The Food of Promising Young Woman

Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), last night’s high heels in hand, walks past a construction site, her makeup smudged and sauce from a perhaps ill-advised street vendor hot dog dripping down her bare leg. 

“We’re definitely meant to see that splash and think, holy shit, that’s blood!” says Promising Young Woman set decorator Rae Deslich.

As she finishes the last few bites of that morning’s breakfast, she stares down the construction workers who catcall her from across the street and they back off like wounded dogs.

“A lot of people look at a woman eating a hotdog and be like, oh it’s phallic, it’s sexy,” like the construction workers, Deslich says. “She’s metaphorically destroying that hotdog.” 

Which is a perfect exclamation point on what she’s done in the opening scene prior, which debut director Emerald Fennell pitched and sold Promising Young Woman based on. 

It sees Nice Guy™ Jerry (Adam Brody) offer to make sure the seemingly inebriated Cassie gets home safe, before suggesting they make a detour to his apartment, where his roommate is conveniently out of town and he plies her with kumquat liqueur. If you’ve heard anything about Promising Young Woman since it was released late last year, you can probably guess what happens next. 

“She destroyed that dude and she’s also destroying this phallic piece of food,” Deslich says. “She was probably too far down the hotdog for it to be recognisable but you still see her very savagely eating something and that was something that we wanted to keep in there” as a signifier that something is lurking beneath the “delicate little female character” of Cassie, as Deslich describes her.

These first two scenes feature food and drink in a prominent way, as does probably 75% percent of the rest of the film. From the food-centric meet cute—she spits in his coffee—and dates with her new beau Ryan (Bo Burnham) to the phallic objects, such as straws and Twizzlers, that Cassie uses to draw attention to her mouth, as another brightly coloured and underestimated movie character would say, to the candy coloured palette of the overall film, food is central to Promising Young Woman.

While plenty of films and TV shows depict food in some way, it is rare to see female characters eating with such frequency as Cassie. The scene—only a few seconds long and part of a montage—in which her boss, Gail (Laverne Cox), Ryan and Cassie hang out while eating pizza when they just as easily could have been depicted laughing and bonding sans food is an example of this. As is Cassie munching on chips at Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s apartment, which goes back to Deslich’s assertion that Cassie eating in the presence of the men she takes down is a signifier of her obliteration of them. The look on Mintz-Plasse’s face (and Brody’s earlier in the movie) when he realises Cassie’s not drunk and he’s been caught in the act is indicative of this.

“It’s really funny that you mentioned that because I don’t think we ever set out to make ‘a food movie’ where food is a character,” says Deslich, however they also wanted to make a film that didn’t shy away from having its heroine eating and the rituals that surround it. Cassie and Ryan’s first date is at a hamburger joint because of its all-American vibe, while when she introduces him to her parents, they sit down to a very basic meal of spaghetti. Deslich says this is because they wanted audiences to feel that sexual assault and its traumatic aftermath could happen to anyone.

Meals also served a practical storytelling function. “When Cassie and Madison go for lunch, that needed to be a really long appointment for them for Cassie’s plan to work, so of course they’re going to have lunch,” Deslich says.

Plenty of reviews have noted the “a candy coated lozenge” theme, as Deslich puts it, of Promising Young Woman.

“I think it’s a confluence of a few different things,” they say. “The colours and the frivolity of cupcakes and pastries inspired the main look of the movie which is Cassie’s colour palate…

“Cupcakes and candy are considered unserious foods, that was our visual inspiration, not necessarily thematic,” Deslich continues. “We really wanted bright, pastel colours in the coffee shop because that’s where Cassie feels comfortable and spends most of her waking moments. She’s either at home or at a bar or at the coffee shop. The pastries were supportive of the colour scheme…

“We wanted to challenge the notion that these colours and textures aren’t serious,” Deslich says. “All of the encoding for colours is cultural itself. There’s nothing inherent in pink that makes it an unserious colour. Why shouldn’t a revenge thriller be pink and blue?”

Fennell has reiterated this point in many interviews. “I usually have incredibly silly, elaborate nail polish myself and I just notice that people in meetings clock it and think, oh, she’s a fucking idiot […] It’s like, oh well, you wouldn’t expect these hands to scratch your eyes out then, and that’s useful to know,” she told Jezebel.

Deslich said something similar to me in our conversation, so it was clearly the ethos of Promising Young Woman, or at least the party line.

“On a very surface level it’s considered feminine to chew on something absentmindedly. It really worked to have Cassie chew on Twizzlers or a straw or a pen because it’s coded as very ditzy but we know that she’s incredibly smart…” they said, again calling back to Clueless. “If you’re behaving in this way you must be an idiot but we know that that can be true because we see this mastermind.”

The focus on the mouth, both throughout the film and in the marketing for it, could be seen to be amplifying Cassie speaking out about the sexual assault of her best friend, Nina, however misguided her actions are. It underscores the penultimate act of Promising Young Woman. “It has to do with taking all the air out of the conversation,” says Deslich, which gives a whole new meaning to the bubblegum Cassie blows in her nurse stripper outfit she dons in an attempt to enact revenge on Nina’s rapist. In our sprawling conversation, which continued long after we stopped talking about the film in question, Deslich agreed that Promising Young Woman is probably in conversation with other hyper-coloured, hyper-feminine movies, such as Jawbreaker, which involves a similar scene.

“People think of the female mouth as being this source of pleasure, that the mouth is only sexual,” Deslich says, which Cassie absolutely plays into and results in her being able to infiltrate the bachelor party where she is to avenge Nina. “She’s chewing and consuming things and the other characters are choosing to overlook what that means… But she’s literally destroying things with her teeth and showing her fierceness and the other characters are just intentionally, blithely ignoring it because they’re so caught up in their bias of how women are supposed to behave so they’re just overlooking the danger that she poses to their own peril.”

The vigour and frequency with which Cassie consumes throughout Promising Young Woman  “is] actually very threatening as well,” Deslich says. “When you put something inside of you, you’re obliterating it.” Just like Cassie ultimately (though to contentious success) obliterates those who wronged her.

Elsewhere: [Bustle] RIP, The Nice Guy.

[Jezebel] The Deceptive Pleasures of Promising Young Woman, an Unconventional Rape-Revenge Movie.

[Ayesha A. Siddiqi] I’d Like This to Stop: Praise for Promising Young Woman.

[Slate] Promising Young Woman’s Flaws Run Deeper Than Its Ending.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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I wrote about why Lorelai Gilmore is a Cool Girl. [Bitch Flicks]

Is America’s Next Top Model relevant in 2016? [Buzzfeed]

Though I wish she was in the White House and not the wild, I really relate to photos of Hillary Clinton out and about as a post-election salve. [Daily Life]

Why Hillary going makeup free in the wake of her defeat signals a return “to an earlier iteration, reclaiming her identity as the accomplished, aggressive lawyer Hillary Rodham, who pursued success while rejecting the rules put forth by the patriarchy.” [Quartz]

I’ve been thinking about what Catherine Deveny refers to as “financial abortion”—where a biological father legally opts out of an unwanted pregnancy—for a while so I’m glad someone is finally giving voice to this notion. [ABC News]

A history of famous men taking off their shirts. [Buzzfeed]

“The Art of Lobbying Ivanka Trump.” [Jezebel]

Could her rumoured appointment to a First Lady-like position shake up the role traditionally put aside for the President’s spouse? [WaPo]

How a new breed of TV shows are dealing with rape as a plot device. [Variety]

“The Year They Stole Kim Kardashian.” [MTV]

A thoroughly modern Disney princess. [Buzzfeed]

“The Feminist Legacy of The Baby-Sitters Club.” [New Yorker]

Jackie O the Scammer. [MTV]

This is what having a miscarriage is like. [Medium]

Women built Standing Rock. [Jezebel]

How Scream reflects the small-town mentality of America, 20 years after its premiere. [MTV]

Why did rape allegations derail Nate Parker’s career but Casey Affleck is an Oscar contender despite alleged sexual misconduct? [Buzzfeed]

More reading material can be found at the latest Down Under Feminists Carnival. [Zero at the Bone]

ICYMI: My favourite books of the year.

My piece for Calling Spots‘ last issue about navigating kayfabe in the reality era of wrestling is now live.

Image source unknown.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

Why didn’t we hear about the killing of 19 disabled people in Japan, the country’s largest mass murder since WWII? [Daily Life]

We should stop listening to Sonia Kruger. [Junkee]

Barack Obama is a feminist. As if we didn’t know that already. [Glamour, ThinkProgress, Time]

Renee Zellweger is the latest celeb to pen a scathing op ed on her treatment by the media. [HuffPo]

On Korryn Gaines’ death and why we should #SayHerName. [Fusion]

Without dead women, there is no online feminist movement. [Jezebel]

Kim Kardashian benefits from feminism without having to claim the term. [Buzzfeed]

The Olympics offers a reprieve from men’s sport. [Daily Life]

Further to that, how to write about female Olympians. [The Guardian]

SBS Zela has had its funding cut. Save the site so Australian women’s sport gets the coverage it deserves. [Change.org]

The inherent sexism of method acting. [The Atlantic]

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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In my first piece for The Vocal, I explain why the Kardashians are better than you.

The Grammys hates black women. [Kevin Allred]

Is Deadpool pansexual? [Fusion] 

Women in Zika-affected countries are writing Women on Web for abortion pills. [WaPo]

How do we talk about David Bowie’s statutory rape of Lori Maddox? [Jezebel]

Shonda Rhimes’ shows are depicting abortion in groundbreaking ways. [RH Reality Check]

Kanye West is a modern-day Martin Luther King… but also a black Donald Trump. [Vulture]

How we teach girls to be scared and why we should stop. [NYTimes]

The media is turning Kesha’s rape and legal battle into a celebrity feud between Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato. [Bust]

And enough with all the feminist in-fighting: we should be asking men to speak up about Kesha. [Junkee]

And now for the Hillary Clinton portion of the program…

Let’s not pretend that Clinton being elected as the first woman president wouldn’t be a big fucking deal. [The Establishment]

How treatment of women in the workplace and treatment of Clinton on the campaign trail intersect. [NYTimes]

Representations of Clinton in pop culture. [Broadly]

ICYMI: In the wake of Gloria Steinem’s comments about young women not voting for Hillary Clinton because we’re more interested in who boys are voting for than radical activism, I just had to write in defence of millennials.

Image via Instagram.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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Is “Formation” a pro-capitalist and -respectability anthem? [Death & Taxes]

Reading celebrities reading books. [Kill Your Darlings]

Why we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Here Come the Habibs. [Guardian]

Return of Kings and pick up artists are domestic terrorists. [Daily Life]

Is Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” video culturally appropriative or orientalist? [Colorlines]

The pinkwashing of breast cancer hurts men, too. [Jezebel]

I have a few pieces featured in the latest Down Under Feminists Carnival along with goodies from the Australian and New Zealand feminist blogosphere. [Zero at the Bone]

ICYMI: “Are Divas Finally Being Given a Chance?”

Image via Twitter.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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The toxic masculinity of Jessica Jones‘ Kilgrave—and other male anti-heroes. [Bitch Flicks]

The privilege of being able to talk freely about mental health. [Daily Life]

Don’t let anyone own you: how to start a Fuck Off Fund. [The Billfold]

Portland Community College is having a Whiteness History Month to examine white supremacy. [Bitch Magazine]

The Oscars ignore black actors like we ignore black people being killed by law enforcement. [New Yorker]

The militant ranchers who’ve occupied a national wildlife building are destroying the very land they’re looking to take back from the government—which isn’t theirs to give in the first place. [Feministe]

My dark, twisted fantasy: playing house. [The Cut]

The slow progress of Disney princess films. [Daily Life]

The Oxford dictionary is sexist. [Medium]

Sexual harassment belongs in professional wrestling no longer. [Femmezuigiri]

David Cameron called Muslim women “traditionally submissive”, they fought back on Twitter with all the ways they defy that stereotype. [Daily Life]

El Salvador—a country where abortion is illegal and birth control is hard to obtain—is asking women not to get pregnant in a bid to avoid birth defects as a result of the Zika virus. [Vocativ]

How romantic comedy stalker myths work against women when they’re actually stalked. [HuffPo]

Kanye West’s obsession with Amber Rose. [Jezebel]

His music has always been sexist. [WaPo]

Amber Rose writes in defence of herself for Time.

Image via Bustle.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

I’m getting straight back into it in the New Year, with pieces about abuse in Jessica Jones, what World Wrestling Entertainment can learn from Jem & the Holograms‘ flop and why its spate of injuries might be a good thing for other wrestlers. [Bitch Flicks, The Spectacle of Excess, Cageside Seats]

On selfies. [Matter]

Forget the manbun. The latest in men’s hair styling are manbraids. And they’re cultural appropriation. [Ms. Magazine]

Why is there a statute of limitations for rape and sexual assault? [NYTimes]

Erin Riley kicking goals (mixing metaphors, I know) with her piece on the Chris Gayle incident being a symptom of a much larger problem with sexism in sport. [Daily Life]

Mens mental health is important but not at the expense of the women and children they abuse and kill. [Daily Life]

There’s been plenty of coverage of Cole Miller’s death by one punch, but what about Indigenous man Trevor Duroux’s death of the same? [New Matilda]

The history of glitter. [Broadly]

The history of toplessness. [Broadly]

And the history of the crystal ball. [Broadly]

2015 was the year of interracial relationships on TV. [Fusion]

Has Clive Palmer had a feminist awakening? [Junkee]

Even teaching a course on Beyonce doesn’t guarantee job security. [WaPo]

Why we need to talk about the sexual assaults in Germany over New Years—and the race of the attackers. [New Statesman]

Should wives be held accountable for their husband’s bad behaviour? [The Cut]

And what about Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual assault of a woman in 1978? [Jezebel]

It’s great that you want to read books by more diverse authors, but do you have to tell the whole world about it? Just do it. [Jezebel]

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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I wrote about Taylor Swift, mean girls and #squadgoals. [Junkee]

The rise of feminist outrage journalism. [Jezebel]

Justin Bieber’s musical reinvention is the epitome of #sorrynotsorry. [Brooklyn Magazine]

2015 was a shitty year for women in some respects, but it was also one in which our creative and cultural efforts began to be recognised. [Matter]

It was also the year in which we finally started to believe women. [Vulture]

And, with Bill Cosby’s arrest this week on sexual assault charges against Andrea Constand in 2004, this article I wrote in September is never more relevant.

“Forget Ryan Murphy, Making a Murderer is an actual American horror story.” [Observer]

Hey, Netflix, where’s all your African American-produced content? [Madame Noire]

On white debt and white guilt. [NYTimes]

Image via Junkee.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

scandal olivia pop abortion

The disparities between TV and real life abortions. [WaPo]

Pushing back against manspreading. [Medium]

Did Frida Kahlo identify as a disabled artist? [Disability Horizons]

Portraying black gay men on TV. [Fusion]

Actually, bed rest isn’t good for you… so why are pregnant women still prescribed it? [Harper’s]

Hillary Clinton is the best candidate for the job of president:

“If you want to blame her for all of Bill Clinton’s bad decisions, which many Sanders partisans do, then you can’t do that without admitting that she did in fact play a major role in policy; if you want to trivialise her as ‘just a First Lady,’ then you can’t use any part of Bill’s administration against her. Pick your poison, but they’re mutually exclusive options. ” [Sady Doyle]

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Deconstructing Heathers‘ fashion. [Fusion]

The NFL responds more harshly to dog fighting than it does to violence against women. [Broadly]

Can concussions cause rape? [Broadly]

So, wrestling for sex is a thing. [Vocativ]

The prats and pitfalls of the fanboy celebrity profile. [Jezebel]

Boy bands are one of the only safe spaces in which girls can explore their sexualities. [Dame Magazine]

ICYMI: I republished my Calling Spots story on race and gender in wrestling.

Images via Complex, Chat Cheri.

Why Do We Insist on Calling Women Girls?

This article was originally published on TheVine on 24th February, 2015.

Pop culture would dictate that women are girls until they’re too old to warrant being a part of public life: so, like, 50. I probably internalised this as it’s only in recent years that I’ve felt a) old enough and b) confident enough to call myself a woman. Up until then I was, to borrow a line from Britney Spears, “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”. Now that I identify as a woman, I find it all the more noticeable when other people refer to women as girls.

As one of the strongest influences in many people’s lives, how certain cultures and minorities are represented in pop culture informs how we feel about them in wider society. Just listing the shows and pop groups with the word “girl” in the title already says a lot.

There’s Gilmore Girls, about a young woman and her mother; Gossip Girl, which follows the trajectory of high schoolers to just-as-immature adults; Girls, the brainchild of one of the most influential women in pop culture currently, Lena Dunham; and Gone Girl, about a very-much-adult woman who disappears. The Spice Girls are now grown women who still trade on that moniker. Even Sex & the City, which follows the lives of four 30-somethings, and later 40-(and 50!-)somethings in the ill-fated movies, insists on referring to Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda as “girls”. “I couldn’t help but wonder about brunch with the girls”, Carrie would muse from her laptop.

In actuality, all but a few of these pop cultural representations could more accurately be described—and titled—with the word “women” in mind. Calling the career women of Sex & the City or The Spice Girls… erm… “girls” undermines the positions they are in their careers and personal lives.You would hardly call a Samantha Jones-type an “It girl” in her field if you met her in real life. Anne Helen Peterson continues to unpack the notion as it pertains to “It Girls” in a recent article for Buzzfeed.

Further to this, in a 2008 piece on Jezebel, Dodai Stewart writes, “A girl is insecure, incomplete; a woman is confident, competent.” With this in mind, calling the women of Girls girls might not seem as out of place as using it to refer to, say, Beyoncé, who sings about being a ‘Grown Woman’ on her self-titled album. (I am well aware that she also has a contradictory song called ‘Run the World [Girls]’).

Madonna addressed the stigmatisation and violence that trans women and girls face in ‘What It Feels Like for A Girl’ in 2000. Her voiceover states that boys who want to look like girls are “degrading, ’cause you think that being a girl is degrading.” Certainly, in some communities there is no distinction between women and girls: they both wield a dismal amount of power. The transmisogyny that Madonna sings about surrounds Bruce Jenner’s rumoured impending transition and shows that we might not be as progressive about gender relations as we fancy.

It’s not always necessarily about explicitly saying “girl” but the sexist connotations applied to the word. This is perhaps none more evident than in sport, as we’ve seen at the Australian Open. World number seven Eugenie Bouchard was doubly infantalised by the male interviewer who called her and her fellow female tennis players “you girls” and asked her to twirl in her pretty tennis duds.

The distinction comes down to the sexist ideal of girls being perceived as fun and fancy-free and women as hard-to-please shrews. Women have agency and aren’t afraid to ask for what they want; girls are agreeable to anything.

Law professor Kate Galloway writes further about this relationship between language and treatment at law blog Amicae Curiae, specifically referencing how the “girls” of our Olympic basketball team travelled to the London Games in 2012 in premium economy while the male team flew business class.

This, along with the lack of mainstream support and coverage, would seem to indicate an obvious disregard for women’s sports. “Throw like a girl” being used as an insult solidifies it. The term was, however, used positively in the recent Superbowl commercial for feminine hygiene brand, Always, and was the title of the Spike Lee-directed doco about baseball player and Associated Press’ Female Athlete of 2014, Mo’ne Davis.

In daily usage, we may not be actively diminishing the independence of our women friends when we “catch up with the girls” but it’s amazing how prevalent the term is. I’m just as guilty of it. I’ll sometimes refer to the saleswoman who presents as younger than me as “the girl who served me” or I’ll comment on something on social media with the cliché, “You go, girl!” Sure, “girl” can be used as a term of endearment between equals, just the way “queer” has been reclaimed by the gay community.

But as Galloway says, “I acknowledge that sometimes it might be [okay] to be ‘one of the girls’… I use the term to refer to my women teammates or close women friends. For former women team members now commentating on their sport at the Olympics, it may likewise be acceptable during an interview to refer to ‘the girls’. It should not however be presumed that any woman athlete can acceptably be referred to as a girl.”

When being a girl—indeed, being a woman—is still seen as less than, whether blatantly or more insidiously, I’m making a conscious effort to instead interact with and encourage my fellow women without pigeonholing them as “girls”. Women are capable of so much more than the gossiping, brunching and winging our pop cultural compatriots would reduce us to when they call us that.

Elsewhere: [Buzzfeed] The Trouble with “It Girls”.

[Jezebel] Ladies, Let’s Be Honest: Are We Girls? Or Are We Women?

[Daily Life] Eugenie Bouchard Asked to “Twirl” By On-Court Presenter Following Australian Open Match.

[Amicae Curiae] Don’t Call Me Girl. I’m a Woman.

[Daily Life] Eugenie Bouchard Deserves Better Than Sexist “Twirl” Request.

[Bitch] Is “Girl-Power” Advertising Doing Any Good?