Decent Guys and Soft Coercion in ‘Promising Young Woman’

The film Promising Young Woman shows how the world will default to protect the next best man rather than provide justice for her.

  • September 20, 2021
  • 5 min read
Decent Guys and Soft Coercion in ‘Promising Young Woman’

My sister had hounded me for months to watch Promising Young Woman, and when I finally did, it fuelled me with anger, disappointment, disgust, and, afterwards, self-reflection. 

The trailer featured a man’s voice screaming in panic, “It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that!” It was followed by a sinister woman’s voice, “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” 



Watching the trailer, I initially thought that more women would be lining up for tickets, though it should be men who need to sit in and learn from it. However, after watching the film and subsequently binge-reading and listening to every interview related to it, I realised that this film should be seen by everyone. 

The subject matter may be deeply triggering so before I discuss further, here is a trigger warning and a spoiler alert. 

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As the film opens, Cassandra is in a club apparently helplessly drunkenly. Men remarking her behaviour as asking for it. A seemingly nice guy from the group offers to escort her home. On the way, he instructs the driver to head to his place instead. He hands her a drink and starts kissing her. She doesn’t move. He puts her down on his bed and continues to kiss her. She asks what he’s doing. He tells her it’s okay. She asks again. He tells her it’s okay. Finally, she sits up, completely sober and alert, looks him in the eye, and asks him what he’s doing, his eyes grow horrified.

In another scene, a man is softly pushing seemingly drunk Cassandra to sleep with him when all she wants is to go home. He even goes as far as placing drugs in her mouth because she has declined to snort the lines he has made. He says he feels a connection with her, but he can’t even remember her name. 

In an interview the film’s writer and director Emerald Fennell says, “…they (the audience) haven’t thought about that kind of soft coercion that we often see.” 

Many men somehow believe that they can counter a women’s refusal for sex by reassuring that she’ll be okay after going through with it. Women, on the other hand, often feel obliged to follow along because the man is being very gentle in his persistence, something that may change if he’s rejected.  

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We cannot deny that many people, including women, respond with indifference to issues regarding harassment and assault. In the film, Cassandra sets out to avenge the death of her best friend, Nina, who was raped by her med school  classmate Al. Nina committed suicide after her case was denied by the university and the authorities. Before Cassandra goes for Al, however, she visits the women who have disappointed her to make a point of how they had destroyed her best friend with their indifference. 

Emerald Fennell said that the film isn’t a polemic against men, but a criticism of a culture that tends to side with men more than it does with the women victims. The entire scene with the Dean, who earlier dismissed Nina’s accusation as well as that of many other female students’,  enraged me. Here is a woman in a position of power, who could’ve used her influence to stand up for multiple abused promising young women, but chose instead to protect the promising young men. 

Indeed, before her tragedy Nina was top of her class in medical school, more promising than her attacker.  She embodies the title character, the promising young woman who society values less  than the man sitting in second place. Even when it comes to a woman with greater promise, the world will default to protect the next best man rather than provide justice for her.  This film, though fiction, is based on a too-familiar reality. 

The movie’s casting of Hollywood’s nice guys was a stroke of brilliance. The male actors in this film are notable for their portrayals of good-hearted nice guys on multiple television shows. To see them in this light, as outwardly-decent-turned-terrible characters, both destabilised audiences, while at the same time emphasizing the argument that anyone can be a predator, date rapist, or abuser.

I believe everyone should see this film. The visuals are stunning; grungy and innocent at the same time. The performances are excellent. The story is incredibly compelling. Fennell deserves her Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. There is truly something to be taken away from this film, whether you are a man or a woman, a friend or a parent. At its core, ‘Promising Young Woman’ is a comedy that isn’t afraid to go there. Uncomfortable? Yes. Teachable? Undoubtedly. Must-watch? Absolutely.  

About Author

Livia Kriwangko

Livia is rediscovering her love for the written word. This time, more empowered than ever to write, and speak, about topics that fuel her heart to such passion. She also co-hosts @ChindoTeaPod, a light-hearted tea-spilling podcast from the eyes of two young Chinese-Indonesian women.

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