So Cute When You’re Angry: Promising Young Woman & the Politics of “Cute”

the cute look, Carey Mulligan in all pink
Carey Mulligan looking excessively cute in Promising Young Woman. Screenshot via YouTube, Focus Features/2020

The current era of misogyny did not begin with a former presidential candidate crowing over his habit of grabbing women’s genitals. The misogynist backlash to second wave feminism identified by Susan Faludi thirty years ago has persisted, revitalized over and over again in media and consumer culture. Corporate practices (such as unequal hiring and pay) and state laws (undermining the constitutionality of abortion) rob women of their rights and opportunities and continue to encourage women’s abuse, often without consequence to their privileged male abusers.  

In response, contemporary popular culture and news events have spoken to both symbolic and historic violations of American women, from The Handmaid’s Tale to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation. The latter had the all-too-familiar ending in which the female victim — a successful professional — is ridiculed and disbelieved, and the man is rewarded with the job he always wanted. In the latest example, four elite female gymnasts testified to the Senate about their abuse as young teens by their male physician, whose position was protected by authorities for years. If this isn’t a time for American women to seek justice, when is? 

Challenging our culture’s normalization of women’s sexual assault, writer-director Emerald Fennel’s Promising Young Woman (2020) imagines revenge, if not actual justice. The film presents a scathing attack on the cultural conditions that enable predation by men who commit the crime without consequences. It also implicates viewers in the culture’s attitudes and beliefs, at times placing them in the predator’s voyeuristic position. Through point-of-view shots we watch and fetishize the image of the lovely but damaged Cassie (Carey Mulligan). A former medical student, Cassie now uses herself as bait to lure men into almost raping her, then confronts her would-be attacker, and the viewer, with the sexual crime about to be committed. The film operates as what Fennell calls “a kind of horrifyingly dark comedy”1 about revenge, while including viewers in a culture obsessed with women’s looks, holding them to an infantalizing standard of “Cuteness,” and ignoring or justifying their rape by powerful men. These real world conditions, the film argues, might indeed lead some women to seek justice outside the law.

On Being Cute

Cassie’s story begins seven years after her friend and med school colleague Nina withdrew rape charges against a fellow student and took her own life. Time has stopped for Cassie, who remains tormented by the disregard Nina’s case received from her school and the legal system. Cassie has no friends, as she reminds her parents with whom she still lives, and during the day she works as a barista, having dropped out of med school. 

Now thirty, she works in the coffee shop in fluffy pink sweaters or a snug t-shirt with tiny rosebuds, her blond hair done in pigtails or a single braid, school-girl style. But Cassie has a dual nature. Fennell says, “I wanted Cassie to be a bit of a fly trap . . . .  [The movie is] “supposed to feel like [being in] a candy shop or going on a date with someone you just hit it off with, and suddenly you realize the door’s locked and it’s too late.”

In daytime scenes we see Cassie in clothes, hair, make-up and setting that can only be described as Cute. This look calls to mind the concept developed and satirized by artist Rachel Maclean. Her work explores the creepy combination of the childlike and the sexual in young teens’ looks and fashion, which many women regardless of age strive to emulate. Maclean addresses the influence of social media in shaping women’s self-images, featuring candy colors and furry little animals in the site’s design. Her work speaks to the fetishization of teen girls whose looks and fashions have become the standard of beauty in Western media and society.

The Cute aesthetic identifies Cassie with her youth, before her friend was raped. Her bedroom is a time capsule of middle-class girlhood, featuring photos of Cassie with best friend Nina as kids. While Cassie is at the coffee shop, Fennell’s camera lingers on her youthful look, photographing Mulligan in soft, warm light, a straw plunging playfully in and out of her lips. At this point she encounters Ryan (Bo Burnham), a colleague from med school who recognizes her and is immediately smitten. They begin a tentative relationship.

Dressed to Impress

Cassie’s Cute look in the daytime contrasts with her appearance at night when she goes on the prowl, acting as a lone “drunk” woman to attract a man who invariably assures her he’s a Nice Guy. In a key scene she engages in the labor of creating her look — both sexy and vulnerable — to entrap men. On her laptop we see a candy-colored screen, similar to Maclean’s website, with a woman giving make-up instructions. Cassie painstakingly applies brilliant lip color and deftly smears it on one side; we see the results in her next “drunk” performance. 

Early in the film we’ve seen Cassie, dressed as an inebriated office worker in a bar. As she slumps on a bench, legs splayed apart, a group of men condemn her state (“she’s just asking for it!”) to justify their stares  — the famous “male gaze.” When one of them takes her to his apartment, camera angles (and therefore our perspective) alternate between Cassie’s point of view, looking at the man between her legs, and then the perspective of the would-be rapist, looking back, suddenly caught by a fully-conscious woman (and so are we). Following each confrontation, Cassie enters the man’s name in black or red ink in a notebook, suggesting two outcomes, one perhaps more damaging than the talking-to we see her give two of her targets.  

Cassie pursues her crusade through interviews with people who knew Nina or were involved in her rape case, dressing in innocent pastels (Cute), or plain black skirt and white top (like a contemporary nun) for these conversations. Former friends and colleagues tell Cassie to get over it, let it go; Fennell frames the suffering Cassie in another pink sweater surrounded by blue architectural features — a social media Virgin Mary. Those not quick to admit responsibility for failing Nina are threatened indirectly with physical harm, even the kidnapping of a child, until they confess or apologize. The pay-off for Cassie’s nun-like appearance is when the attorney for Nina’s rapist begs forgiveness on his knees, and she grants it, then cancels the beating he was slated to receive. 

Meanwhile her evening obsession intensifies, with Cassie now dressed and made-up like an aging barfly — fashionable but unhealthy. Her worlds collide when, after she breaks a date with Ryan, he sees her stumble out of a bar with her next target. Ryan, who had appeared to be Cassie’s shot at a “normal” relationship, recoils.

If Looks Could Kill

Cassie nearly begs Ryan to resume the relationship, and the film briefly veers into rom-com territory, with teen tracks and funny, sexy dialogue. But from her interviews Cassie discovers Ryan was at the party where Nina was raped; she also learns Nina’s rapist, Al Monroe, is getting married. Disillusioned with Ryan, Cassie quickly recovers her focus, blackmailing Ryan to learn where Al’s bachelor party will be.

For the party, Cassie selects a “Naughty Nurse” stripper costume, blending the cuteness of a birthday party clown with professional sexuality. By the time Cassie takes Al (Chris Lowell) upstairs, we know the men downstairs — buds from med school days — had all been witnesses to Nina’s harm and humiliation. 

As the “Nurse” playfully handcuffs Al to the bed, she says her name is “Nina Fisher,” which he dismisses: “She’s dead.” The Cute vibe evaporates. Cassie then tells Al — and us — what Nina meant to her as a beloved friend since childhood. Taunting him with what she knows about Nina’s rape and the physical damage Cassie intends to do to the handcuffed assailant, she is stopped that night in a sequence both horrific and weirdly funny as Al struggles with one free hand (the other still in a pink handcuff) and ultimately succeeds in silencing her forever.

As she had all along, Cassie arranged her own victimization to trap her predator, and a different revenge unfolds at Al’s wedding when he is, finally, arrested. Nina’s rape is avenged, perhaps, and Cassie has been released from the trauma that forced a woman once at the top of her class to live in the half-life of her youth. We may wonder, however, whether the privileged white perpetrator — as in so many recent cases — will ever face real justice.

The Limits of Revenge 

If Promising Young Woman is the darkest of comedies about a woman’s need for revenge, it also shows that revenge is a desperate substitute for justice, which can never be fully satisfied in our systemically misogynist society. Critic Yasmin Omar argues director Fennell “takes a crowbar to all the pop feminism of the modern age. . . to reveal its ideological emptiness, capitalist profiting in pastel pink clothing.” 

The Cute aesthetic in contemporary media is pervasive, even when a film boasts a feminist revenge theme, as with the recent Birds of Prey (note Harley Quinn’s pastel pigtails). Watching Cassie’s twisted quest for revenge, we are sympathetic but also complicit in the culture and industry that disempower women, reducing them to easily victimized girls. The film’s visual world expresses Cassie’s regression due to her grief, but also the culture’s determination to keep her quiet, powerless, cute, and the audience takes pleasure in these images. In the film’s conclusion, we deserve what we get.

(1)   All quotations by Emerald Fennell are taken from untitled Bonus features in Promising Young Woman DVD. 2021, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

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