Editor’s Note: This article discusses sexual assault, suicide and violence.
What does it look like to see a woman enraged? It’s a difficult question to answer because we rarely see it. Most women settle for quiet tears and a stirring internal anger that remains unreleased. A deeper look into the release of this controlled fury was what director Emerald Fennell hoped to accomplish with her debut 2020 film, “Promising Young Woman.” Whether or not she actually delivered has been up for much debate.
The film has been praised for its portrayals of unrestrained female rage in the context of rape and vengeance, while also acting as a cultural response to the #MeToo movement. Though Fennell certainly innovates the rape-revenge fantasy genre by moving away from traditional plot and character archetypes, her portrayal of female rage in this context becomes problematic and strays far away from being groundbreaking and feminist.
Fennell’s clearest defiance of the rape-revenge film archetype is the fact that our protagonist, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is not actually the rape victim, but instead is pursuing revenge for her friend, Nina, who was. After being assaulted by a classmate one night, Nina spirals into a depressive state, drops out of medical school and eventually commits suicide. The trauma Nina carried following her assault transfers to Cassie after her death and leads her down a path for vengeance.
Cassie’s plan consists of mingling around nightclubs, pretending to be incoherently drunk and waiting for a man to take her home. She keeps up the act until these “nice guys” start taking advantage of her drunken state, where she then surprises them with her sobriety and forces them defenseless with interrogation.
In trying to move away from the traditional rape-revenge genre through this change in narrative, Fennell makes a tremendous error. Beyond Cassie’s retelling of Nina’s assault and death, Nina exists as only a ghost in this story. She is denied the opportunity to speak and therefore can never consent to the revenge plan.
The lacking focus on Nina’s story becomes increasingly problematic as Cassie’s revenge plan turns dangerously destructive. The film builds on the entertainment of seeing female rage, rather than addressing the realities of the rape culture and patriarchy that have contributed to Cassie’s behavior.
As Fennell continues to deviate from the archetype by making Cassie unlikable at times, the story continues to stray away from a feminist one. For someone who is actively seeking “justice” for a victim of sexual assault, Cassie does some questionable things. We see this hypocrisy in a lunch scene between Cassie and Nina’s friend, Madison.
Like a predator, Cassie fills her up with alcohol, and then relays her frustration with Madison for not believing Nina when she said she was assaulted. When the lunch ends in conflict, Cassie leaves and tells a stranger at the bar to take Madison upstairs to a hotel room, presumably to assault her.
Though we later discover Cassie didn’t actually orchestrate for Madison to become a rape victim, only to have her believe she was about to be assaulted, it is still disturbing that Cassie would do this knowing secondhand the trauma that follows these experiences.
Throughout the film, it is clear that Cassie’s desire for justice becomes skewed by borderline sociopathic tendencies. In this development of over-exaggerated rage for audience entertainment, the themes of this film become increasingly lost. We see the stereotype of a “mad woman” playing out clearly.
This continues into the movie’s final acts, where Cassie confronts Nina’s attacker and decides to carve her name onto his body so he can never forget her. Just as we are hoping for the climax of Cassie’s rage, in a surprise twist the assaulter breaks free and suffocates her to death. Her death is difficult to watch both because it is violently realistic, as Fennell wanted, but also because it invokes the same hopeless feeling as Nina’s death.
We see a small attempt at a happy ending as the movie shifts to a scene of the wedding of Nina’s assaulter, suddenly interrupted by a swarm of cops who have a video of Nina’s assault and are there for his arrest. And justice is served, right? Wrong.
In a perfect world, maybe. But in our world, the justice system hardly ever works in favor of sexual assault victims. Seeing the assaulter walk away in handcuffs gives no real relief. And beyond just this, despite whatever justice could result, the unjust deaths of Nina and Cassie still remain.
The point of rape-revenge films is their fantastical release of catharsis, but in this film, there is no real catharsis, a purposeful choice by Fennell. Fennell has defended the ending with the argument that real rage and revenge are messy, unable to offer a release. While this may be a valid defense, the attempts this film makes to break away from a traditional revenge fantasy ending serve no productive purpose.
It is hard to see how this film contributes to the aims of #MeToo and the intersectional feminist movements of the modern day. Instead, it feels as though the film has breezed past the very real realities of trauma, ignored the need to deconstruct our rape culture and has failed to address a broken justice system.
“Promising Young Woman” sought to accomplish a lot. While Fennell may have wanted her audience to imagine a world of vengeance and justice, where “nice guys” are thrown into a fearful frenzy and where victims feel powerful instead of powerless, actually watching the film had a far different feel.
In her focus to be revolutionary in the Hollywood world of film by flipping a traditional genre, opportunities for authentic and empowering feminist messages and conversations were lost and replaced by problematic and packaged ones instead.
Written by Gabriella Salas, MCS and English Literature Major, class of 2021.