There has been a lot of progress in the world of law and sexual assault in recent years, much of it coming in the shape of awareness and solidarity, particularly on social media — giving women a platform where they could stand together against rape and sexual harassment. However, the growth of this platform seems to have highlighted the ever-prominent misogyny and sexism of our world and interactions: this is most prominent when it comes to cases of rape or sexual assault. While progress has been made over the years, there still seems to be a sort of disconnect and a lack of empathy between the involved parties. Granted, this is to be expected, since an overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by men on women. Yet after all this fighting and push for change, there still seems to be a lack of awareness. And sometimes, we have to turn the accusatory finger towards our media for exacerbating this issue.
Emerald Fennell’s 2020 film, Promising Young Woman, stars Carey Mulligan as Cassandra: a 30-year-old woman who dropped out of med school and now lives with her parents. Throughout the movie there are references to her friend Nina being the reason she left school, but we can only assume what happened as bits and pieces of the story are slowly revealed. Cassandra, nicknamed “Cassie,” spends nights going to bars and clubs, pretending to be drunk, and going home with men. She’s testing them to see if they will take advantage of her while she’s inebriated. Once it’s clear what they plan to do so, Cassie reveals that she isn’t actually drunk, gives a scary speech, and then leaves. The story of her past at med school at first doesn’t appear to be the main focus of the movie, until a lucky encounter with an old classmate. It is then revealed what happened to Nina, and Cassie begins to follow through with a plan to punish the culprits and try to ensure they understand the harm they committed.
The film is particularly impactful because of its novel approach to such heavy subject matter — it doesn’t sugarcoat the painful realities of being a woman in the twenty-first century. It’s also terribly frightening, and is one of the few recent movies that directly and irrevocably holds people accountable for their actions. Ironically enough, many audience reviews of the film complain that the movie makes it seem as though all men are predators, like there are no good guys out there.
Yes, of course, not every single man is going to sexually assault a woman, but part of what makes this film so significant is its focus on that particular point. Cassie regularly goes to men’s apartments to test them, and when she leaves we often see her make a red mark in a notebook — but not all the marks are red. The film doesn’t spend time on the men who didn’t assault Cassie, as that would be completely counterintuitive. To simplify this: if you’re given a basket of apples and are told that even just one apple is poisoned, you are inevitably, and with good reason, going to be wary of all the apples. Many women distrust all men because of the possibility that they could be a “bad apple.”
This feeling of constant fear and often overwhelming paranoia is something that the movie is able to bring to life pretty accurately. It’s also crucial to talk about some of the other relevant points the film brings to light, for example the importance of bystanders, especially when it comes to other women who sit by when they could be key witnesses. This film does an incredible job of demonstrating the constant lack of belief towards women, the willingness to look away or to blame the victim. Promising Young Woman evokes the fear surrounding the topic of sexual assault, as well as the reluctant uncertainty and the pretending, the fake niceties that willful bystanders render a reality. It addresses revenge, but in a strangely reparational way. Cassie often goes very far, some might argue too far, to prove her point, but still is able to get it across. Whether psychologically or physically inducing fear, she’s capable of doing what the law often can’t: change people’s minds and understanding. In ways never before brought to life on screen, Promising Young Woman explores the real significance and lasting impact of rape on the life of a victim, as well as that of their loved ones — and doesn’t do so gently.
Very rarely do I finish a movie having felt as though my mind could have been genuinely changed, or that I could have been convinced to view things differently, but this movie gave me that feeling. It made me feel more connected to the women I know than ever before, something that in this day in age, doesn’t always come easily. If anything, this movie should be a required watch in middle or high school sexual assault curriculums, because it addresses the issue of rape and harassment with all the required reality and efficiency necessary.