I started watching ‘Promising Young Woman’ and before I knew it I had 3000 words in my notes app.
We begin at a nightclub. Very intense use of charli xcx’s ‘Boys’. The female gaze = Badly framed dick shots. Immediately, Emerald Fennell sets the tone for a searing piece of feminist commentary: businessmen dismiss the harsh reality that women aren’t allowed at the golf club.
I’m with Paul on this one! Then a man says 'She's asking for it'. Seth from the OC tries to take makeup off Cassie (our leading lady) a la Bradley Cooper auditioning Lady Gaga.
The set-up: Cassie acts drunk and waits for ‘nice guys’ to take her home to sexually assault her. She then sits up straight and puts on an affected revenge voice (kinda Old Hollywood gay icon) to say ‘gotcha’ I'm not drunk - now you can't rape me! It’s unexplained how Cassie gets away from Seth. We get a needle drop (offbrand Florence and the Machine singing ‘It’s Raining Men’) and she’s strutting down the street with red liquid dripping down her. It’s food, not blood (groan). The shot is a good metaphor for the film which will follow. It’s not going to give us the violence we want - instead it's going to give us something much worse.
Cassie walks home and some builders catcall her, of course. She goes to work at a coffee shop and Laverne Cox is her boss/black trans bestie/only other female character in this film that isn’t dead or villainous. Please someone put her in a better film and take that septum piercing off her )c: Cigarettes after sex on the decks. Visual style of a micro budget queer web series.
On to the next slapstick rape scene (honestly that makes it sound better than it is - I’d be partial to a well done slapstick rape scene). Who’s that - it’s McLovin’!
Not the David Foster Wallace reference…
I have to say it doesn't feel as fresh as Emerald seems to think to cast nerdy nice guys as rapey, that’s one of the archetypal creeps - cast a hot guy if u wanna say something (or at least give us something to look at!) The similarly silly Big Little Lies worked by using a leading man type to show that desirable men can be rapists, because rape isn’t in fact about not being able to get laid.
Women will literally go out every night to entrap potential rapists rather than go to therapy
We get the big reveal: when Cassie catches the guys about to rape, she tells them off. Yep, that’s it. Cassie, proving that she was formerly acting too drunk to converse, asks her new boy: 'what do I do for a living?' Women: they love networking! McLovin is too thrown off by her scolding to try anything, because rapists will famously take no for an answer. She leaves unscathed and sets to work updating a binary of rapists and non rapists in her journal, to show the audience that she’s been doing this for a while. If this was real life she'd rig cameras and get her own web show - it’d still be dated but it’d give us something.
Cassie is 29, dropped out of medical school, works at a cafe and lives at her very nice parents’ house. This is seen as a huge failure, probably because our director is a descendant of the literal British colonial elite. Bo Burnham comes to Cassie’s workplace to pester her, and tells a gay joke; they both laugh. This is a hostile work environment for Laverne :(
Why would she go on a date with this guy (a former youtuber?) when he looks like an accident happened at the butch dyke factory. Bo says a guy's name a bunch of times and there’s some spooky music. Here we go: it’s the name of the man who raped Cassie’s best friend from medical school, Nina, who then killed herself after not being believed/being victim-blamed. So we already have a dead rape victim, who exists solely as the motivator for Cassie’s actions.
If u told me Camilla Parker bowles and not just the actress who plays her wrote and directed this I would believe you. Although Camilla might make a better movie.
Next scene: Cassie uses the tactics of a date rapist against a woman she went to medical school with: Alison Brie. Great.
Some dialogue: 'statistically, feminists are more likely to do anal'
Alison Brie carefully explains the concept of the boy who cried wolf in relation to Cassie’s dead raped friend and then just in case the audience doesn't understand, says 'its crying wolf'.
Cassie leaves Alison Brie inebriated and goes on another scheme, which is kidnapping a teenage girl by pretending to work for a boyband. The boy band is called 'Wet Dreams' and I want to kill someone, maybe a rapist! Which I'm sure won't be happening in this film. Rolling her eyes at a teenage girl for liking pop music? Feminism!
Interestingly, Cassie uses the phrase 'had sex with' when describing her friend's rape. In fact, not once in this film does anyone say the word ‘rape’.
She pretends to endanger the teenager because she’s the daughter of college high up Connie Britton, who failed to support Nina after her rape, in order to...what, exactly? She does it to be told ‘You’re right’. Not only does this anticlimax make Cassie’s actions seem like (pretty fucked up) overkill, it’s all weirdly out of sync. Nina’s rape and suicide happened a long time ago. Allegedly Cassie is doing this now because the rapist is back in town, which feels like an overly convenient plot choice. The two concepts: the entrapment scheme and the revenge for Nina scheme, do not hang together and seem like they’ve been combined solely because neither story was compelling enough on its own.
But noone has time for that many hobbies!
Cassie is then very mean about the teenage girl for no apparent reason and says of her: 'who needs brains, they never did a girl any good'. Indeed, who needs brains when you can be besties with Phoebe Waller-Bridge?
Cassie's sitting in her car at the middle of an intersection, gets sworn at by a random guy and then she trashes his truck. wHY? Is this movie a metanarrative on the way cis het women use the trauma of rape victims to treat people awfully and pretend it's feminist? Because that’s the only clever message that could be happening here. The guy drives away with absolutely no retaliation, again seeming to send the message that if you just had enough gumption and moxy men wouldn’t be able to treat you badly… :|
Cassie is out trying to entrap a black guy and bumps in to her nice white boyfriend, #awkward! Of the 3 men Cassie pulls her rape prank on, 1 is black and 2 are jewish. Hm. Just like clockwork this guy realises she’s sober (‘Are you sober?!’ he says) and is instantly horrified, which I just don’t buy! It’s quite embarrassing that the ‘hook’ of this film is a concept that was so deftly picked up and dropped in a matter of minutes by Micheala Cole in the last episode of I May Destroy You. The man recognises her prank from the experience of a friend, which is an interesting addition because it basically admits that Cassie’s sober scolding isn’t enough of a cautionary tale to stop men predating on drunk women. Then, Cassie retorts: 'i'm not the only one who does this'.
So where is the movie with the girl gang who work together entrapping rapists? That would be better! This throwaway line is never touched on again. Cassie’s mission remains singular, which is one of the big failings of this story. It shows a lack of interest in, ykno what we are actually to do about the problem of sexual violence, which is necessarily a collective struggle. Didn’t we all hear about the Pink Saris, a gang of mostly lower-caste women in North India who enact, among other things, vigilante justice against rapists and abusers? Closer to (Fennell’s) home, the plot of Hustlers - based on real events - shows women targeting men together and actually getting something out of it (money).
Cassie tells the guy she was entrapping he's a minger (er...he’s not? He’s Sam Richardson in a fedora. Feels racist and a little fatphobic tbqh) and he runs off crying! men crying = silly
Alfred Molina is here now, playing the lawyer that defended Cassie’s pal’s rapist. Do u think loads of male actors went in for this because they thought it would be good for feminism and therefore their careers but it's just like the Cyberpunk 2077 of feminism w/o even any girl dick?
Bo appears again and it’s all V tragic that she can't date this nice guy because she's too busy doing inefficient revenge. They joke about how fedoras are not good, which is very current. It’s the halfway point (is that all?) and the fake-drunk-rape plotline is dropped like a sack of potatoes. We pivot momentarily to kooky indie rom com. Stars are Blind plays and it’s meant to be funny/endearing that her boyfriend likes the song, when even pitchfork types agree it’s a BOP! I couldn't do a parody more on the nose than this. It’s basically 'EAT, RAPE, LOVE'
Meet the parents: Bo comes round for dinner and now it’s The Sopranos. Dying at the notion of Emerald Fennell, a very posh English woman, trying to write a salt of the earth Italian-American woman, who is in turn played by Carey Mulligan, another very posh English woman. It feels v 3 Billboards, in that it’s a muddled vision of America by a non-American. Why not write what you know and tell a story about exploitation in the film industry? Why not a story about assault at boarding school? Sexual violence is not a universal experience that transcends context, and pretending it is was one of the big failings of the ‘metoo movement’. Also feels p misogynist to underuse Jennifer Coolidge like this!!!!
It’s revealed that Cassie not only got Alison Brie drunk but hired a man to take her to a hotel room, then aired all of her calls to make her think she’d been raped. As someone who's experienced a similar lack of care after such an experience, this was horrible to watch. This film is obsessed with the 'act' of rape: it doesn't allow that thinking you've been raped or nearly being raped could also be traumatic. In exchange for, um, not raping her (?) Alison Brie gives Cassie a video recording of her friend’s rape, and it turns out nice boyfriend was there watching. What a surprise 😏 Did everyone in this universe go to med school together? Cassie goes to meet her boyfriend and shows him the video as yet another gotcha.
With the video, which we only see reactions to, Fennell is referencing the real experiences of women who've had their assaults filmed, streamed, distributed. But in that case she should know that having video evidence didn’t do fuck all to help them. Women have had to fight merely to get such videos taken down from porn sites.
Cassie blackmails Bo into giving her the address of the rapist’s stag party, and then does a villain monologue where she explains her plan. She’s going to ambush the rapist, which allows her to dress up as a stripper/Darryl Hannah in Kill Bill 🙄and go to a remote cabin in the woods a la 1978 I Spit On Your Grave (a much more feminist film!)
This movie does NOT deserve to feature Britney's Toxic!!!!!!!
Hey it's the guy from New Girl! I wish I was watching New Girl right now
Aha, men getting 'debased' by a woman pouring drinks in their mouth so it looks like they're swallowing cum. As we all know, swallowing cum is degrading.
This film tries so hardly to have it both ways, but ends up having neither.
The real tragedy of rape is that you drop out of medical school, if you didn't go to medical school then it's not that bad.
Now we get the exchange about how it’s a man’s worst nightmare to be accused of rape - to which Cassie quips ‘what do you think a woman’s worst nightmare is?’ And I have to say, again, I don't think this is as universal as you might think! Especially if you've already been raped. The idea that rape, as decontextualised act, is thee worst most horrific ruining thing that can happen to a woman (and only women) is just not that helpful in a society where a large majority of women may experience sexual violence at some point, and many non women too.
Cassie starts trying to carve Nina’s name on her rapist. I can’t think of anything I’d want less! This is a riff on (or rip off) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but without anything that made that scene compelling: such as the interweaving of state and sexual violence in the figure of the guardian, and a rare gender-non-conforming hero in Lisbeth. By comparison, PYW is unstylish - it can't commit to an aesthetic and just throws everything it heard was cool at the wall - much like the proverbial bedroom wall of the DFW reading 'nice guys' she pilloried earlier.
Now we get that anticipated subversion of genre conventions by, um, brutally murdering the lead female character. Which means we also get the dead hooker trope - slapped on as an aesthetic for this 'Promising Young Woman', which is pretty sick given it's sex workers who are actually more at risk of being murdered. At this point you've probably tricked a bunch of survivors in to watching a film where instead of getting a feminist take on rape-revenge, you have to watch a man murder a woman in real time.
The most emotional moment we get is between two men. (wait, does this movie pass the bechdel test? LOL!)
Woman's burning corpse, great.
Jarring jump to mocking white hippy weddings, which is probably supposed to be a juxtaposition of the fantasy and reality of heterosexual romance. But all we get are some bad bongo players - what low hanging fruit!
Here’s the alleged payoff: she planned her OWN MURDER to get potential revenge for her platonic 'gal pal' which depends on COPS?
I have never met a cis het woman who has been this dedicated (i.e. brutal self sacrifice) to avenging her friend’s rape. It’s altogether too much! The only way this could be in the realm of possibility was if her 'friend' was actually her girlfriend and she was a very melodramatic and pro-cop lesbian. It would still be groan-worthy, but it would explain why she might be so ready to die as part of this tepid revenge plot (tfw no girlfriend). I would say that the director has never considered the existence of lesbianism but allegedly she wrote Killing Eve S2, so that’s...something.
Next - if you are planning to die anyway, what's wrong with a good old fashioned murder suicide? Why rely on the very criminal justice system which previously betrayed you? On the same lawyer who fucked over your friend, thereby granting him more redemption than yourself? It feels very stinkily liberal and anti-violence, which is rich considering the character has already nonconsensually drugged a woman and gaslit her to think she’s been raped. It feels like it's trying to say something about 'women'. That 'women' use passive and tricksy skills - perhaps involving Google docs, a little journal and some scheduled pink-hued messages - rather than physical violence. I don't think I need to tell you why this is wrong when there are women in prison today for defending themselves against their abusers.
So let's think about what might have actually happened: the man kills our girl in self defense. At the time she's dressed as a stripper or escort even if the rapist knows she probably isn't. Do we think a bunch of majority white upper middle class professionals would jump straight to burning the body and hiding all evidence before they would call the cops, cops which exist to serve and protect people like them? Cassie is only likely to get her own warped idea of 'justice' in this scenario because she is white and not actually a sex worker. The limits of the universal are never more strained than at this point. However, even her whiteness and respectability can’t erase the fact that she pulled a knife on the guy so I can't imagine him getting more than a few years. Even if he gets sent to the electric chair - what’s the point when you’re both dead?
Perhaps it's unfair to pick apart the film on this level. It's poppy, it's allegorical, it's using broad strokes and attempts at satire. But, if you’re selling your movie on the basis that it’s a more ‘realistic’ take on a genre which has a critique of the police state embedded in its plot convention and your realism relies on removing that embedded critique then I’m going to judge you if that realism isn’t, well, realistic!
Fennell didn’t want to give us a Hollywood ending, but what’s more Hollywood than cops solving everything, after 10 years of Marvel and Disney dominating the industry? Of the minority of Hollywood films made outside of this framework, many do not have Happy Endings. Thinking it’s clever and original to make a ‘realistic’ rape-revenge is like thinking it’s clever and original to make a new, dark, neocon Batman. A sad ending, to me, can be more of a Cop out (literally) than a happy one, a shortcut to an emotional impact you didn't earn.
The rape-revenge plot isn’t Hollywood, it’s exploitation: a form of filmmaking which historically allowed those shut out of the traditional studio system (among them queers, women, people of colour) to make movies. It is an underclass artform where many have been able to find representations lacking in mainstream culture. Admittedly these were frequently dodgy: at least part of the draw of rape-revenge movies was being able to watch titillating violence against women without feeling too guilty. But for many, the revenge sequences make the rape scenes worth sitting through (many of them are also far less romanticised than contemporary iterations, with some filmed from the woman’s perspective) and they hold special cultural significance for many survivors. By taking out the revenge but leaving in the titillating violence (extended suffocation scene - a trope of eroticised gendered violence) Fennell thinks she’s made a film for boys to feel bad about, but she gives them altogether too much and not enough credit. She paints all men as rapists (and most women as complicit with rape) and then offers up a steaming slice of femicide for them to watch. Noone is going to stop being rapey because they watched a film, and they certainly wouldn’t stop being rapey because they watched this film. So why not make a film for women, or for survivors? (different things, Fennel!)
I would forgive a lot of these missteps if this were a case of someone dealing with her trauma via the creation of the work, which we can’t know and around which I’d rather not speculate. I can only judge the film, which is gimmicky and bandwagon-jumpy and already out of date (in part due to a delayed release date). It’s a rip off of a rip off, a media studies Tarantino project (do they do media studies at boarding school? Probably not) with all the fondness and respect for the sources taken out.
The important difference may be in labour politics, because we know that Uma Thurman was treated terribly by Tarantino during the making of Kill Bill which to me sucks the enjoyment out of the film (although I never cared for it much). PYW was directed by a woman, produced by a woman, and had involvement from its female lead. So hopefully, some women had a nice time making it and no one was sexually assaulted. But this isn’t guaranteed - what about the interns, PAs, extras? And as the film rightly argues, women can be complicit in rape culture, too. So maybe women on top isn’t enough. Maybe, as this podcast on ‘feminist porn’ from decriminalised futures points out, we need more than just aesthetics: we need ethics.
I want films by women that tackle these subjects, that are problematic and swing for the fences. If anyone was gonna give this film a chance to play around with 'rape', it would be me. But this isn’t it. It’s hard not to feel like we (generic marginalised people bingo) used up a go to tackle the subject, and someone else - someone who isn’t a literal offspring of the ruling classes - is less likely to get the chance to tell their story. I really hope that isn’t the case and this film paves the way for other mid budget genre defying works with a little more imagination.
It's easy to imagine a sad ending, but those of us who are concerned with survival rather than martyrdom look around the fucked up world and try to imagine happy endings every day.
Winky Face ending? CLAPPED.