After #MeToo, it’s #UsToo

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.

Dear Marissa Mayer and Zachary Bogue

Congratulations to you both on your pregnancy announcement! After the birth of a son, the expectation of not only one girl but two must be exciting its own unique way. For Ms. Mayer, I’m sure the internet is already being inundated with opposing opinions on your intentions to work throughout your pregnancy and return to Yahoo shortly after your children’s births. However my opinions here, for one, do not come from the viewpoint of a working mother, or even from someone who anticipates parenthood any time soon. No, I am writing through the eyes of a Millennial who pays attention to leaders in the workforce, particularly in traditionally male-dominated fields, in hopes that every day we strive closer toward equal opportunities for both men and women.

With the explosion of feminist campaigns in recent years by everyone from Sheryl Sandberg, Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie, Emma Watson to Max Schireson and Aziz Ansari, young, working women like myself have experienced firsthand the changes in attitudes and policies towards women in the workplace. I recall reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article while in university and finding myself angry that I agreed with her assertion that ‘women today cannot have it all.‘ For the record, I too, am writing from the perspective and for my own demographic: those of us with higher education, of decent socioeconomic status, and the privilege of having choices about the type and pace of work we do.

So in reading Slaughter’s words and by conceding to the seemingly inescapable fact that women must treat professional and personal/family as mutually exclusive responsibilities, I felt that I was betraying all the hard-ingrained, first-generation credos that propound the merits of hard, honest, gender-agnostic work. It was a terrible injustice: what did the author mean I couldn’t have it all? Up to that point, academia with its rankings, grades, and standardized test scores had provided easy milestones and benchmarks for me to measure myself against my peers both male and female. My immigrant parents had raised me to believe that hard work and commitment trumped all so much so that my being female (and Asian-American) never played any roles in our conversations on success growing up. Therefore, I admittedly took a certain kind of proud pleasure being of two minorities in many of my university classes. Particularly in courses in the hard sciences or upper level economic theory, I misattributed the dearth of female peers to an inability to ‘keep up’ or a lack of ambition.

But in my internship, job search, and work experience, I’ve learned a difficult truth: too many of us are taught a series of half-truths regarding gender equality that convince us young, aspiring women that we can have it all all the while leaving us woefully unprepared for the number of real, systemic issues we’ll face in the professional world.

We are told that unyielding commitment is sufficient, yet more women than men are criticized for an unwillingness to make the ‘right’ sacrifices when we voice concerns about long work-days, all-nighters, and frequent travel. We are told that prioritizing is enough, yet choosing family over career as a priority comes at a much greater cost for women than men. We are told that the workforce will recognize both mothers’ and fathers’ choice to take leave after the birth of a child, yet policy fails to recognize what a Hobson’s choice this presents for most mothers, who biologically respond differently to infants.

These are a few reasons why so few of us reach leadership positions despite the pipeline being rife with talented, capable women. Such societal pressures allow the talent gap and the ambition gap to persist. And while solutions need to and do come from a range of industries, policymakers, and educational institutions, I believe we can also affect change with honest discourse that highlights and celebrates the spectrum of both women and men who are taking it upon themselves to promote feminism (read: equalism).

I have been a long-time admirer of your career path and identify with your dogged work ethic, Ms. Mayer. Your personal commitment to Yahoo is admirable, and despite the backlash against your decision, I commend you for not conforming to a double standard expectation that mothers must take extended maternity leaves while fathers do not. Feminism, at its core, is about equal opportunity for equal choice. And while it is entirely your prerogative not to speak on the topic, I wish you would. I wish you would acknowledge and expound your opinions on the difficulties women face in the workplace. Moreover, I’d also like to hear from your husband Zachary Bogue. We need more men to speak up so we can hear their sides of the story – these issues impact their day-to-days too. Socialized norms and expectations trap men in their own ways, and denying the existence of systemic sexism allows assumptions that men and women must be upheld to different expectations regarding personal responsibilities to continue.

Millennials now make up the majority of our workforce, and despite all the criticism that we’re narcissistic, entitled, and scatterbrained, we’re also some of the most entrepreneurial, creative, and adaptable individuals. So while we’re trailblazing and going on to become the next generation leaders, we still look to today’s leaders to help shape our worldviews. You and your husband are both in positions of immense influence in high impact industries, and young professionals like myself want to hear from such individuals. You may disagree with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In philosophy or agree with Indra Nooyi’s stance that women having it all is an illusion or have an entirely different perspective unique to you. In any case, we will not know until you contribute to the conversation. And I, for one, want the conversation to be multi-dimensional; to be filled with opposing opinions and demonstrate that it’s not about men vs. women, professional vs. personal, but about finding the balance that is right for each of us.

Shattering the Myth of the “Other Girl”

There is this myth about the “other girl” that both men and women use to assert a woman’s uniqueness and to establish herself as different than all the rest. It is the same myth that gives rise to scores of passive aggressive declarations like “I hate girls” by girls desperately trying to convince others that they are indeed unlike other girls. Girls who are just “one of the guys” use this myth to highlight their laid-back attitudes and low-maintenance lifestyles, because “other girls” are catty, vapid, and have lives filled with drama.

The myth of the “other girl” has roots in a long-standing misogynistic stereotype which describes women as superficial, bitchy, fickle people that gossip and relish drama. It is a stereotype that takes femininity and reduces it to characteristics connoted with negativity, thereby reinforcing traditional gender roles. When men profess, “You’re not like any other girl I’ve met before,” they essentially propagate the stereotype because his statement implies that other girls are inferior. 

It is the existence of this myth that makes the likes of Anne Hathaway or Taylor Swift so easy to hate while celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone remain loveable. They’re all beautiful women, but while Lawrence and Stone demonstrate a tomboy insouciance to their lifestyles, Hathaway and Swift are almost picture-perfect girly. Take Swift for example: tall, blonde, and thin, she likes sparkles and writes songs on boys, love, and heartbreak. She embodies traditional femininity from the way she dresses to the topic of her music. And maybe that’s why so many of us hate her; Swift and Hathaway are too “girly”, which must mean they’re frivolous, catty, and stuck-up. On the other hand, J.Law talks about wearing t-shirts and jeans while eating whatever she wants. She admits to being goofy and boisterous and to being all the other traditionally male traits. So we love to love her because we think, “she’s just like us – she’s not like other girls!”

The danger of the myth of the “other girl” is that it makes girls see other girls as the enemy. It makes femininity inferior and leads women down a self-destructive path. Not only does it perpetuate traditional gender roles, but this myth forces women to validate their own lifestyles and characteristics. Girls who are girly feel they need to apologize or justify their being that way, while girls who do display more masculine traits automatically feel superior. The “other girl” is a demeaning stereotype that belittles women empowerment and demonizes women overall. In order to shatter this myth, women everywhere have to get rid of the notion that being girly must mean you are shallow and spiteful. Whether a girl loves pink and heels or wouldn’t be caught dead in either, she should be entitled to expressing herself in whatever way she feels most comfortable without needing to defend herself from her own gender. The right step toward female empowerment is not to reject femininity but to stop discrediting our own gender and reaffirm the belief that we are all unique.

The Root of Chivalry’s Demise

It’s a Saturday morning. You’re at brunch with your girlfriends recounting the scandalous events of the previous evening. With mimosas in hand and a slew of hazy memories, we vow to forget about the guy who never called the morning after and harden our hearts against another potential relationship mishap. These days, it feels like women are often bemoaning the belief that chivalry is dead. Moreover, we tend to blame its demise on men, all the while failing to see the unfortunate truth that men did not kill chivalry; women did.

When it comes to dating, chivalry stumbled to myth as we women lowered the standards for both ourselves and the men we date. It’s one thing to don a miniskirt to feel sexy and powerful for yourself, but an entirely different thing to wear that miniskirt in hopes of attracting attention from a future one-night-stand. By dressing provocatively with that intent, we invite men to stare at our assets and objectify us. When we forget that we have genuine personalities, aspirations, and thoughtful opinions, our conversations at the bar revolve around what drink we’re having and how pretty we look. Adopting a vapid and meaningless persona only invites conversations devoid of much substance. Such actions convey to women that it’s okay to be indecent or air-headed in order to get men while sending men the message that we are easy. If we don’t uphold ourselves as worthy recipients of gentlemanly behavior, then is it fair to expect such behavior from the men we desire? Chivalry isn’t dead; women killed it when we collectively decided to act as if we aren’t deserving of it.

However, chivalry’s demise isn’t just unfortunate for women, it poses a catch-22 for men too. If a guy spies a girl at the bar and everything about her screams come hither, it isn’t out of the question that he’ll approach her. His first tactic may be of the sensible, polite variety. Perhaps a, “Hi, I’m (insert name here). Can I buy you a drink?” or a, “Hey, how’s it going?” Perfectly reasonable and fairly gentlemanly, but for some reason, she’s not buying it. At this point another guy, one with a little more swagger and far less inhibition, approaches the same girl and this time, she’s met with, “Hey, babe. You look hot tonight. Let me buy you a drink.” To him, the girl smiles and nods only to leave her first suitor incredulous and dumbfounded. Now the nice guy is convinced that the only surefire way to pick up a girl at the bar is to become an ultra-alpha male and assert himself onto a woman. Thing is, most men are capable of chivalry, but this sort of interaction understandably confuses them. If approaching a woman with etiquette and courteous curiosity leads to rejection while a slightly misogynistic and tactless manner helps you score, then it further solidifies the male belief that boorish tendencies are more successful in attracting a woman.

By settling for men without chivalry, women behave with all the provocation and inhibition that is underserving of chivalry, convincing men that we can be wooed without it. And in turn, when men behave gracelessly, it only reaffirms the female belief that men are incapable of chivalry. Now this is beginning to feel a lot like a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” paradigm. Alas, all hope is not lost. Chivalry may feel like its dead, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Chivalry isn’t meant to exist because women always expect chocolates and flowers and for men to always pay for dinner. As gender roles shifted to create more equitable and balanced relationships, chivalry faced a similar evolution. It is no longer about catering to every woman’s whim or fulfilling archaic expectations; it’s more a notion that involves mutual respect and courtesy. In order for women to see chivalry’s revival, we need to learn to treat ourselves with self-respect. Once we do that, men will recognize that not all women can be won with trite compliments or superficial admiration. Admittedly, this sounds like a lot more effort for both parties. But that’s the point. Chivalry demands patience, confidence, and a healthy regard for both the self and the other person, and until we roll up our sleeves and own up to putting in the work to resurrect it, chivalry will remain dead.