CW: sexual assault and rape, suicide
“Every week, I go to a club, and every week, I act like I’m too drunk to stand. And every f***ing week, a nice guy comes over to see if I’m okay.”
Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut Promising Young Woman was simultaneously lauded as a female-empowering revenge thriller and criticised for being anti-feminist. How can one film generate such contradictory responses?
It follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan) on her path to avenge the sexual assault and subsequent suicide of her best friend Nina. Working in a café by day, by night Cassie goes to clubs every week and pretends to be drunk so that a ‘nice guy’ offers to take her home. She then reveals her sobriety and calls out their exploitative behaviour. Thereafter, she sets out to punish those involved in Nina’s sexual assault, including bystanders.
The film was released in cinemas in the US at the end of 2020, but, due to the pandemic, skipped its theatrical release in the UK and went straight onto Sky Cinema. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film boasts scores of 90% from film critics and 88% from audiences, and a 7.5 out of 10 on IMDb. Those praising the film note its timely release; amidst the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, PYW challenges the normalisation of everyday misogyny, from predation in bars in clubs to the complicity of onlookers to sexual assaults. 97% of women aged 18-24 say they have been sexually harassed in public places, thus this issue is obviously a prevalent one. By combining tropes from the thriller and rom-com genres, Fennell creates a daring and thought-provoking piece; one where viewers are “schooled as well as shocked.”
The casting of the film has received acclaim, in particular, Mulligan as Cassie whose nuanced performance carries the film’s emotional weight. Moreover, casting actors typically known for comedic roles to play the various men who surround Cassie serves to illustrate that anyone, even the ‘nice guys’, can be predatory – sometimes, most worryingly, without realising. Indeed, the casting of Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil, one of the men who take Cassie home from the club, is a self-conscious one. Mintz-Plasse had his breakthrough role as “McLovin” in the 2007 comedy Superbad, which follows two high-school boys in their efforts to get alcohol in order to reduce the resistance of girls they hope to lose their virginity to. The normalisation of this kind of behaviour, which went unquestioned in the early 2000s comedies, is being called out not only by PYW’s content, but also by its casting choices.
The introduction of Ryan (Bo Burnham) as Cassie’s love interest creates a much-needed mood-lifter, especially the mid-movie montage that pays homage to the rom-com genre. Initially, Ryan appears to be caring and, by contrast to the men Cassie usually surrounds herself with, the ‘model man’; he tells Cassie: “If you don’t like it, we can have a safe word, and you can leave, no questions asked.” This is most likely why Ryan’s wrongdoings are some of the hardest for Cassie (and viewers) to stomach. When it is revealed to Cassie via video footage that Ryan was a bystander to Nina’s rape, Fennell snatches the perfect love match away in the blink of an eye.
Unsurprisingly, there have been criticisms of the film regarding its handling of such a sensitive topic; in part, because the film presents a dour view of living with the impact of sexual assault. Not only does Nina kill herself after this abuse, but Cassie is also violently murdered as a result of her revenge mission. As critic Ayesha A. Siddiqi argues, PYW positions rape as an experience “one is both defined by and cannot survive”: it does not offer a message of hope for those who have been through sexual assault themselves. And whilst Nina and Cassie lose their lives to the cause, it seems that those who Cassie wants to punish receive little more than “embarrassment, some social awkwardness, and maybe a blemish on their records.” It could seem both problematic and anti-feminist that Cassie starts the film bearing the trauma of her friend and by the end as a victim herself; worse yet, killed by Nina’s rapist.
Siddiqi perhaps had preconceptions for the film: an image of what she desired, which she felt the film did not fulfil. She tells: “I wanted to see men die” but instead “had to watch a woman be slowly, torturously killed, after wasting her time (and mine).” So would the film have been a good use of time if men were killed? This seems to be what Siddiqi is arguing. She holds that rape-revenge films are satisfying because there can be “a clear and gratifying course of action” and that “female wrath…can restore something by taking something.” But two wrongs do not make a right. A horrific crime was committed against Nina, but that does not make it right to kill men in response. Cassie’s method of punishment, humiliating predatory men rather than killing them, clearly demonstrates their wrongdoings. If Cassie was leaving a trail of dead men behind her, perhaps viewers would have been more ambivalent about her character. Killing men would not make the film a feminist one. The dark twist at the end of the film, where Cassie is suffocated by Al Munroe (Nina’s rapist), is hard to watch. Yes, it means that Cassie is the victim, but is this not the film’s point? The film is all the more shocking because of her death; we do not often see a protagonist murdered. The horror of it is what creates such an impact, and it is certainly memorable. It shows how far Al is willing to go to protect himself, by committing more violence to hide his previous sexual crimes, and how one man’s actions can have such serious repercussions.
Some feminist critics have argued that despite PYW being a rape-revenge film, part of a genre devoted to the retribution of female rape victims, women are punished more than men. Cassie visits three people connected to Nina’s rape, two of which are women: Dean Walker (Connie Britton), who took Al’s side in the case, Madison (Alison Brie) who remained friends with the group, and the lawyer (Alfred Molina) who defended the rapist in court. Cassie punishes Madison for her complicity by getting her drunk and leaving her with a stranger in a hotel room. Cassie deceives Walker into thinking that her young daughter is at risk of assault at the hands of college students, as a means to make her admit to the threat of sexual violence on college campuses.
It has been argued that the (male) lawyer received Cassie’s forgiveness whilst the two women did not. However, whilst she overtly articulates her forgiveness to the lawyer, she expresses the same towards Walker; both the lawyer and Walker acknowledge the wrongdoings of their past actions. Cassie reveals that Walker’s daughter is safe only when the Dean learns “how easy it was” to admit there is a problem with sexual assault on campus – she “just had to think about it in the right way.” “I guess it feels different when it’s someone you love,” Cassie observes.
Cassie dangles the threat of sexual assault over Madison and Walker instead of inflicting physical harm. Her punishment for them is educational; an acknowledgement of their misconduct. For Women’s Republic, Phoebe Scholefield writes that “Cassie ultimately directed a lot of her anger towards the wrong people” and that it “undermined her cause”, but perhaps her cause was to enact revenge on anyone connected to the rape, not only the perpetrators themselves. This enables the film to explore the issue of complicity suggesting that to reduce the threat of harassment, it is a societal attitude shift of both men and women which is needed.
For Another Gaze, Rebecca Liu points out that the film ends with the “most troubling institution of all – the police.” Despite most of the film emphasising how justice is not served by established institutions, we are expected to feel some sort of relief “in the image of a handcuffed man” by the film’s end. It seems hypocritical that we are expected to believe that a judicial system that so frequently fails victims can be trusted to serve justice to Al Munroe: a rapist and then murderer. Perhaps the plan Cassie executes to have him arrested, ending with her losing her life in the process, seems pointless if it involves relying on the very system that has already failed her and her friend before. Especially in light of the recent Sarah Everard case – how far are we able to accept the notion that the police protect women?
It may have caused controversy, but controversy seems to be deliberately central to Promising Young Woman. Rape culture is a difficult subject to handle, but its exposure ultimately brings awareness to issues of sexual assault, to the impact on survivors and family and friends and to everyday sexism. Film is a space for visually articulating societal problems, and irrespective as to whether or not critics agree with the ways in which the film expresses it, it is undeniable that Promising Young Woman forces these issues that surround the culture of sexual violence directly into the spotlight.
Oxford nightline is open 8pm-8am, every night during term-time, for anyone struggling to cope and provide a safe place to talk where calls are completely confidential. You can call them on 01865 270 270, or chat at oxfordnightline.org. You can also contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by calling 116 123 or emailing [email protected].
OSARCC (Oxfordshire Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre, (https://www.osarcc.org.uk/)
Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service (https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/supportservice)