*Content warning: this film addresses sexual assault, rape, and violence against women*
This is a spoiler-filled review. If you have not watched Promising Young Woman and wish to not be spoiled do not read any further.
After watching Promising Young Woman a certain tweet popped into my head. Geraldine DeRuiter once tweeted, “The Joker should have been a woman. And she finally went insane because too many random dudes told her to smile, so now she perpetually smiles while terrorizing Gotham.” What followed was a steady stream of tweets by other women relating to Geraldine’s joke, and then a tsunami of tweets from men decrying her efforts to “feminize” the famous Gotham villain.
The sentiment of Geraldine’s tweet was simple to understand: if you walked in the shoes of a woman for at least a day, being asked to smile is just the cherry on top of a shitty cake that women are forced to shovel down our throats to maintain civility with our male counterparts. Heaven forbid we do anything or say anything to suggest we are not satisfied with being treated as lesser than or even worse, casually sexually harassed on a daily basis.
Emerald Fennell’s fictional creation Cassie, as played by the incomparable Carey Mulligan, is the female Joker Geraldine had imagined, but to a greater extreme. The film follows the previously dubbed “promising young woman” as she cashes in on her smarts and beauty to lure men into compromising positions to reveal their dubious natures and strip them of their “nice guy” schtick. She has a clear goal in mind and is as fixated on her mission as the Joker is when it comes to bringing down the elite in Gotham.
In Promising Young Woman, Fennell makes two clear choices that allow her revenge fantasy to play out as it does which will either help or hinder one’s experience with the film. One, Cassie herself is not a survivor of sexual violence (at least not that we know of) and two, the ending which drives home the oh-so-real consequences of Cassie’s mission. The latter will be expanded upon later. The decision to have our protagonist not be the survivor of sexual violence is probably based on a number of reasons, but what I believe it accomplishes is that it does not assert that the behaviour and actions of Cassie are indicative of all survivors. It does not place that burden on those women and instead puts a much-needed distance by placing Cassie as a helpless bystander who is both always at risk of being assaulted and is struggling with survivor’s remorse.
Cassie’s sole purpose in life has been to capture men in the midst of a sexual assault to teach them a lesson. Her focus sharpens on a particular group of individuals who are responsible for her best friend Nina’s traumatic end when a guy from her past reappears and informs her that her friend’s rapist is back in town and is basically thriving. We are told that Nina spiralled after the rape, after not being believed, after being railroaded by her rapist, and eventually, she commits suicide to escape the pain. Cassie is clearly suffering from a version of survivor’s remorse and I would wager that innate fear of being a woman had finally taken its toll on Cassie.
Throughout girlhood and into womanhood, we are always told to be careful, not to go out after a certain time, not to talk to strangers, not to be alone with boys, and a plethora of other warnings to prevent us from being assaulted. That is no way to live. Especially when on the other side the “boys will be boys” mentality is wreaking havoc on our lives. Fennell essentially creates Cassie to be the avatar for the frustration of this type of societal thinking. This is a revenge fantasy rooted in a very real reality. It is a delicate balance, but what Fennell accomplishes is undeniable. She incites anger, this film is not meant to soothe one’s soul into believing all will be right, it does not embolden one to stand up to injustice. Instead, it is a film steeped in anger and it is lashing out at nearly every aspect of the injustices we are meant to swallow.
Cassie spares no one in her efforts to avenge her friend and women in general. The female dean who turned a blind eye is faced with the difficult reality that her own daughter is easily coerced into talking with a stranger and is more than susceptible to being prey for a sexual predator. How Cassie goes about teaching this lesson not only addresses the naive hypocrisy of authority figures who do not take sexual assault allegations seriously, but also the sick reality that women don’t believe other women.
Cassie turns her ire towards a fellow college friend who also does not side with her fellow women, but when Cassie arranges a situation that makes her think she has been taken advantage of, her mindset is changed. Fennell has no time to indulge or spare those who fall under the “It didn’t happen to me so it can’t be true” gang. As cruel as Cassie is to these women, and it certainly comes at a cost, it is a necessary rude awakening for not only the women in the film but for those watching it. Fennell positions her avatar in a way that has her standing tall in front of us, pointing a finger, and loudly proclaiming that it can happen to you, and no matter your privilege or your appearance, you can be raped, sexually assaulted, or worse. It doesn’t take much.
Now for the men, or I should say “The Nice Guys” well they are central to Fennell’s thesis. They are the men who entered Geraldine’s mentions loudly crying foul over a woman, asserting that her pain is not equal to that of the Joker when he turned insane. These men think very highly of themselves, they are the ones we know in our day-to-day lives, our friends, co-workers, brothers, fathers, boyfriends, or husbands. And at an instant, they are the greatest monsters to walk the earth. From subconscious behaviours to intentional acts of violence and harassment these men will throw up their hands and proclaim that they are one of the good ones, that they would help a damsel in distress, that they would treat women the way that they should be treated. However, actions, and inactions, speak louder. Fennell strategically casts an ensemble of male actors who have a history of playing well-liked and kind characters and turns our expectations on their head by having them commit the most horrendous of acts. However, the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest, figuratively and literally, are the Ryans (Bo Burnham) of the world.
No matter how confidently Cassie enters any situation, there is always a risk. Even when her mind is not set on revenge, she is at risk of being in the presence of someone who means harm or will allow for it to happen. Enter Ryan. Of all the things to take place in the film, even the end, the reveal that Ryan was involved in the assault against Cassie’s friend is probably the saddest. Not only does it shatter our perception of Ryan actually being a good guy, but that realization that any man, every man, is infected by this patriarchal society that props up abuse against women, or more importantly, shields men from being held accountable. It’s a bold perspective, but one that doesn’t entirely feel untrue. Even if this film to a degree is a fantasy.
The ending is difficult to watch after you see Cassie take down one enabler or sexual predator after another. Cassie is on a roll. She dispatches of one bad guy after another, and for good measure, some women who needed a kick in the ass, but Cassie could only do so much until reality comes for her. Women who stand against injustices, whether they be the victim or not, are always at risk. Always. Speak up and there will be a man who shouts you down. Fight back and there will be threats against your life. Fennell could have gone the easy route to some degree and have her vengeful avatar succeed without becoming a martyr. Perhaps that would have been easy for the women who empathized with Cassie, however, fantasy or not, it was always a risky game Cassie was playing. Her actions always came with their own set of dangers. There is no way to tell a story like this without acknowledging it. It’s a bold choice to end the film the way Fennell does, which to have her cake and smash it too. It won’t sit well with people, but unlike a “happy ending” this one actually leaves an impression. However, the important thing is that it fits with Fennell’s vision, Cassie was not going to hold back and was fully aware of the risks. Every decision she made had her looking down a barrel and she would be damned if she didn’t get the job done, even in death.
The one glaring issue in the film is that Fennell is entirely too focused on one particular form of violence against women. The narrative leaves no room for any other perspective, it is entirely based on a situation that solely revolves around white women and the violence inflicted upon them by white men – with the exception of Sam Richardson as one of the “Nice Guys” Cassie attempts to expose and Laverne Cox as Cassie’s boss. Cox’s presence is even more befuddling as there is no attempt to integrate the character into the narrative despite being played by such a recognizable star, and that violence against trans women is never even hinted at. Granted, Fennell may very well have had her sights on telling a story that as streamlined and close to her reality as possible, but the glossing over the nuances and varying experiences women have with violence is worth critiquing. Nevertheless, Fennell’s story is single minded with one particular narrative in mind, and for what it’s worth she does a great job with it.
Promising Young Woman is the kind of movie that asks a lot of its viewers, but my guess is that Emerald Fennell is not really asking. Either you will accept her film or not. She has no intention of holding your hand or tending to your feelings. She, like many women who live on this planet, is constantly at odds with a society that expects us to just take it. Emerald Fennell does not want to just take it, and in her own way, Promising Young Woman is an acknowledgement of the righteous anger that burns within her. She has channelled that anger into a piece of art that is highly personal but widely relatable. Whether you can accept the path she has taken or not, is up to how much you can tolerate. It is easy to get distracted by the bold and darkly comedic choices she makes, but the core of the film is grounded by a keen awareness that sexual violence is a part of our society, and there is no more room for complacency.
Promising Young Woman is playing in select theatres and on-demand now
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.