But in Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) doesn’t want to just get back at the men who assaulted her best friend or facilitated the assault—she also goes after the women who accepted their behavior as “boys just being boys.”
I grew up in a world where, in movies, it was normal to see men getting girls drunk to sleep with them or girls waking up not knowing what has happened the night before and going on a “walk of shame.” It was just part of the culture. It was always troubling to me, but now that I’m older I’ve become much more aware of how it was totally normalized on screen. Boys were completely protected, and the girls were just expected to shut up or laugh it off.
I’ve always been interested in why good people do bad things and what happens when people who think they’re good realize they’re bad. It’s kind of what Cassie is out to prove. Her journey is much more troubling, in many ways, from the traditional violent revenge genre. She’s confronting the people in her life with the worst thing, which is waking up thinking they’re good and they’re not. They’re actually really bad—and she’s going to show them why. That’s horrifying.
There are very few women who don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the kind of predatory behavior we see in the movie; all women sadly are acquainted with it to some degree. I felt very strongly with this film that if women are complicit in this sort of thing—like Alison Brie’s character, Madison—then it is very much by force. In order to protect themselves, women have often had to “be one of the guys.” In other words, diminish other people’s pain because they had to diminish theirs. I think Madison’s callousness is probably the result of a lot of learned behavior and survival tactics on her part.
I wrote Promising Young Woman before #MeToo. There’s still a long way to go, but it was such a relief to so many of us that the movement finally started shining a light on what was really going on. Anyone who’s lived in a woman’s body for more than five minutes knows you experience the world in a different way. My friends and I have been talking about that for a long, long time.
Which is why I want Promising Young Woman to ask more questions than it answers. I would never want to tell people what to think or how to experience the film, because this stuff is so personal. I just wanted to make something that felt true to me.
Emerald Fennell is a Golden Globe and Emmy nominated writer, director, actress and author. In addition to Promising Young Woman, she can currently be seen as Camilla Parker Bowles in the fourth season of The Crown.