By James Cain
[Content warning: The following article discusses themes of sexual assault]
There’s a scene in Emerald Fennell’s jet-black comedy “Promising Young Woman” that mines terror from the idea of an underage girl hanging out with a group of boys she doesn’t know in a university dorm room. We’re given no particular to doubt these young men, but we do know that boys will be boys, and well, there is alcohol in the room…
The scene comes hot on the heels of the publication of 2019’s “Know My Name”, a memoir / survivor’s tale by American hero and charming badass Chanel Miller. Miller’s superb (and often harrowing) book chronicles the aftermath of the sexual assault by rapist Brock Turner, showing how much the young woman had to fight for Turner’s ultimately meagre sentence. She discusses not only the beautiful family and friends who supported her, and the people across the United States who took action to support her, but also the individuals and institutions who fought against her quest for justice. This includes Stanford University, whose atrocious conduct resembles that of said nameless college in “Promising Young Woman”, with our vengeful protagonist flanked by imperious portraits of stern men.
Emerald Fennell, meanwhile, has little interest in being kind. Instead, she seems to be more reiterating Hannah Gadsby’s message of “straight white men: pull your fucking socks up!“
Unlike “Know My Name”, there is very little kindness in “Promising Young Woman”. While Chanel Miller doesn’t deliver any half-measures in her book, the author’s tremendous decency and warmth comes across throughout. Emerald Fennell, meanwhile, has little interest in being kind. Instead, she seems to be more reiterating Hannah Gadsby’s message of “straight white men: pull your fucking socks up!“
Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra, a medical student-turned-barista. At age 30, Cassandra finds herself in arrested development: we know something went wrong years prior, something which is fuelling her activity of posing drunk in clubs to lure in unsuspecting creeps. As the story unfolds, we discover just how personal Cassandra’s mission, with the stakes rising as her war on rape culture escalates.
While “Promising Young Woman” is a little mixed in its plotting and messaging (Cassandra’s actions remain somewhat muddled and ambiguous, for one, and if this writer remembers correctly, the word “rape isn’t uttered once), it is utterly unforgiving of the patriarchal poison that pervades everyday life, injustices that allow men to get away with sexual assault en masse. Fennell and casting-director duo Lindsay Graham & Mary Vernieu fill the roles of the would-be assaulters with pop culture cuties like Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Adam Brody and Max Greenfield, reminding us that rapists rarely look like monsters: they’re often Nice Guys. Meanwhile, Mulligan’s wonderfully daunting, angry performance explores what this kind of abusive culture can do to a person, with Cassandra consumed by a thirst for revenge and recognition of the problem so few seem willing to address.
All of this is to say that “Promising Young Woman” is a must-see for boys and men from the age of, say, 15 (though it’s likely that many will be able to see and appreciate the movie at a younger age with the company of a parent / guardian). For most of us lads who are into women, we’re exposed from a young age to the message that we need to go out and get it. The creeps behind 2013 date-rape anthem “Blurred Lines” declare “You know you want it”. Toilet attendants at grubby UK student clubs spray cheap aftershave on your crotch, half-singing “Freshen up for the punani”. And those who fight back are often maligned in culture: heck, in “Wonder Woman 1984”, one character is depicted as going too far when she beats up a rapey drunkard (yes, 2020 went so far as to have an anti-feminist Wonder Woman movie.)
All of this adds up, every day, to a culture in many countries where boys and men are told that they need to prioritise their mission for sexual gratification over respect for non-male people. This is why “Know My Name”, “Promising Young Woman” and, yes, In Their Own League (founder Bee Garner is a badass feminist pioneer, FYI) are so damn important. If you’re a guy, there’s a good chance that you used to indulge in misogynistic behaviour (this writer certainly did). But to quote last year’s excellent theatre recording / documentary “Beastie Boys Story”, “I’d rather be a hypocrite than the same person forever.” “Promising Young Woman” is far from the first piece of art to tackle rape culture, Nice Guys et al, but it is a reminder that we need more and more movies like this. It can only be a force for good.