Put differently, misogyny enforces patriarchal social structures that uphold male privilege and entitlement while sexism supports the assumptions and stereotypes that normalize and justify patriarchal norms. We may not all be sexist, but all of us are likely culpable in upholding misogyny which polices women, keeps them in “their place,” and preserves expectations that serve male interests.
Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo. This is most evident in two scenes between Cassie and two other women. The first is at a lunch with an old medical school acquaintance Madison, played by actress Alison Brie. Cassie wants to talk to her about why she dropped out of school, implying Madison must have known about the sexual assault. Madison gets flustered. She defends herself by deflecting blame back at Cassie, citing her promiscuity. “If you have a reputation for sleeping around, then maybe people won’t believe you when you say something has happened. [It’s like] crying wolf.” Watching it, I saw my own disappointment reflected in Cassie’s face.
The second scene is even more gut turning. Cassie revisits her old medical school dean under the guise of re-enrolling in school. She asks the dean if she recalls why she dropped out. Frustratingly, the dean does not recall Cassie’s friend Nina and the rape that led to her dropping out, but when Cassie asks about Nina’s assailant, the dean lights up. He is a successful alum who gives back to the school community. (“He’s a really nice guy!”) The dean doesn’t remember the accusations made against him, despite Cassie reminding her that the incident was reported to the dean herself. Even worse still, the dean also gets defensive saying the school receives many similar accusations. She “has to give him the benefit of the doubt” lest she ruin a promising young man’s future. It’s hard not to recall Chanel Miller and the 2015 Stanford rape case from this scene.
These two scenes, each a dialogue between two women, underscore how much we expect women to police themselves. Like the “nice guys” at the club, neither of these two women — one a supposed friend and the other a figure of authority — acknowledged their own roles in perpetuating bad behavior by a male abuser while condemning the female victim. It should have been the other way around. Cassie recognized that and was fighting for it.
#UsToo calls for more responsibility from all of us.
The ending of the film is rather bleak. Cassie plays femme fatale and dies in the grand finale where she faces Nina’s assailant. She is fully aware that she might die at his hands, and she does. When confronted by Cassie, he is more willing to smother and kill her than to admit to the truth of what happened in that dorm room many years ago. His unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions reflects a society that never held him accountable. In fact, he almost gets away with Cassie’s murder, and if he had, his original victim Nina would have ended up as a footnote, an unfortunate casualty in the event started this whole story.
In the post #MeToo era, we’re still trying to find the right ways to make amends for past and ongoing missteps around consent and abuses of power. This moment is less about finger pointing at others and much more about introspection: How are we contributing to a culture that often sets up (especially young) men and women to hurt and get hurt? How do we create enough space for those who may have done wrong — intentionally and particularly unconsciously — to apologize and make amends? The backlash against Justin Timberlake’s public apology to the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears comes to mind, where he apologized for his role in benefitting from Britney’s fall from pop stardom after their breakup. Is his apology too late? Is it sufficient? I don’t know. However, I do know I’d rather encourage more of us to take ownership in how we’ve benefitted from unconscious biases at the expense of others; not to make us feel bad about ourselves but to make us aware of these implicit power dynamics. This feels particularly important for those of us who do have power and agency to go against the status quo and support those who may not be able to.
Promising Young Woman doesn’t offer catharsis, not in the traditional revenge thriller sense. Empowerment doesn’t come from Cassie’s gotcha moments with “nice guys.” Instead, the film’s punch comes from realizing that we may recognize a little bit of ourselves in each of the characters — the angry victim, the concerned family member, the chagrined bystander of abuse, the defensive perpetrator. It’s #UsToo, a mirror to represent society as it is. We may not like what we see, but the good part is that it means we can change it.