The beautiful blonde dressed in pastels and Pepto-pink is not the damsel in distress, but a vigilante of the night on behalf of her best friend, and all victims of sexual assault.
“Promising Young Woman,” directed by Emerald Fennell and produced by Margot Robbie, is a satirical, comedic tragedy that follows Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), an unexpected hero of the night. After the rape and death of her lifelong best friend, Nina, Cassie put her life on hold. She dropped out of med school, moved back into her childhood bedroom, and began working at a small coffee shop. But at night, the pastel sweaters and passive demeanor disappear, and the pumps and eyeliner come out.
In hopes of startling men with their own ignorance and audacity, Cassie hits up a new club, in a new dress, fake-wasted out of her mind, determined to lure a ‘nice guy’ into taking her home. And each weekend, like clockwork, a new ‘nice guy’ attempts to sexually assault her, until she spooks them with her sobriety and her dominance, and forces them to recognize their behavior and audacity.
When Cassie runs into an old friend from med school, Ryan (Bo Burnham), faces from the past reappear in her reality, the man who raped Nina, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) among them. As Cassie and Ryan begin to see one another, Cassie hesitantly falls for him, with the unwavering approval of the viewer. Happy in her relationship, Cassie decides to seek final vengeance upon the people directly involved in the trauma of her and Nina’s past.
In her ultimate revenge plot, she targets former peers who scoffed at Nina’s story, the perpetrator’s defense attorney, the school dean, and of course the monster himself, Al Monroe. The lack of accountability and acknowledgement for the situation from those involved at the time is what fans the flames of Cassie’s fury.
Cassie’s present interactions with the individuals involved imitates the same inadequate responses they had several years ago. Many of their comments are eerily realistic to those thrown around today.
“What would you have me do? Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?” (Dean Walker, played by Connie Britton)
“I didn’t do anything wrong though… it’s every guy’s worst nightmare getting accused like that.” (Al Monroe, played by Chris Lowell)
After observing the extraordinary pain the incident has caused Cassie and Nina, these responses disgust the viewer. The characters’ unbelievable lack of acknowledgement and accountability open our eyes to the weight millions of victims carry every single day.
Fennell is careful not to lecture her audience of the reasons victim shaming is wrong or the many, many ways in which the stigma of sexual assault is rooted in sexism -- she shows us. We see Cassie’s grief, her pain, and her frustration, and we carry it with us even after the credits roll. We emulate her vexation and encourage her vengeance.
Our hero says it best herself, “I guess you just had to think about it in the right way. I guess it feels different when it’s someone you love.”
Fennell seems to be addressing that line to her audience as well, and leaves us with so many questions. Why is it not our instinct to hear a woman? Why do we give the man the benefit of the doubt?
While unpacking the mechanisms of gender in our society is a complicated objective, the basics are fairly straightforward. Dominance, aggression, and initiative are traits associated with masculinity. Males are encouraged to be decision-makers and leaders. Which is why stereotypical femininity involves waiting for the telephone to ring, hoping it’s him, and waiting for him to propose. Passivity, poise, and fragility are considered feminine. Females are encouraged to be responsive and supportive.
These assertive/responsive gender roles appear in so many aspects of our media and culture. Whether it be in the form of ‘the chase’ and ‘playing hard to get,’ the woman is most commonly depicted as the object of desire or the trophy to be won. Inevitably, these narratives are internalized.
But films like Fennell’s upheave those narratives.
Our hero, Cassie, makes the decisions, she is in control, and every ‘nice guy’ caught in her orbit is left speechless by her guile. Fennell gives every victim who has been silenced and erased, a voice and a hero to identify with. The stigma surrounding sexual assault is something we are chipping away at as a society, and movies like Fennell’s intend to demolish it.
With justice served to Maddie, Dean Walker, and Jordan Green, Cassie knows it's time for the perpetrator himself to face consequences. Before Cassie can permanently scar Al with the name of her best friend, the name he should have to carry around, he frees a hand and suffocates Cassie.
Joe (Max Greenfield) portrays the same unbelievable denial and responsibility that the movie satirizes, when he enters the room the next morning and sees Cassie dead on the bed next to his friend. With Cassie’s lifeless body beside them Joe reassures Al that nothing was his fault. The two bring Cassie’s body out to the middle of nowhere and burn her body, leaving nothing behind but Nina’s half of their best friend's heart necklace, which Cassie never took off resting upon the pile of her ashes.
The viewer is left believing Cassie, like Nina, was silenced and effaced.
In the moments after Cassie’s death, we become anxious her story will be disparaged, or worse, erased. And in the concluding 5 minutes between the shot of Cassie’s ashes and Al Monroe’s arrest, we consider: how could we possibly keep Cassie’s story alive the way she did Nina’s?
But our hero is smarter and sharper than we afford.
She is a woman after all.
It cost Cassie her life, but justice had been served for Nina and her. Now it’s our turn to uplift the victims left voiceless, by giving them a space to be seen and a conversation to be heard.
Fennell puts every single viewer in a vulnerable position, as she orchestrates the complexities of human emotions, experiences, trauma, and how they interact with the mechanisms of our society. The twists and turns in this thrilling, satirical-yet-comedic tragedy leaves viewers speechless, but with so much yearning to enter the conversation and change the narrative.