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Why You Need to Watch Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman promotional material at cinema

A spoiler-free review and contextualization of Promising Young Woman, the directorial debut by Emerald Fennell starring Carey Mulligan. The movie about rape culture and its enablers, as well as its effects on its victims, tries and succeeds in overthrowing established conventions in this genre. Instead of a hard-hitting tragedy or brutal revenge fantasy, the film takes a different approach: A dark comedy.

Promising Young Woman, from here on shortened as PYW, has been described as “horrifying and hilarious”. The director herself classifies the movie as a dark comedy/thriller centred around a young woman named Cassie who goes to nightclubs, pretends to be very drunk, and waits for people to take her home.

It’s a movie full of twists and turns, questioning normalized societal conventions, which make it a must-watch for women, and more importantly, men. The film could be seen as a contemporary result in the aftermaths of the MeToo-Movement, but Emerald specifies that it thematizes issues that have haunted women for centuries, and is supposed to be timeless.

Furthermore, she outrightly stated that she “wanted to make a movie that subverted the revenge thriller”. Even before reading that statement, watching the movie has shown me how it did not only subvert the genre but the audience’s expectations.

Subverting expectations and perceptions

We have grown used to sexual assault films being serious and delicate with the topic, but PYW shows that you can be both: heavily criticizing and funny while doing so. The elements of a rom-com shine through in Cassie’s sassy humour, even if her remarks are drenched in bitterness. 

The dualism is further represented through her slipping into the persona of various types of drunk and helpless women in the night while upholding a provocative but reserved character during the day. She is named after a woman in Greek mythology with clairvoyant powers but cursed so her words were never believed. It’s a parallel to sexual abuse victims who experience their truths twisted and invalidated by their environment, exemplary pictured in the series Unbelievable, based on true events.

These contradictions translate to the visual storytelling, too: The entire movie is soaked in a sort of bubblegum aesthetic underlined with poppy songs, contrasting the plot of the story, which is undeniably rooted in darkness. Cassie is consistently dressed distinctly feminine – a notable divergence from previous revenge thrillers starring women. She wears dresses, high-heels, ribbons – all while being cold-hearted and vengeful.

In another instance, the film boasts a cast of actors such as Adam Brody and Max Greenfield – known for playing likeable characters beloved by audiences. In this movie… not so much. It’s a deliberate decision, yet another tool to subvert the expectations and perceptions of the viewers.

As a result, what I’d expect audiences to feel while watching is a jumble of being nervous and conflicted. The obvious focus on everyday guys as villains can even evoke a will to defend them as there are truly good guys, after all. However, that’s neither what the issue is or should be about.

A gendered crime

This film points a manicured finger at men – because sexual violence and especially rape is a male problem. One that is not born out of biological, but rather social and cultural reasons. The movie primarily shows guys that are convinced of themselves to be the better guys, the ones that girls dream of and deserve, they are not like other men. Scenes are populated with men calling and defending themselves as nice guys – and most seem to be from the outside. The portrayed male characters aren’t assholes, creeps, or abusers – or are they? It’s a question they should ask themselves, really. 

The consensus is: If a suitor claims to be a nice guy, he most certainly is not.

In popular culture, self-titled nice guys have been a topic for a long time. There are Reddit threads full of experiences with them, even psychological analyses of their behaviour. The consensus is: If a suitor claims to be a nice guy, he most certainly is not.

Being a nice guy should not be awarded, it should be a fundamental characteristic. It’s not attractive to be a nice guy – it’s the most basic prerequisite. And that is shown through actions, not words.

Ignorance is bliss – and potentially vital

Nice guys are the product of a culture that is much more appreciative and forgiving towards them than women. This is dryly acknowledged in a throwaway sentence by Cassie:

“Who needs brains? They never did a girl any good.”

Interestingly, when the actress played Daisy Buchanan in the Great Gatsby adaptation from 2013, she uttered strikingly similar words:

“I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

Although F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote these words in 1925, it still holds true today, as in that women are held to different standards than men. It is evident in the context of this novel in the way that Daisy is judged; a woman who is surrounded by abusive, deceitful, and egoistic men, but still named as the worst character of them all.

Especially historically, women did not have the same options, freedoms as men. Daisy’s approach to life as a “beautiful little fool” was the most realistic attitude to have, a necessity for survival – she did not have the luxury of reinventing herself.

Confronting our misogynistic reality

There are many more abominated female characters, especially if they do not conform to societal expectations and stand against a film’s narrative. Jenny from Forrest Gump stands for everything Forrest does not and is universally condemned for how she deals with her abusive past much more harshly, simply because she is a woman. In 500 Days of Summer, a movie that actively plays with the nice guy trope and expectations vs. reality, Summer remains loathed by many, though both actors have agreed that she is not the villain.

The abundance of hated female characters in literature and film might be because the majority of them are still directed by men – a major reason why stereotypes such as the femme fatale and manic pixie dream girl have become such widely known and used concepts. They are in essence, male fantasies.

It is no coincidence that media portraying women more authentically are likely to be made by female creators. The narrative or the person whose narrative is shown on screen or in words matters immensely – PYW is both written and directed by a woman.

PYW not only shows how it can destroy the victim’s life but also the lives of people around the victim.

And being authentic comes with showing very, very sad truths, even if made satirically: the consequences and aftermaths of sexual assault envelop the whole life of a victim. PYW not only shows how it can destroy the victim’s life but also the lives of people around the victim. It’s important that this is not romanticized.

Suffering violence, especially rape, should not be a plot device to make a character stronger – because it just doesn’t ring true. Character arcs and revenge journeys in the likes of Sansa Stark are enticing, but traumatic experiences are not empowering. Using them as motivation for the character or even other characters desensitizes audiences and invalidates the harsh reality of sexual violence against women.

Instead of telling audiences to be like her, it is about exposing the problem and changing minds, breaking out of a circle that is rape culture.

PYW makes it clear that Cassie is by no means an example to strive for, she is the hero and simultaneously the villain of the movie. Instead of telling audiences to be like her, it is about exposing the problem and changing minds, breaking out of a circle that is rape culture. In the rape culture pyramid, it starts with locker room banter, going to catcalling, passing groping and victim-blaming to finally arrive at rape: PYW calls out everyone that enables and normalizes these crimes.

In the end, it’s not a movie that offers a solution, or even necessarily satisfaction – it simply sheds an unapologetic light on the very present failures of our society. Movies are never the solution but the means to an end: A great way to confront our inner misogynists and the all-enveloping societal structures of patriarchy are movies that force us to reflect on our own behaviour – movies like Promising Young Woman.

You can catch ‘Promising Young Woman’ in Amsterdam at Filmhallen, Cinecenter, and Studio/K or rent it online.

Cover: Cindy Zheng

Edited by: Andrada Pop

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Cindy Zheng
From Germany with Chinese roots, currently based in Amsterdam pursuing a Master's degree in Communication Science.

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