“Why do you have to ruin everything?” asks one exasperated man in Promising Young Woman, the astonishing debut film by Emerald Fennell, starring a career-best Carey Mulligan. He’s petulant and raging. What has been ruined, you ask? Why, his right to have sex with an inebriated woman at a club, of course. Poor guy.
Promising Young Woman is full of these darkly comic, cynical moments which are surgically precise in their incision. Here is a film wrapped in layers of neon-bright absurdity, which belie the all-too-familiar realism of society’s mistreatment of women when it comes to sexual assault. In April 2021, it won not one but two BAFTAs, including Best British Film and Best Original Screenplay.
It’s all in the title. Yes, Promising Young Woman is about rape and rape apologist culture. Yes, it is a feminist revenge film. But intriguingly, what’s at its core is exactly what the title suggests - promise. Whose promise and potential do we protect, whose bright futures do we safeguard and whose do we find disposable? Whose lives are sacrosanct and who, conversely, is ‘ruining’ the fun?
To label Promising Young Woman a rape revenge fantasy is to reduce it to the sum of its flashy trailer parts. In fact, its central tenet is exactly this question - why are we willing to sacrifice promising young women for promising young men?
The idea is expertly explained in two standout scenes of the film. In one, Mulligan’s Cassie asks a university dean (played by Connie Britton) why she took a man’s word over a woman’s in a past rape accusation. She replies simply that she was not prepared to ruin a young man’s future. Cassie responds that, in doing so, she chose to ruin a young woman’s. The exchange is made clear. The accused man is now a successful doctor, the accuser’s fate is far less enviable.
The choice of a campus rape accusation is surely not accidental. Campus sexual assaults, particularly in North America, are infamous, such as the 2016 Brock Turner case. The Stanford University student was sentenced to just six months in prison after being found guilty of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object in January of 2015. He was released three months early for 'good behaviour'. Much was made at the time of Turner's promising future as a swimmer. As his father said in a much publicised court letter, why should his son's life be "deeply altered" for "20 minutes of action"?
This line of argument is rampant when it comes to white, Ivy League or other esteemed college students who have bright careers ahead of them as doctors or lawyers or hedge fund managers. These men are destined to maintain their hold on the upper echelons of society, and they cannot be derailed by something as sordid and inconvenient as a rape accusation. Why do you have to ruin everything?
Fennell’s decision to make the dean female bolsters her argument that this viewpoint is not as black and white as men vs women. Society as a whole too often props up this mentality, protecting patriarchal privilege over anything which threatens to upend the status quo. This is illustrated most brilliantly by one of the penultimate scenes of the film, where the horrible truth of a situation is rewritten with eerie ease by two men who simply refuse to fathom the concept of accepting consequences. They absolve themselves of guilt in the same way one would mark one’s own homework and tell the teacher, “don’t worry, I gave myself an A.” It proves what the film has been screaming at us from the outset: how can women ever seek justice when men control the narrative?
The film in its entirety is an attempt to wrench this narrative away from men. This is clear in its overtly feminine, often saccharine aesthetic; Cassie’s candy-pop nails, the all-female soundtrack of Billie Eilish, Britney Spears and even Paris Hilton. It’s cartoonish moments - all wigs and costumes and improbable outcomes - are all part of the plan. This is an OTT, stylised film which demands that you take notice, that you flip your perspective. In doing so, it directly addresses the cruel double standards of these situations; how youth and alcohol are enough to exonerate men, but condemn women, how a woman's reputation is enough to damn her, but a man's reputation must be protected at all costs. It asks us what weight we give to female promise over male, and it’s all there in one of the film’s best exchanges.
“It’s every guy's worst nightmare getting accused like that.”
“Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”
Promising Young Woman is unapologetic in these wake-up call tactics. In just the same way as its title inverts the masculine iteration of that phrase, the film turns the tables and dares to ask: Men: why do you have to ruin everything?
Promsing Young Woman arrives on Sky Cinema on 16 April.
In need of some at-home inspiration? Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for skincare and self-care, the latest cultural hits to read and download, and the little luxuries that make staying in so much more satisfying.
Plus, sign up here to get Harper’s Bazaar magazine delivered straight to your door.
You Might Also Like