When Gone Girl came out in 2012, audiences everywhere were mesmerized by Amy Dunne’s “cool girl” monologue. The protagonist of Gone Girl described the woman men love and women strive to be: an effortless embodiment of contradiction. Amy’s character is one we rarely see in films—a woman with unbridled rage. Movies such as Thelma & Louise, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the new release Promising Young Woman showcase the lengths female characters will go to avenge men. Viewers cannot help but beg the question: are these characters the hero or the villain? This is a reflection of how female rage and anger is viewed in American society. And, while this character trope is limited in films, with the release of Promising Young Woman, we are seeing the perceptions of these characters are changing.
In 2018, researchers Antonia Strazynska and Magedelena Budzisewska from the University of Warsaw analyzed revenge narratives in American films in a research paper titled “Why Shouldn’t She Spit on His Grave?” They studied how gender-orientated narratives of anger and rage in sixty popular films affect the perceptions of these emotions pertaining to the gender exhibiting them. Their research revealed that men in films typically express anger in physical ways, whereas women express this emotion through manipulation and cold-hearted calculation. Female characters are viewed in a much more negative light than male characters that resort to violence in order to get even. Men portrayed in films resort to aggression as a result of a corrupt or unjust system—Gladiator, The Count of Monte Cristo, Man on Fire. Conversely, revenge from female protagonists in films is usually illustrated as a result of personal trauma and personal vengeance rather than an attempt to fix the systems that continue to oppress women.
This shows us that Hollywood’s portrayal of female rage is a reflection of socialized views of expectations for women. Male and female protagonists that are aggressive and seek revenge are different in the sense that male protagonists’ motivations are fueled by rationality, action and for the greater good of the people. However, female protagonists’ motivations are portrayed as coming from emotion, passivity and for personal, seemingly selfish, reasons. Masculine aggression, on the other hand, is viewed as a rational reaction in order to restore justice. Women are not “allowed” to express emotions such as anger and rage, because such emotions are perceived to contradict the view of women being naturally nurturing.
Promising Young Woman provides a refreshing narrative of female revenge. Unlike other portrayals, the protagonist, Cassie,played by Carey Mulligan, seeks retribution for her friend, Nina,a victim of sexual assault who received no justice. Cassie’s sole mission in life is to target men that plan to take advantage of her and engage in non-consensual acts. Her goal is to take what happened to Nina—a “promising young woman”—and ensure it will not happen to others. This unique take on a typical femme-fatale proves successful at both engaging audiences and changing an outdated film stereotype. There is a fantastical sense to the film—Cassie’s obsession with avenging her friend, the cheerful spirit of her revenge and the film’s pastel color theme. This even leaves viewers wondering whether Cassie’s revenge is clever and should be celebrated, or if it hints at a deeper mental illness and fascination with revenge. Again, questions we would not be asking if the protagonist were male.
Since the films’ release, many audiences have questioned the movie’s premise of rape culture, calling it “counterproductive.” However, this further shows that audiences have a hard time grappling with a female protagonist acting for her own motivations rather than for the greater good. What makes the revenge in Promising Young Woman unique is that it is not done necessarily to undo wrongdoing or with the conclusion of violence. Rather, Cassie’s victims are required to reevaluate themselves after they have been caught in her honey-trap. Her victims try to implore that they really are “good guys.” This makes the film successful at dismantling another trope in films: the nice guy.
The “nice guy” is a likable protagonist, usually with an objectively good moral compass. This character is typically viewed as innocent, sensitive and even romantic. All the men that pick up Cassie at local bars claim they are “helping the drunk girl.” Cassie’s character, and the movie in general, illustrate that even nice guys fall victim to engaging in socialized behaviors of toxic masculinity. Ryan’s character, played by Bo Burnham, is the epitome of the nice guy—he has had a crush on Cassie since they were in medical school together. However, as the film goes on (spoiler alert) we find out that Ryan — the supposed nice guy — was a bystander to Nina’s rape. Not only was he a bystander, but he begs Cassie to not release the video as it would hurt his own reputation. We are reminded that a man’s reputation and power are more respected and revered than a woman’s pain and suffering.
Promising Young Woman promises a new take on outdated narratives and surprises us with each of Cassie’s calculated revenge plots. Cassie is a creature of the night with a motivation to avenge any and all men that do her wrong. With a soundtrack including an all-string rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and a color scheme reminiscent of the 80s, Promising Young Woman is simultaneously enthralling, unpredictable and dark. The movie’s ending left me uneasy as I realized the extent of Cassie’s success at seeking retribution and getting Nina’s sexual assaulter arrested, although it was at the expense of her own life. This self-sacrifice, so to speak, makes the audience question what Cassie intended the outcome of her endeavors to be the whole time.