What a Nice Guy: Toxic Masculinity and Trauma in Promising Young Woman
The last few years have featured a wave of female revenge movies, including M.F.A. (2017), Revenge (2017), Hunted (2020), and most recently, Promising Young Woman, directed by Emerald Fennell. All of these, other than Hunted, have female directors. In the age of #MeToo, and at the end of the Trump era, which began with the Women’s March, it’s no surprise that the female revenge subgenre has new life. Cinema reflects the times.
Though Promising Young Woman has elements of suspense, it’s not a horror film. However, it does showcase the nightmare of trauma caused by rape. It also features some of the best examples of toxic masculinity compared to other recent mainstream films. Considering the siege at the Capitol in January and the countless images of young men overtaking Washington, Promising Young Woman is even more relevant for its portrayal of unchecked male privilege and the violence it breeds.
Trauma and Its Effects
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra, a med school drop-out haunted by a traumatic event from her time as a student. It takes a while for the events of the past to come together, but eventually, it’s revealed that her best friend, Nina, was raped. It’s implied that Nina killed herself. Her ghost lingers. Cassandra keeps a childhood picture of her and Nina on her dresser mirror. She also still wears a friendship necklace.
This event dramatically altered Cassandra’s life. Instead of following her plans to become a doctor, she works at a café and lives with her parents, even though she’s 30. She doesn’t date, nor does she trust men. She’s anti-social, and her only real friend is Gail (Laverne Cox), the café owner who practically begs Cassandra to date.
Because of the pain that she harbors over the past, Cassandra spends most of the movie punishing men. Initially, she targets random guys before tracking down everyone responsible for Nina’s rape and subsequent suicide. She tallies all of this in a little black book, featuring hundreds of entries.
But They’re Such Nice Guys
There’s a method to Cassandra’s hunt and prey scenarios. Each night, she goes to a club and acts intoxicated until someone takes her home. The opening minutes feature her nodding and dozing off until a young man, Jerry (Adam Brody), tells the cab driver to take them to his place. Before Jerry saunters over to Cassandra at the club, he and his buddies bemoan changes that have resulted due to the #MeToo Movement. One even gripes that he doesn’t know how to act around women in the workplace anymore. Jerry, however, is different, right? He acts like he just wants Cassandra to get home safely.
Jerry pretends to care about Cassandra’s well-being, telling her to lay down on his bed, but then he kisses her, before sliding off her panties. He’s suddenly interrupted when she winks at the camera and lets Jerry know that she’s not drunk. The wink is a nod to the audience, letting everyone know about her true intentions.
In a following scene, Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), an aspiring novelist, says multiple times that he’s a nice guy, and yet, he pushes Cassandra’s head towards a tray of coke. When she refuses to snort it, he dabs some on his finger and then shoves it into her mouth. Like the scene with Jerry, she fools him and eventually pushes him against the wall, warning him to never act that way with a woman again.
Neil claims to be an understanding, progressive type of man who cares about women. Yet, his actions are repulsive. Not only does he stick his finger in Cassandra’s mouth, but he gropes her thighs. Further, in a bit of well-executed dark comedy, he says that he’s writing a novel about what it’s like to be a man.
Neil’s character is important because even men who claim to be well-intentioned can still act in harmful ways. Neil acts woke, but his actions say otherwise.
The Seemingly Good Guy
The gross men encountered in the first act of the film are countered by Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatrician who knew Cassandra from med school. They reconnect at the café and start dating. Ryan is genuinely interested in her, even after she spits in his coffee. Despite her justified challenges with intimacy, he’s patient with her. Unlike the other men, he never pressures her for sex, and he’s self-effacing.
Unfortunately, however, Cassandra learns that as Nina was raped at the raucous party, Ryan filmed it. Even the seemingly good guy has demons in his closet that Cassandra can’t and shouldn’t look past. During the last act, she spends her time unleashing vengeance upon the men who either raped Nina or assisted in the cover-up.
The reveal that Ryan took part in the rape by filming it leaves the movie without a happy ending for Cassandra, but it also shows how easily toxic masculinity can spread. Ryan says repeatedly that he’s changed, but Cassandra can’t look past his sins, nor should she. The fact he would film the rape and not call the police is abhorrent. Further, there is not a single man in the film who’s worthy of Cassandra’s trust, and their actions justify her skepticism. Even her dad pressures her to date so she’ll eventually find a man and move out. Ultimately, Cassandra enacts her revenge on everyone responsible, but it comes at a steep price. The ending warrants its own discussion.
It’s tough to watch Promising Young Woman and not think of the last few years, be it the #MeToo Movement, the Women’s March, or images of the Capitol insurrection that showed white male violence unleashed. In underscoring toxic masculinity and privilege, Promising Young Woman is a timely take on the female revenge subgenre. The film shows how a traumatic event from the past haunts the present and upends lives.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his fiancé, or curling up on the couch and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.