Promising Young Woman is not an easy film to write about. As a woman, it’s not even easy to watch. But Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-nominated film is one of the best things we’ve watched this year, so it deserves conversation surrounding it.
Trigger Warning: This article will mention rape and sexual assault. If this isn’t something you are comfortable reading about, please do not proceed further.
It deserves an attempt to try. There are far too many topics that become debatable when they shouldn’t be and women’s rights to basic safety and control over their own bodies should not be one of them. It’s always what a women did to deserve being raped as opposed to criticizing the male for disregarding consent and having next to no respect.
The thing with Promising Young Woman and why it has such a visceral effect on women is because even if we haven’t been through it ourselves, we know at least one person, if not more who has. There’s not a single woman walking this earth who hasn’t been sexually harassed (as simple as a cat call or a pushy coworker), and there are countless women who’ve been raped and murdered in the process. We all know at least one woman whether directly or through a friend who’s been slipped something or has been taken advantage of while intoxicated. Those details alone make Promising Young Woman somewhat difficult to stomach, but then you bring in seemingly nice guys and a group of people withholding the truth, and it becomes that much more distressing.
After the #MeToo movement and the detail that a few terrible men in Hollywood have been exposed, a little bit of hope has returned in the world for women. But then the next day, it’s another dark and brutal story surrounding a woman who won’t get the chance to see justice come to pass. We have lost too many women in this way and it’s uncomfortable, it’s heartbreaking, and it makes every ounce of this darkness feel that much bleaker. (As do all tragedies involving marginalized communities being targets of the world’s brutality.) Promising Young Woman sets out to put a woman’s well-meaning vengeance front and center, but it comes at the expense of her life. The loss of her best friend is one thing, the world around them moving forward while she’s unable to let go is another.
2020 and the start of 2021 has been a great time for women in media reminding audiences of the fact that there is a lot we harbor and a lot of darkness we carry, but it’s met with slander as opposed to compassion. Whereas a broken man seeking vengeance is understandable because he’s been “bullied and he’s been hurt” so it’s “easy” to understand him. This is why women are angry and this is why we need feminism. Because it’s 2021 and women still aren’t heard.
There has been a lot of discussion on grief in the media lately and thus far, the way a number of series and films have been handling it has been worthy of discussion. Grief isn’t linear. Pain isn’t always temporary. Sometimes, no matter how hard some people try to find light and healing, the world is too cruel in allowing them the chance to. We live in a time where women are given the chances to have their stories told through the eyes of women, but still, there is tragically a long way to go, and in a sense the film is a reflection of that.
It’s a reflection of the fact that women feel the need to take matters into their own hands because the refusal to believe us and our truths is still a fight we’ve yet to win. (It might even be pessimistic to say, but we’re not even close.) Until people stop asking what women were wearing, what women were doing, or how women were behaving instead of questioning why a man couldn’t control his needs, we are not even close to fixing the problem.
Promising Young Woman is a film that screams amidst a lot of silence and that’s largely why Carey Mulligan’s performance is so heartbreaking. Cassie doesn’t hold the truth back, Cassie’s brutally honest, and Cassie is deeply broken, but every time you look into Mulligan’s eyes, you see the darkness of loss that’s shadows her so deeply, her calm makes complete sense. How much can one woman bear all on her own without another person understanding the heartache that’s buried deep within her?
The final detail that needs to be mentioned here, and I won’t sugarcoat or attempt to find wordy beautiful ways of saying because it just doesn’t exist. From the beginning of time we have been given a plethora of films where mob bosses fueled with revenge have gotten their way in glorified attempts to weaponize the male ego and rage. We’ve gotten far too many woe-is-me male centric storylines, but Promising Young Women at its core isn’t a film about vengeance, it’s a film begging to ensure that women are heard and resorting to desperate measures because no one is listening.
It earns every emotional beat it strives for because it does so with an overarching vulnerability that’s so palpable for every woman who’s watching that it knocks the wind out of us every time something is about to happen. Cassie just wanted admittance and justice and Cassie was filled with a darkened rage that was fed through years and years of people telling her to let go when she couldn’t. It was easy for the world to forget Nina, it wasn’t easy for Cassie and that’s the underlying tone throughout the film that tells us that there’s no love quite as true as friendship.
It’s not an easy film to watch. It’s gorgeously shot, marvelously directed, and full of phenomenal performance all around, but it’s not one I could ever revisit, but still, it’s damn important especially for all men to understand that women shouldn’t have to beg for their safety. We shouldn’t have to carry our keys in between our knuckles. We shouldn’t have to be scared to go to the bathroom alone at a public place. We shouldn’t have to make sure we get on the phone with someone before walking alone at night or have emergency ready to call. And nice men are a problem too–because ultimately, until all men speak up and fight alongside us, it doesn’t matter if a man has never taken advantage of a woman. Unless he speaks up, unless he helps, he is still part of the problem that is hurting us instead of protecting us.
Promising Young Woman is an ode to friendships and it’s the showcase of deep, harrowing darkness that comes to pass when women are silenced instead of being helped. Cassie is legitimately smothered to death to she stops talking. And that’s the difference between revenge porn films centered around male arcs and Promising Young Woman. It’s the story of a woman at wits’ end because the world around her refuses to help. It’s not the story of guilt and rage though there is plenty of that, but it’s the story of a last resort. It’s the last viable option because the world we live in still punishes women while men get away with too much.
It’s a film about a trauma and it does an excellent job of grounding its darkness in overwhelming vulnerability.