Trigger Warning for sexual assault and spoilers for the ending of ‘Promising Young Woman’.
‘Promising Young Woman’ unpacks first and foremost how sexual assault effects the people around the victim – the parents, the friends, the friend’s parents and even the effect (or lack thereof) on the assaulter. A rape, although largely perceived as a he said/ she said situation, affects more than just the victim and the abuser. All those who love the victim are affected too: their child, their friend has been violated and often is completely changed, taken from them in a different sense of the word.
The film goes into how the frequency and rate of sexual assault (97% of women in the UK sexually harassed) affects women’s ability to trust men, keep male friends, or love their partners and entertain potential partners. Cassie goes and pretends to be ‘too drunk’ every Friday and never fails to be picked up by some guy who tries to rape her. As a result, she has major issues with finding, or wanting, a boyfriend.
Through Cassie’s exploits, the ‘nice guy’ trope is thoroughly dismantled, showing time after time how a man offering to take a woman home, does not mean he is a genuinely ‘nice’ guy. Cassie’s Friday night hobby also illuminates the role of alcohol in sexual assault cases and highlights how the grey area that alcohol creates between consensual sex and rape, is not a grey area at all – except to the men who take advantage of it.
The very name of the film ‘Promising Young Woman’ highlights the misogyny at the heart of how society treats rape accusations. Cassie and Nina as ‘Promising Young Women’ versus Al Monroe ‘Promising Young Man’ shows how ‘ruining’ a man’s career with assault charges is really part of a societal reaction against the ascension of women in the work force. Nina was top of her class at medical school – far better than Al the future anaesthesiologist – yet she was sacrificed for the sake of his career.
The Universities decision to drop the charges also opens up an interesting conversation on how universities treat sexual assault. If you Google “sexual assault Durham” three different resources to report sexual assault come up, but so do two different articles about accused rapists who were found not guilty since 2016. The group chat exposé last Summer showed the prevalence of date rape drugs in Durham and was a wakeup call to the mind sets of many ‘promising young men’ at our own University.
That being said, the movie is definitely a product of white upper-class feminism. Carey Mulligan went to Woldingham independent school, and Emerald Fennel went to Marlborough college – both are white, as is nearly all of the cast. Laverne Cox for all her innate charm and screen presence, is nothing more than a best friend/colleague for Cassie to be compared to, rather than her own character with her own back story.
That being said, although it’s lack of diversity is the film’s biggest fault – ultimately, it’s a great movie which accomplishes what it sets out to do very well. Emerald Fennel could never have written anything else because it just isn’t her experience. (For a well told narrative concerning sexual assault and women of colour, watch ‘I May Destroy You’.)
Ultimately, after Sarah Everard’s death, the movie holds a powerful message about the difference between the treatment of rape and murder. The ending of the film, having Al Monroe charged with the murder of Cassie, asks us to question if this really is a satisfying revenge fantasy. Unfortunately, it’s probably a more realistic revenge than if Cassie had murdered all the men at the Bachelor party. But does that really make it a happy ending?
Featured Image by Brbrihan on Unsplash.