‘Promising Young Woman’ and male mediocrity

May 11, 2021, 9:46 p.m.

This article contains mentions of sexual assault that may be troubling to some readers.

In April, I watched as many Oscar-nominated films as I could. One of them was “Promising Young Woman” (dir. Emerald Fennell, 2020). For the sake of brevity, I’ll try to keep my praise to a minimum, but “Promising Young Woman” stole my heart and invaded my mind. Emerald Fennell delved into rape culture as she told the story of her main character, Cassie, trying to avenge the rape of her best friend Nina seven years after the fact. The film removed its viewers’ rose-colored glasses as they watched a world that looked, well, rose-colored. 

Cassie’s attire — her youthful and pastel-colored outfits in the daytime as she works at a local coffee shop and her tight and scandalous clothes in the nighttime as she pretends to be drunk and helpless to lure in predatory men — is subtle commentary on how although she is the same woman at all times, “one” is deemed more deserving than the “other” by society. Fennell’s choice to cast lovable male actors such as Bo Burnham and Max Greenfield to be these men who are both complicit and explicit parts of rape culture is an impeccable way of showing that no man is exempt. Fennell reveals the ugly truth that lies in every one of us: We are so eager to forgive these men, and so hesitant to help these women until it’s too late.

At the end of the day, though, I am a prospective film student, so I had my qualms. My main issue is with the ending. Spoiler alert: Alexander (Nina’s rapist) murders Cassie while she tries to brand him with Nina’s name. Though dead, Cassie remained one thousand steps ahead, and manages to get Alexander arrested — not for the rape of Nina, though, but for Cassie’s murder. I thought to myself: There’s no way the film’s painting this to be a #GirlBoss move, right? It’s depressing. Yes, he’s facing consequences, but not for rape. Never for rape. 

Despite this, I still loved the film and was rooting for it to walk away with at least one Oscar, and sure enough Emerald Fennell got a shiny gold trophy for best original screenplay. Yet, I found myself isolated in my praise and love for this film. The internet was riddled with critique after critique, and while plenty of it was valid, most was blown out of proportion. Before I even watched the film, I thought that Emerald Fennell had dragged the concept of feminism through the mud — I walked in expecting to be terribly offended, and I left feeling nothing of the sort.

This was Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut and her first time writing a feature film. Not to mention, she filmed all of this while pregnant and gave birth to her son only three weeks after wrapping! Meanwhile, “Mank” (dir. David Fincher, 2020) — confusing, jumbled and arguably boring — also had many Oscar nominations while being probably one of Fincher’s worst films. Yet, his directorial debut was almost three decades ago — where is his backlash? Answer: It’s nowhere to be found because men are allowed to experiment, make mistakes or have an off day, yet women have to be perfect the first time around. 

What we’ve stumbled upon here is your standard case of double standards, only amplify it by one thousand. We constantly praise male mediocrity, yet crucify women for daring to try. This phenomenon is not exclusive to film; it spans across art forms. Take the rapper Saweetie, for example. She is said to only be famous because of her looks since her songs aren’t anything special, yet DaBaby’s entire discography sounds more or less the same. H.E.R is said to be an industry plant, yet no one questions where the hell Travis Scott came from. And, though it pains me to say, Rupi Kaur is bashed for her (truly) mediocre poems, but Atticus has remained unscathed compared to her. 

Ijeoma Oluo talks about this concept in her book “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.” She hones in on the concept of white male mediocrity, defining it as “this idea that white men deserve political power and wealth and safety and security just because they’re white men.” I expand this belief to all men (though white men do gain the most since they lie at this apex of privilege between manhood and whiteness): Because men are men, they are given the benefit of the doubt. They’re allowed to have flubs. Even more so, their mediocrity is deemed as amazing, whilst women’s mediocrity can make or break their reputations and careers. 

I’m not saying that women are above criticism, far from it. But when men become household names through continuous mediocrity while women are too scared to jump in because their novelty is villainized, then we have a problem. It’s ironic, because “Promising Young Woman” was pleading for us to realize how men’s successes are built on the silencing of women and we are doing just that, only on a smaller scale. 

All of this is to say that I can’t recommend “Promising Young Woman” enough. And you don’t have to love it at all, or any content purely because it’s created by a woman for that matter. What I will say, though, is we have to be more critical of ourselves and approach our opinions towards women with much more nuance than we have been. Misogyny infiltrates every fold of our minds; we have to stop pretending that our opinions exist in a vacuum. 

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