‘Promising Young Woman’: love letter to women and an overdue warning notice to men – written in blood

(Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman)

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors. Cassie was a promising young woman in med school until a mysterious, traumatic event abruptly caused her to drop out of school, derailing her future.

Existing in a complacent world where “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls,”  the bubblegum pink, hyper-feminine aesthetic of this film is only pretty packaging that reveals a poisonous story of a woman’s worst nightmare.

This unsettling juxtaposition (in the best way possible) keeps the audience surprised at every turn as we journey on the lipstick and blood stained path of female rage.

Written and directed by the irreverent Emerald Fennell, starring the sublime Carey Mulligan, and produced by Margot Robbie and her production company Lucky Chap, this story about women told by women provides a cunningly, refreshing female gaze.

Mulligan’s portrayal of Cassie strikes an eerie balance of quietly and wittingly unhinged as she carries the burden of the rape and ultimately the death of her childhood best friend and med school peer, Nina.

A traumatic event like this can often stunt a person’s psychological progression, and with silk bows in her braided hair as she eats neon colored candy, it seems Cassie is stuck in the arrested development of her girlish, college adolescence – but boiling over with rage. 

This film epitomizes the way in which the careless actions of men ( referred to by an permitting society as boys that must be “given the benefit of the doubt”)  that they are so easily able to rationalize and compartmentalize as they go about their lives, can deeply damage a woman for the rest of hers.

Each scene compellingly unravels Nina and Cassie’s mysterious stories- and simultaneously Cassie’s patience with the societal mechanisms that support men and rape culture. With her arrested development ribbons in her hair by day, by night she lives a double life where she goes to clubs and pretends to be debilitatingly drunk and like clockwork a “nice guy” offers to “help” her by taking her back to his place.

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She waits for her “knight in shining armor’s” routine attempts to take advantage of her apparent intoxication and then turns the tables on them revealing she’s stone cold sober,  scaring them into changing their ways—in vengeance for Nina. 

These measures may sound extreme, but  after desperate cries and bloody murder screams for help that go unnoticed, the only tactic that is able to elicit empathy for the rape of a young women in the soul’s of her peers ( both male and female ) is to forcibly put them through the same out of control, de-humanizing  motions as a vulnerable woman being preyed upon. She even puts the women who stood by the abusive men under the illusion of being in equally as dangerous and unnerving situations as Nina fell victim to;  only once coerced into exercising empathy do these women brainwashed by the patriarchy breakdown and realize how easily it could happen to any woman.

By not conforming to any one typically female desire, expectation, or role as she navigates the misogynistic world around her—only seeking truth and revenge— Cassie’s mere existence holds a mirror to every man and woman in the film who cling to  a narrative that best served their convenience, while gaslighting the cry for help of a young woman whose experience was just a little too uncomfortable and threatening to the facade of the “respectable” societal structure of these “good” men and women. 

Which in turn reveals at their core the darkest nature, perfectly hid behind pastel colored polos from Ivy League schools, commendable positions in society, fake smiles, and Pinterest Board weddings.

Like many women in cinema who refuse to live within the system – Thelma and Louise (1991), Carrie (1976), Queen in Queen & Slim (2019) – things don’t end well and they often don’t make it out alive. Consumed by revenge and rage, Cassie consciously follows down this same exiled road women before her met their end on.

Our anti-hero puts herself directly in the line of fire with “nice guy” predatory men repetitively throughout the film and ultimately Nina’s abuser in the finale. As this “good guy” smothers Cassie with a pillow in an excruciatingly long shot in order to silence her – like he silenced Nina- one cant help but think of this as a metaphor to all the women who have been silenced and devalued as crazy, immoral, or promiscuous,  simply because they speak their truth and hold a man accountable for his actions.

His colossal efforts to suppress these women show us that within the male perception something as shallow as a his public persona outweighs a woman’s well being, sanity, future, and even the breath that gives her life. This fiercely intelligent woman knew what she was doing by entering the lion’s den.

By sacrificing herself for Nina who fell victim to these men (and women that enabled them), Cassie achieved something they would not have otherwise gotten – for Nina: vengeance and the men: a consequence.

Because let’s face it, real life trials like Brock Tuner have proven with the right white male privilege lawyers minimizing an old case of a “promiscuous” girl’s  “drunken” accusations and the repercussions that follow (yet societally deemed unrelated) of a woman’s withdrawal from school, society and eventually her own life…  the legal system has failed women time and time again. 

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Our very own modern history has shown us with testimonies in a national court of law of women like Christine Blasey Ford on her assault at the hands of now Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh,  predatory men would have gotten away- unscathed- and the discredited women would be left with invisible, indelible scars that could even paralyze a promising young woman.  

This modern feminist masterpiece is available to stream on Amazon Prime.  

Bottom Line: Promising Young Woman is promising making it a REEL SEE.

Megan Penn is a Los Angeles based, New York born actress and writer. Megan has a passion for stories in which women are in the drivers seat, along with a bad case of retrophilia.