As a woman, there’s a good chance that watching A Promising Young Woman will leave you screaming Me Too with every fibre of your being.
In fact, I can’t ever recall a time that I’ve walked out of the cinema so hot with rage, yet oddly cold and focused with anger, all the while having my eyes heavy and in need of a good solid cry, until now.
Why? The movie makes you feel somewhat validated, listened to, and finally acknowledged, after what feels like going through most of your life being seemingly gaslighted for sounding crazy when calling out the bad behaviour of ‘good guys’ who act in ‘good fun’.
This is a film that gets the portrayal of the ‘villain’ right. You see, the people who so aggrieve Carey Mulligan’s character aren’t the dangerous looking random guys who try to follow you home. No, they’re every day people, the ones you look up to, try to impress, and want to get along with.
Even the guys who we the audience are supposed to despise are just that: ordinary guys. The kind his best man would vouch for at his wedding, telling tales about ‘what a great guy he is’, and maybe even crack the odd joke or two about his awkward failings in the past, only to finally land on his feet to find his one true love. The kind of guy who went through a stupid phase of ‘boys being boys’, just mucking around, but then he got his shit together, finally, pulled up his socks, and he’s now a responsible young man. The seemingly ‘normal’ villains conjure up a Brett Kavanaugh-esk protagonist, someone who ‘might have screwed up in his youth’ but he’s since scrubbed up nice and clean. A respectable citizen, with polo shirts and beige chinos to match. And yet, the damage done of the past is swept under the rug.
Except its not forgotten, and its never cleanly compartmentalised under the rug for the women who’ve experienced assault, or for the people helping them to pick up the pieces. Cassie, the character that Mulligan plays, portrays the heartbreaking damage painfully well.
As a non movie buff, non critic or someone who would even remotely identify as an enthusiast enough to know the names, histories and careers of those who give us these boons of entertainment, or in this case, a sheer emotion jerking rollercoaster; there was still something that was breathtakingly clear to me: this film could only have been made by a woman, or make that a team of women. And so, like any non movie buff would do, I came home and looked up the team that brought the film to life. Of course, my hunch was right. A Promising Young Woman was made by Margot Robbie’s production house, LuckyChap Productions, along with Emerald Fennell as the writer-director. For those who are equally (and somewhat embarrassingly) non aware of the film industry as I am, Fennell also played Camilla Bowles in Netflix’s The Crown. She’s clearly a woman of many talents.
So how did I know the film was made by women as I cringed, laughed and cried? Only a woman could have picked the offenders out with such realism. And only a woman could have called out the attempted gas lighting of man’s worst nightmare (spoiler alert: It’s been accused of sexual assault) with such ease while portraying the dangers of revenge seeking vigilantism to reflect the very real nightmares of women’s lives, and one that sadly plays out all too often, even without the revenge seeking.
Mulligan’s character, Cassie, asks during her vigilante escapades “What are you doing?”, and it echo’s such an important question. What are we doing? Why are we still giving rape culture the benefit of the doubt? Why do we let seemingly good guys get away with casual misogyny? Every time an action or a comment gets swept under the rug, ask yourself “what are you doing?” After all, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.
I, for one, am so glad that women are finally in the movie making business. Thank you, Margot Robbie, Emerald Fennell and Carrie Mulligan for bringing this to life. You’ve invoked some hard conversations on the drive back home from the cinemas and those back to the office ‘water cooler’ zoom chats no doubt, but they’re ones we finally need to have.
Shivani Gopal is the Chief Executive of The Remarkable Woman, a women’s leadership and mentoring platform.