What ‘Promising Young Woman’ Gets So Right About Rape Culture

Joanna Psaros

10 April 2021

Fennell’s ‘Promising Young Woman’ is nominated for best picture

Do you like feeling so angry that you cry? Then Emerald Fennell’s ‘Promising Young Woman’ is for you!

The film opens with Charlie XCX’s breathy ode to the dreamy men in her life, Boys, juxtaposed with the drunken dancing of sweaty nightclub bros. This scene sets the tone of the film to come, from the baseless confidence of men in packs to the feminine reimagined as feminist soundtrack. 

Our protagonist Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is bitter, cynical, and generally pretty unpleasant to be around. She dropped out of medical school years ago and works a dead- end waitressing job. She even still lives with her parents at the age of thirty. Sad! I’m thirty and I moved out two years ago.   

Above all, Cassie harbours a burning anger towards the men in her life- quite rightly, as we soon discover. And don’t hold your breath for a redemption arc that sees Cassie soften and learn to trust again. It’s not that kind of movie. 

Technically this is a rape revenge fantasy, though thankfully not in the same vein as classic exploitation flicks of the genre ‘The Last House on the Left’ and ‘I Spit on Your Grave.’ The offending incident is only alluded to, and the woman affected is fully fleshed out through Cassie’s recollections of her best friend, despite never appearing onscreen. She’s not just a victim, she’s a person. Nor are the perpetrators just rapists- they’re people too. And therein lies the danger. 

It’s the casting and characterisation of Cassie’s former college classmates that makes this film so disconcertingly realistic in spite of the unpredictably outlandish plot. They’re not thugs preying in carparks and alleyways. They’re not even blockheaded college jocks. These are the likeable, intelligent former medical students now settled down with wives and girlfriends. They’re the type of guys who get invited back to make speeches at their alma mater- which coincidentally, was the scene of the rape for which they were never punished, and from which Cassie and her friend never recovered.

Not to mention, they’re very, very, funny. Max Greenfield is a standout, who in a moment of pitch-black humour holds his best friend to his chest, repeating “This is not your fault. You’ve done nothing wrong,” while the body of a strangled woman lies beside them. The scary thing is, they both really believe it. 

That’s another theme of this film; no-one thinks of themselves as the bad guy. It was a mistake. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were kids. “I’m a nice guy!” is the defensive refrain of Cassie’s targets- and if you’ve had that one used on you, you’ll understand her urge to take a carving knife to the guy’s chest. 

Enthusiastic consent!

If there’s a weak spot to ‘Promising Young Woman,’ for me it is the sequence of ‘dates’ with whom Cassie goes home, only to pull a bait and switch and shock them by miraculously ‘sobering up’ as they are about to take advantage of her. 

It’s a clever concept and necessary setup to the second act perhaps, but for me it didn’t quite work. The series of men felt at times like caricatures- though maybe I’m being unfair. Watching Adam Brody writhe on top of a near unconscious body killed my nostalgic Seth Cohen fantasies for good. And for that, I’ll never forgive Fennell. 

Fact- I downloaded ‘Stars are blind’ after seeing this film

In contrast to this grotesqueness is Cassie’s romance with the adorkable Ryan (Bo Burnam). Kind, funny, respectful of her boundaries and knows the words to Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars are blind’- could this be the exception to her rule that the lonely Cassie’s been waiting for? Nup! 

The Ryan subplot ruined me. He made me fall wholeheartedly in love, ignoring certain red flags (such as his choice of friends, and how persistently he pursued Cassie after she turned him down), then caused me to loathe him- but not without breaking my heart in the process. Again, this reaction might have been influenced by little of my own baggage. It didn’t help that he was a spookily accurate doppelgänger of my last boyfriend. 

But this is the type of film you bring your baggage with you to. That’s what makes it so fun. And sad. And infuriating. 

I hope ‘Promising Young Woman’ wins the Oscar this year. Mainly so a bunch of elderly Academy men have to pretend to haven seen and enjoyed it. 

And to anyone who saw this on a date- my condolences. You’re better off without him anyway.     

Girls Locker Room Talk: art, articles and entertainment by women, for women (and everyone else)

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