Trigger warning: This article discusses themes of sexual assault.
It would have been easier to make the heroes and the villains clear cut in Promising Young Woman. The dark comedy, written and directed by Emerald Fennell, stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a medical school dropout who works at a Instagram-worthy coffee shop by day, and by night pretends to be drunk at clubs, waiting for “nice” guys to prey on her. They do, every single time.
That could have been enough — Cassie, the feminist hero, metaphorically linking arms with all the other women in the world, exacting revenge on the villainous men, right? Cue Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” — but Promising Young Woman doesn’t approach anything idly.
As extreme as Cassie’s methods of revenge become throughout the film, there is something so gratifying about seeing the world in her black and white, good versus bad way. There’s nothing like watching men confront their own hypocrisy, realising that instead of the rom-com hero, they are actually the villain. But Promising Young Woman doesn’t let us off so easily; this isn’t a preachy “men are bad” story. In one of the most stirring scenes of the film, we are forced to come face-to-face with the ugly reality that women can be participants in their own oppression.
Under the guise of a casual catch-up, Cassie meets with her former college friend Madison, played by Alison Brie, to get day-drunk. Madison drones on and on about how well her life has turned out since medical school while Cassie feigns interest and orders a gigantic bottle of wine for the table, while only pretending to sip hers. The mood shifts considerably, however, when Cassie brings up the fact that back when they were at school, their friend Nina came to Madison saying she’d been sexually assaulted. Madison didn’t take Nina seriously, dismissing her serious claims as “drama.” Feeling cornered by Cassie, Madison immediately gets defensive. “I don’t know why you’re getting mad at me,” she says. “If you have a reputation for sleeping around, then maybe people aren’t going to believe you when you say something’s happened. Crying wolf.”
“Crying wolf?” Cassie replies.
“I don’t make the rules,” Madison continues, scoffing incredulously. “When you get that drunk, things happen. Don’t get blackout drunk all the time and expect people to be on your side when you have sex with someone you don’t want to.”
Cassie, realising that Madison seems to feel no remorse for what happened and can’t see her own role in Nina’s horrible experience — which eventually led to her dying by suicide, a loss that has haunted Cassie ever since — leaves the table.
The scene is hard to watch. It highlights the depressing reality of how deep rape culture runs in the fabric of society, and how women — yes, even the “feminists” — so easily live with their own internalised misogyny. We know that Madison is wrong, and her attitude feels like a betrayal to women everywhere. The “she had it coming” argument is a tired and dangerous tactic to put the blame on women and not the men actually responsible.
The uncomfortable scene challenges the viewer to think about their own past behaviour. Our society may fly the banner of sex positivity, but outward speech and ingrained behaviour aren’t always cohesive. Our brains may know that Madison is wrong, and we would never admit to thinking otherwise. But the horrible truth is that deep down, that Madison-like impulse to blame the victim isn’t entirely unlearned. In real life, we see that attitude echo through the halls of our justice system, as rape kits are backlogged due to lack of resources, and women traumatised by the process of reporting their assault. That’s a painful cultural and deeply-rooted lesson that women have been taught, and one that can’t be brushed under the rug now that we’ve said Time’s Up.
Of course, it would’ve been so much more comforting for Madison to say that she was deeply regretful of how she acted, and wanted to right her wrongs. But the discomfort doesn’t end with her distasteful reaction. In response, Cassie makes a misguided attempt to teach her former friend a lesson. Our main character, who we’ve sympathised with up until now, exhibits her own ugly behaviour here, exacting cruel revenge on Madison. Cassie sets it up so Madison believes that a man took advantage of her while she was passed out drunk in her hotel room with the sole goal of giving her a taste of her own toxic medicine.
This is what makes Promising Young Woman so compelling — the film subverts every expectation we have about female revenge plots. It throws out all the clean tropes, and instead pulls back the pink sequined curtain to reveal the messiness of reality: We all have the potential to play the villain in our own story.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.