Movie Review: Promising Young Woman


Credit: Genevieve Morrison

WSPN’s Genevieve Morrison discusses how “Promising Young Woman” reveals important truths about feminism and rape culture in society.

“Promising Young Woman” is a black comedy revenge thriller that exposes modern rape culture. The protagonist, Cassie, goes to bars alone, pretending to be drunk to lure men to assault her just before revealing her sobriety. She aims to scare these men straight to avenge a sexual assault earlier in her life. This movie has received critical acclaim and numerous awards. Not only is the movie well made, but it makes an important comment on the patriarchal rape culture in modern society.

The element that struck me the most was the way the moral of the film was completely decentered from men. This is where many movies of this nature fall short. Some directors choose to include a male love interest that helps the main character through her struggles and fights her battles for her. “Promising Young Woman” flips this trope on its head by presenting a good-looking, seemingly well-meaning man and later revealing his true, malicious intentions. It mirrors many women’s experiences in the real world and shows that in this day and age, women can’t trust anyone.

Cassie’s aesthetics jump from one male fantasy to another. During the day, she is candy-coated, innocent; almost Lolita-esque. But at night, her smeared lipstick and disheveled hair emulate the sensual woman that many men want to take home at the end of the day. She compartmentalizes her double life, alluding to Freud’s “Madonna-whore” dichotomy, in which men either see women as romantic and pure or as sexual objects, but never both at once. Cassie sees herself as these two different people and refuses to mix the two, which manifests into problems in her day-to-day relationships. This displays the emotional toll that sexist male mindsets can have on women.

This movie has sparked a conversation nationwide about sexual assault. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, there has been significant progress with regards to reporting and holding aggressors accountable. However, if there’s anything I’ve learned from post-#MeToo society, it’s that reporting assault is just the tip of the iceberg. As the film highlights, some men are able to shirk accountability for their actions by claiming that they’re “a nice guy.” The moral of “Promising Young Woman” is that there is no such thing. There are men who don’t abuse, obviously. However, for every bad apple, there is a whole network of “nice guys” that uphold these behaviors and make it possible for abuse to occur.

The movie doesn’t just go after the aggressor or even just men. Cassie makes it her mission to get revenge on the entire system that allowed her friend to be raped and allowed that rapist to get away with it. She seeks revenge on a female bystander and a female human resources officer that failed to investigate the situation. This is an important detail to touch on. The patriarchy is not just male: it also consists of women who don’t protect other women.

The only criticism I have is that the film can’t really commit to its own radicalism. Cassie is supposed to be angry and vengeful, but she always seems to show mercy, even to the most vicious oppressors. Instead of inflicting any real harm on them, she gives these abusers a stern talking-to. This is a little ironic, considering how upset she is that rapists get away with just a slap on the wrist. Director Emerald Fennell seems to be going with the safe choice so that her protagonist can’t be criticized for being too harsh, which is counterintuitive to her entire ‘radical’ feminist outlook. If Cassie is angry, make her angry. Don’t cater to society’s expectations of what is appropriate.

The movie hits close to home, especially in our community. Wayland has had its reckoning with the #MeToo movement, with the Instagram account DearWayland sharing stories of sexual assault in our own town, even within our schools. The stories revealed by this page shocked the community, but for many women, these stories are known all too well. Survivors don’t have the luxury of being surprised by stories of assault. They are forced to go through them.

Wayland has made huge steps forward in dealing with sexual harassment and assault. However, “Promising Young Woman” tells us that there is still work to be done. While I would love to look at this film and say it’s too outlandish or unrealistic, I know that countless women experience Cassie’s pain and trauma in real life. For survivors of sexual assault, this story is not fiction.