Emerald Fenell’s “Promising Young Woman,” starring Carey Mulligan as the lead, is a story most women are all too familiar with. Despite releasing last year, the film continues to inspire op-eds and wordy reviews; and has bagged an Oscar for Best Picture ensuring that the conversation around the film doesn’t die down.
Fennell’s directorial debut begins with a slow-motion shot of men gyrating on the dance floor — a reversal of the overtly sexualized shots of women dancing in clubs that we’re all so used to — zooming into a conversation between three bros discussing a female colleague demanding to be included in informal work meetings. We then see the film’s antiheroine Cassie, played by Mulligan, drunk and disheveled, looking like she’s “asking for it.” The men are very clearly checking her out and the “nice guy” among them goes over and convinces her to let him help her get home. Soon, they are at the guy’s apartment who is giving the visibly drunk Cassie more alcohol. What happens next is something so many women have experienced. The guy gets on top of her and doesn’t stop until the scene takes an unexpected turn and Cassie drops her drunk act and snaps into icy sobriety. The scene cuts away before we get to know what punishment is meted out to the nice guy who just wanted to help a woman get home and also get laid in the process.
Fuelled by rage and grief, Cassie is an unassuming barista by day, and by night she goes out testing how nice “nice guys” really are. The movie is a reminder of how even the nicest guys are capable of turning into a woman’s worst nightmare with one harmless, unconsented kiss. The film shows the dangers of placing a man’s perceived niceness and his fragile reputation over and above the life and dignity of a woman. The central event that drives the film is seemingly innocuous because of how frequently we’ve seen it happen. A bunch of college students get drunk at a party and a man forces himself onto a woman, but essentially gets away with it because he is a young man with a promising career ahead of him.
While watching the movie, I could see parallels in my own life and that of my female friends. During my first year at university, a brilliant male peer was accused of sexually harassing one of his friends. As we’ve had the privilege of growing up in the #MeToo era, many other women came forward to share their stories of harassment at the hands of the same man. He was forced to stop coming to campus because of protests by students, but the university authorities arranged for him to write his exams in a separate room. Unscathed, he went on to do his Master’s from a reputed university. Despite the #MeToo movement, privileged men have been able to get away with sexual harassment because institutions of power have always sided with them through their inaction. In the film, Cassie goes back to her university to confront the dean who stood by and did nothing all those years ago, the dean defends herself by saying that things like these happened all the time and that these could not be used to compromise a man’s future. No matter if the woman’s present and future are both ruined.
The central event that drives the film is seemingly innocuous because of how frequently we’ve seen it happen.
In my final year of undergrad, a guy I knew and had hung out with, got drunk and acted inappropriately with several women at a college fest. When word spread, we found out that he had done this before. His way of fixing himself and seeking support was getting drunk with his friends everyday. One of them was a guy I was dating at the time who told me he was just being a good friend by giving him a “second chance.” That guy went on to sexually assault another woman at a party a year later. And so when men fail to call out their bros, or convince each other it’s not their fault, they once again prove that they’d rather protect the benefits patriarchy affords them than stand up for what is right.
That’s why “Promising Young Woman” is a story we’ve all lived, it’s one we live everyday. Fennell’s movie is just as much about men as it is about women. It’s a reminder of the way nice guys aren’t really that nice to women; how they close ranks and protect each other when forced to confront the consequences of their actions. It is a reminder of how draining it is for women to lead fulfilling lives, to trust men, to constantly ensure they’re not dead or raped.