Written by Georgia Hilton-Buckley
Female manipulator narratives have been a frequently visited theme within film for decades, from Kill Bill to Gone Girl and Fatal Attraction. We love to see a woman take power and set things right in the world. Promising Young Woman, staring Carey Mulligan and directed and written by Emerald Fennell, will undoubtedly become the next classic within this genre.
Cassie (Mulligan) is young female med-school drop out with no prospects and no friends, and frankly she doesn’t seem to care about life. We are first introduced to her drunk and unable to stand in a night club; her make up expertly smudged across her face with weeping mascara and a tousled bun. Before long, a ‘nice guy’ comes over to ensure she is okay and see her get home okay. In her drunken unresponsive state, he brings her back to his apartment and promptly begins to remove her underwear and reassure her of how beautiful she is all while Cassie’s eyes roll to the back of her head. Most would presume this is the beginning of Cassie’s revenge arc and what ultimately leads her to her current unremarkable life.
As this ‘nice guy’ is struggling to loop Cassie’s underwear off her ankles, Cassie snaps out of her drunken state and in Mulligan’s low almost smug voice asks, “What are you doing?”. Cassie is avenging the rape of her childhood best friend by scaring men who class themselves as ‘one of the good guys’ into thinking twice when picking up women in the future. The plot only becomes more intense as Cassie discovers her friend’s rapist and the people who didn’t believe her are now living successful, guilt-free lives, and it is decided they need to be reminded of their crimes.
The title Promising Young Woman is a satire of the frequently coined saying when men are accused of sexual assault. People don’t want to ruin the lives of such promising young men, almost the exact words were used to describe the case of rapist Brock Turner at his trial. Cassie isn’t portrayed as morally superior within her revenge narrative, but is presented as an anti-hero. It’s so easy to empathise with her anger and almost feel as though her actions are just, but we are reminded that Cassie is not an aspirational character. She becomes an outlet for us to vicariously live our own revenge narratives.
In Variety’s review of the film, it was questioned whether Mulligan was the correct person for this role. Cassie is meant to embody the male fantasy and plays up to all aspects of the male gaze, so why did Variety suggest Margot Robbie instead? It almost feels as though they are saying Mulligan isn’t attractive enough to be the subject of male desire – but this completely misses the point of the character. Cassie is attractive, but the point the character is trying to convey is that men don’t care what you look like if you are drunk enough. The aesthetic of Cassie is really important for the characterisation. During the day, pastel feminine outfits are chosen for Cassie presented this illusion of an innocent woman or a ‘wifey’. In fact the whole film appears to fit this light pastel positive aesthetic which contrasts the deeply dark themes. When she seduces men Mulligan is dressed up in almost a parody of girls on a night out with heavy eye make-up and ‘blow job’ lips combined with obscenely short outfits that play into various male fantasies.
Of all the previously mentioned female revenge narrative movies, this is the only one directed by a woman, which is highlighted in the portrayal of women in this movie. Take Gone Girl, for example, Rosamund Pike is portrayed as sexy throughout the whole movie, even when she’s slashing a throat. Kill Bill has Uma Thurman practising amazing martial arts while in a skin-tight pleather cat suit. The sexuality is removed from Cassie, she isn’t here to fulfill some dangerous psychopathic woman fantasy, she’s here to bring justice.
Ultimately, Fennell is teaching us that in the case of sexual assault, justice doesn’t come from murder or violence, but from accountability. I can feel a burgeoning obsession with this film rising so please excuse me while I research how to do my hair like Carey Mulligan.
Georgia is a Third-year Politics student at the University of Leicester with an infatuation for books, particularly the classics. She is interested in feminism, philosophy, and music.