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Female Rage meets “The Nice Guy”

by Denis Zhou


Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (2020)

“A young woman, traumatised by a tragic event in her past, seeks out vengeance against those who crossed her path.” That is the preamble for Promising Young Woman (2020) on IMDb.

Some might assume this is going to be a Kill Bill-esque flick in which a female assassin is out on a path of vengeance to destroy those who did her wrong, so those hoping for gore and extensive fight choreography might be dismayed that this is not exactly the case.

What is apparent though, are the epistemic injustice of sexual assault and boundaries of consent being key topics explored in the film. Does a woman who gets raped while intoxicated have to bear partial blame because she put herself in a compromising position?

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (2020)

Despite the Times Up and #MeToo movements dominating public conversation over recent years, one will be surprised that there are still people who believe that should be the case. No wonder Cassie, played by the brilliant Carey Mulligan and the “Promising Young Woman” of the film, is very angry.

Quiet rage almost seethes through her euphonious voice. Her pastel clothing and all-American girl hairdo meticulously hide away personal demons and a clockwork mind used to ensnare self-believing nice men who are in for a rude awakening.

Emerald Fennell, the writer and director, trots out the “nice guy” trope in the form of several men within the film, out of whom is most effectively embodied by Bo Burnham. She slyly utilises his “aw-shucks” real-life persona to its fullest effect (watch him lip-sync and dance to Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars Are Blind with Cassie’) before tearing it to shreds towards the end and leaving the audience with whiplash.

Promising Young Woman sends the message that nice men are more than likely to come from the same mold as the perceived bad and villainous guys. “But in a different packaging.” as one friend puts it.

Suffice to say from history and recent news, society has a tendency to forgive or even doubt these men’s capabilities to perform such transgressions as compared to, let’s say, believing a woman who has been sexually assaulted. Perhaps the phrase “potential to excel in life” rings a bell?

Elliot Page in Hard Candy (2005)

Also channeling her rage into vigilantism but in more extreme forms is Hayley Stark (Elliot Page) from Hard Candy (2005). Not unlike Cassie, Hayley entraps a man she believes to be a pedophile who might have kidnapped a local girl who remains missing. During her tête-à-tête with Jeff (Patrick Wilson), she unleashes her fury at him through mind games and physical torture, toying him around like a laboratory rat.

At first glance, both Hayley and Cassie are very similar in these aspects; highly intelligent, singular-minded young women driven to mete out justice on behalf of others. But one remains more of an enigma towards the end, her true motivations and purpose suggest ambiguity. The film also critiques the nice man persona, as Hayley snidely shoots back when Jeff tries to defend himself by listing the philanthropic aspects of his work, “so what, you love nature thus you must be a nice guy?”.

Although both films have in place very different endings for their heroines, they do emphasise one identical point about men who claim to be nice and good when confronted with wrongdoings. “You keep saying that, but you are not as rare as you think.”

Check out the trailer for Promising Young Woman here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7i5kiFDunk8

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