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promising young women

The pop-modern femme fatale in Emerald Fennell’s ‘Promising Young Woman’

Warning: this article contains sensitive topics of death and rape culture. And spoilers about the 2020 movie ‘Promising Young Women’.

The film production ‘Promising Young Woman’ (written and directed by Emerald Fennell) came out in 2020 and focuses on the character Cassandra Thomas aka Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan, who you may recognise as Daisy from The Great Gatsby). Other cast members include Jennifer Coolidge (A Cinderella Story), Adam Brody (Jennifer’s Body), Alfred Molina (Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Connie Britton (American Horror Story – Murder House), Max Greenfield (New Girl) – to name a few. When asked about this select cast Fennel is quoted to state that “it’s important…that the audience has an allegiance with these actors. …Alison Brie and Connie Britton…these actresses that we really respect and like, that’s useful because it is sort of a kind of simulation of what it feels like when that happens to someone you like and respect. You find out somebody that you’ve had a crush on for years has behaved in a slightly, not slightly, completely unacceptable way. It just makes the whole thing a lot stickier.”

The protagonist Cassie is portrayed as a youthful, sweet-looking woman who works in a coffee shop by day and is a vigilante (who shocks men) by night. The words ‘youthful’ and ‘sweet’ are chosen purposefully here as her costume design, by Nancy Steiner, is dedicated to pink pastels and delicate details. Painting the picture of a young girl more so than a young woman. This is reinforced with the plaits and other youth stereotyped hairstyles that Cassie often wears, as well as her colourful short nails, and the fact that she still lives at home with her parents (she is 30 years old). Overall, by day, Cassie is depicted as a witty, young and innocent woman. The costume design depicts Cassie as a character who seems to resist following society norms that are ‘suited’ to her age. Due to her stunted ambition, Cassie reveals to Ryan (a love interest) that she does not want to go back to school to be a doctor. As the film progresses, it becomes evident, she believes being a vigilante is serving more justice, in comparison to her pursuing her career as a Doctor.

‘Have you dated a bystander to a sexual assault or a perpetrator?’ – that is the question Ryan’s character raises. Ryan’s character symbolises the reality that an individual can seem good but behind that guise is someone who has been an accomplice in a sexual assault, but not in the direct way you first may think. Ryan embodies the idea that passivity makes you innocent. Although he did not commit the crime himself in being a passive bystander, he aided all that happened and did not happen. And that is a crime that he fails to acknowledge.

Such ‘romantic’ elements/characters are intentionally maintained throughout the movie. When directing the cast, Fennell stated that she “was asking them to play romantic leads. I said to all of them, ‘You’re in a rom-com. You’re the lead. This is just the bit, this is the awkward first one night stand before everyone falls in love. So play this like you’re the romantic hero and you just failed to notice that, like in a lot of comedies, she’s just not actually saying anything or reacting very much.’ Which truly adds to the movie’s intention and its mockery of reality.

Promising Young Woman: Carey Mulligan film 'deeply troubling' - BBC News
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) turns the tables on men who try to sleep with her while she’s drunk. Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.

The initial appearance of Cassie in the trailer for the film does not reflect her as a femme fatale who inflicts violent revenge on wrongdoers. But why isn’t this movie a gory femme fatale? The message is clear – violence to stop violence should not lead to an impactful and lasting result (though the bachelor party undermines this). Cassie shows us that exposing the problem and changing how people think is possible can lead to change for the better. Throughout, Cassie challenges people to question whether they are actually good, whether they may be a man willing to sexual assault someone, or a woman who is supporting rape culture through her passive acceptance and denial. She sees their facade and shatters it, forcing them to see the person they truly are underneath. They may say they are a “nice guy” or that they would do something if they were to witness a sexual assault, but in actuality, they do not follow through on this.  

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The character of Madison conveys the complacency of a woman who shrugs off events of rape culture and fails to act on justice. These characters, present the type of people in society that are the reason, violence against women is frequently unresolved. The silent bystander/witness shows how inaction contributes to rape culture and offers nothing to the victim but silence and empty words. Excuses like ‘we were kids’, ‘she was drunk’, it was a ‘he said, she said’ situation are all made in this movie. In this, the script underlines what poor excuses these actually are and Cassie even scoffs at them being used. She knows they are a half-assed attempt to downplay what happened.

The movie removes itself from the victim (by not being from Nina’s perspective) to focus on how outraged Cassie is and how she needs justice for what happened to her friend. The domino effect the prior events have had on her deeply resonates with her needing to prevent this from happening to other women and attempt to claim some inner peace. There is an intention here to drive home the fact that women should be outraged that men are but that some women themselves, the justice system and even parents are complacent and eager to move on from such crimes.

This Promising Young Woman Scene Is Hard To Watch
Alison Brie as Madison in Promising Young Women. Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.

The events at the bachelor party subvert the empowered image of Cassie and reveal the danger of her actions when she attempts to seek revenge. It is the harsh reality that she is a woman putting herself into specific situations with men. In this tragic turn of events, Cassie becomes the once-promising young woman. The title of which Fennell said was to mimic the ‘promising young man’ term used all too often in sexual assault cases to describe the perpetrator in court. Fennel is subverting this male-centric discourse and questioning – well what about the victim? What about the woman? Nina was top of her class, the smartest most promising student doctor and because of what happened she dropped out. She was a promising young woman. And so was Cassie.

One of my favourite details about this movie, other than its pop-culture aesthetic (inspired by staples such as Clueless, Virgin Suicides and To Die For), is the iconography of Cassie with wings and halos. Production Designer, Michael Perry, sought to emphasise the imagery of Cassie as an avenging angel. Fennell revealed another mythological/ethereal to be the inclusion of Cassie being named after Cassandra from Greek mythology. Cassandra was gifted the ability of prophecy (by Apollo) but she was also cursed with disbelief from the people she told her happenings to. This included detailed voices of why so many sexual assault victims do not go through with reporting their assault and having their perpetrator face accountability. The internal meaning also reinforces a clear history of women being dismissed, or not having their case believed to be true.

The perpetrator, Al Monroe (played by Chris Lowell), is the sort of personality that inspires many of the characters to protect and stand by him. When Cassie finds out he is doing very well for himself and is even getting married in a few months, true unrest and its source is revealed. He is consistently depicted as a nice guy throughout the movie, however, the script undermines this through his killing of Cassie (an almost silent 2 and a ½ minute scene). After being suffocated to death, the audience does not see Cassie’s face, this depicts the dehumanisation of her life into another unidentified victim. All that is shown is her makeup on the pillow – smeared red lipstick and eyeshadow smudges, an afterimage of her last moments. (And also something mimicked in one of the movie’s posters).

Murder gets more attention than rape, that is a clear message made. Nina was assaulted, and yet there is a lack of justice and action taken, hence Cassie’s agenda. However, Cassie is dead merely days and immediately the police are involved (with the help of Jordan – the defence lawyer who worked against Nina’s assault claims). Fennel states: “There was no happy ending to this movie. All there is, is somebody who needs to show people, to deliver justice. And she [Cassie] does do that, but at a very, very heavy price. I didn’t believe that a woman of Cassie’s size would be able to physically overpower a very strong man. And it was important that it interrogated the myth of the revenge journey.”

Promising Young Women is a gritty portrayal of realism, and although at times hard to watch it is a masterpiece that reflects a bold red urgency to protect women and end the corruption and silence encouraging rape culture.

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