Trigger warning: sexual assault. Also, spoilers ahead.
Promising Young Woman is a good film. Like, really good. Like, holy shit. I acknowledge that for some, this is actually a pretty bold statement, and I know I am throwing myself into the ring of a pretty egregious controversy just by stating this opinion. But I can’t help it. The film simply rocks.
Despite this, I have heard a lot, and I mean a lot, of opinions to the contrary. Mostly by men. I have a group chat on Twitter that I frequent on the regular, and many of the men in that chat have a less-than-stellar view of Promising Young Woman. This has always irked me even before I saw the film for myself. And now that I have seen the film, it irks me even more. So, let’s talk about that.
I will start off by acknowledging a few things. Firstly, I know that there are many, many women who have grievances with the film, and this is not without merit. There are quite a few things in Promising Young Woman that seem suspiciously placed or outright tone-deaf. Most women who’ve left critical reviews take issue with the film’s ending, where Carey Mulligan’s Cassie Thomas sends the cops after the man who killed her from beyond the grave. The police are not known for being the good guys in any scenario, and especially not in cases of sexual assault. The film essentially being a rape revenge story (or, by the director’s admission, a subversion of such a story), this choice does seem like a misstep in an otherwise well-constructed film. For transparency’s sake, I see this choice as the natural progression of the decision to not kill Nina’s rapists, but torture them. It doesn’t affect my view of the film personally, though I see how it could make others angry, and understandably so.
Secondly, I am a victim of sexual assault. I have found it hard to parse the details, since it happened when I was very young, but suffice it to say that it has taken a toll on my mental well-being and my sexuality for a very long time. Does this make me more deserving to talk about Promising Young Woman than other critics? No, not by a wide margin. Everyone is allowed to have their opinions on whatever it behooves them to have an opinion about. But when it comes to a film like Promising Young Woman, a film explicitly about women being sexually assaulted… I don’t know, I really only want to hear opinions from other women who have been sexually assaulted.
And that first thing, women, is kind of critical to me. I’ve told my friends several times that I do not care what men have to say about Promising Young Woman, and I am almost always met with ire. “Well, we’re allowed to have opinions, aren’t we?” Yes. See above. I just don’t care about them. Men have a particular knack for jutting themselves into conversations that ought to be dominated, or even exclusively populated, by women. This doesn’t make them bad people. They might not even be aware that they are doing it. Nonetheless, this insistence is a byproduct of the patriarchy — in particular, the subconscious idea that men always have a say in any situation, regardless of content or context.
But let’s back up for a second. Promising Young Woman is not kind to its male characters, and for good reason. All of them are rapists, sexual abusers, or allies/bystanders to the former (except for Clancy Brown, who did nothing wrong). Even Bo Burnham, the tall baby-faced man who is made out to be “one of the good ones,” ends up being an accessory to Nina’s rapists. Does this mean the film hates men, or takes the shallow position of “men are bad”? Well, no. It’s just that we’re not talking about men right now. I think that for a film with such a heavy topic as this, it pays to be specific rather than broad. That’s why the film feels very specifically by-and-for women. In spite of this, many of my male friends feel as though the film is shallow, or that it pulls too many punches. Well, okay. Let me take a crack at an analysis, then:
Promising Young Woman’s main thematic crux is the conflict between Cassie’s desire to avenge Nina, her own personal desires, and her own sociopathy. Let’s face it: Cassie is not a good person. She bashes random peoples’ car windows in, she manipulates people she trusts, and she tricks two women into believing that they, or someone they love, have been or are going to be sexually assaulted. That’s not really a good way to go about fixing your problems, now is it? And I don’t understand the viewpoint of anyone who comes out of the film seeing that and thinking that Cassie is meant to be read as a hero. The truth is, there are no heroes. Sexual assault doesn’t create good people — it destroys them. A young woman who once had promise, now an emotionless wreck, hungry for revenge that will never satisfy her. Although it is never shown, the red lettering in her diary of names suggests that she does, in fact, kill or injure her victims. Make no bones about it: Cassie is almost certainly a serial killer.
But it’s that tragedy, the mere association with sexual assault, that drives her to that point. Sexual assault destroys not only survivors’ lives, but the lives of everyone around them.
Of course, I can see how one might come out of the film not feeling particularly vindicated by the film’s protagonist not being a survivor herself. But I argue that this makes the themes more poignant. Yeah, Cassie was not assaulted herself, but what good would the film be doing if it portrayed a survivor as a sociopathic serial killer? Not a lot of good at all, if you ask me. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it would make Cassie a less compelling character, and make it seem like survivors are crazy for wanting to take revenge on their perpetrators.
Revenge itself doesn’t even seem to be the point of the film, although it is certainly the driving motivation for Cassie. But I think Cassie’s quest for revenge delivers a message not to survivors, but to friends and family of survivors: “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t take up a personal vendetta against someone else’s rapist, causing more harm than good in the process.” That isn’t to say that sexual abusers aren’t worthy of scorn — indeed, many of the scenes where Cassie ambushes would-be abusers evoke an almost To Catch a Predator-esque schadenfreude. But when you have your head so far up your own ass, you end up blindly hurting those people you’re intending to protect. It feels good to watch Cassie scorn abusers, but it feels downright sickening to watch her threaten to abuse a minor.
The fact is, Cassie is the product of the systematic oppression of sexual assault survivors — a system designed to suppress outrage and turn a blind eye to perpetrators. One of my male friends told me that he feels as though Promising Young Woman “avoids talking about the system,” but I disagree. The film is about the system more than anything else. Ryan, Al Monroe, Cassie — all of them are products of rape culture in one way or another. The Dean of the medical school they all attended doesn’t even remember suppressing Nina’s case, but she sure remembers Al Monroe. That upstanding young man who graduated magna cum laude. What’s that about a sexual assault case? I can’t say I remember. You know, that shit. Survivors being lost to history, while rapists thrive. Yeah, that shit.
One of my male friends singled out Alfred Molina’s character as a point of contention. Why would Cassie let him off the hook? I mean, it’s a valid question. It’s not like he’s the best person of the bunch just because he repents for the wrong he’s caused. In fact, he is as much an arbitrator of the system of rape culture as any other. I was kind of shocked and confused at this moment too, but looking back on it, I can see why Cassie acted the way she did: she didn’t feel sympathy for the guilty lawyer, not in the slightest. But she felt like she could manipulate his guilt to use him as a pawn later on. How else would she have sicked the cops on Monroe from beyond the grave? This action, I think, signifies a few things: first, that Cassie’s inhumanity has led her to seek an ally among her own enemies. Second, that no matter the extent of Cassie’s vengeance, some people were always going to get off scot-free. That’s just how this works. This system runs so deep, that it’s impossible for all guilty parties to face the retribution that they deserve.
And of course, there’s Ryan. Sweet, lovable Ryan. The love interest. Well meaning, if a bit uninformed. And hey, he’s a pediatrician! What a nice guy, he is. I think it’s no mistake that Bo Burnham was cast in this role, because Bo is so immediately lovable, especially to his core fan base. Hell, the movie switches tones frequently, mostly to flex Burnham’s comedic chops. One of my male friends felt off-put by the tonal mishmash, but in my opinion it makes the bait-and-switch of Ryan’s wrongdoing that much more poignant. It’s very well-telegraphed, but still shocking enough to make your heart sink into your stomach. Not Ryan. Anyone but Ryan.
And if there were any way I could sum up what this movie is trying to say in a few words, it would be: Yes, Ryan. Yes, even Cassie. Anyone can contribute to rape culture, intentionally or not. Not to say that my male friends who hate this movie are contributing to rape culture, but sometimes it feels like their perspective on it is inherently limited. Like, no matter how you dice it, you don’t experience patriarchy like women do. You don’t experience rape culture like women do. And regardless of how you feel, your perspective will never achieve the nuance afforded by experiencing those things. Again, you’re always entitled to have an opinion. But I’m also entitled to not listen to your opinions, and to feel irritated by them, and to have reasons as to why.
Sorry to put you on blast like this, guys. I hope you can forgive me.