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Bonnie Honig on “Promising Young Woman” *(warning: spoilers)

24th April 2021

Originally posted by Bonnie Honig on 4/22/21 on

Promising Young Woman tells the story of Cassie, whose best friend Nina was raped by some of their classmates while the two women were in medical school together. Nina was top of their med school class, the smartest of them all, Cassie recalls. After the violence, however, Nina never recovers and, in the end, she commits suicide. Cassie has to go on living without her other half. She struggles to do so.

The phrase “promising young man” is familiar, but it surfaced famously in 2016 at the sentencing of Brock Turner. A member of the swim team at Stanford, Turner was found guilty of forcing himself on an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus but this did not dim his ‘promise’ in the eyes of the judge who gave him a light sentence. A film about rape and its casualties, Promising Young Woman claims the familiar phrase for women, but Cassie is not just a young woman with promise. She is a young woman who promises, every day of her life, to refuse to let go of her friend Nina. It is in this sense of sororal fidelity that Cassie is a promising, constantly promising and never forgetting, young woman.

Promising Young Woman
“Promising Young Woman” directed by Emerald Fennell

The film has been called a revenge fantasy (as in Carmen Maria Machado’s excellent review in The New Yorker), but it is also a pedagogy fantasy, one rooted in a critique of pedagogy as it is currently practiced and offering others in its place. Through what happened to Nina, we learn how the school of hard knocks invariably knocks harder on some bodies than others. We see how a medical school that claims to educate may in fact only credential, promoting uncaring men and burying their casualties (women, ethics) And we see how rape is used to teach a woman who outshines everyone that she should shine a bit less; or not at all.

Against these actually existing pedagogies, Cassie develops a new one. She drops out of medical school, moves back in with her parents, and sets out to change the world, one man at a time. Night after night, in a bar or in the street, she pretends to be inebriated and some man sees an opportunity. He takes her home, and sets out to have sex with her, though she is clearly incapable of consent. As he makes his move, thinking nothing stands in his way, her eyes suddenly come into focus and she is alert. This shocks the man who thought he was in control of the situation. He is not in control of the situation.

When Cassie suddenly, soberly and powerfully, addresses the man of the night, he is shocked by her transformation from doll-like floppiness to the rigor of liveness. Men with sex dolls probably fantasize that they would be delighted by such a transformation from doll to real woman. Promising Young Woman shows how untrue that is: their real fantasy is that the woman never wakes up. They just want to play with their doll. Indeed, the weird charm of Ray Romano’s character in HBO’s current series, Made for Love, is his willingness to own his commitment to the life-sized doll he takes with him everywhere. Weird, right? Everyone in town calls him a “perv” but he, unlike his son-in-law, is not twisting a live woman into the shape of his desire.

That real women are not “made for love,” and are definitely not a man’s dolls to play with, but people with agency that limits what others can do with or to them — can this be taught? In Promising Young Woman Cassie’s wager is: yes. She teaches these things through fear, the same affect upon which Hobbes’ social contract relies, to counter men’s sense of impunity and to pull them, kicking and screaming if necessary, out of the state of nature. Perhaps not all of them, but enough of them, anyway, to underwrite the stability of social order. Cassie’s pedagogical practice aims to do something similar: to turn the expectation of male impunity from a default into a risky, uncertain calculation.

Cassie’s parents may also desire a doll. The suggestion is there in the gift they give their daughter for her 30th birthday: a candy pink suitcase. It is a pedagogical gift. But what is its lesson? Is it to pack up and move out of their home, as Cassie and her boss at the coffee shop, played by Laverne Cox, seem to think? Is it to put her troubles into so she can “move on” in some more figurative sense? Everyone has baggage, you can almost hear her distraught parents say; so now you have too. But a suitcase is not just for travel or containment. It is also a ventriloquist’s device. Edgar Bergen’s act began with him taking his dummy, Charlie, out of a suitcase. Charlie was floppy too. Every night, it was the same with Edgar and Charlie, as familiar and fraught as a long-married couple. Nothing to see here: just a man and his doll.

Cassie seems to be spinning her wheels in a world that demands progress. But Cassie herself might think, for a while, anyway, that she is making progress. She wants the social / sexual contract to be renegotiated. And, night after night, she renegotiates it, one stare at a time, as she looks directly into the eyes of a man bent on no good. It is like trying to change the country one step at a time. That important; that impossible.

What almost breaks Cassie’s pattern, and then accelerates it, is a good man named Ryan. Ryan does not act entitled; he acts besotted. But he is entangled in the same mess that grips her. He, too, was at medical school and, as she later finds out, he was in some way complicit in the violence against Nina. The larger point of the film is that even good men are entangled in misogynist violence. Really, though, the point is that even good men are not that good. (Tellingly, Ryan is an anagram for nary, as in: nary a good man to be found.)

Depicting the couple’s romance, Promising Young Woman flirts with the structure of what Stanley Cavell calls “comedies of remarriage.” It drops the comedy, but not the pedagogy that Cavell attributes to the genre, in which he sees a “process of self-discovery and self-knowledge that comes with developing, committing, and recommitting to a relationship with another person who isn’t you.” No dolls allowed, we might say, though doll is a term routinely used by men to refer to women in the films Cavell studies. In any case, remarriage requires accepting each other’s flaws. If the couple reunites, Cavell says, that is because the parties prefer above all to be known by one another; they desire to be together because they have been together. There is a happy acceptance, if not quite resignation, in Cavell’s genre, but not necessarily an accounting or a reckoning. Does love make that unnecessary? Cassie and Ryan break up when he sees her one night, acting drunk, clinging to a man she does not know. But they get back together, in a pharmacy, where we glimpse a future in which he can be the doctor and she, the med school dropout, the nurse. (Indeed, she will assume the role of nurse for her final act.) Neither one questions why a woman so promising would play nurse-helper to a man-doctor, when she could be a doctor too.

When Ryan and Cassie fall back in love, Cassie does not share with Ryan her dark pedagogical pastime, around which she may have for the moment arranged for herself an underachieving life, and Ryan never shares his guilty secrets with her. Their delight in each other distracts them from their burdens, rather than allowing them to unburden themselves with each other. This, I would argue, is what makes theirs a uniquely American script of remarriage, if it is to be a remarriage script at all: it is built on amnesia, evasion, and denial, which are, notably, the pivotal plot devices of several recent comedies of remarriage from 50 First Dates to Palm Springs.

In Cavell’s comedies of remarriage, the man is the tutor, he says, and the woman his tutee. In Promising Young Woman, though, Cassie takes the role of tutor for herself. This is how we know her pedagogical practice belongs to a genre of refusal, not remarriage. But refusal is not easy. She gives it up for a while. In her relationship with Ryan, the norm of cinematic remarriage reasserts itself. Ryan becomes her tutor, she learns to trust and love, and we find ourselves reverting to the norm too. Maybe she will find happiness after all? Even Nina’s stricken mother has urged Cassie in this direction and for a while, with this permission, and seeing Ryan’s seeming goodness, we root for Cassie to pursue her happiness. What a relief it would be, to see her relieved of her terrible duty.

Pursuits of Happiness is the title of Cavell’s book on comedies of remarriage. His next cinema book offers up a different genre which he calls “the Hollywood melodrama of the unknown woman.” He is forced to the second genre by confronting the remainders of the first, those films of the period in which the lure of being known does not in fact reel a woman back in to the couple form. Is this then the genre to which Promising Young Woman belongs? Not quite. The issue for Cassie is not that she prefers to remain unknown. She craves to be known, to be loved, to be cherished. The issue is that all the models of knownness betray her. She must not show how much she cares, how deep is the loss, how keen the pain. The world demands a certain feigned indestructibility in women to match the impunity of men. Nothing happened; it’s OK. That pairing of female toughness and male impunity is the secret sauce of the comedies of remarriage. But it is the muck in which Cassie is mired.

At the end of the film, Cassie exacts a post-mortem reckoning that disturbs Ryan but he won’t need a new suitcase to pack it all away; his old ones will do just fine. Predictably, when the police finally arrive, it is not for him. Machado calls the arrival of law enforcement “the one place that the film truly falters, with its suggestion that the police and the legal system are likely mechanisms for a rape victim to find real justice.” I disagree. The message is one guy might go to jail, but his collaborators, like Ryan, will not. And, in the world of the film, no one will have learned anything.

But what about in our world? I have called Cassie’s nightly prowling a pedagogical practice, but it is not just that. It is also a traumatic repetition in which Cassie wishfully enacts what she wishes Nina had been able to do: to wake up and save herself. But there is pedagogy here all the same. Cassie’s steadfast, exacting, rigorous, fidelity to Nina is a passionate attachment, call it sorority, for which we have yet to invent a genre. Men have bromance. All we have is a young woman’s promise, every day, again and again, to refuse to let her friend be a casualty. The promising young woman at the film’s center is a woman who promises, every day again and again not, as in Cavell, to (re-)commit to her marriage but to stay steadfast to her friend. Her promising is a daily necessity because the world tries daily to attenuate it. Move on. Get over it. It is sad, but what can you do? Cassie’s promising refuses to assent to a world in which women are dumped on the bonfires of male vanities.

In his reading of Hollywood comedies of remarriage, Cavell says these seemingly fluffy films are not just fairy tales but “spiritual parables.” Promising Young Woman undoes some of their damage. Those who read this film as revenge fantasy reduce it to a fairy tale and occlude its pedagogical power. In this possibly fluffy film, we may find a parable for those of us tempted, every day, to promise each other something better than the social / sexual contract with which we have long made do.

Bonnie Honig is author of Shellshocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump (Fordham) and A Feminist Theory of Refusal (Harvard).