Content Warning: Discussion of sexual assault.
What is a ‘nice guy’? And are they really as nice as they seem? This is one of the questions at the heart of Promising Young Woman, an audacious, bold and uncomfortable film that darkly explores rape culture and the impact of sexual violence on its victims, and broader society.
If you have been vaguely paying attention to film news this year, it is unlikely you haven’t heard of Promising Young Woman, the directorial debut of Emerald Fennell, previously known for her work as showrunner on Killing Eve Season Two, and as an actress on The Crown. The film premiered at Sundance 2020 to polarised but overall positive reviews of the ambitious dark comedy. Only recently has it achieved a widespread release, and it has been fascinating to watch the tide of public opinion shift, with many criticising its shocking and hopeless ending. It currently looks to be on track for awards glory, having recently picked up nominations for Best Motion Picture (Drama), Best Actress, and Best Director for both the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards.
The premise of Promising Young Woman is this: Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, the titular promising young woman who dropped out of medical school in the wake of her best friend Nina’s traumatic sexual assault at a college party. Cassie, once with a promising medical career, now works at a café while still living with her parents. She spends her free time confronting predatory men by ‘playing’ the role of drunk victim at a nightclub and then shocking would-be rapists into repentance, once she reveals herself to be totally sober. This premise serves as the film’s tense opening and sets up one of the best thesis points of the film: that self-proclaimed “Nice Guys” are still capable of harming women, and in fact often get away with it because of their charm and affability.
Like many critics, I have mixed feelings towards the film’s dramatic ending (which I won’t spoil here). I think Fennell lets the film run off the rails by the end and loses the momentum and power of its genuinely thought-provoking opening. She gets so caught up in creating a shocking twist that she loses the sense of reality that so terrifyingly grounded the film in the first place. But, I do not want to dwell on where Promising Young Woman failed, with the film currently under the harsh spotlight of awards season scrutiny, many have done that already. Instead, I want to look at the film’s most compelling and successful achievement: how Fennell undermines and critiques the persona of the ‘nice guy’.
Warning: The following paragraphs contain some spoilers for Promising Young Woman
The Fallacy of the “Nice Guy”
In the opening scene, Fennell challenges viewers to reconsider the binary way we view perpetrators of sexual assault. For many, the term ‘sexual assault’ brings upon a stereotypical image from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, of a man in a black hoodie stalking a woman on her walk home at night. In reality, 8/10 sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Someone they trust.
In the opening scene of PYW, Fennell proves that apparently trustworthy men, such as the ones “checking up” on drunk Cassie and offering her a lift home, are just as capable of violating a woman’s consent as a typical image of a predator. Fennell’s opening scene showcases how common sexual assault can be: it’s not just a woman getting stalked on her walk home (a devastating but comparatively uncommon occurrence), but a man attempting to force a woman into sex who is too drunk to consent.
As Guardian critic Benjamin Lee noticed in the film’s review, “One of the film’s aces is showing us that sexual assault can come in an innocuous package, from an Oxford shirt-wearing, lives-with-his-parents, soft-speaking nice guy who can quickly flip into a destructive mode when he thinks the power is in his hands.”
During the scenes where Cassie reveals her sobriety and confronts the predatory men, Fennell reveals the cognitive dissonance at play for many of these men who don’t see themselves as bad guys.
We all know the type. “I’m a good guy!”, they tell you insistently, “I’m a nice guy!”. They call themselves feminists and post a Facebook status about their mum on International Women’s Day. When it comes to sex with women, they would never stalk or attack or force themselves on someone. But, they might just try to initiate with a woman who is too drunk to give consent. They “totally respect women”, they swear. Except maybe if the women are drunk, or dressed like a slut, or asking for it.
Bo Burnham’s Ryan as stereotypical “Nice Guy”: sweet, unthreatening, cowardly
After her provocative opening nightclub scene, Fennell moves into her most persuasive device: Bo Burnham’s likeable boyfriend character, Ryan, another ‘nice guy’. In Promising Young Woman, Fennell uses the likeable boyfriend character, Ryan (Bo Burnham), to argue that self-proclaimed ‘nice guys’ can still harm women through action or inaction.
Ryan and Cassie went to medical school together before Cassie dropped out, and they reunite 10 years later, at the start of the film. After a meet-cute at Cassie’s café, the two begin dating and slowly fall in adorable, pastel-coloured love. Ryan feels like the human equivalent of a puppy dog: sweet, kind, eager, a bit dorky, and very in love. Above all, Ryan feels very unthreatening— very much the beta to Cassie’s more assertive, alpha personality type.
The character of the soft, harmless ‘nice guy’ boyfriend is perfectly executed through the selection of Bo Burnham by casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu. Burnham (Eighth Grade) is a comedian and a filmmaker who is known for his witty and ‘woke’ stand up comedy shows. By casting this funny, clever, woke man to play the role of funny, clever, (apparently) woke Ryan, Fennell play on audience familiarity with Burnham to inform their interpretation of Ryan.
Through a deliberately ‘cutesy’ courting process, and a montage of ‘falling in love’ scenes which make us feel like we’re watching a classic 90s rom-com, Fennell sells us on their blossoming romance, and makes us like Ryan. Just like Cassie is a cynic whose experience as an adjacent victim of sexual trauma has made her distrustful of men and uninterested in romance, so has the viewers. We approach their courtship with a sense of suspicion—is this too good to be true? It turns out: yes, yes, it is.
Fennell lures us into a false sense of security, then pulls the rug out from under us (and from under Cassie) by showing how even ‘nice guys’ can betray and exploit vulnerable women. At the eleventh hour, it is revealed that someone at that party filmed Nina’s rape and shared it amongst their med-school peers. When Cassie finally sees the footage, she hears Ryan’s voice on the tape—he was there, a spectator at the assault. Although he sounds unimpressed (we hear him slur something along the lines of “that’s so messed up haha”) he does nothing to intervene at the time.
Not only did Ryan fails to intervene that night, he remained silent in the aftermath as Nina went public and sought legal action. Ryan’s silence, even in the wake of Nina’s suicide, proves how commonly men turn a blind eye towards their predatory friends’ behaviour, therefore allowing a cycle of abuse to continue. If it wasn’t bad enough that Ryan protected his peers through silence, he still maintains a friendship with those men, including the rapist Al (Chris Lowell), attending parties with them and going to Al’s wedding.
When Cassie does confront Ryan about the video and his presence in it, he initially feigns ignorance. When he realises, he has been caught, his first, panicky thought is one of self-interest. He looks around his nice, fancy doctor’s office and realises how it would look if his complicity in his friends’ rape was ever public knowledge. He begs Cassie for forgiveness, not out of genuine repentance (after all, he has known for ten years what happened and never acted), but out of Cassie leaking the truth and ruining his career.
Fennell’s film skewers the idea that the only ‘bad men’ are the ones who assault women themselves. Through Ryan’s pathetic silence in the name of self-preservation, we see that complicity and self-interest allows this cycle to continue.
A number of talented writers and film critics have noticed the film’s scathing commentary on the trope of the ‘nice guy’, and also the way the film deliberately casts funny, likeable actors to play a host of despicable male characters. Twitter user @theworldunheard noted that: “One of the smartest things Promising Young Woman did was casting likeable beta comedy darlings in the male roles so that you can feel decades of socialization pulling you in the direction of “he can’t be THAT big a threat! It’s probably a misunderstanding”.
In this piece, I chose to focus on Burnham’s portrayal of Ryan, but there is also much to discuss about casting Chris Lowell, of GLOW fame, as Nina’s rapist Al, and Max Greenfield (known for his much-loved turn as Schmidt on New Girl), as his best friend and enabler Joe. For more in-depth analysis of this, I would turn to Carrie Wittmer excellent essay for The Ringer, “How ‘Promising Young Woman’ Weaponizes Hollywood’s Nice Guys.”
In both the accomplices to Nina’s rape (Al, Joe, Ryan and others) and also the predatory men approaching Cassie at the nightclub, Fennell disproves the fallacy of the ‘nice guy’, and raises awareness of the idea that even the kindest, sweetest looking man is capable of hurting and exploiting vulnerable women.
Fennell uses the familiar character type of Ryan (sweet, funny, unthreatening boyfriend), to argue that ‘nice guys’ who are complicit in the sexual harassment perpetrated by their friends, are not nice guys at all. A nice guy, like Ryan, would never take advantage of a woman. But if his friends are doing it? He might just look away. What’s the consequence of complicity here? In Promising Young Woman, the consequence for Nina, and by extension, Cassie, is devastating.
Sure, most men don’t actively assault women. But I’m sure most women know at least one guy (a friend of a friend maybe?) who we wouldn’t feel comfortable around if we were drunk. Or, maybe we all know someone we wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving our female friends with if they were drunk. Where are this man’s friends? And why aren’t they stopping this behaviour?
Sure, not every man is a rapist. But every man who ignores or downplays their friends’ predatory behaviour is contributing to rape culture.
by Jo Bradley
Jo Bradley is an Australian writer and editor, with a passion for supporting female writers and directors. She writes about film, theatre, TV and pop culture, and has been published in Film Inquiry, Tharunka, Blitz UNSW and AussieTheatre.com. In 2020 she completed her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at UNSW and wrote her final thesis on female Artistic Directors at Australian theatre companies. Her writing can be found on her website, and you can find her on Twitter.