The following story contains spoilers from the plot of Promising Young Woman.
Promising Young Woman is a revenge thriller romantic comedy—a melding of genres as bold as the film itself. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, the film stars Carey Mulligan as a woman haunted by a traumatic event in her past. As a result, she dedicates her life to seeking revenge on predatory men.
One of the last movies I saw in theaters was this film’s premiere at Sundance. After it ended, I struck up a conversation with the stranger sitting next me (in the glory days of when we could do that) and he said, “I will make sure my son sees this.” It was then that I realized who this film was for; by weaponizing, instead of romanticizing, the idea of the “nice guy,” Promising Young Woman can be as enlightening to men as it is empowering to women.
The film teaches a lesson in accountability, and opens up an escape from tropes that limit progress in today’s pervasive rape culture.
It’s no coincidence that the actors playing the film’s “nice guys” bring with them a certain association. The O.C.’s Adam Brody, who was the geeky, lovable Seth Cohen, plays Jerry, the kind of guy who advocates for equal opportunity for women in the workplace and drinks kumquat liqueur. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, known mainly as McLovin in Superbad, is a self-described nice guy who rambles on about David Foster Wallace and thinks women wear too much makeup because of patriarchal brainwashing that makes them insecure. Meanwhile, they live blindly in a grey-area when it comes to consent of a drunk girl. Jerry will hook up with a near corpse and Neil essentially force-feeds Cassie cocaine.
When the latter is confronted, his response is defensive: Neil says to Cassie, “but I’m a nice guy.” To which she responds, “Are you?”
Fennell is asking the audience what might happen if the good person you think you are gets a knock on the door and the person on the other side—in this case, Cassie—says you’re not.
Our misogynistic society often dismisses sexual assault as a joke. We grew up on movies like Sixteen Candles where picking up drunk girls was a gag. In fact, at times it was congratulated. Anthony Michael Hall gets a high five for nailing the most popular girl even though she was passed out the whole time. If someone can barely lift their head up, that is not consent: it is rape.
A web of complicity in rape culture—one that doesn’t favor one gender over another—weaves itself throughout the film. Alison Brie’s character, Madison, represents a tendency for female victim-blamers. Those who exercise shame perhaps as an attempt to be amenable, so as not to seem undesirable, or perhaps it’s a product of deep rooted inferiority.
On a similar note, Connie Britton’s character, the dean of the school Cassie attended and eventually dropped out of, is the embodiment of the American system bending over backwards to excuse male violence—the ever-present he said/she said pardoning.
Even the guys who partook in the assault at the heart of the movie believe they are somehow innocent now.
Without accountability, there can be no moving forward. The ending is proof of that. The whole time you’re rooting for Cassie to end up with Ryan (played by Bo Burnham), because he’s seemingly such a great guy. With Ryan she can move on and live a happy life. The past comes back when she learns, through a troubling video documentation of Nina’s assault, that Ryan was a bystander. Even when confronted years later, he denies the gravity of his role in that night. Eventually, when given a chance to prove that he has become a different person, he lies to the police when Cassie goes missing to protect himself and the other guys. It’s an allegorical depiction of how if left unaccounted for, the past will repeat itself.
In that jarring last half hour of the film, Al Monroe (played by GLOW‘s Chris Lowell) says getting accused of sexual assault is every guy’s worst nightmare. He doesn’t even think about how every woman’s worst nightmare is to actually be sexually assaulted. It’s also in that scene that we find out what happened to Nina, Cassie’s best friend whom she’s avenging the entire film. Nina died by suicide not long after she was raped and abused by Al. It is a teachable moment. A moment where the casualties of rape culture as they pertain to gender are directly contrasted.
Cassie visits one other person during her quest for culpability: a lawyer, played by Alfred Molina, who ruthlessly defended men accused of sexual assault.She shows up at his house with the intentions of confronting him, but instead finds a changed man burdened with remorse. He’s the only character aware of faults before Cassie comes knocking on his door. It’s a rare moment of resolve and accountability that brings one of the movie’s only feelings of justice and closure.
Unlike most revenge films, there are no predetermined good guys or bad guys in Promising Young Woman. Everyone is just deeply complicated. Fennell is not villainizing men, but rather asking audiences to swallow the bitter pill of acknowledging our potential complicity in oppressive structures so we can have honest conversations.
What men can also take away from the film is that accountability does not have a time stamp. Characters like Al or Ryan may believe that they’re a different person now, but what happened in the past always matters.
What men should know is that for women, it’s more than just the idea of being used for sex. It’s living with the fact that at one time or another you were powerless. You are now a victim, and with that comes a lifetime of shame and humiliation. Women like Nina are casualties in a larger phenomenon. Promising Young Woman shows us the varying degrees to which we might be complicit in this kind of injustice—and forces us to think about changing that.
The #MeToo movement is only a couple of years old. And what we’ve learned is that it’s more complicated than just weeding out the more obvious predators like Harvey Weinstein or R. Kelly. Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo, recently said that it is not a women’s movement. Men should be angry about the way they are painted. Originally, it was about encouraging women to come forward. Now, as we grow up alongside the movement, we can break down the kind of people we want to be. The question now is: what side of history do you want to be on? An ally or a bystander?
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