Following the recent success of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman at the Academy Awards, Rosie Couch reviews the comedy-thriller, drawing on feminist literature and questioning the film’s reliance on the justice system.
Spoilers & CW: rape, sexual assault, suicide.
From the outset of the film, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman highlights something that most of us already know: it is more often than not the self-proclaimed ‘nice guys’ who are, in fact, the absolute worst. We are first introduced to Cassie (Carey Mulligan) through the gaze of three men, watching her from across the bar. Cassie is sprawled across some seats, her head bowed, apparently drunk. While two of the men voice cloyingly stereotypical, though nonetheless atrocious, views about how women who behave like that are ‘asking for it’, the third — who notably does not join in with their misogynistic vitriol — decides that he will help Cassie home. Instead of doing so, however, he invites her up to his apartment, pours Cassie a large drink, and attempts to rape her. And, this is not the kind of violent rape that we might be used to (and are tired of) seeing in a lot of rape-revenge cinema.
As far as this ‘nice guy’ knows, Cassie is very very drunk. She cannot, and does not, consent. ‘What are you doing?’ she asks. Then, again, suddenly sober, she sits up and asks the man: ‘what are you doing?’ Cassie is not drunk. And, we learn, Cassie does this every week. She dresses up and goes to bars and nightclubs, and pretends to be drunk. She waits for a man to take her home, calls him out with poise, and tells him that next time he might not be so lucky. The men never want her to stay when they realise that she is sober. After this first encounter, we watch Cassie walking down the road barefoot, dishevelled and devouring a hotdog. Ketchup drips from the hotdog, covering parts of her body.
At first glance, as the camera pans up from the ground, the ketchup looks like blood. And this moment, with its almost simultaneous suggestion and disavowal of bloodshed, can be seen to stand in for Promising Young Woman’s promise of violence, and the way in which it is never quite realised.
Despite the list of names and the tally that Cassie keeps in her notebook, she doesn’t kill the men who take her home, or even injure them. Instead, she leaves them with a story, a warning. They should think twice before doing this again. She’s not the only woman who does this, she tells one man. Another woman, she warns, looking pointedly at his crotch, carries scissors. It is here that the theme of storytelling takes on potentially subversive significance. Cassie is told throughout the film that ‘we have to give boys the benefit of the doubt’ when it comes to reports of rape and sexual assault, because ‘accusations like that can ruin a man’s life’. It’s worth noting, with this in mind, that the film’s title implicitly evokes the 2016 trial of Brock Turner, in which we heard his ‘promising’ life lamented by the judge. Rather than employing violence to teach the ‘nice guys’ a lesson, Cassie leaves them with a threat — subverting and utilising the problematic positioning of women as ‘storytellers’ when it comes to reports of rape and sexual assault.
That being said, I can’t help but feel that any grasp at denoting Promising Young Woman as subversive is immediately halted when considering the film in its entirety. Fennell’s film seems to want to indicate that, if accusations of violence can ruin a man’s life, the threat and experience of that violence devastates the trajectories of those who are affected by it. And it is here that the narrative is most remarkable and poignant — namely through the construction of Cassie as an amalgamative girl-woman, rendered inert by the trauma of losing her best friend Nina.
The details regarding what happened to Nina are revealed in increments throughout the film, but what we see in the present is an adult woman held within a kind of adolescence — living with her parents, with cuddly toys on her bed and ribbons in her hair, eating Twizzlers. Cassie forgets her own 30th birthday, which is perhaps unsurprising when the notion of ‘promise’ suggests the perpetual passing of time, futurity. Cassie was a promising young woman, and so was Nina. As Cassie’s split-heart necklace (engraved with Nina’s name) indicates, the girls were two halves of one whole. Cassie’s life is forever changed by, and inextricably linked to, what happened. Nina decided that she couldn’t move on, and so, neither can Cassie.
While the trailer of Promising Young Woman hinted at an affinity between Fennell’s narrative and films such as David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl (2014), it is within this idea of trauma-driven perpetual adolescence that Promising Young Woman draws more effective parallels with the 2011 film Young Adult. Both narratives are concerned with the failure of so-called potential, flying in the face of postfeminist promises of success, even as the protagonists should, with their various modes of privilege in mind, have the world at their feet. Any hope of arrival at successful, adult womanhood is ever-fleeting in these films, and, it is here that Promising Young Woman might, for some, retain some relatability.
After being urged to move on by Nina’s mother, an opportunity to do so presents itself in the form of Ryan (Bo Burnham). There’s something a bit cliched, or incredibly anxiety inducing, about Cassie basing her movement away from trauma on a relationship with a man — especially when this man is still loosely associated with the people that assaulted Nina. Of course, like the ‘nice guys’ who we have seen throughout the film so far, Ryan also turns out to be not so nice after all. He was there on the night that Nina was raped, Cassie discovers, and he did nothing. There should be a lesson, or framework to follow here: Cassie’s flight from trauma was never going to be associated with what caused it to exist in the first place.
It’s a shame that this framework falters from here, and especially at the film’s conclusion. In my own research on the twenty-first century femme fatale in fiction and cinema, I spend a lot of time thinking about endings. Endings are key for the femme fatale because in arguably her most popular incarnation, mid-twentieth century film noir, the femme fatale had to be punished, whether through death, imprisonment, or sometimes even marriage.
Though these often violent conclusions were in large part to do with the Production Code, they were also to do with the fact that, though shaken, patriarchal power must be redeemed by the close of the narrative. The unruly, sexually and visually potent woman cannot remain as such — the fantasy can play out, but it must be put away shortly after.
My own thesis explores texts that destabilise this positioning of the femme fatale as a mode of patriarchal wish fulfilment, but as scholar Julianne Pidduck suggests, the figure’s ‘embodied social, sexual, and physical powers’ offer ‘an imagined point of contact […] an imagined momentum or venting of rage and revenge’, sometimes regardless of where she is at the close of the text. And here is where, for me, Promising Young Woman does not deliver. I am personally all for the vitiating qualities of violent, transcendent fantasies. But when (at last!) it seems like Cassie is going to go full American Mary on the man who raped Nina — pledging to carve Nina’s name onto the man’s body, because why should Nina have to wear his name, and not the other way around? — she is overpowered and murdered. (And, as a side note, for a film that I’ve seen receive a lot of praise for not explicitly showing sexual violence, this murder scene is loaded with visual and auditory connotations usually associated with the rape-revenge films that I gestured towards previously). But don’t worry, if you’re a fan of the justice system, there’s a happy ending!
Cassie has sent the video that she found of Nina’s rape to the lawyer that forced her to drop the case. And, if that wasn’t enough, the men who were involved in hurting Nina are all arrested. This overt and disappointing reliance on the justice system should thwart any tendency to hail this film as some kind of feminist masterpiece.
In Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power, Lola Olufemi indicates how in ‘the liberal feminist rationale, the police and prisons are necessary because they protect women from danger’. However, as Olufemi goes on to highlight, when black women ‘die disproportionately at the hands of the police, historically and in the present moment, we must ask, what is the purpose of the police and detention system? Is it right that some women must die so that others are protected? Do we wish to be the recipients of that kind of protection? When we understand race and gender as inseparable, there is no feminist case for the existence of the police’.
The question posed by Olufemi, ‘do we wish to be the recipients of that kind of protection?’, has stuck in my mind since reading her text. It is a question that Promising Young Woman would have done well to engage with. Though, that being said, perhaps its success at the BAFTAs, and more recently the Academy Awards, depends on this very lack of engagement, its absence of radicality. Promising Young Woman occupies a strange, detached space: it does not do enough to be read as an elevated, violent revenge fantasy, and it is completely unfaithful to the realities of how the justice system operates in relation to the issues that the film presents. While, yes, I very much enjoyed Cassie’s outfits, as well as Mulligan’s performance, Promising Young Woman unfortunately promises more than it delivers, offering little more than an ineffectual shorthand for liberal feminist notions of ‘justice’.
Rosie Couch is a contributing editor to Wales Arts Review and co-presents the Wales Arts Review Podcast.
For ways to watch Promising Young Woman, visit the Focus Features website.
Header image: Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (Credit: Focus Features/AP).