Promising Young Woman: A Lesson about Gender-Based Violence

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Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, suicide

In the wake of the 2021 Oscars ceremony on April 25th, I reflect upon the award-winners and which nominations I personally believed should win. While I did not have time prior to the ceremony to watch all of the films in the spotlight, there were a few I was able to slip in here and there. My favorite of those that I watched was without a doubt, Promising Young Woman, written and directed by the amazingly talented Emerald Fennell. The film had a slew of nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Emerald Fennell), Best Actress (lead Carey Mulligan), Best Film Editing (Frederic Thoraval), and Best Original Screenplay, which Emerald Fennell well-deservingly won. 

(Spoiler alert!) Promising Young Woman tells the story of Cassandra, or Cassie, a young woman who works to avenge the death of her best friend who was raped in college while intoxicated and subsequently committed suicide. I know, heavy stuff. Permanently scarred by this traumatic event, Cassie spends her nights trying to prove that the phrase “not all men,” in the context of sexual assault, is false. She pretends to be excessively drunk, helpless and unable to stand, and waits for a “good guy” to come help her up and take her home. Night after night, each man she lures into her trap attempts to take advantage of her seemingly unconscious body. Before he can go any further, she abruptly asks him “What are you doing?,” causing the man to realize that she was fully aware of his actions. After her prey scurries off, she crosses off his name in a journal, filled with page after page of names, each one crossed off.

There’s a lot more that goes on, with dark twists and character shifts, ending with a most wretched and heartbreaking incident that will leave you with your mouth gaping open, but the overall message of the story is clear. All women can be victims, and all men have the potential to be attackers, even the seemingly “good ones.” Sexual assault is messy and so often seems to be a “he said, she said” case, with unclear motives and unclear circumstances. At the end of the day, however, as the film tragically shows, rape is rape. Independent of the circumstances, it leaves a permanent scar on its victim for the rest of their lives. One’s perception is one’s reality and a person who perceives that they are a victim of rape will never truly heal from that reality. While Cassie is seen as more of the anti-hero of the story, we as the audience sympathize with her because we see how she has been personally damaged by the actions of a careless college kid. 

Promising Young Woman is a cautionary tale for both men and women, independent of sexuality. Consent is required for any physical or sexual interaction between two people, and if someone does not have the ability to give consent, then that means NO. The film also teaches young boys about all of the ways that women have to protect themselves from becoming a victim: things like covering your drink not to be drugged, never walking alone at night, always sticking with your friends, and never being “that girl,” who’s too out of it to stand. “This kind of information needs to be in every boys school’s curriculum,” says Patrick Boll, a senior at Saint Peter’s Prep, an all-boys Catholic school in Jersey City. He had watched the film as well and was shaken by the film’s message. “This should be taught in our health class or our ethics class […] Young men need to be made aware of what they’re capable of and therefore what they should and should not be doing in these types of situations.”

As young women these are things we have to think about every day. It’s why I carry pepper spray on my key chain and always check to make sure there’s no one under or in the back seat of my car about to kidnap me. It’s scary, but it’s our reality. If we ever want to live in a world where we are not afraid to walk alone at night, we have to start by teaching our children, not just our boys, about the irrevocable damage that sexual assault causes and the importance of consent.

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