Promising Young Woman: The Sacrifice of a Madonna

Courtesy of Focus Features

 “The whole thing becomes like this evil enchantment from a fairy tale,
but you're made to believe the spell can never be broken.”
-Jess C. Scott, Heart's Blood

This is intended for people who have already seen the film.
If you are looking for a spoiler free review you can find it here

With the Oscars about to air and Promising Young Woman up for five Academy Awards, much of the discourse around the film surrounds the rape revenge thriller’s worthiness of the nominations. Emerald Fennell’s debut film about a woman named Cassie (Carey Mulligan) grieving for her friend Nina’s suicide after her rape at a college party has some critics crying foul play. “I didn’t think the film was bad, more like just meh”, “I think Carey Mulligan was great, but the ending felt like a made for TV special”, and “I just really didn’t like seeing even more violence against women” are some examples of comments about the film. In aggregate, these criticisms appear to express a disappointment in Promising Young Woman’s splitting away from the traditional violent satisfaction depicted in the Rape Revenge genre along with a deafness to the point of the film as whole. 

On the surface, Promising Young Woman is a romantic comedy meets revenge thriller. The film’s use of mostly comedic actors, a bubble gum color palette, and pop music soundtrack provide a light and warmly feminine contrast to Carey Mulligan’s cold, rage-filled performance. The candy-coated backdrop to Cassie’s revenge journey was an intentional choice by Fennell who wanted the audience to feel as if this story is not one of a faraway town, but could be any town, even your own town. In her commentary track the director said, “When I was looking at casting…I really, really, really wanted to cast people, men and women that we felt safe with, that we grew up with, that we felt familiar with…so it’s harder to pick a side.” As a result, the film’s first act is littered with situations and locations that are recognizable, tossing the audience back and forth between comedy and horror. However, behind all of this, Promising Young Woman seeks to challenge a societal norm even more deeply ingrained in our society. 

In the paper The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy: Men who perceive women's nurturance and sexuality as mutually exclusive endorse patriarchy and show lower relationship satisfaction, authors Orly Bareket and Rotem Kahalon discuss the use of the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy (MWD) as a tool for maintaining the current power structure. The paper states, “Assertive female sexuality represents a potential source of power over men: As gatekeepers to heterosexual activity men fear women’s ability to use sexual allure as a manipulative tactic to unman them. Hence, by discouraging female sexual agency, the MWD mitigates a perceived threat.” Therefore, the MWD assigns women into two mutually exclusive types, women who are suited as wives/mothers (Madonnas) or women who are sexually attractive (Whores) associating women demonstrating sexual behavior with negative traits (although sexually preferable), and chaste women with positive ones (nurturers). 

Courtesy of Focus Features

Promising Young Woman does not contain any characters whose explicit goal is to divide women into this kind of sexual submission. Instead, the MWD of the film is woven into the subconscious rules we have all come to accept as societal norms. In the opening sequence, a group of corporate looking men having a few drinks in a club spot a very drunk looking Cassie. Their initial reaction to the teetering, office-clad woman with smeared eyeliner is not opportunism but disgust. Paul (Sam Richardson) remarks, “Jesus. Hey (to friends) would you look at that. (To an unregistering Cassie) Why don’t you get some dignity, sweetheart? (To friends) You know, they put themselves in dangers, girls like that.” Bareket and Kahalon’s aforementioned paper states, “The MWD meshes conventional scripts that men should act as sexual initiators and women as careful gatekeepers” and Paul’s disgust towards a carelessly drunk Cassie is an expression of disgust at her abandonment of this gatekeeping responsibility. However, disgust quickly transforms to arousal by another man in the group because of the inverted relationship in the MWD of arousal to responsibility. Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a more direct example of this inversion, as seen with Fred Waterford’s contrasting behavior towards Serena (his wife) and June (the handmaid). 

Of course, the audience learns quickly Cassie is only pretending and this act is part of a self-destructive ritual. A Madonna putting on various costumes of The Whore, Cassie seeks simultaneously to exact revenge on would-be rapists and atone for the guilt she feels about the rape and death of Nina. In fact, the first shot of Cassie drunk in the club is of her in a Christ-like pose, and one of several repeating biblical depictions of her used throughout the film. Cassie’s book of names and slashes is like a book of lashes repeating both “It happened” and “I’m sorry”. Many complain about the lack of explanation of the book, looking for some deeper tie-in to her act of revenge and completely missing it being a physical representation of Cassie’s ritual on a loop. 

Courtesy of Focus Features

As the audience follows Cassie through her quest for vengeance, it is hard not to notice the Easter-like visual contrast to the dark subject matter. The hyper-feminine, bubblegum pop world Cassie inhabits is both beautiful and grotesque. On the surface, it is warm and reassuring, asking Cassie to accept this world as normal and move on. Underneath, it is more like the poppy fields of Oz with the Wicked Witch exclaiming “Something with poison in it I think…But attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell.” The introduction of Ryan (Bo Burnham) as Cassie’s love interest is this temptation made flesh and part of you wants her to give in. He is a tall, handsome, charismatic, pediatric surgeon who presents a non-threatening, safe haven for her. Ryan is the cherry on top of this mirage running in tandem with Cassie’s controlled cold rage. And aside from the climax, the film only briefly switches from covert to overt expressions of Cassie and her world’s true nature with the crowbar scene. Which only break through their veneers after her intense confrontation in the Dean’s office. 

Speaking of the Dean, of the four main targets on Cassie’s list of those implied to be responsible for Nina’s death, Dean Walker (Connie Britton) and Madison (Alison Brie) are of special importance. Where Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) and his Lawyer Jordan (Alfred Molina) have a motive, Walker and Madison are willing accomplices. I have seen some dismiss these characters as over privileged, upper-middle class, narcissistic women, and I believe this take to be short sighted. I am not saying their behavior is excusable. They are guilty. In addition to their guilt, these women represent the MWD’s ability to divide women in order to maintain power structure. In fact, both women call attention to the MWD although not purposefully. 

Courtesy of Focus Features

When confronted Walker says, “You know, we get accusations like this all the time, one or two a week” acknowledging how normalized sexual assault has become. Walker even mentions a talk Nina’s rapist gave at the university. The unspoken truth is Dean Walker’s membership as woman in the protected class would be in jeopardy if she were to side with the degraded half of the divided feminine. Hence, Walker initially defends her actions as being those of a fair and unbiased mediator. However, her real feelings are quickly revealed when she believes her daughter is about to receive the same degradation as Nina.  Commenting on these confrontations, Emerald Fennell states “…it was suddenly all of the things I have been thinking about crystalized in that moment of being caught and suddenly realizing something that as a culture we’ve accepted as normal is at best incredibly manipulative and at worst something else entirely.” 

Cassie’s confrontation of Madison has a similar tone. “When it comes down to it all guys want the same thing. A good girl” Madison says while laughing during their lunch, outright dead naming the MWD. When Cassie brings up Madison’s party girl behavior during college, she replies, “Fred didn’t know me while I was in Med School…what he doesn’t know won’t kill him, right?” This may be the most revealing line in the film, the truth that all women are both The Madonna and The Whore. Unfortunately, Madison is not self-aware enough to recognize this or the hypocrisy in the contrasting way she views herself versus Nina. When pressed by Cassie on the subject she retorts, “I don’t make the rules… Don’t get blackout drunk all the time and then expect people to be on your side when you have sex with someone you don’t want to.” Dean Walker also brings up female drinking as justification for the lack of credibility. 

Courtesy of Focus Features

In 2016, writer/director Jill Soloway’s (Transparent) gave a master class at TIFF on The Female Gaze. In it, she touches on the divided feminine’s (MWD) classification of drinking as a characteristic of the degraded half of the divide. “The good girls get proposed to and the bad ones die, they get in accidents, they get killed, and the drunk ones get what’s coming to them.” Soloway goes into detail on how the MWD is used to shame women for behavior men do not find appealing, extending protection and privilege to only those women who are deemed ‘good’ in their eyes. Therefore, before branding Madison and Walker as demons it is important to recognize the stakes for them are high and standing up to this power structure can mean death.

Which brings us to climax and ultimate point of the film. Cassie always had to die. The only destination on her path of vengeance for Nina is death and Cassie goes to that cabin to die. The tossing of the license plate is a signal to this. After her attempt at moving on is destroyed by the big reveal of Ryan’s role in Nina’s rape, Cassie realizes the only way for Nina to get any justice is to sacrifice herself. Unfortunately, things do not go exactly as planned, and Cassie’s plan to brand Al for his crime against Nina is impeded by a pair of faulty fuzzy handcuffs. In her commentary for the film Fennell explains, “Of course I wanted, as much as everyone wanted, for [Cassie] to go over to the bed and straddle him and carve ‘Nina’ into his chest… but the truth of it is, the moment a women gets out a weapon, if she ever does, that weapon is used against her.” This statement makes the complaints about Promising Young Woman’s lack of violent vengeful acts from this rape revenge film feel icky. The reality that Emerald Fennell is showing with Promising Young Woman us is a bleak one. Women do not get a badass revenge story because the truth is women seldom receive justice.  

-Dawn Stronski