Carey Mulligan as Cassandra. (Photo credit: Focus Features)
Directed and written by: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Laverne Cox, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge
Synopsis (IMDB): A young woman, traumatized by a tragic event in her past, seeks out vengeance against those who crossed her path.
Minor spoilers below
Promising Young Woman is Fennell’s statement regarding America’s ongoing conversation about consent in the #MeToo era. The film itself is as fun as it is sobering, as abrasive as it is sensitive. Overall, I feel like it’s a great movie that gives audiences a crash course on consent and mainstream feminism.
As Cassandra, a woman who still suffers from the aftermath of her friend’s death after her sexual assault, Mulligan embodies the righteous anger, cynicism, and pervasive sadness that any victim or loved one would feel. Her character could have been flat, but she brings different layers to Cassandra, making her a likable vigilante. Indeed, Cassandra is a vigilante that seeks to undo her friend’s death by persecuting other men who take advantage of women. She’s especially fond of targeting the “nice guys” since, as she believes, it’s the “nice guys” who are often the worst.
Coolidge and Brown are also likable as Cassandra’s loving and long-suffering parents, Stanley and Susan. These actors have made careers from playing character types, and they continue to showcase why they’re beloved by fans and get the big bucks–these actors know what their roles are supposed to be, and they deliver. I will say it would have a bit more screentime because these roles forced Brown and Coolidge to be more subdued. But focusing on the parents isn’t what this film is about.
Cox also plays her role as Gail, the owner of the coffee shop Cassandra works at. As I talked about with Cox in a Shadow And Act interview, Cox’s role is groundbreaking for trans actresses in that she’s playing a woman not defined by trauma. Like Brown and Coolidge, Cox knows what her role is supposed to be and fits into the puzzle as Cassandra’s outside support system. But there’s more I have to say on Gail later in this review.
As Ryan, Burnham provides proof to Cassandra’s thesis that all men are misogynistic pigs. Ryan seems like an actual good guy to the point that Cassandra thinks she can develop a relationship with him and move on with her life. But a dark secret breaks Cassandra for good, leading to the film’s climactic moments. Burnham got his start as a comedian, but, like many comedians before him, Burnham can play dramatic and character pieces expertly. He and Cassandra are the fixed points in this film–even though both believed they could change, they reveal to each other how stuck in their ways they are.
However, it’s also Ryan’s characterization that illustrates one of my gripes with the film–its unrelenting cynicism.
The film is understandably not interested in showing the #NotAllMen side of the argument about consent. There are plenty of “nice guys” who do, in fact, harm women because of their misogynistic programming. Some men even cause damage not knowing what they’re doing is wrong, thanks to America’s lackluster focus on what consent is. But, some men are, indeed, actually pleasant, considerate people. I understand the film’s focus on the awful men in the world. But I also feel like the film confuses its thesis, that there are men out there who are wolves in sheep’s clothing, with its assertion that all men are the same. Only one of these statements is true. But the film wants us to believe both are true simultaneously, which makes for a very cynical and ultimately unrealistic message.
The film doubles down on this message by broadening it to everyone. In the world of Promising Young Woman, everyone except Cassandra and the people she’s deemed acceptable–her friends and family–are horrible, chauvinistic people. Men and women alike must be taken down for their part in toxic patriarchy, especially since, according to Cassandra, everyone knows exactly what they did to ruin her friend’s life. Never mind that what keeps harmful systems running is that they are so commonplace people don’t realize they’re playing into them.
The binary way Promising Young Woman analyzes toxic patriarchy and rape culture leaves a little to be desired since the world doesn’t operate that way. Digging up the roots of our society’s toxicity, which has a grip on everything from cultural habits to who we deem are acceptable partners, is a much more laborious and complicated process than taking revenge for one person. But Promising Young Woman is interested in Cassandra’s self-destruction-as-martyrdom. Indeed, the film props her self-destruction up as a feminist act. I’d argue it isn’t.
Sure, I buy that Cassandra has experienced a mountain of grief after her friend’s death. I even accept that she wants to exact revenge on all the guys like her friend’s perpetrator–guys who tell themselves they’re nice while hiding ill intent. Even Cassandra’s vigilantism is something I understand to an extent. But what I’m confused about is why the film refuses to investigate Cassandra’s selfishness and her inability to see that, unfortunately, bad things are happening to tons of people every day–she’s not the only victim.
Case in point: Gail. The film doesn’t tell us much about Gail, and I think that’s to the film’s detriment because Gail could have set Cassandra straight.
As a Black woman in America, Gail has it much harder than Cassandra ever will. Black women are more policed, more harassed, more disbelieved, and more harmed in general than white women in America. Black girls are seen as sexually mature by others more often than their white counterparts. Historically, Black women were seen as sexually deviant, with their bodies seen as sexual oddities. Black women’s bodies were used for scientific research for today’s medical practices because white America saw them as being tougher and without feeling.
The film doesn’t say if Gail is canonically trans, but if we take the presence of Cox alone, we have to remember that Black trans women have it worst of all. They are killed at an alarming rate compared to their white counterparts, yet their deaths go the most underreported.
Either way, Gail’s baggage as a Black woman in America isn’t something she could solve simply by terrorizing men in the same way Cassandra does. Indeed, the only reason Cassandra feels she is allowed to do this is because of her race privilege. Cassandra feels entitled to spread her grief and anger to everyone and destroy herself while expecting Gail to smile benignly at Cassandra as if she doesn’t have her own troubles to worry about.
Gail’s lack of input leads me to believe that writing people of color isn’t Fennell’s strongest suit. I’m also assuming, just from how Promising Young Woman reads, that Fennell engages in a type of feminism that doesn’t put women of color at its center because if all Gail is to Cassandra is a smiling Black body, then I wonder how real Black people are seen through Fennell’s eyes. This statement is a judgment, perhaps an unfair one, but it’s a judgment I feel I must make.
I also wasn’t feeling other moments of toxic feminism, such as the ending, when Cassandra goes full Harley Quinn. One thing I’ve never fully understood is why white feminism has latched onto Harley Quinn as a marker of feminist power. Yes, the character has evolved. But do Harley Quinn’s decisions to wildly color her hair and enact violence add up to “girl power”? Isn’t violence just another way the toxic patriarchy plays into our lives?
Being part of a roller derby and wearing mismatched-dyed hair doesn’t equate “feminism” to me. So color me annoyed when Cassandra shows up in her climactic moment wearing a costume and rainbow-colored hair. SIGH. Is this the height of “I am woman, hear me roar?”
A real revolution wouldn’t be one woman seeking revenge for just one of her friends. Indeed, Cassandra might only care about her friend’s plight just because her friend was a woman she knew. Has Cassandra fought for any other woman? Has she expanded her vigilantism to fighting for women who are not like her? Has Cassandra, say, created an entire movement to stop harassment and sexual assault like Tarana Burke? Burke was a victim, too, but instead of going out on a rampage–which no one would blame her for doing–she instead created the MeToo movement to help others like her and educate the rest of us on what we can do to stop rape culture.
To be clear, I’m not saying that any woman must take on society’s ills for their pain to be validated. Nor should women alone be expected to bear the brunt of changing the world. But what I am saying is that if someone recognizes that she and others of her gender (or race) suffer from the same system, it makes more sense to tackle the system, which will help everyone. In short, Cassandra could be putting more good into the world by battling against misogyny in a way that helps not just her and her friend but every woman. By extension, she would also help every person affected by sexual assault because it’s not only women who can be victims.
It was Burke’s choice to fight back positively. Cassandra also wants to exercise choice; instead of choosing to work constructively, she decided on a destructive and selfish route. Cassandra might view her actions as helping fight against the system, but did she dismantle the patriarchy at the end of the film? Or did she just follow through on a revenge plot?
Feminism often gets locked in this false idea of women looking out only for themselves. Feminism should take some notes from its counterpart, Womanism, and work to end the culture that perpetuates all forms of misogyny. Just tackling the symptoms isn’t going to uproot the infection. It’s precisely the film’s focus on the symptoms that make Promising Young Woman fall a little flat for me.
Since the film does deal with sensitive subject matter, if you feel in need of talking to someone, please contact the National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers. The deaf and hard of hearing can use your preferred relay service or dial 711 before the main number for English speakers. You can also chat with the lifeline online.