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Promising Young Woman is on Sky Cinema.

“When it comes down to it, all guys want the same thing: a good girl.”

So Madison (Alison Brie) counsels Cassandra, or ‘Cassie’ (Carey Mulligan), when the college contemporaries meet for a boozy lunch, near to the start of Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-nominated feature directorial debut Promising Young Woman. A decade ago, both were academic high-fliers, on track to become doctors. Madison has since married, had children, and found that being a stay-at-home housewife suits her fine. Cassie dropped out of college, and is living with her parents and waitressing.

A third ‘promising young woman’, however, haunts their conversation. Cassie’s friend Nina sacrificed her own degree after being sexually assaulted at a drunken party by a privileged and popular male student. Student body and institution alike colluded in the obfuscation of the crime and the ostracism of the victim. It was to care for Nina that Cassie dropped out; and it is on behalf of Nina that she now tracks down and confronts those she deems culpable.

Madison’s framing of female ‘goodness’ not as an inherent quality, nor an accumulation of actions, but as an impression a woman can choose to give of herself to men, is expressive of a preoccupation with the unreliability of surface appearances that runs throughout the movie. Since what happened happened, Cassie has made a hobby of disguising herself as younger and far drunker than she is, the better to expose the true nature of the men who see her in a compromised state and try to pick her up.

These men, too, are in disguise – though they tend to have the mask confused with the face beneath. “I’m a nice guy,” one of them, Neil, insists, after Cassie has rapidly switched moods at a critical point in their encounter. But who’s the nice guy? The same one who just tried to digitally penetrate her while she was half-passed out? A gentler one who’s just compelled to be sexually aggressive by forces beyond his control? Or is ‘nice’ just an idea Neil has of himself – a self-image he clings to even as his behaviour paints a different picture altogether?

Carey Mulligan as ‘Cassie’ and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil in Promising Young Woman (2020)

It’s a knowing touch that Neil is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, whose breakthrough came in the hit 2007 comedy Superbad. Directed by Greg Mottola and produced by Judd Apatow, Superbad was very funny, helped to secure the stardom of its leads Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, and concerned the efforts of two high-school boys to secure alcohol with which to reduce the resistance of the girls to whom they hoped to lose their virginity.

Superbad is hardly the first film to riff on men using alcohol to impair women’s judgement. Analysing the resilience of this “easiest and oldest rape joke” in a 2018 article on the comedy website Cracked.com, Joe Oliveto points out that he could reference “probably any random sex comedy, or any sitcom that features the ‘lovable amoral horndog’ character”. The very prevalence of the trope – women gatekeeping sex, men doing whatever they can think of to get it anyway – is a prime example of what some commentators call ‘rape culture’.

Superbad (2007)

The idea that we occupy a culture that normalises, trivialises and even endorses sexual violence, including through jokes, ads and artistic artefacts, doesn’t necessarily earn easy buy-in from complex thinkers. It can be a blunt instrument in the face of nuanced artworks, leading, for instance, for calls to ban Lolita by people who haven’t read Lolita. It can serve to reinforce reductive stereotypes of both men and women, as unthinking brutes and naive victims respectively, and ascribe all interest in sexual pleasure to men. It risks prudishness, the valorisation of female chastity, and the implication that women are outsiders to rather than co-creators of culture.

Even with reservations, however (and with the mitigating factor that its sex missions fail!), it’s not hard to see both how readily and how likably Superbad perpetuates the idea of sex as a con on women. And if Superbad hints at rape culture, in Promising Young Woman we very definitely meet rape culture revenge.

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman (2020)

Female desirability is, famously, both a preoccupation and a problem for the movies. Molly Haskell called her 1974 book on cinema’s treatment of women From Reverence to Rape – a title that encompasses both the downward trajectory in female representation Haskell had identified between the studio era and the machismo-soaked ‘New Hollywood’, and the fixation upon extreme and archetypal depictions of women within both cinema itself and the scholarship around it.

Haskell’s work illuminates a paradox well known to any feminist consumer and critic of culture: that the very drive to keep assessing and defining how women are depicted reinforces the sense of the female as Other; as a problem to be addressed. You want to just be a person – that’s the whole point! – yet you keep having to discuss the extra-special characteristics of your form of personhood. This is frustrating. And it can get limiting, reducing interpretation to narrow power dynamics.

“Female characters find their way onto page or screen through a wide prism of authorial appetites and aversions,” Haskell argues in her introduction to the 2016 reissue of From Reverence to Rape; these “play out in complex ways and in different combinations”. It is limiting, in other words, to demand straightforwardly ‘positive’ or ‘empowering’ characterisations of women going forward, or to apply simplistic rubrics to the virtue or otherwise of existing ones.

If movies represent our collective subconscious, then that includes the gunk in its corners. Haskell is clear that creators ought not to be or feel policed: “I’d rather see a male director expressing his vision through the treatment of women, even if his biases are the luridly disturbed misogynist fantasies of Brian De Palma, than have him subjected to some sort of cultural commissar, a feminist interpreter on the set who would make sure that he expressed the correct ‘line’.” And yet, as she goes on to observe, the same director cannot consider himself immune to criticism should he disregard or crudely represent the female perspective.

Promising Young Woman reminds us that while both the range of ways of representing women and the numbers of female creators may increase every day, the virgin/whore dichotomy of which Haskell wrote in 1974 has proved astoundingly durable; and those luridly disturbed misogynist fantasies have a new fuel source, in the form of the on-tap availability of extreme pornography.

Night of the Hunter (1955)

A brief scene finds Cassie’s mother and father in front of the TV blankly absorbing a scene in The Night of the Hunter (1955), in which one of cinema’s most upfront misogynists, Robert Mitchum’s deranged preacher Harry Powell, rails against “perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair”. Cassie’s experience indicates that Powell’s misogyny not only continues to flourish in society, but has triumphed; and yet its offscreen reality has wholly failed to register on her parents. It hides in plain sight.

Powell’s fixation upon the cosmetic expresses a suspicion of the changeability of the female appearance that dates back centuries. Well, where’s the fun in constructing unattainable beauty standards for women if you don’t also accuse them of neediness and duplicity for trying to meet them? “God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another,” runs one of Hamlet’s myriad complaints to Ophelia.

Shakespeare would expand on his hostility to make-up in Sonnet 127, in which its usage means beauty itself “is profaned, if not lives in disgrace”. Slyly, Fennell endows the obnoxious Neil with a similar aversion: “Why are you wearing all that make-up?… You all look way more beautiful without it,” he coos at Cassie, his desire for her blending seamlessly with his instinct to judge and control her. Cassie’s presentation of herself as a different type of woman than she is – keener for attention, more available, less alert – consciously exploits this insecurity. ‘You think I might be giving the wrong impression of myself?’ her self-reinventions seem to ask. ‘Let’s test that, shall we?’

Gilda (1946)

A model for Cassie in terms of turning men’s perceptions against them is the eponymous heroine of Gilda (1946), played by Rita Hayworth.

In this most confounding and intriguing meditation on lust, anger and the virgin/whore dichotomy, both the destructive power of women and the specific issue of their falseness bursts to the fore as soon as ex-lovers Gilda and Johnny (Glenn Ford) re-encounter one another. The film seems to simultaneously indulge and mock Johnny’s obsession with Gilda’s virtue, or lack thereof. She, meanwhile, responds to his suspicions by playing up to them – pretending to sleep around, before revealing herself to be a good girl after all.

If mystery as to its message is part of the film’s undimmed appeal – as Sheila O’Malley writes in an essay on Criterion.com, “Gilda is not meant to be clear” – the film’s moral obscurity is also an indicator of what a tangled web movies can weave when they try to figure out whether women should be sexually chaste, and what it means if they aren’t.

This fretfulness manifests in far sunnier genres than noir, and far more recent texts than Gilda. Clueless (1995) reassures us that its adorable conspicuous consumer Cher (Alicia Silverstone) does in fact have values by making her, as one of her friends puts it, “hymenally challenged”. “You’ve seen how picky I am about my shoes,” Cher explains, “and they only go on my feet!” Almost Famous (2000) uses its teenage groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) every which way – displaying her body; emphasising her sexual precocity for our shock, disapproval and titillation; and finally redeeming her for good-girldom by having her turn her back on it all in favour of an education. Easy A (2010) sees high-school girl Olive (a breakout lead role for Emma Stone, a few years after she played reluctant sexual prey in Superbad), attract a confusing mix of kudos and contempt when she allows false claims of her promiscuity to spread.

With its perky, pastel-hued teen-movie aesthetic and spiky hipster idiom, Promising Young Woman at once pays homage to these whimsical takes on sexual mores, and confronts us with the grim real-life scenarios of which their playfulness makes light. The cases of Brock Turner, leniently sentenced in 2016 for the sexual assault of a woman who was drunk at the time, and Brett Kavanaugh, whose 2018 nomination to the US Supreme Court was disrupted by an allegation of assault from his college days, are brought to mind.

But the film is also haunted by another figure from America’s guilty sexual conscience: Britney Spears. During her initial burst of stardom in the late 1990s, Spears’s dewy pop princess persona and much-vaunted virginity knowingly toyed with taboo. Her subsequent struggles with mental health, peaking with the breathtakingly direct rejection of her objectification that was her public shaving off of her hair in 2007, dared her public to deal with what its attention had done to her. Did Spears, by chasing fame and enjoying its spoils to the hilt, ask for it – for the comedown and cruel treatment that followed?

The question echoes the gossip left behind by incidents like the one at the dark heart of Promising Young Woman. “I don’t make the rules, OK?” Madison says when Cassie brings up the events that led her to drop out of school. “Don’t get blackout drunk every night and then expect people to be on your side when you have sex with someone you didn’t want to… If you get drunk then… shit happens. Everyone knows that.”

In this scene, the better to bond with the soignée Madison, Cassie is styled as a lady-who-lunches – a good girl, with golden hair in fairytale waves. When she goes out with the intention of being picked up, however, Cassie’s schoolgirlish or dominatrixy ensembles specifically reference Spears. As the film nears its climax, its Spears-tease also builds to a peak, with the opening to Britney’s hit Toxic playing over Cassie’s arrival at the site of her final grand gesture. It’s not the Spears version, though, but a cover by the Archimia String Quartet. Another mixed message; another knowing play on expectations.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

It’s a complication of Promising Young Woman that the Toxic moment, like Cassie’s parodically sexy get-ups, is cool, not tawdry or sad. Fennell was showrunner for the second season of the flamboyant spy thriller Killing Eve, and Promising Young Woman shares that show’s penchant for fashion-shoot styling and show-stopping soundtrack moments.

As well as being straightforwardly enjoyable, the film’s self-conscious flair serves to lull us into a false sense of security, adding force to its final sequence of singularly unpretty events. Its knowing manipulation of the visual image of Cassie – or rather, of Mulligan as Cassie as Cassie’s various sexed-up alter-egos – has a further function, meanwhile, in acknowledging the extraordinary multiplicity of meanings enfolded in sexualised female archetypes. When Cassie disguises herself as a stripper in a latex nurse’s uniform, we’re looking at an actress playing a character pretending to be a stripper pretending to be a nurse who’s also a dominatrix – all of it styled for maximum kitsch coolness so that the final outcome is as gorgeous as it is multiply problematic.

In encouraging pleasure in looking at Cassie, Fennell echoes a point made by Haskell in 2016 – that “the theory of the gaze in cinematic spectacle, that is, the visual objectification of woman in the eye of the male beholder, always seemed too monolithic, a narrow one-way street, allowing no room for the pleasure women take in looking and being seen”. She perhaps also makes the point that imagery redolent of female objectification and exploitation has, whether we like it or not, an extraordinary capacity to echo through the culture in parodic and distorted forms. For some, this only proves its irreversible dominance – the triumph of a rape culture. It could also be seen, however, to indicate its reclamation; reinterpretation; subversion.

“You know when you hear girls saying, like, ‘Oh, I was so shitfaced last night; I shouldn’t have fucked that guy?” Seth says to Evan in Superbad. “We could be that mistake!”

Arguably, the film goes on to disabuse them of such thinking. Arguably, also, conversations always exist to be had about why and whether young girls’ ‘mistakes’ must always be considered dire. Questions of sexual autonomy – of where choice ends and exploitation begins – are complicated in cinema because they’re complicated in life. In Promising Young Woman, however, we find an admirably decisive riposte to this and every other film – or article, or rumour, or lawyer’s argument – that’s ever aligned female intoxication with male opportunity.

Further reading

“I think a lot of women hide their rage”: Emerald Fennell on Promising Young Woman

By Anna Bogutskaya

“I think a lot of women hide their rage”: Emerald Fennell on Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman is a right-on-time school of shocks

By Kate Stables

Promising Young Woman is a right-on-time school of shocks

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

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