Promising Young Women

Promising Young Woman is a 2020 black comedy, thriller film written, produced and directed by Emerald Fennell in her feature directorial debut. It stars Carey Mulligan as a young woman haunted by a traumatic past as she navigates balancing forgiveness and vengeance.

The explicit ideology and themes throughout the narrative of this film text are Toxic Masculinity and Gender.

A black comedy told in pastels, “Promising Young Woman”

Angie Wells and Daniel Curet, the make-up and hair department heads responsible for crafting Cassandra’s shifting aesthetics, to detail how Cassie shifts between her “real” self and the alter-egos she adopts in order to call out men and women on their wrongdoings.

The different hairstyles Cassie wore during her “hits” were inspired by other real cases were women have been harassed by men.

Director: Emerald Fennell

Emerald Fennell is an English actress, filmmaker, and writer. She is the recipient of numerous accolades. Emerald Fennell wins best original screenplay, nominated for best director Oscars in feature debut, ‘Promising Young Women’. A fantastic achievement at the then age of 35.

Coming from a background in acting, Emerald’s first feature film PYW was nominated for five Oscars. She wrote, directed and produced the comedy-thriller. She was the first woman to win a screenwriting Oscar since Diablo Cody won with “Juno” in 2008.

Titles & Credits:

Titles & Credits used as part of Media Codes and Conventions can provide audience’s with an expectation of the texts genre and allow the Director some playful context to the narrative’s plot.


In Promising Young Women, Emerald Fennell introduces the audience to the Credits directly after the Opening Scene. She displays these Hot Pink Credits along side the Score; ‘It’s raining Men’, by DeathbyRomy. The use of sound along side the text & colour give audience an explicit representation of the film’s context and central theme, ‘Toxic Masculinity’.


Promising Young Women – Critics have discussed the idea that the Director is linking the narrative’s plot to a famous headline that hit the New York Times – “Promising Young Man”. A court battle won by a young American man, B. Turner who was let off his charges as he was an upcoming young man studying law at an Ivy League University.

CASTING…..The Men in PYW

Most of these actors are known for comedic, boy-next-door types: Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson… We must ask ourselves….why where these actors selected for their roles?

The men that have been cast in the film, in particular the men that Cassie temps in bar scenes are written so charmingly. These actors are known for comedic, boy-next-door types. Audiences have already pre-existing notion and beliefs into these well-known Hollywood actors. This links very closely to the ideology of toxic masculinity and the central plot of the narrative.

Bo Burnham – Ryan

Adam Brody – Jerry

Chris Lowell – Al Monroe

Christopher Mintz – Plasse

Max Greenfield – Joe

Sam Richardson – Paul

Naturally one would expect to see actors that have previously been in roles that have been the subject of a sleazy or unappealing role. Audience can then subconsciously receive these characters as clear antagonists. If you’re making a movie about a complicated subject, it’s very easy to talk about this stuff when the people involved are people you don’t like or respect, or you’ve always thought were sleazy. Where this subject matter in PYW is tricky is that these people you love and respect. The ones that people love, people tend to, rather than say, “I love this person, it’s a real shame that they do terrible things, but I love them!” They say, “I love them so it can’t be true.” It’s endemic.

From the Director:

I’m not interested in villains, I don’t believe in them. There are outliers and dangerous people, but they’re very rare. Every single actor who came on board for this…. I just said to everyone at the beginning of every day, “This is your movie, you’re the delightful protagonist of this movie. You woke up this morning knowing you’re a good person, genuinely believing you’re a good person, and somebody’s going to come into your life and tell you that you’re not.” How would any of us feel about that?


Fennell’s framing plays a crucial part in contextualizing how Cassie not only sees the world, but how she views her targets. There’s a distinct, balanced symmetry she utilizes in conjunction with her characters’ placement within the frame as if to establish visually that everything falls into line with Cassie’s plan.  Her parents, her boss, her paramour, and her psychological punching bags are all aligned in ways that argument the narrative context.


Score Composer Anthony Willis.

Willis’ BAFTA-nominated, organic-electronic score cues – including popular and iconic Britney Spears Toxic deftly navigate bleakness.

Straight from its intro blasting Charli XCX’s, ‘Boys’, its clear that Promising Young Women’s Director Emerald Fennell, intended to use the film’s music to amplify the twisted plot. And use the songs as a source of unadulterated irony. The bubblegum soundtrack acts as a mask for the narrative’s very serious themes. Fennel wanted an all female soundtrack. She wanted POP music particularly as often this genre isn’t taken seriously.

Move to the closing credits and the resolution of the narrative audience listen too, ‘Angel of the morning’, by Juice Newton. A fitting tie into the major themes that propel the narrative and the protagonist Cassie’s point of view.

Opening – Storytelling Convention – Audience Expectations:

The opening of the film text the audience can hear, the soundtrack, ‘Boys’ by Charli XCX. The lyrics, ‘I was busy thinking about boys’, plays loudly and in a pop culture manner.

This coupled with close-up shots of middle-aged, slightly overweight men, dancing and thrusting their hips in an awkward, dad-like move on a nigh-club dance floor. Establishing audience expectation of an explicit ideologic theme of toxic masculinity.

Paris Hilton also has the longest scene dedicated to her song, ‘Stars are blind’. Director Fennell reveals her choice in female vocalists because of their reputation and the fact that these women have been misrepresented and misunderstood in society. Talented and judged for their appearance, even though both are extremely talented.

Angel Motif & the use of semiotics

Throughout the text the audience is exposed to subtle references to angelic composition. This is through the use of mise-en-scene, acting poses, props and framing. Cassie is often positioned in the center of the frame with her arms and hands in an angelic pose. The audience is also shown Cassie positioned on her bed, centered with the bed frame, propped for wings of an angel.  There are multiple shots where Cassie is seated in front of her headboard with white frame jetting out behind her symbolically forming angle wings.

Composition of framing is used to have her with an angel halo above. This technique and characteristic of film making is often employed to foreshadow the tragic events that will later impact her character.

Colour Psychology

Colour coding in film is often employed to represent genre and style. In this particular case the audience is exposed to impeccable production and art design. Cassie’s world is revealed as candy-cotton as opposed to the male characters which are painted in blues and harsh masculine tones. The setting and decor is often represented in a blue colour palette, enhanced with a slash of red for foreshadowing purposes.

Cassie’s fingernails are painted to reflect the bubble-gum pop playground in which she entices her prey. Her colour-streaked wig also reflects this innocent, playful persona.

Hair & Make-Up

Hair director: Daniel Curet. The different hairstyles Cassie wares in the film were inspired by other women she had seen getting sexually harassed.

Make-Up director: Angie Wells. Cassie’s shifting aesthetics detail how her character shifts between her “real” self and her alter-ego that she adopts to call men and women out on their wrong doings.


According to hair director Daniel Curet, Cassie would adopt the aesthetics of women she knew had been in similar situations. Close Up shots of Cassie’s hair were often shown to the audience to reveal her innocent, girl-like persona. Each shot and hairstyle represented a different women with a different persona to the audience.


Production designer Michael Perry plays with colour to show the lightness and darkness of the main character’s life.

For Cassie’s house, Perry found a place in Los Angeles that he describes as being “trapped in time.” In one scene, Cassie brings her date over for dinner, and the table has a plastic cover that looks like “a 1950s version of American life.” Paintings of dogs on the wall added to the film’s off-kilter narrative. The layout of the house was also key to reflecting Cassie’s state of mind. “It [enabled] great long shots where you could go from the kitchen and all the way back into the living room,” Perry explains. “You felt that she was in limbo there and not participating in life.”

Pink and blue hues that informed his colour palette, especially in Cassie’s bedroom, which revealed much of who she is: a woman on a mission — an avenging angel. On the surface, the room looks like a safe place, with childhood pinks, but a backstory to her vengeance comes to light, and Perry reflected that in his design motif. “All her pain and vulnerability is there,” he says. “There’s a lot of angel wings and Joan of Arc.”

Resolution Scene – Track: Juice Newton, ‘Angel of the morning’.

There’ll be no strings to bind your hands
Not if my love can’t bind your heart
There’s no need to take a stand
For it was I who chose to start
I see no need to take me home
I’m old enough to face the dawn

Just call me angel of the morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Just call me angel of the morning, angel
Then slowly turn away from me

Maybe the sun’s light will be dim
And it won’t matter anyhow
If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned
Well, it was what I wanted now
And if we’re victims of the night
I won’t be blinded by the light

Just call me angel of the morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Just call me angel of the morning, angel
Then slowly turn away
I won’t beg you to stay with me


Here we can see obviously camera close-up’s and direct zooms on particular items / objects to give the audience some information about the character and her role within the narrative. A foreshadow to Cassie’s fate in the forest. Red used to reference death.

Mise-En-Scene Question

Mise-en-scene was highly consider in the film text, Promising Young Women’. Colour, costume, positioning and lighting all worked together to create a composition of fairy-tale ambiance for the audience. The text was often referred to as a “Black Comedy” told in pastels. The protagonist was often seen wearing pastel colours, lit under high key lighting to represent her candy-like persona. This alongside the symmetrical placed props on set gave the audience an uneasy feeling and foreshadowed a dark future for the leading lady within the narrative.

Character’s Name

Cassie is a short form of the name Cassandra, which is of Greek origin.

Cassie means “shining upon men” and “who fills men with love”.

Question: Explain how two media codes and or conventions work together to convey meaning in a specific moment, frame or sequence of a media narrative that you have studied this year.

6 marks

In the “Shopping, Love, Montage Scene”, Visual Composition and Sound work together to convince the audience that we now have two characters who are falling in love in a playful and humours way. These two codes are effective in developing the protagonist’s character, giving her, Cassie more depth and compassion. Director Emerald, plays the Paris Hilton soundtrack, ‘The Stars are Blind’ using the lyrics to propel the playful characters on scene, whilst positioning them both in a colourful, symmetrical, convenient store. Audience are visually content with the candy-like colours and the axel symmetry of the store, whilst enjoying the characters singing along to the fun-loving lyrics of the Pop, American classic. These code compliment the montage and give audience relief from the psychological drama that takes place in the narrative before this fun-loving scene.

Analyse how present-day audiences may engage with, consume and read one of the media narratives that you have studied this year. – 8 marks

Media creators understand that audience come with pre-existing core beliefs and values obtained from the time-period in which they are from. It is therefore the creator’s responsibility to ensure they understand the ideological shifts that take place to maximise their engagement and consumption. Promising Young Women, Directed by Emerald Fennell captivates her present-day audiences by linking her ideology of Toxic Masculinity with the very current and highly talked about #metoo movement. It is clear that audience engage with her, ‘man-hating’ themes by engaging with the theatrical events that place. Audience can quickly understand that Emerald is using colour and pop culture to help reference her fantasy, black comedy which is told through a pastel lens.

Given the text was released on December 25, 2020, the film was not consumed at the Box Office and so was released at a later date to online streaming services, where it was received on higher rotation. With Covid restrictions at the Box Office and holiday festivities taking place, it was obvious that audiences were not ready or allowed to consume this film via the big screen. Therefore, one could argue that present-day audiences are more likely to consume the strong themes of toxic masculinity on their devices in their home environment.

After the film’s success via online streaming services, audience demonstrated they were able to read her dark and twisted references to a very current problem that exists within Western cultures. Her explicit representation of toxic masculinity was read by audience and her clever use of media conventions allowed the film’s plot to be read in the way Emerald desired.

Foreshadowing using Sound via the Lyrics

Nothing's gunna hurt you baby: Cigarettes after s**

Pretty Fly: Them Bird Things