When a film is founded upon the idea of critiquing and dismantling rape culture, the viewer, especially a female viewer, shouldn’t spend the entire credits sequence feeling vulnerable and disturbed. This was my experience while watching Emerald Fennell’s 2020 rape-revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham.
Promising Young Woman follows Cassie (Mulligan), an almost-30-year-old barista who still lives in her parents’ house, and her rather particular hobby: spending her nights in various local bars luring potential rapists into taking her home. Now, if you’re like me, based on the trailer you assumed she would kill or, at the very least, torture these men. But once Cassie finds herself in these men’s homes, she gives the equivalent of a stern lecture and goes on her merry way.
My issues with this film don’t stem from my misconceptualization of the plot, although I still think serial killer Carey Mulligan would be beyond thrilling, but instead stem from the specific take on “feminism” this film presents.
In short, Promising Young Woman feels like if someone took a great feminist film and poorly remade it while completely missing the point of the film in the first place.
The movie is shockingly male-centric despite its best efforts to foreground the feminine experience. Cassie’s character revolves around the effect of men on her past, present, and future. This is already a problematic characterization of the heroine in a feminist thriller, as her character should be able to exist independent of her relationship to men—but a different character receives even worse treatment.
Cassie’s best friend since childhood, Nina, was publicly raped at a house party during their time at the same medical school and subsequently committed suicide. We are told that every method of aid offered to victims of sexual assault failed her—a lawyer bullied her into silence, the dean of the school brushed the event aside, etc., despite there being video evidence of the event. The system failed Nina, who soon dropped out of school, shortly followed by Cassie. From there on out, Cassie set aside her own future to take care of her best friend. It was Nina’s eventual suicide that pushed Cassie over the edge and into the lurid world of hypersexualized outfits and sweat-filled clubs.
The narrative I just presented is imparted by both context clues and dialogue throughout the film (ironically, though, the word “rape” is never used in the film). But that’s where our knowledge of Nina stops. We don’t know what she looked like as an adult or how specifically she died; we only know of her strong and witty personality through the vaguest of anecdotes from her mother. This woman, Cassie’s motivator for every decision she makes, described as “fully formed from day one,” is wholly reduced by the narrative and practical filmmaking into the worst experience of her life: her sexual assault. Who assaulted her? A man. Who is guilty by proxy for their silence? The men from their school.
That being said, in Cassie’s eyes there are two women distinctly responsible for Nina’s loss of life: Dean Walker (Connie Britton) and Madison McPhee (Alison Brie), a former schoolmate. Dean Walker is guilty of dismissing Nina’s charges of assault due to a lack of evidence, and McPhee is guilty of brushing off Nina when she opened up about her trauma. Madison’s character is particularly difficult to watch, as she was not only close friends with Nina, but also watched the video of her assault and still ostracized Nina for her experience. Brie delivers one especially chilling line: “If you have a reputation for sleeping around, then maybe people aren’t going to believe you when you say something’s happened. Crying wolf.” Both women are representative of a greater issue—the intentional ignorance of violence against women.
Promising Young Woman is fully aware of the horrors of sexual assault, and yet Cassie uses that fear to frighten two women. That’s right—the woman who knows brutal aftershocks of rape manipulates both Dean Walker and Madison McPhee into situations fraught with the threat of sexual assault. In Walker’s case, Cassie returns to the school under the pretense of re-enrolling, where she then confronts the Dean about her inaction in Nina’s case and reveals that she has kidnapped the Dean’s daughter and placed her in the hands of intoxicated male students. While it turns out that she really left the daughter abandoned in a diner, the damage has already been done. Similarly, Cassie’s reunion with Madison goes awry when she forces her to re-address her treatment of Nina. When Cassie doesn’t like what she hears, she tricks Madison into thinking she’s been raped by drugging her and abandoning her in a random hotel room. Later in the film we see Madison’s mental state decline—she looks thinner and pale, as if she hasn’t slept in weeks, and is desperate to find out whether she was truly assaulted or not.
I don’t understand how any film marketing itself as feminist could ever think to subject female characters to such things, especially at the hands of another woman. While the Dean and McPhee are by no means innocent, it’s important to understand that their mindsets are just as much shaped by the patriarchy as Cassie’s. When the Dean brushes the case aside, she’s attempting to live up to a standard of perfection as a woman in a position of power typically designated to men. And when Madison slut-shames Nina, she, too, is a victim of a patriarchy. The reality is that from birth, women are raised not only to criticize themselves but also to distance themselves from other women in a constant search for superiority.
In light of this characterization, it seems that Promising Young Woman features a protagonist whose entire character arc revolves around men, who enact the very violence she avenges on other women. Very cool.
Rape revenge is a well-established genre of film at this point with a definite lineup of iconic movies under its belt. But most rape-revenge films portray the female response to intense trauma as a loss of individuality, becoming an object of violence; these heroines are ruthless, hunting down their rapists and often killing them. While this is meant to empower women, it misses the mark entirely. The average woman who lives through an assault is not going to turn into a Harley-Quinn-style killer, no matter what the movies may tell us.
That’s where media like Black Christmas (2019), Big Little Lies (2017), and I May Destroy You (2020) come in. What these all have in common is a realistic depiction of what the aftershocks of rape look like, emphasizing that reaching out to others—specifically other women—makes all the difference in trauma recovery. Most importantly, there’s hope in these shows and movies.
Promising Young Woman, meanwhile, conveys to survivors that life ends after assault.
Nina is failed by law enforcement and rejected by her peers. She abandons her dream of being a doctor, and is joined by her best friend who also gives up her dream life in response to this trauma. Nina’s mental health plummets, and her family (as well as Cassie’s) is completely devastated in her wake. The assaulter carries on with his life, his record scot-free. Cassie never moves out of her parents’ house and never moves on. In an elaborate revenge plot against the people who hurt Nina, Cassie herself ends up dead.
To be fair, yes, those responsible for the assault and murder do get arrested at the end of the film. But does that really matter if neither Cassie nor Nina are there to see it? Finally, there’s a small semblance of justice—but when it comes at the loss of two fantastic and strong women, is it really justice at all?
Promising Young Woman is meant to be palatable for all ages and genders, and in its attempt to explore shocking and graphic territory while still appealing to the masses it makes several critical errors that send a message far different than the one paraded in trailers. In an age when discussions of assault, trauma, and mental health are more open than ever, a woman ruining her life to enact revenge feels outdated and unwanted. This film commits the very sin it’s designed to expose—reducing women to one-dimensional objects rather than making them human.
By Sofia Voss
Illustration by Gabriella Shery