watch

Promising Young Woman, Explained - Look In the Mirror

Promising Young Woman isn’t just a female revenge movie—it’s a mirror that forces us to confront dark, ugly realities about our society and ourselves. Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut centers on Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a vigilante-of-sorts seeking vengeance. Cassie’s weapon of choice? People’s idea of themselves as good, which she threatens by revealing how badly they treat women.

TRANSCRIPT
Promising Young Woman isn’t just a female revenge movie — it’s a mirror that forces us to confront dark, ugly realities about our society and ourselves. Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut centers on Cassie, a vigilante-of-sorts seeking vengeance for her best friend Nina’s sexual assault years before. Cassie’s weapon of choice? People’s idea of themselves as good, which she threatens by revealing how badly they treat women.

Spoilers ahead!!!

The film’s ending proves Cassie right in the most depressing of ways — and departs from pretty much every other female revenge tale you’ve ever seen — by concluding with our heroine dead, turned to ash by the same man who hurt Nina. But then, in the film’s final moments, Cassie’s consolation is a different kind of revenge from beyond the grave. The bittersweet victory of bringing these transgressions to light underlines who is the real antagonist of this movie: a deeply toxic system and misogynistic culture that protects dangerous men and devalues women. Ultimately, the film suggests that the first step toward redemption and systemic change is to look honestly at the problem of rape culture and how our actions (or inactions) may contribute to it — in other words, exactly what we’re doing in watching this movie.

We’re All Part of This System
The title “Promising Young Woman” evokes the idea of the promising young man who’s been frequently defended and handled with care when accused of or charged with assault. But the film reminds us that this male-centric discourse erases the promising young woman who’s been assaulted and our concern for her well-being or promise.

Many revenge stories revolve around highly sensationalized incidents of assault by hateable, one-dimensional villains who might feel like anomalies. But Promising Young Woman‘s bad guys are the norm — regular people we see every day and like, maybe even admire, and its ultimate villain is a shared mentality that excuses their behavior.

The movie starts off by drawing our attention to the plague of “nice guy”-ism. Cassie haunts bars pretending to be extremely drunk, allows a “nice guy” to take her home, then when he starts taking advantage she reveals she’s not drunk. To play these secret creeps, Fennell strategically casts beloved actors known for playing funny, friendly roles as she put it, “people that we all want to like.”

Neil: “I’m a nice guy!”
Cassandra: “Are you?” - Promising Young Woman

The point here is to debunk the myth that sexual predators are shadowy figures removed from respectable society. The film suggests the nice guy is actually more treacherous — and omnipresent — than our cartoonish idea of what a rapist “looks like” because he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, functioning within the bounds of propriety, perhaps even pretending to be a feminist. The nice guy’s attempt to exploit seemingly drunk Cassie was long considered an acceptable part of what Fennell terms “seduction culture,” presented by pop culture as a harmless joke.

Al: “I’m a gentleman.”
Cassandra: “Are you?”
Al: “Yeah.”
Cassandra: [Laughs] “You might be surprised to hear that ‘gentlemen’ are sometimes the worst.” - Promising Young Woman

In examples like 1978’s Animal House or the relatively recent Superbad in 2007, the protagonists consider taking advantage of drunk women, even if they don’t go through with it. And in the end, they’re rewarded by getting the girl.

In Promising Young Woman, we eventually learn that Al Monroe, the man who assaulted Nina when they were in med school, is considered the ultimate nice guy. When we finally meet Al, at first it might be hard to see this rather generic, khaki-clad guy as truly dangerous. But this is the point. The portrait prompts us to ask ourselves: if someone we liked were to behave this way, would we readily condemn them?

After Cassie reconnects with her old classmate Ryan and is reminded that no one but her holds Al’s assault of Nina against him, she starts on a quest to make each participant in the event’s aftermath reckon with how they failed Nina.

Cassie’s first target — her old friend Madison — reminds us that women can be just as complicit in rape culture. As Madison spouts victim-blaming and slut-shaming cliches, we see how internalized misogyny and the desire to remain in the in-group can motivate females to become some of a male aggressor’s most vocal defenders.

Madison: “Don’t get… blackout drunk all the time and then expect people to be on your side… when you have sex with someone you didn’t want to.” - Promising Young Woman

Next, Cassie visits another woman who represents the university’s response: Dean Elizabeth Walker. Excuses like this assume that young men are frequently having their good names smeared by false accusations, when in fact a tiny minority of accusations turn out to be false, while the much bigger problem is that the vast majority of real assaults aren’t reported or investigated. Dean Walker’s priority to defend Al against the highly unlikely event of a false accusation instead of taking Nina’s word seriously underlines that — even though Nina was at the top of her class in med school — the school didn’t value her as much as it implicitly valued Al.

Dean Elizabeth Walker: “Because what would you have me do? Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?”
Cassandra: “So, you’re happy to take the boy’s word for it?”
Dean Elizabeth Walker: “I have to give him the benefit of the doubt.” - Promising Young Woman

Again, in both these scenes, we see the intentionality of casting lovable actors Alison Brie and Connie Britton, known for their accessible past roles, so that we might recognize ourselves or people we like in these women.

Cassie’s next visit, to Al’s defense lawyer Jordan Green, sheds more light on how the system is formally set up to protect men like Al.

Ultimately, the movie implies that the true culprit is not a person, so much as a larger system we’re all part of that excuses this kind of misogyny on every level. It draws our attention to comments and behavior that many of us have likely experienced or considered “normal,” but which here appear damning — like the defense of the guys’ youth, pointing a finger at Nina’s drunkenness and implicitly trusting the “he” in a “he said she said. But the script underlines just what poor excuses these are, as well as how sick it is that we’ve seen scenarios like these played for laughs in pop culture.

Barney: “Maybe we should just take her to the desert, bury her, and wash our hands of this whole thing!”
Treasure: “Dude, what is the matter with you?”
Barney: “As his best man, I would help him bury a hooker in the desert.” - How I Met Your Mother (Season 2, Episode 19)

And we might start to understand the real reason our culture conditions us to protect guys like Al; it wasn’t necessarily that people didn’t believe Nina, but that they didn’t want to. They liked this guy, wanted him in their lives, and preferred not to think someone like him could do this, so they found it easier to reject the facts. To drive home just how not nice this wonderful guy everyone’s protecting is, the film concludes with him smothering our protagonist to death in a harrowing two-and-a-half-minute sequence (which is how long Fennell’s retired cop father-in-law told her it would take to suffocate someone).

So many movies are willing to kill a woman off but not to truly reckon with the gravity of this violence. Take a recent example: 2019’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, where there’s an implication that Brad Pitt’s character Cliff murdered his wife (who’s characterized as a stereotypical nag, as if that excuses it). The crime itself is presented as a quirk of Cliff’s character, and is never actually shown. In contrast, this scene makes us grapple with the reality of violence against women — the camera actually pushes in, making us look and hear her last breaths. After Cassie dies, we never see her face again, symbolizing how she’s been turned into another dehumanized victim — and we feel the horror of this because she’s us; we’ve spent the whole movie seeing through her eyes.

Crucially, the length of the suffocation shot also makes it irrefutable that this isn’t an accident or self-defense; “nice guy” Al makes the conscious decision to kill Cassie. But the next morning, Al’s friend Joe — the person who filmed Nina’s assault, and apparently drugged women himself — still rushes to insist that Al’s done nothing wrong, with an absurd eagerness. There’s also a deeper meaning in the song “Something Wonderful” that plays over the scene of getting rid of Cassie’s body. Taken from the musical The King and I, it’s sung by the King’s wife who’s pardoning his bad behavior because sometimes he’s a good person and that evidently makes up for it. By playing this song over footage of Al and Joe burning a dead body, the movie is showing just how far we are willing to still stand by this “promising young man” when there’s cold hard evidence that he’s nothing of the sort.

Lady Thiang: [Singing] “This is a man who tries. [...] Then, all at once, he’ll do something… wonderful!” - The King and I

A New Kind of Female Revenge Movie
Fennell says that she “wanted to make a movie that subverted the revenge thriller.” One thing that sets Promising Young Woman apart from other female revenge movies is its distinctly feminine sensibility, which was influenced by pop culture gems including Clueless, To Die For, The Virgin Suicides, and Sweet Valley High. Its palette is composed of bright candy colors, its soundtrack is pure pop, and the film revels in Cassie’s girly wardrobe, hairdos, and rainbow manicure. The story itself is part rom-com — complete with a romantic montage. All these markers tell us this is a movie made for women, not a traditionally masculine-feeling, action-heavy revenge film. Thus, in its form, the movie also rejects our culture’s default focus on the male experience, instead privileging the female point of view.

The opening scene shows men at the bar gyrating to “Boys” by Charli XCX (a song about thirsting after hot guys). This style of music video-esque slow motion closeups has been used many times before to film beautiful women, but turning this technique on realistic, middle-aged male bodies makes them feel absurd — and it sets up that the movie is going to look close-up at the more grotesque aspects of male behavior, through female eyes.

Emerald Fennell: “What I wanted to do was try to write a film about how an ordinary woman might take revenge in the real world, and that’s very rarely reaching for a gun.” - FabTV Interview

Another subversion is the means of Cassie’s revenge, which for most of the story is totally non-violent. It’s only near the end — when she poses as a stripper to get into Al’s bachelor party — that Cassie does choose a level of violence. But as we’ve seen, the result is a far cry from the revenge-movie formula that dictates a bloody victory over the bad guys. The original ending Fennell had in mind did consist of Cassie murdering the men at Al’s bachelor party, but she never actually wrote it. Why?

Emerald Fennell: “Because the moment Cassie is in that room, I realized that there is no way of honestly showing that. Because it’s not true.” - Variety Interview

Up to this point in the movie witty, self-assured Cassie feels incredibly powerful to us, but this scene reminds us that ultimately she’s a woman alone with a man who’s physically stronger than her — in this situation, she would be overpowered.

The first draft of the script concluded with Al and Joe burning Cassie’s body, but Fennell decided to leave us with a silver lining: we discover that Cassie made arrangements because she understood the potential danger she was walking into. Cassie’s sassy pre-scheduled texts to her ex-boyfriend Ryan and the evidence she sends resulting in the coordinated arrest of Al at his wedding may be less cathartic than violent revenge, but this conclusion is actually more meaningful. It reminds us that the goal isn’t to reciprocate violence; true progress is achieved by exposing the problem and changing minds. The very first words of the movie are a dismissive “f*** her,” uttered about an unnamed woman who could really be anyone — and so the story gives us a full-circle ending as Cassie issues the biggest “f*** you” of all to the bad men in her story. Still, the dark shadow over all of this is that two promising young women had to die for a man’s crimes to at last be taken seriously.

And that’s why Promising Young Woman eschews another common revenge-movie convention: using a woman’s pain to motivate her growth (or even her transformation into some kind of badass warrior-superhero). As Jessica Chastain tweeted in 2018: “violence against women [...] is not empowering [...] yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women.” In Promising Young Woman, trauma does not make women stronger — it breaks them down. It’s heavily implied that Nina committed suicide. Meanwhile, Cassie is consumed by survivor’s remorse and her once-promising life has stalled.

Facing Who We Are
Fennell has said, “so much of this film for me was about what happens when good people […] find out that they’re not good.”

Early in the movie, we might jump to the conclusion that Cassie is killing the nice guys. She’s introduced with hallmarks of the serial killer trope as if she’s preying on her victims. In actuality, she’s just making them take a hard look at themselves. But it’s kind of amazing how jarring this is to them. As Fennell puts it, “would I rather somebody knocked on my door and punched me in the face, or would I rather they came to my door and said, ‘I know you think you’re a good person, but you’re not?’” Most characters respond to Cassie’s holding up her mirror to their behavior by rejecting this unflattering image of themselves, along with all accountability.

The film gives us its most fleshed-out look at what it means to not take accountability through someone who feels genuinely like a charming, funny, and nice guy to us: Cassie’s love interest, Ryan. One of the big twists of the movie is that Ryan was an onlooker during Nina’s assault and did nothing. He embodies the problem with thinking that passivity makes you innocent — when in fact, if you’re not actively standing up against this kind of attack, you also bear responsibility. A major takeaway of Promising Young Woman is that a person’s chance at redemption depends on how they choose to act on the knowledge that comes from looking in Cassie’s mirror. Ryan has continued to stay friends with these guys, and when he sees the video of Nina’s assault, to a degree he seems to have forgotten or repressed his memory of the experience.

Ryan: “I don’t remember. I- I don’t…”
Cassandra: “Didn’t make an impression, huh?” - Promising Young Woman

In this movie’s outlook, meriting forgiveness requires facing our mistakes. And if we still had any doubts by the end, the film reinforces that Ryan is unequivocally not a nice guy as we watch him again “passively” support Al’s transgressions in the name of self-preservation. “Staying out” of a matter like the police asking you where your dead ex-girlfriend is, pretty much amounts to siding with her killer.

Emerald Fennell: “And it’s ultimately, you know, for me, a film about forgiveness… That- that people only get forgiveness if they admit wrongdoing.” - Variety Interview

Madison and Dean Walker represent another possible response to accountability — they recognize their misdeeds, but only once Cassie has tricked them into thinking their own lives have been touched by sexual misconduct. It’s also doubtful this materializes into an overwhelming improvement in either’s empathy or behavior. When Madison gives Cassie the video of Nina’s assault, she seems to think this absolves her of further responsibility.

Dean Elizabeth Walker: [Whispers] “You’re right, okay? Is that what you want to hear? You’re right!”
Cassandra: “I guess you just had to think about it in the right way. I guess it feels different when it’s someone you love.” - Promising Young Woman

The best model of reform the film gives us is Jordan Green. What sets Jordan apart is that he wants to face his past misdeeds. Throughout the film, we see religious imagery, like Cassie in a position that evokes Jesus’ crucifixion — visually framing her as a martyr for a greater cause Production designer Michael Perry also used imagery of angel wings and halos to underline Cassie’s role as an “avenging angel.” In the scene where Cassie confronts Jordan, the pair is deliberately meant to evoke Michelangelo’s “Pietà” of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus after the crucifixion. Cassie’s long blue dress in this scene further likens her to Mary. And at its core, this scene embodies another religious principle — the idea that to be forgiven you must confess and repent. At the end of the movie, Cassie has sent Jordan the phone with the video of Nina’s assault, revealing that he’s the one she most trusts to further her cause. So this highlights that it’s within everyone’s power to become part of the solution.

Jordan Green: “I’ll never forgive myself… for any of this.”
Cassandra: “I forgive you.”
Jordan Green: [Sobbing] - Promising Young Woman

Conclusion
Fennell named her righteous heroine after the character Cassandra in Greek mythology, a woman who was given the power of prophecy by Apollo but was also punished by him so that her prophecies would never be believed. As the Me Too and Time’s Up movements have gained traction in recent years, it seems like there is increasing determination to listen to our real-world Cassandras, but we have to do more than that. When we don’t value promising young women, we do a huge disservice to them and deprive the world of all that they have to offer.

Ryan: “You were way ahead of everybody. You… you would have been a great doctor.” - Promising Young Woman

As Chanel Miller reflected on the aftermath of her assault case against Brock Turner, “it was so difficult to put into words what was threatening to be lost. I couldn’t tell you: If you continue to damage me, I may not be able to create murals and books and all these wonderful creative things in different mediums [...] I knew I had so much to create.” Only by trusting and honoring young women can we empower them to not just be promising, but to actually fulfill their promise.

SOURCES
Apaydin, Ingrid. “Emerald Fennell on Subverting the Revenge Thriller with Promising Young Woman and the Horrors of the Patriarchal System.” The Film Stage, 22 Dec. 2020, https://thefilmstage.com/emerald-fennell-on-subverting-the-revenge-thriller-with-promising-young-woman-and-the-horrors-of-the-patriarchal-system/

Aurthur, Kate & Donnelly, Matt. “Let’s Talk About the Knockout Ending of ‘Promising Young Woman’.” Variety, 16 Jan. 2021, https://variety.com/2021/film/news/promising-young-woman-ending-spoilers-2-1234885400/

Blyth, Antonia. “‘Promising Young Woman’: How Director Emerald Fennell & Carey Mulligan Concealed a Timely Truth Bomb Amid ’90s Nostalgia.” Deadline, 13 Jan. 2021, https://deadline.com/2021/01/promising-young-woman-carey-mulligan-emerald-fennell-focus-features-interview-news-1234671173/

Cohen, Anne. “The Director Of Promising Young Woman Breaks Down That Devastating Twist.” Refinery29, 25 Dec. 2020, https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/12/10238043/promising-young-woman-ending-explainer-cassie-death

Colyar, Brock. “Chanel Miller Is Happy You Know Her Name Now.” The Cut, 21 Aug. 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/08/q-and-a-with-chanel-miller-author-of-know-my-name.html

El-Mahmoud, Sarah. “Promising Young Woman: Explaining That Dark Twist And Why It Worked.” Cinema Blend, 24 Jan. 2021, https://www.cinemablend.com/news/2561620/promising-young-woman-explaining-that-dark-twist-and-why-it-worked

Erbland, Kate. “‘Promising Young Woman’: Emerald Fennell on Her Mission to Upend Moviegoers’ Thirst for Violence.” IndieWire, 23 Dec. 2020, https://www.indiewire.com/2020/12/promising-young-woman-emerald-fennell-interview-1234605075/

Gibian, Rebecca. “How Your Favorite ’70s and ’80s Movies Condoned Rape Culture.” InsideHook, 28 Sept. 2018, https://www.insidehook.com/article/movies/favorite-80s-movies-condoned-rape-culture

Harris, Aisha. “The Agony And Subversion Of The ‘Promising Young Woman’ Ending.” NPR, 21 Jan. 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/01/21/958526533/the-agony-and-subversion-of-the-promising-young-woman-ending

Kay, Katty. “The Truth About False Assault Accusations by Women.” BBC, 18 Sept. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45565684

Larki, Shadan. “Production Designer Michael Perry on the ‘Warning Signs’ Sprinkled Throughout ‘Promising Young Woman’.” Awards Daily, 7 Feb. 2021, https://www.awardsdaily.com/2021/02/07/michael-perry/

Machado, Carmen Maria. “How ‘Promising Young Woman’ Refigures the Rape-Revenge Movie.” The New Yorker, 29 Jan. 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/how-promising-young-woman-refigures-the-rape-revenge-movie

McCarthy-Jones, Simon. “Survivors of Sexual Violence Are Let Down by the Criminal Justice System – Here’s What Should Happen Next.” The Conversation, 29 Mar. 2018, https://theconversation.com/survivors-of-sexual-violence-are-let-down-by-the-criminal-justice-system-heres-what-should-happen-next-94138

Metz, Nina. “How Teen Comedies Like ‘Superbad’ Normalize Sexual Assault.” Chicago Tribune, 3 Oct. 2018, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/tv/ct-mov-comedy-portrayal-sexual-assault-tv-film-1005-story.html

Miller, Liz Shannon. “‘Promising Young Woman’: Emerald Fennell Explains Casting TV Boyfriends as Bad Guys and Goes Full Spoilers on That Controversial Ending.” Collider, 16 Jan. 2021, https://collider.com/promising-young-woman-emerald-fennell-interview-ending-spoilers/

Nolfi, Joey. “Promising Young Woman Director Breaks Down That Brutal Twist Ending.” Entertainment Weekly, 26 Dec. 2020, https://ew.com/movies/promising-young-woman-ending-explained/

Travis, Ben. “Promising Young Woman: Trailer Breakdown Interview With Writer-Director Emerald Fennell.” Empire, 11 Dec. 2019, https://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/promising-young-woman-trailer-breakdown-emerald-fennell-interview/

West, Rachel. “PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN: Susan Jacob’s Female Power Soundtrack – Rachel West comments.” Alliance of Women Film Journalists, 30 Dec. 2020, https://awfj.org/blog/2020/12/30/promising-young-woman-susan-jacobs-female-power-soundtrack-rachel-west-comments/