By Ellen Fasham
With the burgeoning momentum of ‘Everyone’s Invited’ and the death of Sarah Everard, discussions about rape culture and gender relations are assuming greater prominence than ever before. Five-time Oscar-nominated Promising Young Woman is a dark comedy thriller that tackles these issues with astonishing nuance. Directed by Emerald Fennell, the film follows 30-year-old Cassie (Carey Mulligan) in her attempt to avenge her best friend Nina, who was a victim of sexual assault when they were at university.
Cassie’s life is engulfed by her need for revenge and driven by a clockwork routine. Every week, she goes out to a club and feigns near blackout drunkenness with the sole aim of luring in a sexual predator – which, it seems, is inevitable. The predatory man then takes her back to her apartment where he begins to take advantage of her ‘drunken’ state, sexually exploiting her while she mumbles confused protest.
This is when Cassie turns, snapping out of the act with her clear, startling sobriety. Cassie seems dangerous and almost psychotic, flipping power relations on their head as the men become disturbed and scared. For the viewer, there is something incredibly rewarding and exciting about this performance; the didactic message is searingly clear as Cassie warns against taking advantage of drunk and vulnerable women.
Whilst initially thrilling, the opening premise presents a thin portrayal of gender dynamics and power, sweepingly characterising men as dangerous and predatory. The film starts with a group of men observing Cassie whilst exchanging sexist and derogatory quips, a glaring depiction of ‘lad culture’ as intrinsically misogynistic. One man goes over to Cassie, and at first appears to be helping her home – until he tells the taxi to take them back to his place, not hers. The message to the audience is thinly veiled: men are looking to exploit women, and even the ‘nice guys’ can’t be trusted.
At this point, one can practically hear the uproar from #NotAllMen supporters, who would fervently argue that not all ‘nice guys’ are predators in disguise. Enter Ryan (Bo Burnham), a man harbouring a long-time unrequited crush on Cassie. He is thoughtful and kind, respecting both Cassie’s occasional need for distance and the role consent plays in a relationship. Through the character of Ryan, we can see that indeed not all men are sexual predators.
Nevertheless, as the film progresses it becomes clearer that Ryan, however implicitly, did have a role to play in perpetuating rape culture during his university days. The message is clear: not all men are rapists, but all men have a responsibility to understand their role in a society that normalises dismissive attitudes towards rape.
The film is initially premised as this fierce man versus woman revenge thriller, which sees a powerful woman triumph against predatory men. Cassie only targets men in this mission for justice, and because of this blame is initially very much assigned to men and men only. While this is an exciting exploration of gender relations, it is also a rather binary and thus flat approach.
The film however goes on to assign blame for rape culture in a far more expansive and comprehensive way as Cassie moves to a wider range of targets for her redemptive rough justice. Her targets include a by-standing female peer, the female dean at her college, and the defence lawyer, representing the social, educational, and legal institutions respectively. Here, blame is apportioned with a far more holistic approach, demonstrating that gender relations aren’t necessarily a battle for power between men and women. Instead, rape culture can be perpetuated by women as much as men, and indeed it is mostly a product of systemic attitudes towards gender relations structured by established institutions.
This is demonstrated at a finer level with the title of the film itself, Promising Young Woman. The title is an inversion of the phrase ‘promising young men’, which is often heard in defence of young male perpetrators, especially in higher education. It is frequently the case that even with witnesses and testimonies, a woman does not receive justice at the risk of ruining the promising future of the man – even if that harms her own prospects of wellbeing, security, and happiness. The title and the film itself question the imbalance of value that institutions place on men and women.
Gender inequalities are still very real and have shattering consequences, yet it is becoming increasingly ambiguous as to where to apportion blame and how to tackle the problem. Promising Young Woman leaves some areas, such as the ethics of Cassie’s rough justice, ambiguous enough so that the film remains thought-provoking without the tone being overtly didactic. However, it very firmly and successfully raises attention to the social and educational systems perpetuating rape culture and indeed speaks with striking relevance to the culture of gender relations experienced by university students today.
Image: indulg express via Flickr