A “Promising” Young Woman

Joshen Mantai //

It was a rainy day in quarantine when I decided to watch the Oscar-nominated film Promising Young Woman (2020) starring the lovely Carey Mulligan. The idea came from a friend, as she described the film as a tale of a “feminist vigilante.” Those are the only two words I felt I needed to take the plunge to watch the black comedy thriller. Mulligan plays Cassie in the film, a woman who tricks men into believing she is too drunk to give consent for sexual activity. Her mission in busting these pervy men has an underlying backstory (similar to all vigilantes), one that leads to a major twist for an ending that left me squirming all night.  

In researching the ending and coming across these articles, I stumbled upon a controversy that led me down an unexpected rabbit hole related to our favorite hot topic, institutionalized sexism. This refers to gender discrimination that is infiltrated in institutions like the government, education system, and of course, workplaces.

Variety, a major entertainment outlet and publication, ran a review of the film which appeared to question whether Mulligan was fit for the role largely due to her appearance. The review by Dennis Harvey stated: “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered female fatale – Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her. Whereas with this star, Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag: even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.” While the review also praised Mulligan’s performance, it was enough to warrant a response from Mulligan as she hit back at the Variety critic (as she damn well should). The actress said: “I think in criticizing or bemoaning a lack of attractiveness on my part in a character, it wasn’t a personal slight. It didn’t wound my ego, but it made me concerned that in such a big publication an actress’s appearance could be criticized and it could be accepted as completely reasonable criticism.”

Variety soon after issued a half-assed editor’s note apology which read: “Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of Promising Young Woman that minimized her daring performance.” Many media critics sided with Mulligan, and she gracefully accepted the apology, satisfied by Variety’s response.

Despite Variety’s brief response, Harvey’s original baseless criticisms still remain in the text, available to be read by the masses in the dawn of an age as “forward-thinking” as 2021. Herein lies the problem: while forgiveness should certainly be warranted for all, the question arises of how much we are willing to demand from big editorial players who have more than enough resources to prevent this situation from even happening? How many people must have copyread this? What about the editors? If in public consumption, other critics have largely recognized the problem in this piece of alleged “criticism,” as well as audiences, why is it so hard to filter out this content in its primal beginnings? Harvey relayed that Variety’s editors had not raised any concerns with the review when he first finished it, until Mulligan’s response came out. While Harvey’s comments about Mulligan may have been taken out of context of his intention, the writing is clear in its appearance shaming. He suggests Margot Robbie should have played the role, giving virtually no reason for this point. If Harvey had compared the two’s acting abilities with concrete examples that supported his criticism, or just not given reference to Mulligan’s appearance in the film at all, this would be a different story. It is bad enough we airbrush women, editing the way they move and behave in film to look flawless. When a real woman who does not look like a filter is portrayed on screen, a criticism like this is allowed to be put out in the world, which just serves to undercut the power of the film in general. And for what? All because a man thought his words about Mulligan’s appearance mattered that much. 

While I could easily be happy that Mulligan is content with the apology, I think we need to demand a little more accountability from publications, especially ones as notorious and renowned as Variety. Luckily for Variety, most audiences and readers will barely remember this incident as a blip in time, or not even be aware of the altercation altogether. This is all because Variety washed their hands largely of Harvey, dismissing him from the publication and delivering that one-line apologetic zinger. We need to strive to do better, especially in permitting the jaundiced and unwarranted expression of male editorial opinions undercutting female success (see the WSJ editorial about Jill Biden’s doctorate degree written by an obviously angry, jealous man). 

It dawned on me how ironic the title of a “promising” young woman was. Mulligan gave a nuanced standout performance that left chills down my spine, an impression that I have been left with rarely in regard to cinema. Cassie was ironically fighting against the men in society who think it is acceptable to take advantage of women at their weakest, while real life Mulligan had to similarly fight off unreasonable criticism from male writers. This serves as a classic case of fiction paralleling reality in the most pointed of circumstances.  

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