“Can You Guess What Every Woman’s Worst Nightmare Is?”: Listening to Cassandra in Promising Young Woman (2020)

CW (Content Warning): Rape, Abuse, Violence, and Pedophilia are all featured in Promising Young Woman and discussed here. Viewer discretion advised.  

The first thing we hear in Promising Young Woman is the lyric, “I was busy thinking about boys”. A boppy pop song, candy flavoured. We then open on a rather gross shot of sweaty drunk men dancing in a nightclub, thrusting the air, and spilling their drinks onto an already sticky ground. We see a group of young men at the bar, drinking and bitching about some woman at work. It’s not their fault that customers want to meet at an all-male golf club. She should try working harder. “You know,” says one of the men, “they put themselves in danger, girls like that”, he points to a visibly drunk blonde slouched on a nearby bench. She is dressed in business attire, like them, with a briefcase and suit jacket beside. The men stare and joke about the friends who left her “lying around for anyone to pick up”. It’s like this woman is a surrogate for the work bitch they were just discussing, but prone and drunk. The men describe rape like it’s a fetish, like it’s bound to happen to this unfortunate Barbie. One man finally moves to ‘check on her’, just to make sure she is ok and has a ride home. He has to help her down the stairs to get to his cab. The Taxi driver sees what is happening and does nothing. Upstairs, the man offers her a drink and kisses her, but she doesn’t kiss back. She gives him every opportunity to do the right thing, shaking her head and asking to go home. As he climbs on top of her, she quietly asks, “what are you doing?”, but he shushes her. The camera then moves to the ceiling, right above the girl, as she smiles, looks directly at the camera, and asks in a steady and loud voice, “Hey. I said, what are you doing?” She is not just talking to the rapist.

Promising Young Woman is a deeply troubling but necessary film. Emerald Fennell’s project is technically a revenge thriller, but it is also deeply critical of that genre’s typically exploitative gaze. Its most apparent criticism is of male gaze, like the kind found throughout Western culture, the legal system, and cinema. The film was named after a 2015 rape trial, where the accused (I don’t care to name him) was only given 6 months (released after 3) for brutally raping a woman and was called a ‘promising young man’ by the judge. The trial led to fierce international outcry, where many asked what it would take for a woman to be considered promising instead of promiscuous. The film’s title is a clear reference to this trial and question, although it notably changes the wording to focus on the woman instead of her abuser. It also places this reference in a rather specific light, as we first see the film’s title in bright pink letters, dripping with blood spots. The colour pink is everywhere in the film, as pink is most often associated with femininity and adolescence. But like the rest of the film, our associations with this colour are completely warped. The font looks like something out of a horror film, and the blood adds to this. You can tell just by the title’s appearance what kind of film this will be, and what kind of criticism it holds. Much like its protagonist, the film uses icons of femininity, like the colour pink, to confront the ongoing abuse and fetishism associated with female suppression. In other words, both the film and its subject know what men and the audience expect of them, and so they follow along and then twist that exploitative language, switching from male gaze to female in a startling way.

A short warning, I will be discussing the end of the film at length, so plenty of spoilers ahead.

“Sometimes Gentlemen Are the Worst.”

The film focuses on Cassie (or Cassandra), a young woman still dealing with the tragic death of her best friend Nina. It is eventually revealed that Nina was raped during a party at college and was bullied into dropping her case, after which she and Cassie dropped out, while her rapist went on to graduate and lead a successful life. These events led to Nina’s suicide, and Cassie’s need for revenge and closure. Cassie goes out every night to test the same excuses people used against Nina. She pretends to be too drunk to walk, waits for some ‘nice guy’ to help her, and then keeps a tally of the ones who try to assault her. We don’t see what happens to these men after Cassie reveals that she is not drunk. They don’t really matter, so the film only spends a short time with each. Cassie keeps her tally and list of names in a small notebook, wrapped in a scrunchy which once belonged to Nina. She avoids actual relationships as her experience with Nina has completely shifted her perspective, and she can no longer see healthy partnerships. How could one trust a ‘nice guy’ after witnessing just how many use this term to do horrible things?

Cassie can see the truth which no one wants to talk about, the sexist politics governing everything, and how it categorizes and abuses women. Being so hyper-aware is irreversible and isolating, and Cassie essentially pushes everyone aside to confront would-be rapists about their behaviour. Does her confrontation stop them from attacking other people? Maybe. Maybe she just needs to know.

“Careful How You Go”

During the title sequence, we see Cassie walking down a street eating a jelly doughnut. She is still wearing the business outfit, although its messy and she has got jelly stains on her arms. Some construction workers spot her from across the street and begin shouting and laughing at her ‘walk of shame’. Catcalling construction workers are about as stereotypical as they come. Anytime you see a construction worker in a movie, they are probably catcalling some woman, and it’s often played for laughs. Here, however, we get this chilling moment, as Cassie turns around and stares at them. She doesn’t talk or walk over; she just stares and refuses to break eye contact. The men go from shouting “smile baby” to “fuck you” real quick. Her stare makes them extremely uncomfortable because it forces them to face the person they were dehumanizing. She takes away their power by turning their gaze back at them. She is not ashamed, but they should be. When someone drops a metal sheet in the construction site behind her, the men flinch while Cassie continues to stare. She is unfazed by everything here, their catcalling, swearing, and this loud environment. The men eventually trail off, not ashamed, more confused. Cassie finally looks away and takes another bite of her doughnut, unmoved by anything here. We hear The Weather Girl’s “It’s Raining Men” as she walks away, leaving the question: what happens when the men fall and hit the ground?

This scene does an excellent job of reversing gaze, something which the film continues to do in Cassie’s confrontation scenes. The construction workers are not ashamed of themselves or their actions, they just feel vulnerable because Cassie treated them the way they were treating her. I will go into this in more detail shortly, but suffice to say, Cassie wants her subjects to know what it feels like to be vulnerable and in danger. She wants to shake them, to violate their sense of entitlement. To make them feel a fraction of what women feel daily. Is she successful? Not necessarily, but it still needs to be done. The film works in a similar way, as examines what male gaze is to those who experience it, both from the camera lens and our world.

“None of Us What to Admit When We’ve Made Ourselves Vulnerable.”

Cassie wears multiple costumes in the film, and I refer to them as costumes for a reason. Everything about Cassie is carefully managed, from her clothes, hair, and makeup. For instance, we see her following a “Blow Job lips makeup tutorial”, which advises girls to use different lipstick shades to accentuate certain shapes. The tutorial focuses on luring men using makeup, becoming what they want to see and what they want to do. The influencer is played by Fennell, the director, and so the director is essentially coaching Cassie on what costume to wear next. She wears a different type depending on the kind of guy she wants to lure in. A tight dress, pigtails, business attire, she constantly switches her look to fit different feminine models.

Once Cassie finishes this tutorial, she takes her thumb and smudges the lipstick across her cheek, smiling at herself in the mirror. This moment does two things. First, it adds to her costume, as she appears more drunk if her makeup is slightly off, as though someone has already touched her lips. Second, Cassie puts so much work into this tutorial just to ruin it, which essentially declares that she is not a passive image, and that she instead understands how artificial appearances can be, and how makeup is a tool she can exploit.  

There are plenty of other examples where Cassie accentuates vulnerability and adolescence, while reminding the audience that sexualizing either of these things is extremely messed up. She often wears clothes with rosebuds (a vaginal and virginal symbol) and even styles her makeup and clothes like a sex doll in the final scene. Likewise, Cassie is blonde, wears pink or pastels, has a half-heart necklace with Nina’s name on it (like a teenager might wear), but most prominently, she uses a different voice when talking to men. Each of these creates a passive persona, one who seemingly doesn’t know better and is prone. Most of the male characters in the film love this persona, without realizing that they aren’t in on the joke. Two moments in particular demonstrate this, as one guy asks her how old she is and then laughs “Old enough right?” and then another compliments her pigtails. The film never mentions pedophilia, but it also never uses the term rape. Both are still rampant in the film.

“What Are You Trying to Say? That I am a Predator or Something?”

Arguably the most obvious example of purposeful infantilization is Cassie’s baby voice. For those who don’t know this concept, and congrats for not coming across this fucked up thing, some women put on a different voice to seem like less of a threat around men. It’s called baby voice, as it is generally less ‘aggressive’ or loud than their normal talking voice. Imagine it as though you have to say something like it’s a question instead of saying it outright. Sometimes it’s used as a defense mechanism, for when women are in a dangerous situation and they want to seem harmless so the person will leave them alone. Other times women use it because of the overwhelming tradition of passive femininity in media. Let’s be honest though, it stems from the pedophilic undertone in our media, where women are most attractive when they are voiceless, clueless, sleeping, and or vulnerable. There is no shame in women doing this, maybe men should be ashamed, our media definitely should. I mention this tradition because Cassie uses it a great deal when pretending to be drunk, and it’s what makes the shift between her drunk self and sober self more apparent. It is also another way the film criticizes the media from which it comes from, specifically the way they typically represent women and the real-world consequences to those representations.

I initially became aware of Cassie’s purposeful passive voice because of the film’s reception, as some critiqued Carey Mulligan’s performance because of her lowered voice. You will notice that Cassie switches back to her normal lowered voice in scenes where she is talking to her female manager or family. I find it extremely ironic that the difference between Cassie’s performed and normal voice has made its way into critics’ opinions. Perhaps they would prefer the more docile voice? On that note, when Cassie finally confronts Nina’s rapist at his bachelor party, she is direct and curt with everyone. I think she does so because her nurse outfit and multi-coloured wig is enough for everyone at the party to just assume she is a stripper.

Likewise, when Cassie asks Al Monroe about his past, he begins crying and stammers that he was just a kid, and therefore shouldn’t be held accountable. This behaviour is funny considering the way other characters treat female adolescence as some desirable and fetishized thing, while male adolescence is apparently pure and faultless. 

Costume Pop

Another way the film directs our attention to a specific version of femininity and abuse is through pop music. The film includes a phenomenal cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, albeit an instrumental orchestral version. Without the lyrics, the audience is left to fill in the song and remember the lyrics. There are a few ways to read this pop inclusion. You could focus on how these lyrics imprint two meanings onto the story. Brittany Spear’s song is about toxic love and being addicted to something dangerous. The original version of the song is fun and easy to dance to, but the film presents it as something sinister. This toxic love is just straightforward abuse, as well as a symbol for Cassie and her disruptive journey. She looks attractive, like Britney Spears’ original song suggests, but she is also deadly and will confront others about their toxic behaviour. That said, we could also read the song using Britney Spears’ reception and the sexism and infantilization she has been subjected to. Take “Oops!…I Did It Again”, as she dealt with a huge level of conservative backlash following that music video. Even now, many people who like her music call it a ‘guilty pleasure’, as though her work is something you cannot enjoy forthright. It’s noteworthy that female pop artists are generally the only ones scrutinized to this extent, and I think Promising Young Woman follows much of that scrutiny. Cassie is just a hyper aware version of Britney Spears, aware of how society treats her and how she can manipulate this order to survive and call out terrible behaviour.

Brittany Spears is not the only pop reference in the film, most of the music is performed by female pop singers, and there is even a scene dedicated to Paris Hilton’s music. During her first date with Ryan, a guy who knew her in med school and who seems like a genuinely nice guy, he starts singing along with a Paris Hilton song. Cassie teases him about it because he knows all the lyrics and is totally unashamed of that joy. I think this is an important moment because it’s the first Cassie trusts a man in the film. He likes pop music, specifically female pop music, and that is a good sign for Cassie. She is already involved in this world of feminine performance, and so she appreciates that Ryan somewhat respects, or at least acknowledges, this world. You will notice that Cassie uses her normal voice with Ryan, in fact, she spits in his coffee when they first meet. She is in no way trying to appear passive in their relationship, which makes their dynamic quite sweet. Of course, everything goes wrong, and he turns out to be terrible, or rather, he turns out to be exactly what he told Cassie he was: an asshole. He doesn’t rape anyone or try to take advantage of someone, he just watches and lets other people do those things.

It’s important to note that just as the film uses pop music to emphasize its commentary on female sexuality, its cast similarly enhances this discussion. Each of the self-proclaimed ‘nice guys’ are played by someone who is best known for a ‘nice guy’ role in a different project. For instance, Al is played by Chris Lowell, who once starred in Veronica Mars. Max Greenfield plays Joe, although he is best known for his role in New Girl. Likewise, Ryan is played by Bo Burnham, who is a well-liked comedian. Even Alison Brie makes an appearance in the film, as Nina and Cassie’s old college friend, as she is known for her role on Community. To see these cultural figures play such terrible people makes their actions feel like a betrayal. We trust these guys because we have seen them do the right thing in other projects. The fact that they do terrible things here is deeply uncomfortable and becomes a reflection on their earlier work.

“I am a nice guy.”
“Are You?”

Fennell recently explained in a few interviews that none of the men in the film would consider themselves bad people. Each genuinely believes that they are a good person, maybe an asshole sometimes, but mostly good. The difference between this film and other typical thriller revenge films is that evil hides itself. It doesn’t appear in all black with a long twirly mustache, like some diabolical villain would. Every guy in the film tries to justify themselves by blaming women, arguing that their bad actions happen because of a woman. The film includes multiple symbols for this kind of thinking, as Cassie’s workplace even features a neon sign which reads “Make me coffee”, reminiscent of the “Make me a sandwich” comment online trolls like to use. Even when the ‘nice guys’ in the film get caught, they feel like they are owed something, like Cassie and the world has been unfair to them. At one point, right after Cassie insults a guy who was trying to take her home while drunk, he starts crying and runs away yelling “Why do you guys have to go and ruin everything?” So…ruin rape? The film makes fun of these insecurities as Cassie treats these men the same way they would treat a drunk woman. She dehumanizes them and makes them feel weak, essentially reversing their roles.

Although Cassie confronts several men in the film, we only see an entire confrontation once. She returns home with some whiny white dude named Neil, who does cocaine and lectures her about an incredible article called “Consider the Lobster”. It’s funny that he mentions this work, as the essay adds an interesting layer onto the scene. It was written by David Foster Wallace, first published in a food and wine journal, and was met with some controversy as it concerns the ethics of boiling lobsters alive to enhance the consumer’s pleasure*. There are strong parallels between the lobster and Cassie, as Wallace criticizes the selfish and barbarous consumer who is willing to torture for pleasure. Neil is oblivious that this work is ultimately about people like him, as he wants to keep Cassie awake so he can rape her. This isn’t the only time Neil misread something in the scene, as he also talks about his novel, one he hasn’t written yet. He describes it noting, “it’s about what it is like to be a guy right now”, as though women have made it difficult to exist as a guy. His book argues that ‘nice guys’ are the victims of a new cancel culture world. As ridiculous as that is, he goes on to criticize Cassie’s appearance and behaviour, noting “I never understood why women wear so much makeup…guys don’t even like that kind of stuff”, and then says he wants to see her freckles and imperfection. Like everything else in this conversation, Neil is completely ignorant, and what he assumes are ‘nice’ statements are just insults.

When Cassie shifts from drunk to sober, Neil immediately freaks out and wants her to leave. “You some kind of psycho or something?”, says the guy who just shoved, drugged, and tried to rape her. Seeing as this is first time we see how sober Cassie deals with her subjects, she doesn’t hold back. When Neil stammers out that they had a connection, Cassie replies, “A connection? Ok. What do I do for a living? Sorry, maybe that one is too hard. How old am I? How long have I lived in the city? What are my hobbies? What’s my name?”. Neil, not knowing how to respond, gets angry and tries to dismiss her by calling himself an asshole. That term isn’t enough, and it’s actually quite rude. Calling yourself an asshole, as Neil does, justifies whatever terrible thing you do, and suggests that such behaviour should have been expected because you are always an asshole. This implies that the person calling you out for bad behaviour should have known better, while also dismissing the gravity of the asshole’s actions and suggesting that they cannot be held accountable. It’s a scapegoat term, and it turns bad behaviour back on the person who called it out. Cassie has no patience for this, and in response, she utterly dehumanizes Neil in the same way he planned to dehumanize her. She taunts him, refuses to leave, and ultimately notes that Neil is not as rare as he would like to think. She has met so many people exactly like him, and there is nothing special or noteworthy about him or his work. Cassie is so absolutely devastating in this scene, that after she leaves, we never see Neil again. He isn’t nearly interesting enough for the film to spend any more time on.

“What Would You Say?

Cassie’s tally is a kind of forced empathy. She wants the people who hurt Nina to know exactly what it felt like to be Nina, and how their actions impacted her. Just as Cassie reverses the power dynamic in these drunk to sober scenes, she does the same with people from her past. First, she arranges a lunch date with an old college friend, one who didn’t believe Nina and stayed friends with the rapist and witnesses. Cassie lures Madison in by talking about the good times and slowly getting her drunk. Once she is fully intoxicated, Cassie asks Madison if she has changed her mind or if she ever thinks about what happened. Madison has not changed at all, and she notes “If you have a reputation for sleeping around then maybe people won’t believe you”. When Cassie brings Nina up, we get this shot of her underneath the restaurant lights. The one right above her is bright red, versus the other white lights. This signals that Cassie has made a decision, a chaotic one too. She nods, leaves, and as she does, hands Madison’s hotel card to a stranger at the bar. We later find out that Cassie hired the man to just watch Madison while she sleeps, but Madison has no recollection of that. When Madison wakes up, she wonders if she has been raped by this stranger, and Cassie will not return her calls. Now Madison understands how confused and violated Nina felt, although Cassie doesn’t go as far as Nina’s attacker. Something similar happens when Cassie visits the Dean, the woman who ultimately dismissed Nina’s attack. Cassie explains that she tricked the Dean’s daughter into leaving school with her, and then dropped the girl off at the same dorm where Nina was attacked and left her with a group of drunk guys. The Dean is terrified and demands to know which room her daughter is in, as she can’t remember Nina nor the incident. In fact, the Dean mentions that “he said she said situations” happen about once or twice a week, so it’s impossible to keep track of the details. Regardless of her usual “he said she said” routine, the Dean immediately believes her daughter is in grave danger and grows increasingly desperate and angry. Cassie eventually reveals that the Dean’s daughter is fine, and that she instead dropped her off at a diner, but the lesson is apparent. Nina was once the Dean’s responsibility, but the Dean was more interested in dismissing than accusing. Now she knows how it feels to be invested.

Cassie successfully convinces each of her subjects using forced empathy, everyone except Al. He is totally unremorseful about every horrible thing he has done, and in fact paints himself as a victim rather than an abuser. While every other victim walks free after Cassie confronts them, Al and his accomplice eventually suffer consequences. Once again, however, Cassie must arrange this vengeance herself. She knows that neither Al nor Ryan will do the right thing, and so she can only trust one man by the end of the film. She trusts Al’s old lawyer, the man who once bullied Nina into dropping her case. Not only does this lawyer remember Nina, but he also falls to his knees and apologizes profusely. His sudden empathy, or what his work calls a “psychotic episode”, is enough for Cassie to trust him. She trusts grief because it puts another person above yourself and your pleasure.

Listening to Cassandra

I have seen the criticism about the ending of Promising Young Woman. I have read that it falls into the fallen woman trope, and that Cassie deserved to live and move on. I think that reading misses Cassandra’s entire ark and namesake. The film wants us to be devastated because Cassie’s greatest forced empathy is on the audience, and that begins in the very first scene when she looks up at the camera and asks, “What are you doing?”. That question is directed at both her attacker and us, the people watching. What are we doing? What are our assumptions about this genre, about women like Cassie, women like Nina? By killing Cassie in such a horrible and senseless way, the film reminds us that injustice and violence against women is happening now, not just in the past. It continues. It doesn’t matter that nearly every person in the film claims that things have changed, that people have grown up, and that the world is more politically correct. Things have not changed enough.

Cassie’s death is also unsurprising given her character ark. Where could she go after this, having been betrayed by everyone? Could she ever return to a happy life, and what would that even look like? Cassie knows she will not emerge from this cabin, just as her mythic counterpart walked toward death.

Cassie’s real name is Cassandra, which is a clear reference to the Trojan Cassandra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. In mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy, but was later cursed by Apollo after she refused to sleep with him. He vowed that no person would ever believe Cassandra’s prophecies, even though everything she said was true. She warned her brothers that they would lose the war. No one heard her. She warned her people that the Greek’s wooden horse was a trap. No one cared. Ultimately, after Troy was sacked, Cassandra was enslaved by King Agamemnon and was eventually murdered by his vengeful wife.

Cassandra knows that people will not believe her, but she still tells them the truth. It doesn’t matter how many times she is insulted or dismissed, she continues to tell the future, even about her own death.

Recent Cassandra discourse compares Cassandra’s story with “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, as the two illustrate how people believe men and women differently. Promising Young Woman makes this comparison apparent by mentioning “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” while discussing rape. Madison accuses Nina of “crying wolf” by making a rape allegation, but she is actually using the wrong allusion. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is about a terrible shepherd who shouts ‘wolf’ anytime he gets bored so all the villagers will pay attention to him. Everyone believes him the first few times he calls out, and each time, he laughs in their faces for being so gullible. The third time however, a real wolf appears, and no one comes to save him. The fundamental difference between these stories is that the Boy is almost always believed while Cassandra is never believed and becomes an outcast for telling the truth. Madison got it wrong, Al was the one who “cried wolf” and everyone believed him.

“It Wasn’t Her Name She Heard”

Cassandra dies at the end of the myth because although she could see the truth, the truth was always working against her. The same happens here, and the film treats Cassie’s death in the most realistic and unflinching way it can. It takes 2.5 minutes for Cassie to die, and the film does not cut away from this brutal scene. We watch her flail as her attacker holds the pillow and his knee on her face. I have seen a lot of death scenes in film, but this might be the most difficult to watch. The whole sequence is absolutely devastating, and I don’t use that word lightly. The film wants us to be upset, and to understand the extent to which every character betrays Cassie after she dies. Her parents assume she has run away. Her boyfriend, knowing she had proof that he witnessed a rape and did nothing, lies, and says he has no idea where she went. Her killers burn her body and Nina’s rapist gets married. The whole marriage ceremony is equally frustrating, as Al refers to his wife as a “moral compass” only hours after murdering a woman. Ryan’s arrival at the wedding is also infuriating, as he knows that the groom and best man did something horrible to Cassie, but he is too afraid to say anything and just wants things to be easy. Cassie knew this would happen, and so she made plans in case she disappeared. The video of Nina’s rape is released by Al’s remorseful lawyer, and the police arrive at the wedding to arrest Al. Juice Newton’s song “Angel in the Morning” plays as a female officer pushes Al away, implying that a new morning has begun. They later find Cassie’s body thanks to Nina’s heart necklace, which doesn’t burn with the rest of Cassie. Nina’s name survives, and that is especially noteworthy given Cassie’s last conversation.

When Cassie confronts Al, she describes how Nina “was fully formed, day one” and always knew who she was. After the rape, “it wasn’t her name she heard”, it was her attackers, which says something about the film’s technique. Names are crucial, especially as Cassie’s subjects never ask nor remember her name. Cassie wears Nina’s name in every scene, even when she drugs Al’s bachelor party. When she leans down, as though giving communion wine to the party, no one pays attention to her necklace nor the name on it. Al doesn’t even ask for Cassie’s name, he just refers to her as dead Nina’s friend. The men also dismiss female bodies, as we never see Nina, and once Al puts a pillow over Cassie, we never see her face again. These attackers reduce women to just their bodies, and thus try to remove their identity and consent. It’s likewise noteworthy that in a film about rape and sexual assault, neither of these words are mentioned. It’s as though the very name of the crime committed has been covered up by men like Al.

“Love, Cassie & Nina”

However, the fact that Nina’s necklace survives suggests that Cassie ultimately restores her and Nina’s identities. We discover that Cassie passes her side of the necklace (the one which Nina once wore) to her only friend, the coffee shop manager, so someone will remember her name and continue to wear it as she once wore Nina’s. Cassie also has the final word, even beyond the grave. Her final text to Ryan, a scheduled message, is signed from Nina and Cassie. Cassie must organize her own justice at the end of the film, as the legal system is so innate and immediately ready to dismiss a missing person’s case. It’s only when Cassie intervenes post-mortem that anything can get done. The film leaves us with this ending and asks us to consider what we can do to change Cassie’s unnecessary death. Promising Young Woman is thus a cautionary film, but not for women. It’s cautionary to the ‘nice guys’ out there, as like Cassie suggests, she is not the only one speaking out and causing trouble for these systems. Her name, and this film, will live on.

*More Information about David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consider_the_Lobster