Sexual Violence Against Women And The Trope Of The Nice Guy In Promising Young Woman (2020)￼
“They put themselves in danger, girls like that. If she’s not careful someone’s gonna take advantage”.
This perfectly encapsulates the main criticism of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020). The line taken from the opening scene of the film serves as a reminder of the kind of violence women are objected to on a daily basis and how patriarchal systems of power have continuously blamed women for it.
The Oscar-nominated movie Promising Young Woman is a dark comedy thriller starring Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, a young woman who seeks revenge against the people who were involved in the sexual assault of her best friend.
The first and most important scene of the film manages to tackle sexual violence against women while also encompassing and criticising the trope of the ‘nice guy’, which most women have come across at least once in their life. The ‘nice guy’ used to be portrayed as simply a guy whose main quality is being too nice which is why he is rarely seen with a girlfriend, as women apparently only seem to be interested in ‘bad guys’.
However, through more feminist discourse entering mainstream media, it has become evident that this trope is rooted in misogynistic ideas of kindness. Men’s niceness does not come from a place of genuine emotion but it is rather a performance for which they expect to be rewarded for, often in form of a sexual act. The most troubling aspect of this trope is that the nice guy truly believes he is a nice guy, faulting women for their bad choices while simultaneously reiterating the same toxic male behaviour he so often criticises and distances himself from.
In the opening scene of Promising Young Woman, nice guy Jerry can be seen helping out an almost passed out Cassie, offering to take her home as a true ‘gentleman’ would do. However, it becomes increasingly clear that his intentions are the complete opposite as he brings her to his place instead. While making her a drink, he starts complaining about his other friends, who according to him are the real misogynists, even apologising for their sexist behaviour at the club.
This detachment is precisely how he is able to maintain his performance as a nice guy and in his mind, he is now seemingly deserving of sex. However, the film makes it extremely clear that his nice-guy persona is nothing but an act, as the camera depicts Jerry forcing himself onto what he believes to be a highly intoxicated and barely responsive woman.
The most memorable moment of the entire movie happens in this scene as it is revealed to Jerry and the audience that Cassie had been feigning her drunkenness this entire time. To his shock, she utters the words “what are you doing”, cueing the opening credits and giving audiences a taste of what is about to come.
The trope of the nice guy is revisited on several occasions through the character of Ryan Cooper, Cassie’s main love interest. Throughout Promising Young Woman, he appears to be the true exception to the trope, an actual nice guy. He respects her boundaries and does not force himself on her without her consent and although this is the bare minimum, Cassie still sees him as ‘one of the good ones. His behaviour is framed as genuine, encouraging the viewer to root for the two, finally seeing Cassie in love with someone who treats her right.
However, this picture-perfect love story comes to an abrupt end once Cassie realises that Ryan contributed to what happened to her best friend. She manages to find the video of the man who raped her best friend, Al Monroe, and to the audience’s dismay, Ryan is in it, simply observing the assault without intervening.
Once confronted, he tries to detach himself from Al and his other friends, claiming that he was just a kid who “didn’t even do anything”. He attempts to emotionally connect with Cassie by saying that he loves her and asking for her forgiveness, which demonstrates just how desperately he is holding on to this false image of a nice guy who could never do any harm to a woman.
This mirrors society’s ideas of who the main perpetrators are when it comes to sexual violence against women. Although only one man sexually assaulted Cassie’s best friend, several others watched it happen without intervening, therefore, being accomplices to the violent act. Men’s silence and lack of action in these situations are what allow other men to assault and harass women every day. They are only capable of blaming others instead of acknowledging how their own behaviour as bystanders inevitably influences rape culture.
In the film, Ryan’s nice-guy persona ultimately crumbles when Cassie does not allow him to emotionally manipulate her anymore. In a slight moment of genuine rage, he calls her a “fucking failure” after which she takes off, leaving him to deal with what he has done or moreover, what he should have done.
Promising Young Woman can leave audiences feeling somewhat ambivalent
The ending of Promising Young Woman can leave audiences feeling somewhat ambivalent. While Al gets arrested for Cassie’s murder, everyone else involved in the rape of her best friend gets away with it, free to live their lives without any further consequences. It is only in Cassie’s death that she is able to find peace knowing Al will go to prison, highlighting that it took several women’s deaths and assaults in order for some form of justice to be served.
Furthermore, the police were essential of no help to neither Cassie nor her best friend, needing someone to do the work for them. This aspect of Promising Young Woman, like many others, reflects a significant issue within police departments, and it criticises the same system which is supposed to protect women. Many sexual assaults or other forms of sexual violence against women are rarely reported to the police and those that do are often met with disbelief. Just like Cassie’s best friend, women’s experiences are either dismissed completely or they are blamed for putting themselves in a dangerous situation.
While the movie allows for some form of catharsis as Al is arrested, it still acknowledges the realities of this patriarchal society through its protagonist’s death, illustrating the extent this young woman had to go through in order to prove that an injustice had occurred in the first place.