The Empty Weaponized White Feminism of ‘I Care A Lot’ and ‘Promising Young Woman’
The Golden Globes have recognized these critically acclaimed films centering vengeful white women, but their gender commentary rings surprisingly hollow.
This year’s Golden Globe Awards are fast approaching, heralding the beginning of a truly singular awards season. Two nominated films—I Care A Lot and Promising Young Woman—have a shared quality that’s rather unusual of typical contenders: Both premises rely heavily on their main characters’ weaponized white femininity. While both films have received largely favorable reviews, I ultimately found myself frustrated with how empty this gender commentary turned out to be.
It’s hard to talk about J. Blakeson’s I Care A Lot without mentioning Gone Girl. In 2015, Rosamund Pike cinched an Oscar nomination for her brilliantly sinister portrayal of damsel-turned-master manipulator Amy Dunne in David Fincher’s thriller. Since then, though, she hasn’t been offered another antiheroine role to truly sink her teeth into—until now. At least on the surface, I Care A Lot represents a wicked return to form. Pike anchors things as Marla Grayson, a court-appointed guardian who preys on wealthy elderly people, chucking them into facilities and selling all their assets to fill her own coffers. With her razor-sharp bob, enormous vape pen, and carefully-tailored suits, she appears almost comically evil at times.
But Marla is proud of her ability to game the system for her own benefit, and I Care A Lot works best as a satire of the elder care industry and capitalist “girlboss” ideology. Nothing Marla does is technically illegal—a crooked doctor (Alicia Witt) helps her pinpoint her next victims, and she can count on the local judge (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) to side with her in legal matters. She doesn’t actually care about the elderly she exploits, but is able to get away with it as a well-connected, wealthy white woman who’s learned how to play her cards.
Marla wields basic feminist language against her male opponents, too, capitalizing on their low-hanging misogyny to direct attention away from her draconian schemes. The film opens in court, as she successfully argues to revoke visitation rights from one of her clients’ suspicious sons. When the man confronts her outside and shouts that he hopes she’ll be raped and murdered, Marla spits out: “Does it sting more because I’m a woman? That you got so soundly beaten in there by someone with a vagina?” And later, when a lawyer (Chris Messina) arrives to argue for a woman’s release from conservatorship, Marla skirts the issue by seizing on his repeated assumptions that her doctor is a man.
I Care A Lot alludes to some fascinating ideas about how weaponized female “empowerment” intersects with corrupt legal systems, and it’s a shame Blakeson’s film doesn’t go any deeper than that. Instead, the film’s serviceable satire soon turns into something far less compelling, as Marla and her girlfriend/partner Fran (Eiza González) zero in on an exciting new target: Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest). She seemingly has no family, making it all the easier to bleed her dry. But when it turns out Jennifer has been faking her identity and actually has a Russian mobster son (Peter Dinklage), the back half devolves into derivative mob hijinks.
After the initial setup, Blakeson doesn’t seem interested in further interrogating why Marla is so happy to do what she does. When the crime-drama element kicks in and she and Fran are left fighting for their lives, it’s not enough for Marla to function as a glib summation of corporate feminism. It’s nice that she’s not cheaply redeemed by some weepy backstory, but even Pike’s snarly charisma isn’t enough to save such a thinly-sketched character. Marla starts off as a power-hungry boss bitch who only seems to care about Fran, and we haven’t learned almost anything else about her by the time she’s cheaply gunned down at film’s end. Perhaps in a better story, viewers could learn a little more about how Fran moves through this criminal operation as one of the only notable women of color, or how Jennifer capitalizes on people’s ageist assumptions in order to manipulate them. But we get none of that, and the femme fatale potential of I Care A Lot proves to be little more than window dressing.
The same hollow feminist vitriol fuels Emerald Fennell’s new drama Promising Young Woman. We learn that protagonist Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has a routine: Every weekend, she goes to a dingy club and pretends to be extremely drunk. A “nice guy” inevitably opts to take her home, only to almost assault her before she reveals she’s actually stone-cold sober. Cassie forces the blubbering man to confront his disturbing intentions and safely exits, ready to do it all over again.
The entirety of Promising Young Woman unfolds through a hyper-stylized, ultra-feminine lens—by day, Cassie looks sweet and girlish, with a pastel wardrobe and blonde pigtails. By night, she transforms into a vulnerable female stereotype, adding rumpled hair extensions and sloppy makeup just sexy enough to lure in the male gaze.
In one memorable moment, she watches a YouTube video about achieving “blow job” lips, then takes a finger and ghoulishly smears red lipstick across her face.
Slowly, we learn more about Cassie’s motives. She used to be a med-school student, but she dropped out to care for her lifelong best friend Nina after she was gang-raped at a party. Nina’s mental health spiraled as her peers and authority figures failed to believe her, ultimately leading to her implied death by suicide. Years later, Cassie is still consumed by guilt and grief, living at home with only her avenging angel role to keep her going.
Then, charming former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) pops back into her life, and Cassie learns that Nina’s rapist, Al (Gabriel Oliva), is back in town to get married. So her crusade takes a much more personal turn, as she begins targeting people directly linked to Nina’s assault. Now, Cassie also plots retribution not just against shitty men, but some of the women complicit in rape culture. Her old classmate Madison (Alison Brie) called Nina a liar, so she gets her drunk and pays a man to put her to bed in a hotel room. Only later does she reassure Madison she wasn’t also raped. The school’s dean (Connie Britton) argued that Al and his friends were boys whose lives didn’t deserve to be ruined, so Cassie claims to have left the woman’s teenage daughter in a dorm full of predatory college boys. Only at the end of the conversation does she admit the girl is actually safely stashed at a nearby restaurant.
Cassie using her faux naivety to torture other women with threats of rape is acknowledged as borderline sociopathic, but these scenes are staged in a way that’s meant to convey some perverse, pulpy sense of satisfaction. As the film draws on, it seems like Cassie is more interested in dying in pursuit of a revenge plot rather than enacting any real systemic change. It’s fine that Fennell wants to reimagine classic rape-revenge archetypes by questioning whether healing in such a manner is possible, but Promising Young Woman attempts to characterize Cassie as both an avenging angel and a self-destructive antiheroine in a way that’s often counterproductive to the film’s explorations of rape culture and accountability.
It’s also an incredibly white film—Laverne Cox as Cassie’s coffee shop boss is the only main cast member of color, and has no interiority of her own. Sexual violence in America disproportionately affects Black women, and Cassie’s supposed white vulnerability is key to her shtick, but race isn’t touched on at all. These exclusions are particularly glaring given how Michaela Coel’s series I May Destroy You, which also premiered in 2020, thoughtfully explores similar themes of assault and healing as they pertain to three young Black friends. The show getting shut out at the Globes while Promising Young Woman received multiple nominations says plenty about which stories Hollywood is ready to celebrate, and that’s not even taking the film’s ending into account.
Cassie dresses up one last time to infiltrate Al’s bachelor party, posing as a stripper in a nurse costume and rainbow-colored wig. Yet just as Cassie has tied Al to a bed and prepared to carve Nina’s name into his flesh, he breaks free and crudely smothers her to death. It’s a horrifying twist that brings Cassie’s ambiguous revenge plans to a bleak end—until the movie’s final moments. We find out that she previously arranged for the guilty lawyer (Alfred Molina) who originally defended Al on rape charges to receive evidence indicting Al as her killer. So the police descend on his wedding, as Cassie’s ex-boyfriend Ryan—who she briefly dated before finding out he was complicit in Nina’s rape—receives a cutesy scheduled text from Cassie: “Enjoy the wedding ;).”
Cassie’s high-femme revenge plot culminates in Al’s arrest, but so what? What started as a smart interrogation of “nice guys” ends up in the hands of a carceral system that will most likely exonerate Al anyway. While meant to be satisfying, Promising Young Woman’s coy ending isn’t the rape-revenge subversion it claims to be.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I Care A Lot and Promising Young Woman don’t deserve any of the nominations they’ve already racked up. Pike and Mulligan each give striking lead performances, carrying what story they’ve been given as best they can. But if we’re awarding films for their incendiary femininity, it shouldn’t be a facade.