Variety Apologizes for Gender Bias in Review of Promising Young Woman

Article by Moira Sullivan
Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo

Copy Edited and Posted by Iliana Cosme-Brooks

This article is part of a double feature on Promising Young Woman. Check out our review of the film.

Promising Young Woman, for which writer/director Emerald Fennell recently won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award, uses the script’s black humor and film style to deliver a biting critique of date rape and violence against women. Fennell’s artistry is brilliant, and she has created a potent polemic with an outstanding female archetype personified through the performance of Carey Mulligan. It is an important addition that expands the rape-revenge film genre, and it will hopefully inspire other filmmakers to take on similarly difficult yet vital topics. The film is a cinematic maze of imagery and sound that weaves through and connects with the depths of the art of deception involved in date rape. Promising Young Woman notes that date rape is violence against women that transpires through silence, concealment, and bullying, as well as a legal system that legitimizes sexual assault.

A still from Promising Young Woman where the main character sits alone in a dark club in work clothes.
Carey Mulligan as Cassie in Promising Young Woman.

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is a young woman who never seemed to get noticed at med school but seven years later has become a sophisticated femme fatale. Her friend, Nina Fischer, was drugged and raped in a dorm room seven years ago. The top of her class at med school, Cassie dropped out and was forever changed; she dropped out to take care of Nina. Seeking revenge, Cassie decided to weaponize herself with makeup and costumes, pretending she is drunk and targeting “nice guys” at bars.

 In the end, donned in a white nurse’s outfit with red trim and a matching medical kit, Cassie pretends to be a stripper at Nina’s rapist’s bachelor party held at a hunting lodge, complete with animal heads mounted on the wall. This last part is disturbing and brutal compared to the preceding four parts of Cassie’s revenge and investigation of the systemic disease that allows rape to go unpunished.

At the January 2020 sneak preview for the film at Sundance there was a shouting match between two spectators, unknown to each other, and one of them asked the other to leave if they didn’t like the film. Emerald Fennell commented on this incident at Sundance in Variety: “That’s not what you necessarily want from your first test screening,.” Dennis Harvey, a white 60-year-old, gay Variety reporter sat in the audience too. In his review he attacked Cassie’s costume and makeup in the film. He complained that her appearance didn’t represent for him the artifice of a “femme fatale” that is typical in mainstream cinema. He wondered if her role was meant for executive producer Margot Robbie. “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale—Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her.” He describes “the moves” made by nice guys intending date rape as “getting frisky,” even though Cassie is pretending to be too drunk to consent to a sexual encounter.

Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell, along with others, stand on the set of Promising Young Woman. It looks like they are standing outside of a business on what must be a cold evening, since almost all of them are wearing puffy coats.
Behind the scenes of Promising Young Woman.

Promising Young Woman opened on VOD December 25. When asked in an New York Times interview if any review stuck out to her about the film’s release in the past year, Carey Mulligan referred to the Variety review. This article was, in fact, an interview about acting and roles created for women today. She noted that it is common in scripts to describe a female character with clichés such as, “beautiful but doesn’t know it.” In her diversified oeuvre as an actress, she wasn’t surprised that scripts hadn’t really changed for women, and neither has film criticism for some film reviewers. “I read the Variety review because I’m a weak person. And I took issue with it.” She paused, debating whether she really wanted to go there. “It felt like it was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse,” she said. Costume and makeup are an important aspect of film style, but Harvey, who focused on Mulligan’s hair, wigs, and costume, concluded that her “pick-up-bait gear was bad drag.” His vision of the right actress was someone who looked like Robbie.

After the Times interview, Harvey’s review received an editorial comment. Variety apologized for the “insensitive” review that focused on the appearance and not the “daring performance” of Mulligan. This comment divided film critics who either thought it was time to editorialize how male film critics write about women in mainstream media and applauded the decision, or that it was unfair to the journalist, even if he used tropes about the appearance of women that have been around since the beginning of the film industry. This was exactly when Variety first began publishing as the mouthpiece of Hollywood in 1933.

The transparency of the Variety review is evident when looking at Promising Young Woman. Fennell’s brilliant film and Mulligan’s acting negate Harvey’s supposition that only a certain kind of stereotypical, femme fatale could take on Cassie’s role. The premise of the film’s title details a woman who has potential and everything to live for. Fennell uses this exceptionally written and acted character and her journey to expose a deadly sport and its cover-up by an alliance of “nice” men.

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