About three-quarters of the way into Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennel’s brutal treatise on rape culture, I was reminded of another piece of pop culture about which I am passionate: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. In one of my favorite bits of dialogue from the show, Willow, best friend of Buffy, tells a potential suitor, “If you hurt her, I will beat you to death with a shovel. A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend.” For an hour, I’d watched the actress Carey Mulligan, bring to life the vibrant avenging angel, Cassandra, and scorch the earth around which her best friend, Nina, was raped and driven to suicide. Her agony is molten, overflowing and solidifying into cold, calculated rage-filled, inventive vengeance. It is thrilling to watch one woman go to bat so relentlessly for another.
It reminded me of the old adage that there is no passion like that between women who are friends. Romantic love has its place and appeal, sure. But there is nothing like the kinship of women who find in one another refuge and respite from a world that hates women. My bonds with my girlfriends are amongst the strongest in my life. So, watching Cassandra cut a swathe across the layers of patriarchy and hypocrisy that killed her friend felt true to life, for me. Much has been written about the movie’s plot and what it says or fails to say about men and rape culture. But what stood out for me were the moments in which the bond between Cassandra and Nina was brought to life. By the time the events of the movie begin, Nina is dead. We never see her, really, but catch glimpses of her in childhood, in framed pictures and on Cassandra’s PC which serves as a sort of digital shrine. Towards the movie’s final, devastating act, Cassandra sees a video of Nina’s rape. Distraught, she walks to a tree, which is presumably linked to Nina’s memory. At the tree, she is silent in her pain. She whispers something — a prayer, a supplication — the audience isn’t permitted to hear above the background music. She leans into the tree, simultaneously drawing and offering comfort. It is a masterful, heartbreaking scene.
Before this, we watch her fall in love and slowly emerge from her rage and her vengeance quest. She takes tentative steps back into her life, and slowly away from the circumstances of Nina’s tragic death. Ultimately, that doesn’t last. She is violently plunged back into Nina’s and her own pain, and she let’s the rage take her. In the final scene, we see her ex-boyfriend receive a final text from her which she signs ‘Love, Cassandra and Nina’. Cassandra and Nina. Cassandra&Nina. CassandraAndNina, friends since the beginning of their lives, are finally reunited in their deaths, both brought about by the actions of the same man.
As distressing as that ending was, it felt right. When watching Cassandra, one gets the sense that she is only half-alive. She commits acts of cruelty in the name of her friend, never stopping to take stock, or at the very least, a break. She is in a dead-end job, living in her parents’ weirdly baroque home, and coasting through life. In the brief moments she starts to stir, even those small movements she makes towards change feel stilted, like she is reading a script written by someone else. As if she is still a half-girl, playing one who is whole. “I think I’m falling in love with you”, her ex-boyfriend tells her, shortly before it all falls apart. “I think I’m falling in love with you too”, she delivers, flatly and as if on cue. It’s deeply unconvincing so that the scene in which the relationship abruptly ends, partly because of her ex’s role in what happened to Nina, feels more authentic and obvious. Of course, it was never going to work. Cassandra without Nina is not whole.
When we’re growing up, young women are sold this idea of our half-ness, our not-quite-there-ness. We’re told that we need the man, the home and the inevitable children to fill the naturally-occurring holes in our selves. Cassandra’s story made me wonder what happens when we fill those holes not with the trappings of patriarchy, but with fellow half-girls, and women who are almost-human. We know there is something dangerous about a world that tries to paper over supposed cracks and holes with men and babies. So, we latch onto one another instead. We call each other besties, and get matching necklaces on which we engrave each other’s names. We fill the gaps ourselves. We create, from society’s fragments and fractured pieces, whole, real girls.
That is the promise of this dark tale. The patriarchy might be too brutal to resist and it may render you incomplete. But you are not alone in your incompleteness. And you don’t need to seek wholeness in traditional gender roles. You can find it in one another. The aesthetic of the movie is replete with pastels and florals, most of which are on Cassandra’s clothing, on her person and in her hair. It’s almost as if she is clinging to little girlhood, the state in which she was when she found her other half, Nina, and became whole. That is when she last felt alive. Those are the memories of Nina we access, through Cassandra’s photos: We are not shown the video of Nina’s assault, the moment in which she was rended from Cassandra and from life. Instead, we glimpse Nina as a half of a whole girl: CassandraAndNina.
And, in the end, life with Nina is where our heroine returns. To Nina, to wholeness, away from the world that tore them apart, and tore holes into their beings, making them incomplete.