Feminism,Film studies

Promising Young Woman: a film, a culture, a gap

by Eugenia Tzirtzilaki

I first heard about Promising Young Woman as a film so relevant it should be taught in schools. A few days later, skimming through facebook, I read on a friend’s wall: “Promising Young Woman is one of the worst films I’ve seen in a long time. And it’s now nominated for a golden globe award. Can someone explain to me what is going on?” As the women around me kept calling Promising brilliant and “to the point”, I realized that the whole “point” was invisible to many. My friend explained his disdain: “The writing is so bad. From Laverne Cox’s character who didn’t need to be in the film, not because she wasn’t great, but because the role was a filler without any arc, to Mulligan’s unconvincing wrath, story holes were so deep you could fall and break your back.” Why were we reading the same choices so differently? Was there a symbolism to the script (which ended up winning an Oscar), that he was missing?

There is a density that women might perceive more easily because of the overlapping similarities of the film’s story to our own [1]. It was because of these similarities that Laverne Cox’s character made sense to be there; the culture that the film portrayed concerned both afab and amab women [2]. Also, Mulligan’s character, Cassie, never exhibited wrath, so no wonder it was unconvincing. If the word “wrath” connotates God’s vengeance and its onomatopoeia imitates a roar, that’s a very different path than what Cassie chooses. Turning rage into a will to heal and inventing her own way of social mending, she chooses to work for the future instead of clinging to the past. To her, educating men is an act of love towards the women of the future. Nothing wrathful about that.

Men and women relate to violence differently, that is not a matter of dispute. Femicides are common, malecides is not a word. Men act violently more often and initially we think Cassie does too. But she surprises us. She doesn’t yearn to kill and that’s one more way she resists the macho paradigm of patriarchy. Cassie doesn’t even try to kill the man who started it all [3]. And she’s not on a suicide mission either; she might be prepared to die but doesn’t intent to do that. She doesn’t prioritize revenge over teaching or death over life at any point.

Promising gestures to a different answer to the brutality and horror of the world [4], negating the option toxic masculinity would propose. It dissects the mechanisms of rape culture, and also shows a different potentiality. The film is dark yet optimistic, if not on a personal level, on a political one. Cassie, whose name reminds us of Cassandra, the girl cursed to always tell the truth but never be believed in the Greek myth, is not cynical, nor is her rage blind. Does female anger seem elusive (as suggested by all memes with the punchline “Nothing” when a guy asks “what’s wrong?”) or is it simply ignored when it isn’t violent? In our patriarchal world, can women’s voices be heard, if they say something that a man never would? Could it be that sometimes, female voices are really accused of failing to sound male?

Whether female emotional ecology is actually different or social conditioning has shaped our different responses, healers and educators are two of the most stereotypically female professions. Cassie in Promising has strived to be both: she might not have managed to become a doctor, she insists on becoming an educator though, restoring health into a broken system of a different kind, a social one. In the story, it’s been around 7 years since the incident occurred, the specifics of which are never fully described forcing viewers to use their imagination, and thus, by using their own experiences, making the story even more personal. All this time Cassie keeps trying to metabolize her trauma, transforming it into some sort of positive impact, in order to move on.

The film doesn’t only tell a psychological story though, but a socio-political too. As the story unfolds, there are many ways in which we can imagine justice coming in. It allows and inspires us to see different choices the characters could have made, which would have been more insightful, decent and just. Promising ignites in the viewer both the despair and the will to come up with better ways to respond. This fertilization of our collective imagination is a highly political and much needed contribution to the post #metoo era.

Still, Dennis Harvey’s opening line on his Variety [5] review is: “Carey Mulligan is on a mission of vengeance”. Revenge is persistently all many reviewers read in this original script, but this one goes a step further. He calls Mulligan an “odd choice” for the part, comparing her with another (younger) actress. He goes on to comment on her physical appearance, finding even her… hair unconvincing. “Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.” Can you imagine similar comments made for a male actor? Can you think of any example when a man’s own hair was found to not seem authentic enough for the part? Neither can I, and nor could Mulligan, who replied [6] calling out this review as blatantly misogynistic. The Variety review can now be read with an Editor’s Note attached to it: “Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of “Promising Young Woman” that minimized her daring performance.”

In her review on Time magazine, Stephanie Zacharek [7] claims that “it’s possible to be pro-revenge-fantasy and still be anti-Promising Young Woman.” However, Cassie never tries to take the revenge Zacharek would have excused her if she had enjoyed. Zacharek notes that “Cassie’s motivation is sincere but also unfocused. She finds men who seem perhaps OK and then coaxes out their worst impulses to prove to herself, and to us, that all men are terrible.” Ηow does Cassie coax [8] rape? By presenting herself as too drunk to resist? Because that is all she does. Lack of resistance is not a reason to harm, it’s an opportunity. Every victim of theft in the world vould expand on this. Why does the obvious needs to be stated so often when a crime against woman is the topic?

What the men in the film “want to do and what they know they shouldn’t do are exactly the same thing” observes Zacharek. Yet, they still go ahead with it. Why? Because they can. This is rape culture. In the film, the friends of the men who pursue rape, offer support instead of stopping them. A male conspiracy against women is evident throughout the film, yet some female critics still think women “coax” their own rapes. There’s nothing biological about gender bias after all. Women can also inhabit the patriarchal worldview, as the Dean in Promising also illustrates.

For author Christos Tsiolkas Cassie’s fury echoes that of Medea, another angry woman portrayed by a man, who kills her children in order to “make a man suffer for his oppression” writes Tsiolkas [9]. First, Medea was a mother while Cassie is not, so linking them implies that parenting is a woman’s responsibility in any relationship, whether romantic and maternal. Moreover, Medea was abandoned by her kids’ father. That never happened to Cassie. In fact, nothing happened to her: it was her friend who suffered. Tsiolkas calls the relationship of the two women a lesbian one, even though Cassie is attracted to men throughout the film and we watch her fall in love with one. To state the obvious (again): a strong bond between women can, but doesn’t have to be romantic. The ability of women to form strong emotional bonds with one another, even without erotic interest, has been credited as one of the mechanisms responsible for female longevity (in average women live 4 years longer than men). Is the fact that this behavior is not equally common in men, a good enough reason to not acknowledge it as real?

These are the female friendships I enjoy, we’d die for one another (even though we wouldn’t strive to!), and that’s not the only chord that rang true in Promising. Equally accurate was the portrayal of the systemic failure women experience as victims of sexual crimes, of the fact that those who get away with it will most likely repeat it, or that they will usually find a woman “not like the rest” to spoil… By far, the greatest contribution of the film is its three-dimensional portrayal of rape culture. It successfully deconstructs a lie most men live in: that they do not participate in it. And that’s immensely brave. Apart from Cassie’s parents and her trans friend, every other character actively participates in rape culture, while still claiming to be “good guys”. Everyone, from the men at the bar in the opening scene, to the goofy doctor who lies to the police to cover up his friends, or the dean, mother of a girl herself, who ignores the immense amount of sexual assaults.

I don’t know one woman of my generation who has not been sexually assaulted or raped or both. Not one. How can rape be so common, but rapists so hard to find? This film is about them: those who enact the deed, those who allow it. There’s this moment in Promising when the tv is on and an old film is playing. A male voice is heard: “God has no problem with violence. But there are other things he cannot stand; lace things, pink things.” Rape culture cannot thrive without the normalization of misogyny. The pink pop joy of claiming back girlishness was a great approach to the film’s aesthetics.

What women do with their anger, is a big question that each of us has come to meditate on at some point. Daring to care is the choice Cassie makes. Care, not only for her friend but also for future girls, even the dean’s daughter, and even – this is hard to grasp – the men. She doesn’t hurt the men she seduces, instead she tries to bridge the culture gap between those who enact and collude in rape and the rest of us.

As a woman, I too don’t want to take revenge on all the men who have been abusive, offensive or threatening towards me, I honestly don’t. I simply want for the abuse to stop. I try helping others to see things differently (like Cassie and like the director Emerald Fennell); do the men that have hurt me view my response as an unconvincing wrath or as my failure to kill? “The film takes us to the brink but then pulls back” Tsiolkas writes, because Cassie does not pursue a bloody massacre. He also reads the end of the film as “kind of happy”, despite the agonizing death we watch take place. For Tsiolkas the worst scene is where the lawyer, broken by guilt, begs Cassie for help. “No amount of valour in the performance can redeem the vainglory of the conception,” writes Tsiolkas. “Are we truly meant to believe that the worst of human behavior that a hardnosed lawyer has seen has occurred on a university campus?” This strange location-specific observation, is helpful in revealing one more bias that rape culture strives on. What is the ideal site for the worst of human behavior? Surely not a family home. Yet, this is where most femicides occur. Universities, work places and dark alleys are equally possible scenes for heinous crimes, just as red dresses and sweatpants are equally likely to be the victims’ outfits on the day they are attacked. Is it really so hard to conceive that a lawyer could be haunted by guilt after hushing the gang rape of a young woman that later commited suicide? What I find unbelievable here, is Tsiolkas’s disbelief.

Cassie doesn’t intent to kill anyone but she doesn’t manage to execute her plan either. If she had, the film might have been more optimistic, but how about realistic? Realistic as it now is, this ending forced us to face the story behind the story: our culture. Any of these girls could have been us, has been us. All the men we saw, we’ve met. Why is there so much violence against women? Why is it so difficult to get convictions for sex crimes? Why did the UK need to pass a law this year making misogyny a hate crime? How could a Greek journalist claim earlier this month on national TV that the pilot who killed his wife in her sleep by pressing a pillow on her face [10], was sensitive since he didn’t have it in him to chop her into pieces? Α misogynist mindset remains at the base of every aspect of our society: at home, work, politics, aesthetics, language. A young man these days to not be part of this culture has to either be a philosopher or an idiot, in the true meaning of the word: not stupid, but standing outside the crowd, following his own idio-syncratic logic. Which is what Cassie mistook her lover for.

In Promising, struggling to get some sense of balance in her life, Cassie makes it her job to teach consensus. She tries to be a force for good, repair her survivor’s guilt and move on. She even manages to fall in love. But when she realizes he was part of it too, she gets back on her mission. What would you do if you were her? What would you do if you were him? The answer does not depend on your gender, but on the side of the culture gap you stand on.

763

Notes

  1. In I’m thinking of ending things for example, it was obvious there was a symbolic side to the story, otherwise we’d stop and say hey, why was the mom just young & then old & then young again? This sort of dream-like symbolism, that was obvious in that film, also exists in Promising, but more subtly.
  2. amab: assigned male at birth, afab: assigned female at birth

3.Instead wants to mark him, as Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tatoo does to her rapist.

  1. Different to what, one might wonder. Another recent film whose lead character was the victim of injustice, Joker, presented any possible resistance to the terror of the world as an inevitably leading to chaos. As if humanity can only go the way we already know, or explode into a bloody mess that would be even worse. Depoliticizing the political has a dangerous dimension not hard to decipher. A few months later we watched this take on what resistance or rebellion is supposed to be, in flesh, when confused crowds stormed the US Capitol in Washington.
  2. https://variety.com/2020/film/reviews/promising-young-woman-review-1203480660/

6.https://www.insider.com/promising-young-woman-review-veriety-ignited-row-over-press-freedom-2021-2

  1. https://time.com/5929346/promising-young-woman-review/
  2. Coax: persuade someone gently to do something, by being kind and patient, or by appearing to be. – Cambridge Dictionary.
  3. https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/culture/film/2021/01/30/promising-young-woman/161192520010991

10.https://greekreporter.com/2021/06/18/caroline-crouch-murder-friend-interview/

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