No Saviors, No Satisfaction in ‘Promising Young Woman’ — and Why That’s a Good thing

No Saviors, No Satisfaction in ‘Promising Young Woman’ — and Why That’s a Good thing
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

What you need to know

‘Promising Young Woman’ offers up no simple answers or victories, rather the sad reality in which there is no justice without acknowledging harm. The Oscar nominated thriller is an entertaining take on a time old tale.

The following article contains some analysis and references that may indicate spoilers.

It has often been said that for evil men to accomplish their purposes it is only necessary that good men should do nothing. In Promising Young Woman, we see that the perpetuation of evil and injustice also necessitates men who do bad things to tell themselves and others that they are good. One of the film’s many strengths is that it does not show us caricatures of evil villains, but the banality of evil in people we could easily find ourselves in. If art is the lie that tells the truth, it is in that twilight between waking and sleeping that our storytelling has choices to make of what is portrayed as real and as fantastical.

What Promising Young Woman does is make fantastical what is usually traded for “grittiness” and make real that which we are used to cutting the camera away from. In falling asleep, we can close our eyes to the complicated world we live in, hoping our dreams can bring us peace by telling ourselves simpler stories — it is easier to say “they were really drunk” than to say “he raped her” — perhaps not realizing that these dreams are another person’s nightmare. For others, the harsh light of day is a relief from that slumber, respite from the nightmare. What are the lies we have to tell ourselves to buy into a story or to find courage to live another day, and what are the truths? What is the story we want to live with? One man’s romantic comedy is another person’s horror film.

Promising Young Woman is a masterpiece of storytelling, acting, and tone — garnering five Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Director, and Film Editing, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture- Drama, Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Director and writer Emerald Fennell’s feature is a highly ambitious and creative debut, opening at Sundance in January 2020. Originally slated for U.S. theatrical release in April 2020, the film was released in the U.S. in December 2020, VOD on January 15, 2021, and theatrically released in Taiwan on March 5, 2021. The film’s visual palette and soundtrack juxtapose a dark story with pastels, softness, and a variety of unashamed femininities that capture the film’s ability to nod to such a wide variety of genres.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Much has been said about the role of female or feminist “rage” in this film. But for me, the catharsis was seeing laid plain the rage of so-called “good” or “nice” men. This rage has found me in mentions on Twitter, in a kitchen arguing with a friend, or in emails and texts subtly laced with threats demanding my silence. In those moments, a man screams at me in rage, insisting that he is a good person, furious when I communicate anything less than total trust and submission to his unquestionable goodness. Their rage lives in their insistence on their own goodness, their inability to take accountability for their actions. They say to themselves — there are bad men out there, but I am one of the good ones. How dare you hesitate, or insist that trust or goodness must be earned by acting in ways that demonstrate trustworthiness or goodness? How dare you have agency, standards, or exist for any reason other than to validate my self-perception (or delusion)? Those of us who have been on the receiving end of this “nice guy” rage know of its fatality, its danger.

Some have said that this a film for the era of #MeToo, but I think that its power is in depicting the movement’s messy realities rather than the triumphal ending and resolution that many go to Hollywood films to see. Victory for victims cannot be measured merely in carceral solutions, jail and prison. For those who would measure success in institutional changes, we have also not succeeded. In the time between Anita Hill (1991) and Christine Blasey Ford (2018), we have seen progress but not the kind that stopped the perpetrators of their sexual harassment from ascending to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The progress, while not universal, has been in the way we talk about sexual harassment and assault and the community that now exists for survivors found in those two simple words, “Me too.” For many, just the act of telling their story was one of the hardest things they have ever had to do and that is a triumph I would not easily or quickly dismiss.

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Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

The film centers on Cassandra (played by Carrie Mulligan), the film’s protagonist, who is aptly named for the mythological Greek priestess who was cursed with the ability to prophesy the future that no one would ever believe. So what do you do when you know the truth but know that no one will believe you? Despair, stew, swallow your words and pain in silence as it eats you alive? Or, perhaps you can speak that truth into the world, knowing that it could and will probably destroy the mirage of the life and world around you that we have all become accustomed to.

Cesar A. Cruz said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” And this film is both deeply comforting and deeply disturbing all at the same time. It brings to mind a conversation I had with one of my best friends, a survivor of sexual abuse who chose to speak to those around him about his deteriorating mental health and suicidal ideation — and was met with accusations of “creating conflict” or stirring up trouble. I told him that it was clear to me that this was a lie and attempt at dismissing and deflecting accountability, that he was not “creating” conflict, rather he was simply sharing on the outside with those around him a conflict that, up until that point, had lived inside of him, requiring so much of his mental and emotional energy to manage, alone, on a day to day level. For years he gaslit himself, telling himself that everything was fine to maintain the outward status quo while drowning inside. He ended up trading between the choice to maintain the “peace” on the outside while the conflict lived inside of him or acknowledging the conflict on the outside, sharing that burden with those around him, and having peace inside. The conflict can either live inside you or outside of you, but there is no option where the conflict does not exist. His courage to tell that disrupting truth that complicated and destroyed his life as he knew it, is a victory to me.

Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo Movement in a conversation with Mariame Kaba said of the need for radical community healing: “I think about how many of us live and work and exist in the communities where we were harmed because we have no choice. How many of us not just have to live and exist and work in there, but we have to watch people actively not care. Actively not keep us safe. Our communities have to heal as well. It is not gonna help for me to be whole as a person and be on a healing journey and be in this community where other people are being hurt around me. Where I am still vulnerable to being hurt again.”

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Tarana Burke, in Cannes, France, June 21, 2018.

When a harm occurs, it is not merely within the axes of perpetrator and victim, it is within the context of a community, multi-dimensional interconnected relationships linking two individuals in a myriad of ways. Either the harm is acknowledged, addressed, repented of, and restoration occurs, or what happens much more often is a denial or refusal to even acknowledge which requires an amnesia to forget or ignore the harm done by the abuser. The victim, in order to continue participating in that community must either play along with this amnesia or, more often, upon insistence of the truth of harm and conflict finds themselves erased or expelled so that people may continue on with their status quo as though nothing ever happened, nothing has changed.

We see Cassie struggle (This paragraph will mention spoilers) as she is told by her best friend’s mother to move on with her life, and she begins to try and look forward, falling in love with Ryan (played by Bo Burnham). A choice comes to her though in the form of a video, implicating the man she loves, she could choose like her old classmates to forget, erase Nina and go on with her life, or she could choose to keep Nina, and her memory of her alive by refusing to deny that the harm that was done and continues to be done. She chooses not to forget. Nina’s name is carved into her heart; she will not let anyone else forget, least of all, the man who raped her friend from that act of permanent remembering.

I am a survivor of abuse, but I am not a survivor of sexual assault. More of my friends are survivors than are not. Some are men, women, non-binary, straight, queer, White, Black, Asian, Latinx. The world moves on, keeps spinning, but it has often left them behind, not willing to acknowledge what happened to them. In October 2017, as the news broke about Harvey Weinstein, I was in a therapist’s office breaking down crying, sharing the revelations that had accompanied my triggers when reading the news coverage — it was not the individual acts of sexual violence that had triggered the chemical reactions deep in my brain but the systems of complicity that allowed and protected a man like him from accountability or consequences for his patterns of abusive behavior — the women who felt they had nowhere to go, who were afraid to speak up knowing that it would cost them their livelihoods, careers, and communities.

A film like Promising Young Woman presents no easy solutions, no saviors, and no satisfaction in contrast to feel good films like Wonder Woman (2017) that tout “feminist” ideals like female strength and empowerment in action sequences of the protagonist charging into battle, deflecting attacks, defeating her enemies, and triumphing over the powers of evil without so much as a hair out of place. For those of us who live in the sad realities of a world that looks more like Promising Young Woman, where victims of sexual assault are ignored, harassed, and generally not believed, films like Wonder Woman offer respite, escapist fantasy that on some days, help us to go on believing and hoping in the possibility of a better world where our scars and traumas may never have happened in the first place, but for those of us who live in the shattered daily realities of surviving a hostile world, films like Promising Young Woman are a mirror — clarifying the obstacles which we continue to face in being believed, being valued, being heard or seen while we continue to be gaslit about the realities and consequences of sexual violence and live with the trauma in our own bodies and those of our loved ones.

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Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace / Courtesy of Focus Features

Some (if not most) viewers might be left unsatisfied, I do not think that this film’s goal is to answer the questions “what is justice” or “what is healing” or to hold up Cassandra as a hero or model of behavior, but it illustrates the sad reality that there is no justice or healing until there can be an acknowledgement of the pain and trauma. Time and time again, as Cassie attempts to confront the perpetrators and the bystanders, she is brushed off, her concerns dismissed, minimized, and given excuse after excuse. Until we can come to terms, first as individuals, and then as communities, with the gravity of what has happened and the harm that has been done, we cannot even begin to ask for healing, for forgiveness, for restoration, and for justice. Perhaps some will consider the film’s ending a kind of victory, but at what cost? Emerald Fennell makes stark what the cost is in a single long two minute camera shot. Our dissatisfaction with the exchange, of life for a life, for a life — the price of our continual denial, our communal forgetfulness should compel us to change ourselves and communities. That is the discomfort and burden that we as an audience are left with and that we as a society need to continue to grapple with in the wake of #MeToo.

I hope more people will watch this film. I was fortunate enough to watch it in person in a theater in Taipei with a friend, but I know that most people will watch it through streaming. I recommend that no one watch it alone, both because I think that it is a film that one needs communal support to process its disturbing and unsatisfying aspects, but also because I think that the burdens we are left with to carry are not ones we can carry alone.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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